Montana’s I-186 Not a Mine Killer

Tom Reed of Trout Unlimited, speaking to Silver Bow Kiwanis in Butte.

An issue that appears to be headed to the November ballot is I-186, a citizen initiative that has gotten a lot of widespread support across the state, along with some criticism from here in Butte.

Opponents of I-186 have called the proposal an anti-mining proposal that would kill new mining ventures in Montana.

Not so, says Tom Reed, a writer, fly angler, avid hunter, and the Northwest Director of the Sportsmen’s Conservation Project for the national organization of Trout Unlimited. Reed, and Colin Cooney, a fisheries biologist and TU staffer based in Bozeman, were speakers at last week’s meeting of Silverbow Kiwanis in Butte. I’ll note that Cooney has roots in Butte, and is the son of Montana Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney. Trout Unlimited is backing the proposal because of the organization’s commitment to preserving and enhancing cold water resources and fisheries.

Reed asserted that I-186 is not an anti-mining measure and he especially points out that the measure, if passed, does not affect any currently operating mines, including expansions of those mines, specifically mentioning Montana Resources of Butte, as an operation that would not be affected by I-186.

What I-186 would do, he says, is “It would give DEQ (Montana Department of Environmental Quality) the tools they need to make good decisions for the environment.”

Essentially, the measure would require all new mines to prove they will remedy any water pollution problems as part of the normal mine reclamation process, without the need for perpetual treatment. Further, it places the burden of proof on the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to find, in writing and based upon clear and convincing evidence, that new mines will not cause perpetual water pollution problems.

There’s kind of a fine line between existing law and the proposed initiative. Existing law requires DEQ to issue permits to new mines if the agency finds, after an evaluation of the permit materials, that the operating permit and reclamation plan will comply with the law, based upon a preponderance of evidence.

It’s not a revolutionary change, but it’s significant.

It isn’t difficult to find examples of modern mining operations that demonstrate the need for strengthening existing law, with the Beal Mountain mine, between Butte and Anaconda, a prime example. The Beal Mountain mine, operated by Pegasus Gold, closed up in 1998. Pegasus Gold was a subsidiary of a Canadian mining company, and when mining ended, the company assets disappeared and the corporation went bankrupt. Since then, taxpayers have spent $13.7 million for reclamation and water treatment, and according to I-186 backers, taxpayers will have to come up with another $39 million for full clean-up of the mine.

Possibly the worst example of a mining operation that left taxpayers holding the bag for remediation is the Zortman-Landusky mine, another Pegasus operation, in the Little Rocky Mountains that has cost taxpayers $27.5 million so far, and the forecast is that it will cost another $1 -2 million annually to treat acid mine waste—in perpetuity. Perpetuity, incidentally, is another word for forever.

Reed said, “We think DEQ should have the ability to say no to bad mining proposals.”

Colin Cooney, of Trout Unlmited, making a point of past mining problems.

Reed and Cooney cited some states that have enacted similar legislation in recent years, such as Michigan and New Mexico, and they point out that mining permits continue to be issued that meet the new requirements. Another state, Maine, just recently enacted stronger legislation, though it’s still too soon to determine how that state’s law is working.

Reed refutes claims that more stringent requirements contained in the initiative will make new mining operations impossible, and commented, “I think we’re training kids at Montana Tech that can work with it.”

There are some costs involved with implementing I-186, if Montana voters adopt it. A fiscal note to the proposal projects additional costs to DEQ of just over $115 thousand in the first year and increasing to just under $119 thousand by 2021. The costs involve more staff for environmental review of mining permit applications and anticipated litigation.

For more information on the proposal, go to

It’s Summer, Which Means Fall is Near

This year’s crop of Canada geese is almost full grown.

On a float trip down the Big Hole River, a week ago, the most common sight wasn’t rising trout. It was Canada geese; big families of geese, with this year’s goslings almost full-grown, just waiting to grow some more feathers so they could start taking flying lessons.

Their parents, seeming models for attentive parents, were likely telling them to be patient. After all, the adult geese were temporarily flightless, as well, in the middle of their summer molt.

Soon, all those geese, adults and goslings alike, will have their flight feathers and will be practicing flying skills, in preparation for heading south when winter weather comes back to Montana.

And, “Whoa!” I can just hear some readers muttering, “We’re barely into summer and you’re already talking about winter?”

Yes, in Montana’s mountain country, summer is that most fleeting of our seasons. Summer comes late to our high elevation valleys, and often, like last year, ends with September snowstorms.

So, just as Canada geese and other waterfowl have to grow up in a hurry, some wild fruits, such as gooseberries, are ripe right now. On a weekend of camping and fishing, it was easy to get a quick snack of some sweet and tart gooseberries. It’s sometimes a bit of a challenge, as wild rose bushes or stinging nettles guard some of the gooseberry bushes. Once you find a gooseberry bush that’s accessible, you have to contend with the sharp thorns of the gooseberry bush.

It’s a challenge, though I have experience of coping with thorns. On the large garden on the Minnesota farm where I grew up, we had a number of domesticated gooseberry bushes, and being a kid, it was my blood that was deemed worthy of sacrifice for the sake of gooseberry jam. Incidentally, with the abundant rain this spring, the fruit of the wild gooseberries, this year, is larger than usual, almost as big as domestic berries.

The fleeting aspect of summer applies to the fly-fishing as well. On a couple floats on the upper part of the river, the fishing was challenging. With the now shallow water and bright sunshine, it was rare to see any fish rising, either to insects or to my dry flies. The lower water is also beginning to make floating a bit of a challenge. Even on a small pontoon boat, I was getting hung up in the riffles.

A nice brown trout, the trophy of a weekend.

On the other hand, as evening approached, in the last couple hours of daylight, there was an abundance of aquatic insects in the air, including mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies. It took me a little while, one evening, to figure out what worked, but in a short flurry of action, I caught four trout, including a 15-inch (or thereabouts) brown trout for my angling thrill of the week. All the trout came up to a #16 mayfly imitation.

