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 (visitkosciuskocounty.org), 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 (websterlakeguideservice.com).

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 jimolsen@mt.gov.

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

Earth Day! Clean up the Plastic!

Ocean waters are getting clogged with plastic. Considering the vastness of our oceans, the thought of ocean waters full of plastic, endangering fish and wildlife, is almost incomprehensible, but there is abundant photographic evidence showing that it is happening and it’s worse than we could imagine. The northern Pacific Ocean, from the west coast of the U.S. and Canada, all the way to Asia, is sometimes referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Plastic pollution is everywhere and, unfortunately, it seems that many people just don’t give a darn.

Chances are that every time you leave home and drive down a street you’ll find some plastic litter. It might be a water bottle or soft drink bottle. It might be a grocery bag. It might be an old toy, or the plastic bubble packaging the toy came in, not to mention the plastic bag in which someone carried it home from the store.

The synthetic fiber clothes you wear, when washed, shed microscopic plastic fibers that end up in our waters, often in the water that comes out of your household faucets.

The proliferation of plastic waste and the resulting environmental damage is the theme of this year’s Earth Day, which takes place this Sunday, April 22, the 48th anniversary of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

The first Earth Day was the brainchild of the late Wisconsin Senator, Gaylord Nelson, and began as a national “teach-in” to educate students on university campuses on environmental issues. That first Earth Day, and subsequent action, led to passage of environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Since then, Earth Day has become an international event, mobilizing people around the world to get active in doing something about environmental problems. Earth Day organizers call it the largest secular observance in the world, observed by over a billion people annually.

Obviously, it’s hard for an individual or a family to make a significant difference in a worldwide problem, though that’s where we have to start.

A quick and easy thing to do is to cut down on the amount of plastics that we use and then throw away. For example, don’t buy bottled water. Bottled water is a scam. There is no reason for most people, barring some places where municipal water supplies are compromised, to buy bottled water. If you’re going on an outing and want water, take a steel or aluminum reusable water bottle and fill it up from your faucet.

Avoid use of single-use plastic bags, the plastic bags from grocery stores and big box retailers. Take your own reusable shopping bags. If you do have plastic shopping bags, take them back to the grocery store or big box store for recycling. Tell local and state lawmakers to push for legislation to ban plastic shopping bags. The State of California banned plastic bags two years ago, and over 200 counties and municipalities across the U.S. have banned plastic shopping bags.

This is too obvious, but all too hard to make happen, but don’t litter. That means don’t litter, and you tell your friends and family to not litter. If you’re on your way home from a fast food place, don’t throw your garbage on the streets. Dispose of things properly. If you’re out for a walk, take a bag along with you and pick up those aluminum cans and plastic bottles that are seemingly everywhere.

Recycle your plastics and other recyclable waste. Unfortunately, here in Butte, this is going to be a challenge now that AWARE Inc., is getting out of the recycling business. This will be a serious challenge for Butte-Silver Bow, to develop a means to get all that plastic waste off our streets and out of our city landfill.

There are lots more tips for dealing with the plastics crisis from Earth Day organizers. They’re on the web at www.earthday.org.

Alas, the challenges are greater than the helpful tips, but that’s nothing new.

First Flyfishing of the Year – Must be Spring!

The beautiful Big Hole River at the end of March.

Spring is where you find it, even when it’s temporary.

Everything about the spring of 2018 is behind schedule. It was the middle of March before I saw any sign of emerging tulips or garlic, and after St. Patrick’s Day when I first heard robins calling their territorial claims in my neighborhood.

When March comes in like a lion it’s supposed to go out like a lamb. This year, March came in and went out like a lion, and April started on a wintry note as well.

Still, there are occasional peeks at what spring might be, and I found one of those momentary glimpses on the next to last day of March. The weather forecast called for strong winds, but relatively mild temperatures, so I declared it to be spring for a day and went fishing.

It had been a long time since my last fishing outing. Sometime in late September I put my flyrods away for the duration, as chasing grouse and/or pheasants would be my top priority for the fleeting autumn season.

After the end of the hunting seasons my outdoor adventures turned to skiing and as a lot of skiers will confirm, this cold, snowy winter became an absolutely fantastic skiing season. I had enough trips to Discovery to make me regret I didn’t buy a season pass a year ago. The snow kept coming and the skiing held up to the end. In most years, by late March, bare spots start showing up on sunny slopes but not this year.

