Cool, Wet June?

The Highlands Mountains south of Butte MT in mid-June, as seen from the foothills of Mt. Fleecer.

I’ve been kind of frustrated, lately, because of the rain. I love rain when it falls on my lawn and on my garden, but I’ve been patiently waiting for the Big Hole to settle down so I can wade the river into my normal spots for early July. 

In most years, the early July waterflow in the Maidenrock section of the river is around 1200-1500 cubic feet per second (cfs). When it’s that level I know that I can wade to good water and hope to catch fish on a dry fly. It’s my go-to destination for the 4th of July. 

Mother Nature had other ideas. Last week, the river was rumbling along at the rate of almost 4500 cfs, and you’d better be darned careful about where you stick your toes in the water, lest you begin an impromptu swim to New Orleans.

I’d best not complain too much, however. All that rain we got last month might be an inconvenience to wading in my favorite river, but I didn’t ask the fish about it. If I had, they would have said, “Too much water? Is there such a thing as too much water?”

Our FWP Big Hole River fisheries biologist, Jim Olsen, and his long-retired predecessor, Dick Oswald, could point at decades of data and point out that every big water year is followed by succeeding years of improved fish populations. 

I’ll also concede that avid floaters, whether they’re fishing or just floating for fun, are smiling, as the water flows mean at least a couple more weeks of floating the river without having to drag boats through the shallow riffles.

Our friends and neighbors in the agricultural community are also happy as their fields and grazing lands stay lush and green with a minimum of assistance from irrigating. A wet rancher is a happy rancher.

Coming into July with fresh snow on our mountain peaks also means that our wildlands fire season will be a lot shorter than we might have anticipated a few weeks ago, such as the day we had high temperatures and gale force winds and fires popping up all over Montana.

We ended June with almost four and a half inches of precipitation in Butte, compared to the long-term average of 2.3 inches. Considering average yearly precipitation of 13 inches, this was a huge month.

It is the nature of weather to be unusual. If it wasn’t we’d run out of things to talk about much of the time. We just completed a cool and wet month here in western Montana, complete with snowstorms and frosty temperatures.

When we have cool weather, there are certain to be skeptics making sarcastic comments about, “More of this global warming, no doubt.”

While we might have spent much of June trying to stay dry and warm, there were areas in Siberia, above the Arctic Circle, having high temps of around 100º F, and overnight lows of 90º. 

Our local planet, Earth, is cruising along to have the hottest year on record. Through the month of May, every month, so far, is either the warmest or second-warmest month on record. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, www.climate.gov, projects that 2020 is virtually certain to end up among the hottest five years on record and a 50 percent chance of being the warmest on record.

While we tried to keep up with lawn mowing, much of the southwest was dealing with extreme heat and wildfires. The Arctic Ocean ice pack as of May was the fourth smallest since records began in 1979. Nowhere on planet Earth were there record-breaking cold average temperatures in the month of May. May 2020 tied May 2016 as the hottest May on record. The seven hottest Mays on record are the last seven Mays.

I guess I’ll quit complaining about cool, rainy weather. If we have typical weather in July and August things will definitely get warm and dry. By August we can expect smoke haze in our skies. 

Hopefully the smoke will be coming from somewhere else.

Revolutionary Words for Modern Times

Again demonstrating that photographing fireworks isn’t easy.

This Saturday we observe the 244th birthday of our nation.  It doesn’t seem that long since we celebrated the Bicentennial, so it’s hard to believe that we’re approaching a half-century since that celebratory event.

It strikes me that something we have in common with those 1770-era colonists is the turmoil we’re going through. During those turbulent years the Founding Fathers struggled with achieving the goals of the Declaration of Independence while others, often friends and family, disagreed with the notion of separating from England. They probably agreed with the notion of reinforcing their rights as Englishmen but not separating.

244 years later, we are again in a period of turmoil as we finally come to grips with revolutionary principles of the Declaration, especially the assertion that “all men are created equal.” 

To be sure, when Thomas Jefferson, with input from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, wrote those words, he was thinking of white men, white men with property. Yet the words were set down and ratified, and words are important. Almost 90 years later, our nation fought a bloody civil war over those words, as President Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, asserted, “…our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Yet, 155 years after that Civil War, we still struggle with equality, even at the hands of people charged with serving and protecting the public. When a Minneapolis police officer took the life of George Floyd, it set off a series of protests across the country that have shaken us to our core. There had been protests at similar tragedies earlier, but the brazen action of the officer, in full view of witnesses recording everything, was just too much.

In the aftermath, people are taking a closer look at the Founding Fathers and learning what students of history have known all along, that the Founding Fathers were flawed men. Many of the Founders came from the well-educated landowning gentry of Virginia, such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and that illustrious example of patriotism, Patrick Henry. 

Being landowners and farmers usually meant they were also slave owners and if they were considered wealthy, substantial portions of their wealth were measured in the numbers of human beings they owned.

It gets complicated in many ways. As related in Jon Meacham’s biography, “Thomas Jefferson – the Art of Power,” Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote often and eloquently of the evils of slavery and the need to abolish the evil institution. Yet, his slaves farmed his fields, built his famous home, Monticello, and Sally Hemmings, his deceased wife’s servant and half-sister, shared his bed and bore his children. We’ll never know whether this was a loving relationship, or a master and slave relationship. 

When Jefferson was our ambassador to France, Sally came to Paris as the companion for Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy. 

When Jefferson’s term as ambassador ended and he was returning to Virginia, Sally was pregnant. She also had leverage, as under French law she could have applied for liberty. They came to an understanding and Sally agreed to return to Virginia in return for Jefferson’s promise that their children would be freed at age 21. Their four children that survived to adulthood (one died in infancy) were all granted their freedom at maturity.

When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, he was deep in debt and after his death Monticello and his slaves were sold, though Sally was unofficially free and formally freed by Patsy in 1834.

Jefferson, like the nation he helped create, was a complicated man, brilliant and yet deeply flawed, a man of his time. Still, as we reassess our troubled history, I’ll pass on Jon Meacham’s conclusion, “And there is no greater monument to Jefferson than the nation itself, dedicated to the realization, however gradual and however painful, of the ideal amid the realities of a political world driven by ambition and selfishness.”

