Winter Activities While Waiting for Spring!

Setting up camp on the Smith River – on of Montana’s premier trips.

We’re coming into the longest part of the year: the interim between regular hunting seasons and the beginning of serious fishing. 

That interim gets blurred, of course, what with elk shoulder seasons, ice fishing and even fly-fishing on mild winter days. There are some hardy souls that go fly-fishing when it’s 20º below zero. I’m afraid I’m not that dedicated. I can take standing in cold water for a while, but I like to have some warmer air and sunshine when I come out of the river.

The waterfowl season, here in the Pacific Flyway areas of Montana, ends at sundown today, the last of the general hunting seasons. But, for our wildlife agencies, things are just warming up. 

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is currently holding public meetings across the state to outline the agency’s proposals for the next two years’ hunting seasons. The meeting for Butte was held last night and I plan to have a report on that meeting in next week’s column. If you weren’t able to attend a meeting, there are summaries of agency proposals at the FWP website, and you can make written comments through January 22.

There are many fun things to do in Montana and one of the top items is a float trip on the Smith River. It’s a 59-mile trip through mountain canyons from near White Sulfur Springs to Eden Bridge near Ulm. It’s a paddling and camping trip that takes about four days. It’s a unique trip in that floating on the river is mostly through applying for a permit, or booking a trip through an outfitter. You could be really lucky and get invited to join on a float trip by someone who has drawn one of the precious permits. In any event, now is the time to apply for permits for the 2020 season. The deadline for applying for a Smith River permit is February 13. You can do it online.

Late winter and early spring months are usually the period for conservation groups to hold fundraising banquets. The George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited will have their annual banquet on Friday, March 13. I invite representatives from other groups to fill me in on your group’s banquet dates, and I’ll help you spread the word. 

Along that line, I look at these cold winter months as the season for fly-tying. I enjoy quiet winter afternoons in the basement room of our house that we jokingly call my fly-tying room. It’s also the dog’s bedroom, reloading room, and a catch-all for skis, hunting equipment, and odds and ends. I’m going to learn some new fly patterns, as well as refresh my stock of flies for the coming fishing season. I often think I should just dump all my old flies and start from scratch. Back in September I actually got a start on that, when I couldn’t find a fly box full of little nymphs and soft-hackle wet flies. It turned out I’d just put it in a different pocket of my vest. I was a lot happier about that than thinking of many hours worth of fly-tying floating down the Big Hole River.

I’ve actually been the lucky finder of several fly boxes that other people have dropped and lost on river banks over the years so I’d have no reason to complain if I lost a fly box, but I’d rather not.

Finally, if you’re in need of a hunting outing, this is a good time for a different kind of hunting trip. Winter is a good time to take some quiet strolls through sagebrush patches in search of cottontail rabbits. You don’t need fancy equipment. A .22 rifle is all you need for harvesting bunnies, and cottontail rabbits are great eating. There are no closed seasons for bunnies and you’ll probably be the only hunter within 20 miles—maybe 200.

This is also a good time for winter sports, such as skiing and skating. We live in a region with long winters. We might as well enjoy it. 

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