Give Thanks for the Outdoors

Social distancing – Montana style

The charcoal grill is heating up, getting ready to receive its sacrificial offering, a spatchcocked turkey, as I start contemplating this Thanksgiving holiday in this surreal year. 

I’ll note that because of family scheduling, we celebrated, or at least feasted, a week early, also taking advantage of a temporary return to autumn weather for outdoor cooking.

If you’re not familiar with “spatchcocking,” this means that we’ve cut out the backbone of the turkey and splayed the bird out so it’s relatively flat. I was kind of tentative the first time I tried it, but after several chickens during the summer, we decided we were ready to try a turkey.

It goes without saying, but this has been a cockeyed year. As if election years aren’t crazy enough, an election year in the middle of a global pandemic raises the craziness level by some mathematical degree above my understanding.

It seems ages now, but it was just eight months ago that the reality of the global pandemic came to Montana. On the evening of March 13, the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited had its fundraising banquet, right on schedule. TU volunteers had planned for potential risk, with hand sanitizing stations around the area, and various wipes and other hand-cleaning supplies at tables. Still, the news of the first covid-19 cases in Butte and Montana was certainly in the buzz of conversation that evening.

To the best of my knowledge, that TU banquet was the last large indoor social gathering we’ve had in Butte. The next day our local public health people issued cancellation notices for churches, concerts and other groups and we started learning about wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing. Also, it seems clear that we dodged a bullet with that event. If we had a similar banquet this month it would be a super spreader event and in coming weeks we’d be counting the resulting hospitalizations and covid deaths. 

All of this is background for what became one of the surprises of this insane year: people learned to appreciate the outdoors.

For better or worse, with a need for social distancing and shut-downs of so many other activities, people took to the outdoors.

We found public land campgrounds to be full and running over much of the camping season. Other people have reported going to National Forests and finding someone camped in just about every pull-out where it was possible to set up a tent.

There were economic surprises along with this. Angling Trade, an online service to the fly-fishing business community asked readers how business was for 2020, and 44 percent of responders reported having a record year and 17 percent reported one of their better years, if not a record-breaker. This isn’t a scientific poll, of course, but it is an indication that at least one segment of our economy is weathering the pandemic better than might be expected.

While it seemed that a lot of people that headed for the great outdoors came to Montana, we’re not alone, in that respect. 

The Washington Post recently reported on an influx of tourists in the Tahoe Lake area along the California/Nevada border. Tahoe apparently has a lot of bears in the areas that also attract tourists. Regular visitors to the area apparently know better than to leave doors unlocked or ground floor windows open, and seem to get along with only minor difficulties. One Alabama visitor, however, decided every bear sighting was an emergency and called 911. After a number of calls, the police department told him to knock it off and they’d arrest him if he made any more calls to report bear sightings.

So, on this Thanksgiving holiday, let’s give thanks for our great outdoors, and particularly our public lands and waters. In a year of pandemic, politics and unrest, many people found or rediscovered the outdoors as a place that, compared to everything else going on, actually made sense.

As for that spatchcocked grilled turkey, it was delicious, though I felt kind of cheated, not having stuffing and gravy. 

There are always trade-offs.

Old Dogs Remember Old Tricks

Kota enjoying a break from hunting.

You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.” Harry S Truman.

Whatever your feelings about the presidential election, our next president will have at least two friends in Washington, as there have been postings on social media of Joe and Jill Biden with a pair of dogs, including a German shepherd that came to the Biden household as a rescue dog. 

As all presidents come to know, there are days when they feel downtrodden and rejected; even betrayed by people they considered best friends. 

Presidents who have dogs can weather a lot more stormy weather when they have a dog that will always greet them with a wagging tail and a happy face.

Dogs are special, and, perhaps, old dogs are even more special. This week’s story is about one of those old dogs that made our annual pheasant trip to North Dakota a little more special.

Our son and daughter in law, Kevin and Jen, had two dogs, a little Yorkie and Tori, a big yellow Labrador a couple years older than our Lab, Kiri. Then, about a year and a half ago, they adopted another Lab, Kota (short for Dakota). The backstory is that a friend of a friend owned Kota but was moving and would be unable to take Kota with him. 

Kevin and Jen decided to adopt Kota, as otherwise he would have been euthanized. Kota made a successful adjustment to his new family and he’s really a sweet dog.

We took our annual family pheasant trip to North Dakota on the last weekend of October, and on my first planned day of hunting, Kevin had to stay in town to work, so Kiri, our black Lab, and I went out and had a successful day. It was damp and chilly, but we finished the hunt with our limit of three nice pheasants. We also discovered, after getting back to Minot, that she’d gotten a nasty cut on her chest, probably from a barbed wire fence. 

I spent the second planned day of hunting getting her to a veterinary clinic to get stitched up. 

On Halloween Day, Kiri was on the injured reserve list, as was Tori, who has a pesky problem with a paw infection. Kota, age 10, was the only dog of three able to hunt.

The surf was rolling on Parshall Bay on Lake Sakakawea

It was a nasty day, with gale force winds roaring across the prairies, and turning Lake Sakakawea, the big impoundment on the Missouri River, into a mass of whitecaps.

It seemed a hopeless day but in the first few minutes of our walk, Kota went on point at the edge of a weedpatch. A pheasant rooster took flight and I had an easy shot and dropped the bird. Kota had an easy retrieve, trotting over to where the bird fell and picking up the dead bird.

I asked Kevin, “Is this his first retrieve for you?” Kevin paused, and affirmed that it was.

With a bird in the bag, Kota had extra bounce in his stride as he resumed the fresh for fresh bird scent. With the wind drowning out other sounds, it was hard to keep track of Kota, as he plowed through tall grasses. In fact, at one point we had no idea where he was. Then we spotted a pheasant flush from the grass and we figured that’s where Kota was.

Sure enough, we found Kota about where the pheasant flew out, and he seemed happy to see Kevin. He was also exhausted—on the verge of collapse. We shared a couple candy bars with him and after a rest he was ready to hunt again. In fact, he’d found his second wind and it was a challenge to keep up with him.