Like Jefferson, we live in troubled times, but I pray the nation will endure.

Is This Fair Chase?

In 1887, a then-future president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, with the support of conservationists, such as George Bird Grinnell and Gifford Pinchot, founded the Boone and Crockett Club.  One of the founding principles was to advocate for common-sense, science-based natural resource management. 

Photo credit: Thomas Lipke

“It is the mission of the Boone and Crockett Club to promote the conservation and management of wildlife, especially big game, and its habitat, to preserve and encourage hunting and to maintain the highest ethical standards of fair chase and sportsmanship in North America.” This statement is adapted from the incorporation of the Boone and Crockett club as presented by Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Sheldon, Kermit Roosevelt, George Bird Grinell, et al.

Note the words, “fair chase,” in that statement. The modern day Boone and Crockett Club, now based in Missoula, Montana, defines fair chase as a hierarchy of ethics related to hunting. These include:

1.     Obey all applicable laws and regulations.

2.     Respect the customs of the locale where the hunting occurs.

3.     Exercise a personal code of behavior that reflects favorably on your abilities and sensibilities as a hunter.

4.     Attain and maintain the skills necessary to make the kill as certain and quick as possible.

5.     Behave in a way that will bring no dishonor to either the hunter, the hunted, or the environment. (emphasis added)

6.     Recognize that these tenets are intended to enhance the hunter’s experience of the relationship between hunter and prey, which is one of the most fundamental relationships of humans and their environment.

While many of us associate the Boone and Crockett Club with their records of big game trophies, we need to remember why the organization came into being and their long-standing advocacy of fair chase hunting.

Another Montana-based organization that advocates for ethical hunting is Orion – the Hunter’s Institute, founded by Jim Posewitz, who literally wrote the book on ethical hunting, “Beyond Fair Chase.”

This, I confess, is a long introduction to my thoughts on a recent Trump Administration action, through a National Park Service policy statement that reverses previous Obama Administration rules on hunting on federal preserves in Alaska. 

Effective July 9, the new rules provide that hunting on National Reserves in Alaska will be controlled by the state, which allows baiting of brown and black bears, hunting of denning black bears with artificial light, killing of denning wolves and coyotes, hunting of swimming caribou and hunting of caribou from motorboats.

Those National Reserves in Alaska include places such as Denali National Park and Preserve, Glacier Bay Park & Preserve, and Katmai National Park & Preserve, some ten preserves in all.

These changes have been in the works for some time, going back to 2017, when then-Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke issued orders to start drafting the policy reversal to make federal policy the same as state policy.

State policy means that it’s perfectly legal to bait bears with things such as bacon-flavored doughnuts, and to shoot bears in their dens, and while you’re at it, club their cubs to death. It’s perfectly legal to find wolf and coyote dens and shoot female wolves and coyotes and their pups. 

Many Alaska politicians praise the policy change, though that’s not a universal view. Bill Sherwonit, an Anchorage nature writer, wrote an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News in 2018, opposing the proposals, saying, “I would argue that the hunting practices in question should be prohibited everywhere in Alaska, because they violate any reasonable notion of ‘fair chase’ practices.”

Eddie Grasser, a director of wildlife conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game told the New York Times that the tactics would be used mainly by subsistence hunters. The new rules do not, however, restrict those tactics to Native Americans, nor would they prohibit guided trophy hunters from using these tactics.

I’ve been a hunter most of my life and I subscribe to principles of fair chase, such as those espoused by Theodore Roosevelt and Jim Posewitz. These tactics dishonor the hunter and the hunted and all fair chase principles.

Purple Flies

Purple or elk hair – which one will the fish prefer?

We had a rainy weekend so rather than go out and get cold and wet, I opted to stay home and tie a few flies to replenish my supply of big stonefly imitations.

When it comes to fly-tying, I really enjoy making imitations of smaller insects more than big stoneflies or streamers. That’s also my preference for the flies I like to fish with, as well. It’s not that I object to catching large fish, of course. I also prefer fishing with somewhat shorter and lighter flyrods. I have no issues with people who advocate using a 9-foot, 5-weight rod if that’s their preference, but I have more fun using a 2 or 3-weight rod.

Part of that is likely age, of all things. I’ve acquired a few aches and pains in recent years and my casting arm shoulder lets me know when I’ve done too much casting in a day, and that e comes a lot sooner with a heavier rod. This spring I also did a lot of pruning and trimming of shrubberies, and after squeezing a pruning shears a zillion times, my right wrist has been protesting. Currently, it protests most when I’m either casting a flyrod or swinging a tennis racket. Naturally, those are things I most enjoy doing.

Getting back to fly-tying, while I gravitate to little dry flies and soft-hackle wet flies, it’s kind of fun to occasionally assemble some big flies, such as big streamers for pike, or those big dry flies we use for the salmonfly hatch.

A few years ago I spent a morning with Butte flytier and retired flyshop operator Ray Babineau, learning to tie his variation of the salmonfly, which he whimsically calls the F-150. As to why he calls it that he said, “Well, I have an F-150.”

Ray’s salmonfly has bushy elk hair for wings so that’s what I usually use. In fact, I use a patch of elk hide that Ray gave me.

After I tied a few with elk hair, I thought to myself, “How about a purple wing?” I tied a few that way and I hope to give that a try and see if trout like stoneflies with purple wings. 

Lots of people tie flies with purple. Indeed, a staple in most people’s fly boxes is the Purple Haze, a mayfly imitation, usually a Parachute Adams with a purple body, along with other variations, such as purple nymphs and purple soft-hackle flies.

So, what’s the deal with purple? I went online and found one fly-fishing website, 2guysandariver.com, that had a feature on colors and that quoted Kirk Deeter, editor of Trout magazine, that trout are more perceptive to the violet side of the color spectrum.

Of course, the article also concluded that the number of variables that determine the ways trout see color can drive us crazy, so the bottom line was that the size of your fly and the pattern are more important than color. 

