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.

Mid-August – a Time of Transition

Harvest time – for gardeners as well as farmers.

It’s mid-August, and that means it’s harvest time in Montana.

For the many Montana grain growers, that means farmers are driving combines through their fields and harvesting the golden bounty of ripe wheat, barley, and other grains that will end up as loaves of bread, barrels of beer, livestock feed, and all the other ways that our grain crops end up helping to feed the world.

This is also when home gardeners reap the bounty of produce from our gardens. This is when things such as green beans, summer squash, sweet corn and tomatoes are ripening and livening up our tables. As these things work, our gardens in the alpine climate of Butte are likely well behind other areas, even if we’re not that far away from our nearest neighbor to the east, Whitehall, where farmers grow sweet corn and watermelons and bring the bounty to our local farmers market.

Interestingly, according to one website, weatherbase.com, Butte’s climate according to the Köppen classification, is described as “Tropical and Subtropical Steppe Climate.” The Köppen climate classification system was first published by the German-Russian climatologist, Wladimir Köppen (1846-1940), in 1884, with later modifications in 1918 and 1936, when he was 90 years old. A later climatologist, Rudolf Geiger, introduced some changes to the system, so it’s sometimes called the Köppen-Geiger climate classification system.

I’m afraid I have some difficulty getting my mind around a system that classes our cold, dry climate as tropical or sub-tropical, but that’s science.

Back to the harvest, this is also the time for harvesting fruit. Our renowned Flathead cherries become ripe around the end of July. This is also harvest time for wild huckleberries, for those lucky people who beat black and grizzly bears to their berry patches. It’s harvest time for raspberry patches, and most chokecherries will become ripe before the end of August. Some apple varieties ripen in August. 

An apple variety common in the Midwest is the Whitney Crabapple, and that was always one of my favorites growing up as a farm kid. I always associate Whitney crabs with grain harvest, as I’d pick a pocketful of apples every time I brought a load of grain back to the farm granary. My mouth waters at the fond memories of those sweet apples.

For those of us who are anxious for a new hunting season to harvest the bounty of wildlife abundance, this year’s Block Management Program hunting access guides will be available beginning August 10. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks will be mailing guides to people who ordered them in advance on August 10.

Also, on August 10, FWP will be publishing the annual Upland Game bird Enhancement Program Projects Access Guide. The guide will be available online by August 10, and printed copies will be available at FWP offices statewide by August 17. 

One final note on the harvest theme. Last week, the president signed the Great America Outdoors Act into law, the culmination of years of efforts to get permanent funding for the Land & Water Conservation Fund, along with funding for National Parks, and heralded as the most significant land conservation legislation in a generation.

While Sen. Jon Tester has sponsored the legislation for years, the recently deceased civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) introduced this particular bill in March 2019. While the bill had bi-partisan support, the bill’s sponsorship by Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines and Cory Gardner of Colorado, both Republicans in tight re-election campaigns, might have been the final piece of the puzzle to get it signed by the president. 

All in all, these last couple weeks of August are a time of transition, as we harvest the bounty of farmlands, gardens, wild fruit and legislation. It’s still high summer, but our days keep getting shorter. Today, in Butte, we have less than 14 hours and 14 minutes of daylight, an hour and a half less than at the summer solstice. 

But September is just around the corner and that opens up a whole new realm of possibilities

Dr. Bill Antonioli – Physican and Outdoorsman

Dr. William F. Antonioli, physician and outdoorsman

We were saddened to hear the news of the death of Dr. William Antonioli, who died on July 22, at age 99. He lived a long, happy and active life and loved the outdoors in many ways.

Some years ago, he told me the story of a long ago pheasant hunting trip, which became the basis for a chapter in my first (yes, there will soon be a second) book, Sweeter than Candy, titled, “Victory Pheasants.”

Bill was a medical student at the University of Michigan in 1945. It was a non-stop grind, as the curriculum was accelerated to turn out doctors for the war effort. Then, suddenly, in August 1945, the war was over. The University declared a six-day break at the end of October. He weighed his options, studied train schedules, and for $20, bought a round trip ticket from Ann Arbor to Tripp, South Dakota, a small town in southeastern South Dakota, on a branch line of the old Milwaukee Road.

