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.

State of the Fishery – Clark Fork (of the Columbia) River

Silverbow Creek near Butte. A recovering stream and a destination for cutthroat trout.

After putting on the biggest Trout Unlimited banquet ever held in Montana, the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited isn’t just sitting back, as the following week they presented another of their monthly State of the Fishery meetings, this most recent one concerning the Upper Clark Fork River.

Jason Lindstrom, the FWP fisheries biologist reported on continuing cleanup of the Clark Fork River, including several sections where work on stream restoration has been completed. Sections 1 and 2, just below the confluence of Warm Springs Creek and Silverbow Creek is an area where work has been completed and the stream banks are again open to foot access. Work has been completed in Sections 5 and 6 (in the Galen and Racetrack area) but it’s not yet open to foot access, though boaters can float through.

Areas slated for restoration in 2017 have not yet been determined. In the meantime, Lindstrom says that restoration work is moving forward in a number of Clark Fork tributaries, including Brown’s Gulch, Blacktail Creek, Warm Springs Creek and the Little Blackfoot River.

Lindstrom reports that 2016 was a tough year for the river’s fishery, as many areas, especially downstream from Racetrack Creek, had extremely low flows, and high water temperatures of up to 24.5º C. (76º F.), which can be lethal to trout. The Department is exploring possibilities for improving water flows.

Still, he says, there are bright spots. Lindstrom describes the Little Blackfoot River as a healthy stream, and believes a lot of Clark Fork brown trout migrated up the Little Blackfoot last summer to escape warm water.

Lindstrom also reported on the continuing recovery of Silverbow Creek, the former industrial sewer that 15 years ago was still a dead stream. It now has a thriving population of westslope cutthroat trout and brook trout. In fact, Lindstrom asserted, “If you want to catch a big cutthroat or brook trout, this is the place to go.” He says there are lots of fish in the 14 – 20 inch category.

As part of the stream restoration, a migration barrier was built downstream from Durant Canyon to prevent brown trout and rainbow trout from migrating upstream. In fact, Lindstrom requests, “If you catch a brown or rainbow trout, or rainbow/cutthroat hybrid, kill it and take it home and eat it.” The stream is “catch & release” for cutthroat trout, and it’s an artificial lures-only water.

Lindstrom also reported on water quality changes after Butte’s new Waste Water Treatment Plant went online in 2016. While there are still plenty of nutrients in the plant’s discharge, there has been a big reduction in ammonia, which had been the worst problem in the old plant’s discharge. He concludes, “Based on limited data, the new plant seems to be working.”

Casey Hackathorn, a Program Manager for Montana Trout Unlimited, and a Clark Fork enthusiast, followed with suggestions on fishing the Clark Fork River.

He described the Middle Clark Fork, the area downstream from Missoula, as a big river that’s best suited for float fishing. There are lots of rainbows, rainbow/cutthroat hybrids, and some big brown trout and an occasional northern pike. He notes the river is an easy river to float, except for the Alberton
Gorge, which can be a deathtrap for floaters.

An area of environmental concern is near Frenchtown, where deteriorating settling ponds from the old Stone Container plant are leaching pollutants into the river, and there are advisories warning people not to eat fish caught in this section.

In the upper Clark Fork, he considers the stretch below the confluence with Rock Creek as the best fishery on the upper river. Ironically, the stretch immediately above the confluence is the worst, with long channelized and rip-rapped stretches and contaminants from tributaries.

The headwaters reaches of the upper Clark Fork, Hackathorn says, still have lots of problems with water chemistry. Still, he says, “There are a lot of big brown in the river. In addition, some big rainbow trout wash into the river from the Warm Springs Ponds.

“It’s an impaired system, but it has possibilities.”

Abandon Daylight Time? A Bad Idea

Spring ahead. Fall back.

That’s been the mantra of most Americans for a long time, as we go through the semiannual routine of setting our clocks ahead in the spring, losing an hour of sleep, and getting it back again in the fall, when we set our clocks back.

I remember going on daylight saving time in my home state of Minnesota in the mid-1950s. For a bit of trivia, I went to a late Sunday afternoon movie matinee, watching Marilyn Monroe in the movie, Bus Stop. The movie came out in 1956, so that must have been the year Minnesota adopted daylight time.

I remember leaving the theater in early evening and being amazed at how bright it was outside. It was the first day of daylight time and having an extra hour of daylight in the evening was a reward well worth losing an hour of sleep the night before.

