A Farewell to Tom Morgan and to FlyRod & Reel Magazine

The last issues of FlyRod &n Reel magazine.

We’re finally approaching the end of the spring runoff season, marked with torrential rains and flood conditions on the Big Hole River, just when I hoped to get in on the salmonfly hatch. I don’t know how the hatch was. I just knew I didn’t want to be floating or wading the river in those conditions.

With runoff tapering off, I’m looking forward to what I usually consider the best fly-fishing of the year, when insect hatches, which unfortunately includes mosquitoes, will be at their peak and rivers are more peaceful than in June.

As we get into the heart of good fly-fishing, we’ll note a couple sad absences from this summer’s fly-fishing scene.

As has been widely reported, Tom Morgan, one of the masters of fly rod design, died on June 12, after a long illness. He was age 75.

Tom Morgan had a long career in fly-fishing, starting as a teen-aged guide in Ennis. He later became an owner of the R. L. Winston rod company, and with his business partner, Glenn Brackett, moved the business from San Francisco to Twin Bridges, Montana in the 1970s.

Morgan and Brackett sold the business in 1991. In spite of becoming crippled from multiple sclerosis, in 1996 he launched a new rod-building business, Tom Morgan Rodsmiths.

While he could no longer fish or even hold a rod, with the help of his wife, Gerri Carlson, and other craftsmen, he continued to design and supervise the building of what many consider to be the world’s finest fly rods, including bamboo rods that sold for almost $4,000. Though he had recently sold the business, he continued to study the art and science of rod design to the end.

Personally, I never met Tom Morgan and I doubt that I could ever justify a four grand bamboo rod. But, I do have a Sweetgrass bamboo rod from Glen Brackett’s shop, and built by a craftsman who had spent part of his apprenticeship under Tom Morgan. I also have a Winston rod, which, even 30 years after Morgan left Winston, has a distinctive, softer action, a characteristic of Morgan’s philosophy of rod design.

Tom Morgan leaves a strong legacy of intelligent design and perfection of craftsmanship to all of us who string up a rod and go fly-fishing.

I also note the demise of FlyRod & Reel magazine, a long-time mainstay of my magazine rack. I started reading the magazine back in the 1980s, when it was still Rod & Reel magazine, and featured a more generalized coverage of fishing.

I looked forward to getting the magazine because of the quality of writing in the magazine. John Gierach, the modern philosopher of fishing, had the back of book column, with his musings on life and fishing, a basis of his many books. Ted Leeson set the standard for equipment reviews. Ted Williams, possibly one of our best living investigative reporters, covered environmental issues. Seth Norman, with whom I spent a week in Alaska a few years back, wrote intelligent and thoughtful book reviews. The most recent editor was Greg Thomas, an outdoor writer based in Missoula.

Some distinguishing features, aside from expected articles about fishing techniques and places to go, were the annual Fly Angler of the Year awards, the annual Robert Traver Writing contest awards, along with, of course, the Gierach stories and Williams’ exposés of abuses to the environment.

One of the first reports of the magazine’s demise that I saw was a Facebook post by Ted Williams, reporting he’d just been notified that his services were no longer needed. Editor Greg Thomas posted an article in late March on Angler’s Tonic, a fishing website, reporting the decision of the publisher, Down East Publications, to discontinue the magazine.

For most subscribers, the first news, aside from not getting a summer issue in the mail, was getting a Shooting Sportsman magazine, with an editor’s note that their FlyRod & Reel subscription was now a Shooting Sportsman subscription.

Nothing lasts forever, I guess, but I’ll miss FlyRod & Reel.

A Festive Family Wedding – Fishing is Involved

Bronwyn Vang and Kyler Held – newlyweds.

“Does it seem like this is one of the crazier attempts at fishing we’ve had?”

That’s what I tried to yell to my son, Kevin, over the roar of the wind and the crash of the waves rolling in.

Kevin will hit age 55 this fall and we’ve fished together, off and on, for over 50 of those years. It has been part of an enduring bond, which has thrived over the years.

We aren’t often able to fish and hunt together because of distance and living in different states. Still, when we are able to get together, going fishing or hunting together seems as normal and customary now as it did when he was a youth and these outings were on an almost weekly basis.

As is the nature of outings in the outdoors, things can go wrong. A prime example is when we were fishing a small reservoir in eastern North Dakota from a canoe. We had paddled up the stream that flows into the lake and Kevin decided to stand up to see what was above the riverbank. That wasn’t a good idea. The canoe tipped and he took an unexpected dive into the river. I was in the back seat and I got dumped, as well. Fortunately, no harm was done other than to our respective dignities.

Still, that outing didn’t seem as foolish as this day on Lake Audubon, part of the Missouri River impoundment created by the Garrison Dam back in the 1950s.

Kevin flailing into the wind!


The plan for the outing was to catch smallmouth bass with fly rods.

Things didn’t go according to plan. Kevin has a powerboat, but the motor needed repairs and the shop was backed up. We considered taking the canoe—the same canoe we tipped some 40 years ago—but the wind was blowing that morning so we left it at his house.

The wind that was blowing when we left his house in Minot, North Dakota, was nothing compared to what it was when we arrived at the lake. The wind was roaring, and the lake was covered with whitecaps, as the surf rolled in towards shore.

We attempted to cast streamers into the waves but if any fish were there they ignored our offerings. We later found a more sheltered spot to fish but to no avail. We finally ate lunch and headed back to Minot and a more pressing appointment.

The overriding reason for this trip to North Dakota wasn’t fishing. The top priority for the weekend was the wedding of Bronwyn, the elder of our two granddaughters, and the afternoon’s appointment was the wedding rehearsal, part of the preparations for the formal wedding on Saturday afternoon.

The wedding of a grandchild is one of those milestones that remind us of the passage of time. It didn’t seem all that long since her parents were married, but a look back confirms that marriage took place almost 29 years ago, and it was 24 years ago, last Christmas, when her parents placed a blanket-wrapped bundle in my lap and her mother said, “Meet your first grandchild.”

There have been other milestones along the way, such as high school graduation and, two years ago, college graduation. Along the way, she and a high school classmate, Kyler, established a relationship, and on June 10, they exchanged vows, cementing that relationship with vows to love each other always.