The article also suggests that black may be the most visible color because it contrasts with water. This might have been one of the factors for the long success of George Grant’s Black Creeper fly.

I love to fish with soft-hackle wet flies and one variation I’ve often used is a soft-hackle with a pink body. While I enjoy catching fish it still puzzled me why trout would like a pink fly, because I was pretty sure that trout don’t see many bugs with a pink body. In fact I once asked an entomologist about it, though he wasn’t a fly angler so hadn’t given it any thought.

In any event, one day I was chatting with Paul Redfern, who for many years operated the Fish On! fly shop in Butte and I asked him if he had any insight as to why trout liked my pink fly.

Paul thought a moment and responded, “I don’t know, but I do know that the Tups Indispensable (which originally had pinkish urine-stained hair from a ram’s testicles) has only been around for a couple hundred years.”

Addendum: I took both of those flies fishing and didn’t catch any trout on either fly. I did have one rise to the natural elk hair fly, though I’d consider than inconclusive.


Fishing & Camping Adventures

Some people catch fish two at a time. I catch a baby brookie and a big stick.

It seemed late, this year, but my wife and I finally hooked up our trailer and headed for the Big Hole that last weekend of May. What with weather, and so many public camping areas being closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, it was about impossible earlier. Of course, our typical spring weather was often more like winter weather.

It was a relief to get out, finally, along with lots of others with the same idea. After several months of pandemic lockdown, and with some easing of restrictions, it seemed pretty obvious that we weren’t the only ones anxious to get out of our respective hometowns for a change of scenery and maybe some floating.

I packed my pontoon boat and did a couple floats on the upper Big Hole, though the floats were more about floating than fishing. Still, there’s a story.

Lots of fly anglers like to fish with two flies on the line. I usually avoid doing that because it just seems two flies triple the chances of getting things tangled up. 

I violated that principle on my first float, because while I saw lots of bugs, caddis and mayflies, on the water, I wasn’t seeing any rises. So, I tied on an elk hair caddis and a beadhead nymph on a dropper to see if I’d catch anything.

After a few casts, I was delighted when a small brook trout took the caddis imitation. I quickly brought it in and did a few more casts. I was surprised to get another hit. I couldn’t figure out what it was, because it felt more like I got snagged up, even though I could feel a fish wiggling. I finally got it up and a three-inch brookie had taken the little nymph, while my fake caddis had hooked a large stick. 

People who regularly fish with two flies often tell tales of having two nice fish on at the same time. It’s probably more exciting than a three-inch trout and a big stick.

On an evening walk around the campground, I had a brief conversation with a guy from Dillon. My black Lab, Kiri, made acquaintance with his black Lab, Tank. They were about the same size and cordially observed proper canine protocol of sniffing butts and other personal parts. As we finished our walk, I mused a bit on giving a dog a name like “Tank,” figuring the owner visualized his puppy growing up to be a indomitable retriever and bird finder.

The next morning, however, I started laughing and I chuckled the rest of the weekend whenever I saw Tank, as our new friend and his kids went down to the river, with the kids calling, “Tanky, come here!” 

Yes, you can give a dog a testosterone-loaded name like Tank, but it loses all credibility when the kids call him Tanky.

When we got home from our long weekend on the river, in the mail was the latest issue of American Angler magazine. I’ve been subscribing to the magazine for a number of years and have enjoyed it, even if it seemed a rung or two down the ladder from FlyFisherman magazine and Fly Rod & Reel magazine. 

Another fishing magazine bites the dust.

A couple years ago, Fly Rod & Reel abruptly shut its doors and went out of business with no warning at all. Greg Thomas, a Missoula-based writer and editor was the last editor of FR&R. 

He landed on his feet as not much later he emerged as the new editor for American Angler. He made a lot of changes, including bringing back some features and some of the feel of FR&R, such as environmental articles by renowned writer Ted Williams. 

I was dismayed to read the editor’s column and learn that this would be the last print issue of American Angler. Thomas said Angler would continue to exist online but the dead tree edition was done.

I hate to see the demise of yet another outdoor publication, though I can’t help but wonder how Thomas feels, having presided over the death of two excellent magazines.

Chronic Wasting Disease Expands

This urban mule deer looks kind of skinny and scruffy. She’s probably just given birth to a fawn, and has started shedding her winter coat.

We’re making a transition from spring to summer in this first week of June. It appears that spring runoff has peaked and is now tapering off, meaning that fishing should be improving, as well as the fabled salmonfly hatch on the Big Hole River should be starting in the next week or two. And that reminds me I should replace a few of the big stonefly imitations I might have lost or gotten chewed up during last year’s hatch.

While it’d be fun to just concentrate on fishing right now, chronic wasting disease (CWD) just made another unwelcome claim on our attention.

Last month, personnel from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks euthanized a whitetail deer in the Springhill area north of Bozeman. It seemed to be showing signs of CWD, and laboratory tests confirmed that the deer was infected with CWD.

Montana had been an island of sorts, surrounded by states or Canadian Provinces with CWD present among wild deer populations. Montana’s only previous CWD outbreak had been in a captive elk herd in the Philipsburg area, resulting in the elimination of that herd.

CWD was found among Montana’s wild deer in 2017, in south central areas near the Wyoming line and in north central Montana, near Alberta. Since then, a large outbreak of CWD was found among deer and even moose in the Libby area of northwestern Montana. 

If we in southwestern Montana felt we weren’t going to be affected by CWD, those thoughts were dashed last fall when a CWD-infected deer was found near Sheridan in the Ruby River valley. Now CWD is present in the Bozeman area.

Chronic wasting disease is here and in more and more parts of Montana, meaning it’s now established as a factor in our wild deer populations and it’s only going to get worse.

FWP is asking people to notify the agency if we should see possibly infected deer, elk or moose. Infected animals typically seem to have reduced mobility. They may also look emaciated or they may be drooling, have a seeming lack of muscle coordination. They may have what seems to be a wide posture, and their heads and ears may be lowered. In other words, they look sick.

