Meateater Cookbook and other Suggestions

Steve Rinella’s Meateater cookbook – a good start for wild game – from the field to the kitchen.

The autumn and early winter months are the time many of us put meat in the freezer. Now is the time to celebrate the bounty of those hunts on the dining room table.

I think we often have a tendency to cook game the same way every time someone takes one of those packages of venison, or birds, or fish out of the freezer.

A few years ago, our church used to hold an annual wild game dinner we’d refer to as the “Beast Feast.” We had some good dinners, though I’d occasionally come home thinking that a dozen variations of pot roast was a bit much, and I would have loved an elk roast, for example, grilled over charcoal to medium rare and served with horseradish sauce.

Similarly, many always cook pheasants in a slow cooker along with a can or two of cream of mushroom soup. The results may be delicious, but not particularly adventurous.

For this reason I like to keep my eyes open for new recipes, or new cookbooks that help us branch out a bit when we put wild game on the table. One prolific cookbook author is Hank Shaw, whose background is in food journalism and cooking. He has four cookbooks out, covering waterfowl, big game, and small game. Check his website at https://honest-food.net. I’ll also give a shout-out for Montana cookbook author Eileen Clarke. Check https://riflesandrecipes.com.

The latest game cookbook comes from Steven Rinella, who has had TV shows on cable networks, currently on Netflix, and his book is The Meateater Fish and Game Cookbook.

Rinella has several other books to his credit, but I liked this one, as it covers a variety of wild foods, from crayfish and bullfrogs, fresh and saltwater fish, upland birds, waterfowl, small game such as rabbits and squirrels, and big game. People who have watched his TV programs or YouTube videos are likely familiar with his themes of public land hunting followed by cooking the products of the hunt, often featuring how to utilize parts of critters that often get left in the field for the coyotes and magpies to clean up.

This cookbook has a lot of basics, such as step-by-step directions of field dressing fallen game, butchering—both at home or out in the field when necessary. Each section has similar themes, such as filleting fish, plucking ducks or skinning squirrels, along with recipes for fish and game.

One of the recipes I tried from the book was Osso Bucco, a traditional Italian dish usually made from veal shanks. This one was for deer shanks, with suggestions for modifying the recipe for larger animals, such as elk or moose, or smaller ones such as antelope. He comments that, “I haven’t yet met a shank I don’t like.” The Osso Bucco that I made from whitetail deer shanks turned out tender and delicious, with a marvelous pan sauce. He suggests serving it with polenta and a gremolata sauce as a condiment, and includes recipes for both polenta and gremolata sauce in a separate section.

I’d suggest that this isn’t a complete cookbook, in that there aren’t a lot of recipes in section, as much as guidelines for cooking. It strikes me that this would be a great cookbook for someone who does something of everything but is still learning. There are lots of cookbooks but not many have detailed directions for butchering a snapping turtle, for example. The next step might be to check some other of Rinella’s books, or many other books.

There are, as mentioned previously, other fish and game cookbooks on the market, not to mention books from years past that are probably out of print, but might be found at a used book bookstore or garage sale. In addition, you can likely find a recipe for cooking just about anything, or combination of things, by doing an online search on the internet.

Hunting, whether for upland birds or big game, can be an adventure. I like to celebrate success in the field with a little adventure in the kitchen.

Flyfishing Fantasies and Thinking of Summer

Logo of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited

The last couple weeks, in the depths of winter, I’ve been watching tennis from the Australian Open from Melbourne, Australia, where it’s mid-summer. Sorry to say, I couldn’t stay awake through the wee hours to catch some of the marquee matches that started around 1 a.m.

I’ve also spent a couple afternoons learning to tie some different trout flies. I remember reading about a professional flytyer who figured he really hadn’t learned a new fly pattern until he’d tied a hundred dozen of them. Sorry to say, as a hobby tyer, I won’t live long enough to tie a hundred dozen flies, much less have patience to crank out a hundred dozen of anything.

Still, that doesn’t stop me from trying to imitate other peoples’ imitations of nature or whimsy as to what might trick a trout into biting a bit of fakery.

While watching tennis from the other end of the world or tying flies won’t make it summer, and to be clear, we need cold, snowy weather now, there are events coming up that help us cope with winter.

First is the annual Fly Fishing Film Tour of 2019, or F3T, the annual celebration of fly-fishing filmmaking. It’s a sad fact of life, but most of us will likely never go to dream destinations around the world in search of fishing adventure. But, it’s easy to go to a theater and enjoy an evening of vicarious adventure.

This year, the F3T show will be on the evening of Saturday, February 9, at the Mother Lode Theater in Butte. The local showing is sponsored by The Stone Fly fly shop here in Butte, and you can stop in at the store for more information or advance tickets. For information on other showings in Montana and around the country, go to https://flyfilmtour.com.

The other big event is the annual fundraising banquet of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, scheduled for Friday, March 1, 2019, at the Copper King Hotel and Convention Center.

The TU dinner is like most conservation group fundraisers, with a great dinner, with raffles, games, drawings, silent and live auctions, all with the goal of having a fun evening while you spend money relatively painlessly.

I’ve been to a lot of these dinners over the years, for various organizations, but the TU dinner is always one of my favorites, as so much of the fly-fishing merchandise is stuff that I like and use. More importantly, the funds raised by TU are used to fund conservation projects right here in southwest Montana.

While the banquet committee sent out a mailing to alert people about the upcoming event, all the advance ticket sales are done online, and as of a week ago, the event sold out. If you want to get on a waiting list in case of cancellations, go to www.georgegranttu.org. Mark Thompson, the current president of GGTU says, “It’s going to be huge!”

While we might daydream of fun on tennis courts or trout streams, we keep returning to reality, and a reality that keeps getting bigger and more ominous is the government shutdown, which has now gone over a month.

As a retired federal employee, I’m concerned for my brothers and sisters in the federal service who are either at home, or on the job and working without pay. Unlike the president or most of the people in Congress, these are people who work for a living and need a regular paycheck to pay for food, housing, childcare, college tuition, student loans and all the various demands that working people face.