Kota, an old veteran of the pheasant fields.

As it worked out, we didn’t get any more shots at pheasants that day or the next. Still, it was a special time, as Kota stepped in and worked his heart out in search of pheasants. 

Kota is an old dog and we don’t know how many more hunts he has left in his career. But, for a couple days, he showed off, doing what he was born to do.

Armistice – 102 years ago today

Veterans Memorials at Stodden Park in Butte MT. From L to R, Korean Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, WWI Memorial. The WWII memorial, a statue of a Guadalcanal soldier is the other side of the Vietnam memorial. There’s construction fencing around the area to protect an expansion and landscaping in front of the shell.

At 11 a.m., 102 years ago today, the cannons fell silent across the Western Front, as an Armistice agreement signed at approximately 5 a.m. (Paris time) went into effect, calling for an end to hostilities at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” 

In late September, the German Supreme Army Command informed Kaiser Whilhelm II that the military situation had become hopeless and a series of diplomatic negotiations for an end to the war began. There were rocky points along the way, with a breakdown in negotiations in late October. The German soldiers were exhausted, however, and desertions were on the increase. There was also a sailors’ revolt in the German navy. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated on November 9.

Faced with the breakdowns in the ability to continue hostilities, the German delegation signed the armistice agreement in the early morning hours with a ceasefire at 11 a.m.

Tragically, the fighting continued to the final minutes, with 2,738 men killed in those last hours. 

Many artillery units continued to fire on German targets to avoid having to haul away unused ammunition, as well as to ensure that if fighting resumed they would have advantageous positions. A battery of U.S. Navy 14-inch railway guns shot their last salvo at 10:57:30 a.m., timed to land far behind the German front line just before the scheduled armistice.

An American soldier, Henry Gunther, is recognized as the last soldier killed in action. He was killed one minute before the armistice when he charged some astonished German troops who were aware that the cease-fire was about to take place. He had been despondent over a reduction in rank and was apparently trying to redeem his reputation.

The last fighting in the war ended about two weeks later, when word reached the King’s African Rifles who were still fighting in what is now Zambia. The commanders of the British and German forces negotiated protocols for their own armistice ceremony.

There were later investigations as to why so many soldiers died in those final hours of the war after the Armistice had been signed. Congress opened an investigation to find out why, and if blame should be placed on American Expeditionary Forces, including General John Pershing. 

Armistice Day is still celebrated on November 11 in many countries, and we will recall there were global commemorations of the centenary of the Armistice on November 11, 2018, with more than 60 heads of government and heads of state gathering in Paris. Many western countries have renamed the observances as Remembrance Day. 

In 1926, Congress passed a resolution asking President Calvin Coolidge to issue annual proclamations calling for the observance of Armistice Day with appropriate ceremonies. In 1938, Congress approved legislation establishing November 11 as a legal holiday, “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace…”

In 1945, a World War II veteran, Raymond Weeks, had the idea to expand Armistice Day to become a day to honor all veterans, not just those who died in World War I. In 1954, Congress passed legislation changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day. In  1982, President Reagan honored Weeks with a Presidential Citizenship Medal, honoring him as “the father of Veterans Day.” Weeks died in 1985.

For several years, in accordance with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Veterans Day was observed on the fourth Monday in October from 1971 to 1977. In 1978, the day was moved back to November 11.

I still remember Armistice Day ceremonies in my Minnesota hometown prior to 1954. This was a time when many World War I veterans were in the prime of life, the business and civic leaders of the day. World War II was still a vivid memory for most people, and the veterans of that war were getting established in life and starting families. The Korean War limped to a cease fire in 1953, and loss of loved ones in that conflict was a fresh, bitter memory.

While the “war to end all wars” was a failed promise, we honor those veterans, living and dead, for their valor in service, and continued dedicated service to our country. 

Post-election Stress and the Outdoors

A mountainside watercress spring – a constant in a turbulent world.

Hurrah! It’s November 4 and the political campaign is over.

To be sure, the campaigns might be over, but I’m fully aware that politics is not over. While there are still votes to be counted around the country, I’m hopeful that by the time you’re reading this we’ll have some sense as to the winners and losers, and things can begin to sort themselves out. Whether or not we like the results of the election I’d suspect most of us will appreciate being able to turn on our television without being bombarded with the mud-slinging and innuendos of this year’s political commercials. Both my wife and I cast our ballots in mid-October; so all those commercials were wasted on us. I got really adept with the mute button, as well.

Along the political theme, I’d like to share some thoughts I put in my new book, Golden Years, Golden Hours, in a chapter titled, “Life Goes On.”

In the mountains, on a sunny, late afternoon, there is quiet, peace, and a sense of serenity.

We’re now halfway through the hunting season and before the season finally ends in January, we’ll be in winter and mild, sunny afternoons of autumn will be a pleasant memory. On the other hand, we have finally arrived at the end of the political season with most of the votes counted and winners declared. We could have a new president (or not) and the rest of the political pecking order, from the nation’s capitol to local courthouses and city halls, will be pretty well sorted out. No doubt some fear the sky is falling while others are celebrating.

In any event, now that the political season has ended, we can get back to the basics. Stock markets go up and stock markets go down. Politicians win elections and politicians lose elections. We’ll take a day (or more) to celebrate or mourn over our favorite candidates and then life goes on.

This doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in politics. In fact, I’m kind of a politics and news junky. I have strong feelings about a lot of issues and candidates. On the other hand, during a long career as a Federal employee I walked a careful line to avoid violating Hatch Act prohibitions against partisan politics among Federal employees. It was rather liberating, after I retired from government service, to be able to volunteer in some political campaigns.

Still, campaign seasons come and go. Candidates win and candidates lose. If it seems, occasionally, that my fellow voters don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain, I’m pretty sure that in the next election that some of them will come around, Political pendulums do swing both ways.

We actually escaped Montana politics for a few days this past week, to go to visit our son, Kevin, and his wife Jen, in Minot, North Dakota, and to spend several days in pursuit of pheasants on the prairies. There weren’t any hot political races there this year, so there wasn’t quite so much political uproar going on, though covid-19 more than made up for it. Hopefully, I’ll have a pheasant story or two to share in coming weeks.