Deer that just look thin or skinny probably are not infected. Deer are just starting to rebuild fat stores used up during the winter months. Also, female deer have just given birth to fawns and might look bedraggled. They’re also shedding winter coats, so they are look kind of shaggy and disreputable. FWP emphasizes that there is usually a combination of physical and behavioral symptoms present among infected deer.

If you see some deer, elk or moose that show those multiple symptoms of CWD infection, let FWP know what you’ve seen and where the critters were when you saw them. You could call a game warden or a local FWP office or, if nothing else, call 1-800-Tip-Mont to report your observations.

While hunting seasons are still months away, hunting is the department’s primary tool for gathering information and managing wildlife populations. FWP will be actively looking for information, and likely establishing further check stations for collecting tissue samples. We will also likely be seeing additional restrictions on interstate transport of deer carcasses. 

We can also expect to see incentives to increase deer harvest in areas with known CWD cases. Overpopulation of deer is a factor in the spread of CWD, so reducing deer populations is a tool. Think of it as social distancing for deer, and be happy that we don’t use such strict measures to enforce social distancing for ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sad to say, we are approaching the inevitable time when tissue sampling of all deer, elk and moose will likely be mandatory. Further, while there is, as yet, no established transmission of CWD to humans by eating venison from an infected critter, scientists are in agreement that it’s not advisable to eat that venison. 

Stay tuned. I expect that before we’re ready for the next deer/elk season, we’ll hear more about CWD.

Gierach on Dumb Luck and Kindness

Gierach’s latest.

Father’s Day came early this year. 

Back in late March, a package came in the mail and my wife said, “Happy Father’s Day! Do you want to open it now or wait until June?”

I suggested it could wait until the official day in June, “So I’d have something under the tree.”

A few weeks later I was going through the hourly collection of wisdom and garbage on Facebook when an advertising posting caught my eye. My wife was walking by the door of my office (or what passes for an office at our house), and I said, “Guess what, dear. John Gierach has a new book.” She didn’t say a word. She just went in the other room and brought back that package that came a month earlier and said, “Happy Father’s Day.”

She said I’d might as well have it then, before I went and ordered a copy myself. It also demonstrates that it’s best to be cautious about buying anything any time remotely near some kind of gift-giving occasion, such as birthdays, Christmas, or Father’s Day.

It came at a good time, with the Public Library being mostly closed during the Pandemic. I’d just finished re-reading Lonesome Dove, some 34 years after I’d first read it. 

So, it’s Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers, published this year by Simon & Schuster.

Gierach, by now, has a long string of books to his credit, starting with his first breakout book, Trout Bum, going on to titles such as Death, Taxes and Leaky Waders, or All Fishermen are Liars. You might guess by some of the whimsical titles of some of his books that if you’re looking for instructions on fly-fishing or where to go, you’d might as well look at some other authors. 

For examples, there is one full chapter on fishing dogs he has known over the years. He notes, from the outset, that something common to most dogs is they love things, such as a bite of bacon from the breakfast table, adding, “Anyone who says you can’t buy love has never spent time around dogs.”

He also tells of Buddy, a blue heeler and a ranch dog where the owner has leased out fishing rights on a spring-fed pond to a local outfitter. The dog had figured out what fishing was all about and when anglers came to fish the pond Buddy would walk a few paces ahead of them looking for cruising trout. When he spotted one he’d crouch down, with his tail wagging. Gierach reflects that you’d think a six-foot tall man wearing polarized sunglasses would be better at spotting fish than a dog, but you’d be wrong. The best he could do was spot the trout at the same time as Buddy.

In the opening chapter, Gierach tells of a friend he’s known as long as he’s fished the streams in his home area of Colorado.  “We don’t see that much of each other anymore, but when we do get together—usually to go fishing—we pick right up in the middle of a nearly half-century conversation that will end only with one of our funerals.”

Reading Gierach’s books is a lot like that, picking up on an interrupted conversation with an old friend, even if it’s several years since the last time.

I’ll also mention another book I’ve been reading in quarantine, Thomas Jefferson – the Art of Power, a biography of Jefferson by historian Jon Meacham.

One chapter follows Jefferson after he left the presidency, and his happy life at Monticello, the home he designed and had built to his specifications. The house had three indoor privies, one conveniently close to his bedroom. Meacham tells that Jefferson used scraps of paper for hygiene, as toilet paper didn’t come along until 1857. 

On the day of Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a family member rescued several of those paper pieces. 

Those scraps of (used) paper are still preserved at the Library of Congress.

Memorial Day Reflections

Veterans Memorials in Butte MT. WWII in front, Vietnam and Korean memorials in background.

Next Monday, May 25, my mind will wander back to warm, humid mornings in my southern Minnesota hometown. I’ll be wearing a heavy, all-wool band uniform, getting ready for the annual march through town and then a short bus ride to the city cemetery for the traditional Memorial Day ceremony. 

The parade through town would include Spanish-American War veterans riding in an open car, followed by marching veterans groups including World War I veterans and then World War II veterans, the heroes of my youth, still relatively young men in their early 30s, working hard to make up for time lost during their service to the nation. 

Memorial Day is set aside to honor men and women who made the final sacrifice during wartime. It was established in the years following the Civil War, and expanded through the decades to honor the dead of succeeding wars. 

In modern celebrations we’ll see people wearing an imitation poppy purchased from a veterans organization. The poppies are a memory from the First World War. Poppy seeds were the first to germinate in battle-disturbed ground, and fields of red poppies marked the locations of bloody battlefields. The poppies are a remembrance of wartime bloodshed, but also a symbol of rebirth and new life.

As we honor the fallen soldiers, we also remember the survivors of the wars, especially the aging veterans of World War II. 

Of the over 16 million men and women who served during World War II, over 400,000 lost their lives while in service. Of the over 15 million survivors, the numbers keep dwindling. The Pew Research Center estimates the numbers of World War II veterans is now just under 300,000, and that number continues to drop at about 245 per day, and that was determined before coronavirus began accelerating death rates. Among the most recent deaths was actor/comedian Jerry Stiller.