Some readers may choose to disagree, but I put the blame on the shutdown on the chief resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.

Regardless of who gets the blame, the work of the people is not getting done, and even with agencies that are open, things are grinding to a halt as agencies run out of resources. Even when the shutdown finally ends, there will be huge backlogs of work. It could take years to fully recover.

Note: the above commentary on the government shutdown were written and submitted to the newspaper I write for prior to the shutdown. I’m hoping Congress can come to some agreement and convince the president to accept it. This nation cannot afford another shutdown such as we just had.

Montanans Rally for Public Lands

Statues of Mike and Maureen Mansfield at Montana State Capitol

Mike and Maureen Mansfield had lots of company when supporters of Montana’s public lands visited Montana’s state capitol on January 11.

Of course, it was the bronze statues of Montana’s former senator, ambassador to Japan, and revered elder statesman, and his beloved wife, whom Mike Mansfield always credited for whatever success he had in public life.

The Mansfield statues are on a third floor gallery overlooking the main floor of the capitol rotunda where advocates for public lands crowded in to hear from Governor Steve Bullock, Senator Jon Tester and others proclaim their support for Montana’s Federal public lands.

News reports estimated that about 2,000 people came to the rally. I can’t verify that count, but I can say that the capitol, from the ground floor entrances to the top galleries near the capitol’s dome were jam-packed with people from all over the state, who came by bus or car pool to show their support for public lands, and to send a message to the Legislature that they’d better not take up any legislation that would tamper with those lands.

Part of the crowd at the capitol, and the many signs.

Many of the people in the crowd came with signs, some supplied by organizations, plus many that were probably created on kitchen tables the night before the rally. The signs bore various messages, such as “I (heart) Public Land,” “Montana is for Public Land Owners,” or “Keep Public Lands in Public Hands.” One sign bore a photo of President Theodore Roosevelt, saying, “What Would T.R. Think?” Another asserted, “Cliven Bundy owes you and me a lot of money.”

People came to whoop it up a bit, with lots of cheering and yelling when speakers put out applause lines. There were also some varying agendas, as occasionally a voice would ring out, “Let the buffalo roam free!”

Senator Tester was a surprise speaker, who was able to be on hand because Congress, in deadlock on funding the federal government, took a recess for the weekend.

While there were great messages from many speakers, Governor Bullock sent the audience members home cheering. Here are a few of his applause lines.

“We’re here to celebrate our public lands, and we have something to celebrate. There are over 3,000 bills in the legislative hopper and not a one would take away our public lands.”

“Make your voices known. Our public lands are our heritage and birthright!”

“We estimate that our public lands generate some $7.1 billion dollars for our economy.” Noting numbers of people who visit Montana, he added, “They ain’t coming here for our Walmarts!”

The governor, who will be term-limited in 2020, is considered a dark horse candidate for the 2020 presidential race though he hasn’t made any formal announcements, addressed some actions by the president, including the downsizing of some National Monuments, “We have a president who consistently attacks our public lands. An attack on public lands anywhere is an attack on public lands everywhere.”

Bullock ended with a pledge of opposition to any actions that could transfer ownership of Montana public lands, “It ain’t gonna happen on my watch,” adding, “It’s not just on my watch, it’s on OUR watch.”

Governor Steve Bullock greeting well-wishers following his speech to the crowd.

While some legislators made a point of circulating through the crowds, State Senator Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls), vice chair of the Montana Republican Party and an activist for transferring Federal public lands, was likely not one of them.

As reported by Don Pogreba of the online politics junkie site, The Montana Post, Fielder asked for and received a security detail from the legislature’s Sergeant at Arms to protect her from what she described on Facebook as “possible hostilities at a large protest at the State Capitol.” She had edited out a previous post referring to the crowd as “rabble.”

That makes me wonder what’s going to happen when Steve Bullock leaves the governor’s office in 2021. Regardless of which political party the next governor comes from, will he or she have the same commitment and passion for Montana’s public lands?

That’s something we need to keep in mind as gubernatorial candidates start popping up in coming months.

Winter Fun and Thoughts of Spring

Typical scenery on Montana’s beautiful Smith River.

We’re in the heart of winter, when days are still short, most days are cold, and hunting seasons are over.

Take heart! Spring is coming. Every day, sunset comes a couple minutes later. The ultimate proof is that I just got my first gardening catalog of the season.

Another sign of spring is that this is the period for applying for a Smith River Private Float Permit.

A float trip on the Smith River is one of the ultimate Montana outdoor experiences; a chance to truly get away from it all.

For the benefit of the few people not familiar with the Smith River, it’s a tributary of the Missouri River, merging with the big river near Ulm, south of Great Falls. The heart of the Smith River, a 59-mile stretch from near White Sulphur Springs, to Eden Bridge, upstream from the confluence, is basically accessible only by floating the river, and to float the river you have to enter a lottery.

It’s not exactly a wilderness trip, as much of the route is in ranching country, with some occasional trophy homes along the river, and even a small golf course midway through the trip.

The scenery is stunning, with high cliffs that tower over the river, including areas with ancient petroglyphs. There’s abundant wildlife along the river, including black bears, which means you need to protect your food supply when you set up camp for the night.

It’s a camping trip, with river campsites along the route, which means you can’t dawdle along, because you have to cover around 15 to 20 miles daily. But, not to worry, there’s plenty of time for fishing and the fishing can be great.

The deadline for entering the lottery is midnight on February 14. Applications can be submitted on-line or by mail.

A small number of outfitters are licensed to provide guided trips on the river, as well. Going with an outfitter is a good way to simplify the logistics of the trip, as they’ll take care of all the food and such complexities. All it takes is money.

For more information and details, go online to stateparks.mt.gov.

While we dream of spring and warm days, a better option might be to take advantage of winter recreation, and there are abundant opportunities for outings in our part of Montana, and this weekend’s Snöflinga festival is a good start.

Lots of people love ice fishing, and believe nothing’s better than to spend a day on a frozen lake angling for trout, or whatever the lake might provide. Popular ice fishing destinations in this area include Georgetown Lake, Canyon Ferry Lake, Lewis & Clark Canyon, Ruby Reservoir, and others.