It’s a wonderful privilege to see children, and then grandchildren, grow up. It’s not something I take for granted. Both of my grandfathers were long gone by the time I came along. One of my grandmothers lived a long, long life—in Norway. My other grandmother died when I was a junior in college. It has been and continues to be a great joy to be a part of our grandchildren’s lives and to help them celebrate these milestones of life.

And if Kevin and I didn’t catch any fish, it all worked out anyway, as deep-fried walleye was the featured entree at the wedding reception buffet dinner.

Withdrawal from Climate Accords Threatens Environment

Kevin Vang casting for trout on Montana’s Madison River; threatened by global warming.


It’s equivalent to a burning of books; blowing out the candles, a repudiation of shared wisdom.

Those are just a couple reactions I’ve run across, referring to Donald Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Others have suggested it was equivalent to stealing from our grandchildren.

A majority of the American public disagrees with the president’s decision to back away from the international agreement. A Washington Post-ABC News poll indicates that 59 percent of the American public is opposed to Trump’s move, though the poll also indicates that a majority of Republicans support the president.

President Obama said, optimistically, last September when the United States joined the Paris accords, “Someday we may see this as the moment when we decided to save our planet,” adding, “History will judge today’s effort as pivotal.”

Trump’s decision on the Paris accords is regarded by many as the United States abandoning its role as a global leader in the fight against climate change. In this action, we join two other countries that did not join the accords, Syria and Nicaragua. Note: Nicaragua didn’t join because the Paris deal didn’t go far enough to combat global warning.

Perhaps we could complain that the Paris accords were not terribly ambitious with a goal of holding climate warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Countries would set their own targets for doing their part towards the global efforts. The United States’ goal was to cut greenhouse gasses to 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels.

I was in my car listening to National Public Radio’s coverage of Trump’s announcement. In the analysis, NPR replayed a clip from Trump’s remarks in which he said maybe we’d re-join the agreements if he could get a better deal. The NPR commentator pointed out, “The measures are voluntary and can be withdrawn. I don’t think he can get a better deal than that.”

Former Secretary of State John Kerry commented that Trump’s promise to negotiate a better deal was like O.J. Simpson pledging to find out who murdered his wife.

In the aftermath of the announcement, the press tried to get White House spokespersons to say whether or not the president accepts that we do have a warming climate. They were unsuccessful, though U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley made an announcement, “President Trump believes the climate is changing, and pollutants are part of that equation,” though most observers figured she was speaking more for herself than the president.

So, why should we care whether our country is participating in the Paris accords?

Certainly, there are some costs involved in moving towards an economy less dependent on resources that produce greenhouse gases, and there is no question that it’s going to use energy more expensive than burning coal. But, let’s not forget that in the last few years the decline in coal is because natural gas has been eating coal’s lunch, so to speak.

But, to say that ignoring climate change will save money is to ignore other costs, such as the need to build new highways along our ocean coasts, and huge investments to save coastal cities from rising seas.

Okay, here in high elevation western Montana, we may not have to worry about rising sea levels. There are advantages to living in a mile-high area.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about climate change. In a warming climate there are winners and losers. Trout will be losers. Moose and elk will be losers, while white-tailed deer and wild turkeys will be winners.

Ranchers, hunters, and anglers will be losers, as a warming climate dries up our already limited water resources. We may still have cold, snowy winters, but as is already the case, spring snowmelt and runoff begins earlier than historic averages. Low streamflows and late summer fishing closures are almost an annual event.

It will take four years to complete our withdrawal from the Paris accords. The 2020 elections will be the people’s opportunity to repudiate Trump’s impulsive decision.

Salmonflies! Coming soon to a stream near you (if you live in western Montana)

A freshly emerged adult salmonfly. Trout say, “It’s what’s for dinner.”

It’s about time for the big bugs, yes, the bugs with a scientific name that makes people think more of dinosaurs than aquatic insects.

Yes, it’s salmonfly time on the Big Hole River, or if it isn’t, it will be in the next few days. Because of press deadlines, I have to write this column a week ahead of time, so if my crystal ball occasionally seems a bit fuzzy, that’s the reason why. Still, if salmonflies aren’t yet active on the Big Hole, they are on some other streams—somewhere in western Montana.

The salmonfly, or giant stonefly, or Pteronarcys californica, is the aquatic insect that gets anglers excited across much of the Rocky Mountain west. Our rivers have a lot of aquatic insects and stoneflies are one of the Big 3 of aquatic insects, the others being mayflies and caddisflies.

Stoneflies, of the order Plecoptera, come in a great variety of sizes, colors, and individual species. There are over 3,500 known stonefly species in the world and there are still more being identified. They’ve been around for a long time. One website (flycraftangling.com) suggested that if we could somehow time-travel back 250 million years and take a close look at a prehistoric stream we’d find stoneflies, and looking pretty much the same as they do today. In fact, stoneflies are related to another prehistoric survivor, the cockroach.

Like most aquatic insects, stoneflies spend most of their life as nymphs, crawling around on and in the bottom of rivers and streams, though there are also some lake-dwelling species. Some species are carnivores and prey on other aquatic organisms. The salmonfly, however, is a “detritivore,” meaning it eats vegetative stream debris on the bottom of the stream.

While fish feed on stonefly nymphs all year around, stoneflies come to our attention when they become a flying, winged adult insect. We call them as something as ordinary as golden stone, or whimsical, such as yellow sally or skwala, or the big bugs, salmonflies.

That final phase of life is an amazing process. The nymphs begin to migrate to the shorelines of their native river, then crawl out of the water, usually at night, often climbing up shoreline vegetation such as grasses or willows, where they crawl out of their exoskeleton and emerge as a flying, winged insect. An angler walking along the edge of a river might first notice salmonflies clinging to a willow branch, where they stay mostly motionless as their wings dry.

Still, as living creatures always do, the salmonflies sort things out and find a consenting adult of the opposite sex. We humans won’t notice, but stonefly males produce a drumming sound using their abdomens, attracting females, and nature takes its course.

The females return to the water to deposit their eggs, fluttering above or on the water and releasing eggs.

Fish take note of that fluttering stonefly and it’s an easy bite of protein.

Meanwhile, the eggs settle to the bottom of the stream and eventually stonefly nymphs hatch, starting the process all over again, as another generation of giant stoneflies grows and matures for the next three years until, finally, they also crawl out to become a flying insect, ready to perpetuate the species.