It’s no secret that anglers are the eternal optimists of the outdoors world, and I plead guilty to being one of those optimists. I’m looking forward to the next couple weeks when, in addition to the usual aquatic insects, we’ll see trout rising to the annual flurry of spruce moths as they seemingly migrate to their deaths on the Big Hole and other western rivers. Catching trout feasting on spruce moths can lead to some of the best dry fly fishing of the season.

In the next week or so we should also be seeing the beginning of the trico hatch. Tricos, short for tricorythodes, are the tiny mayflies that emerge from the waters for a few hours as a flying, winged insect. After seeking out mates, the mayflies return to the river’s surface by the thousands and millions to lay their eggs to start the next generation of tricorythodes. Personally, I catch more trout, along with more Rocky Mountain whitefish than I can count, during the trico hatch than any other time of the year.

So, think evening, think terrestrials, and think tiny. There’s a lot of interesting fly-fishing that’s will be happening as we enter late summer.

Green Goop Threatens Florida Waters

A view of the green algae bloom that’s destroying some of Florida’s water resources. Photo from

A couple years ago, January 2016 to be exact, I took a trip to Florida for a winter board meeting of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. The Lee County convention and visitor bureau (The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel) invited our group to have our meeting there. One of the added attractions, besides meeting space, was a day of fishing or other recreation on the watery paradise of southwest Florida. A Florida outing right after a snowy and subzero Christmas week also had some modest appeal!

On our play day, along with a writer friend from Texas, I went flyfishing with a local guide on the shallow, calm waters of the big bay that’s protected from the Gulf of Mexico by the barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva. I caught a couple fish that day, a snook and a snapper, fish I’ll never find in Montana.

A snapper I caught in Fort Myers’ Bay. In Montana you find them only in the frozen foods section.

Our friends at the Lee County CVB were happy to show off the aquatic resources of their area, and it was fun to take advantage of the opportunity. At the least, it was way more fun than shoveling snow.

While Florida has a lot of fishing and other water recreation, there are major problems, and these problems have grown to a crisis of major proportions, and it’s gaining a lot of national attention.

It’s a complex puzzle, and to be frank, I have trouble getting my head around it all, but central to the issue is the Everglades, the so-called river of grass and a complex of rivers and lakes that work their way from Orlando, south through the Florida peninsula to the Everglades in the south, eventually draining into Florida Bay in the south end of the state.

The Okeechobee River runs south, emptying into Lake Okeechobee, which then moves south to the Everglades. Over the past century, much of the Everglades have been drained for agriculture and urban development. Drainage canals, dikes, dams, and loss of wetlands have altered the natural systems of drainage and flow.

Going back to 1986, a recurring problem with south Florida’s waters has been algae bloom. A major cause for algal bloom is fertilizer runoff, particularly phosphorus, from the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). The major agricultural industry in the EAA is sugarcane. The sugarcane industry, also referred to as Big Sugar, is a powerful (with a capital P) political force in Florida.

The fertilizer runoff works its way into Lake Okeechobee and from there into waterways feeding to both the Atlantic and Gulf sides of Florida.

This past month, there has been a major outbreak of green algae that was dumped, following heavy rains, from Lake Okeechobee into waterways, primarily the Caloosahatchee, which goes to the Gulf, and the St. Lucie Canal, which heads to the Atlantic. The algae bloom is a thick, soupy mess of toxic green slop. It’s fouling beaches, killing fish and wildlife.  Local residents are complaining of headaches, respiratory issues and rashes. Florida’s governor has declared a state of emergency on four counties on the Atlantic coast.

On the Gulf side of Florida, there is a “red tide,” caused by another organism, Karenia brevis, which feeds on other organisms that explode on the enriched water from Okeechobee, as well as runoff from phosphate mining. Red tide is a phenomenon that goes back to Spanish times, but it now happens more frequently and is more intense and lasts longer. When red tide occurs, there are major fish kills, impacting sport fish such as redfish, snook, and tarpon.

To repeat, this whole south Florida water mess is a complex problem that is creating disaster. It’s killing fish and wildlife, and impacting the fishing and tourism industries. It’s not the only problem, either. Florida has major issues with mercury pollution from incinerators and fossil fuel power plants. Then, there are invasive species that are thriving in Florida’s semi-tropical climate, and Burmese pythons are just the tip of the iceberg.

In spite of all the problems, according to Wikipedia another thousand people still move to Florida every day.


Fishing the Fourth!

Southwest Montana’s always scenic Big Hole River.

It was kind of a magical morning, though most mornings on the Big Hole River are magical.

As I waded up a side channel in search of rising trout I spotted a deer in the distance. Taking a closer look, I could see a tiny fawn along with the deer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in camera range, at least not for the point and shoot camera I carry in my shirt pocket on these outings.

Kiri, my Labrador retriever and faithful fishing partner, at least until September, when she takes on additional duties as hunting partner, took on clown duties. She went on a merry chase, as a killdeer used its best efforts to lead Kiri away from her offspring. There were three killdeer chicks in the muddy grass along the water, making their own little “killdee” calls as they scurried around, including hopping into the water and taking a short float down the stream before jumping back on shore.

A killdeer chick in the river’s shallows – a rare sight.

This 4th of July morning was a bit unusual, however. Most people in southwestern Montana woke up to frosty temperatures on that clear and sunny morning. I don’t know what the low temperatures had been that morning on the upper Big Hole River, but the water, as felt through waders, was icy. The river was still running on the high side, for early July, though with care it was finally relatively feasible to wade the rapid waters.

The fish? I was hoping there would be some insect activity going on, getting the trout to look up for their mid-morning snacks. There were some caddisflies and a few pale morning dun mayflies flitting about the water’s surface, though not enough to cause a feeding frenzy, though I did catch my first trout of the morning on a dry fly.

After several more hours, I called it a day. I’d caught something like five trout, mostly on nymphs, ranging from a two-inch rainbow, a couple brook trout, and an acrobatic 12-inch rainbow, the trophy of the day.

The fishing access site was doing a brisk business in the early afternoon. The parking lot was full to overflowing with vehicles and trailers, and more people were coming in, primarily families out for a fun holiday afternoon voyage down the river.