Over these last 60 years I’ve heard all the grumbles and complaints. As a farm kid, I certainly heard the usual complaints about cows and harvests. As a parent I heard the complaints about putting kids to beds when the sun is still up.

I still like daylight time, doggone it.

For those of us who like outdoor recreation, daylight time fits like a glove. I love those long summer evenings. It gives anglers the chance to go out after work and have time to have a picnic with their families and still have time to fish for a couple hours before dark. We can shoot trap in an evening league. We have the opportunity to play tennis, get in a round of golf, mow the lawn or any of a thousand things that are a routine part of sunny evenings.

Those evenings are in danger, however, if a bill in the Montana Legislature, SB206, should become law. This bill, sponsored by Sen. Ryan Osmundson (R-Buffalo) would exempt Montana from daylight time. If we were to abandon daylight time, it would make a mess of interstate travel, and figuring out plane connections. It’ll also screw up your TV schedules. There are all sorts of problems and virtually no benefits from abandoning daylight time.

Believe it or not, the bill passed the state senate, so it goes to the House of Representatives. Incidentally, our local senators split, with Jon Sesso voting against it, and Edie McClafferty voting for it.

So, if you like long, summer evenings, I urge you to contact your representatives in the legislature and urge them to vote no on this misguided piece of legislation.

On a different topic, our former congressman, Ryan Zinke, made a media splash when he reported for his first day as Secretary of Interior, wearing a western hat and riding to work on a horse. I made a comment on Facebook, noting that we had a ready-made caption to use the first time he made an anti-environment decision.

It didn’t take long.

On his first day on the job he canceled a previous Interior decree banning the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on national wildlife refuges. The previous order, issued by the Fish & Wildlife Service, came out in the last few days of the Obama Administration.

This was, in short, a bone thrown to the gun lobby. The National Rifle Association praised Zinke’s action, with an NRA spokesman calling the previous order “a reckless, unilateral overreach that would have devastated the sportsmen’s community.”

As Joe Biden would say, Malarkey! We’ve been using non-toxic shot for waterfowl hunting for 30 years. Many hunters voluntarily choose to use non-toxic bullets for big game hunting, as lead fragments in gut piles are a frequent cause of death for eagles, condors, and other birds that feed on carrion. Some states will still have non-toxic bullet rules in effect in specified areas. There are also plenty of substitutes for angling use, where we’ve used lead in the past. In short, it was no big deal.

It was not an auspicious start for Secretary Zinke.

Common Sense on Gun Issues

I spend many days each year walking around with a gun – but I still don’t buy into the gun lobby’s nonsense.

Kudos to Montana’s Governor Steve Bullock for showing common sense.

Of course, there are some people who are going to demonize the guv for the crime of showing common sense but so be it.

The governor had the good sense, or unmitigated gall, if you prefer, to veto a couple bills passed by our Looney-tunes legislature.

First, he vetoed a bill that would let anybody carry a concealed weapon in urban areas (there’s no restriction in rural areas). The thinking behind this is that if you think you’re qualified to carry a concealed weapon, that should be good enough. We don’t need no stinkin’ permit.

Sorry, I don’t buy that nonsense. For years, people holding permits to carry a concealed firearm have held themselves out as exemplars of safety, as they’ve been vetted by the county sheriff and have had training in firearms safety. That means absolutely nothing if you can just declare yourself qualified.

Along that line, there are people in Congress trying to pass a law that would deny a State’s right to not recognize another state’s granting of a concealed carry permit. There are some states where there are virtually no requirements whatsoever to get a concealed carry permit.

The governor also vetoed another bill that would permit people to have a firearm on postal property. He properly vetoed that bill on the basis that the State of Montana can’t make rules for what happens on Federal property. The sponsors of that bill might have had a good idea from the standpoint that a person might innocently have a firearm in their car while on a post office parking lot. I’ll confess to being guilty of having done that, possibly several times, though I’ve never carried a gun into a post office.

I’ll give the Lege credit for a bit of common sense on their own part when they killed a bill that would allow school employees to carry concealed weapons while on the job. There was an outpouring of public comment overwhelmingly opposed to arming school employees.

In another bit of common sense, a Federal appeals court ruled that a 2013 Maryland law banning assault type rifles, plus magazines that hold more than ten cartridges, did not violate the Second Amendment. The court’s decision cited the fact that these military-style rifles and large capacity magazines have been used to perpetrate mass shootings, and were thus “most useful in military service,” and not protected under guidelines of the 2008 Heller decision of the Supreme Court. It’s expected that this case will go on to the Supreme Court.