We anglers look to that last, glorious phase of the stonefly’s life, casting various imitations of an adult salmonfly onto the surface of rivers in hopes of attracting the interest of large trout in search of an easy meal.

I’ve been one of those optimistic, though often frustrated, anglers over the last 30 years. I can’t say that I’ve ever had a day on the river when big fish threw all caution to the winds and repeatedly attacked my humble imitations, though it happens often enough that I find it addictive, even when the trout end up refusing to take the bug. That explosive, attacking rise is the stuff of heart attacks.

And on that note of optimism, I think I’d better retreat to my fly-tying table and create a couple new fake stoneflies.

Montana Gets Serious About Aquatic Invasive Species

Invasive mussels along a southern Minnesota river.

Back in February I bought my fishing license for the 2017 license year. It was a pretty good deal. For a grand total of $41.01, along with some geezer discounts, I was licensed for fishing and upland bird hunting for the year.

As of a week ago, and before a long holiday weekend of daily fishing, I’d been out on Montana trout waters a dozen times, so the average daily cost for my license fees amortized out to $3.41 per outing. By next January, when the duck season closes, those fees will likely work out to …well, pocket change per trip.

Then I went online and spent another two bucks for an addition to the basic fishing license for an “Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Pass.”

That “Prevention Pass” is the result of new legislation, with the little quirk of the law being retroactive to the beginning of the license year.

I did it online for convenience though it made that $2 fee cost $3.33, with the state’s surcharge for a credit card purchase. That Prevention Pass means my license fee per outing will be a few cents more, but if it helps prevent further spread of invasive mussels it’ll be worth it.

In case you’ve been sleeping the last six months or so, invasive mussels were detected in Canyon Ferry Reservoir and Tiber Reservoir last October. This set off alarms all around Montana’s fishing and boating community, as invasive mussels are virtually impossible to get rid of. In other words, Canyon Ferry and Tiber Reservoir will have invasive mussels forever and will possibly spread throughout the Missouri River system. The mussels can choke off irrigation systems, clog drinking water and hydropower facilities, and seriously damage our state’s fisheries.

The major challenge is to prevent further spread and it won’t be easy.

One of the main ways that invasive mussels spread is by hitchhiking along on boats, as well as waders, wading boots, landing nets and the like. Fire-fighting equipment or irrigation pumps and equipment can also spread mussels.

Several years ago, I floated a southern Minnesota river for smallmouth bass. We found smallies, but we also found mussels. There had been high water during the spring and when the waters went down there were mussels attached to things such as a lawn chair that had washed down the river. It was pretty impressive.

Invasive mussels latch onto everything, and suck all the nutrients out of the waters.

The primary battleground against invasive water species will be on boats.

First, all boats coming from out-of-state must be inspected at an official inspection station. An inspection station stop will be fairly brief, will include a brief interview, and if necessary boats will be decontaminated with hot water to kill invasive mussels and other aquatic invasives. FWP is setting up a network of inspection stations at state borders and other locations, including roving inspection stations.

Under the new law, all motorists hauling watercraft, including powered boats, rafts, drift boats, canoes or kayaks, must stop at inspection stations—even if they have previously been inspected. In addition, any boats taken across the Continental Divide into the Columbia River Basin must be inspected prior to any launch.

“Clean, Drain, Dry” will be the watchwords for all boaters. When leaving a body of water, boaters need to wipe off the boat to remove mud and vegetation. Remove all drain plugs and drain the boat. Open and dry all compartments and live wells. Drain coolant water from boat motors and engines.

Felt-soled wading boots may be a problem. Some states have already banned felt-soled boots because felt soles make it difficult to get rid of hitchhikers. Certainly, if you wade-fish on Canyon Ferry or Tiber Reservoirs, don’t use those felt-soled wading boots you’d use on other waters. Also, at the end of a trip, put your boots and waders out in the hot sun to dry.

Preventing further spread of invasive mussels is going to be difficult, considering that Canyon Ferry is a Missouri River impoundment and Tiber is on a Missouri tributary. But, it’s essential that we do our best to protect our waters.

Our Greatest Generation and This Year’s Memorial Day

Butte, Montana’s WWII memorial, with Korean and Vietnam memorials in background.

This weekend our nation puts ephemeral concerns aside as we observe Memorial Day, the holiday established to honor the Union’s Civil War dead, and has since expanded to include continuing military deaths.

While the U.S. has not been in major conflicts the last couple years, there were still, according to Military Times, 24 deaths in action in 2016 and 11 so far in 2017.

This year, military personnel killed in action include people who lost their lives in places such as Mogadishu, Somalia, Mosul, Iraq, and various actions in Afghanistan and Syria.

In recent years I’ve been tracking, at Memorial Day, the declining ranks of the Greatest Generation, our World War II veterans.

Over 16 million people served in U.S. military forces during World War II, from 1939 through 1945. Of those 16 million around 400,000 people died either in battle or through non-theater deaths.

The number of WWII veterans still living is kind of a moving target. A recent release from the Department of Veterans Affairs there are still 1,711,000 living veterans. On the other hand, the National WWII Museum in New Orleans estimates that the surviving numbers of WWII veterans is currently around 500,000, and we continue to lose these veterans at the rate of about 372 per day. It is expected that the last of the 16 million people to serve during WWII will die sometime around 2035 at the age of around 110.

Some notable WWII veterans died this past year, including one of our country’s great heroes, John Glenn, a Marine aviator during both WWII and Korean wars. He then went on to be a test pilot and an astronaut, and the first astronaut to orbit Earth. Glenn retired from the Marine Corps and after a short career in business was elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1998, at age 77, he went on a nine-day mission on the space shuttle, the oldest person to go into space. He died December 8, 2016 at age 95 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Another WWII Marine was actor Hugh O’Brian, who became famous as TV’s Wyatt Earp. O’Brian (born Hugh Krampe) dropped out of the University of Cincinnati in 1943 to enlist and at age 17 became the youngest drill instructor in the Marine Corps. A lasting achievement was to found the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation, a non-profit youth leadership program for high school students. O’Brian died last September at age 91.