Of course, what was truly unusual about the morning was the freezing temperatures of the morning. In western Montana, we were under the spell of unseasonably cold weather, while much of the nation was sweltering in record-breaking hot weather.

On June 28, Denver tied its all-time high temperature of 105 degrees. Montreal, Quebec, set a new record high temperature of 97.9 degrees on July 2. Mount Washington, in New Hampshire, a place best known for horrendous winter weather, tied its all-time warmest low temperature of 60 degrees on July 2.

The parched southwestern states are far into a fire season that started way too soon.

The extreme heat wasn’t just in the eastern parts of North America. The British Isles, and Eurasian countries, such as Georgia and Armenia, recently set new hot weather records. If we have occasionally sweltered through some hot nights, we have never seen the likes of the 109 degrees, the world’s hottest low temperature ever recorded, in Oman on June 28.

There is a long list of heat milestones set over the past year or so, all part and parcel of a planet that is continuing to get hotter as greenhouse gas concentrations increase because of human activity.

Of course, if weather predictions are right, by now we’re probably thinking we’d like to have some of that chilly weather of Independence Day back again. That was the abrupt end of a chilly spring and early summer.

The nasty reality is that if hot, dry weather persists we’ll be racing into fire season in the next few weeks, and those lush, green mountainsides of early July will have abundant fuels for wildfire.

Still, my garden, after hunkering down through the cold nights of June and early July, welcomes hot weather to finally put on some serious growth.

Revolutionary Thoughts for Independence Day

It’s a good idea to put your camera on a tripod when photographing fireworks. Even so, you can get some interesting effects.

Today, on this fourth day of July, we celebrate the 242nd anniversary of the founding of our Republic.

Historians will remind us that it’s July 2 that we should observe as Independence Day. It was on that day, in 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain. Of course, the Declaration of Independence, primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, bears the date of July 4, and thus this is the day we observe as the founding of our nation.

John Adams famously wrote (keeping in mind he was referring to July 2), “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parades, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

Appropriately, right here in Butte, Montana, we have one of the best celebrations of Independence Day.

This, of course, is a highly subjective judgment and I’ll confess that I may not be qualified to make this assessment. On the other hand, in this nation, and at this time in our nation’s history, lack of knowledge or expertise doesn’t seem to disqualify anyone from making judgments and expressing opinions.

Another faulty image, but still interesting.

Nevertheless, we celebrate with parades and illuminations, and one way or another, Butte celebrates the day much as John Adams had in mind all those years ago in those heady days of 1776 when those upstarts in a rebellious Congress dared to thumb their noses at King George III.

The struggle for independence was a near thing, as the incompetence of volunteer militia again and again proved it was no match for the trained army of the world’s greatest power. On the other hand, the struggle also proved something even modern armies have learned, that rebellious forces can, eventually, wear down the will and resources of even a mighty power that has to maintain supply lines that cross great oceans.

So, what would presidents Adams and Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence, and following a long period of estrangement, reconciled through a long series of letters, and dying on the same day, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, say about this Republic they launched?

Perhaps, if Jefferson were to take a long look at today’s divisive and impetuous leadership, he might refer back to a letter he wrote in 1797. “A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, return their government to its true principles.”

John Adams feared for those who would get too powerful. “Power,” he wrote, “must never be trusted without a check.” Another statement might resonate during our modern times, “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak, and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.” On another occasion he wrote, “There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.”

On the subject of religious basis for what some might call evil acts, Jefferson wrote, “It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read.” Of course, he added, “By the same test the world must judge me.” Thomas Jefferson was that massive bundle of contradictions, a person who wrote eloquently on the evils of slavery, for example, yet remained a slave-owner to his last days.

Regarding a President’s continuing assault on news and journalists, and factions that advocate we should ignore scientific fact, Jefferson wrote, “We are not afraid to follow truth, wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

We might also remember something that Jefferson wrote near the end of his life, “The equal rights of man and the happiness of every individual, are now acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government.”

Revolutionary words for modern times.

Butte, Montana has its fireworks display on the 3rd of July.

Home Waters – the Big Hole River

The Big Hole River of southwestern Montana. Not always easy fishing, but always beautiful.

After a long runoff season that kept me off the river, along with a few weeks of travel, it felt good to head for the Big Hole River, my home water and favorite fishing destination. The prospect that the outing might coincide with the salmonfly hatch made it all the more interesting.

My preparations for an early morning start were complicated when I couldn’t find the fly box that I use just for the oversized stonefly imitations of the season. Before I could relax and put my feet up that evening I had to tie up a few of my fake salmonflies. Fortunately, it often seems that the bigger the fly the easier and faster it is to tie. It’s the complicated little bugs that take more time.

When we get to the Big Hole River and see a continual line of drift boats coming down the river, working the same stretch of shoreline, you can guess it’s salmonfly time. When 9 out of 10 boats have a red tag, indicating a guide is at the oars, you know it’s salmonfly time.

I don’t have a problem with this. This is the time of year when floating the river with an expert at the oars is the best way to fish the river, whether that expert is a professional or a next-door neighbor.

I have a one-person pontoon boat that I use to float the Big Hole, though I’m not inclined to do so until the water goes down some more. I’ll work the edges of the water and any wading I do will be where I can see the bottom of the river.

On this outing, that was mainly in one spot where a good-sized sandbar creates some shallow water.

As it happened, the salmonfly hatch hadn’t started on the upper Big Hole River. That didn’t mean the fish weren’t eating. I managed to catch two fish on the outing, a big rocky mountain whitefish that put up a good fight, and a brown trout, that took the same fly, a golden stone nymph imitation.

The timing was interesting. As one of those drift boats floated into view, one of the anglers caught and released a fish, and the other angler, within seconds, was hooked up. I caught my two fish within minutes after the drift boat had action. Was it coincidence, or was this a confluence of water and light conditions that made the fish start feeding? That’s a good, if unanswerable, question.

The day after this outing, the rains started and after four days of almost constant rain, the river was blown out again.

It looks like I’m going to miss the salmonfly hatch this year. I exercise a lot of caution when I venture into the Big Hole River this time of year and this period of caution is going to last longer than usual.

