Holy Waters – a Great Winter Read

Holy Waters – a good winter read, especially if you need a fishing fix.

It’s February. We now know whether the groundhog saw its shadow last Friday, and whether we’ll have six more weeks of winter or have an early spring—keeping in mind that in Montana, an early spring and six more weeks of winter amount to about the same thing.

The Super Bowl is over. As a longtime fan of the Minnesota Vikings, I don’t know whether I’m sad because the Vikes didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, or relieved that they didn’t make it and break their tie with the Buffalo Bills for Super Bowl futility. Cheer up; the next football season is just seven months away.

February can be a difficult month. The hunting seasons are mostly over, but it’s early for fly-fishing.

There is hope. Every day, we have about three more minutes of daylight than the day before. A week ago, we hit a milestone of sorts, when we had nine hours and 38 minutes of daylight, or one hour more than at the winter solstice back in December.

February can be a time for planning, and if taking a float trip on the Smith River is on your wish list, the deadline for applying for a Smith River permit is February 15. Taking a trip on the Smith River is, of course, one of Montana’s premier outdoor experiences. The only way to experience the Smith River is to apply for a permit, or get invited to join a launch by someone who got lucky and drew a permit. Of course, you could also book a trip with one of the outfitters that operate on the stream.

February is a time to read about the outdoors. A new book I’d recommend is Holy WaterFly-fishing Reveries & Remembrances, by my friend, Jerry Kustich. Jerry is a bamboo rod builder, and with Glenn Brackett, helped start Sweetgrass Rods, which this past year moved from Twin Bridges to Butte. Jerry has written three previous books about fishing, and the co-author, with his brother, Rick, of a book on fishing for Great Lakes steelhead.

Jerry Kustich, bamboo rod artist, author and, happily, a good friend.

Several years ago, when Jerry was retiring as an active partner with Sweetgrass, I stopped in at the shop in Twin Bridges, after a morning of chasing ducks, and I asked if, in retirement, he planned to write more books. He wasn’t sure, at the time, whether he had more to say, but he certainly does.

I had the opportunity to review the manuscript before the book went to press, and wrote a back cover blurb for the book, so I’m prejudiced, but I think this is his best work. As I wrote for the blurb, “This is honest and heartfelt writing in the tradition of Norman Maclean.”

Like Maclean, Jerry writes about fishing, and make no mistake, he knows a lot about the topic, but like Maclean, he writes about life and those precious and all too-fleeting relationships. As Maclean concluded A River Runs Through It, “I am haunted by waters,” Jerry writes about the nature of rivers, “One leads to another and then another. They flow on forever and forever connected, they enrich our souls and touch our spirits with mysteries that none of us can fully comprehend.”

Finally, news from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

RMEF announced that their CEO, David Allen, is leaving from his post as of January 31, 2018. Nancy Holland, a member of the Board of Directors will step in as an interim CEO.

Allen served as Chief Executive Officer for nearly 11 years, and in a press release from RMEF, he points to 9 years of membership growth, conservation and preservation work on 1.8 million acres of wildlife habitat, and opened or improved public access to nearly 600,000 acres of public land.

On the other hand, under Allen’s tenure, the organization drew criticism from other conservation groups for RMEF’s stance favoring aggressive steps to control wolves, with Allen once telling the Idaho Statesman newspaper that states should “shoot wolves from the air and gas their dens.”

That’s not exactly conservation talk, and RMEF took a lot of flak for that.

Harry Selby – Professional Hunter

Harry Selby with writer Robert Ruark, ca 1953

Harry Selby, one of the last and greatest of the so-called “great white hunters’ of Africa, died peacefully at his home in Botswana on January 20, at age 92.

Not many hunting guides have long, glowing obituaries in newspapers such as the New York Times or the Washington Post. Harry Selby was a notable exception.

John Henry Selby was born in South Africa in 1925, and his family moved to Kenya when he was still a boy, and he grew up hunting and shooting to protect family crops and livestock. Young Harry became a protégé of an earlier hunting legend, Philip Hope Percival, who was an outfitter for both Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. In 1949, Selby joined East Africa’s foremost safari outfitter, Ker & Downey.

Selby achieved international fame after leading Robert Ruark, a famous syndicated columnist and novelist, and his family on a safari in Tanzania (or Tanganyika, as it was called then). The African safari was much different than today’s safaris, as safari meant going out for two or three months at a time, into bush country by truck and taking along enough supplies and provisions for the duration, as well as a small army of guides, trackers, cooks, porters, drivers, etc., and coping with whatever emergencies that might come up.

As the Times told it, “Selby had to be the doctor, mechanic, chauffeur, gin-rummy-and-drinking partner and universal guide, knowledgeable about mountain ranges, grassy plains, rivers, jungles, hunting laws, migratory patterns, and the Bushmen, Masai, Samburu, Dinka and Zulu tribes. He spoke three dialects of Swahili. And he improvised; if there was no firewood, he burned wildebeest dung.”

Ruark wrote several books based on his travels to Africa, Horn of the Hunter, Something of Value, and Uhuru, and these books made Selby a celebrity among professional hunters.

Over the years, Selby guided wealthy industrialists, royalty, maharajahs, and opera singers, as well as ordinary people who saved up for years to go on one these trips across the hunting lands of Africa.

Selby moved his base of operations from Kenya to Botswana following the Mau Mau revolts of the 1950s, when he worked as a tracker for the old Colonial government. It turned out to be a positive move, as he was one of the first to bring hunters to the great Okavango Delta and Kalahari Desert, and what was then an unspoiled wildlife paradise.

While Selby was first and foremost a hunter, he was among the first professional hunters to anticipate major changes in African tourism and in 1970 established the first lodge and camps for photography safaris. (Note, the old term, “white hunter,” was replaced long ago with Professional Hunter)

Selby continued to lead safaris in Africa until he retired in 2000.

There is, not surprisingly, a local connection to Harry Selby. Earlier this month the Butte community said goodbye to another legend of big game hunting, Jack Atcheson, Sr., who, from his base in Butte, Montana, established a business of booking hunting trips around the world, and in the process went on many international hunting trips.

His sons, Keith and Jack Jr., continue to operate the business, and Keith recalls his first hunting trip to Africa in 1977, with Harry’s son, Mark Selby, the professional hunter. “I got my first cape buffalo on that trip,” he recalls.