Now that we’re back home I’m looking forward to, I hope, some better weather and some more outings in search of ruffed grouse in nearby mountain foothills. I plan to visit one of my favorite spots in the next few days, where there’s a magical place at the bottom of a hillside where springs nourish a bed of watercress before the spring’s waters join the small stream farther down the hillside. 

In a changing autumn landscape, that spring is a constant, with a steady flow of crystal clear water and the Kelly green of watercress that contrasts with the color of all seasons. It’s also the source of an annual watercress salad, a hunting season bonus on which, unlike grouse, we can depend.

The political season is finally over—for a little while. It’s time to get back to hunting.

Pheasants on the Rocky Mountain Front

A panoramic view of the Rocky Mountain Front from east of Fairfield MT

Over the years I’ve learned to love the Rocky Mountain Front. While much of the countryside is farmland, especially the parts of the countryside where I hunt pheasants, there is always an element of the wild in the pastoral landscape.

For example, there is the ever-present possibility of an encounter with grizzly bears, which have been expanding into their historic range on the plains. Thankfully, I haven’t had the pleasure, but it’s something you don’t put out of your mind.

Then there’s the wind. When storm fronts come over the mountains, it usually comes with strong winds. Hurricane-force winds. A blizzard can roar across the plains and instantly cover the landscape with a blanket of snow. Then there are the Chinook winds that can melt that snow in a few hours.

We were reminded of those winds a couple weeks ago when we made our annual pheasant trip to the Front, camping at Freezeout Lake, near Fairfield, for our last camping outing of the season.

It was breezy on the drive north but we had no problems. We set up camp and settled in for the night as wind-driven rain lashed our trailer. When we went to bed the skies were clearing and winds were calm.

At midnight, however, the roar of wind awakened us, and our trailer rocked and groaned with the wind gusts. It was hard to sleep through it, especially when Kiri, our Labrador retriever, wanted to get in bed with us, because she was scared. Sometime in the wee hours, the wind subsided and I got on with the real reason for the trip.

Kiri searching for pheasant scent in barley stubble.

For my first day of hunting I went to a farm near Choteau, one of my favorite destinations for over 30 years. Last year it was a bust, as the farmer who rents the cropland had cattle there, which trampled the entire wildlife habitat. This year, the cattle hadn’t come yet, and there was lots of cover, though not many pheasants., Kiri did put up pheasants, but the roosters that flushed all got up out of shooting range, except for the two that got up when I was crawling under a barbed wire fence.

On a second day of hunting, on the Fairfield Bench area, Kiri charged into a clump of willows and suddenly pheasants were flying everywhere. It has always been my observation that when a dozen pheasants get up they’ll all get away unscathed, and this was the case this time.

We kept on hunting and searching for scent and Kiri flushed rooster pheasants for me, one at a time. I had successful shots, folding two pheasants.

After a lunch break, we took another walk, but this time we saw just one hen.

At this point, I called it a day and we went back to camp where we packed up and hit the road for home.

Remember those winds of the Front? I was planning a third day of hunting, but the latest forecast was for another day of high winds, followed by a winter storm warning for the weekend. From past experience, I know that hunting pheasants in strong winds is kind of crazy. Birds get up and as soon as they catch the wind they’re gone, as if jet-propelled. With the winter storm forecast, going home seemed the best option.

Alas, there was a third farm I planned to hunt and had already lined up permission for that third day of hunting that didn’t happen I regret missing that day, but we have no regrets for going home and staying warm and dry.

Since then, more stormy weather has hit the Rocky Mountain Front as well as most of Montana. I’m sure elk hunters were happy about cold, snowy weather this past weekend. Early cold snaps can put elk on the move for easier living.

In any event, the pheasant season goes through New Year’s Day and I’m pretty sure there will be Chinook winds that will melt the snow and I’ll have another chance to invite some Rocky Mountain Front pheasants to come home with me for dinner.

Huntin’ Season About Here!

The wait is just about over. 

A memory from the 2019 season.

The Wait is just about over.

While thousands of Montana hunters have been out doing their thing, whether it’s upland birds, archery hunting, pheasant hunting, waterfowl hunting, etc., the big day for the rest of us is this Saturday, October 24, when the general deer and elk seasons start at sunrise. 

From then, until sunset on November 29, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Montana hunters, as well as non-resident hunters from around the country, will be criss-crossing the state in search of mule deer, whitetail deer, and, of course, elk, the big deer that fills freezers.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that upland bird and waterfowl hunters have put their shotguns away for the duration, either. In these coming weeks just about everybody who hunts will be out in the great outdoors pursuing their passions. 

For example, most people look at the “general” deer and elk season as the rifle season for big game. It is, but archery hunters will likely still be out in the field hoping to take their deer and elk the old-fashioned way. 

Of course, even the most dedicated pheasant hunter will likely take time out for a deer or elk hunt. In my case, I’ve been lucky the last few years, getting nice whitetail bucks on a one-day hunt. 

As hunters head for the mountains and prairies in search of game, it is important to remember some basics.

First of all, big game hunters, including archery hunters, must wear a jacket or vest with 144 square inches of hunter orange, or blaze orange, if you prefer. While it isn’t required, I strongly recommend that upland bird hunters also wear hunter orange, as well. Believe me, pheasants and grouse pay no attention to your orange vest. For that matter, I’ve had deer walk up to me in the woods. It’s motion and scent that alarms deer and elk.

I also advocate that hikers, bird watchers, farmers, ranchers, and anyone else out in Montana’s fields and forests should wear orange in these coming weeks. It only makes sense to let anybody in potential shooting range know that people are around.

Respect private property. Remember, whether you’re hunting ducks, pheasants, or elk, you must have permission to hunt on private property. A landowner doesn’t have to post their property to keep out uninvited hunters, though it seems most do. 

Millions of acres of Montana farm and ranch lands are open to public hunting through the Block Management Program. Keep in mind that going through whatever hoops are there, whether simply signing a register at a sign-in box, or making a reservation and getting a permission slip from the landowner, is part of the process of legally hunting on that private land.