In a twist of fate, one recent death was Phillip Kahn of Nassau County, New York, who served in the Army Air Corps during the war. He died on April 17 from coronavirus complications. He was one of twins born December 5, 1919, and his twin died from the Spanish Flu just a few weeks after he was born. 

The oldest living WWII veteran is 110-year old Lawrence Brooks of New Orleans. An African-American, Brooks has complicated memories of his service in the highly segregated military services of the era, when black soldiers were treated as second-class citizens. He served in an engineering battalion in the Pacific.

There were 464 servicemen who were awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII. Two of those Medal of Honor recipients are still living. Charles H. Coolidge, age 98, served in the Army, and Hershel W. Williams, age 96, served in the Marine Corps.

Among notable living veterans of WWII are singer Harry Belafonte, songwriter Alan Bergman, actor Mel Brooks, former President Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 1947 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack, former FCC chairman Newton Minow, actor and director Carl Reiner, trumpeter and bandleader Doc Severinsen, former Montana Governor Ted Schwinden, former Secretary of State George Schultz, and former senator (and Elizabeth Taylor’s husband for a while) John Warner.

Long time TV journalist and author Tom Brokaw wrote about those remarkable men and women, “The Greatest Generation,” who grew up in the Great Depression and then went to war. After winning that war, they returned home to transform the country, flocking to colleges and universities under the G.I. Bill, then turning to business, sports, entertainment, and politics, not to mention catching up in a big way on making babies. 

On Monday, I’ll feel a sense of relief that I won’t be sweating under a hot sun in a band uniform while listening to some local politician’s oratory. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the privilege of having been able to know, work with or for, and live next door to so many of that greatest generation. 

While we treasure that small band of survivors still with us, we revere the memories of those gone to rest. 

Mother’s Day Caddis Coming!

From L to R: Al Troth’s Elk Hair Caddis, A.K. Best Spent Caddis, Nemes’ Partridge & Green soft-hackle wet fly.

Mother’s Day was last Sunday. That means I’m optimistic that one of these days I’ll go fishing and I’ll catch fish.

Going back to the end of February, I’ve done lots of fishing and most of the time it has been a lonely pursuit, and fish, for the most part, have not been involved in my quests for fish. I think it was on Facebook that I ran across something that felt all too true. It was a list of common excuses for not catching fish, many of which felt much too familiar these last couple months, with the author concluding that all those excuses were legitimate. It’s too cold. It’s too windy. It’s too sunny. The water is roiled up. If you’ve been fishing at some point in your life you most likely are familiar with these excuses and have used them. 

Fortunately, nobody has been going hungry because I’m an unsuccessful angler. I normally release any trout I catch, so my wife might ask if I had fun on my day on the river, but that’s mainly out of courtesy and politeness. Kiri, my Labrador retriever, gets excited when I catch a fish but her urge to jump into the water I’m planning to cast a fly into is more important than fish. It might be one thing on the Big Hole or Madison Rivers, but her jumping into a quiet pool on Poindexter Slough pretty much guarantees I’m not going to catch any fish for a while.

But, as I said at the beginning, Mother’s Day makes me optimistic about catching fish. That, of course, is because of the Mother’s Day caddis hatch happens sometime around that time.

There are earlier hatches on area rivers, such as baetis, or blue wing olive mayflies if you prefer. The skwala stonefly gets fish excited—sometimes, if you’re lucky. But, if you really want to get fish excited about a bug you need something big enough for fish to notice and in numbers profuse enough to satisfy a fish’s appetite. The Mother’s Day Caddis hatch usually satisfies those needs in a big way. 

It usually takes a few days of above average warm weather to get the hatch going and that’s a moving target. It might be around early May, but I’ve seen it in late April and even early to mid-April. 

The other big issue for the caddis hatch is river conditions. It seldom happens when water conditions are ideal, from the standpoint of spring runoff muddying up the water or running too high and fast for fish to be interested in feeding on bugs on the water’s surface. 

But it does happen, that miracle of insects and water conditions both behaving well enough to make it fun and productive.

Once that first caddis hatch happens, chances are the fish will be looking at caddisflies until October. There are many caddis subspecies and at some point during the day trout will look at it and decide it’s good enough to eat.

Of course, there are many flies designed to imitate the humble caddis and its various life forms, though most concentrate on the adult phase.

Al Troth’s Elk Hair Caddis is one of the classic imitations and I feel privileged I got to know Al while he was still living, even if I didn’t get any coaching on how to tie his famous bug. 

If caddisflies are on the water, a soft-hackle fly, such as a Partridge & Green, will also get attention from trout, especially those trout more interested in cruising for bugs caught in the surface film of the water.

A fly I plan to add to my arsenal is A.K. Best’s Spent Caddis, and I learned that from a YouTube video by Tim Flagler, one of the best presenters of flytying on the Web.

If you like complicated flies, you might try Mercer’s Missing Link. It’s a tricky bug to tie, but the first time I tried it and took it to the Big Hole for a test drive, the trout went crazy for it. 

Go figure.

Fishing in a Pandemic

Social distancing on the river (though dogs don’t worry about it).

Those almost summerlike days of a week ago made it clear that the seasons were changing, if not already changed. Have we seen the last of snow and cold weather? Not bloody likely. Not here in the northern Rocky Mountains. Still, when we get a day in the 70s in April, we’ll take it.

The warm weather sent a surge of snowmelt down our river valleys. Rain also came to help with the greening of the landscape, and perhaps triggered some morel mushrooms to sprout up. 

While many of us have been fishing regularly during this period when we inch away from winter and into spring, it probably took last week’s warm weather to get the juices going for many people.

Obviously, the urge to go fishing or other outdoor recreation doesn’t change the fact of the elephant in the room. That elephant didn’t go anywhere. I’m referring, of course, to coronavirus, and covid-19, the illness that the novel coronavirus causes. 

I’ve written about this before, but as we get serious about outdoors recreation, we likely need reminders that we still need to be careful about our outings.

I’m on an email list for Angling Trade, a trade publication for flyshops and other fly-fishing-related businesses. Last week, Kirk Deeter, the editor for Angling Trade and also Trout, the Trout Unlimited magazine, issued reminders of the need to be careful so that a day in the great outdoors doesn’t turn into a life-threatening bout of illness. He sought out Eric J. Esswein, an angling friend and a retired public health officer with an arm-long list of degrees and honors, for comment.