On the bright side, those soaking rains of mid-June have probably put the fire season off for several more weeks, and if we get some rain in July we might avoid it altogether.

We do know that these things can change in a hurry, especially if we get hot, dry weather when we get into July. About all we can do is follow the example of the President who says, regarding almost topic or question, “We’ll see what happens.”

And that’s as close as I care to get to the national political situation this week before we celebrate the founding of this nation.

In the meantime, we’ll enjoy the rain. Here in this semi-arid part of the West, precipitation is always good. It isn’t always convenient for planning outdoor activities, but my lawn is staying green without any help on my part, and my garden is growing, and it’ll soon get into high gear when we get warmer temperatures. For now, the tomatoes, peppers, and other bedding plants I put in before the rains started are looking happy and healthy.

Still, I’m looking forward to better fishing one of these days.

Chronic Wasting Disease Threatening Montana Deer

I was lucky to get this nice whitetail buck last fall. CWD threatens our future deer hunts.

It might be fishing season, but the 2019 big game hunting seasons are just two and a half months away, when the archery season for deer and elk start the first Saturday in September, which this year is September 1.

Last year, deer infected with chronic wasting disease (CWD) were found in two areas, south central Montana, and north central Montana. You may recall that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks opened late hunting seasons in those areas to get more samples of deer tissue to better determine the extent of CWD in Montana.

A couple weeks ago, at the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, held this year in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a panel of wildlife biologists presented the latest research on CWD.

Chronic Wasting Disease was first found in a mule deer in a Colorado research facility 50 years ago. Since then, CWD has spread to both wild and captive cervid (elk, deer and moose) populations in 23 states and two Canadian provinces. That includes Wyoming, just to the south of the south central Montana hunting district, and Alberta, to the north of the north central district.

Wyoming mule deer numbers are declining at a rate of 21 percent per year, and the decline is attributed to CWD. In Wisconsin, which has a number of captive deer operations, offering “canned hunts,” CWD rates are increasing dramatically.

While there has been a lot of CWD research, it is clear that there are still unknowns about how the disease gets transmitted. The disease is carried by prions, a form of protein. If CWD gets in a deer population, those prions become part of the environment, and can transmit CWD even after no deer have been in the area for several years or more.

It is proven that captive deer populations are CWD incubators, yet some states, such as Wisconsin, still allow captive herds. Bryan Richards, with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison WI, noted that transportation of animals from one facility to another is a factor in spread of CWD. Feeding deer also tends to concentrate deer numbers, making them vulnerable to CWD.

We might recall that a captive elk herd in the Philipsburg area had a CWD problem, and the entire herd was destroyed and the carcasses were incinerated. In 2000, a sportsmen-backed constitutional initiative, I-143, banned new elk farms, transportation of captive wildlife, and canned hunts. Since then, many of the captive elk farms have gone out of business.

As far as wild populations, the panel agreed that reducing deer numbers, especially bucks, is important. There is belief that predators, such as wolves, can have a beneficial effect in controlling deer numbers and taking diseased animals out of the population.

Currently, there is no known impact of CWD on humans. On the other hand, Richards advocated that hunters who harvest animals in an area known to have CWD should have them tested. He emphatically added, “If it tests positive for CWD, do not eat it.”

The CWD information pages on the FWP website also advises that consumption of infected animals should be avoided.

The issue of reducing buck numbers might be thorny for some, especially people who want bucks to live longer in order to grow big antlers, something espoused by Quality Deer Management (QDM) advocates. I asked an old college classmate, a retired midwestern deer biologist, for his thoughts. He confirmed that bucks pick up CWD at least three times the rate for females, adding, “Historically, we always focused on shooting females to reduce herds. But, it seems to me that we need to shoot both males and females…and impose a harvest mortality rate that exceeds the force rate of infection.”

Obviously, the CWD issue will not go away in Montana. If we have found some infected animals in the state, it is likely that there are more infected deer running around, spreading disease.

Deer hunters like to see lots of deer, but what we need is fewer numbers, widely dispersed. It may make hunting more difficult but that’s better than the alternative.

Midwest Bluegills on the Fly

My Indiana buddy, Charley Storms and a pond largemouth.


My fly softly hit the water next to a weed bed, and started to sink. There was a swirl of water and I felt the tug of a fish on the other end of the line.

A minute later I landed my trophy, a saucer-size bluegill, or sunfish. We admired its colors and then I slipped it back into the water. It wasn’t a trout, but it was a pretty little fish and it took a fly. I was happy.

If we started our tour of Indiana a couple weeks ago by catching a muskie, I ended our Indiana trip with something typical of Midwestern fishing; catching panfish in a small pond.

First a bit of a travelogue. We spent a long weekend in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. I’d long known about Fort Wayne, as when I was a kid I used to follow the Minneapolis Lakers, long before the Lakers moved to Los Angeles. A frequent opponent was the Fort Wayne Pistons. In 1957, according to Phil Bloom, the outgoing president of our organization and a lifelong resident of Fort Wayne, the Pistons moved to Detroit, primarily at the insistence of the NBA, which wanted teams to be in bigger cities.

We found Fort Wayne to be an interesting city, with a lot going on along the rivers that go through town. Two rivers, the St. Mary and the St. Joseph, come together in town to form the Maumee River, which flows into Lake Erie. Just on the other side of town is a marsh that drains into the beginning of the Wabash River, which flows to the southwest to its confluence with the Ohio River. It’s a bit more subtle than the mountain range that puts Butte on the west side of the Continental Divide but it’s a Divide, nonetheless. In fact, in one of our sessions, we had a presentation on the building of a big earthen dike across that marsh, to prevent the possibility of invasive Asian carp from crossing that marsh in high water conditions to the St. Mary River and getting into the Lake Erie watershed.

An exotic butterfly checking out a visitor.

A fascinating attraction in downtown Fort Wayne is the Botanical Conservatory, a partially enclosed facility that holds a tropical rainforest habitat, along with a desert habitat. The most fascinating exhibit was a butterfly enclosure, filled with flowering plants and a variety of exotic butterflies from South Africa. Visitors enter through a secure vestibule and exit through another one, to make sure that no butterflies escape. The facility has a license from the USDA to import the butterfly cocoons, but has to maintain security to prevent these foreign insects from escaping.