Standing out on a frozen lake can be a cold and windy proposition, though a portable shelter and propane heater can take the misery out of the outing.

Surrounded as we are by snowy mountains, we have lots of options for skiing, both cross-country and downhill.

Within an hour or so, we have Discovery Basin ski area between Anaconda and Philipsburg, or Maverick ski area west of Dillon. There’s Bridger just out of Bozeman, or for the big ski resort experience, there’s Big Sky an hour south of Bozeman.

For cross-country skiing, it can be as simple as a local golf course, or following groomed trails at the Moulton x-c area north of Walkerville, or the Mt. Haggin cross country area, probably the only such developed recreation area wholly within a Wildlife Management Area.

Of course, there are the die-hards who scorn cold weather and put on waders and head for open river water for fly-fishing. I don’t county myself in that group, though in mild winters, and this is shaping up to be a classical El Niño winter, we can get mild days, even in January, when fly-fishing can be an enjoyable outing.

Even if the regular hunting seasons are over, there are hunting opportunities for non-game animals such as rabbits. Cottontail rabbits are relatively plentiful—and delicious.

In short, don’t get the cabin fever blues. Go out and have fun.

Last Call for Birds!

Kiri working some heavy cover for pheasants.

The clock is ticking, and it’s not just for the brand new baby we call 2019.

The upland bird season ended a week ago, on New Year’s Day. I stayed home and tried to stay warm on that subzero day. I did get out for one last pheasant outing a few days earlier, however.

I guess if I had someone filming my life, as it seems all klutzy people do, posting the results on Facebook, the day might end up in some series of outtakes from the life of an unlucky pheasant hunter.

I’d object, as the day was more about how smart and wary pheasants are in the middle of winter. These are birds that have honed their senses and survival skills to a fine edge.

A few glimpses into the outing might indicate how my day went.

Just before I turned off the gravel road to drive into the ranch I was hunting, I spotted a rooster pheasant in the middle of the road about 20 yards ahead of my truck. While I was watching this pheasant, another rooster flushed from a Russian olive tree on the side of the road and flew into a sagebrush patch in the field I was going to hunt.

I parked the truck and quietly got out and then let Kiri, my Labrador retriever out and we approached the brush patch. There were pheasant tracks everywhere. We got perhaps 20 yards into the brush when cock pheasants began flushing out of range.

It occurred to me that these pheasants must have watched some old W. C. Fields movies on some hidden TV set back in the brush jungles. “Never give a sucker an even break, “ was one of Fields’ favorite lines, using it in several movies, including his last starring movie in 1941, when that line was the movie title.

During the course of our walk through brush patches, cattails, sagebrush and willows, we put up more pheasants, again all out of range. We finally got to a grassy swale where half a dozen pheasants got up in good shooting range one at a time. The only problem was that they were all hens.

The sun was beginning to slip behind the mountains to the west when four rooster pheasants flushed from around 100 yards ahead of us, flying to a cattail patch another 100 or so yards ahead. When Kiri and I got there, the birds were gone, having slipped off to parts unknown.

I saw a pheasant fly into tall grass not too far away, but when we got there it was gone—not even a hint of scent that might have gotten Kiri excited. Yes, never give a sucker an even break.

We were in the shadow of the mountains, with temperatures dropping, when we completed our walk, and, for all intents and purposes, the 2018 upland bird season.

As I noted in last week’s column, this hadn’t been a particularly productive season in terms of potential dinners in the freezer. Still, as I look back to the annual trek through the seasons from late summer to autumn and, finally, winter, I feel good about it.

My birthday falls in October, usually in the first week or so of pheasant season, so I have annual reminders that I’d better enjoy this hunting season, because it’s a good question how many seasons I have left.

So, I feel good that I’m still hiking the aspen thickets in the mountains, and the prairies of Montana and North Dakota. I’m still thrilled and startled by the flush of a grouse or pheasant. I enjoy the sight of a Labrador retriever working out the scent of a game bird.

When you read this I will be looking at one more, final, outing for some mallards, though there are never guarantees for success. Nevertheless it’s personally important to be out there, trudging across that frozen tundra before the seasons are all done.

It’s a long time until September.

Late Season Bird Blues (not to be confused with bluebirds)

My Lab, Kiri, in her preferred habitat.

Heavy snow was falling outside my office window, and on the afternoon of Christmas Eve day, Christmas music kept things cheerful.

I was scheming for one more outing for pheasants or other upland birds before the season closed on New Year’s Day. I have to confess this hasn’t been a particularly successful hunting season from the standpoint of bringing home game to put in the freezer. I’ve had lots of outings, with good exercise and fresh air, so those outings weren’t a waste of time.

I follow a Facebook group that’s devoted to upland bird hunting and someone posed the question as whether they’re disappointed if they don’t come home with game. There was a big response with people saying that for them it’s more about dog work than anything else, so they’re perfectly happy if they get to see their dogs working, perhaps liking it even better if someone else is along to do the shotgunning.

I totally understand that sentiment, and I guess that’s what keeps me getting up early on cold, dark mornings for outings in which I’ve been unsuccessful. Still, I confess that I also get a lot of satisfaction when I swing my shotgun at a departing bird and see it fold and drop to the ground.

Nevertheless, I don’t regret any of those outings for fresh air and exercise, as I’ve always seen some game and interesting sights, and moments of frustration, too.

On a recent trip I was up early and on the road on a sub-zero morning, hoping I’d get shooting at ducks on a warm water spring creek I’ve been privileged to hunt.

Kiri, my Labrador retriever and hunting partner, and I made a wide swing across a field to approach a favorite spot on the creek where I almost always see mallards. We got to the spot and birds start flushing, but I’m momentarily confused as the birds aren’t ducks. They were pheasants, probably half a dozen—all roosters—hunkered down in the tall grasses on the creek bank where temperatures, moderated by the warm water, were probably 30 degrees warmer than the ambient temps. I finally collected my wits long enough to get a shot off at a rocketing cock pheasant, and missed. Then the other barrel misfired, probably because of the frigid morning.