If you harvest a deer, be aware that it may be infected with chronic wasting disease. If there’s any doubt in your mind, especially if the animal looks less than healthy, have it tested before consuming any meat from the animal. The FWP website tells you how to do it.

In any event, be careful and be safe in these coming weeks, as the seasons change from autumn into winter. Above all, have fun. Whether your outings result in a freezer full of venison or not, it’s a great time to be with friends and family.

Changing topics, I’ll note the death of Frank Cook, of Butte, on October 5. Frank was a nationally ranked competitive pistol shooter, who competed, and won championships, all over the U.S. Frank died after a long struggle with cancer. 

Sometime around 20 years ago, I did a profile on Frank for the Montana Standard and in the process spent a most enjoyable afternoon interviewing Frank in his “man cave” in his garage, where he did reloading and other gun stuff. 

Frank would also occasionally come and play tennis in our morning tennis group. 

I can confirm that, whether on the shooting range or on the tennis court, he deserved the nickname we gave him, “Deadeye.” Whether he was using a pistol or a tennis racket, he didn’t miss many shots.

Rest in peace, Frank.

Taking a Sentimental Journey to an Old Dog’s Last Hunt

Sam in her prime, in 1977 with a pair of North Dakota ruffed grouse.

A couple days ago we observed the Columbus Day holiday. The brilliant fall colors and the extended Indian summer we had the last couple weeks reminded me of a Columbus Day outing years ago.

It was 1984, and we were living in northeastern North Dakota at that time. One of the things we learned to love about the area was mostly a secret from most people who live or travel through that prairie state. 

In that  northeastern corner of the state, on the edge of ancient Lake Agassiz and the modern Red River Valley, is a range of hills; actually the eroded beach of the ancient lake, separating the rich agricultural lands of the Valley from the rolling prairie to the west. 

It’s where I first learned about ruffed grouse, the woodland grouse that thrives in the aspens and brushy areas of those hills. Our son, Kevin, and I spent many happy weekends during those years while he was still in high school, exploring and wandering that special place. 

Our partner in all those outings was our first Labrador retriever, Sam. She was a female Lab, but we named her Sam nevertheless.

Sam was a special dog and we’re eternally grateful we had her, especially as she was our first Lab. She was great with our kids and a wonderful companion to everybody in the family, as well as a sure, gentle-mouthed retriever.

She was probably at her best with pheasants, but she also did well with grouse. She made me a better hunter than I thought I was, as often I’d shoot at a grouse rocketing away into the forest. I occasionally thought I missed my shot, but Sam had more faith than that and went off in search of the bird, and often surprised me, bringing back a lightly-hit grouse.

In the fall of 1984, Sam, at age 14, was an old, old dog, with a grey muzzle, and not a lot of endurance left in her formerly athletic body. Still, when I put on my hunting boots and got my shotgun out, she was not about to stay home. She was a dog born to hunt and she always had to come.

That Columbus Day holiday still sticks in my mind as a magical day, with the trees at their peak of fall colors, a golden day.

Sam couldn’t tolerate much exercise, though she surprised me when she picked up a scent, then trotted forward and flushed a covey of Hungarian partridge. I regret that I missed my shots.

I don’t remember if we even saw any grouse that day, though I do recall that we got into a bunch of wild turkeys in a wooded creek bottom. 

All in all, we had a pleasant outing, with bright sunshine, deep blue skies, mild temperatures, and, again, those golden wooded hills.

The pleasant weather lasted through the week. I was hoping for another outing on Saturday, but the International Scout I had back then needed some brake work, which was scheduled for the following week. My wife wouldn’t let me leave town with those bad brakes.

That Saturday afternoon we were in the backyard. I was cooking dinner on the grill and Sam was romping in the autumn sunshine. “She still thinks she’s a puppy,” my wife said, with a loving smile.

The next morning I was up early as I had to make a road trip that day on behalf of our church. I went downstairs to the room where Sam slept and was shocked to discover that she’d died during the night. 

It was a chilly, drizzly day, that mostly matched my frame of mind, though the rain helped wash away my tears late that afternoon as I dug a grave for Sam, before laying her to rest with some pheasant and grouse feathers at her nose to keep her company for eternity. 

Since then we’ve said goodbye to several more Labs, though it’s not something we will ever get used to. Still, on golden days of October, I can’t help but remember Sam’s last hunt.

Fall Fishing in a Recovered Paradise

Eric English exploring Silver Bow Creek

We had fantastic Indian Summer weather last week and, happily, it’s continuing into this week, too. 

It couldn’t have come at a better time, as we had a houseguest, Eric English, who hails from the Richmond, Virginia area. He’s an emergency room physician and he likes to take traveling jobs to exotic places, like Sidney, Montana, to put himself closer to Montana’s fly-fishing waters.

After a day on the Big Hole, I suggested we try something different, so we found ourselves bushwhacking our way up Durant Canyon to fish Silver Bow Creek.

It’s one of those outings that 20 or more years ago, if I’d suggested going fly-fishing on Silver Bow Creek, I might have found myself being evaluated for commitment to the state mental hospital a few miles further downstream at Warm Springs.

Silver Bow Creek was one of the most abused waterways in Montana, an industrial sewer full of mining and smelter waste, along with untreated sewage. 

After millions of reclamation dollars were spent to clean up and restore the creek, a miracle happened. Westslope cutthroat trout found their way down German Gulch, a tiny tributary, into the larger waters of Silver Bow Creek and, unbelievably, prospered. It didn’t take long before some people started posting photos of nice cutts on social media.

To be sure, fishing this creek isn’t for everyone. It’s way too small for a drift boat and scrambling around in the rocky twists and turns of this canyon creek is a workout. 

There are rewards, however. Even if you never see a fish, it’s a beautiful hike along this sparkling waterway in the narrow Canyon. 

I caught the first fish of the day, a spunky 8-inch cutty. Eric caught a carbon copy, if not the same trout, out of the same pool. 

Eric and a gorgeous native cutthroat trout.

