New Licenses – a Spring Ritual

Fishing & Hunting Licenses – the passport to Montana’s great outdoors.

Going back to our first heavy snowfall in late September, and subzero temperatures in October, we’re having a long winter. But, cheer up! We’re just about at the end of February, even if this is a leap year with that extra day in February.

We could probably make a good case for having that extra day on June 31, when it’s warm and sunny. It would be a good day for a holiday and an outing.

Of course, that would be unfair to people living in the southern hemisphere. Tacking leap day to the end of June would steal a day of their summer and move it to winter. 

The reason we have leap years and leap days is that Earth’s trip around the sun isn’t exactly 365 days. It’s 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds. Without those leap days, our calendars after 100 years would be off by 24 days.

Julius Caesar is responsible for those leap years, which he implemented in 45 BCE, just a year before his death on March 15, 44 BCE.  His calendar, the Julian calendar, was a good step, but adding that leap day every four years was a bit too much. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, which basically skips leap years in century years that are not divisible by 400.  So, the years 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not leap years, though 1600 and 2000 were. This isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s pretty good, as it’s off only one day per 3,030 years.

Even with that leap day, it’ll be March 1 on Sunday. The Vernal Equinox doesn’t happen until March 19, but March 1 marks the beginning of Meteorological Spring. Even here, in the northern Rocky Mountains, we can sense that the season is changing.

That changing season also means that it’s time to buy new fishing and hunting licenses for the 2020 license year that begins on March 1.

In January Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks announced some changes in the licensing procedures. 

If you’ve usually purchased your licenses at an FWP office, or at a license vendor, your licenses have been printed on a weather-resistant paper. The technology for printing those licenses is out of date, so licenses this year will be printed on standard 8 ½ x 11-inch paper. Further, if you buy your license online, an electronic version on your mobile phone will be acceptable in case of a license check.

Further, carcass tags will also be printed out on ordinary paper. FWP recommends that you carry them in a small sandwich bag to protect them when you tape the tag to your critter.

Additionally, hunters applying for special licenses or permits will have to do it online or at an FWP office. Mail-in applications will no longer be accepted. This will speed up the drawing process, and drawing results will be available in just two weeks after the application deadline, instead of around six weeks in past years.

When the changes were first announced, some people expressed dissatisfaction on the FWP Facebook page, especially with printing tags on ordinary paper. While it might be a bit of a bother to put tags in a little baggie, we’ll get used to it.

In recent years I’ve gone online every spring to buy my fishing, upland birds and waterfowl licenses all at once. As the license I get is an online PDF document, I print a number of copies and put a copy in each fishing vest or hunting vest plus a few extra for my vehicles. I don’t plan to rely on a license on my phone, as I don’t normally carry it when I’m on the water or in the field. I have it on good authority that phones on the bottom of a river or cattail slough are mostly useless.

I always look forward to that spring rite of getting licensed for another year of fishing and hunting, especially here in Montana where the possibilities are almost endless. It’s going to be great.

The Rape of Pipe Organ National Monument

Hate to say it, but I think I’m getting cabin fever, and anxious for spring.

Actually, I haven’t been shut in the house. If you have a Labrador retriever you have to regularly go out and get some mutual exercise. I’ve certainly gone out and shoveled snow, and by now it would total in multiple tons. I’ve also been skiing just about every week since the hunting season ended in January. 

I sat in on an evening of fly-fishing films a couple weeks ago, and one of them gave me the urge to go to Costa Rica and go fishing for machaca, a fish that lives in small streams that flow down from the mountains to the sea. The machaca are a primarily vegetarian fish that live on fruit and flowers that drop from trees that hang over the river. 

You might think that fruit-eating fish might be a gentle sort, but you’d be mistaken. The fish are highly tuned in to the plop of a falling fruit and they rush in to grab it before another fish beats them to it. If that fruit turns out to be a fly, it tail-walks like a trout or smallmouth bass. I did some more reading on machaca and learned that fly anglers generally use poppers in various colors such as green, yellow, orange and red to match local flowers and fruit, as well as black and white, to match a favorite treat, bird poop. 

No, I didn’t make that up.

Surprisingly, the machaca is related to the notorious piranha of the Amazon, and the fish do have an impressive array of teeth, though they’re mostly used for crushing and grinding fruit.

Just to confuse things, machaca is also the name of a Latin American food, mostly based on shredded beef, and used to make tacos, burritos, and other dishes.

That’s the sort of things we learn in the process of trying to learn about something else. 

I also learned about abundant opportunities for fly-anglers in Costa Rica, ranging from tarpon along the coast to rainbow trout in the mountains above 9,000 feet. 

Is a trip to Costa Rica on my bucket list? Probably not, but it’s a reminder of the virtually endless opportunities in this crazy world of fly-fishing.

Wall construction through Monument Hill. Photo credit Laiken Jordahl Center for Biological Diversity.

A bit closer to home, though not a lot closer, there have been a number of reports in the press about the latest in sacrileges in the president’s border wall, with the latest being construction going through the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona.

The Organ Pipe is a unique area of desert, which has been designated as an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations as a “pristine example of an intact Sonoran Desert Ecosystem.”

Administration spokespeople confirm that “controlled blasting” has begun on the Monument. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) condemns the construction project as “sacrilegious.”

Among things that are happening in the process is bulldozing of 200 year old cacti, and destruction of Native American artifacts going back 10,000 years. 

Along the path of destruction is Monument Hill, an area sacred to the Tohono O’odham Nation and the site of an ancient battle with Apache Indians, and where O’odham people respectfully buried dead Apache warriors. 

An internal National Park Service report obtained by the Washington Post indicated that the planned border wall route through this monument alone would destroy up to 22 archeological sites.