Another actor was James Noble who served in the Navy during WWII, primarily on a destroyer that specialized in locating and sinking Japanese submarines. Noble had a long acting career on Broadway and movies, though his best-known acting role was as a somewhat scatter-brained governor in the TV series “Benson.”

Still another veteran who went on to an acting career was George Kennedy, who had a long career as a character actor, earning an Oscar in the movie “Cool Hand Luke.” Kennedy enlisted in the Army Air Corps at age 18 in 1943. He had some difficulties finding his military niche. At 6’ 4” and 210 pounds he was considered too big for flight duty. A sergeant told him, “We can either put you in an airplane or a 200-pound bomb in an airplane. We’d rather put the bomb in the airplane.” Nevertheless, he went on to a 16-year career in the Air Force, rising to captain before a back injury ended his military career. Kennedy died in February 2016 in Middleton, Idaho.

From the perspective of a long memory, I still recall the death of the last Union Civil War veteran in the mid-1950s, and, marching in my high school band every Memorial Day, when there were still Spanish-American War veterans as the honored old-timers. One of my first bosses was a World War I veteran, and the WWII vets were the heroes of my youth.

Finally, don’t forget to vote in tomorrow’s special Congressional election. All those people we honor this week served and sacrificed to ensure our rights as citizens. Don’t fritter it away.

A New Chance for Jefferson River Access


The people of Montana lost Beaver Chew last year, but with a little luck and a little help from friends, there may be a happy ending.

Beaver Chew, if you recall, was an 80-acre plot of state land at the confluence of the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers, the beginning of the Jefferson River. It was part of a larger land exchange in which SRI Land Holdings, a large ranch company, transferred some upland property to the State of Montana in exchange for consolidation of river bottomland.

The Jefferson River Canoe Trail (JRCT), a chapter of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Heritage Foundation, fought long and hard to save Beaver Chew but lost out in the final decision of the state Land Board.

So, where’s the happy ending?

It isn’t a done deal but the JRCT has another proposal in the works to secure a 30-acre piece of property at Parson’s Bridge, ten miles south of Whitehall, also known as the Waterloo bridge, the bridge that crosses the Jefferson River to provide access to the Waterloo community and the lands between the river and the Tobacco Root Mountains. There is a boat ramp at the bridge that’s notorious for the steep slope that has long challenged floaters trying to launch or take out boats.

The property is riparian woodland just north of the bridge on the west side of the river, with a variety of trees, including juniper, cottonwood, and willows. Morel mushrooms are found in the spring, and whitetail deer are common.

JRCT will use the property as a floaters’ camp for people following the river, and it would also be open for picnicking and walk-in fishing from an existing parking lot. The Skyline Sportsmen of Butte have expressed interest in the project and have plans to improve the boat ramp.

So is there a catch?

As usual, it’s money. The chunk of land carries a $270,000 price tag, which is a lot of money to a small non-profit organization. But, the heavy lifting has been done. JRCT has gotten approval for a $195,000 grant from the Montana Fish & Wildlife Conservation Trust. JRCT has pledged their own relatively small cash reserves to bring the total to $204,000, meaning they need an additional $66,000 by June 30, 2017 to lock in the deal.

The Jefferson River Canoe Trail is working to raise the $66,000 through a fundraising appeal, looking for tax-deductible donations. People can donate through PayPal, or a crowd-funding campaign at generosity.com. You can also send checks to JRCT at PO Box 697, Pony MT 59747.

This project can work to be a huge asset to the people of southwest Montana, with improved fishing and boating access to the Jefferson River, and a new place to take a walk, bird-watch, picnic, pick mushrooms and, in general, enjoy the outdoors along the historic Lewis & Clark Trail. It’s a true win-win deal.

For more information, go online to http://Jeffersonriver.org/campsites/waterloo_grove.htm, or www.generosity.com/community-fundraising/waterloo-grove-jefferson-river-canoe-trail.

Changing topics a bit, I’d like to compliment David Macumber and the Montana Standard for their coverage of the fire that tragically destroyed the R. L. Winston bamboo rod shop in Twin Bridges. Note: the main Winston facility on the south end of town is unaffected.

There’s a lot of history in Winston bamboo rods and the Winston name on a bamboo rod, old or new, connects it with a long tradition of craftsmanship.

Sweetgrass Rods, founded by Glenn Brackett and Jerry Kustich a decade ago, after a falling-out with Winston, recently moved the shop and retail store from Twin Bridges to 121 W. Galena in Butte.

I take my hat off to Glenn Brackett, the head artist and craftsman of Sweetgrass and a former owner of Winston who posted this statement at the Sweetgrass Facebook page, “We want them to continue to carry the rod building banner into the next 100 years. Our support is what’s called for at a time like this.”

We are fortunate to have a classy person such as Glenn Brackett as a new business neighbor here in Butte.

Dan Vang – A Pheasant Hunter’s Life

Dan and Boo, North Dakota, October 2015

There’s a long tradition of stories of how the outdoors saves the lives of people.

Dan Vang, or Danny, as many of us will always remember him, is part of that tradition.

Danny was a troubled young man as he became an adult. He didn’t exactly have an idyllic childhood, and his brothers and sisters would probably nod in agreement on that point. He got messed up with alcohol and drugs, and that’s a big challenge to overcome.

Fortunately, in his 20s, he found a stronger drug and that was the outdoors. He found peace and tranquility in a life built around hunting and fishing, and had a long, productive working life, even choosing to work night shifts so work wouldn’t interfere with the outdoors.

Dan learning flyfishing on Hay Creek

Danny had an intimate knowledge of hunting and fishing opportunities in the area. From his home on the Zumbro River, he caught trout and bass, and knew where to find morel mushrooms. He harvested deer with bow and arrow and rifle. He knew all about wild turkeys and helped his nephews get their first turkeys. He had a special relationship with his nephew Nick, who, like Dan, loves the outdoors.

Nick Vang flyfishing for smallmouth bass.

His home reflects his love for the outdoors, with mounts of deer, squirrels, grouse and pheasants, and all the artwork he’d gotten at various wildlife dinners. If he wasn’t in the outdoors, he brought the outdoors into his home.

Dan was an all-around outdoorsman, though pheasants are where the pieces came together. He’d had a succession of dogs that shared his pheasant outings, and he even had a pen in his backyard with a dozen or so pheasants. Every morning he had pheasant eggs for breakfast.