He also managed to work his way into a pool where, using a “hopper and a dropper” combination, he hooked three trout, the last a fat and feisty trout we estimated to be about a 17-incher, though we didn’t put a measuring tape on the fish. Eric agreed with my philosophy that, “a measured fish can’t grow.” In fact, on our trek out of the canyon Eric considered that it might have already grown a bit.

When I suggested that catching that fish made the whole day, Eric said, “It made the whole trip.”

While fishing the creek was fun, I confess that I was somewhat distracted by thoughts of pheasants, as the pheasant season opens on October 10. Of course, the pronghorn antelope rifle season begins this Saturday, too.

I have nothing against hunting antelope and I have great memories of past hunts of these prairie speedsters. Pheasants, however, are special.

I grew up on a farm when pheasants were plentiful in southern Minnesota. My dad didn’t hunt but the fathers of some of my schoolmates at the one room country school where I began my formal education did, and I was envious when they’d open their lunchbox and take out a pheasant sandwich. I decided that when I was older I’d learn to hunt pheasants so that, some day, I, too, could have a pheasant sandwich.

I quickly learned that I had a lot to learn when it comes to pheasants, but over the years the pheasants taught, and continue to teach, me a lot of things about how to come up with sandwich fixings.

Over the years, as a career took us to Iowa, North Dakota, back to Iowa, to Montana, then back to North Dakota, and, finally, to Butte, I have always had opportunities to chase pheasants. Since 1970, these pheasant hunts have been with the partnership of five different Labrador retrievers, all of whom helped our outings become successful. Kiri, our current Lab, is now five years old and starting her sixth season of pheasant walks across the prairies.

I’ll be hunting other things, of course, but until the season ends on New Year’s Day, chances are that, at any given time, I’ll be thinking of pheasants and scheming my next outing.

October – Outdoors Time!

Kiri, the Dog on a Rock.

If today is the last day of September, that means October, probably my favorite month of the whole year, starts tomorrow. 

To be sure, October is my birth month, so what’s not to like?

Looking back, October has always been a good month for football. I played football in high school, though I wasn’t particularly good at it. Of course, one good thing about high school football is that you need a lot of people to come out for the team so, if nothing else, the good players have someone to practice against. 

October was a good month for football because those two-a-day practices of August were a distant memory and in October we were in as good shape as we’d ever be. Also, as we usually played just an eight game schedule, we’d be done with football at the end of October.

This political year, I can also look back and blow some peoples’ minds by mentioning that the last time I put on cleats and pads, President Dwight Eisenhower was wrapping up his campaign for reelection. Yes, that part of my life was a long time ago.

September is a time of transition, as we move from late summer to early autumn. This week we have a friend coming from some distance for several days of fishing on area streams. The weather forecast looks pretty decent, so I suspect we’ll have a good time, and we’ll likely catch some fish, too.

After he moves on, however, I’ll most likely be done with fishing until early spring, as when October comes, my attention shifts, primarily, to hunting, especially after the pheasant season opens.

Grouse hunting should improve a bit in coming weeks as the aspens drop their leaves and visibility gets better. That doesn’t prove much, as on my last outing, Kiri, our black Lab, and I made a walk in the woods for grouse. We put up just one bird, and that flushed in an open spot and flew straight away, giving me an easy shot. It would have been easy, except that I was surprised when the bird took wing, and after I got over my surprise I fumbled with the safety on my gun, and by the time I had my act together, the bird had disappeared off into the trees. We tried to find it again for another flush, but it gave us the slip.

Fortunately, my fishing went better. In a couple hours on the Big Hole, I caught five fish, including a 15-inch brown trout that totally made my day. I was able to slip the hook from its jaw without actually touching the fish or taking it out of the water, so it’s still out there, hopefully none the worse for wear.

One thing I’ve been pleased about this September is that, once we got past that early snowfall and hard freeze, we’ve had relatively mild weather. I managed to keep my garden from freezing out in that early blast of winter, so I’m still harvesting tomatoes just about every day. It’ll soon be time to close out the gardening season and clean things up before winter begins, but I appreciate the extended growing season we’ve had to this point.

On a more personal note, I’ll also mention that this first week of October will mark 25 years since I entered the world of outdoor journalism. 

It was quite a change going from my previous career as a government manager, living by rules and procedures, and working with a team of fellow workers to get things done. 

Freelance writing, especially the framework of newspaper columns, was quite the change. Instead of working with a team of people, it’s basically just me, sitting in a home office, daring words to show up on a computer monitor.

Thankfully, the words keep coming. In fact, I’ll mention that in the next couple weeks I will have a new book out, titled, “Golden Years, Golden Hours; thoughts and reflections on fly-fishing, hunting and aging.” 

Yes, October is a good month.

Montana Fall Color Tours

Fall colors in the aspens against the background of a threatening sky, from September 2019. Two days after the photo was taken we had our first snowstorm.

It was mid-September when I started writing this column, and while we were having summer-like afternoon temperatures, the aspens on the mountainsides overlooking our city were turning to gold. A quick look around the neighborhood also showed, seemingly overnight, trees turning color.

Hopefully, this means we’ll have fall colors these next few weeks. Last year, we might recall, we had polar temperatures in the last week of September and early days of October. Our foliage froze on the trees and turned brown. While we had temporary returns to more seasonal weather, the trees hung onto those brown, shriveled leaves, many until this spring when new leaves finally pushed off those old leaves.

The autumnal phenomenon of leaves changing color is a function of fewer hours of daylight. Our deciduous trees have a basic pigment, but during the months of long hours of daylight, the process of photosynthesis keeps turning out green colors in the leaves. As days shorten, photosynthesis slows down and that base pigment shows through. 

The Autumnal Equinox happened yesterday morning at 7:31, MDT. The equinox marks when the sun is almost directly over the equator, and hours of night and day are approximately equal worldwide, though our days will continue to get shorter until we reach the winter solstice in December.

I love fall colors and I associate the colors with hunting, as well. In our area, quaking aspens in the mountain foothills in the area provide the bulk of our fall colors, and a sunny afternoon in the “cathedral of the aspens,” as I think of it, is reason enough to go hunting for ruffed grouse.