He got off the train, with a suitcase in one hand and a Winchester Model 12 shotgun in the other and spotted a small (10 rooms) hotel and booked several nights lodging for $3 a night.  The hotel owner noted his shotgun and said, “If you’re planning to hunt, you’ll need a license,” and directed him across the street to find Henry Voss, the local game warden.

Henry sold him a hunting license and then asked what his plans were. Bill didn’t have any except walk out of town. Henry said, “I’ll pick you up at 9 a.m.”

True to his word, Henry picked him up at 9:00 and they went hunting. They’d drive country roads looking for birds. Bill recalled, “There was some kind of ‘one foot on the ground’ rule. If Henry saw birds in the roadside he’d slam on the brakes, and by the time he had one foot on the ground he was shooting.”

The next day, a young Army officer back from the war, along with his father and brother, joined them. With five hunters, they collaborated on classic Midwest pheasant hunts, walking harvested cornfields, or edges of cattail sloughs. Bill remembered flocks of 150 pheasants or more, getting up on just about every walk. On one of those walks, they even put up a flock of guinea hens, presumably escaped from a farm and gone wild.

For three days, the shooting was fast and furious. Bill didn’t consider himself a great shot, but with all the pheasants they put up he didn’t have any difficulty getting his possession limit of 24 pheasants, based on a daily limit of 12 birds, either sex. He sent the birds, cleaned and packed in ice, on a westbound train to his mother in Butte. He had another break at Christmas and traveled home, getting to dine on some of his pheasants.

Bill’s story is a glimpse back at a golden time, for a lucky few, for hunting pheasants. With so many young men serving in military service, relatively few people had been hunting pheasants. No Trespassing signs were non-existent. If a farmer saw hunters, there’d be just a friendly wave. Of course, a game warden taking several days off to take out hunters would be unheard of these days. As for Bill’s train trip, the Milwaukee Road bellied up in the 1970s, and today’s Amtrak doesn’t even go through South Dakota.

Bill graduated from med school in 1946 and a couple years and a residency later came home to Butte with his bride, Jo, to start a family and a private practice. In 1950, there was a new war in far-off Korea. Bill got a letter from the government offering him the choice of being drafted as a private or enlisting in the Army Medical Corps as a commissioned officer. Bill accepted the commission, and requested assignment to the Far East. Naturally, he and his family were sent to Europe.

Dr. Bill had a long, varied and distinguished career in medicine, and also continued to indulge his love of the outdoors, including solo hikes in the mountains, well into his 90s. Rest in peace, my friend.

August: Trout & Wildflowers

The sego lily, a jewel among wildflowers.

Summer is a fleeting season here in our Mile High city. We had heavy snow back in early June. We had frosts, or near frosts, in mid-July. Now we are getting some hot weather to push our gardens along as we struggle to keep our lawns green. 

But, at the end of this week we’ll flip our calendars to August, and that will mean we’re just a month away from the opening of this year’s upland bird hunting season. Those first walks of the hunting season are usually summer outings, but heaven knows we’ve often had snow and freezing temperatures on Labor Day weekend. When we get to September, the seasons can be a day-to-day thing.

In other words, now that we, at last, have real summer weather, we’d better take advantage of it while it lasts. 

At the top of my list for outdoor activities in August is fly-fishing, not that there’s anything new about that. How we do that may be quickly changing, however, as rivers drop to seasonal low flows. Sometime in August I usually put my pontoon boat back in the garage rafters and concentrate on walk and wade fishing for the duration. 

I don’t mind, as I generally catch more fish when I’m wading than when I’m floating. 

Right about now, and continuing well into September, the main hatch on area rivers will be tricorythodes mayflies, usually referred to as tricos. Tricos are tiny, but when tangible clouds of these little bugs settle on the river in their last act of life the fish take notice, and the action can get hot.

Also about now we should be seeing spruce moths on the Big Hole, and that can get fish really excited and on the feed, if you’re on the river at the right time. A few years ago I did hit it right and I spent just about a whole afternoon working my way up a current seam where the moths were floating along and getting picked off by hungry trout. I probably covered less than 100 yards, but that was sufficient.