Esswein says that a 9-foot flyrod is a pretty good measure for social distancing, but adds that we should wear some kind of face covering, such as a neck gaiter or Buff, don’t drive together, plus “net your own fish…fish with family members.” If you’re having any kind of covid-19 symptoms, seek medical advice, but if you’re feeling well enough for an outing, “fish alone, plan and prepare to be completely self-sufficient, have…all you’ll need for a day afield.”

Esswein notes the reality that people who are age 55 and older are at greater risk for getting sick, especially if there are additional pre-existing health issues. People who go on float trips with other people, or book a guided float trip put themselves at additional risk for accidentally contacting other people who may unknowingly be contagious. He further notes that guide trips are expensive and that it’s those older people who are more likely to have enough disposable money for those trips.

I don’t want to steal the entire article, though you can read it for yourself at www.anglingtrade.com. Esswein does comment that if we’re at all unsure about recreating safely, perhaps we should stay at home and tie flies or read a book about fishing.

Kirk Deeter comments that as far as he’s concerned, he’s not letting anybody but people from his own household in his boat until six-foot social distancing is no longer a concern. He emphasizes, as well, that flyshop operators, guides, outfitters, and others in the business are likely even at more risk than their elderly clients, as they’re in contact every day with strangers from around the country and the world.

Like most people, I was happy when the governor cautiously lifted some of the restrictions on business operations last week, which did include guided fishing trips. We might complain, at times, about the numbers of guided anglers on our rivers. Still, they’re an integral part of Montana’s tourism industry, and our guides and outfitters offer an important service in giving visitors a safe and pleasant introduction to Montana’s great outdoors.

From what I’ve read, it’s good to be in the great outdoors, where breezes quickly dissipate viruses floating in the air. That doesn’t mean we’re totally safe when we’re outside. 

In any event, if you’re not able or willing to go out by yourself for fish or mushrooms, you might be better off staying home and putting in your garden.

Spring is Puppy Time!

Pup is exploring her big, new outdoor world a bit.

“In the Spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The English poet might have been thinking about young men and women. A different perspective might involve puppies.

Our daughter, Erin, lives in Helena, after many years in California’s Bay Area. A constant companion in recent years is her chocolate Labrador retriever, Kjersti. 

They’ve been through a lot together, and now, at age 10, Kjersti is a survivor, but unlike cats, she doesn’t get nine lives. Several years ago, she survived a catastrophic auto-immune disorder that left her totally blind. She does amazingly well with her impairment. She knows her environment and navigates through scent and hearing. She now has other health conditions that could be life threatening, with no reasonable treatment options.

Erin has been thinking that she needs to get an apprentice into training to take over after the inevitable day when she will have to say goodbye to Kjersti. She had been thinking of another Lab, and had been in contact with the North Dakota breeder where she got Kjersti, though it was sounding iffy as to when a new litter of pups would arrive.

On Easter Sunday, Erin broke out of coronavirus isolation and came to Butte for dinner. We were chatting about her puppy search and my wife showed her a Weimaraner puppy ad in the local daily that included a photo. Intrigued, she initiated a text message conversation with a breeder in Cut Bank establishing that a female pup was available.

From that point things moved quickly. Erin did due diligence, checking on things such as joints and hips, which checked out okay. Then the breeder said, “I have to come down to Helena on Wednesday. I could bring the pup with me.” 

In an email I sent to the rest of the family, I said, “So, Erin is going to look at a Weimaraner puppy this afternoon. Anybody taking bets on what’s going to happen?”

Our daughter-in-law replied, “Is Erin such a pushover that she’d fall for a puppy at first sight?” I responded, “Well, yeah.”

The breeder came with not one but four puppies; a female already spoken for, two males, and the female she had been considering. 

To help with decision-making, Erin invited a good friend, who came with her three kids. Naturally, puppies and kids are an irresistible combination and they all had a great time together. As for whether Erin bought the pup, there was no way she wouldn’t. As she explained, “If you’d smelled her puppy breath you’d understand.”

Erin and her new baby.

Naturally, we had to take a drive to Helena a couple days later to meet the pup.

Who can resist a face like this?

It didn’t take long to fall in love with her. There are few things more lovable than puppies of course, and though Labrador retrievers have been in the family for the last 50 years, it’d be difficult to resist her charms. 

The pup has a bluish-gray coat, and blue eyes (for now), and she loves to snuggle and cuddle, and my wife and I happily took turns holding her. Our Lab, Kiri, thought she was okay, and we were happy to see that the pup likes to snuggle with Kjersti, the matriarch of the household.

Erin was trying to come up with a name for the pup. Her friend who was there for the puppy visit facetiously suggested Dagmar, though it might have been closer to Dogmar. Erin thought that was actually a pretty good suggestion. As it happened, when we arrived, Erin was having a Skype conversation with several friends, former work colleagues in Poland (yes, it boggles our minds, too). She asked what a Polish nickname for Dagmar would be and it’s Daża, pronounced Da-zha.  The Polish word for Weimaraner is Wyżelka, and she agreed with her friends that Daża Wyżelka is poetry, so Daża stuck.

When things happen, they happen quickly, from a casual Easter dinner conversation to a brand new grand-puppy in just a few days. But I think little Daża is going to fit in just fine.

A happy pair – grandmother and grandpuppy

Earth Day – a 50th Anniversary

Today is Earth Day, the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970. Observances of Earth Day will be a little different this year. With bans on group gatherings, we’ll have to celebrate at our homes, in the company of family.

It will be in sharp contrast to the first Earth Day in 1970. Denis Hayes talked about that first Earth Day for an AARP publication, telling of going to Washington D.C. to meet with Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), hoping to become an organizer for the event at Harvard University, where he was a graduate student. Instead, he ended up as chief organizer for the nationwide observance. He dropped out of Harvard, moved to Washington D.C. and started work, eventually speaking to millions at a huge rally in New York City.