On the other side of the coin, Congress passed legislation overturning an executive order by the Obama Administration that directed the Social Security Administration to give their database of Social Security beneficiaries who receive their benefits through a representative payee to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as people not qualified to purchase firearms. President Trump signed it last week.

As a former Social Security employee, while I’ve been away from the agency for many years, the topic is one with which I’m intimately familiar. First off, I’d suggest that both the Obama Administration’s order and congressional action are grandstanding.

The overwhelming majority of beneficiaries receiving their Social Security payments through a representative payee are elderly people with advanced dementia, and living in nursing homes or similar care facilities. Another large segment would be developmentally disabled adults living with family or in custodial care. The likelihood of these types of beneficiaries wandering into a gun shop is pretty remote, so it’s kind of a moot point with them.

On the other hand, a certain number of people with representative payees are mentally ill and fully capable of causing harm to themselves and others. These would be classic examples of people who should not have access to firearms.

Among the 4 million or so people receiving Social Security payments through a representative payee, there’s likely little risk of people buying a firearm and committing mayhem. That’s not the same as no risk—or even acceptable risk.

State of the Fishery – Big Hole River

It’s still winter in Montana, but soon time to be out on the river – but first get a license!

Happy New Year!

If your year revolves around fishing and hunting, today is the beginning of a new year, a new Montana fishing and hunting license year, that is. Here in western Montana, with our ready access to trout streams, lakes, mountains and river bottoms, and still just a few hours from prairie country, we’re blessed with abundant opportunities to get our money’s worth out of our license dollar. So, before heading out for late ice fishing or early fly-fishing, be sure to see a license vendor or go online to get licensed for those early outings.

The George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited is having monthly State of the Fishery meetings this spring. In February, FWP fisheries biologist Jim Olsen reported on what’s happening on our area’s premier trout river, the Big Hole.

The next TU meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. on March 9 at the Pour House on Harrison Avenue in Butte, with FWP biologist Jason Lindstrom reporting on what’s happening on the Upper Clark Fork river. All these meetings are free and open to the public. In April, Matt Jaeger and Ron Spoon will report on the Beaverhead and Jefferson Rivers.

These monthly meetings are in addition to the annual GGTU spring fundraising banquet taking place Friday evening at the Butte Plaza Mall Event Center. It might already be sold out, but you can check on ticket availability by calling 560-2050. As for Jim Olsen’s report, one of the highlights was that in 2016 there wasn’t any noticeable Saprolegnia fish die-off.

Saprolegnia, you might recall, is a fungus-like organism present in all waters, and often infects fish with a moldy appearance, and is sometimes a fatal infection. There was a significant die-of of adult brown trout in the Melrose section of the Big Hole River in October 2014, and another, though less serious, die-off in 2015. There was virtually no Saprolegnia-related die-off in the fall of 2016.

Olsen attributes the Saprolegnia problems to weather. In 2014 and 2015, October weather and water temperatures in the lower Big Hole were somewhat above long-term average. In 2016, however, there was significant rainfall in September, which increased water flows and lowered water temperatures.

Olsen also reported on a water analysis looking for the pathogen that causes proliferative kidney disease, which caused a big fish die-off last summer on the upper Yellowstone River. The pathogen, tetrocapsuloide bryosalmonae was found to be present in the Big Hole, though there has been no known affect on fish populations.

A Rocky Mountain whitefish, the fish most vulnerable to last summer’s PKD die-off.

Olsen noted that trout populations in the Melrose stretch of the river have rebounded, with juvenile fish thriving as well as fish migrating into the area, possibly including rainbow trout migrating up from the Jefferson River.

Mountain lakes were a concluding highlight to Olsen’s report to TU. When rivers start to drop and get warm, he suggests that mountain lakes might be a great option for anglers. He says, “Mountain lakes have a lot to offer, including solitude, good exercise, great scenery, and a variety of fish.”

He says that in the Big Hole drainage, there are 137 lakes, and 101 of them are known to have fish. Some 30 of those lakes are stocked on a regular basis (every few years, that is), and many others have self-sustaining fish populations.

The Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest has published a guide to all the mountain lakes in the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest (also available online). Further, Olsen has created a spreadsheet of the mountain lakes in the Big Hole drainage, and the George Grant Chapter will have that spreadsheet posted to the Chapter website (GGTU.org).