Dan and Gus, 2013

Dan had a special love for Gus, his big yellow Lab of a few years ago. Over many hunting seasons, Dan and Gus had many pheasant hunts, though after the 2013 season Gus developed a limp. In following months the limp got worse and a trip to the vet confirmed the worst: poor Gus had cancer.

Dan wouldn’t let Gus suffer but before the veterinarian helped Gus along on the final adventure, “I laid down with Gus,” he wrote in a tearful letter. “I talked to Gus about hunting and his eyes lit up. Right down to his last breath he was happy and content.” He ended his letter with a tearful, “Gus, I miss you so much.”

A couple weeks after he said goodbye to Gus, he came to Montana for what turned out to be a perfect elk hunt. He got a bull elk on opening day, and after getting the elk packed out he called to share the good news, though he was still overcome with the heartbreak of losing Gus.

A few months later he told me he’d gotten a puppy, another male yellow Lab. It turned out that we had to say goodbye to our black Lab, as well, and that spring we visited Dan and Lou and our new pups, Boo and Kiri, got to know each other with non-stop roughhousing, and we all learned anew that the best cure for a broken heart is a new puppy.

Boo and Kiri getting acquainted.

That fall, I talked Dan and Nick into meeting us in North Dakota for what we hoped would be a great pheasant hunt for our young dogs. It turned out to be a frustrating hunt, with not many birds and hurricane-like winds, though Dan did collect a nice rooster pheasant at sundown on his last day of hunting.

A month later, Dan called to tell me about a pheasant hunt, when Boo put the pieces together to make a long-distance retrieve of a rooster.

That might have been his last pheasant hunt, as a few months later we all learned the shocking news about Dan’s cancer diagnosis.

Dan and Boo didn’t get to have many hunts together, though our hearts were touched when Diane wrote about Boo crying after Dan died. Having dogs means saying goodbye to a succession of dogs until finally, one day, our last dog says goodbye to us. Our dogs understand much more than we might think possible.

At the end, God provides perfect healing, far beyond the limitations of the technology and skills of modern medicine. Dan’s suffering is over and I’d like to think that Gus was waiting for him and now, together, free of pain and cancer, they’re already planning their next pheasant hunt.

Big Hole Lodge Orvis Lodge of the Year

Craig and Wade Fellin, operators of Big Hole Lodge.

An area fishing lodge has won unique and prestigious recognition as the Orvis-endorsed Fly-Fishing Lodge of the Year for 2017.

The Big Hole Lodge, located along the Wise River, just a few miles from where the Wise River flows into the Big Hole River, won this prestigious award at the annual Orvis Guide Rendezvous held this year in Missoula at the end of April. The award recognizes facilities for excellence in both customer satisfaction and a commitment to conservation.

Wade Fellin, manager of Big Hole Lodge, said that the award is the culmination of many years of operation as a destination fishing lodge. He gives tribute to his father, Craig Fellin, who worked his way into the fly-fishing business after serving with the Marine Corps in Vietnam, working in fly shops and guiding in Colorado, and then set out, in 1983, to find a good location to start a fly-fishing lodge.

Craig found what he was looking for at Wise River, but before going further he stopped at another lodge, the Complete Fly Fisher, just downstream from Wise River, to talk to Phil and Joan Wright, the then-owners of Complete Fly Fisher, about his idea. Phil responded by taking Craig out on the river to show him how he fished the river.

Craig and his wife built their lodge and started the business in 1984, and not long after that it became an Orvis-endorsed lodge. “From the time we became an Orvis-endorsed lodge 33 years ago,” Wade tells, “Dad’s goal was to get recognition as Fly-Fishing Lodge of the Year and we finally got it.” Wade said that Big Hole Lodge was a runner-up in the 2016 competition, and this year beat out Hawk Lake Lodge in Kenora, Ontario and Wollaston Lake Lodge in northern Saskatchewan for top honors.

The award citation included a customer review that included this quote, “I believe this family and their guides fish not for business but because they are deeply driven to do so by inner desires. Their love of the sport and of the rivers they fish is not only evident but infectious.”

Wade Fellin learning the fly-fishing business at an early age (it’s probably not the same red shirt).

Wade literally grew up on the Big Hole River; from the time his dad strapped his bassinette onto a rubber raft, to guiding while working his way through college and law school. In recent years he’s been working his way into the management of the lodge, going from co-manager to manager this year. Craig is stepping back a bit from full-time management of the lodge, though Wade cautions, “We kind of passed the management torch, but don’t call him retired.”

Wade points out that a major part of the Orvis company’s awards program is to recognize the many local participating lodges for a commitment to conservation. He notes, “Both Dad and I have been active with the Big Hole Watershed Committee and the Big Hole River Foundation. Two of our guides, Roy Morris and Mark Thompson, are extremely active with the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Butte.” In the off-season, Wade works with an advocacy organization, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, a non-profit group that works for river and community health in the headwaters regions of the Missouri River.

A year ago, Wade was the keynote speaker at the 2016 Orvis Guide Rendezvous and he talked about his commitment to conservation, summing it up, “There’s a distinct need in the West for all of us who care about our rivers and fisheries to take the steps necessary to protect our most vital resource. We can do this.”

He adds, “All our staff are committed to conservation and to keeping the Big Hole River the wonderful resource that it is.”

Big Hole Lodge staff.

Wade and Craig are grateful for the Orvis recognition and the boost it will give their business, a boost that will likely pay dividends well into the future, though Wade is low key, just saying, “We definitely hope it’ll help guide people to a good destination.

“We are very honored to be recognized for our employees’ hard work and our clients’ loyalty.”

Gierach’s Rod of Your Own and…How to Build It

John Gierach’s latest book, and a good read, naturally.

A Fly Rod of Your Own is the tantalizing title for John Gierach’s most recent book, a collection of Gierach’s stories, many of which have previously appeared in magazines such as Fly Rod & Reel.

In this case, the title of the book is a bit misleading. There’s nothing in the book about custom fly rods, or bamboo rods, a topic about which he’s written previously. The book title is just a phrase from the first paragraph in the opening chapter in which he writes about how people get hooked on fly-fishing, and he writes, “If you’re like me, it was the mere sight of a good fly-caster that finally sent you out shopping for a fly rod of your own.”