Here in Montana, we don’t have the variety of deciduous trees that brighten up the landscape in many eastern states, where “leaf peeping” is a big part of the tourist industry, especially in New England states. 

I grew up in southern Minnesota, which has a good variety of trees and vivid fall colors. We also lived several years on the Iowa side of the Quad Cities along the Mississippi River, and a drive along the river was an annual treat. I also remember an airline trip to Washington D.C., years ago, in the latter part of October. The aerial view of fall colors in the Appalachians was amazing.

In our corner of Montana, I like the drive over the Mill Creek highway between Anaconda and the Big Hole River for looking at local fall colors at their best. Going a little further, I think one of the prettiest autumn foliage places in Montana is the Marias and Teton river valleys near the confluence with the Missouri at Loma around the first week of October, especially when approaching from the north. A perfect place to take it all in is from the historical marker on the hillside north of Loma, where Captain Meriwether Lewis went to try to figure out which of the rivers was the true Missouri river.  

The prairies of eastern Montana have an amazing variety of brush and shrubberies that seemingly blaze in the autumn sunlight. The fall colors on the prairie were a real revelation when we lived in Miles City, especially after living in the Midwest all my previous years.

Of course, our views of the changing panorama of fall colors has been obscured by the long plume of smoke coming from the west coast wildfires. That plume of smoke has been tracked by satellite across the country, the Atlantic Ocean, and as far as western Russia in Eastern Europe. 

We’re just beginning to realize the cost of ignoring climate change.

One final note. This coming weekend will be a big weekend for licensed youth hunters, age 15 and under. The annual youth waterfowl and pheasant seasons will take place on Saturday and Sunday, the 26th and 27th of September. It’s a great opportunity for kids to learn to hunt ducks and pheasants. Check the FWP regulations for details. The regular waterfowl season opens October 3, and pheasant season on October 10.

Check out the fall colors and take a kid hunting.

Grouse Walks on Mountaintops

A smoky haze.

A smoky haze from distant wildfires diffused the sunrise view across the mountaintops to rocky peaks in the distance. Somewhere, on the next mountain, a bull elk bugled, announcing that he was in the mood for love.

It was a relatively warm morning for the first week of September, and Kiri, our black Labrador retriever, and I were trudging across the mountainside early in the morning before it got too hot for dogs and this aging hunter. The archery season wasn’t yet open and in any event, the thought of dealing with a quarter-ton of dead elk on a 90-degree afternoon holds no appeal.

Kiri and I were out looking for bigger game, blue grouse, or “stalking the wily fool hen,” as the late Butte journalist and editor Jeff Gibson would muse. 

I’ll note that the grouse we call blue grouse is officially a “dusky grouse.” Around 15 years ago, ornithologists renamed our grouse the dusky grouse to differentiate them from their cousin, the blue grouse of Pacific coastal mountains, which are now officially sooty grouse. Still, you’d have to be an expert in bird identification to tell them apart, and in areas where their ranges overlap, they successfully interbreed. Besides, most people wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I referred to these big grouse as dusky grouse.

When it comes to grouse hunting, my first love is the ruffed grouse, the elusive bird of the aspen thickets. When the season opens, however, everything is still too dense and green for hunting ruffies. This is a better time for walking the sagebrush ridges and conifers for blue grouse, even if, after nearly 30 years of pursuing them, they’re still a bird of mystery to me.

All I really know is that if you don’t get up early and head to the mountaintops and sagebrush meadows, you probably won’t have any blue grouse for dinner, and that would be a shame. As my old mentor and hunting partner, the late John Banovich, told me, “They’re just as good as a ruffed grouse, but much bigger.” 

I’m guessing there are some dumb blue grouse out there somewhere, but you couldn’t prove it by me. I find them to be wary and elusive, and ready to flush a hundred yards away, far out of range for a shotgun.

Kiri searching for grouse scent.

On our first morning’s walk, we actually put up about half a dozen grouse, but none closer than 50 yards, still out of shooting range. Sometimes, they’ll fly up into a nearby tree, but these birds weren’t that dumb—they’d take off and fly into some dense timber, or sail off to some far off trees.

The next day we put up a pair of grouse out of range. A little later we put up another grouse that might have been in range if I could see it. As it was, it flushed from the other side of a dense thicket of trees.

On our last day of hunting, we finally found a fool hen. It was walking down a forest road and then meandered off into the trees at my approach. Kiri quickly picked up the scent and put up the bird, and I swung my gun and, in my first shot of the season, managed to scratch it down. Kiri closed the deal by catching up with the grouse before it could run away.

A successful morning hunt.

One grouse in three days of hunting may not sound too impressive, but it was actually my first blue in several years, so I declared that first hunting weekend a success.

We elected to come home a day early from our Labor Day weekend. It seemed surreal, with daily high temperatures in the 90s, to have a winter storm warning for Labor Day. But, that’s life in Montana and the Rocky Mountain West.

In fact, on Labor Day in 1992, also on September 7, we had frigid morning temperatures in our campground and after getting home we learned that home in Butte it was a frozen 18 degrees that morning. Needless to say, my tomato crop was ruined.

Fly-fishing Georgetown Lake

Evening on beautiful Georgetown Lake, west of Anaconda MT.

“Hey, you want to come fishing?” My wife and I were at the Farmers Market in Butte a couple weeks ago and I saw my old friend Geoff Gallus, where he was holding down a table getting voter registrations.

Geoff is one of those people who live the outdoors, and sometimes gets paid for it, as he’s a licensed fishing guide, though he hasn’t been doing much it recently. He has also been a ski instructor at Discovery Basin. 

Geoff explained that he keeps a boat up at Georgetown Lake and he’s been having a lot of fun fishing the “traveling sedge” hatch. 

The traveling sedge is a large caddis and the adult form of the insect is known for not just floating on a lake’s surface but it also runs across the surface, creating a little v-shaped wake. On a peaceful evening, a good hatch will get trout excited. He said, “Those trout are kind of like a (deleted area high school name) graduate. Not too smart but pretty athletic. They go nuts over these caddis.”