That’s kind of how my hunting season has been going.

The upland bird season is now over. The waterfowl season for ducks and geese is still on, closing temporarily at sunset this Sunday, January 6, then reopening on January 12, before closing for good at sunset on January 16. That juggling of closing dates is done to have the season’s end coincide with another weekend.

Considering the daily avalanche of news out of our nation’s capitol, with the chaos and upheavals, those hunting outings are a good way to not only get good exercise, but a day in the outdoors helps us keep some balance in our lives, or keep our heads screwed on right, as I often think of it. It’s too bad the general hunting seasons don’t run longer, now that I think of it, as we not only have the news from Washington D.C., but the Montana Legislature is back in session.

Issues that will come up, both in the Lege, but in the new Congress as well, will be familiar, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, that funnels off-shore oil tax revenues to states for public land projects, such as fishing access, land acquisitions, etc. Montana’s delegation were working as a team to get LWCF re-enacted, and there was overwhelming Congressional support for it—except for Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) who held it up because he wanted language added to forbid further National Monument designations in Utah.

Sen. Lee also held up legislation that would have given federal recognition to Montana’s Little Shell Indian tribe. I guess I can hope that Sen. Lee got a Christmas stocking with lumps of coal, though more likely he already had big campaign contributions from energy companies.

Happy New Year, I guess.

Zinke & Russian Spy in End of Year Outdoor News

Then-congressional candidate Ryan Zinke in 2014.

In more normal times, the last couple weeks of the year have a slow news cycle. It’s convenient. We can do a re-hash of old stories, get done ahead of schedule and then concentrate on holiday parties and bowl games.

Not this year, especially regarding environment and firearms.

First, is the departure of former Montana congressman Ryan Zinke from his post as Secretary of the Department of Interior. The Trump Administration forced Zinke to resign by year’s end or be fired.

Almost from the beginning of his tenure, he has been plagued by repeated scandals, ranging from ordering a set of $139,000 doors for his office, to shuttling his wife, Lola, around D.C. in government vehicles, commandeering a Park Service helicopter to deliver him to a horseback ride with V.P. Mike Pence, and that’s just a start. He even had a flag created to fly over the department’s headquarters building so passersby would know whether or not he was in.

Then there were shady real estate dealings with the chairman of oil company Halliburton, which was formally referred to the Justice Department in October.

Zinke took a wrecking bar approach to the nation’s public lands, downsizing national monuments, particularly in Utah. Climate scientists were ordered to shut up about climate change, or face reassignment to meaningless jobs or reassignments. He also made it clear to mining and energy companies that the public lands were open for development, including public lands in our backyard of the Big Hole River.

All this from a person who claimed to be a public lands advocate in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt.

It’s hard telling what might be in Zinke’s future, as he carries the curse of being a Trump appointee, someone so corrupt that even Trump couldn’t stand the stink. Some observers speculate he’ll get a gig at Fox News. If he had thoughts of coming back home to run for governor in Montana, he’d likely be considered a gift to whomever Democrats nominate to succeed Steve Bullock.

Unfortunately, don’t look for any positive changes at Interior. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt will be in charge at Interior until a new appointment is made. Bernhardt is an industry insider and politician who has been a power behind the scenes all along.

Zinke is leaving in style, however. Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post notes that he didn’t leave the job until he hosted a big holiday party for lobbyists, where they could have photographs taken with Zinke in front of a stuffed polar bear.

Maria Butina (Russian photo)

And, remember Maria Butina? She’s the pretty redhead from Russia who was arrested last July for being an unregistered agent of the Russian government, ending a high-flying ride in which she consorted with all manner of conservative politicians, especially bigwigs at the National Rifle Association.

She pleaded guilty in Federal court, admitting to seeking to establish and use “unofficial lines of communication with Americans having influence over U.S. politics” for the benefit of the Russian government.

While she was not part of the Mueller investigation, her activities seemed to coincide with other Russian efforts to bring “synergy” to the Trump campaign.

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr., speculates that NRA leaders are facing a lot of questions regarding Ms. Butina’s courting of the NRA, and whether the NRA’s surge in political spending in the 2016 election was tied to Russia.

Dionne also suggests that the NRA’s influence might now, finally, be waning. NRA’s political spending dropped during the 2018 election, along with the “blue wave” of Democrats elected to the House of Representatives. Dionne also reports that some suburban Republican candidates were even fearful of cashing checks from the NRA.

Still, I’ll pose the same question I asked months ago. Why aren’t NRA rank and file members storming the doors of the NRA headquarters building in Washington D.C., demanding the heads of NRA leaders who so eagerly and naively admitted a Russian spy to their innermost circles?

On a more positive note, there’s still time some last pheasant hunts before the season closes on January 1. Happy New Year!

 

Winter Solstice – a Precursor to Christmas

A natural Christmas/Yule tree, after heavy snows on Christmas Day a year ago.

At 3:23 p.m. on Friday, we have an event worth celebrating. No, it’s not likely that the president will be resigning, or I’ve won the lottery. Actually, the event won’t be noticeable, but at that precise time we will reach the Winter Solstice, that moment in Earth’s rotation around the sun when the northern hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun, making Friday the shortest day of the year, in term of daylight hours.

That means of course that it’s also when the southern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, and our friends in Australia and other countries south of the Equator will have their longest day of the year.

By some people’s definition, Friday is the beginning of winter, though in reality, in northern latitudes, such as Montana, it’s more realistic to think in terms of winter starting in November. In many cultures, the day of the Winter Solstice is considered midwinter.

Here in Butte, on Friday we’ll have 8 hours, 38 minutes and 26 seconds of daylight. It’s hardly worth celebrating, but on Saturday we’ll have approximately one more second of daylight, according to www.timeanddate.com. What will be noticeable in a few days is a later sunset, though sunrises will also be a bit later each day for the rest of the month. Still, by New Year’s Eve day, we will have gained about four minutes of daylight. I’m grateful to my father for immigrating to America. In the countryside around Trondheim, Norway, where he grew up, there are just four hours and 30 minutes of daylight on the Solstice.