Still, I’m thoroughly enjoying a leisurely reading of his stories, rationing myself to one or two a day, rather than reading it cover to cover.

Gierach’s stories are often built around fly-fishing and travels to occasionally exotic places for fishing. Still, the magic isn’t in getting tips on how to catch fish, or how great an angler he is.

I particularly enjoy Gierach’s observations on life and people and more often than not it has nothing to do with fishing, though he frequently comes up with sage observations about travel involved with fishing trips. For example, he describes long delays and waits in airports as “fatal boredom,” adding, “There is a mount of an albino beaver at the Anchorage terminal that’s worth seeing, but it’s not what you’d call endlessly entertaining.”

In any event, the book’s title caught my interest because fly rods have been taking up a lot of my time the last few months.

Last summer at a Kiwanis meeting, a friend asked if I would be willing to build a custom fly rod that would be part of a raffle package for a fundraiser for Leadership Montana, a Montana non-profit organization that runs educational programs for potential community leaders. Without much thought I said, “Sure, I could do that.”

Over the years I’ve built a number of fly rods, including, over 50 years ago, my first fly rod, when I’d ordered a rod-building package from Herter’s, the long-defunct mail-order company that pre-dated Cabela’s.

I’ll note that building a rod doesn’t include scientific experiments in fiberglass and graphite. It means you buy the stick—the technical term is “blank”, this one a Sage blank—and then add the handle, guides, hook-keepers and other hardware that transforms that nine-foot length of graphite-infused fiberglass into a fishing rod. I did have some trepidation about building a rod for someone else. I live with my own mistakes, but someone else might not be so easily satisfied.

An Anaconda man won the raffle and we got together in late autumn to go over the options for putting the rod together. I cautioned him to not be in a hurry because the project would have to wait until after the hunting season was over.

A custom rod may not be any better than the equivalent factory rod from a local fly shop, though hopefully it won’t be worse. It might not save much money, either.

The main benefit to a custom rod is that you can make it your own in every way. For example, you can make the wraps in your school colors if you like, instead of black, as most factory rods are. Thus, the wraps on the rod were blue with gold trim. It clashes a bit with a green rod, but the fish won’t care. I also built it with single-foot guides, or “those loopy things,” as my wife called them when she couldn’t think of the technical term.

A final touch was engraving his initials and the year on the butt cap of the rod.

A Sage 9-foot, 5-weight 4-piece fly rod custom-built for the Leadership Montana raffle.

Happily, when it was all done and the winner had a chance to look at it, he was pleased at how well it turned out.

Even better, my wife said, “That was a fun project. You’d better make another one for yourself.”

She didn’t even have to twist my arm.

Bug Hatches and Earth Day Thoughts

This week’s Dog on a Rock photo.

In mid-April, the fish are starting to wake up. With longer days and slowly warming temperatures, aquatic insect activity is picking up and fish are beginning to look up towards the water’s surface for their next meal.

In mid-April, as many people were finally getting serious about filing their tax returns, I went fishing, and with a clear conscience. I’d filed tax returns the last week of March.

As I got ready to hit the road one morning, it struck me that it actually felt warm outside. Our springtime in the Rockies is a fickle process, marked more by rain and snow than warm sunshine.

Along the lower Madison River, it seriously felt like spring. Dandelions were blooming, and wild currant bushes were leafing out. For a change, there wasn’t even much wind. There was a cloudbank to the west, the leading edge of a storm system.

I was actually hoping for some overcast, and that clouds and perhaps a few drops of rain would trigger a baetis, or blue wing olive, mayfly hatch. With the bright morning sunshine, nothing was hatching, however. I did catch one small rainbow trout that took a nymph.

After a couple hours and a lunch break, those clouds on the western horizon were overhead and casting shadows on the river, and as I resumed fishing I started to see a few rises. I studied the water’s surface, and, sure enough, a few tiny mayflies were floating along the water’s surface. There wasn’t a feeding frenzy, but I did hook a rainbow trout big enough to put a bend in my rod. My day was complete.

Still, no day on the Madison River is complete without wind, however. As the storm system moved in, winds picked up, putting a stop to rising fish, and made casting a challenge.

I ran into rain on the way home and even a few snowflakes coming over Homestake Pass. That evening we had a snowstorm. Typical spring weather.

Last Saturday, many Americans celebrated Earth Day, which included tree planting here in Butte.

One of the themes of this year’s Earth Day observance was to increase environmental and climate literacy among our citizens.

In keeping with that theme, National Public Radio carried a news report last week on the threats facing our native fish, the cutthroat trout. Here in Montana, we have two strains of cutthroat trout: the Yellowstone cutthroat and the Westslope cutthroat trout.

As I’ve often reported, we’ve treated our native cutthroat trout poorly. A century ago aquaculture was the aim of fisheries biologists. Without really questioning their actions, they established fish hatcheries and dumped non-native trout, such as rainbow and brook trout, into our streams. Brook trout have spread out, taking over many streams. Rainbow trout, in a way, were even worse, in that they interbreed with cutthroat trout.

Here in southwest Montana, we’ve had a number of projects to restore cutthroat trout to headwaters streams, which often includes removing non-native rainbow and brook trout.

A cloud on that horizon, however, is continuing climate change, a scientific fact. Our world’s climate is warming, and a warming climate poses a threat to cold-water fisheries, especially to our native cutthroat trout.

There’s a lot of nonsense floating around about climate change. Some people point to a sub-zero day in January as proof that global warming is a hoax, just as a U.S. senator (Jim Imhofe, R-OK) brought a snowball into senate chambers as proof that global warming isn’t happening.

Education is the best antidote to nonsense, and education about our environment and climate change is the only realistic way to combat falsehoods and nonsense about the realities that face us both now and in coming years, as we experience more and more freaky weather events, melting of glaciers, and low water flows in our trout streams in late summer.

This, as far as we know, is the only planet we can live on. We need to educate ourselves on the proper care of this home we all have to share.

Continuing Challenges to Silver Bow Creek

These sparkling waters have to overcome a lot of issues!

When we hear reports by fisheries biologists of continuing recovery of Silver Bow Creek it’s difficult to comprehend the challenges of restoring a fishery, as well as continuing challenges that still threaten the stream.

Silver Bow Creek was the topic at last week’s Brown Bag Lunch program at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, and judging by the capacity crowd it’s a topic of great public interest.