An indication of how things change, is that when they talked to reporters about the planned event, they tried to get them to include the Earth Day mailing address in stories. They’d get mail and developed a mailing list. Eventually they’d be mimeographing 50,000 copies of some communication, and then address, stuff, stamp, and mail envelopes.

I wonder if there is anyone who was born in 1970 who even knows what a mimeograph machine is, other than a dusty relic in the back of some office storerooms. Sending an email to 50,000 addresses is almost child’s play these days.

The Tobacco Root Mountains of southwest Montana on a spring day.

In any event, the legacy of Earth Day is major legislation, such as the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and 1970 Amendments to the Clean Air Act. 

More to the point is that rivers got cleaned up, our air is cleaner, our gasoline no longer spews lead into the air, and other changes.

For the benefit of people whose memories don’t go back that far, we can recall images of an Ohio river that flows into Lake Erie, near Cleveland. That river often caught on fire and burned, because of pollution dumped into the river. Lake Erie, itself, was considered a dead lake. Now, Lake Erie is known for quality fishing and there are steelhead runs up the river that used to burn.

When I was a kid, the town dumped raw sewage into the small river that runs through my hometown in Minnesota. The town dump was right on the bank of the river, so garbage ended up in the water. As for fish, there might have been some carp, but that’s about it. Now that same stream is a destination for canoeists, and it’s known for smallmouth bass and even brown trout. 

Incidentally, 50 years later, at age 75, Hayes is president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, and continues to advocate for the environment, though his focus is more on climate change and renewable energy. He’s full of optimism, saying, “We’re on the way to developing technologies for a truly sustainable, resilient planet. Already, stunning things have happened like long-range electric vehicles and sustainable buildings.”

This spring, when the world is, in many ways, shut down because of the coronavirus epidemic, we’re having some interesting discoveries as a result of economic slowdown.

In Venice, Italy, without the constant churning of cruise ships and other boat traffic, the water in the canals has cleared and porpoises have been spotted exploring the waterfront.

In the northern state of Punjab, in India, people can see the snowcapped peaks of the Himalaya Mountains from as far as 100 miles away, the first time in over 30 years that people could see the mountains from that distance.

Satellite images of the east coast here in the United States show a marked decrease in air pollution because auto traffic is drastically less during the current shutdown. 

This year, Earth Day is a good time for family backyard projects. 

A simple project could be to dig up a chunk of lawn and turn it into a wildflower garden. Once established, it will take less water and fertilizer, and attract pollinators such as honeybees and butterflies.

Always remember that this is the only planet we’ll ever live on. Take care of it.

Surviving Social Distancing

A Perdigon style Pheasant Tail Nymph – Italian style.

So, this strange period of home confinement continues. While we hope and pray that social distancing and not leaving home helps us get through this coronavirus pandemic without getting deathly sick, it is getting old.

Last Saturday, the Butte Symphony should have had its final concert of the season, and as a longtime member of the orchestra it seemed strange to be going through the motions of playing my horn without an upcoming concert on the calendar. 

It also seems strange to not be going to a weekly Kiwanis meeting. I’ve been a member of this great international service organization for almost 47 years, and as of yesterday, I’ve now missed five meetings in a row—something that has never happened before in those 47 years.

Of course, this past Sunday was Easter Sunday, and it seemed super strange to not be in church and singing celebratory Easter hymns.

But, strange as it is, we are getting through this and here in Butte the covid-19 numbers are holding at a relatively low and stable level. With that modest promise of continuing good health we’ll continue to avoid people.

When the weather has permitted, I’ve been using some of the time by getting a head start on spring yard work. While March went out like a lion, with over 13 hours of daylight, those late snows melt quickly and it’s good to be outside enjoying some sunshine and getting things cleaned up.

When the weather has been nasty, I’ve been spending some time at the fly-tying vise learning some new tricks, as well as restocking my fly boxes. One of the things I’ve been learning is the Perdigon fly. The Perdigon is sometimes referred to as a European nymph and it’s noted for being able to sink quickly and attract the attention of trout.

The fly in the photo is an Italian Perdigon version of a pheasant tail nymph. The tail fibers are from a pheasant tail, but the body has red thread with gold ribbing, then a section of white thread with silver ribbing, and, finally, a bright orange thread in back of the beadhead, and then the whole body has a coating of UV resin that cures to a tough finish with a little blast from a UV light. 

A variation of a UV resin coating is something I picked up from Zac Sexton, a former Butte resident, rod builder and fly designer, is to use a clear sparkly nail polish.

As fly-fishing is one of those outdoor activities that adapt well to social distancing, I’m ready to get out of town for another day of fly-fishing to try some of these nymphs. 

While I’m looking forward to some baetis or blue wing olive mayfly hatches now that we’re in mid-April, we shouldn’t forget that the spring wild turkey season opened last Saturday, and it runs through May 17. Turkey hunting is another activity that lends itself well to social distancing. 

I’ll note that this extended shutdown is really doing a hit job on people who make their living in various aspects of outdoor recreation. Here in trout country, we have flyshop operators, outfitters and guides, lodge owners, and others who work hard to make a living through helping the rest of us enjoy outdoor outings. My message to them is hang in there; better days are coming.

Kirk Deeter, a well-known fly-fishing writer and editor, edits Angling Trade, a trade paper for fly-fishing businesses. He writes, “Social science is predicting another baby boom as a result of the covid-19 Pandemic. We don’t know about that, but we do think there will be a fishing boom. Fishing has always seen a resurgence during times of national healing…The whole damn country is in need of healing and we are in a position to provide some of that.”

He adds, “I’m taking a doctor (or nurse, or both) fishing…for free…when this is over (or at least on pause.)”

So, on that note, if the sun is shining, go outside and breathe in some fresh air, and think positive thoughts.

Outdoor Recreation and Coronavirus

A quiet afternoon on the lower Big Hole River

I took advantage of a halfway decent day last week to practice social distancing on the Big Hole River. I enjoyed the outing and my usual partner, Kiri, really enjoyed it, as she scampered around riparian woodlands along the river. 