I suggested a couple options and we agreed on an evening where I’d meet him at the lake, and then spent an afternoon tying up some elk hair flies to imitate the big caddis, or caddis horribilis, as one friend called them.

We were having a kind of nice day but in the afternoon a breeze came up and about the time I was heading to the lake there was a bit of chill in the air. While it was still around 80 degrees, on a hunch I grabbed a polarfleece vest and warm windbreaker jacket, along with a pair of blue jeans in case it was too cold for wearing shorts.

I’m glad I did because it was about 20 degrees colder at the lake and there was more than a bit of chill in the air. Geoff cranked up his boat motor and we headed for a sheltered bay, avoiding the whitecaps out in the main body of the lake.

We got into the bay and we could see some rises along a shoreline. Geoff shut down the kicker and dropped anchor, though with the wind we immediately started drifting across the bay, dragging the anchor.

We started fly-casting to the waters and while we didn’t actually see any rises to insects, some fish were paying attention to our imitation bugs, as we’d get some tugs and momentary hook-ups. A couple times Geoff had a good-sized trout on his line but they slipped the hook.

Geoff had his eye on some shallow weedbeds just off a small island but it didn’t work well, as we were more exposed to the wind and we quickly drifted away.

In the meantime, a couple more fish teased us and I finally managed to catch a 10-inch rainbow trout.

I encouraged Geoff, who was getting more bites than I was, to catch a decent sized fish. “Come on, Geoff, catch something. I need a story!” 

He gave me a strange look, asking, “A story?”

“Yeah! I always need a story. Let’s catch something.”

It was starting to get late and the sun was setting, so our time on the lake was getting short. Finally, Geoff did latch onto a trout that stayed on. The trout put on a good fight, demonstrating that a fish that doesn’t have to fight the current in addition to a hook and line can make things difficult for the angler, as it threatened to wrap the line around the boat motor and the anchor rope.

Geoff Gallus and feisty Georgetown Lake rainbow trout.

Geoff finally boated the trout and I got a photo—and my story. 

It was almost dark when we got back to the dock and unloaded the boat, and after several hours in the wind I felt pretty much frozen—an unusual sensation for mid-August.

The traveling sedge hatch should continue well into September, so a trip to Georgetown Lake would be a great option for some evening lake fishing.

My advice is find an evening when the wind isn’t blowing.

Montana Hunting Season is a Go!

A Montana westslope cutthroat trout – a great way to celebrate September!

It’s September! While flipping the calendar doesn’t mean summer’s over, you can see the end from here. If we have normal weather patterns, we can expect some unsettled weather this month as we near the Autumnal Equinox. In our mile-high mountain environment, that means we can plan on snow, either on the mountain peaks or in the valleys, depending on the whim of Mother Nature.

Hunting season is on. The upland bird season, including mountain grouse, Hungarian and chukar partridge, sharptail grouse, sage grouse, and wild turkey. Note that the pheasant season doesn’t open until October 10. Most of the upland bird seasons remain open until sunset on New Year’s Day, though the sage grouse season closes on September 30. 

Some migratory bird seasons also opened on September 1. This includes mourning dove and sandhill crane, and both those seasons end on October 30. Special permits are required for sandhill cranes. 

If you pay attention, you may notice that Eurasian collared doves are also present in Montana. Collared doves look similar to a mourning dove, though when flying they have a rounded tail, whereas mourning doves have a pointed tail. Collared doves have a black ring on the back of their neck. Eurasian collared doves are an invasive species and are unprotected. That means it’s open season all the time with no limits and no license required.

Archery seasons for deer, elk and antelope begin on Saturday, September 5.

The archery season for antelope closes on October 9, and for deer and elk on October 18. The general, or firearms season for antelope opens October 10 and closes November 8. The general season for deer and elk opens on October 24 and runs through November 29. 

These are, of course, just some highlights of the 2020 hunting seasons. Printed regulations with all the details are available at the FWP website, or at license vendors.

September is a special time in Montana. Depending on the day, it might still be summer, but autumn weather—sometimes winter, too—is no more than a day away.

We can walk towards a prairie horizon in search of sharptails, or wander mountainsides for blue or ruffed grouse, or try to call in a bull elk, and end the day casting dry flies on a trout stream. Every day in our outdoors is full of possibilities. It’s up to us to make it happen. 

Changing gears, I feel compelled to comment on an executive order and legislation proposed by President Trump.

First of all, Trump recently signed an executive order at his New Jersey golf club deferring payment of employee payroll taxes after September 1 until the end of the year. Those payroll taxes are the excise taxes that finance our Social Security programs, also known as the FICA tax.

At the same time, he said that if he were reelected, he would seek legislation to permanently eliminate the FICA tax.

I spent almost exactly one-third of the 20th Century working for the Social Security Administration. Over more than 33 years I worked to help our fellow Americans at time of need, at times of retirement, death and disability. I know intimately the importance of those federal payments to the almost 65 million men, women and children who receive Social Security payments, currently amounting to $91.6 billion dollars per month. 

The Social Security Trust Funds that pay those billions of dollars each month are in trouble. This has been predicted for the last 30 years but politicians of both parties have failed to fix the revenue stream (i.e. tax rates) to balance the funds. Currently, expectations are that the funds would be exhausted by 2035, or 2034 if this year’s FICA taxes weren’t collected.

If Trump’s scheme to eliminate the FICA tax were to pass, the reserves would be exhausted in 2025 and would result in a 50% cut in payments. For an average worker retiring at age 65, this cut would mean a loss of over $10,000 per year (Projections from Center for American Progress).

Trump may be perfectly happy to bankrupt the Social Security system. He doesn’t care about the damage to our country and our fellow citizens. Think about it.

Madison River: A Busy Place

Kiri – checking out the 50 Mile Riffle

If you’re curious about the neighbors, don’t worry. Your dog will make the introductions.

On a recent weekend we camped on the upper Madison River, south of Ennis. We were lucky to get a campsite, as it turned out, and while my wife and I were busy getting the trailer stabilized, and other details, our Labrador retriever, Kiri, saw a dog at the adjoining campsite and went to say hello, along with other canine rituals.