“As far as I know, my dad never hunted with Harry Selby, but we certainly booked a lot of hunting trips with him.”

Keith noted, with regret, that Mark Selby died in 2017. Harry Selby is survived by his wife, Maria Elizabeth (Miki) and daughter, Gail, and several grandchildren.

There’s no escaping the reality that attitudes about trophy hunting in Africa and other exotic locales have changed, and people who post photos from an Africa hunt on social media had better be prepared for hate mail.

Still, we can’t ignore the life and career of this renowned professional hunter who bridged the transition from traditional multi-month hunting safaris to permanent camps catering to photographers, and earned widespread respect and honors for his achievements.

Mt. Haggin WMA – A Gem with Flaws

Mt. Haggin WMA – magnificent mountain country

With hunting seasons mostly over and with a gentle snowfall laying down more winter snowpack, the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited offered the first of its winter programs, last week, to a large audience.

The theme was the Mt. Haggin Wildlife Management Area, a popular outdoor recreation area, with cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, as well as hunting, fishing, and other recreation, with areas on both sides of the Continental Divide.

Mt. Haggin WMA in autumn

Vanna Boccadori, a wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, told of the area’s history, starting with a chert quarry where Native Americans found rock suitable for making arrow and spear heads and cutting tools, and likely found excellent hunting in the area.

Starting in the 1860s, things changed, when gold was discovered in French Gulch, with sluice and placer mining that began a long series of environmental problems in the area.

Logging started in the 1880s, with large scale clear-cutting of timber, much of which was transported on a flume, with timber ending up in Butte mines and homes, and the new settlement in Anaconda. A second wave of logging started in 1906.

Much of the area was included in the beginnings of the National Forest system. Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the Forest Service, visited the area, finding that there was no forest left. He made a deal with the Anaconda Company, trading the area for Company forest holdings in the Bitterroot valley.

The Anaconda Company bought out a number of homesteads and started a sheep ranching operation that, under subsequent private owners, phased into cattle ranching. There was another wave of logging in the 1970s. With the help of the Nature Conservancy, the Forest Service and FWP then acquired the property, creating the 55,000 acre Mt. Haggin Wildlife Management Area. It has since grown to 70,000 acres.

Pedro Marques, environmental restoration manager

Pedro Marques is a Restorations Program Manager for the Big Hole Watershed Committee, and has been working on many degraded areas on the WMA, including smelting deposits, such as arsenic, sulphur dioxide, copper, antimony, lead, and cadmium. There was also environmental damage from logging, mining, and transportation operations.

There are many areas that were “past the ecological tipping point,” meaning that after clear-cut logging, followed by smelter contamination, some areas were totally degraded and eroded and incapable of recovery without intervention.

Restoration and remediation projects have been developed to mimic nature, to capture and hold sediment by building structures to slow and stop water, as well as restoring vegetation and controlling non-native weeds.

He concluded his presentation saying, “We have what works. Now we can scale it up into wider areas.”

Jim Olsen, FWP fisheries biologist for the Big Hole area, talked about efforts to save and restore native fish, such as westslope cutthroat trout and grayling on the WMA, particularly in the French Creek drainage.

The French Creek drainage is all on public land, either WMA or Forest Service, and has habitat that is good, or is improving after remediation, and already has some populations of native fish, plus pearl shell mussels, a unique fresh water mussel that needs native fish for propagation.

The restoration project has several major steps, including a fish barrier to prevent non-native fish from moving back into the watershed, then removing non-native trout, and, finally, restoring native fish.

It’s a multi-year project, with barrier construction, removing existing fish, and then, finally, restocking native cutthroat trout, grayling, mountain whitefish, sculpin and longnose dace. When restocking begins, sterile hatchery-raised cutthroat trout will also be introduced to kick-start the fishery.

Olsen concluded his presentation noting that in previous projects, some 67 miles of tributaries have completed restoration projects, and the French Creek project, with 40 miles of tributaries, will substantially increase the amount of streams with native fish populations.

The next TU program meeting will be on February 15 at the Butte Brewing conference room, and is free and open to the public. Also, the annual fundraising banquet will be at the Copper King Hotel on March 9.

It may be winter, but it’s time to get back into a fishing mode.

Montana Hunting Plans Draw Comments

FWP biologist Vanna Boccadori explaining changes in elk hunts.

With the 2017 hunting seasons basically over, a large group of local hunters gathered, last week, to learn what changes Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is planning. It was a wide-ranging discussion of various topics ranging from elk management to deer pee.

Vanna Boccadori, the FWP big game biologist stationed in Butte, was the meeting’s moderator, though there was a big complement of other biologists from the area, as well as game wardens, and Mark Deleray, the new Region 3 Supervisor (more on him below).

Deer pee? Because of concerns regarding chronic wasting disease, FWP banned the sale of ungulate urine scents. FWP is now proposing to modify the ban to allow scents if urine sources have been certified to be CWD-free, with the Archery Trade Association the certifying agency. Based on comments, there are still potential complex issues.

Elk shoulder seasons were a hot topic. FWP is studying options to evaluate the elk shoulder seasons, currently limited to 43 hunting districts, and to revisit the issue every three years. There was extensive discussion of the shoulder seasons, especially concerning District 215, the district closest to Butte that offers a shoulder season.

Proposed changed to the annual youth deer season drew discussion. Currently, it’s a two-day season just before the general deer and elk season, and usually coincides with the annual Montana Education Association break. The proposal would make it a four-day season in years when the MEA break doesn’t coincide with the two days before the general season. It would also increase the age for participating youth to age 17 instead of age 15. In a show of hands, the sentiment among attendees seemed to be in favor of not making any changes.

Boccadori presented proposals for District 340, or the Highlands District, to allow harvest of either brow-tined bulls or antlerless elk on a general license, which she felt would be more effective in managing elk populations. She indicated that the underlying reason for the change is, “I’m trying to maximize hunter opportunity and sustainable harvest.”

Discussion on elk management returned repeatedly to the persisting dilemma of private landowners not allowing hunter access to their property, while often selling guided hunts for bull elk. This leads to increased pressure on neighboring public lands, resulting with elk migrating to private lands. At the same time, FWP is obligated to manage elk populations with goals set by the state legislature.