There are other things to do, of course. With the cool, rainy weather in June and early July, there has been a profusion of wildflowers on our mountainsides and riparian areas.

On my last outing I was looking on a Big Hole island for one of my favorite wildflowers, the sego lily. I didn’t see any until I got back to the fishing access site and they were a number of them right next to the parking lot.

The sego lily is native to many western states, from Nevada and Utah to the south, to Montana and the Dakotas. It’s also Utah’s state flower, as Native Americans taught hungry Mormon pioneers where and how to dig for the plants’ bulbs for food.

More flowers!

I’m just happy to see them during the short time they’re flowering; because I think they’re about the prettiest wildflower around.

Naturally, there are other things happening besides fishing, gardening and wildflowers.

This being the political year it is, it seems to me that one of the more interesting developments is Governor Steve Bullock, who is also challenging Sen. Steve Daines for a Senate seat, suing the Federal government to block the current acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management from leading the agency while his confirmation is pending before the Senate. This is the third lawsuit to be filed, so far, as Federal law, according to the filing, “prohibits acting officers from running agencies while their nominations are pending before the Senate.”

Acting Director William Perry Pendley is a terrible choice to run the agency that manages millions of Montana’s public lands acres. Most of his career has been devoted to attacking public lands. His record as an acting director is one of mismanagement.

Maybe it’s picking at trivia. If we believe the polls, even if confirmed as Director, he’d be in office no longer than next January. That’s still no reason to install an unqualified person in that crucial office.

Western Montana Trout Waters an Oasis

Kevin Vang casting to the trout in the cold waters of the Big Hole River. Note: I wasn’t aware of the bird flying by until I downloaded the photo to my computer.

The summer is going quickly, and perhaps oddly.

As I started writing this column last week, I’d just spent several days on the Big Hole River, enjoying some modest, really modest, success trying to catch fish. On the upper part of the river, flows had settled enough to make wade fishing feasible, as long as I was careful about it.

Our son, Kevin, and his wife, and daughter, Madison, were visiting so Kevin and I made sure we took a couple days to celebrate a renewal of the deep ties we have to the outdoors, especially the outdoors having to do with fishing and hunting.

On our last day of fishing, we moved downstream a ways, and we quickly found that there’s still a lot of water in that section of river. We were able to wade and fish, but our mobility was limited to what we could wade safely. We also noted that the water is still running icy cold. 

All that water, especially cold water, is great news for the fish of the Big Hole River, and it’s great news for those of us who cast flies on the river. In more typical years, the water is lower and by mid-July I’m usually wet-wading, without the encumbrance of waders. On warm days, it’s downright refreshing. Last week, however, I was still wearing waders and was happy to have them.

In contrast, last week Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks issued a bulletin notifying the public that the lower Madison River was going on Hoot Owl restrictions from July 15 through August 15. The notice points out that this is now a permanent rule change and will be in effect every year.

The Hoot Owl rule means that fishing will be prohibited from 2 p.m. to midnight. It applies from the Warm Springs BLM boat launch area to the Madison’s confluence with the Jefferson River.

These restrictions are to help the river’s fish survive the stress of low water flows and warm temperatures. The Fish and Wildlife Commission approved this permanent restriction last fall and it’s now part of the fishing regulations.

Hopefully, our extended period of relatively high water levels and cold water-temperatures are a good sign that the Big Hole will make it through the summer without having similar Hoot Owl closures.

If the Big Hole River trout are enjoying a season of chilly water, it’s something of an aberration when we look at some of the country’s major waters, specifically the Great Lakes.

Except for deep and stormy Lake Superior, the Great Lakes are having heat problems. As reported in the Washington Post, most of the lakes are the warmest on record for so early in the summer, and on lakes Erie and Ontario, the lake water is the warmest since records have been kept and are likely to get warmer in coming weeks. Lake Erie is now near 80 degrees, more typical of Florida beaches.

Our daughter lived in Evanston, Illinois for several years after going to graduate school at Northwestern University. She lived in an old apartment building near Lake Michigan. My wife once visited her in mid-summer during a Chicago heat wave. One night they couldn’t take it any longer so they walked down to the lake and waded in the icy waters. The water was so cold that they felt chilled for hours afterward. 