The Winter Solstice is a special day in many cultures, as the dark, cold months of winter are often associated with hardship and starvation, and the gradual lengthening of days is a promise that spring will be coming in a few months. The rocks at Stonehenge in England are lined up for sunrise on the Solstice.

Of course at the same time, according to Wikipedia, the Solstice is a time for feasting, as livestock would be slaughtered around this time, to avoid having to feed them through the winter. Wine and beer made during the year would also be fully fermented and ready for drinking.

Northern European people celebrated the Solstice with a 12-day midwinter holiday season called Yule and similar terms. Many Christian traditions, such as Christmas trees and wreaths, or the Yule log, have their start in those pagan cultures. Even the beer brewing continues as part of Scandinavian Christian customs with the making of the Yule ale, just as many craft beer brewers come up with a winter or Christmas seasonal beer.

In this coming week we also celebrate Christmas, and I’ll note that December 25 was also the date that the Roman Empire celebrated Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The days leading up to the celebration, Saturnalia, were also a time for feasting and drinking.

In researching this article I learned that some Christian churches also commemorate the Solstice as Blue Christmas. It’s the feast day for St. Thomas the Apostle, linking “Doubting Thomas” and his struggle to understand the story of the resurrection with our seeming struggle with darkness.

I grew up in a heavily Scandinavian area, or “Lutefisk Ghetto,” in southern Minnesota, with rafts of uncles, aunts, cousins and other extended family within relatively close distances, and while they likely didn’t consider themselves pagans, they certainly observed the 12 days of Yule, and the days between Christmas and New Year were a time for having a houseful of company for dinner, or going to someone else’s house for dinner.

Scientists tell us that some of our strongest memories are associated with our olfactory senses, and just thinking of the Yule season, I occasionally take a quick mental trip back to years past, entering farm houses redolent of aromas of manure-splattered overalls and boots by back doors, combining with the scent of lutefisk, rutabaga, and roast beef in the kitchen—a heady combination.

It’s the smell of Christmas, and so I wish our readers a Merry Christmas.

Another Miracle for the Holiday Season

Organized chaos – sorting truckloads of food into boxes.

This time of year we often think of miracles. The Biblical story of the first Christmas is full of miracles. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah celebrates another miracle.

Here in Butte, we annually begin the holiday season with a miracle.

I’m talking about the annual Thompson Food Drive that benefits the Butte Emergency Food Bank. This has been going on for a long time, going back to the 1980s. Begun by Jim and Marge Thompson, owners of Thompson Distributing, the longtime distributor of Budweiser beers, the leadership has been taken over, this year, by Harrington Bottling, the local Pepsi bottler and distributor, but, it’s still the Thompson Food Drive.

More importantly, the annual food drive demonstrates the power of volunteers. I’ve been one of those volunteers and the job I’ve invented for myself is to be the photographer.

There are a lot of moving parts in this annual community-wide food drive, and every part of it involves volunteers.

I didn’t have my camera ready when my neighborhood’s volunteers, a young mother and a little boy, who looked like he was about a two-year old, were trudging alongside a fire truck, picking up bags of food from the curb. It was a frigid morning, but the mom and boy cheerfully walked through new-fallen snow to do their job.

The neighborhood collections go to one of several collection points where they’re loaded into big trucks and taken to the Food Bank, and that’s where the miracle workers really begin.

It’s a process that’s usually described as “organized chaos,” and that’s an accurate description. When the trucks come into the loading dock, the first wave of volunteers go into the truck with grocery carts and bring them in where another group of volunteers makes an initial sorting of the bags of food into other carts. The carts go to other volunteers who sort the food into boxes of similar products, and the boxes, and yes, those boxes are Budweiser beer cases, get stacked on pallets.

If that sounds fairly simple and straight- forward, you need to see it to believe it. If you want to see something similar in nature, throw some bits of food on the ground near an anthill, and watch the ants swarm over the bounty.

An elementary school child working diligently.

The annual food drive attracts volunteers of all sizes and ages, including one little guy in a baby carrier, learning about volunteerism before he could even walk or talk. There are elementary and high school kids and many older people who are veterans of many food drives.

High school students taking a quick break to smile.

If there’s a commonality among the many volunteers, it’s their smiles. They’re doing important work, and much of it is hard work, but just about everybody has a big smile on their face, because volunteerism on a community-wide scale such as this is infectiously fun. I always leave thinking this is the happiest place in town.

Of course, the volunteerism doesn’t stop on that first Saturday of December. Through the year, crews of volunteers put in regular shifts at the Food Bank sharing with many people the gift of food on the table to feed families.

There are other food drives during the year, such as the Postal food drive in the spring, but this is the big one, the one that fills the food bank’s shelves and feeds people throughout the year.

Butte, Montana is a special place and this annual food drive is just one special reason why.

The food drive wasn’t the only miracle going on. Not far away, at the Maroon Activity Center, hundreds of people got almost-new winter coats and jackets that other Butte people had donated.

While I’m at it, I might mention that on the same weekend as the food drive, the good people at Gold Hill Lutheran Church celebrated their Scandinavian heritage with their annual Lutefisk dinner. Lutefisk is one of those ethnic foods that is either loved or despised. As one Lutheran clergyman described it, “It’s the piece of Cod that passeth all understanding.”

The holiday season is truly a time for miracles.

Still Time for Hunting Montana

A flashback to four years ago and a great hunting day (and one of her last) with the late Flicka.

My Lab, Kiri, and I walked into a grassy swale on a southwestern Montana ranch a couple days ago and two pheasants flushed from the cover, surprising and thrilling both of us. As it happened, both those birds were protected hens, so shooting wasn’t part of the story.

An hour later we completed our stroll through the pheasant cover. We never did put up any roosters, though I did spot one, head down and making tracks down a little ditch created by a center pivot irrigation system tire. That pheasant made a successful escape.

A couple hours earlier Kiri and I walked along a warm water spring creek on the same ranch in search of ducks. One bunch of ducks flushed from their tropical paradise before I got in range, though I did get some shooting when we put up another little group of mallards.