How can the Administration just ignore Native American archeological and cultural sites, and rip through a world heritage site? The Administration bases their actions on the 2005 Real ID Act, which gives the Federal government the right to waive laws that conflict with national security policy.  In the Pipe Organ, the Administration has waived dozens of laws that protected Native American graves, endangered species, and the environment, including desert aquifers and ancient saguaro cacti, which O’odham people see as “the embodiment of their ancestors.”

This is just one of the many ecological disasters happening on our public lands under the tender care of the Trump Administration.

Great Backyard Bird Count This Weekend

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the days are getting longer, and the sunlight, on clear days, seems warmer. Every day, we’re gaining daylight, currently at the rate of 3 minutes a day. On February 15, this Saturday, here in Butte we’ll have 10 hours, 22 and a half minutes of daylight. By the end of February we’ll have 11 hours and six minutes of daylight, as we draw closer to the vernal equinox. Also, whether you like it or not, daylight time begins on March 8, just over three weeks from now.

We have a busy weekend coming up, with Valentine’s Day on Friday, and George Washington’s Birthday, or President’s Day if you prefer, on Monday. My personal quandary is that my wife’s birthday is on Sunday. I have enough trouble coming up with Christmas gifts, and this mid-February double whammy is an annual challenge.

But, if this is the President’s Day weekend, that means this is also the weekend for the 23rd annual Great Backyard Bird Count, the great citizen scientist weekend for taking a look at our neighborhoods and the status of our bird populations. The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, along with a partner, Birds Canada, and funding sponsorship by Wild Birds Unlimited.

This is an important year for the bird count, considering that scientists released a grim report last year indicating a 25 percent reduction in birds in the U.S. and Canada since 1970. Audubon scientists further project that nearly two-thirds of the birds in North America could disappear because of climate change.

Marshall Iliff, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that, “In order to understand where birds are and how their numbers are changing, we need everybody’s help. Without this information, scientists will not have enough data to show where birds are declining.”

Chad Wilsey, a scientist for the National Audubon Society, says, “Birds are important because they’re excellent indicators of the health of our ecosystems. Participating in the GBBC is one of the easiest and best ways to help scientists understand how our changing climate may be affecting the world’s wildlife. 

During last year’s GBBC, citizen scientists from more than 100 countries submitted more than 210,000 bird checklists, reporting a record 6,850 species—more than half the known bird species in the world. As the data from yearly bird counts accumulates, it becomes more valuable, as scientists can identify long-term trends.

It’s easy to participate. Just take a walk around your neighborhood on any day or every day of this weekend, or go to a nearby park, or look out your window at a bird feeder, if you have one, and do your best to identify species and numbers of birds that you see. Then go online at birdcount.org and report your observations. You can download detailed instructions and other helpful information at that same website. 

If photography is among your interests, there is also a bird photography contest that goes along with the weekend activities. 

I’ll note that while I have been promoting the GBBC since the beginning of the program, I don’t claim to be a birder. I don’t keep lists of bird sightings like many do. I do, however, enjoy watching birds while I’m outside, or even just looking out the window. 

A pine siskin perching on a fence while feeding on aphids on sweet peas.

I don’t claim to be a bird photographer, but I’m kind of proud of a series of photos I got last August, when I saw a pine siskin feasting on aphids on our sweet pea vines right by our back door. I went in the house and got my camera, put on a telephoto lens and started snapping. The bird tolerated me for several minutes until Kiri, our Labrador retriever, got curious and frightened the bird away.

Enjoy this holiday weekend. Don’t forget to do something for your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day. Then do yourselves and nature a favor and do some bird watching and report your observations to the Great Backyard Bird Count.

FlyFishing Film Tour 2020

Blane Chocklett, featured in this year’s F3T films.

Now that the football season is over, it’s time to move on to something better…fishing.

My football season ended prematurely when the Minnesota Vikings lost to the 49ers, so the last couple weeks I’ve been working on some new flies to donate to the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited for the annual fundraising banquet coming up on March 13. 

I’ll be taking a break from that, however, for the annual Fly Fishing Film Tour, which will be on Saturday, February 8, at the Mother Lode Theater here in Butte. The show starts at 7 p.m., though lots of people come early to socialize with other fly anglers suffering from cabin fever.

As usual, the selection of films captures some of the variety of people, places and fish in our strange little world of fly-fishing. 

Among the featured films is Down Under, a tour of fly-fishing in Australia, from trout in the cold waters of Tasmania, to giant trevally in the tropical waters of northern Australia.

Another film featuring the exotic is Cosmoledo, an isolated atoll in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, and another paradise for giant trevally.

It isn’t all travel, however. One film, Time, features fly-fishing filmmaker, Flip Pallot, along with Blane Chocklett and Bob Clouser, reminiscing about the late Lefty Kreh, and the impact Lefty had on their lives and their careers in fly-fishing. I’ll name-drop a little. In 2007, Blane Chocklett, who is based in Roanoke, Virginia, was my guide on a day of floating and fly-fishing for smallmouth bass on the New River in southwestern Virginia. Besides Chocklett’s skill in fishing and guiding, he has also been an innovator in designing flies and developing new products for fly-tying.

For a complete listing of the featured films, as well as trailers for the films, go to flyfilmtour.com

The Butte Film Tour presentation is sponsored by The Stonefly fly shop here in Butte, and you can get more information or buy advance tickets at the store.

Getting back to the topic of tying flies, I’m reminded of a saying generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw, that England and the United States are two countries separated by a common language.

Those trout flies I’m learning are variations of soft-hackled flies. I’m a long time fan of soft-hackled wet flies, going back to books on tying and using soft-hackle flies by the late Syl Nemes. Dropping names again, I treasure chats I had with Sylvester around 20 years ago, and the chance to fish with him on the Madison River one day.