There was extensive discussion of mule deer management, especially a proposal to go to an either sex harvest in District 329, also known as the Horse Prairie District west of Dillon. Craig Fager, the biologist based in Dillon, defended the recommendations saying the deer are there and harvestable. Some people vigorously disagreed with that assessment.

Biologist Craig Fager pondering comments at meeting.

Fager commented on some of the complexities of mule deer management, concluding, “There’s a lot of moving parts in this.”

There was extensive discussion of habitat issues. In many previously productive mule deer areas, there has been significant conifer encroachment, crowding out the brushy browse habitat favored by mule deer. There seemed to be general agreement that where elk populations are high, it has been at the expense of mule deer.

There are no planned changes to wolf hunting regulations. Following a grumble about “too many wolves,” Boccadori responded, “You’ve got six months, dude. Get after it!”

For new Region 3 Supervisor, Mark Deleray, this round of winter meetings has been an opportunity to get to know biologists and game wardens in the Region, as well as to meet members of the public. He commented that the people at the Butte meeting seemed to be both well-informed and vocal in expressing opinions.

New FWP Region 3 Supervisor Mark Deleray

Deleray is a California native, and did graduate work at Montana State University. He spent the last 20 years as the Region 1 Fisheries Manager, based in Kalispell.

The entire proposed changes are available at the FWP website. FWP accepts public comments in person at public meetings, by mail, or online. The deadline for comments is 5 p.m., January 24, 2018. The FWP Commission will make final decisions on changes at its February 15, 2018 meeting.

Jack Atcheson – Hunter and Public Lands Champion

Jack Atcheson, hunter and public lands champion.

There’s a tradition on the popular CBS news program, Sunday Morning, that on the last Sunday of the year they do a “Hail and Farewell” segment, highlighting the passing of notable personalities during the year. The December 31 program highlighted a number of people, primarily from the entertainment industry, such as Mary Tyler Moore, Roger Moore, Mel Tillis, Glen Campbell, and Rose Marie, or the political world, including John Anderson, who ran as an independent for president in 1980, or in sports, boxer Jake LaMotta and football coach Ara Parseghian, and many others. As always, you don’t really appreciate the impact of this review of deaths in a year until you put them together into a long list.

If the program took a broader look at the “who’s who” of obituaries, they might have included a Butte man, Jack Atcheson, who died on December 27, at age 85.

What the people featured in CBS’s Hail and Farewell meant in the various worlds of entertainment, politics, and sports, Jack Atcheson was all that and more in the world of the outdoors, particularly big game hunting.

I’ve been reading outdoors magazines since I was a kid, starting when I’d check out outdoors magazines from my hometown library. A name that recurred again and again, especially in the context of big game hunting, was Jack Atcheson of Butte, Montana. When reading accounts of exotic big game hunts by the likes of Jack O’Connor or Jim Zumbo, and other famous writers, chances are the article would have a credit to Jack Atcheson for making arrangements for the hunt, and often would further indicate that trophies were sent to Atcheson Taxidermy of Butte.

As it happened, shortly after I transferred to the Butte Social Security Office in 1988, I saw a man sitting in the office waiting area. All our interviewers were tied up so I asked if I could help him. Sure enough, it was Jack Atcheson, and he had questions about Social Security to help with retirement planning. After I answered his questions I had more questions for him, as well as conversation regarding our shared interests in hunting and the outdoors. I remember advice he gave me. “Always have a camera with you. You never know when you might have the photo of a lifetime.” Also, he advised, regarding outdoors activity, “Go now, while you’re physically able,” a recurring theme in his two books, Hunting Adventures Worldwide and Real Hunting and Campfire Humor.

After serving in the Army during the Korean War, Jack came home to Butte and started a taxidermy business, and through contacts he developed with outfitters around the world he, with his wife Mary Claire, who had a travel agency, started making arrangements to book hunts around the world. In the process, he went hunting around the world, often to check out the services of outfitters. In short, over his many years in the business, he went virtually everywhere in the world, and the adventures he had, and the people he hunted with or met in the process of travel, could probably fill many books.

While Jack was a celebrity in the hunting world, he took much of it with humor. In a chat before a past Montana elk and deer season, Jack smiled and said, “There’s a lot of luck with trophy hunting. Usually it’s the guy stuck as camp cook that gets the biggest elk.”

We once met in a grocery store parking lot and Jack asked what I had going on. As it happened, the next day I was planning to go on a horseback trip, covering a conservation project of the Backcountry Horsemen. He chuckled a bit and said, “Be careful. I’m often asked ‘What’s the most dangerous animal you’ve encountered?’ I tell them it’s the horse. I’ve known several people who were killed by horses.”

Jack’s inscription when he autographed his first book to me in 1995 would make a good epitaph. “I wish I could do it all over again. Life is too short.”

Hail and farewell.

Hunting Seasons Drawing to a Close

A photo from the archives; the late Flicka retrieving a handsome drake mallard.

The Christmas tree is part of a tall, tangled stack of drying Christmas trees, waiting to be shredded to mulch and, eventually, become rich compost, ready to enrich someone’s lawn or garden. The cycle of life is always in motion.

And, as we said farewell to 2017, we said hello to 2018, and wondered what this new year will bring.

New Year’s Day meant more than bowl games and excesses of junk food. It also marked the end of the upland bird season. Those pheasants, grouse, partridge, and other upland birds can now go about the business of winter survival without having to be alert for people and bird dogs upsetting their routine. The end of the hunting season doesn’t mean they’re safe, of course. For foxes, coyotes, raptors and other predators, there are no closed seasons.

Winter is the season that’s like the narrow part of an hourglass, with wildlife having to squeeze through like grains of sand. It’s the unrelenting fact of life that winter determines how much wildlife will be around in the spring to bear young, lay clutches of eggs, and start the new generation.

Winter is the season that is the true test of wildlife habitat; whether there is enough food, water and shelter in the local environment to enable wildlife to survive.

Some wildlife survives winter by migrating to warmer climes, though we’ll note that even in cold, northern states, there will be migrants from Canada and the arctic thinking that it’s nice and warm here.