I won’t count the covey of Hungarian partridge that flushed from an alfalfa field, as they got up within 20 yards of ranch corrals where ranch family members were feeding cattle. I love to get the occasional partridge, both for their delicious meat and feathers for flytying, but not at the price of losing my welcome.

Obviously, this isn’t the type of hunting story we look for if we happen to pick up a hunting magazine. We expect to see the results of a lot of shooting, more than a dead shotshell or two.

The real story is that there are lots of opportunities for hunting in early winter, even if the general deer and elk seasons have closed for another year.

The upland bird hunting season, Montana’s longest hunting season, still has almost a month to go before it closes at sunset on New Year’s Day. There is still time to chase some pheasants, or roam an aspen thicket for ruffed grouse. Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse, even wild turkeys, are still fair game.

It’s a different game now in early winter than it was in September and October. As the seasons progress, sharptails bunch up and if you see some sharpies the chances are they will see you first and take off and fly a mile or so. The pheasants of December are mainly the survivors of this year’s hatch. These are the birds that have evaded hunters and predators and if they survive the winter, these are the birds that will produce the next generation next spring. They’re survivors and not forgiving of hunter mistakes.

As for waterfowl, the late season is my favorite time for bagging some prime drake mallards. They’ve been feeding on waste grain in the stubble fields and a fat mallard is a gourmet treat on the dinner table.

I’m actually hoping for some colder weather in coming weeks that will move ducks off the rivers and onto these little spring creeks.

I rarely hunt geese, but on my walk of a few days ago, I saw big bunches of Canada geese, both in the air and on a field where they were feeding. Goose hunting can be challenging, but there is definitely no shortage of birds.

The waterfowl season, here in the Pacific Flyway portion of Montana, runs through January 6, then closes for a few days, and reopens on January 12 for a long weekend before it closes for good on January 16. Of course, check the regulations or go online to Fish, Wildlife & Parks for more details on season dates, and note that the Central Flyway dates are slightly different.

Of course, we do have these shoulder seasons for elk, if you’re still looking for one of those big deer to fill the freezer. I think the jury is still out as to whether extended seasons for elk is the way to manage them but we don’t have the space for that discussion right now.

In any event, here in Montana, we are blessed with long hunting seasons and that translates to lots of opportunities to stretch our legs and horizons.

Sentimental Journey to an Old Dog’s Last Hunt

Sam, age 13, and the opening day of the 1983 North Dakota waterfowl season.

I’m not ready to get in the Christmas rush. This past week I’ve been reminiscing, especially after reading the most recent issue of Gun Dog magazine, with sentimental features on hunts with old dogs. That got me thinking of our first Labrador retriever, Sam (for Samantha).

In 1970 we moved to Miles City, Montana in a job transfer and after a decade of renting we bought a house, and after some negotiations my wife and I agreed that now that we had our own home we needed a dog, and that dog would be a Labrador retriever. We answered an ad in the Billings Gazette for Lab puppies, but the owners wanted, as I recall, $100 for a pup. That seemed a little much, we thought, so we declined. Several weeks later the breeder called us back and said they’d let us have their last one for $60, and so a black puppy became part of our family.

Sam turned out to be a great first dog for our family. She was good with our kids, was easy to train, and a good citizen in the house. She readily took to hunting and I learned the pleasure of hunting with a bird dog that could sniff out hiding pheasants and then bring them back if I held up my part of the deal.

If she had a shortcoming it was that she didn’t like retrieving ducks, though after a move to North Dakota several years later she figured out it was part of the job and she did it well.

Together, we learned about ruffed grouse and she had a talent for finding grouse and retrieving them, and even when I thought I’d missed my shot she often ran off in the direction of the bird’s flight and came back with a grouse.

Sam somehow developed a taste for sweet corn and would occasionally go down the alley and raid a neighbor’s garden, and come home dragging a cornstalk behind her. Fortunately, the neighbor, a co-worker, had a sense of humor about this quirk.

Sam helped raise our children and send them off to college, and we kept hunting every chance we had, though she was clearly aging, as her muzzle turned gray and her tolerance for long days in the field diminished.

In the fall of 1984, Sam was 14 years old, but she wasn’t about to let me go off on an outing without her.  On Monday, October 8, I had the day off for Columbus Day, so Sam and I went off in search of ruffed grouse in a wooded creek bottom, the remains of a long-abandoned farmstead, with an old barn slowly collapsing on itself and a couple rusting car bodies.

It was one of those stunningly beautiful days of early autumn, with blue skies and warm sunshine, and with trees at their October best, in my memory a golden day.

Sam mostly trudged at my heels that day, though she surprised me at the beginning of our walk by trotting ahead and flushing a covey of Hungarian partridge. I think I was too surprised to shoot. In fact, I don’t recall shooting my gun at all that day. A highlight of the day was seeing wild turkeys scamper off into the trees.

That turned out to be Sam’s last hunt. I wanted to go out on the following Saturday, but I had an appointment to take in our International Scout for brake work on Monday and Kay wouldn’t let me go anywhere until that was completed. On Saturday afternoon we watched Sam romping in the back yard and Kay remarked, “She still thinks she’s a puppy.”

The next morning I went downstairs to the laundry room where Sam slept and found she had died during the night, her body already cold and stiff. I was an emotional wreck that day, though a light rain helped wash away tears as I dug a grave and laid her to rest with some pheasant and grouse feathers next to her nose to help her find her way.

Thanksgiving Reflections from Montana

A turkey on the grill – basis for a feast.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day and I ask, “Where did the rest of the year go?“

People across the country will be sitting down tomorrow at a table and sharing a festive meal. In fact, people who track these kinds of statistics tell us that 88 percent of our fellow Americans will be eating turkey this Thanksgiving, amounting to an estimated 736 million pounds of turkey meat.

My home state of Minnesota is the country’s leading turkey producer, sending some 46 million turkeys to market each year. My family never got involved with raising turkeys, thankfully. There are a lot of frustrations and risks involved in the process, primarily due to the fact that domestic turkeys are, unlike their wild ancestors, among the dumbest animals in God’s creation. A clap of thunder can send a whole flock of young turkeys stampeding into a corner, suffocating the farmer’s profits. Or, during a rain shower, adolescent turkeys are known to look up to see what that wet stuff is and drown themselves looking up at the sky.