It’s generally agreed that soft-hackled wet flies were developed in England, so I pay attention when British fly-tiers come up with new soft-hackle patterns. I recently ran across a copy of an English fly-fishing magazine, FlyFishing and FlyTying. 

In the November 2019 issue, a Welsh writer, George Barron, writes about some new patterns he has developed, using partridge hackle. There’s nothing new about that, although Barron specifies olive-dyed, gold-dyed, and sunburst gold-dyed partridge feathers. My partridge feathers are all natural Hungarian partridge, gray with some brownish overtones, souvenirs of lucky hunts in past years.

Then there are some different feathers, such as wood pigeon slips. I guess I could set up a blind in my backyard and sit there with a shotgun to harvest one of our local pigeons, though there might be some complications.

Then another pattern calls for “natural toppings.” That threw me for a loop. Chocolate sauce? Frozen strawberries? When I asked about it at our local fly shop it threw the proprietor for a loop, as well. An internet search, however, revealed the answer. A golden pheasant, cousin to our ringneck pheasant, has a sort of crest on its head. The crest feathers are mainly yellow-gold, with overtones of red, and English fly-tiers call them natural toppings.

So, what do we do when a fly pattern calls for unavailable exotic materials? We do it the old-fashioned way. We cheat. We improvise. Then we hope our Montana trout don’t subscribe to British fishing magazines.

Silver Bow Creek Restoration

Elizabeth Erickson, WET, presenting proposal to TU group

It might be too wintry for fly-fishing, but it is the season for talking about fishing. The George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited had its first program meeting of the season a couple weeks ago, just a couple nights after Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks held a public meeting on proposals for setting hunting seasons for the next two years.

The TU meeting centered on the prospects of restoring the upper stretches of Silver Bow Creek through urban areas of Butte. The principal presenter was Elizabeth Erickson, of Water & Environmental Technologies (WET), and her presentation was in part a repeat of a presentation she made earlier in the week to other groups.

The planning process is an outgrowth of work imitated by the Restore Our Creek Coalition, and an Environmental Protection Agency statement that restoration and remediation efforts do not preclude creek restoration.

There are challenges to restoring Silver Bow Creek. The original creek channel is heavily polluted with mining wastes, goes through private property, goes through or under various infrastructure, such as streets, public utilities, pipelines, has storm water dumping into watershed, and wetlands. That is just a beginning of the challenges. Another issue is that it is on the edge of the Butte Civic Center south parking lot, the main public handicapped parking area of the facility, and Civic Center management would be concerned about losing any parking space.

The routing of the restored creek had a couple alternatives for reconnection, with the main choices of flowing into Blacktail Creek near the Chamber of Commerce building, or further downstream. The Blacktail Creek option is preferred because it is likely where Silver Bow Creek flowed originally. The downstream option isn’t preferred because water would have to be pumped over higher terrain, contrary to a goal of making the whole stream gravity-fed—already a challenge because of minimal change in elevation through the area.

Steve Anderson, another engineer at WET reported on cost estimates for the project, estimated to be $12,491,750, plus or minus 25 percent, ending up with a range of $9.3 million to $15.6 million.

Mark Thompson, vice president of Montana Resources, reported on the Pilot Discharge Project, the Atlantic Richfield-financed water treatment plant that is currently discharging Berkeley Pit water that has been treated and cleaned and is discharging into Silver Bow Creek.

He pointed out that it’s still considered a pilot project, in that the deadline for treating and discharging pit water isn’t mandated until 2024. He reports that the system is working and Montana Resources is treating and releasing as much water daily as is coming into the Berkeley Pit. They normally process some 5 million gallons per day (MGD) and the system has the capacity to process 10 MGD. 

Getting the treatment plan online has had challenges. “It’s like being a parent. There are lots of problems and issues—but the baby survives. We’ve never been off our daily goal of 5 MGD.”

Thompson also discussed the availability of adding Silver Lake water to Silver Bow Creek. Water from Silver Lake, west of Anaconda, but owned by Butte-Silver Bow County, currently flows in a pipeline to the Montana Resources site, with some being tapped for the REC plant and other businesses in the Industrial Park west of Butte. Thompson said 7 MGD could be released into Silver Bow Creek to maintain a streamflow of 5 to 15 cubic feet per second (CFS).

Casey Hackathorn, Montana TU staffer, for Upper Clark Fork watershed.

Casey Hackathorn, a Montana Trout Unlimited staffer with responsibilities for the upper Clark Fork river discussed current water quality issues on the upper Clark Fork and likely benefits of augmented stream flows, that could alleviate some current problems such as summer water temperatures and water quality.

An audience member asked whether a restored urban Silver Bow Creek would have fish, something a fishing group would like to know. Ms. Erickson replied, “That actually wasn’t part of our planning process.”

There are already brook trout and westslope cutthroat trout in restored portions of Silver Bow Creek and Blacktail Creek. Like that baseball field in Iowa, “Build it and they will come.”

Elk Regs Highlight Meetings

FWP wildlife biologist Vanna Boccadori ponders audience comments.

Heavy snow falling in the early evening, a week ago, didn’t discourage attendance at a public meeting to discuss changes in hunting season regulations for the next two hunting seasons. It was standing room only at the Butte Brewing Company conference rooms as Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks people outlined plans for the coming seasons. 

Butte-based wildlife biologist Vanna Boccadori and Dean Waltee, a Sheridan-based biologist, were the main presenters. Craig Fager, a Dillon-based biologist, was noticeably absent for this round of meetings, as he retired in 2019 after a long career with the department.

Not surprisingly, elk regulations draw the most discussion, and the most passionate discussion among most of the attendees, many of whom were Skyline Sportsmen leaders and members.

Also, not surprisingly, elk shoulder seasons drew extensive discussion. 

