Hunting Begins This Weekend!

My Lab, Kiri, in search of grouse scent.

It’s kind of a mental stretch, coming in the house all hot and sweaty after mowing the lawn, and then start thinking of going hunting. I’m not a huge fan of hot weather, though the tomatoes and chile peppers in my garden need the hot weather to start ripening before an early frost kills them off.

While we’re still over three weeks away from the Autumnal Equinox, summer is about done, even if it is hot (or was last week when I wrote this column). Our hours of daylight are two hours less than in mid-June, and it’s chilly in the mornings. Chokecherries are ripe and if we want to make something from the fruit we’d better hurry before the birds beat us to the harvest.

Of course, this coming weekend is the long Labor Day weekend and that means that at the crack of dawn on Sunday, the upland bird season begins, and weather permitting, I’m planning to be hiking across a mountainside in the early morn, following Kiri, my Labrador retriever, in search of grouse.

Last year was kind of a downer in my grouse season and I’m hoping for more success this year, though for some reason it seems the birds fly faster than they used to, and the mountainsides seem steeper, as well.

Still, it’s personally important, to my way of thinking, to be out there for a weekend of “cast and blast,” combining my love of fly-fishing and upland hunting in a beautiful corner of Montana. Montana might not be paradise, but it’s close enough.

This weekend starts the parade of season openers, with archery season for deer and elk opening on September 7, black bear, moose, mountain sheep and goats, on September 15, upland bird and waterfowl youth hunt on September 21 and 22, waterfowl on September 28, pronghorn antelope and pheasants on October 12, and the general deer and elk season, or what many people just call “hunting season,” on October 26.

Of course, some of those hunting seasons, such as for moose and wild sheep, for example, are just for the lucky people who won the lottery and drew one of those rare tags for what will likely be their once-in-a-lifetime chance to hunt these iconic animals.

Personally, I’ve never applied for a moose or sheep permit and doubt that I ever will. My hunting passions are mainly for birds and shotguns. If I take my rifle out of the case it’ll likely be for a fat young whitetail deer on some cold November day.

Still, it’s a privilege to live where it’s possible to hit that lottery jackpot and get that elusive tag and then plan and carry out a hunt that most people can only dream about.

A lot of people hunt in Montana, though perhaps not as many as we might think. According to Neil Whitney, a Licensing Business Analyst with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 175,671 Montana residents bought hunting licenses in 2017, about 17.5 percent of the population. In addition 48,577 non-residents bought licenses. So, roughly speaking, around 220,000 people hunt something in Montana. Some are primarily big game hunters. A growing number of non-residents are likely hunting upland game birds only.

Whether resident or non-resident, elk hunters or pheasant hunters, we can bet that a common thread for the majority of Montana’s hunters will be that they will be spending all or part of their outings on Federal or state public lands. I know that many of my outings will take place on Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and state Wildlife Management Area lands, plus an occasional walk on school trust lands.

Some of my hunts, especially for pheasants and waterfowl, will be on private lands, and I treasure the hospitality and friendship of the landowners who welcome me to their land.

Nevertheless, those Federal public lands, some 24 million acres, are our precious birthright, open to all. Use them, enjoy them, but don’t take it for granted.

Public lands are a sacred trust.

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