A moment later, the human segment of the campsite, popped out of his trailer, with a big grin on his face, as Kiri saw the trailer door was open and jumped right in. His truck had Minnesota license plates, so we had an immediate topic of conversation about our home state. He lived in the metropolitan Twin Cities, but was well acquainted with my home country in southeastern Minnesota where, he related, he first learned to fly-fish.

Of course, fly-fishing was our reason to re-visit the upper Madison. Our home waters on the Big Hole might be running low and warm, but the Madison is, as always, a big, cold, fast-running river, the “Fifty-mile riffle,” as many call it. It’s also an intimidating river for wade-fishing. The current is strong and the rocks are like greased bowling balls.

The fishing was challenging that weekend, and while I didn’t get skunked, I didn’t have anything worth bragging about, either. The river can be fickle, of course, as in other visits I’ve talked to campers who tried fly-fishing and caught bragging size fish, even though they barely knew how to tie a fly on their tippet, assuming they even knew what a tippet was. That’s how these things go.

Something that really surprised us was how full the campground was. We’ve camped at this BLM recreation area many times over the years and, typically, if we got there on a Thursday afternoon we’d have our pick of campsites.  This time, the place looked like a small city with all the RVs, tents and boat trailers taking up every available spot.

We chatted with the campground host, who said, “It’s been like this all summer.” He added that he’d been campground host at this spot for the last seven years. “In most years, we might have, at most, 6 or 7 nights a season when we’d be full. This year, I kind of lost track after 40 times…now it’s probably in the 50s. I’m worn out, just keeping toilet paper stocked.” Indeed, the “Campground Full” sign was out at the entrance road every night of that weekend.

Appropriately, this was the same time Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks was debating on what to do with proposals for management of angling pressure on the river, including putting caps on commercial use, much as what we’ve had on the Big Hole River for years. The numbers of guided float trips on the Madison have been increasing in recent years and, in fact, if you’re watching the river, you’re also watching a continual parade of guided drift boats. It’s like salmonfly time on the Big Hole, even in mid-August.

Of course, there are ways to deal with it. Something I’ve learned over the years is, if wade fishing, to work your way upstream from a boat launch point. Assuming you are out at a reasonable time, you’ll have several hours of total solitude before you see boat traffic coming down from an upstream access point.

As for our campground neighbor, in our visits he related his story of coming down with Covid-19 back in February, and being hospitalized for a full two months, including a couple weeks on a respirator. When he finally got off the respirator, he confesses he didn’t even know who he was or where he was.

He’s had a long road back to recovery and is now confident he’ll soon be fully recovered, and gives credit to his background as a long distance runner and a strong heart that kept on going through his illness. 

He also credits his dog for helping him to stay active through recovery.

NRA Scandal – Where’s the Anger?

Wayne LaPierre – NRA leader (or looter). AP-Washington Times photo.

Remember Maria Butina? She’s the Russian woman who came to the United States and while representing herself as a leader of a Russian gun rights organization, thoroughly imbedded herself with the National Rifle Association. To put it plainly, she played the NRA like a fiddle, with NRA leaders falling over each other to have photos taken with the attractive redhead.

In 2018, she was arrested and charged with acting in the U.S. as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, specifically the Russian Federation. In a plea deal, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an illegal agent. She served five months of an 18-month sentence in a Federal prison. After release, she was deported to Russia.

In columns on the Butina scandal, I raised the question as to why hadn’t the rank and file members of the NRA stormed the gates of the NRA headquarters demanding the heads of Wayne LaPierre and other leaders who fell for the charms of the Russian woman.

On August 6, Letitia James, the Attorney General for the State of New York, filed charges against the NRA for corruption and misspending, demanding the dissolution of the National Rifle Association, the nation’s most powerful gun rights lobby. The State of New York has jurisdiction over the NRA because the NRA was chartered as a nonprofit organization in New York 148 years ago.  

Ms. James also sues four current or former NRA leaders seeking millions of dollars in restitution. That includes Wayne LaPierre, NRA’s longtime executive vice president, John Frazer, the general counsel, Josh Powell, a former top aide to LaPierre, and Wilson Phillips, a former chief financial officer.

Mr. LaPierre is accused of raiding NRA funds to support an extravagant lifestyle, even though he already gets millions in direct compensation. Some $13.5 million was paid to a personal travel consultant for LaPierre. His trips included private charter flights to the Bahamas, often enjoying the good life on a private yacht owned by an NRA contractor. He lavished gifts for his inner circle. He even awarded himself a $17 million golden parachute for himself for some future time—without approval of the Board of Directors.

All in all, the lawsuit accuses the NRA and its top executives of violating numerous state and federal laws by enriching themselves, as well as friends, families and allies to the tune of $64 million over a three-year period. Ms. James seeks to oust LaPierre and Frazer and to bar all four men from serving on nonprofit boards in New York again.

At the same time, the attorney general of Washington D.C. filed suit against the NRA and its charitable foundation, alleging that the NRA misused millions of dollars of the foundation’s funds. 

Not to be outdone, the NRA filed a federal lawsuit against attorney general James, claiming her action was politically motivated and violated the NRA’s First Amendment rights.

President Trump suggested that the NRA could move to Texas and live happily ever after. Rep Greg Gianforte, who is opting to run for governor instead of reelection to Congress, invited the NRA to move to Montana. A New York Times article points out that it isn’t that easy, as the NRA couldn’t up and move assets to another state during an ongoing investigation, and could possibly have to start from scratch.

This suit doesn’t come as a total surprise, in that LaPierre and his inner circle have long been accused of enriching themselves at the expense of the NRA’s members. The NRA’s former president Oliver North issued a letter to the NRA Board in 2019 accusing LaPierre of improper personal spending, though LaPierre forced out North in a power struggle.

Obviously, all this will be fought out in state and federal courtrooms, probably for years. In the meantime, it’s likely that the NRA won’t have much money to pour into Donald Trump’s campaign coffers like they did in 2016.

Still, I now question why the NRA’s rank and file members aren’t storming the gates of NRA headquarters and demanding the heads of LaPierre and his cronies for stealing members’ dues and contributions.