The fish catching? Let’s just say that the trout were also practicing social distancing, as far as paying attention to the flies I was casting in their direction. Some fish were occasionally rising to midges, but not my humble imitations.

While outdoor recreation is permitted under the current “stay home” policies, we’re going to find some restrictions.

First of all, the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest has closed all Forest Service campgrounds in southwest Montana.  Campgrounds in the Lolo and Lewis & Clark National Forests are also closed, so I surmise that all other National Forest campgrounds are closed until further notice.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks announced changes to FWP recreation areas. State parks, fishing access sites and wildlife management areas remain open for day use only. Overnight camping will not be allowed. Bathrooms at many locations may be limited because of current lack of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. Group use sites and visitor centers and playgrounds, where applicable, are closed. FWP also suggests that if a fishing access site or state park parking lot seems crowded, people should find another place to recreate.

Currently, both Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks are closed, and discussions are underway about whether to close all the Parks, as the National Park Service reports that seven employees have tested positive to the virus.

Bureau of Land Management recreation areas remain open for fishing and camping, according to a Butte BLM spokesman. While facilities are open, services, including outhouse cleaning, may be limited, and people should maintain social distancing.

Kiri, my ever faithful chaperone, keeping an eye on me.

The current novel coronavirus or covid-19 pandemic dominates the media like few things we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. With print, broadcast, cable, internet, and social media, we are inundated with news and controversy to a level unprecedented during any prior major event in our nation’s history.

Make no mistake; what is happening right now, from a local, state, national, or international perspective, is a watershed moment in history. 

The current pandemic has prompted many of us to look back at the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, an event that became entwined with the other great event of the time, the Great War, or World War I, as it became. Here in the U.S., the epidemic spread like wildfire in military training camps and troopships. According to Wikipedia, there is evidence that influenza was present in Europe as early as 1915. That pandemic raged around the world through 1920, and the final death toll ranged from 17 million to 100 million. 

The current pandemic started in China and in just a few months it has spread around the world.  Here in the U.S., we went from one case in Washington in January, to, as of a week ago, over 186,000 cases and nearly 4,000 deaths, and those numbers will likely be substantially higher by the time anybody reads this, and experts forecast that the death toll could be between 100,000 to 200,000—in a best case scenario.

As we close down businesses, church services, concerts, and everything else involving any kind of gatherings of people, as we try to “flatten the curve,” our economy is going into recession and it’s hard telling whether we’ll experience another depression like we had in the 1930s. It’s heartbreaking to think of the many small businesses that may not survive.

Of course, all this is happening in the middle of a presidential election year, as well, and how the country was managed or perceived to be managed, during this time will most likely determine how many Americans will vote in November.

Meanwhile, as our attention is distracted, the Trump administration is busy selling oil and gas drilling leases on BLM lands, throwing air and water pollution safeguards under the bus, suspending criminal penalties for corporate actions that kill birds, and rolling back auto gas economy standards.

Fishing is Fun – Stay Safe!

Staying safe & healthy on the rivers – Montana Trout Unlimited photo.

Kiri, our Labrador retriever, and I practiced social distancing along the Madison River last week. We were quite successful, having a conversation with just one other angler. I was heading back to the access point parking lot, and he was just heading out.

He noticed the St. Olaf College decal on my truck window and asked if I’d gone there and after I said yes, he asked what year I graduated. “Boy, you’re really old!” He laughed and added, “I’m about 7 years behind you.” 

It turned out that he hailed from Duluth and had friends who had gone to St. Olaf, though he’d gone to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. 

Our conversation was at a distance of about 15 feet, so we enjoyed a good conversation at a safe distance.

I like to think that fly-fishing is a good way to enjoy life while we go through this time of plague. There’s abundant fresh air and at least there’s the chance of encountering fish.

Nevertheless, during this period we’re going through, a day of fishing carries risks, especially when other people join us in the outing. Appropriately, Montana Trout Unlimited sent members a list of suggestions that I’m borrowing, with some of my own.

If you’re with other people, a long drive in an enclosed vehicle exposes yourself and others to risk. You might want to drive separately to an agreed destination. 

If you’re going on a day of guided fishing, drive to the launch point and meet your guide there, and you may also want to pay for a shuttle for your vehicle. If your vehicle was shuttled to a take-out point, wipe down your steering wheel and door handles. If you’re a guide, carry disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer in your vehicle and on the boat and wipe things down before and after a trip.

One of my rules for fly-fishing is to go to the bathroom before putting on waders. Of course, after taking waders off, a trip to the bathroom is usually in order, as well. But, have you considered how many people use those fishing access outhouses? One good sneeze in an outhouse could fill that little space with virus-laden aerosols, and those viruses can exist for a surprisingly long time on a hard surface. I don’t have answers for all the many possibilities, but a disinfectant wipe on the door handle and toilet seat is most likely in order, and washing hands with a sanitizer afterwards should be mandatory.

MTU suggests that if you didn’t stock up on disinfectant wipes, moisten a small batch of paper towels with a bleach solution and keep them in a jar in your vehicle for wiping down handles, steering wheel, and gas pumps, as well as outhouse doors and seats. Dispose of them properly. 

Bring your own gear and avoid sharing supplies with other members of your party. Lubricate your knots using river water instead of saliva. If you’re trimming a knot, use a nipper. Don’t bite that tag end off. Your dentist will endorse that, also.

Bring your own water bottle, drinks and food. Don’t share lunches or drinks. 

If you’re feeling sick, tired, or worn down, stay home and rest. If rest doesn’t help, or you get worse, consult your health care provider. 

Trout Unlimited concludes that fishing is a great way to get away from the stress we’re having now, and by following some simple guidelines we can relax, have fun, and keep our friends and ourselves happy, healthy and safe.

As for my outing on the Madison, I’m sorry to report that I never had a bite or a rise. Of course, my expectations for any kind of success on early season outings is realistically low. The water is still icy cold and there’s not much bug life yet.

Of course, it didn’t help when, towards the end of the day, I pulled in my line to check my fly, only to see it had come off without my noticing it. Fishing is sometimes more successful when we use fishhooks.