A former co-worker grew up on a farm that did produce turkeys and at Thanksgiving time she’d often say she looked forward to that turkey dinner as an occasion to again get even with those stupid birds that afflicted her childhood.

When we sit down for dinner tomorrow with friends and family we’ll have a rare treat, as my contribution to the groaning table will be the wild turkey that blundered into shotgun range last May. That broke a 30-year drought marked by blunder and failure.

I’m thankful for many things and another year in the outdoors is at the top of the list.

I’m thankful for that turkey, just as I was thankful for the opportunity to catch a muskie a couple weeks later. There are still firsts, even as I approach the evening of a long, happy life.

I’m thankful for good health, not just for myself but our whole family. None of us have had any medical adventures this year, outside of the occasional sniffle or backache. That’s not something we take for granted.

That good health also means I’m thankful for days afield, whether Montana and North Dakota prairies, mountainside aspen thickets, or the trout streams of western Montana. I’ll include the ski slopes at Discovery and public tennis courts in those days afield.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to participate, in a small way, in the political process. I spent many hours this year as a volunteer in some political campaigns, one of many people who donated time and energy in the name of good government. As usual, not all of the candidates or issues I supported won at the polls. Still, it’s a privilege to be a small cog in our great democratic form of government. During my previous career as a federal employee, participation in politics was basically limited to the voting booth.

Outings with a good dog on Montana’s Federal public lands; something I’m thankful for.

I’m thankful, as a lover of the outdoors, for leaders who did, and do, so much to preserve our American traditions of public lands and public wildlife. All of us who hunt, fish, hike, camp, or just watch scenery, owe a debt of gratitude to giants such as Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and others who led the way to preserve our public lands, national parks, wildlife and fisheries. In much of the world, opportunities to recreate in a forest or wade a river are limited to the wealthy and privileged.

I’m thankful to the Founding Fathers of our nation who enshrined basic rights into the framework of our Constitution. For us journalists, Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press are the cornerstones of our existence, whether our beat is the White House or outdoor recreation in western Montana. Those guarantees are particularly important now, as they have been during other critical periods in our nation’s history.

So, tomorrow, as we gather with family and friends for a festive Thanksgiving dinner, we will be thankful—but resolute in protecting what is right and good in these United States.

North Dakota: Wind and Pheasants!

A lucky hunter with his unlucky pheasant.

“I’m really a lucky hunter, or that’s a really unlucky pheasant,” I told Kevin, as we admired the long-tailed pheasant.

We were in North Dakota last week to visit our son, Kevin, and his family, and to spend a few days chasing pheasants, and renewing our father/son hunting traditions.

Kevin started tagging along on pheasant hunts when he was around six years old, and after he was 12 years old and passed hunter safety, he started carrying his own shotgun as we pursued pheasants and other upland birds together.

We had just started our pheasant walk on a wildlife management area, and I was walking along the edge of a shelterbelt that marked the edge of the public hunting area. A pheasant flushed just a couple feet from me and turned on the afterburners to get out of range. I barely had time for a shot and I thought I’d missed.

Kevin watched the action from about 20 yards away and came over and said, “I ‘m pretty sure you hit the pheasant. I could see it flinch and it looked like it was having trouble staying up.”

It’s a sick feeling when you know you’ve wounded a pheasant, or any other game animal, for that matter, and the top priority is to track it down and end its suffering, but it’s a fact of life that a wounded pheasant can go a long way and never be found.

We walked into the shelterbelt and started searching the weed and brush patches. At the outer edge of the tree line, Kevin looked out at the wheat stubble field that borders the wildlife management area and said, “That looks like tail feathers out there.” Sure enough, a set of pheasant tail feathers was sticking above the tall stubble. We walked over and picked up a dead pheasant. There was bleeding from its beak. We surmised it had taken a single pellet in the head and went so far and then dropped dead, pitching headfirst into the wheat stubble.

A post-mortem examination that afternoon seemed to confirm that. The body was unmarked; one lucky pellet did the job on a pheasant that had survived its first year, passed its genes on to another generation, and suddenly ran out of luck.

I hunted by myself the previous day, and in fairly pleasant weather I ran into a bunch of younger pheasants. I connected with a young rooster that fell in open cover. I had barely resumed the walk and flushed another one, and dropped it.

The results of a pleasant morning walk on public lands.

I completed a loop back to where I’d started mywalk a couple hours earlier and Kiri, my black Labrador retriever, and I stopped for a sandwich break. After that pleasant rest we started a new walk and we hadn’t gone for more than 50 yards when Kiri flushed a rooster pheasant. I barely had time to shoot, but could see it go down. It took a while, but Kiri eventually caught up with it, and we’d completed our limit for the day.

Kevin and I took a day off from hunting because of a wet snowy day that would have made long hikes an exercise in misery. It’s also a concession to age. Misery isn’t as much fun as it might have been 40 years ago.

Wind was the main story of the next outing. The temperature was a moderate 40 degrees and the wind was out of the south, but it wasn’t a warm wind. The wind was roaring, and the surf was rolling on Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River impoundment.

We weren’t seeing many pheasants, and most were flushing far ahead. Finally, we flushed a rooster pheasant and both of us shot and we saw it go down. Still it didn’t look like a solid hit, and there was no bird in the spot where we saw it drop. This is where Kiri took over. She found the scent and followed it through heavy cover, finally cornering it for Kevin to pick up.

I figure Kiri earned a years-worth of kibble with that bird.

Kevin and a really unhappy pheasant.

Armistice Day – A Centenary Observance

The World War I memorial in Butte MT. In the background is a new aquatic complex and carousel in Stodden Park. According to a plaque, the memorial was dedicated in 1940, just a year before we were engulfed in another world war.

Today we may be celebrating or mourning, following the counting of ballots last night. Whether favorite candidates or issues won or lost, the sun came up this morning, if a bit later than yesterday. The hunting season is still on and we’re a step or two closer to winter.