After the conference, we avoided interstate highways to see different parts of Indiana, skirting the eastern edge of Indiana, through Amish areas, where we often saw highway signs with a horse and buggy depicted. Indeed, we did meet a horse and buggy, driven by a bearded Amish gentleman, on the U.S. highway we were on.

Our route then took us west through hilly, wooded areas, with small streams, along with the mostly slow-moving rivers of Indiana. It wasn’t speedy travel but truly scenic and relaxing.

We spent a couple nights in southwestern Indiana in Evansville, as guests of our good friends, Charley and Elizabeth Storms. Charley and I got acquainted through following my columns on the internet, and has visited us several times to fly-fish the Big Hole River and hunt grouse.  Charley took me to one of his spots, a secluded little pond where he has a small jon boat stashed away at the bottom of a trail through the woods.

During the course of a couple hours, we caught a number of sunfish and a couple largemouth bass. The bass weren’t much bigger than the sunfish, though Charley said a friend who also fishes there has caught a couple five-pound bass in the pond.

It’s good to be home, again, but our jaunt to Hoosier Country stays in our happy memory book.

Muskie Fishing in Hoosier Country

That’s me with a Hoosier muskie!

What do we think of if the topic is Indiana?

I suspect for we, who live in the West, it might be basketball or the Indi 500. As my wife and I looked forward to taking a road trip to Fort Wayne, Indiana, for the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, we were anticipating a visit with our son and his family in Minot, North Dakota and a scenic excursion across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Muskie fishing wasn’t exactly on our radar screen. That changed when conference planners sent out a list of pre-conference outings that included muskie fishing on nearby lakes.

While we might think of Indiana as an agricultural state (and it is), several counties in northeastern Indiana are blessed with an abundance of lakes, both small and large, including Lake Wawasee, Indiana’s largest natural lake, plus other lakes that support a muskie fishery.

The muskie, or muskellunge, to be more correct, is a cousin to the northern pike. Muskies are native to northern states, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, but have been stocked in a number of other states, including Indiana.

Oakwood Inn at Syracuse, IN

Jill Boggs, executive director of the Kosciusko County Convention and Visitors Bureau (, arranged a big Hoosier welcome for my wife and I and two other writers, Bob Baldwin of Michigan and Jay Ledbetter of Colorado. She arranged lodging at a great, classic lakeside lodge, Oakwood Inn, on Lake Wawassee, and guided muskie fishing on nearby Lake Webster with one of the area’s top muskie guides, Chae Dolson (

Chae Dolson, muskie guide

After introductions and some instruction on the heavy duty casting rods we’d be using, we boated out to the middle of the lake, which Chae (pronounced Shay) knows like the back of his hand. He said the lake was once a series of several smaller lakes, but the local Tippecanoe River was dammed up; merging the lakes into one large lake, with lots of weed beds in relatively shallow areas.

Chae said muskies were introduced in 1979 and after a rocky start have thrived in a number of lakes. Chae grew up as a fishing enthusiast and at one time made some tentative ventures into tournament bass fishing. But, he said, “I like to catch big fish, and muskies were the biggest fish around.” He started specializing on muskies and developed a local reputation for having the knack for catching muskies, and friends encouraged him to start guiding.

He has mostly given up his previous business as a siding contractor to chase muskies, and he lives, eats and breathes muskie fishing from spring until the lakes freeze in early winter.

Muskies have a reputation for being unpredictable and contrary. That reputation, we neophyte muskie anglers quickly learned, is well justified.

We were throwing a variety of muskie lures and we’d occasionally see, as we brought the lure back to the boat, fish emerging from the depths, apparently interested in our lures. The standard technique is to move the lure in the water in a figure 8-pattern to hopefully trigger a strike. Most of the time, however, the fish would silently disappear back into the deep water, much to our disappointment.

Jay Ledbetter and Bob Baldwin

Bob broke the spell, at one point, when a small muskie took his lure. It was on just a couple seconds before flipping the lure and escaping.

We were near the end of our outing, still striking out, when a muskie hit my lure. This one didn’t get away, and Chae quickly netted the fish and brought it in.

It wasn’t a monster fish, by any means, but it still measured 32-inches, so a respectable muskie, though In-Fisherman magazine reported on a recent record muskie, caught in Michigan, that measured a formidable 58-inches and weighed 58-pounds.

My fish wasn’t in that class, but I was tickled pink with my catch. I have done a lot of fishing over the years, but that was my first (and likely last) muskie of my lifetime.

So, if and when travels bring me back to Hoosier country, I’m going fishing.

After over 30 years, an unexpected ending to the turkey season

My hen decoy enjoying the morning.

It was a wildlife morning. The Montana spring turkey season opened on April 14, though I never got out until the first week of May, when I had one of those rare convergences of a day free of commitments and with nice weather.

I went to a walk-in area along a brushy river bottom, and above the river bottom, a grassy strip is next to an alfalfa field. Driving in to an access point I spotted several turkeys feeding in the alfalfa, though sneaking up on them didn’t seem possible.

I walked in, set out my hen decoy and did some calling and sat down to wait for some sort of response. I had responses, if not what I was hoping for.

A sandhill crane ballet.

A pair of sandhill cranes flew into the field and started feeding, frequently stopping to talk and dance in a sandhill crane ballet. It’s a good thing that sandhill cranes speak loudly, as the river bottom was a cacophony of sound. There was the murmur of the fast-moving river, and calls of ducks and geese, songbirds, the occasional raspy call of a pheasant announcing his desire for love and companionship, and numbers of crows calling each other names.

I was surprised to see a wild turkey fly from somewhere to perch in a tall cottonwood tree about 150 yards away. I tried to send mental telepathy messages to come on down and see me. The bird eventually flew down but went far away from my spot. I moved down the strip a short distance and spotted a rooster pheasant crossing the grass.

A coyote trotted across the grass and disappeared into the alfalfa, presumably in search of edible critters, most likely voles, though coyotes aren’t too fussy about such things.

Getting the evil eye from Mama Moose.

