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.

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