Olsen named some favorite lakes (sorry—not enough room here), but, in general, he likes lakes that have some shallow, muddy bottoms or reefs, with weed patches. Backpackable float tubes are an excellent way to access those fishy waters.

The presentation included photos of some serious fish, so when late summer comes and you’re ready for a hike, there’s the possibility that your reward might be the trout of a lifetime.

Trout Unlimited Banquet in Butte

Trout Unlimited dinners – all for the trout (and grayling, too).

The snow banks tell us it’s still winter, but we’re getting into one of the sure signs of spring, the banquet season.

Here in Butte, spring seems to be the time when the various habitat organizations hold their annual fundraising banquets to support their organizations’ work improving wildlife habitat. The Mule Deer Foundation held their dinner earlier this month and the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited has their bash coming up on Friday, March 3.

Oh, and take a hint, readers. If you’re affiliated with one of the organizations e.g. elk, turkeys, wild sheep, pheasants, etc., let me know what’s coming up and I’ll be glad to give you a plug in a future column.

I’m a longtime member of Trout Unlimited, and joined the George Grant Chapter of TU shortly after moving to Butte in 1988, and I’ve volunteered for habitat projects, served on their board, and otherwise have been involved with TU for a long time.

I believe in the goals of Trout Unlimited, of working to preserve and protect our cold-water fisheries. It’s not just about catching trout. It’s about protecting crucial habitat. Whether we’re talking about municipal water, irrigation, fish, waterfowl, upland birds, or elk and deer, it’s all about quality habitat and that always brings us back to water.

Here, along the Continental Divide, we’re blessed with an abundance of trout streams, though we’re also blessed with an abundance of environmental problems from a century of mining and smelting, careless agricultural practices, and over-allocated water resources, just for a start. We’ve been there and we’ve done it.

The national organization of Trout Unlimited deals with a lot of “big picture” issues, such as the renewed threats of the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, or acid mine drainage caused by mountaintop removal in coal country.

The local George Grant Chapter puts local money to work on local projects, such as habitat restoration, public access to streams, education programs and other such local opportunities. The annual spring banquet funds the chapter’s work on the ground and in the water.

The Trout Unlimited banquet will be held on March 3, beginning after 5 p.m., again at the Butte Plaza Mall at the former Stage store location, next to the Jo-Ann Fabric store.

You can expect the usual opportunities to spend money and support the trout, with raffles for fly rods, a NRS raft package, and lots of other merchandise. There will be live and silent auctions for a variety of art, rods, reels, guns, furniture and other such merchandise, much of it donated by supporting local businesses. You can also expect to see or make a lot of friends and have a great time.

Last year, the GGTU banquet was totally sold out and the most successful fundraising dinner in the chapter’s history, and the local committee is working hard to improve on that.

If you’re not already on the GGTU mailing list, you can buy tickets for the dinner online at www.ggtu.org, or call Joelynn at 406-560-2956. Also, the event is kid friendly and dinner is free for kids under age 12, with games and prizes just for kids. Today’s kids are the future of angling and habitat.

So, I hope to see you at the Trout Unlimited dinner, and don’t be afraid to get into a bidding war on a neat fly rod or piece of art.

Remember: it’s all for the trout.

It’s Presidents’ Day Weekend and the Great Backyard Bird Count

Canada geese in the Big Hole River last summer.

While the current head resident at the White House is busy sucking all the oxygen out of the air, don’t forget that this coming weekend honors our first president, George Washington.

While Monday’s holiday is officially Washington’s Birthday, many have come to look at it as Presidents’ Day, and this coming weekend as the Presidents’ Day Weekend.

The third Monday of February became the designated day to observe Washington’s Birthday with the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968. Ironically, it guarantees that we never celebrate Washington’s birthday on February 22, his actual birthday.

Three other presidents were born in February. Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. William Henry Harrison was born on February 9, 1773. Ronald Reagan was born February 6, 1911.

William Henry Harrison’s presidency is remembered for two things: the longest inaugural speech in our country’s history, and the shortest tenure in office. He took the oath of office on March 4, 1841, a cold and wet day. He didn’t wear a coat or hat, and declined a carriage and rode a horse to the capitol building. He then stood in cold rain for nearly two hours reading his 8,445-word speech. Then he rode in the inauguration parade and attended three inaugural balls that evening.