Shoulder seasons, meaning early and late seasons for cow elk on private lands have been tried, now, for several years, following a legislative mandate to reduce elk populations in hunting districts that had large numbers of elk exceeding department management goals. 

The big conundrum in elk management is that elk learn where hunters are and aren’t, and head for private land where hunter access is limited. This is further complicated by many large ranches getting leased by outfitters, or ranchers, themselves, operating fee hunting operations. Audience members piped in with dollar figures for trophy bull elk ranging from $5,000 to $15,000. 

While it isn’t clear whether shoulder seasons have been successful in reducing elk numbers, it was abundantly clear, from a show of hands, that people attending the meeting oppose shoulder seasons.

The 2019 Montana Legislature passed a bill that would allow some hunters to purchase a 3rd elk license to be used in districts with an excess elk population. By another show of hands, attendees expressed disapproval of any hunter being able to harvest three elk in a season.

Another strategy to reduce elk numbers could be to offer more Elk B (antlerless) licenses. Dean Waltee was recommending the creation of 500 B licenses for District 333, for hunts on private land. An audience member asked if the district could afford a harvest of 500 cow elk. Waltee responded that he’d best his last dollar that it wouldn’t happen. A more likely estimate is that 500 B tag holders would harvest around 60 to 65 elk. 

Boccadori mentioned that the Region 3 elk plan is now 15 years old, and it is now under study and a new plan will be drawn up in the next two years.

There was also extended discussion about mule deer management, and a long decline in mule deer numbers since a high point in the 1960s. Some people were suggesting 4-point or better restrictions on mule deer bucks. The biologists responded that these restrictions have been tried in some areas but found unsatisfactory. There was wastage of deer that some hunters shot and left because they had gotten an undersized deer. At the other end of the spectrum, some bucks were dying of old age.

There were small changes proposed for other game species such as moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. In response to a question as to a reduction in goat licenses affecting license revenues, Boccadori icily responded, “We do not manage wildlife to maximize license dollars.”

FWP biologist, Dean Waltee, Sheridan MT.

After the meeting I talked with biologist Dean Waltee about the recent discovery of chronic wasting disease among whitetail deer in the Sheridan area. He said there is a lot of concern around the community and he has had many discussions with area landowners who are anxious to work with FWP to reduce deer numbers. An underlying problem is figuring how many hunters can be on the land without safety issues. One possibility is to lengthen the hunting season to increase harvest.

The full listing of statewide Department proposals is available at the FWP website, and the comment period is now extended to 5 p.m. on January 27.

The Montana hunting seasons are now mostly over, but the seasons for planning, discussion and arguing about wildlife management never end.

Winter Activities While Waiting for Spring!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunting Seasons Winding Down

Kiri hard at work in pheasant cover.

Last Wednesday was significant for two reasons: it was the first day of 2020, but also the last day of the upland bird hunting season. 

As is usually the case, my upland bird season kind of limped to an end, marked with frustration and failure. 

On the bright side, I saw a bunch of pheasants on my last outing, though, as is often the case, these late-season pheasants were survivors, with nerves and reflexes honed to a razor’s edge. They were getting up 50 to 100 yards out, and weren’t about to wait around to hold in heavy cover where they could be sniffed out and flushed by my dog in convenient shooting range.

I fired my gun once at a quickly disappearing rooster, more out of desperation to shoot my gun one last time in 2019 than any realistic hope of dropping that bird. 

Actually, that’s kind of how the whole season went, including my last outing for ruffed grouse in early November, before my mountain spots were buried in heavy snow. My Lab, Kiri, and I had just about completed a big circle of a grouse covert that has long been a favorite, if a frustrating favorite.

I was kind of expecting to see some birds in this part of the covert, and sure enough they were there. A ruffed grouse flushed from about 30 yards away, on a gentle hillside above the trail I was following. I made a hurried shot at it and missed. I opened my over and under shotgun to reload, and while my gun was open another grouse flushed within a few feet from where the first grouse flushed.

A moment later, Kiri was running at full speed along a little creek bottom below me, in mad pursuit of a grouse that was half running and half flying through the heavy brush. I couldn’t shoot because I might hit Kiri. Then the grouse broke out into the open and I finally got a shot at it, and, you guessed it, missed.

These birds are now safe from hunters, or at least the two-legged kind. If you’re a pheasant or a grouse, you’re always at the relatively low end of the food chain and there are always predators on the lookout for a chicken dinner. That’s a basic fact of life in the wild.

While the upland bird hunting season is over, there are still a few days left in the waterfowl season. 

Here in the Pacific Flyway portions of Montana, roughly west of a line from Havre to Livingston, the waterfowl season closed, temporarily, on January 5. It reopens on Saturday, January 11 and will run through Wednesday, January 15, before closing for good. The season ending dates in the Central Flyway areas of eastern Montana are somewhat different, and there are two zones. If you’re planning on a last-ditch goose or duck hunting trip to eastern Montana be sure to check the regulations.

If I seem to be griping about a general lack of success in this year’s hunting seasons, you can take my gripes with a grain of salt. There are more measures to success in hunting outings than meat in the freezer. 

I take a lot of pleasure in being in the mountains and prairies during the long season starting in late summer and ending in mid-winter. I enjoy the changing of colors as the aspen thickets turn to gold at the end of September. This season was a bit different, as early cold weather put a premature end to fall colors. 

It’s always fun to see wildlife, even if it’s not what I’m hunting at the time, such as a number of whitetail deer on my last pheasant outing, or moose on an October grouse hunt.

I celebrated a milestone birthday during the hunting season and I feel fortunate that I’m still wandering with my Labrador retriever in search of pheasants and ducks. I’m looking forward to one more duck hunt this coming week, and, good lord willing, the opening of grouse season in September.