Joe Griffin, a geologist and former environmental remediation consultant for the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) told the story of the thriving fishery of pre-mining days to industrial sewer to a recovering fishery.

An oral history sound bite of the late Tony Inchachola, a Salish Native American who resided in Butte, recalled tribal memories of a crystal clear mountain stream called Snt’ apqéy, teeming with bull trout, that miners renamed as Silver Bow Creek.

Griffin noted that streams typically have three sources of water: flows from upstream, flows from groundwater, and water from storms that enter the stream. All of those water sources are complex parts of the Silver Bow Creek puzzle.

While the creek was used for drinking and beer brewing in the early years, early smelters ruined the creek, using it as an industrial sewer, dumping slag and other smelter waste in or next to the creek.

Smelters, such as the Parrot Smelter, near today’s Civic Center, dammed up the creek to create ponds, as water was necessary for the smelting process.

During the century of underground mining on the Butte Hill, huge pumps sucked groundwater out of the mines and dumped a constant stream of water contaminated with heavy metals and acids. As bad as that was, Griffin described ARCO’s decision to turn off the pumps when the company discontinued mining operations as “the worst decision ever.”

The water filled the thousands of miles of underground mine shafts, and began filling the Berkeley Pit. Further, the flooding of the underground mines meant that remaining copper ore in the underground workings are lost forever. In spite of the billions of pounds of copper that were extracted from the Butte Hill, Griffin estimates that two-thirds of the copper ore remains.

The copper ore concentrator plant built in the 1960s complicated upstream water sources, as waste rock and tailings are stockpiled in a rock dam high above the Berkeley Pit. Water from the headwaters of Silver Bow Creek and other mountain tributaries gets used in the current Montana Resources concentrator and gets treated for re-use. But, those waters are lost to a recovering Silver Bow Creek.

While the basic problems of mining and smelting waste are complex, the great flood of 2008, the worst known flood on the watershed, sent a surge of mining waste and smelter waste all the way downstream to Missoula.

When cleanup finally began, it turned out that streamside tailings, nasty as they are, were also the simplest to deal with. You dig them out and replace them with clean soils. That doesn’t make it easy, however, considering the amount of mining waste that was removed after the Milltown Dam east of Missoula was dismantled.

Continuing issues are heavy metals and acids in several contaminated areas of Butte, which continually leach into upper Silver Bow Creek. Storm runoff from Butte Hill also dumps mine waste into Silver Bow Creek. There is continuing pollution coming from smelter waste buried under the slag walls near Montana Street.

With all the continuing issues, it still seems a miracle that after cleanup of Silver Bow Creek and the creek’s flood plain, that fish started moving into the stream. Brook trout moved down from Blacktail Creek, the little stream that merges with Silver Bow Creek near the Chamber of Commerce. Westslope Cutthroat trout have moved in from German Gulch and Brown’s Gulch west of Butte.

But, like the ballpark in the baseball movie, Field of Dreams, build it and they will come.

The next Brown Bag Lunch program will be on April 26, with Butte-Silver Bow’s historical preservation officer, Mary McCormick telling about Butte’s mostly forgotten early oil refinery industry.

An Immigrant’s Centennial

Henry Vang, at age 17. He sat for a formal photo to send back to family in Norway to let them know he was doing well in America.

One of my favorite pastimes is fishing, as most readers know, after reading my fishing stories much of the last 21 years.

My love of fishing connects to a centennial of sorts. 100 years ago this month a Norwegian teenager survived a stormy Atlantic voyage and, on April 30, 1917, passed through Ellis Island in New York City. He was just 17 years old, and his immigration to America added one more strand to the complex fabric of the millions who came to this promised land in search of a better life.

The teenager, Henry Vang, was my father, and his story is similar to the stories of millions of other immigrants. He was among the younger children of a big family struggling to survive on a tiny farm. His dream was to own his own farm, and through the 1920s, his life was defined by incessant work. He worked as a farm laborer and a lumberjack. He did highway construction, and even construction in New York City. I once had a conversation with someone who remembered Dad as a young man and he described him as, “The nearest thing there was to perpetual motion.” Whatever he did, it was to build up that nest egg he needed to start farming.

He also loved to go fishing, and he’d often joke that fishing was a reason he came to America. He grew up in an area with famous Atlantic salmon rivers but, he’d add, “The fishing rights were owned by the king of England.” I wouldn’t be sure about England’s monarch owning Dad’s local waters, though wealthy and privileged Brits, potential cast members of Downton Abbey, did, indeed, control many of Norway’s trout and salmon streams.

There were no salmon in the waters of southern Minnesota, where he finally settled, but there were rivers, streams and lakes and an inexpensive fishing license was the only hoop to jump through before wetting a line.

He had older siblings who had immigrated a decade earlier, so he had family in the area and an entry into what we sometimes call the “Lutefisk Ghetto,” which included the descendants of earlier Norwegian immigrants who came in the 1860s, including my mother, who was born in 1905.

A bump along the way was the Great Depression, when the bank where he had his life savings folded. Nevertheless, he persisted. In 1932, the Norwegian bachelor farmer married the spinster piano teacher, and they managed to rent a farm where, in 1936, my older brother was born. They later moved to another farm, where I was born in 1939. A couple years later, having barely survived the Depression years, they managed to buy a small farm. It worked well for them. The war economy of the 1940s improved farm incomes, and they paid off the mortgage ahead of time.

Over the years, Dad won awards for conservation practices. He was an inveterate reader of farm magazines, and loved to try new techniques. He was proud to be a naturalized U.S. citizen and he was proud that I had a career in the United States government.

He died almost 30 years ago, appropriately, for an old farmer, in October 1987; just as fall corn harvest was starting.

While on my mother’s side, my American roots go back over 150 years, I’m also proud to be the son of an immigrant, and thus a first generation American.

When politicians threaten our public lands and public waters, I think of my dad’s love of fishing and our precious birthright of public lands and waters and our right to use and enjoy them.

When I hear politicians rail against immigration, I reflect back on my father’s story and my great, great grandparents’ stories, and how similar they were to those of the Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews, Mexicans, Vietnamese, Kurds and others who come to these shores with nothing but dreams and a will to work. Further, my heart breaks when some immigrants flee the U.S., seeking asylum in Canada.