On March 26, the president came down with a cold and despite medical treatment including opium, castor oil, leeches and Virginia snakeweed, he died on April 4, just 31 days into his term. While the medical diagnosis at the time was pneumonia, a 2014 analysis of medical records, as noted on Wikipedia, indicates that a contaminated water supply at the White House was likely a contributing factor in his illness and death.

Harrison was the first president to die in office, and his vice president, John Tyler, became the first vice president to assume the office of president. In 1889, Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison, was elected president, the only grandson of a president to become president.

Presidents’ Day weekend also means that it is again time for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

This will be the 20th year of the annual citizen scientist project. In 1998, the first year of the Bird Count, there were around 13,500 checklists, representing the United States and Canada, submitted for the weekend. Last year, an estimated 163,763 bird watchers from over 100 countries participated in the event.

This year’s Great Backyard Bird Count takes place over this Presidents’ Day weekend, Friday, February 17 through Monday February 20.

It’s easy to participate in the Bird Count project. On any or all days of the weekend, just take a walk in your neighborhood, in a park, or any other location, and note the different kinds of birds you see and then log on to a website, birdcount.org, and report your observations.

You can do this as an individual, or you can participate as a family, or a classroom or a scout troop, or any other combination of volunteers. Use your imagination.

You don’t have to be a birder to participate in the Bird Count. Personally, I’ve participated in the Bird Count in every year since it started, and I’m not a birder, though I do find enjoyment in observing the variety of birds and bird behaviors when I’m in the outdoors.

One of the purposes of the Great Backyard Bird Count is to get a snapshot of bird species and numbers and where birds are toward the end of winter, before the spring migrations.

Here in our part of the West, there might be some interesting contrasts in bird populations compared to other years. On a trip a couple weeks ago I was on a daytime flight from Salt Lake City and was impressed with the uniform snow cover along the route paralleling Interstate 15. My hunch is that observers might not see as many early migrators this year.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a good excuse to get out and enjoy a little nature.

Winter Weekend in Duluth – A Fun Destination

Sunrise over Lake Superior at Duluth, Minnesota

Sunrise over Lake Superior at Duluth, Minnesota

I’m not a big fan of ice fishing, but it’s not a bad way to spend the day, especially when you’re in a shelter, complete with a propane heater, and sonar gear to let you know if a fish is showing interest in the fishing lure I’m bouncing around a foot off the bottom 20 feet straight down from the hole in the ice. This hole in the ice was a long way from home, in the frozen waters off the shore from Duluth, Minnesota. With me in the shelter was my host, Matt Stewart, a local fishing guide. The outing had been arranged by Visit Duluth, the area’s convention and visitor bureau.

A "selfie" of fishing guide Matt Stewart and myself.

A “selfie” of fishing guide Matt Stewart and myself.

I’m on the board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and Visit Duluth invited us to have our winter board meeting in Duluth to give us a chance to get acquainted with the area, because we would be having our annual summer conference there this coming June. While we waited for the fish to take our hooks, Matt told about the fishing in the harbor waters. Most people want walleyes, but it’s one of those waters where you never know what might come along, including pike, muskies, perch, sturgeon, and burbot, which locally are called eelpout. One angler recently caught a 30-inch pike through the ice, and Jarrid Houston, another guide, once caught a 57-inch sturgeon through the ice. The water we were fishing is referred to as the St. Louis River, though the harbor waters seem to be at least a mile wide. The St. Louis River comes a long way through northern Minnesota before dumping into Lake Superior. Mike Furtman, a local outdoor writer and wildlife photographer, said when he was a kid the St. Louis River was polluted and poisoned by raw sewage from upstream communities, as well as industrial pollution from shipyards and other sources in Duluth. There’s still work being done, but the Clean Water Act effectively cleaned up the river and the harbor, and the fish came back. It’s a great lesson to remember as we hear about the possible gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency. As it happened, I didn’t catch any fish. The sonar indicated a number of fish that checked out my lure, but it couldn’t make them bite. Matt caught a small walleye, and others in our group, fishing with Jarrid, caught several fish, including one of those “eelpout.” That’s the way it goes. There were a lot of options for the day (to make up for the previous day in a stuffy meeting room). Several people went cross-country skiing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and others tried ice climbing and fat tire biking. The next day several of us went up the North Shore to Two Harbors and caught the beginning of the John Beargrease Sled-dog Marathon race, one of the country’s major sled dog events.