2019’s Top Outdoor Stories

2019 snow at its best, at Discovery Basin Ski Area

We’re at the cusp of the changing of the year, as we take the 2019 calendars down and put up new 2020 calendars, full of days without appointments, trips, or deadlines cluttering up the spaces. That changes in a hurry, of course. 

I won’t say that we begin a new decade. I’m one of those curmudgeons that insist that we start new decades with the year ending with a one, not a zero. 2020 is the tenth year of the decade, not the first year of the new decade. Of course, other curmudgeons could claim, with equal accuracy, you can begin a decade on any darned year you choose—to which I say, “Bah, humbug!”

Journalists often use these last, or first, columns of the year to sum up the year just completed, and that’s this week’s theme, with emphasis on Montana’s great outdoors.

As always, weather has the first and last word on our outdoor experiences here in Montana. From that standpoint, 2019 was a nasty year. We started the year with a lot of snow and cold. It was a winter that tested the quality of wildlife habitat, as four-legged and winged critters struggled to survive in the deep snows. Of course, from the standpoint of winter sports, it was great. I enjoyed some great skiing days in February and March.

Winter gradually gave way to spring and summer, though it was hard to tell at times, especially on June 21, the Sumer Solstice, when Kiri, my black Labrador retriever, and I huddled under a tree on the edge of the Big Hole River waiting for a snow squall to subside, happy that I wasn’t on one of the drift boats sailing by.

2019 snow at its most unwelcome time – on ripening apples in late September

Winter returned early, with major snowstorms in late September, early October, and, again, in late October, with subzero temps making life miserable for a lot of people in elk camps across western Montana. 

The other side of the coin was that late winter storms and a relatively chilly summer helped area rivers maintain healthy flows through the summer months and there were relatively few fishing closures.

If Old Man Winter went a little crazy in Montana in 2019, one of the year’s biggest stories wasn’t the weather. It wasn’t a bacteria or a virus. It’s something that a non-scientist, not to mention lots of scientists, would have trouble wrapping their heads around. It’s a misfolded protein, of all things, called a prion. But that misfolded protein is the culprit in the growing threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD).

CWD was first found in wild cervids (deer, elk, and moose) in 2017 in south central and north central areas of Montana. That term, wild, is significant. Over 20 years ago, a captive elk herd in the Phlipsburg area was found to be infected with CWD, and was destroyed. The 2017 discovery of CWD among wild deer was a serious wake-up call to wildlife managers, hunters, and anyone concerned with wildlife.

Since then, another CWD hotbed was found in the Libby area in northwest Montana. This year, CWD-infected elk and moose have also been found. If we felt some sense of security here in southwest Montana, the recent discovery of an infected white-tailed deer in the Sheridan area destroyed that notion. 

The grim reality is that CWD is now well established in Montana and it is spreading. Mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, and moose are all at risk for exposure and infection. Can CWD in wild cervids spread to domestic livestock? Or bighorn sheep, mountain goats, or pronghorn? That’s what some might call known unknowns. 

In any event, don’t be surprised if, regardless of where we hunt in Montana, that mandatory testing of all hunter-harvested cervids will become a new reality in the next few years. 

Despite bad weather and chronic wasting disease, I’m grateful for another year of being able to fish and hunt in Montana. 

Good lord willing, I’m looking forward to many more days afield in 2020, though I still reserve the right to grumble about the weather.

A Christmas Eve Walk

A Christmas Eve stroll with Kiri.

It’s Christmas Eve and mentally I usually go for a walk back in time.

Many years have come and gone since those pre-adolescent years when, after I’d completed my farm chores, I’d whistle up Buddy, our Great Pyrenees farm dog to go for a walk away from the farm buildings.

Rural areas were a lot darker back then, before every farm would have a mercury vapor light blazing away through the night. On a dark, moonless night, such as this year’s Christmas Eve, we might see a glow of light from the windows of neighboring farmhouses; perhaps some colored lights from a Christmas tree. If skies were clear, however, the snowy landscape would be plainly visible by starlight.

On those clear evenings, I’d be looking to find that big star in the sky that guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem. I’m afraid I never found that star, though I’d easily find my talisman, the constellation of Orion the Hunter.

The walk doesn’t last long, as I have to get to the house and get ready for dinner. Our Christmas Eve gatherings usually included my maternal grandmother and my bachelor uncle Harold, and my other uncle, Reuben, and his wife and son. These Christmas Eve gatherings rotated among the three homes. As these things sometimes work, these Christmas Eve gatherings never included my dad’s sister and brother and their families, who had also immigrated from Norway and lived relatively nearby.

Our Christmas Eve dinners always included lutefisk, that Scandinavian delicacy, the aroma of which filled the house, competing with the equally pungent aroma of manure-splattered overalls hanging on a hook in a corner of the kitchen. Fortunately, there were always other dishes, such as meatballs or roast beef, to go with the lutefisk. I always declined the lutefisk course, agreeing with my uncle Harold, who always proclaimed, “Anything that turns silverware green cannot possibly be fit to eat.” 

Before the dishes were passed, however, my grandmother would read the Christmas gospel from Luke. In her Norwegian accent, the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus were “clotes.”

With the advent of home freezers, some exotic items occasionally made their way into the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, such as corn on the cob, or strawberries for dessert, both from the bounty of the summer garden.

Eventually, with dinner dishes done and put away, everybody ended up in the living room where gifts were piled under the Christmas tree. I recall some gifts being somewhat utilitarian, such as the year my dad gave uncle Harold a small sack of alfalfa seed that he’d harvested from our farm. 

Later, gifts unwrapped, the company would go home, and after the wreckage of gift wrap and boxes was cleared away we’d be ready to for that “long winter’s nap” as Clement Moore’s poem called it. Dad liked to have a snack before bedtime, his favorite being leftover cold lutefisk, which he’d wrap in a piece of lefse. With fish juices from his lutefisk burrito dripping down on his pajama shirt, he was a happy man.