This weekend we observe Veterans Day—twice. The official day will be on Sunday, which means the Veterans Day holiday will be on Monday.

This year, we might want to refer to Sunday as Armistice Day, as we observe the centenary of the end of the Great War, or World War I, after the horrors of the second world war eclipsed the carnage of the previous war.

While the war came to a close 100 years ago, on November 18, 1918, at the 11th hour of the 11th Day of the 11th month, we can look back at some of the mind-boggling statistics of the war.

From its start in August 1914, some 70 million people were mobilized into military service, 60 million of those from Europe.

An estimated 9 million combatants and 7 million non-combatants died as a direct result of the war. Near the end of the conflict the great flu epidemic swept around the world, in part because of large numbers of people crowded together in military facilities, troop ships and the like, leading to the death of between 50 and 100 million people.

The United States tried to stay out of the war, with President Woodrow Wilson saying that America was “too proud to fight.” Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1916, with a campaign slogan of “He kept us out of the war.”

In 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, following a suspension of attacks on passenger ships after the sinking of the British liner Lusitania in 1915. In addition, news came out of the Zimmerman telegram, in which the German foreign minister invited Mexico to attack the U.S. and recover the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Wilson called for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917, and Congress passed the declaration four days later.

It takes a long period to mobilize an army. Congress passed a Selective Service Act, drafting 2.8 million men, but it wasn’t until summer 1918 when U.S. troops began to arrive in force in Europe.

While American forces came late to the war, the infusion of fresh troops, backed by fresh money, turned the tide of war and in October many of Germany’s allies signed separate armistice agreements. Finally, at 5 a.m. on November 11, an armistice agreement was signed in a railroad carriage at Compiegne, France, with a cease-fire to take effect six hours later.

In the aftermath of the war, empires disappeared, including German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian. Royal dynasties, such as the Romanovs, Hohenzollenrns, Habsburgs and Ottomans, collapsed. The Communist Revolution displaced the Russian monarchy.

Poland and Finland emerged as independent countries. The Balkan countries of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia became Yugoslavia. Parts of the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary became Czechoslovakia.

Sadly, the “War to end all wars” laid the basis for unrest and grudges that led, inevitably, to World War II, in 1939.

The fallout still continues, with the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia and subsequent ethnic warfare, in the 1990s, and the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. Iraq, assembled from tribal kingdoms of the old Ottoman Empire, became a battleground.

While Armistice Day was 100 years ago, there are reasons to keep memories alive. For example, in the spring of 1917, my father was a passenger on a ship from Norway to New York City. I’m here today because it wasn’t torpedoed. One of my first bosses, when I entered the work force in the 1950s, was a veteran of the Great War, as were family friends and community leaders of my youth. The last surviving veteran of the Great War, Florence Green, who served in the British Women’s RAF, died just six years ago at age 110.

The trumpets of distant wars are faint but still echo.

Pheasants and Sunsets in Montana

Kiri and one of our pheasants.

Tonight is Halloween, a big holiday in this Celtic outpost in western Montana. Many of our Halloween traditions began with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts.

In the 8th Century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a day to honor all saints, and traditions of Samhain melded into All Saints Day, and the evening before became All Hallows Eve, and thus Halloween.

Halloween is the basis for some of our family traditions, going back to the mid-1960s, when we were living in Fargo, North Dakota. Our son Kevin, then about age 3, was still too young to go out trick-or treating, but he was all excited when the sidewalk in front of our house filled with costumed kids going door to door, interrupting our dinner of a takeout pizza I’d picked up on the way home from work.

A year later, he was a precocious 4-year old and on Halloween day, my wife told him, “Now you’re big enough to go trick or treating tonight.” Kevin responded, “No, it has to snow first.” Evidently he remembered there were some snow flurries in the air that previous Halloween night. Miraculously, that afternoon some snow flakes drifted down from the cloudy skies and he triumphantly came running to Mom, proclaiming, “It’s snowing! I can go trick-or-treating.” Then he added, “But we have to have pizza first.”

And that’s how family traditions start.

A year later, a job transfer took us to the Quad Cities of southeastern Iowa, and late October was generally much warmer than it was in Fargo. We cautioned Kevin that it wasn’t likely to snow before Halloween. He didn’t like that idea, but sure enough, a few days before the big day, a cold, wet front came through with a dusting of snow, and Halloween was saved again!

That’s a lot of years, but we still usually have pizza on the Eve of All Hallows, and with us in Butte, Montana and Kevin and his family in North Dakota we’re confident we’ll have snow in October.

Whatever the weather is, there’s a good chance I’ll be looking back a couple weeks at our annual trip to the Rocky Mountain Front for pheasants. We usually camp at Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area, where there’s free camping, and it’s central to several farms where I’ve been chasing pheasants for almost 30 years.

In planning our trip, we were worried about weather, and in fact, a week before we went, the Choteau area had 6 inches of snow. We also routinely expect gale force winds at some point, along with cold and rainy weather.

We lucked out. We hit a week of Indian Summer, with clear skies, warm sunshine and little wind. We had perfect camping weather.

The pheasant situation wasn’t quite as good. Last winter on the Front was brutal, with heavy snow, fierce winds and drifting, and no Chinooks that usually come through to give people and wildlife a break from winter. Pheasants no doubt suffered, along with other wildlife.

On the farms I hunted there were still pheasants, but not in the numbers I usually see. As it worked out I still brought a couple pheasants home for future festive dinners, but I didn’t bring home any limits of birds.

On the other had, a meager bag wasn’t all the pheasants’ fault, as I missed some shots that I should have made. If I had connected on all those misses, our freezer would be a bit fuller.

But that’s hunting. When we go out in search of game, whether feathered or furred, about the only guarantee we have is that we’ll get some exercise and fresh air. On those counts the trip was a major success.

A highlight for the week was an evening with a spectacular sunset. I spent most of the evening running out from the trailer with my camera to catch the latest change.

Sunset at Freezeout Lake, Fairfield MT.

We can’t eat a sunset like we can a pheasant, but the memories and images live on.