The highlight of the morning was watching a cow moose walk up from the bottoms and cross the grass, then stepping over the barbed wire fence to go into the alfalfa. A moment later, a bull moose followed, and then a third moose, a yearling calf, joined the adults in the field.

The moose slowly worked their way through the field in my direction, getting to within about 50 yards of me, when the cow probably caught me moving a bit, and she stood still, giving me the evil eye. I took a photo of the lady, and the flash of my camera convinced Mama that I was up to no good and she left the field, followed by the calf, with the bull moose bringing up the rear. A few minutes later I heard them splashing through water, as they crossed the river.

As for the turkeys, they never responded to my call and presumably disappeared into the bottoms. It was approaching noon and I decided I was wasting time and I called it a morning.

As I drove out I looked down across the field. I spotted a turkey nosing around in the grass, just about where I was 30 minutes earlier.

Patience is a virtue in this game.

While frustrating, this was still one of the more rewarding mornings I’ve ever spent in the outdoors, and I was still bubbling when I came home and told my wife about my day.

A couple weeks later, just before season’s end, I had another free day with nice weather and returned to my spot.

This time, when nothing happened, I lay back in the grass and took a nap, enjoying warm sunshine and sounds of nature, and, happily, no ticks.

A different sound interrupted my nap. I opened my eyes and cautiously looked around, surprised to see a turkey acting amorously towards my decoy. I sat up, fired my gun, and my hunt was over, unexpectedly successful.

A successful end to a season.

On my way home I reflected on some 32 years, off and on, of seemingly quixotic turkey hunts filled with failure and frustration. A partner on many of those outings was an old friend, the late Rev. Merv Olson, pastor at Gold Hill Lutheran Church in Butte during the 1990s.

This one’s for you, Merv.

Memorial Day Reflections

A field of poppies.

This coming Monday is Memorial Day, the holiday established after the Civil War to honor fallen Union soldiers. It expanded to include the fatalities from World War I, and now honors the dead of all wars.

Memorial Day is different than Veterans Day, the November 11 holiday that honors all who served, living or dead.

Many people wear poppies on Memorial Day, a custom going back to World War I, as poppies were among the first plants to grow and blossom on the bloody European battlefields. Poppies were the inspiration for a poem by Canadian soldier, John McCrae, “In Flanders Field.” The poem begins, “In Flanders Field, the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row…”

Memorial Day is always a day I remember in connection with being in the high school band in my Minnesota hometown. We were always a part of the parade going down Main Street, on our way to the city cemetery, the final resting place of many Civil War veterans, as well as just about all adults from my childhood, and everybody in-between.

The parade included Scouts (both girls and boys), veterans groups, Gold Star mothers, and a convertible or two carrying the community’s oldest veterans. When I was a kid that meant Spanish-American War veterans.

At the cemetery, the standard routine had high school students reciting “In Flanders Field,” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Some politician, sometimes our congressman, would give an address. The ceremony ended with trumpeters playing Taps.

The weather, more often than not, was hot and steamy, and it was a relief to get back to school where we could peel off our heavy all-wool uniforms. Typically, we’d already had high school graduation by then, so that when we were done, we were done for the school year and could begin summer vacation.

While Memorial Day officially honors those who died on our battlefields or from injuries incurred in battle, in recent years I’ve been tracking the dwindling numbers of the 16 million men and women who went to war during World War II.

Now, all those veterans are in their 90s or are centenarians. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there were around 558,000 still living as of September 2017, and they’re dying at the rate of about 362 every day.

Of the 464 military personnel awarded the Medal of Honor, 266 posthumously, there are just four survivors, including Douglas Munro, the only member of the Coast Guard to ever receive the honor.

While Memorial Day honors the fallen from our wars, I note some notable World War II veterans, the last of that Greatest Generation, who are still with us. That list includes a few surprises, such as Moshe Arens, Israeli politician and diplomat, and Prince Michel of Bourbon-Parma, a French businessman and part of the long-deposed French royal family, both of whom served in the U.S. Army.

Other notable survivors include columnist Russell Baker, entertainer/civil rights leader Harry Belafonte, actor and comedian Mel Brooks, lawyer Benjamin Ferencz, who served in the Army, and became a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Trials. He’s the last living Nuremberg prosecutor.

There are women in the ranks, including Rosemary Kuhlmann, an opera singer and Broadway actress, who served in the Navy, and Rosemary Rodgers, who was a WASP pilot for the Air Force.

Among athletes are baseball players, Red Schoendienst and Dodgers pitcher, Carl Erskine. Johnny Lujack, the 1947 Heisman Trophy winner and NFL coach, Marv Levy are among football players who served.

Leaders in public life include President Jimmy Carter, Senator Bob Dole, South Carolina governor and Senator Ernest Hollings, Minnesota congressman and governor Al Quie, and Secretary of State and Nobel Laureate Henry Kissinger.

Among the oldest survivors are Internal Revenue Commissioner under President Kennedy, Mortimer Caplan, and actor Kirk Douglas, both 101.

As we enjoy this first holiday weekend of summer, or the last holiday weekend of winter, as it often is here in Montana, take time to remember the sacrifices of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in wartime, as well as those who survived and excelled in civilian life.

State of the Big Hole Fishery

Biologist Jim Olsen (photo courtesy of GGTU)

Fish like water, and fish do well when there’s lots of water.

That was a takeaway from the last program meeting of the season of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Jim Olsen, the FWP fisheries biologist for the Big Hole River watershed was on hand to present the State of the Big Hole Fishery.

There is now a mass of statistical data about fish populations on the Big Hole River, going back to the 1970s, when the now-retired Big Hole biologist, Dick Oswald, started electrofishing the river to get a sampling of the fish population.

Oswald, who also supervised the Beaverhead River fishery, created extensive documentation that low water years result in lower fish populations. That might not seem like rocket science, but I recall presentations from Oswald in which he reported a lot of pushback from some water users, until he showed them the scientific data.

Olsen, who has been working on the Big Hole River for ten years, had data that continues to show that fish populations are generally higher following big water years, with 2011 a prime example. 2018 will likely be another of those years that will result in increased fish populations next year.