Still, after my last ski outing I ran my truck through a car wash and declared it spring.

The Big Hole River, the trout stream I call my “home water,” is a lot different in early spring than it is in mid-summer. There just isn’t much going on in the public access spots, especially compared to all the traffic of floaters, guides and shuttles, and anglers of all ages looking for places to fish.

At the end of March, the river is just starting to wake up. The ice in the lower Big Hole is out, though there are still big slabs of shelf ice on the edges of the river, slowly melting on those rare warm days. They’ll probably stay in place until high water flushes them away in the first good surge of runoff.

Aside from the murmur of the water in the riffles, it’s relatively quiet. Some robins are calling, but if there were ducks and geese in the vicinity they were abnormally quiet.

My black Labrador retriever, Kiri, is ecstatic about the outing, and she joyfully splashes through the shallows and swimming in the middle of the river. A dog charging through the riffles probably isn’t good for fishing, but it’s hard to convince her that she would be happier sitting by me along the shoreline. Besides, if she isn’t churning the river waters, she’d probably be back in the brush looking for things she shouldn’t have, and in fact, on one of her excursions she came back with a deer leg. She thought it was a great chew toy and didn’t understand why I took it away from her.

My expectations for my first fishing outings are realistically low. The water is ice cold and there isn’t any insect activity happening to make the fish more active. So, the lack of fish on this particular fishing outing doesn’t particularly bother me. In coming weeks, as the water warms, I know I’ll catch my share of trout.

There’s a huge snowpack in the mountains this spring. It’s going to be interesting to see how all that ice and snow will come down to the rivers. We might hope for a slow and gradual warm-up that will keep that snowpack in the high country until mid-summer, but I don’t have a crystal ball.

I do know, as Kiri and I shared a sandwich in the relatively warm spring sunshine, we have the satisfaction that we’ve mostly made it through winter and life is good.

The Latest on Aquatic Invasives

Zebra mussels on a southern Minnesota river. We don’t want them in Montana!

Aquatic invasive species—the subsurface threat to Montana’s waters, including our world famous fisheries and water-based recreation, was the theme of last month’s membership meeting of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

The threat of aquatic invasives has a lot of ramifications, such as the money needed to deal with invasive species, as well as damage to ecosystems, damage to fisheries and the way we do things in the outdoors.

Nicky Oullet, reporter for Montana Public Radio

Nicky Ouellet, the Flathead reporter for Montana Public Radio, had a special assignment to research aquatic invasives, particularly quagga and zebra mussels, and their effects. St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, is spending $150,000 yearly dealing with mussels in the lake where the city gets municipal water. Part of this includes daily scraping of filter screens to get rid of immature mussels that attach themselves to the screens.

People with lakeside property sometimes find that mussels have taken over their shorelines, and she interviewed a property owner who hauls out truckloads of mussels several times a year from his shoreline.

The mussels are native to Russia and came to the Great Lakes in ballast water of ships. The mussels apparently aren’t a problem in Russia, as they have their own set of predators in native waters. Once in the U.S., mussels often hitchhike on boats and boat trailers, as well as drifting downstream in river systems.

Once established, controls are difficult and expensive, including manual removal, such as what St. Paul does, along with some chemicals that have promise. The best strategy, however, is to avoid getting them in the first place.

Kate Wilson is an invasive species specialist for the Montana Department of Natural Resources, and recently started working in Montana after previous stints in Idaho, Florida, and Alberta, and discussed the State’s efforts.

Kate Wilson, aquatic invasives specialist, Montana DNRC

Invasive species became a critical issue in Montana a couple years ago when DNA evidence of invasive mussels was discovered in Canyon Ferry Reservoir and the Tiber Reservoir, the north central impoundment on the Marias River. Last year, the Legislature approved a surcharge on Montana fishing licenses to raise money for invasive species prevention.

The principal strategy is to inspect all boats and other watercraft when entering the state, as well as other inspections. People transporting watercraft from east to west of the Continental Divide must pass inspection before launching in western Montana waters. In 2017, inspectors found 17 boats coming into Montana that were carrying invasives.

Invasive mussels have become a huge problem in the Colorado river system in southwestern states, probably from snowbirds from Midwest and eastern states bringing mussels along with their boats.

Anglers can, just by themselves, spread invasives, and the best strategy is to thoroughly clean fishing gear such as waders and wading boots, especially felt-soled waders and boots. Yellowstone National Park recently announced a ban on felt-soled waders. Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet and Salish-Kootenai Nations already prohibit felt-soled waders.