As we experience a warming climate, even if we don’t think a sub –zero wintry day is particularly warm, some birds, especially waterfowl, find western Montana, with rivers that don’t always freeze, along with warm water springs and creeks, to be just fine for winter. Ducks and geese can survive a lot of cold, as long as they can find food and have open water for drinking and swimming. In recent years, waterfowl biologists have noted that waterfowl are finding wintering spots much farther north than in the not too distant past.

While most hunting seasons are now closed, there are still opportunities for waterfowl hunting.

Here in the Pacific Flyway areas of Montana, basically west of a line from Livingston to Havre, the waterfowl seasons will close, temporarily, on Sunday, January 7, and then reopen on Saturday, January 13, and then finally close on Wednesday, January 17. In the Central Flyway parts of Montana, the dates are slightly different, so check the regulations if you’re planning a waterfowl trip to eastern Montana.

There are also deer hunts going on in the south-central area of Montana, to help determine the extent of chronic wasting disease in that area. Permits went on sale last week (and quickly sold out) for a similar hunt in north-central Montana. That season, referred to as Sage Creek on the FWP website, opens on January 6. Both those special study hunts run through February 15.

In addition, there are shoulder seasons running for antlerless elk on private land areas. Again, there are a lot of rules to check out.

Obviously, this being Montana, there are other things to do, such as ice fishing on area lakes. Some diehards continue to fly-fish anywhere they can find an unfrozen river. Personally, once I’ve made my last duck outing, I’ll look forward to going skiing, and tying flies.

This is also the season for giving feedback to Fish, Wildlife & Parks and this month FWP will be holding public meetings in Region 3 to give the public a chance to ask questions and make comments about hunting seasons and to make recommendations on what you’d like to see in upcoming hunting seasons.

There are a number of meeting dates and locations, but locally, meetings will be held in Butte on January 9 at the United Congregational Church, starting at 6 p.m. In Dillon, the meeting will be on January 11, at the Search and Rescue Building, also starting at 6 p.m.

This is your chance to participate in the process.


A Visit with Father Time – 2017 Edition

It’s late at night, and the fire in the fireplace has burned down to a bed of coals. My wife and dog have gone to bed, but I’m in the middle of Ken Follet’s most recent novel, A Column of Fire, and can’t put it down.

At first I don’t hear the knock on the door, but I finally realize someone is out there. It’s a cold, winter night, and I wonder who it might be.

It’s an old man, with long hair and an unkempt beard. I hesitate, but invite him in to come in and get warm. I throw a couple fresh chunks of wood on the fire and ask “Would you like a Tom & Jerry?”

“Make it a double, with bourbon,” he said, with a sigh of relief. “I’m glad you were up. I was hoping to have a chance to chat a bit before I finish my final rotation on Sunday night.”

“Oh, you’re Father Time, the 2017 version,” I commented. “I was wondering if you might be stopping by. I haven’t had one of these visits for several years. So,” I ask, “after some 360 rotations around the world, what do you think?”

“I think you’d better hurry up with that drink, while I take a moment to gather my thoughts.” He stared into the fire a few moments and then took a few sips of the hot drink I’d fixed, and said, “This, my friend, is one mixed up world. When I came on the job back last January, my predecessor warned me this wasn’t going to be easy.

“I tour the world every day, so I see a lot of stuff, but this country of yours is one messed up place.”

I tell him I kind of agree with him but I’d like to hear just what he means.

“Every day I see what’s happening to this great planet. It’s an oasis of life in the solar system, the only place that supports plant and animal life and you’re destroying this paradise.” He paused a moment, “Well, maybe not you, personally, though if you’re living in the U.S., chances are you’re part of the problem.

“Every day I see the world’s last glaciers melting a little bit more. Country-sized slabs of polar ice break off from Antarctica and go floating off into the oceans, and ocean levels creep up a bit.

“You and I both know that your addiction to fossil fuels is a major reason your climate is warming, and you don’t do anything about it.”

I start to say, “It’s complicated…”

“Like heck it is!” he interrupts. “Your scientists, for over a century, have been warning about changes that were going to happen and then started happening, and your politicians are like ostriches with their heads in the sand, who then give more sweetheart deals to companies that burn carbon and pollute the air. That idiot of a president you have goes out to promote coal. ‘Beautiful clean coal,’ he says. Bah, humbug! There is no such thing as clean coal. Geez, don’t get me started.”

“I think you’ve already gotten a pretty good start,” I interject. “But where do we go from here? Everything is so political these days.”

He took another long sip of his drink and studied the flames in the fireplace, while he pondered his reply. Finally, with a degree of hesitation, he said, “My job is to keep track of the passage of time and at the end of the year hand the job over to the next guy. By the way, we’re really not babies when we start. But, we’re not supposed to get involved with politics.

“I will say this, though. You and your fellow citizens need to stay involved and informed of what’s going on. Yes, things are politicized, but as some say, all politics is local. Stay involved and vote.”

With that, he stood up, buttoned his coat and headed for the door. But, before leaving, he added, “Be good to my replacement next week. It’s an election year and it’s going to be tough.”



Hidden Hazards and Bird Dogs

Kiri is wearing a T-shirt to keep her from licking her wound. Looks silly, but it works.

Like the old song where a kid lisps out, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,” my black Lab, Kiri, might sing, “All I want for Christmas is to have my stitches out.”

Appropriately, a Sioux Falls SD veterinarian is featured in a Purina ProPlan Outdoor Wire, writing about potential hazards that threaten hunting dogs.

Hidden obstacles are at the top of the list. Traumatic and puncture wounds are among the most common sporting dog injuries and are caused by running into obstacles such as tree branches, barbed wire, fence posts, traps, or briars that a dog can’t see because of tall grass, heavy cover, or other reasons.

Last Friday, Kiri and I had a hunting outing on an area ranch in search of pheasants. From the standpoint of seeing game, we had a good day. We put up quite a few pheasants as the day progressed. On the other hand, late season pheasants tend to not wait around while hunters and their dogs box them into a corner. I had shots at birds, but not good shots, and we came home empty-handed.

On Saturday morning I was relaxing with the morning paper, with Kiri on her dog bed next to my easy chair. She was busy licking something, and I didn’t think much of it. She’s easily the lickingest dog we’ve ever had. That little tongue of hers goes everywhere.