Of special interest was a look back at the impact of special regulations on portions of the Big Hole River. The Special Regs first went in effect in 1981 on the Divide to Melrose section of the river. In 1988, the upstream portion expanded to Dickie Bridge. The special regulations cut daily “catch and cook” limits from five trout to three trout, with a slot limit of fish that had to be released.

Prior to 1981, fish populations in the river tended to be around 500 fish per mile. After the special regulations went into effect, the overall size of fish in the river increased, as did overall numbers of fish. On the other hand, the numbers of large fish, trout of 20 inches or more, declined. Greater numbers of fish mean more competition for available food.

Olsen also reported on angling pressure on the Big Hole. In 2015, there was an estimated 93,478 angler days on the Big Hole River, an increase from earlier surveys. If that seems like a lot of pressure, Olsen noted that angler days on the Madison River were 298,000.

Olsen also commented, briefly, on proposals to re-establish native fish populations in the French Creek watershed, which has generated a certain amount of controversy from people opposed to the project.

Olsen underlined that one of the reasons for doing the project on French Creek is because virtually the whole watershed is on public land. He also noted that the proposed project is one of the reasons that the Fish & Wildlife Service has not put the threatened arctic grayling on the endangered species list. If the project were to be canceled it would likely change the classification.

In any event, the period for filing comments on the French Creek project has been extended to May 30. Comments can be sent by email directly to Olsen at

I’m going to editorialize a bit.

I’ve been following comments in the local press opposing the project and can’t help shaking my head in amusement and despair. The arguments against the project are primarily designed to stir up anger, but don’t present any scientific basis for objecting to the project. After the TU program, I asked Olsen if anybody, at various public events, has presented anything that hadn’t been presented, and scientifically shot down, during the extended fracas regarding Cherry Creek on the Madison River. He said there was nothing that hadn’t been heard before.

I look forward to a westslope cutthroat fishery in the French Creek drainage. I’ve occasionally fished a small tributary on Rock Creek. Most of the creek isn’t much wider than six feet, but I’ve caught wild cutthroat trout of up to 20 inches there.

I’d love to have that opportunity closer to home. There are plenty of other creeks that will still give people the opportunity to catch all the brookies they can eat. Cutts are special.

Grizzly Bears – Then and Now!

The Night of the Grizzlies marked a turning point in the National Park System, as well as in the lives of a couple young Park rangers.

The Night of the Grizzlies happened just over fifty years ago, on August 13, 1967. It was a night when most Park officials were worried about forest fire risk, but not bear problems. During the middle of the night, the unthinkable happened.

In separate incidents that just happened to coincide on that fateful night, a bear went into a campground at the Granite Park Chalet and attacked Julie Helgeson, a young woman from Minnesota, dragging her off into the darkness. That same night, another bear went into the Trout Lake campground and attacked campers. A few people managed to get away from the bear, though Michele Koon, a 19-year old woman, wasn’t able to unzip her sleeping back and the grizzly carried her off. Both women died from the injuries they sustained.

Two 20-something Park Rangers, Bert Gildart and Dave Shea, were called to deal with the emergencies, though it was too late to save the young women.

Gildart, who later became a well-known outdoor writer and photographer, and Shea, were speakers at the annual conference of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association held in Choteau, Montana, in late April. A central part of their presentation was how the Night of the Grizzlies changed bear management policies in not only Glacier National Park, but the whole Park system.

Until that fateful night, grizzly bears were treated as entertainment. At Granite Park, garbage was left out in a nearby area where tourists could watch bears come in to feed on the free food. At Trout Lake, Gildart recalled, “It was a mess. There was garbage everywhere.”

Gildart had the duty to search out and kill the Trout Lake bear. He found the bear, which he described as “emaciated,” and had broken glass imbedded in its mouth, proving it had been eating garbage. A necropsy proved the bear was the killer, as it had blonde hair in its stomach.

Shea, who became the Park’s first bear biologist, spoke of an immediate and radical change in nationwide Park bear management. It ended feeding of bears, instituted a strict pack in-pack out policy, and changed campground and backcountry camping policies. In addition, the Park Service began an aggressive education program on bear management.

Since then, there has been just one bear mauling in Glacier National Park, and that was when a biker accidentally ran into a bear, and the bear retaliated in self-defense.

Author’s note: Sorry, the above paragraph is incorrect. There have been around 11 further bear maulings, mostly in the 1970s. See comments from Bert Gildart below, in comments section.

Both Gildart and Shea lament the tremendous increases in Park visitation. Back in 1967, there were around 150,000 Park visitors annually. Now, that number is over 3 million, and the sheer numbers of people are overwhelming the wilderness aspect of Glacier.

Former Park Rangers, Dave Shea (L) and Bert Gildart. Montana FWP grizzly expert, Mike Madel, on right.

Mike Madel, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks grizzly bear specialist, has been working on bear management issues along the Rocky Mountain Front for 40 years. He relates that in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), there were about 370 bears in 1970. There are now over 1200, and populations are still growing.

As bear populations increase, bears are moving onto the plains, usually following river bottoms. FWP does a lot of bear monitoring and a number of bears wear radio collars, providing almost minute-by-minute information about bear movements.

Some bears have roamed to areas east of I-15, even to the outskirts of Great Falls. Madel expects that within a few years there will likely be grizzlies in the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge along the Fort Peck Reservoir.

A lot of Madel’s work involves working with farmers and ranchers, helping them protect livestock and property from bear depredations. Electric fencing around bee yards and livestock corrals has been proven to be an effective deterrent.

As grizzly bears continue to increase in numbers and re-colonize ancient habitats, bear management will continue to be a hot button issue in Montana.

Finally, I’d like to wish all wives, especially mine, and mothers a Happy Mother’s Day holiday weekend. Please be patient when your children serve you breakfast in bed.

In Full Flight – Heroine with a Dark Past

A few months ago we remembered the late Harry Selby, one of the last Professional Hunters from the tradition of multi-month African safari hunting trips.

Not long after that, the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, sent a review copy of a book about another great character of Africa, Dr. Ruth Spoerry, a French-born doctor who became famous as the flying Mama Daktari, or Mother Doctor. Over a period of 50 years, Dr. Spoerry became famous for flying all over rural Kenya, landing in remote villages and providing medical treatment.