An ongoing strategy is to educate boaters and floaters to clean, drain and dry boats when leaving a body of water. This means pulling drain plugs, wiping down boat hulls, removing any stray vegetation that’s clinging to boats or trailers.

If there’s some good news about invasives it’s that in spite of DNA evidence of invasive mussels in Canyon Ferry and Tiber reservoirs, there have been no findings of actual mussels.

While the bulk of attention has been directed toward quagga and zebra mussels, there are many other types of invasives that are problems. Some are invasive plants, such as Eurasian watermilfoil, an aquatic plant introduced for aquarium use, and later got introduced into other waters.

Then, of course, we have the infamous bucket biologists who intentionally move fish or other aquatic critters, such as crayfish, and stock them in new waters. Even common goldfish, members of the carp family, are a common problem.

In summary, aquatic invasives are a clear and present danger and anybody fishing or recreating on Montana waters needs to be careful and alert to avoid spreading non-native fish, plants, mussels, and other nuisances into our precious waters.

Basecamp Butte – Business Growth and the Outdoors

Southwest Montana’s public lands and waters (here, the Big Hole River) are a basis for business investment.

 

“This is the richest place on earth.” Rachel Vandevoort, Montana Governor’s Office of Outdoor Recreation.

Here in Butte we often boast about Butte being “The richest hill on earth,” a tribute to the rich and diverse mineral resources that supported the development of what was for many years the biggest city between Minneapolis and Seattle, helped wire the world for electricity and helped win two world wars.

Obviously, for residents of Butte, we are well aware of the scars left from a century and a half (and counting) of mining, not to mention the ecological issues, not least of which is the Berkeley Pit.

Yet, you get to a vantage point and look around and what do you see?

Unless you’re looking directly at the mining scars, what we see could be described as one of the most spectacular views anywhere. We’re surrounded in all directions by snow-capped mountains and (soon) green valleys. Travel for an hour in most any direction and we can find world-class trout streams, big game hunting, great skiing, hiking, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, motorized recreation, and the list keeps going on.

Rachel Vandevoort, whom I quoted above, grew up in the Flathead and went to the University of Montana in Missoula, and then got acquainted with the outdoor recreation in the Butte area, and fell in love with our opportunities. Now, she’s heading up a new function in the governor’s office, promoting outdoor recreation and outdoors-oriented business.

Still, when national magazines run stories about great outdoor living towns, we rarely get mentioned. That’s good and bad. It’s not all bad living in an outdoor recreation paradise that’s also one of Montana’s better kept secrets.

But, being a secret means we’re losing out on a lot of business. On the flip side there’s a lot of unrealized potential for outdoor-related business growth in our area.

That was the theme of the Butte Outdoor Sector Summit, a conference held a couple weeks ago, sponsored by the Butte Local Development Corporation. You’ve probably seen some coverage of this in other outlets, but I’m sure that every attendee came away from with a different take.

A continuing theme in the conference was the importance of public lands, particularly federal public lands, in our area. Public lands mean economic advantages, as locally accessible federal public lands draw people and that translates to economic development.

Part of the picture is that people come to areas like this and fall in love with all the fun stuff, and then realize that if they want to be here they’ll need a way to make a living. That often means starting a business. In short, the abundance of outdoor recreation on public lands leads to entrepreneurial activity.

A panel of business owners, including a couple people from Bozeman, also emphasized that easy access to the outdoors is a definite plus in recruiting employees.

BasecampButte, a new pathway to our great outdoors.

A significant part of the conference, though other presentations running overtime almost made it an afterthought, was an announcement that the BLDC is developing a one-stop internet site as a gateway to Butte’s outdoors. Basecamp Butte will be the name of the website.

On the topic of development and economic growth, there is always the issue of how much and how many. Bozeman, our neighbor to the east, is a case in point. Bozeman has mushroomed the last 30 years and Gallatin County now has an estimated population of 105,000.

Journalist Todd Wilkinson, writing in the September 2017 Mountain Journal, cited projections that, assuming 3 percent growth, Bozeman would be the size of Salt Lake City (not counting suburbs) by 2041, and by 2065, have 420,000 people, the size of Minneapolis (excluding St. Paul and suburbs). The scary thing is that a growth rate of 3 percent understates the actual growth rate.

There are probably some business promoters and boosters who would cheer those projections. I suspect that people who love the outdoors would call that a worst-case scenario.