She seemed to be working really hard licking her chest. I took a closer look and saw that she had about a one-inch wide cut on her chest, most likely due to going through a barbed wire fence. I groaned and went to the phone to schedule a visit with her veterinarian.

I might be something of an expert on this. Kiri is our fifth Labrador retriever and all five of them have had run-ins with barbed wire.

I used to hunt a farm in eastern Montana that had a fenceline going through a marsh. The fence was likely built during a drought period, but it became all but invisible, as the top wire was covered with dead grass and cattails. My old chocolate Lab, Alix, had a couple encounters with that fence and had to be stitched up at least once.

Candy, two dogs back, had a real talent for barbed wire, it seemed. On an outing around 15 years ago we flushed a covey of Hungarian partridge and I managed to drop one of the birds. Candy went through an exceptionally tight barbed wire fence on her retrieve and got a nasty three-corner tear along her back. Nothing was going to slow her down when it came to birds. To her credit, it did seem she learned, toward the end of her career, to stop and let me spread barbed wire strands before going through.

Back around 1980, when we were living in eastern North Dakota, our first Lab, Sam, and I went out on a late season hunt for ruffed grouse. We were having a fun outing until I noticed blood on the snow. I checked Sam and sure enough she had a nasty skin tear on her chest.

We headed back to where I’d parked my International Scout, loaded her up and headed home, making a late afternoon stop at the veterinarian’s office in Park River ND. The vet was primarily a horse and cow doctor and small animals were a sideline. I was lucky he hadn’t closed up shop for the day.

He checked Sam’s cut and said, “Well, it’s not too bad but maybe we’ll put in a stitch or two.” He put in a couple stitches and said, “Maybe a couple more.”

A little later, Sam had five stitches on her chest, and the doctor scratched his head a bit and said, “Ten bucks, I guess,” and I cheerfully paid his fee.

So, a word to the wise: Be careful on your outings and after the hunt check your dog for cuts or bleeding. Also, don’t be surprised; the price for repairs has gone up.

National Monuments at Risk

Grand Staircse-Escalante, one of two Utah Monuments slated for downsizing. Photo courtesy Charlie O’Leary

Donald Trump had quite a week.

Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, in a plea deal that likely will send more than a few more heads rolling before the dust settles.

He got the only legislative victory of his tenure, a big tax bill that promises to raise taxes on the middle class but gives big ( “beautiful”) cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and adds a trillion bucks to the national debt over the next ten years.

He endorsed, and got the Republican National Committee to spend campaign money on, the former Alabama Supreme Court judge who twice was thrown out of office for illegally defying Federal court orders, now renowned for hitting on teenage girls back when he was a 30-something deputy district attorney.

Then, in an action that surprised nobody, Trump announced that he was taking action to vastly reduce the size of the Bears Ear and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah.

The reductions in these monuments will eliminate about 1.1 million acres from Bears Ear and 800,000 acres from Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Trump told a Salt Lake City audience that the actions would “reverse federal overreach,” and send a message to people who think, “that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by very distant bureaucrats located in Washington.”

In addition, the Washington Post reports that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will make further recommendations to reduce other monuments in Oregon and Nevada.

While Utah politicians cheered, not everybody is happy. A coalition of Native American tribes, including Ute, Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblo of Zuni, announced they will file suit in U.S District Court in Washington D.C. to challenge Trump’s action on Bears Ear. Another coalition of environmental groups has filed suit challenging reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Ironically, Bruce Adams, chairman of the San Juan County Commission, and an opponent of Bears Ear National Monument, said he hoped the boost in tourism his county has had in the last year would continue.

Amy Roberts, president of the Outdoor Industry Association, noted that business has thrived in the 20 years since the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante and “there’s a risk now that those people’s livelihoods will be threatened as people hear that the monument’s been cut in half and wonder whether it’s worth visiting.”

Greg McReynolds, one of several contributors to an upland hunting blog, Mouth Full of Feathers, notes that the heart of Trump’s proclamation is that lands “you could hunt and fish and explore when they were part of Bears Ear and Grand Staircase-Escalante” that were protected by national monument status “will be eligible for sale, strip mining and oil and gas development.”

A myriad of organizations, such as the Sierra Club, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Montana Wildlife Federation, and including outdoor gear retailer Patagonia, have registered protests against the downsizing of the national monuments. Patagonia’s website proclaims, “The president stole your lands.”

Closer to home, Charlie O’Leary, chairman of the Butte-Silverbow Urban Forest Board and a longtime public land advocate, posted a protest on his Facebook page, telling of many visits to “Red Rock Country to explore slot canyons, scamper around on the Navajo sandstone, and peer over vertical cliffs of purple, red and orange…I feel a great deal of disappointment and anger with Trump and Zinke as they attempt their public land grab to benefit their friends in the oil and coal industry.”

Spectacular desert scenery in endangered National Monuments. Photo courtesy Charlie O’Leary.

A minority voice in the outdoors community is Safari Club International, which issued a statement supporting the action, “We at Safari Club International applaud the decision…to protect access to millions of acres of public land in Utah…the Administration is affirming the benefit of traditional land uses…”

It is clear that the battle over National Monuments is just beginning, and the courts will decide whether a president can reverse the actions of previous presidents in creating national monuments.

What is also clear is that Donald Trump doesn’t understand that a president’s legacy is based on achievement. There won’t be any monuments erected to honor a president whose main accomplishments were to destroy the legacies of his predecessors.

Late Season Upland Birds

My Lab, Kiri, sniffing the brush for grouse scent.

The aspens are quiet now, and it was a rare early winter treat to be able to take a walk through the aspens, last week, in search of ruffed grouse.

I hadn’t been in the thickets since the last day of October, after we got slammed with heavy snow in the first days of November. Over the years I’ve done lots of grouse hunting in the snow but I’ve made a concession to age, and now I stay out of the woods when they’re covered with snow. A blanket of snow hides all sorts of traps and pitfalls and I’d just as soon avoid a nasty fall.

For better or worse, the mild weather of late November melted most of the snow in the lower elevation aspens, and a walk in the grouse woods on a cold, sunny afternoon was a welcome diversion from sitting in front of a computer.