In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement, by John Heminway, tells the story of this amazing woman and of her accomplishments in bringing medicine to the African hinterlands. The book also tells of a shadowy past, going back to World War II, where, while still a medical student, she was part of the French resistance.

The Nazi occupiers of France caught up with her and Spoerry eventually ended up in Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women. While at the Ravensbrück camp, she fell under the influence of another woman who was a collaborator with the Nazis. She was assigned duties to provide medical care to fellow prisoners, but also got caught up in “mercy killings” of a sort. The woman with whom she worked was later convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death, though she cheated the hangman through suicide.

Spoerry survived the war and returned to France to complete medical training, though she couldn’t escape the scandal of Ravensbrück. She eventually made her way to Lebanon, then Kenya, where she found her calling and future fame as the flying woman doctor.

The author, John Heminway, is a British documentary filmmaker and author who got to know Spoerry in 1980 when he went to Kenya to write a magazine story about her. In numerous further meetings he thought he got to know her well, but it wasn’t until after her death, in 1999, that he began to learn of Spoerry’s earlier life and began researching her hidden past; research that included Spoerry’s own journals.

The author, and note his name is Heminway, not to be confused with the Ernest Hemingway family, which also has Africa and Montana connections, has a distinguished background as an author, filmmaker and journalist. He now lives in Bozeman, Montana and has been an adjunct professor at the Montana State University film department, recognized for his achievements with an honorary doctorate.

The book has gotten rave reviews from a variety of publications and reviewers, and it’s a pleasure to add my recommendation.

Glenn Brackett, bamboo rod artist and craftsman

Changing topics, at last week’s meeting of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Glenn Brackett, founder and owner of Sweetgrass Rods, now located in Butte, reflected on his life’s work, built around the building of bamboo flyrods. He became acquainted with people at the R. L. Winston company, in the San Francisco neighborhood where he grew up, then as an employee and an owner, and later with his partner, Tom Morgan, moving the company to Twin Bridges. Twelve years ago, Brackett and fellow worker Jerry Kustich left Winston to start Sweetgrass Rods.

Brackett prefaced his remarks by saying, “I’ve got something like eight decades of memory to share with you, so I don’t know just where to start.” Growing up in the Bay Area, John Muir, one of the early advocates of wilderness, was a big influence. “We all have heroes,” he said, “mine was John Muir. He opened my consciousness to the wild world, and I’ve always tried to live with that.”

Brackett is widely recognized as one of today’s master bamboo craftsmen, and he talked of his years of making a wide range of bamboo fishing rods, along with violin bows, wind chimes, canes, and other items. After a period when bamboo rods were in decline, there are now some 10,000 people making bamboo rods, some professional, some hobbyists. “I help a lot of them.”

Working with bamboo is a challenging art, he says, and he concluded his remarks, saying, modestly, “After building thousands of rods, I’ve reached a point of competency of maybe 70 percent.”

An Outing Including Fish!

My personal cheerleading section, Kiri.

It’s difficult to really get into springtime mode when winter keeps trying to reprise its now-getting-old act. That first snow, back in September, was welcome, because it finally put an end to the summer fire season. In late April we would welcome something on the order of warm sunshine, and for precipitation, a nice, gentle rain would be just fine. We don’t want anymore of that fluffy white stuff for a few months.

Still, just over a week ago, I did find a day without snow to get out of town and go fishing. It was just a couple days after a snowstorm, but we take these breaks when we find them.

Some people were at home, paying the price of procrastination, and were up to their ears in receipts and other assorted slips of paper, hoping to beat the April 17 tax deadline. I procrastinated, also, but I was still done with the annual chore by the end of March.

While I call the Big Hole River my “home water,” the lower Madison River is my home away from home, when it comes to early season fishing. As the hydro dam at the head of the Beartrap Canyon controls water flows, it tends to warm up a little earlier and gets some early hatches.

While it wasn’t snowing on the day of my outing, it was cold and windy, though still tolerable—if you had enough layers on to cut the wind and stay warm.

An encouraging sign was seeing another angler catch what looked like a good-sized fish, while I was putting on my waders. I called out and said, “Nice fish!” He said it was the fourth one he’d caught, so he was pretty happy.

I walked upstream to a spot that has been good to me in recent years and started casting a beadhead nymph into the current, and was surprised to feel a fish on the end of my line within the first minute. It wasn’t a trophy by any means, but I won’t turn up my nose at a 10-inch brown trout, my first trout for 2018.

Kiri, my Labrador retriever, seemed especially pleased about that fish.

While that fish broke the ice, so to speak, we didn’t have a feeding frenzy, by any means. In fact, after what seemed a long time without any further bites, I decided to check my fly, figuring it might be dragging a twig or bit of vegetation. Instead, my fly was missing. I don’t know if I had tied a weak knot or my tippet was nicked, but the fly was gone and it partially explained why I wasn’t catching fish.

After a lunch break, I got back in the water and noted a couple rises. Taking a closer look, I could see a flotilla of little mayflies floating downstream. The cloudy conditions were favorable to a bluewing olive, or baetis, if you prefer, hatch. I was using a pheasant tail nymph and that produced another little brown trout, almost a twin of the one I’d caught earlier.

All things considered, catching two little brown trout might not be the making of a good fish story, but after a long, cold winter, I was happy.

Incidentally, that lower Madison River and the Beartrap Canyon was a busy place. Besides lots of anglers, both waders and floaters, on the water, the rocky road going up the canyon along the river was busy with hikers, runners, bikers, rock climbers, and others on their way to the wilderness area trailhead. In spite of the chilly weather, there were some campers getting ready for a weekend on the river.

If you are looking for solitude, you won’t find it on the lower Madison, and in fact, river users and Fish, Wildlife & Parks are in the process of developing a recreation management plan, similar to what we have on the Big Hole River. A first draft, however, was rejected by the head of FWP. Back to the drawing boards.

Still, the river is amazingly productive and if you need some early season action, it’s worth a jaunt in that direction.

Paul Vang’s book, “Sweeter than