Personally, I’ve long felt that Bozeman’s urban sprawl is already a worst-case scenario.

Firearms Discussions

Thanks to Cindy Sanderson for her thoughtful and detailed critique of my Butte Weekly column of February 21. I’d like to respond.

On the issue of a Washington Post columnist suggesting, “Don’t vote for Republicans,” Ms. Sanderson says that President Obama had a super-majority in Congress and failed to pass any gun control legislation.

She is partly correct. Obama had a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress during his first two years in office, and yes, that was how we got the Affordable Care Act enacted, without a single Republican vote.

After the push to get the ACA enacted there probably wasn’t any political juice left for gun control legislation. If she wishes to criticize Obama, however, she has a point.

After the 2010 elections, Democrats did not control the House of Representatives and after 2014, didn’t control the Senate, and any gun control legislation never had a committee hearing, much less any votes.

Ms. Sanderson is correct that there weren’t 18 school shootings by February.  I used the same cautious term the Washington Post used, (“incident involving a firearm in a school zone”). Incidentally, the Post later ran a story highly critical of the organization that first supplied the misleading statistic.

Regarding Ms. Sanderson’s attempt at putting school shootings “into perspective,” I don’t get much comfort that more school children are killed annually walking or riding bikes to school.

Frankly, I don’t think this recent history of people going off their meds or brooding over some slight they might have suffered, and then getting firearms and shooting up a school can somehow be put into perspective. We should be outraged when it happens. When it happens again and again, We the People should act.

I don’t know where Ms. Sanderson gets her information that there were just 146 mass shootings between 1967 and 2017. Gun Violence Archive, an organization that tracks this stuff, reports 100 mass shootings in 2014, 135 in 2015, 142 in 2016, and 154 in 2017.

Ms. Sanderson says that guns were much more easily available in years past than they are now.

Perhaps, but it’s different. I grew up in a rural area and I’d guess there wasn’t a farm that didn’t have a firearm of sorts. Most farms had a .22 rifle to deal with pests or to slaughter an animal. If there was a hunter in the family there might be a shotgun sitting in a corner. It seemed to me, and I concede this is not scientific, not many people had high power rifles. Most of the country didn’t have the deer populations we have now and most people wouldn’t have reason for a high power rifle. I didn’t know anybody with a handgun.

What’s different now? According to a CBS News/Washington Post poll in 2016, only about 35 percent of American households have a firearm, compared to around 50 percent a decade earlier. However, the number of firearms per household that have them is dramatically higher.

Ms. Sanderson writes, “Nations with strict gun control laws have substantially higher murder rates than those who do not.”  That’s a cherry orchard ripe for picking. According to Wikipedia, and information collected from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the U.S. in 2015 had a murder rate of 4.88 per 100,000 population.

Canada, our neighbor to the north, had a murder rate of 1.68. Ireland had 0.64, Norway had 0.56, United Kingdom had 0.92, France had 1.58, and Germany had 0.85.

In contrast, Uganda had a murder rate of 11.84, and South Africa had 34.27. The world’s most dangerous country is El Salvador, with a murder rate of 108.64.

Finally, she asserts that in every mass shooting since 1950, all but one occurred in areas where citizens were banned from carrying guns.

That is an arguable point. Mass shootings aren’t the acts of rational people. More often than not, the perpetrators don’t expect to survive, planning to commit suicide or “suicide by cop.” We also know the Parkland school had an armed school resource officer who cowered outside, waiting for back-up.

Still, these points underline that gun violence issues are complex and loaded with emotion. Thanks to Prof. Sanderson for continuing the discussion.

Have Patience – Spring is almost here!

Snow-choked Browning, Montana on the Blackfeet Indian Reservationn (USA Today photo)

Is anyone getting tired of winter?

Okay, don’t everybody raise your hands at once.

By most standards, this has been a long winter, going back to mid-September when we got our first snowfall of the season, finally ending what had been a long, hot and smoky summer.

At the end of October, on Halloween day, I went hunting in the afternoon. I didn’t see anything, so I came home before dark, and I decided to crank up my lawnmower to chop up leaves that had fallen after I’d cleaned up the lawn a week earlier.

The next day snow was falling and my lawn turned into a winter wonderland. Our front yard is on the north side of our house and gets no direct sunshine from November to March, so that All Saints Day snowfall is compressed under another two feet of snow.