When the elk and deer seasons ended on November 26, some people sighed with relief or disappointment and put their guns away for another year.  There are others, like me, who grab shotguns and head for the hills, also feeling a bit of relief because we can hunt grouse without worrying about some over-anxious fool taking a shot at us or our bird dog.

For the most part, I rarely see other hunters in the aspen thickets where I search for grouse. The big game season is an exception, because it puts a lot of people in the hills. A rare exception was some years ago when I’d just finished a walk for grouse and another guy with a bird dog was just getting ready to walk in. The deer and elk season was on and, incredibly, he was wearing a brown vest and no hunter orange. I assume he survived his walk, because I didn’t hear any reports of a grouse hunter or his dog getting shot.

As I went in the forest, there were footprints in the remaining snow patches, indicating that even if people hadn’t been grouse hunting, there had been lots of hunters out. Curiously, in spots the footprints were ice prints. Snow that had been compressed by a hunter walking across a meadow had turned to ice, while the snow around it had melted.

Unfortunately, on this walk my black Lab, Kiri, didn’t find any grouse scent in the brushy thickets and we finished our circle through the trees and brush without flushing any grouse.

The afternoon wasn’t a total loss. There is a sparkling spring on the mountainside that nourishes a bountiful crop of watercress in all seasons. I’d brought a plastic bag along just for the walk. Grouse are always an iffy proposition, but a watercress salad with dinner was a sure thing.

A secluded mountainside spring and the makings of a watercress salad.

Montana’s upland bird season runs through New Year’s Day, so there is still time to get out with a shotgun and go for a walk in search of game. The waterfowl season goes well into January, though it’s always a good idea to read the regulations because there are different closing dates, depending on whether you’re hunting ducks or geese, and what part of the state you’re in.

There is always the intriguing possibility of flushing pheasants while hunting ducks, so stay alert for surprises.

I got this pheasant last week while hunting ducks. The ducks outsmarted me, though.

Sometimes, the surprise is that we go for a walk in the woods and not find any birds. That’s when we get philosophical and repeat the old gag, “That’s why we call it hunting and not shooting.” Still, whether we finish the walk with or without a heavy vest, we will have had a healthy walk in Montana’s great outdoors, and that’s never bad, and a bird dog that’s had a few hours of exercise is a happy and peaceful dog.

Montana’s upland bird season is a long one, going from the first day of September through New Year’s Day, and from the heat of late summer to the bitter cold of winter.

To truly appreciate those glorious days of October, we need to sweat in September and shiver in December.

Best Day or Just Luck – a Deer Hunt

The culmination of a successful deer hunt.

“According to Field & Stream magazine, this is the best day of the season to be deer hunting,” I said to my friend, John Jacobson, as I stashed lunch, rifle, binoculars, and such in his truck.

The day was November 10, and, indeed, the annual deer hunting issue with tips on the best days to be hunting deer listed November 10 as the best day to be out. The blurb said, ”We’re teetering close to peak breeding season across much of the nation, and buck activity will be stellar today…today is the day.”

I often chuckle when the magazine proclaims which are the best days for hunting—nationwide. It always strikes me that there are too many variables to make predictions, formulated in advance to meet press deadlines long before the magazine actually shows up in mailboxes or newsstands.

There are lots of theories about when are the best times for outdoor ventures, including the famous Solunar tables, first devised by John Alden Knight, using time of day, and phases of the moon and tides. Knight published his first Solunar table in 1936, and, for years, Field & Stream regularly published the Solunar tables and Ed Zern, the magazine’s longtime humor writer, often poked fun at the Solunar tables in his columns.

In practicality, most of us don’t plan our outings based on magazine predictions or Solunar tables. We go when we can get away, or when we get invited to go out, or when the weather is tolerable, or when our spouses tell us, “For Pete’s sakes, go hunting or something—just get out of my hair for a day.”

In any event, this year, for probably the first time ever, I was going to be looking for a deer on what Field & Stream said was THE day to be out there.

Indeed, as we got to the southwest Montana ranch we were hunting, we could see deer running across the valley. They were perfectly safe, as I wasn’t ready for doing any shooting in the pre-dawn dim light.

As it got brighter, and we moved around the ranch a bit, we started seeing deer moving, and looking through binoculars we could spot antlers on some of them. Antlers aren’t a big deal as far as I’m concerned. When I hunt deer I’m looking for venison in the freezer. Still, things being what they are, it’s hard to not look at antlers.

So, we were spotting deer, but nothing in range. We looked at a nice buck standing and looking at us from around 450 yards—out of my shooting range. I spotted a small buck moving through a line of brush, but it disappeared while I had to answer a call of nature.

Every once in a while, John would laugh and ask, “Was that December 10?”

I responded, “No, November 10—but maybe it was Central Time.”

In early afternoon we were driving up a hillside where deer often hide out during the day. I saw something in the bottom of a draw. “Stop the car,” I said, putting up my binoculars to confirm that the something was a deer with antlers. I stepped out of the truck, found a rest and made a hurried shot, and the hunt was over. The work was just beginning.

A moment of solemn celebration – before we start the heavy work – and it was heavy!

The deer had a perfect spot, in warm sunshine, out of the wind. Why it hadn’t bolted for safety when we came along is a good question. There’s a Native American belief that the animal we’re supposed to harvest will offer him or herself to you, and looking back over many years of hunting, this has been a common thread, in fact probably the only rational reason, for many successful big game hunts.

This year’s Montana general big game season ended at sundown on Sunday, November 26. My season ended on November 10 at 1:30 in the afternoon. Whether we credit Solunar tables or magazine predictions, we again have prime venison in the freezer, for which we give thanks.

Thanksgiving Thoughts and Views

We don’t call Thanksgiving Turkey Day for nothing!

Tomorrow we again celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has a long history on this continent. Many of our traditions and folklore of the holiday go back to 1621 and the Plymouth Colony and the Puritan immigrants joining with the Native Americans who helped enable their survival to celebrate a harvest festival.

On the other hand, there are competing claims that the first thanksgiving celebration happened in 1565 in St. Augustine, Florida, or El Paso, Texas in 1598, or another observance in 1619 in the Virginia Colony.