We are a nation of immigrants and that’s a precious heritage.

Stranger in the Woods – book review

Stranger in the Woods, published by Alfred A. Knopf

It seems kind of implausible in this day and age of social media and constant connection with everybody else. In 1986, a young man from Massachusetts drove his car into a secluded spot, left it there and went for a hike.

Eventually, he found a secluded spot in the Maine woods and set up camp—and stayed there for the next 27 years. In that time, his only conversation with anybody was, in 1990, saying, “Hi!” to a hiker he once encountered in the woods.

That’s the basis for an intriguing story in a book that’s getting a lot of attention, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, by Montana author, Michael Finkel. The publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, was kind enough to send me a review copy of the book.

The “Stranger in the Woods” is Michael Knight, a shy but intelligent young man who, for reasons he really couldn’t explain, decided to go live in the woods. He wasn’t a Robinson Crusoe, living totally off the land, however. He found a secluded area in the woods, a spot surrounded by rock formations that made his hiding spot virtually invisible. He wasn’t exactly in the wilderness. His campsite was in the middle of a lake area full of homes and summer cabins. During those years, he never built a campfire, for fear that smoke from a fire would betray his presence.

For 27 years, Knight primarily survived by stealing food, clothing, cooking and camping gear, propane, and anything else he thought might be useful from those cabins. The area’s permanent and part-time residents were both alarmed and intrigued by ongoing incidents of petty crime, as Knight made nighttime rounds of cabins.

The crime wave eventually came to an end when a Maine game warden set a trap, putting in a trail camera and motion sensors at a camp for handicapped children. With the backup of a state trooper, the warden caught Knight red-handed, ending the long period of random robberies.

The author of the book, Michael Finkel, is a magazine writer with credits in National Geographic, Esquire, GQ, and other publications, was intrigued when the story of Knight’s arrest made the news. After an exchange of letters, Knight finally agreed to interviews with Finkel.

Finkel made many trips from Montana to Maine to conduct interviews, gradually establishing a fragile friendship with Knight, learning how Knight was able to live, virtually hiding in plain sight, for so many years without any social interaction with anybody.

The book, an expansion of an earlier feature article in GQ magazine, examines Michael Knight’s long period of self-imposed exile, and compares Knight’s story with that of other hermits though the centuries. The author concludes, after research, that probably nobody has lived in seclusion as long as Michael Knight.

The story doesn’t end with Knight’s arrest. After spending a long time in jail, he made a plea agreement, getting credit for time served, and paroled to family members who had long ago given him up for dead. Without giving away too much of the story, it’s clear that Knight was not particularly happy or at ease with life back among other people, even if they were family.

All in all, Stranger in the Woods is a fascinating examination of someone choosing to live a solitary life and what it takes to accomplish that goal.

On a different note, Montana’s only spring hunting season, the wild turkey season, begins this Saturday, April 8 and will run through May 21.

As I’ve done almost every year since 1988, I applied for a Region 3 spring turkey permit, and, as has been the case in every one of those years, I was unsuccessful in drawing that permit.

I had a chat with a FWP staffer, and he said there were about 1550 applicants for the 400 Region 3 permits, so I had about a one in four chance. There are no preference points for turkeys, so that’s the breaks of the game.

Guess I’ll go fishing.

Spring Comes to Montana

Southwest Montana’s Tobacco Root Mountains at the end of winter.

The moment of the vernal equinox came last week in the early morning hours of March 20. Most people consider the equinox as the beginning of spring.

The equinox is an astronomical event, when twice a year, the plane of the earth’s equator passes through the center of the sun, as the tilt of the earth changes in its rotation around the sun.

Still, it really doesn’t mark the beginning of spring.

This year, we might have marked the beginning of spring in mid-February when we started to get weather warm enough to start melting the snow.

I noted the first emergence of tulips the last week of February as a sign of spring. A few days later, in the first week of March, I spotted the first sprouts of garlic emerging from a deep cover of mulch from last October’s planting.

On the morning of March 5, I heard the first calls of a robin, proclaiming he was back in Butte and marking our neighborhood as his mating territory.

High school sports enthusiasts might point at March 6 as the beginning of spring, when, two days after the basketball tournaments, athletes and coaches turned to spring sports. Others look at when major league baseball teams go to spring training.

I suppose some might call the day when they put skis away as the beginning of spring.

I might be hoping for one more snowstorm in this coming week but for me, spring, the true beginning of spring, came on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17.

I know, most everybody in Butte, Montana is at least a little Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but I tend to avoid the revelry and get out of town. If the weather is bad, I like to go skiing, but if the weather is good I’ll go fishing.

On St. Patrick’s Day, the weather was great, with clear skies, calm winds and bright sunshine; a perfect day to load a couple fly rods and other fishing gear in the truck and hit the road for the Madison River and the first fly-fishing of 2017.

Our black Lab, Kiri, was happy to jump in the truck and join me on the outing. For her, it was the first ride in the truck that made any sense since the end of the duck season back in January.

It felt good to put on waders and assemble a fly rod again. I know that some enthusiasts are out fly-fishing all winter, but I hadn’t been on a river since the end of September, when ruffed grouse and pheasants took over all my outdoors attention.

I’ll spare the suspense. In several hours of casting various fake bugs I had no response whatsoever from the trout of the Madison River. They totally ignored my offerings. That’s okay. The water was still icy cold and there wasn’t much bug activity, other than a few midges buzzing around.

I certainly wasn’t alone out on the river. The standard flotilla of drift boats was working the river, and lots of other wade anglers were scattered along the shallow areas of the river. Occasionally I‘d hear an exclamation from a boater, indicating some fish action.

Kiri, who’d just turned age two a few days earlier, is turning out to be a respectable fishing dog. Much of the time she was sitting on the bank, or perched on a rock, watching me intently while I whipped the water. For her, the best part of the day was when she got a ragged old baseball out of the back of the truck so I could throw it for her. Kiri isn’t much good at the bat, and she doesn’t have a good pitching arm, but she’s an enthusiastic fielder.

Kiri keeping a close eye on me.

For me, the best part of the day was sharing a sandwich with Kiri, then leaning back in my camp chair and taking a little nap, with warm sunshine and the murmur of the river quietly carrying away the winter’s tensions and worries.

It’s spring.