Returning to the present, I remind myself that aside, from my brother and a cousin, everybody that gathered for those family Christmas Eve dinners is long gone. 

I’ll still take a Christmas walk, though it’s in an urban neighborhood. My companion is a Labrador retriever, the fifth in a line of Labs going back almost 50 years. Our Christmas Eve dinners definitely don’t include lutefisk. My wife recalls her childhood Christmas Eve dinners also featured lutefisk until, one year, her father suggested that maybe they didn’t need lutefisk this time. My wife adds that oyster stew was also a tradition in her family until the Christmas when an oyster went rolling down his tie.

Some things stay the same. If Christmas falls near a full moon, Clement Moore’s poem still rings true, “The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, Gave a luster of midday to objects below.”

After all these years, I still love the beauty of a winter night, with a full moon giving that “luster of midday to objects below,” and on dark nights, I still get my bearings from Orion the Hunter.

Winter Solstice and Climate Change

Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

These are the dark days of December, as we approach Chanukah, Christmas and the Winter Solstice. 

Most of the time, the daylight/nighttime hours change at the rate of around three minutes daily, but as we approach the Solstice, we inch forward and we measure the daily time difference in seconds. For example, on today, December 18, here in Butte, we have 8 hours, 38 minutes and 54 seconds from sunrise to sunset. Tomorrow we have 14 seconds less, and 9 seconds less on Friday. 

The Winter Solstice happens at 9:19 p.m. on Saturday, December 21, and we’ll have 8 hours, 38 minutes and 26 seconds on both Saturday and Sunday. Over the following week, days will start growing longer, though at first the difference will still be measured in seconds.

The interesting part of the end of December is that while there is little difference in daylight hours, with the daylight on New Year’s Eve Day just four minutes more than on the Solstice, sunrise will be four minutes later on December 31 than on the 21st, but sunset will be 7 minutes later, and that later sunset seems significant.

Many calendars mark the date of the Solstice as the first day of winter. Scientists refer to that as the astronomical beginning of winter, with the Summer Solstice the beginning of summer, and the equinoxes marking the beginning of spring and autumn.

In reality, another standard, Northern Meteorological Seasons, makes more sense, as in that measurement, winter begins on December 1, spring begins March 1, summer begins June 1, and autumn begins on September 1. 

When you consider a year such as 2019, when our first snowstorm of the season hit in late September, with almost unbelievable snowfall amounts on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, and Zero degree temps in early October, it seems kind of ridiculous to say that winter begins on December 21.

While the closing months of 2019 have seemed cold, we’d be mistaken to think that we’ve stopped climate change in its tracks. Consider the following information, as reported last week in the Washington Post.

In the arctic regions, climate change is truly alarming. In Greenland, home to a permanent ice sheet the size of Alaska, the ice is melting at an amazing rate. In the 1990s, Greenland lost around 33 billion tons of ice per year. Currently, the ice is melting at the rate of 254 billions of tons per year. Since 1992, Greenland has lost an estimated 4 trillion tons of ice. That volume of water is roughly equivalent to a global sea level rise of one centimeter. A centimeter is just less than half an inch, which may not sound like much, but a centimeter of sea level rise puts another 6 million people at risk for annual seasonal flooding.

At the current rate of melting, Greenland alone could contribute about 16 centimeters, about 6 inches, of sea level rise by the end of the century.

Another indicator is the melting of permafrost in the arctic regions of the world, including Alaska, Canada, Siberia and Greenland. Permafrost holds large amounts of carbon in the frozen soil, and as it melts, the soil releases large amounts of greenhouse house gases in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. This, of course, complicates human efforts to reduce greenhouse gases to combat climate change.

In fact, 2019 is shaping up to be the hottest year ever in Alaska. If you were standing on the shoreline of the Arctic Ocean at Nome, Alaska, last week, you would not be able to see any sea ice, which is highly unusual.

I’ll note that these reports don’t even mention ice pack losses in Antarctica. 

Continuing on this note, last week, Time magazine named Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg as 2019’s Person of the Year. I suspect that some will disagree and even be angered by the selection, but I look at it as a sign of hope that more people will take the issue of climate change more seriously in coming years.

Slobs Ruin Hunting!

Red wine venison stew, from the December 2019 issue of Food & Wine magazine. It’s a winner!

Now that the hunting season is winding down, we have to deal with some issues that come up during hunting season.

If we had a successful season, from the standpoint of having venison in the freezer, that’s a happy issue. I look at having birds and venison in the freezer as a wonderful opportunity to try new recipes, as well as old, reliable ways to convert those packages of frozen meat to dinners that make our mouths water. Every time I put wild game on the dining room table, it’s an occasion to celebrate those days in the field. 

Alas, there are other leftover issues and slobs are at the top of that list.

An egregious example is Earl Benes of Roundup, who dealt with a perceived annoyance at having to stop for a herd of elk crossing a road by pulling out a handgun and shooting a couple bull elk. A couple days later, he took issue with something a companion said, and shot another bull elk.

All three bull elk were left to rot. At least one of them was mortally wounded but still wandered off to die a long, miserable death.

This man wasn’t a hunter. He’s a slob and a criminal. In point of fact, he had previously lost hunting privileges because of a previous act of slobbery, in which he ran antelope down with his vehicle.

According to news reports, he may have to pay the state some $24,000 in restitution for the value of the bull elk. That’s just the beginning; Benes is facing 24 criminal counts, including eight felonies, with potential penalties of $278,000 in fines, and 83 years in jail or prison

This is an extreme case, of course. Not all slobs cause this much damage, and sometimes damage might have been just carelessness.

My daughter brought to my attention a Facebook posting from a farmer in the Shields River valley. After the hunting season he discovered four bullet holes in a grain bin. He complains, in his post, “Another hunting season come and gone and 4 bullet holes in a very expensive grain bin. Guess where they came from? Not from my side where the hunting pressure is managed but from g-d block management!”