This month, Lake Michigan’s average water temperatures were 75.1 degrees on July 8, 11 degrees above normal and the warmest on record so early in the year. 

If Lake Superior isn’t having seriously high water temperatures, the Lake’s average water temperature on July 8 was still 55.8 degrees, 6 degrees above normal.

Scientists expect that Great Lakes fish will have problems. Richard Stumpf, an oceanographer with NOAA, writes, “Many fish do not do well in water that is too warm, so they get ‘squeezed’ into a smaller and smaller area between surface water that is too warm, and bottom water that doesn’t have enough oxygen.

On the bright side, Great Lakes beachgoers think they are having a great summer.

Jim Posewitz – A Hero for Montana

Jim Posewitz, conservationist, author, ethicist, etc.

Montana lost one of its giants on July 3, when Jim Posewitz died, at age 85.

Posewitz was one of those people who had an illustrious career, then had another illustrious career in his retirement. He put his stamp on the Montana landscape in many ways.

He was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and came to Montana on a football scholarship at Montana State University, and was co-MVP of the 1956 national championship team. After a hitch in the Army, he came back to Montana and earned a Masters degree in fish and wildlife management.

He went to work for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in 1961, starting as a fisheries biologist. In 1969 he was named administrator of FWP’s Ecological Services Administration and from that leadership position he won many victories for Montana’s environment. 

In his biologist stint, he gathered data that resulted in the cancellation of proposed Missouri River dams upstream from Fort Peck, saving the river portions downstream from Great Falls. As an administrator he headed an international joint commission on the Flathead River system, and helped prevent an open-pit coal mine from being developed in Canada, which would have threatened the Flathead. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, he led efforts to defeat proposals to develop some 44 coal-fired electrical generation plants that threatened to suck up the entire flow of the Yellowstone River. Possibly his greatest achievement was to lead opposition to a proposed dam on the Yellowstone River just upriver from Livingston that would have turned the Paradise Valley into a huge lake. When the political decision was made to route Interstate 15 to intersect with I-90 in Butte, he managed to get the highway department to change plans from straightening the Boulder River in the canyon between Basin and Boulder.

Posewitz retired from FWP in 1993 but continued his career as a spokesman for the environment, and particularly as an advocate for ethical hunting. He was among the founders of Orion – The Hunter’s Institute and was a long-time executive director and a national spokesman for Orion. Beginning with Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting, he wrote five books. 

I regret that I never really got to know Jim. I met him, however, at a conference in Livingston sponsored by the Burton K. Wheeler Foundation, celebrating the anniversary of the campaign to save the Yellowstone. During a break I introduced myself to him and I mentioned that as a retired Federal employee I thought it was pretty amazing that as a state employee he was able to do all the lobbying and advocacy that he and his team did.

He smiled at my observation and pointed out that this seemed to be a special time, back when conservation wasn’t a partisan political issue. He was able to work with legislators on both sides of the political aisle to get agreement on what was good for Montana. 

Alas, since then, it strikes me, conservative conservationists, as I call them, have seemingly become an endangered species.

A writer friend, David Stalling, of Missoula, a past president of the Montana Wildlife Foundation, was a close friend of Posewitz, and he wrote on Facebook, “He was like a father to me. He was a mentor. He challenged me to think hard and see things from various angles…He was a wonderful friend and a remarkable man. He set a fine example on how to live life.” He adds, “Jim always made me laugh. He always will.”

In this last month, or so, when people have been challenging various monuments, it’s reassuring to look at the life and career of Jim Posewitz. He was widely honored as a hero of conservation, but more important, I’d suggest, are the living monuments to his career, such as the free-flowing Yellowstone River, or the lack of those 40 coal-fired generating plants, considering the many issues with the surviving four dinosaurs at Colstrip. We have the Wild and Scenic Missouri River through the Missouri Breaks, instead of more dams.

Jim’s widow, Gayle, told my friend, “The Happy Warrior is blazing a trail in that Wilderness Beyond.”

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.