Of course, we can complain about the snow we’ve had here in Butte, but in comparison to what has hit the Rocky Mountain Front, particularly the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, we’ve had it easy.  The sight of snowplows trying to clear drifts higher than the trucks boggles the mind.

I just talked to a friend in Choteau who said her pickup hasn’t been out of four-wheel drive all winter, except for one day in January when she was able to drive into Great Falls, and at that, another storm blew in on her way home in the evening. But, she says, “We have power and natural gas, and the wind blows the satellite dish clear, so I’m fine.” U.S. 89 has been blocked between Fairfield and Choteau a number of times, but has been cleared enough so that local stores are well supplied.

The deep snowdrifts on the Rocky Mountain Front are a grim reminder of the winter of 1886-1887, when an estimated 362,000 head of cattle died on Montana’s prairies, and effectively ended the open-range era. The lasting lesson of that winter was that ranchers need to grow hay to keep livestock through the winter. A ranch hand, with a talent for art, earned early fame with a post card with a watercolor painting depicting a starving, freezing cow facing into the wind, with wolves circling for the kill. The caption was “Waiting for a Chinook: The last of the 5,000.” That artistic cowboy was, of course, Charley Russell.

“Last of the 5,000: Waiting for a Chinook” by Charles M. Russell

When the snows finally melt, the full impact of the hard winter on the northern prairies will finally be assessed. My Choteau friend says ranchers feed cattle on ridges and other places where prairie winds blow the snow away. The cattle, however, tend to seek shelter from the storms in draws and other sheltered spots, and that’s where the deep drifts are. It’s probably going to be ugly.

While we still have abundant snow on our local landscape, we continue to gain about three minutes of daylight every day and all that solar energy is working on those snowdrifts.

Next Tuesday, March 20, the Spring Solstice will happen at 10:15 a.m. While we often think of the Solstice as the day of equal hours of daylight, it’s actually an approximation.

In fact, on St. Patrick’s Day, revelers will have 12 hours and 2 minutes of daylight for the Wearin’ o’ the green. On the 20th, Butte will have 12 hours and 12 minutes of daylight. Now that we’re back on Daylight Time, it will be light until well into the evening.

While the days are getting longer and the calendar says spring, I’m looking for other signs that really mean spring. I’m checking, daily, the flowerbed next to the house for signs of tulips or for the garlic I planted in October to emerge. I’m listening, as I go out in the morning, for the call of the first robins of the season.

The sign of spring I’m most looking forward to is my first trip to an area trout stream for some fly-fishing. When I’m in a river and feeling a fish on the end of my line I’ll know it is truly spring.

A Few Loose Bricks in NRA’s Wall?

The AR-15 rifle, or “modern sporting arm” as some prefer to call it.

The last couple weeks since the Florida school shooting have been extremely interesting. For once, the formidable brick wall protecting extreme gun policies is developing some loose bricks.

The Florida legislature is actually considering some common sense measures, such as limiting sales of rifles to people age 21 and older, as well as increased background checks. Until now, the Florida legislature was about as beholden to the National Rifle Association as could be possible, but the Republican legislature found that the pressure of face to face encounters with survivors of the high school shooting to be even more scary than threats from the NRA.

Another surprising development was the number of corporate supporters of the NRA that have decided that their support was an embarrassment and canceled things such as travel discounts to NRA members. Last week, Dick’s Sporting Goods, a chain with some 600 stores, announced that they would no longer stock AR-platform rifles, and high capacity magazines. They also announced that they would no longer sell firearms to people under age 21. Walmart took AR-rifles off their shelves several years ago, and last week announced the company would no longer sell firearms to minors.

Poor Steve Daines, our mostly invisible Republican U.S. Senator, found courage to criticize Delta Airlines for cutting his NRA member travel discount. All he had to offer the families of the dead Florida school children was thoughts and prayers, but he found courage to criticize Delta. He was scheduled to make an appearance at a Republican fundraiser in Butte this past weekend, but as of press time it was unknown as to whether he’d be brave enough to face anybody but party faithful.

The Second Amendment to our Constitution has certainly taken a lot of abuse from both defenders and critics in recent years. While the Supreme Court has ruled that there is an individual right to keep and bear arms, the first part of the one sentence Amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…” continues to be a thorny issue in any discussion of just how far the Second Amendment can be stretched.

An interesting discussion of what the Founding Fathers had in mind comes from Saul Cornell, a history professor at Fordham University, who wrote about gun laws the Founding Fathers espoused. The article first appeared in The Conversation, an academic online journal, last October, and recently reposted in High Country News.