In a long thread of comments, he explains that his farm borders another property that’s in the Block Management program, and that the stray bullets would have come from someone on that property. 

He mentions that he and some other landowners were going to have a meeting with a local game warden to discuss the problems, and concludes that he’s working hard get ready for winter, and is preparing to deliver his barley crop so it can be made into beer. “All my buildings and equipment are valuable to what I do and this kind of thing just costs me money and time.”

Greg Lemon, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, conceded that, “Every hunting season we get some complaints. No landowner is immune from someone acting carelessly.” He agreed with the landowner bringing his complaints to the attention of a local game warden, “That’s the right thing to do, is talk to the local game wardens first.”

He added, “Until the dust settles after the end of the season, we don’t know if we have any more problems than usual. At this point we’ve had no indication of any uptick in problems.”

He also asserted that Montana’s Block Management program is successful. “It’s a flagship for wildlife agencies around the country. It provides hunter access to lands  (8 million acres and hundreds of landowners) that might not otherwise be open. The reason it’s successful is that it works.”

As a lifelong hunter, I’m all too aware that sometimes, in the excitement of the moment, we might do stupid things, such as, in this case, shooting without paying attention to distant farm buildings.

Don’t be a slob. Always be aware of where you are and don’t pull the trigger until you’re sure it’s legal and safe.

Successful Deer Season

A beautiful, big-bodied whitetail deer. The hunt is over and the work is just beginning.

Something not included in last week’s thoughts for Thanksgiving was gratitude for a successful conclusion to this year’s deer season. 

I’m usually not in any hurry to get out for big game hunting. As regular readers have probably observed, to my point of view, hunting outings that don’t involve carrying a shotgun and following a bird dog seem kind of pointless. Still, I like having venison in the freezer and on the dining room table, so most years a day or two of carrying a rifle is part of the season.

That day came a couple weeks ago, when my good friend, retired physician John Jacobson, and I took a drive to a southwestern Montana ranch for a hunting outing, getting there before sunrise.

It didn’t take long to see deer, as we watched some young, antlerless deer scamper about. My deer hunts are more about venison than antlers, so I have no qualms about taking an antlerless whitetail. But, if a deer looks small, it most likely is small and that doesn’t put much meat in the freezer.

We saw more deer as the morning progressed. I had hopes that a couple small bucks might offer me a shot, but they spooked off, probably because I did something that alerted them.

Most of the ranch is in a river bottom, with brush patches, cattail sloughs and tall grass, but there are rugged hills where we often see deer hiding away in secluded spots. The hills are barren, with not much growing there but scrubby grass and prickly pear cactus, not exactly classic whitetail deer country.

We stopped on top of a high hill to glass the countryside while we had some lunch. Lunch was forgotten when I put my binoculars on a suspicious-looking spot in a distant fence corner. “What’s in that fence corner?” I asked John. “Is it a llama?” That seemed ridiculous. The next thought was, “Is that a cow elk?” “No,” John concluded, “I think that’s a whitetail deer.”

We drove to the next hilltop, relieved to see that the deer was still there. While it was still out of shooting range, this time we could also determine there were antlers. I got out of the truck and started hoofing it in the direction of the deer, trying to stay out of view from that corner. I finally got to a little ridge on the hillside where I could get into a prone position; ignoring the prickly pear cactus I was laying on. To my surprise, two deer jumped up, a buck and a doe. I put the crosshairs on the buck and pulled the trigger. The deer went about 15 feet and collapsed. 

“Wow!” That was my main thought as I approached the deer. It might not rate in any kind of record book, but it had a good set of antlers, five on each side. Taking a closer look, a lot of the antler points were broken off, indicating the deer had a busy autumn defending his ranking in the local pecking order. Judging from the size of the deer’s body, I’d bet that he didn’t lose many fights.

After the shot, of course, is when the real work begins. I may not be a speed demon when it comes to field dressing a deer, but it still took two and a half hours from the time I shot to when we had the deer dressed out, dragged to the truck and loaded up. By that time I had worked up a pretty good appetite for that long-delayed sandwich.

Our daughter, Erin, came down from Helena the next day to help with the next phase of work, reducing a big deer carcass to packages ready for the freezer. The Thanksgiving turkey made an early exit from the freezer to make way for prime venison.

On Thanksgiving Day I gave thanks for the deer and meat in the freezer, though I fear that it’ll be Christmas before the last of the cactus spines work their way out of my legs.

An Outdoors Thanksgiving

Distant mountain peaks, seen from a ruffed grouse covert.

Tomorrow, our nation will again observe Thanksgiving Day; a holiday with roots going back to the 1600s, though not without some second thoughts about those fabled first Thanksgiving events that depict Pilgrims sitting down at the table with their Native American neighbors. 

The other side of the coin is that many thousands of Native Americans died from diseases brought by early European visitors, and in later years, as colonists increased in number, they made war on Native people, stole their lands and did all they could to wipe out Native people and culture.  In fact, descendants of Native American survivors, the United American Indians of New England, have, for many years, pushed for designation of Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning among Native Americans.

So, while the holiday is not necessarily festive for all Americans, for many, friends and families will be gathering tomorrow for a day of feasting, most likely on turkey, along with an array of traditional side dishes, such as sweet potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie, with occasional breaks for football, board games, or groaning from overeating.

While we might go overboard on consumption, at some point in many households, someone might suggest that everybody gathered around the festive table briefly say what they’re thankful for, generally causing an awkward pause as people search their minds for something to share, perhaps sending telepathic messages of annoyance at the instigator.

I’ve given the topic some advance thought, and am sharing some ideas that readers may feel free to adopt as their own, if necessary.