Cheering on the start of the John Beargrease sled dog marathon.

Cheering on the start of the John Beargrease sled dog marathon.

It was a typically busy weekend in the Duluth area, and there are a lot of facilities that provide event venues. We got a look at the convention center that’s along the waterfront. It’s part of a complex of convention facilities, plus ice skating arenas, movie theater, symphony hall, and curling rink, for a start. During our weekend, there was a big hockey tournament, and a major figure skating competition at the center. The weather was relatively mild during our weekend, but Duluth has a system of skyways so that people can navigate through much of downtown Duluth without having to go outside. All in all, we found Duluth to be a really interesting destination, with lots of indoor and outdoor activities. My wife and I have been to Duluth before, but it has been over 30 years since the last time we were there. The big waterfront convention center complex was built since then. Incidentally, on the way home I got caught when Delta Airlines had a major systems crash, so I missed the public lands rally at the Capitol last week. Travel is fun, though not without problems.

Fly Fishing Film Tour Returns!

My friend, Charley, fishing with the help of our now-departed Flicka.

My friend, Charley, fishing with the help of our now-departed Flicka.

Okay, we endured January.

It was a tough month. Hunting seasons ended. Donald Trump took over the White House, and immediately started reversing policies of the Obama Administration.

The weather was cold. Utility bills were high. You’d like to go south somewhere and get warm, so you send emails to in-laws who have a condo in Arizona suggesting you’d like to come and visit for a few months. They don’t reply but they do “unfriend” you on Facebook. You realize that’s a hint that you’re stuck at home for the duration.

Take courage. You survived January. Daylight hours are over an hour longer than they were at Christmas, and every day has a few minutes more sunshine than the day before.

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day, that silly festival where we wake a woodchuck from a perfectly pleasant winter’s hibernation to see if, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the sun is shining. According to the legend, if the groundhog sees its shadow, there will be another six weeks of winter. If it’s cloudy and the groundhog doesn’t see its shadow, there will be an early spring.

Big deal. In this part of the country, six more weeks of winter is pretty much the same as an early spring.

For a real taste of spring I recommend an evening of fly-fishing movies. Yes, the annual Fly-fishing Film Tour is coming up next week on Thursday, February 9, at the Motherlode Theater in Butte. There’s a social hour beginning around 6 p.m., with the movies starting at 7 p.m.

This is the 11th season for the Fly-Fishing Film Tour, or F3T for short. It’s definitely a cure for cabin fever, as we enjoy an evening of fly-fishing around the world.

This year’s film lineup features fishing in places as varied as Kamchatka, Siberia, Mexico, Alaska, and, yes, Montana. Some of the anglers might exude an overdose of testosterone, but not all of them, as a couple of the featured films highlight women as fly anglers.

Tickets for the evening are $15 and are available in advance at The Stonefly fly shop in Butte, or at the door at the theater.

It should be fun.

It will also be a healthy distraction from nonsense emanating from our nation’s capitol.

Even before Trump took office, his transition team asked for names of Federal employees who have attended climate change meetings, sending a chilling message to government scientists.

Last week Trump signed executive orders reversing previous decision by the Obama administration to not permit the Keystone XL Pipeline and to not grant an easement across the Missouri River, thus halting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

I assume some readers cheer this news. Many people were disappointed when the Keystone XL pipeline was stopped. From a jobs perspective, yes, pipeline construction creates jobs temporarily, though most of those jobs disappear once the pipeline is completed. In the case of Keystone XL, the bulk of the petroleum that would be transported would come from the Alberta Tar Sands of Canada; the dirtiest, most polluting, environmentally damaging petroleum on earth. The main winners with Keystone XL will be Canadian oil corporations.

I have friends in North Dakota who were angered when Pres. Obama halted DAPL. I’m not sure if it’s for the principle of piping Bakken oil to refiners, or if it’s anger at a bunch of damn Indians defying pipeline companies. It’s probably a complex mixture of both. Either way, I don’t think they realize that the reason the pipeline was halted was because the pipeline company had lost in the court of pubic opinion.

The latest is that the new Trump Administration just ordered three federal agencies to cease communicating with the public through (according to Washington Post), “news releases, social media and correspondence.” Is it coincidence that the three agencies are Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior, agencies that deal with environmental issues and public lands?

In other words, there’s a lot going on that calls for a night off to daydream about fishing.

Fly-fishing  a local western Montana creek.

Fly-fishing a local western Montana creek.