In recent years, groups of Native Americans have held protests at Plymouth Rock, proclaiming Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning. Others observe Native American Heritage Day on this holiday. Indeed, illustrations of happy and cheerful Native Americans and Pilgrims sharing an outdoor banquet on that first Plymouth Colony Thanksgiving Day hide the grim reality that their tribes soon became all but extinct because of diseases spread from Europeans, and warfare, once the Pilgrims became established. It’s not a happy history.

The first President of the United States, George Washington, issued a presidential proclamation designating November 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty god.”

Thanksgiving was widely observed in many states, but often on different days, so in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday of November. Southern states engaged in the Civil War didn’t acknowledge Lincoln’s proclamation, so it wasn’t until 1870 that there was a true national observance of the day.

On December 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Joint Resolution of Congress fixing the date of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November, something FDR previously did by presidential proclamation two years earlier to give the country the economic boost of another week of Christmas shopping.

While there are many Thanksgiving traditions, most families eventually create their own. My earliest Thanksgiving memories are of family dinners and “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmothers house we go.” My grandmother was, in most years, the host of extended family gatherings. It would have been debatable whether conversations among these farmers about fall harvests and cattle prices were more in English or Norwegian, but the turkey dinner was totally traditional.

In recent years my wife and I have been on the road for Thanksgiving, making the long trip to the California Bay Area to celebrate the day with our daughter, Erin, and celebrating the day after Thanksgiving by going wine tasting in places such as Napa and Sonoma.

My wife, Kay, and i enjoying a day in the vineyards a few Thanksgivings ago.

Those long road trips always carried risks of early winter snowstorms in the high Sierras, or anywhere else on the thousand miles between western Montana and northern California. We’ve never been snowbound, but we came close on some trips.

This year will be different. This year Erin told her corporate employer to “take this job and shove it,” and then schemed a plan to move back to Montana. I use the word “back” advisedly, in that she hadn’t actually lived in Montana since finishing 2nd grade in 1973, but she always claims Montana as her home state, so her move brings her home.

So, we’re thankful for many things this Thanksgiving. We’re thankful for good health and being able to have an active and busy lifestyle.

I’m thankful for another year in the great outdoors, especially here in Montana, and being able to have opportunities to spend time on trout streams, prairies, and mountains.

I’m thankful for Nature’s bounty, and that now in early winter, we have grouse, pheasants, ducks and venison in the freezer. I won’t claim that we live on wild game but it’s a privilege, in many countries reserved for the wealthy, to be able to enjoy occasional meals from the wild side.

I’m thankful for family and the blessings of growing older and being able to have seen our grandchildren grow up.

And, this year, I guess I’m also thankful for not having to worry about getting snowbound in Elko.

Ruffed Grouse Habitat in Change

This is what September snow does to the aspens.


It’s now mid November and that means several things.

First, next week is Thanksgiving, the day we set aside for being thankful for abundance. That also means that Montana’s long general elk and deer season is more than half gone. In fact, it’s just a week and a half away from the close of the season at sunset on November 26. That’s also a stern reminder to me, as well as anybody else reading this.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been out hunting.

My last hunt (as of a week ago) was on the last day of October. Besides being Halloween it also turned out to be the last day of autumn.

My ruffed grouse season has been kind of topsy-turvy this fall. First, we had almost unbearably hot and dry weather the first couple weeks of September that kept me out of the aspen thickets, and we went right from that to an early taste of winter that dumped a foot or more of wet heavy snow in the mountains.

I think of the aspen and brushy habitat where ruffed grouse live as a work in progress. It’s a dynamic environment that’s in constant change. Change can be good or bad, and sometimes it’s just plain frustrating.

For example, there’s a hillside aspen thicket I’ve hunted for almost 30 years. I’ve had fun days and difficult days in this grouse covert, but the last time I went there I couldn’t find it. It might seem hard to believe, but bear with me.

When I started hunting that spot in the fall of 1988, I’d park on the edge of the road that goes through the area and walk across grassland, interspersed with small pine trees. Over the years those small pines have grown up into a forest so thick and tall it totally obscures that aspen-covered hillside where I’d hunted so many times, and the last time I wandered through the pines I got turned around and found myself a mile from where I wanted to be. As they say, I wasn’t lost, but I was certainly momentarily confused.

An aspen forest is usually a young forest. As aspen trees mature, they provide shade to emerging conifers and at some point the conifers start taking over. In a couple of my hunting spots I started thinking that we needed a controlled burn or logging operation to get rid of the pine trees that were taking over my ruffed grouse habitat. As it happened, the mountain pine beetle outbreak that devastated our pine forests in the last decade did close to a clean sweep of the lodgepole pine stands that threatened the aspen thickets.

Now, several years after pine beetles killed the pine trees, the trees are falling, as their roots decay. It’s a healthy progression, as the fallen trees open up the forest canopy to generate new growth. In some places, however, there are so many down trees in the forest that it’s about impossible to walk through.

On this Halloween day hunt, I was trying to walk through grouse habitat that was all but impassable from fallen pine trees, with the additional complication of aspen trees that had been bent or broken by that mid-September snowstorm. It was almost impossible, when it came to picking my way through.

It doesn’t bother the grouse. In fact, a grouse flushed within seconds of when Kiri, our Labrador retriever, and I walked into the trees. I had just a momentary glimpse of the bird as it flew to safety. For her part, Kiri didn’t have any particular difficulty, as she scampered in and through the brush and downed and broken trees.

Kiri is enjoying her outing in the aspens

I won’t complain, however. Those downed trees will eventually decay, or burn up in some future fire, wild or controlled, and make way for a regenerated patch of wildlife habitat.

In the meantime, I’ll grumble as I stumble, though it’ll probably be next September. With the abrupt change to winter and heavy snow, I’ll most likely let the ruffed grouse go about their business of winter survival.

Lefty Kreh Retires – at Age 92

Lefty Kreh (on the left, of course) with TV newsman Tom Brokaw. From Lefty’s twitter page.

For several years we took in the Federation of Fly-Fishers annual convention and trade show when it was held in Livingston, Montana.

You never knew what you might see, such as the petite lady of fly-fishing, Joan Wulff, demonstrating casting, making a quick and casual-looking cast with a fly-rod, sending the line out twice as far as I’ve ever done.