Gun registration is something that is consistently opposed by the NRA and other gun groups. Cornell asserts that all the colonies, except Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania, enrolled citizens, white men between the ages of 16 and 60, in state-regulated militias. The fledgling states and their militias kept track of privately owned firearms and citizens could be fined if they reported to muster without a well-maintained weapon in working order.

Cornell disputes the notion of a Constitutional right to carry arms in public. Under English common law, carrying arms was highly restricted, and that carried over to the new nation. Cornell says, “There was no right of armed travel when the Second Amendment was adopted and certainly no right to travel with concealed weapons.”

A commonly cited notion among some extremists is some right of revolution; that people need to be armed against their government. Cornell says this is “a serious misunderstanding of the role the right to bear arms played in American constitutional theory.” Cornell says that during the Revolution the Founders engaged in disarming the civilian population unless the individuals were willing to swear their loyalty to the new government. He asserts any supposed right to take up arms against the government is “absurd,” and, in fact, is defined in the Constitution as treason.

Note: there is considerable and lively discussion, pro and con, regarding Professor Cornell’s article at The Conversation website.

It remains to be seen whether Congress, particularly the Republican majority, will work up enough bravery to defy the NRA, or if they will again cave in.

After all, the classic definition of an honest politician is someone who, once bought, stays bought.

Happy New Year! It’s a new license year!

A Montana fishing and hunting license – the passport to the great outdoors.

Happy New Year!

No, don’t turn on your TV looking for a football game, and don’t set off any more firecrackers to welcome in the Year of the Dog.

No, tomorrow, March 1, is the first day of a new Montana license year, which means that when we finally get some nice weather and you feel like going fishing, you’d better get your 2018 fishing license, and while you’re at it, you’d might as well buy your upland bird and waterfowl licenses. You’ll have it done with.

I always get a bit excited when I get my licenses for another year. It’s an affirmation of life, and I’m getting to the stage where those affirmations mean more than they might have a few years back.  That piece or two of paper is a tangible sign of my intent to get out and enjoy some of the wonderful outdoor recreation opportunities we have here in Montana.

This year marks 30 years since I did my last job transfer in my career with the Federal government. My wife and I had hoped that my job would take us back to Montana, and hopefully an area with trout streams. That transfer to Butte in 1988 couldn’t have worked any better.

I think it was in March of that year that we had some mild, spring-like weather and I went out on my first outing of the year. I had to buy a non-resident fishing license that year, as I wasn’t going to skip fishing until I satisfied the 6-month residency requirement.

I found a place to fish on the Ruby River and I think I might have caught a whitefish that afternoon. Still, I had to pinch myself a couple times as I took in the reality that I was fly-fishing in Montana. It was March and I wasn’t on vacation. I live here!

That summer I had to fly to Denver for a meeting and as passengers got on board in Butte and in Bozeman I couldn’t help but notice how many of them were carrying fly rod tubes, heading home after a week or a weekend of Montana fly-fishing. I felt a little smug. I’d been fishing, too, but I’d be back before the next weekend and I could fish most every weekend, fishing a river or stream within a relatively short drive from our house.

Of course, Montana isn’t the be-all/end-all of fishing. Over the years, especially the last 20 or so years after I started a second childhood career as an outdoor writer, I’ve had the good fortune to fish in a lot of states, from Florida to Alaska. I’ve caught salmon on the west coast, monster pike in Canada, and smallmouth bass in Virginia, Minnesota and North Dakota.

Montana’s Big Hole River – my (main) home water.

Still, my home waters are here in western Montana. Here in the headwaters of the Missouri and Columbia River systems I can find about as much fishing as I can handle, and then some, and with Montana’s stream access laws, just about all of it is there and open for anyone, rich and poor alike, to step into the water and become part of Montana’s rich fishing tradition.

I don’t take it for granted. Too many people have fought and litigated and lobbied to secure and protect public access to our waters, just as others have worked just as hard to protect and improve the quality of those waters. It’s a long campaign that never ends, as people and forces that would restrict our public access or degrade our waters have deep pockets and lots of political influence.

Still, we the people find continuing affirmation that fishing and hunting are values sacred to the people of Montana, and that public access is too important to give up to anybody or anything.

So, as I go online to buy my Montana fishing and hunting licenses for another year I’ll happily spend those few dollars it costs, with gratitude for the opportunity to live here and call it home.