 First, I’m thankful for another year in the great outdoors. From January treks across frozen fields in search of ducks, to mountain ski slopes, fly-fishing on Montana trout streams, and autumn hikes across mountains and prairies. I’ll confess that not all of those outings were particularly successful as far as catching fish or harvesting game. Still, each day in the outdoors was memorable and worthwhile.

I’m thankful for the wild turkey I got in the spring of 2018 and which subsequently graced last year’s Thanksgiving table. I say this in apology to guests who might be looking for more of the same. I’ll confess that I was so happy to finally check that bird off my bucket list that I never really thought about looking for another one in 2019.

I’m thankful for the gift of aging. Both my wife and I hit significant birthdays this year and we are thankful for good health that enables us to continue living fully. I am acutely aware that this is not something to take for granted. 

While many people in Christian churches observe All Saints Day for this reason, I’ll still express thanks this week for friends and loved ones who left us this past year. While their absence may cause sadness or heartbreak in many homes tomorrow, we can be grateful for happy memories that will continue to comfort us in coming years.

A Big Hole River arctic grayling – a precious jewel of a fish.

I’m thankful for the wonders of Nature. There are too many to list here, but I’ll suggest, for starters, a rainbow after a rainstorm, or a spectacular sunset. The delicate shades of green on an early summer prairie, or the gold and orange foliage of a grove of aspens and the delicate colors and sparkles of a Big Hole River arctic grayling. Whether we’re looking at the grandeur of a snowcapped mountain, or the delicacy of a honeybee gathering nectar from an apple blossom, there is beauty and mystery everywhere.

A honeybee enjoying our apple blossoms.
A rather ill-tempered rattlesnake telling me, “It’s MY path! Go somewhere else!”

I’m even thankful for the rattlesnake that barred my path, one summer day, on a Big Hole riverbank. It’s good to be reminded that Nature isn’t always rainbows and apple blossoms. Much of the natural world comes with claws, fangs and thorns. The Revolutionary War flag that proclaimed, “Don’t Tread on Me,” still has meaning.

Finally, I’m thankful for the gathering of family and friends at tomorrow’s Thanksgiving feast, while we also keep in mind that festive holidays such as Thanksgiving are a day of hurt and loneliness for some. May they find comfort and conciliation.

Russell Chatham – An Original

San Francisco Chronicle photo.

Where has the time gone?

It seems like it was just last weekend when Montana’s general season for deer and elk started, the beginning of the five-week season.

Don’t look now but time is running out. Next week we’ll observe the Thanksgiving holiday and at the end of the holiday weekend, at sundown on Sunday, December 1, the season will be over.

If you’re serious about having venison in the freezer, here’s a reminder that you’ve got just a week and a half to go.

Changing topics, I’ll note the death of Russell Chatham, one of those larger than life people who, much his friend, author Jim Harrison, went roaring through life, taking it all in like a grizzly bear before hibernation.

Russell Chatham had many facets. He was a renowned artist, acclaimed writer, skilled fly-fisher, restaurateur, publisher, and gourmand. That’s just for starters. In a foreword to Chatham’s book, Dark Waters, Nick Lyons described Chatham as “a voluptuous pilgrim, reveling in his senses.”

Chatham, age 80, died on November 10 in California in a memory care facility where he had, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, been dealing with dementia and other age-related illnesses. 

Chatham was the grandson of an artist, Gottardo Piazzoni, and grew up in Marin County, California. He was a skilled fly-fisherman and an expert on fly-fishing for salmon and steelhead in the rivers of northern California, while also building a career as an artist. In the 1970s, he moved to Livingston, Montana, and that’s where he hit his stride as a landscape artist, with his large, often huge, paintings that expressed moods as much as scenery. 

He also became part of what the Chronicle called “the Hollywood glamour of Bozeman and Livingston.” His circle of friends and patrons would include people such as Robert Redford, Tom McGuane, Ted Turner, Margot Kidder, and Jim Harrison. 

Chatham was a businessman, with an art gallery, Clark City Press, a small publishing business, and took over a defunct restaurant, the Livingston Bar and Grille. While he was an entrepreneur, he wasn’t a good money manager. Writer Rick Bass commented in a profile of Chatham, “No one I know is more of a financial wreck than Russell Chatham.”  In the 2008 recession he went broke, deep in tax debt, and in 2011 moved back to Marin, with, according to the Chronicle, “10 old T-shirts and a pair of overalls to paint in, and he was at peace.”

When I’ve brought home a duck or two from a hunt, and contemplate a duck dinner, I think of Chatham and a story he wrote about duck dinners, which he included in Dark Waters

Dark Waters, demonstrating both Chatham’s art and his writing.

Chatham liked to eat wild duck and he had strong opinions on how duck should be cooked. Duck should be roasted in a hot (500 degree) oven for no more than 20 minutes, then carved and served with a sauce made from duck stock, herbs and spices, and currants. He opens wine bottles, toasts French bread and rubs it with garlic cloves and butters it. “We are ready to eat. Before long, rice and sauce cover the table. French bread is torn loose. Each bite of rare, juicy meat is a new thrill…”

Dinner complete, he assesses the damage.

“Our wine glasses become increasingly grease-smeared as we pick up each carcass and suck it down to bare bone and gristle. We carelessly gulp the fancy vintages. Our shirt fronts are ruined. Juice and blood run from elbows onto knees and the floor. The room is blurred. We belch, fart, laugh and groan.” 

He muses on a date he missed because of the duck dinner. “As the carnage winds down I think about my date and wonder if it’s too late, but the face of the clock refuses to come into focus. I find a mirror and what I see reflected there can only be described as soiled.”

A memorable dinner, memorably described, along with some salacious thoughts about the woman he stood up (not included here). 

Russell Chatham, artist on canvas and the written word. Rest in peace.