Another memorable sight was Lefty Kreh, one of the most revered people in fly-fishing, walking across the trade show floor with about a dozen rods in his arms, getting ready to do a fly-casting class.

Lefty (his given name is Bernard Victor Kreh) was born in Maryland and grew up fishing, hunting and trapping to help support his family. He got his nickname because he was ambidextrous and used both hands equally when playing basketball.

After finishing high school he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Europe in the last year of WWII, seeing action at the Battle of the Bulge, and had five battle stars by the end of the war.

In 1947, Lefty was guiding bass fishermen on the upper Potomac River and one day guided fly-fishing’s biggest celebrity of the time, Joe Brooks. Using fly equipment, Brooks out-fished Lefty, who was still using plug-casting gear. Lefty got hooked on fly-fishing and became one of the masters of the sport, especially at the techniques of casting.

Over the years, he’s done about everything to do with fishing, even participating in a fishing tournament in Cuba, spending a day fishing with Ernest Hemingway and then Fidel Castro (before the U.S. government cut ties with Cuba).

He’s been a prolific writer for newspapers and magazines and wrote over 30 books. He’s won just about every honor possible from various organizations such as Trout Unlimited, Federation of Fly Fishers, and International Game Fish Association.

In spite of reaching his 90s, Lefty has maintained an exhausting schedule of fishing, teaching, writing, and creating film and videos. He’s truly been the “Energizer Bunny” of fly-fishing.

Unfortunately, even those fabled batteries will eventually lose their energy, and so is Lefty Kreh.

Lefty sent a message to the Gulf Coast Council of Fly Fishers International, with a request they share it through the fly-fishing community. He writes, “I was 92 in January and had a carotid artery operation. During testing the hospital determined my heart was only pumping 35% and must limit my physical activities. The industry was extremely helpful and last season was able to attend the shows, clinics, etc.

“Several weeks ago I realized I was developing another problem, which is normal for someone nearly 93. It turns out I have congested [congestive] heart failure…In summary I have to give up travel and presentations as in the past.”

Lefty writes about his struggle with congestive heart failure, with weight gain, fluid retention and adjusting medications. He continues, “This means the schedule I lived for decades is no longer valid and will spend most of my time at home. As we get older we learn to adjust to what we can and cannot do. I have a number of interesting computer home projects on the computer and busier than a Syrian bricklayer. I’m not frustrated and I’m content. My problem is I don’t have a lot of stamina and have to work around that. If Mark’s (Dr. Mark Lamos) medical system works I should be busy and around for a year or two.

Lefty explains he wants others to spread the word about his health, explaining he doesn’t have energy to answer emails or talk on the phone. “This is not meant to be unfriendly is learning to adjuster my situation.” (sic)

He concludes, “In summary I’m busy and content but I want you to know I am so appreciative you’ve shared your lives with me.”

Lefty Kreh, a true representative of that “Greatest Generation,” has had an amazing career and is facing the inevitable with grace and humility.

I hope he’s able to find the energy to occasionally go fishing.

Paul Vang’s book, “Sweeter than Candy, A Hunter’s Journal” is available at Books & Books, Cavanaugh’s County Celtic, The Bookstore in Dillon, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.


Getting things done

Catch & Release, or Catch & Cook, I’ve logged my catches in Montana’s Fishing Log Program, now on hold.

“Git ‘er done.”

That’s the catch phrase of “blue collar” comedian, Larry the Cable Guy, and getting things done was the theme of last week’s brief return to Indian Summer weather.

This was an opportunity to pick up leaves and clean up the lawn before winter comes. Of course, that’s a project that’s never completely done, as my lilac bushes and apple tree hang on to their leaves long after other trees have dropped their leaves. Even after those leaves get picked up, leaves get blown in from around the neighborhood.

All those leaves, sooner or later, end up in a compost pile, to which I’ll be adding throughout the coming year with scraps of greens, peelings and other kitchen waste, along with some dirt to add compost-digesting microbes to the mixture. I turn things over periodically and by next October that big pile of leaves will be a small pile of rich compost that I’ll spread over my garden. I also planted next year’s garlic crop, covering the bulbs with a thick layer of compost and mulch.

Compost has been a wonderful addition to our local decomposed granite that masquerades as soil. My garden now is a black, fertile growing medium ready for the challenge of producing vegetables in our short high elevation growing season.

Our annual pheasant trip to the Rocky Mountain Front was also the end of our camping season, and yesterday’s job was to winterize the trailer’s plumbing system so it’ll be ready for springtime outings.

In fact, much of the work of late fall is geared to spring, even if we think of it as getting ready for winter, just as much of what’s happening in nature at this time of year is in preparation for spring.

One end of season task that I won’t be doing this fall is sending in my fishing log to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. For a number of years I’ve been participating in FWP’s Fishing Log Program. The Program started in 1951, and is funded through the Dingell-Johnson Act that provides funding for sport fish restoration. Dingell-Johnson funding has declined so FWP is unable to finance the program at this time.

I chatted with Beth Giddings of the Fisheries Division, who has been running the program in recent years to get some insights and background.

Some 1,050 people are technically classed as active participants, though she cautions that just 747 people were asked to return their log booklet at the end of last year.

Over the years, 5,742 people have participated. The majority of participants live in western Montana, though they’re not just trout anglers. “Lots of them are warm water anglers, who specialize in walleyes and other warm water species.” The longest-participating angler on that active list has been submitting his log since 1958.

Going through all the log books at the end of the year has been quite a labor-intensive part of the program, and it’s often a challenge to decipher handwriting, as well as identify the various waters described. “We try to use data entry persons who are familiar with Montana waterways, though we sometimes have to talk to our people in the Regions for clarification.”

I certainly have sympathy for those poor people who have struggled to decipher my handwriting these past years. I often can’t read my own notes, so I feel for those who pick up my booklet and try to make sense of it.

The program has provided a lot of valuable information over the years. It was fishing log data that provided early clues to the impact of whirling disease on the Madison River, as well as some little-known waters.

Giddings says the Department is looking at options for devising an online reporting system. “Today’s anglers are a lot more technically savvy about these things, so hopefully the suspension of the program will be temporary until we develop a reporting program that will be within our budget.”

Now that I’m caught up in fall chores, I’ll get back to chasing pheasants and grouse.