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.

Fishing & Camping Adventures

Some people catch fish two at a time. I catch a baby brookie and a big stick.

It seemed late, this year, but my wife and I finally hooked up our trailer and headed for the Big Hole that last weekend of May. What with weather, and so many public camping areas being closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, it was about impossible earlier. Of course, our typical spring weather was often more like winter weather.

It was a relief to get out, finally, along with lots of others with the same idea. After several months of pandemic lockdown, and with some easing of restrictions, it seemed pretty obvious that we weren’t the only ones anxious to get out of our respective hometowns for a change of scenery and maybe some floating.

I packed my pontoon boat and did a couple floats on the upper Big Hole, though the floats were more about floating than fishing. Still, there’s a story.

Lots of fly anglers like to fish with two flies on the line. I usually avoid doing that because it just seems two flies triple the chances of getting things tangled up. 

I violated that principle on my first float, because while I saw lots of bugs, caddis and mayflies, on the water, I wasn’t seeing any rises. So, I tied on an elk hair caddis and a beadhead nymph on a dropper to see if I’d catch anything.

After a few casts, I was delighted when a small brook trout took the caddis imitation. I quickly brought it in and did a few more casts. I was surprised to get another hit. I couldn’t figure out what it was, because it felt more like I got snagged up, even though I could feel a fish wiggling. I finally got it up and a three-inch brookie had taken the little nymph, while my fake caddis had hooked a large stick. 

People who regularly fish with two flies often tell tales of having two nice fish on at the same time. It’s probably more exciting than a three-inch trout and a big stick.

On an evening walk around the campground, I had a brief conversation with a guy from Dillon. My black Lab, Kiri, made acquaintance with his black Lab, Tank. They were about the same size and cordially observed proper canine protocol of sniffing butts and other personal parts. As we finished our walk, I mused a bit on giving a dog a name like “Tank,” figuring the owner visualized his puppy growing up to be a indomitable retriever and bird finder.

The next morning, however, I started laughing and I chuckled the rest of the weekend whenever I saw Tank, as our new friend and his kids went down to the river, with the kids calling, “Tanky, come here!” 

Yes, you can give a dog a testosterone-loaded name like Tank, but it loses all credibility when the kids call him Tanky.

When we got home from our long weekend on the river, in the mail was the latest issue of American Angler magazine. I’ve been subscribing to the magazine for a number of years and have enjoyed it, even if it seemed a rung or two down the ladder from FlyFisherman magazine and Fly Rod & Reel magazine. 

Another fishing magazine bites the dust.

A couple years ago, Fly Rod & Reel abruptly shut its doors and went out of business with no warning at all. Greg Thomas, a Missoula-based writer and editor was the last editor of FR&R. 

He landed on his feet as not much later he emerged as the new editor for American Angler. He made a lot of changes, including bringing back some features and some of the feel of FR&R, such as environmental articles by renowned writer Ted Williams. 

I was dismayed to read the editor’s column and learn that this would be the last print issue of American Angler. Thomas said Angler would continue to exist online but the dead tree edition was done.

I hate to see the demise of yet another outdoor publication, though I can’t help but wonder how Thomas feels, having presided over the death of two excellent magazines.

Chronic Wasting Disease Expands

This urban mule deer looks kind of skinny and scruffy. She’s probably just given birth to a fawn, and has started shedding her winter coat.

We’re making a transition from spring to summer in this first week of June. It appears that spring runoff has peaked and is now tapering off, meaning that fishing should be improving, as well as the fabled salmonfly hatch on the Big Hole River should be starting in the next week or two. And that reminds me I should replace a few of the big stonefly imitations I might have lost or gotten chewed up during last year’s hatch.

While it’d be fun to just concentrate on fishing right now, chronic wasting disease (CWD) just made another unwelcome claim on our attention.

Last month, personnel from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks euthanized a whitetail deer in the Springhill area north of Bozeman. It seemed to be showing signs of CWD, and laboratory tests confirmed that the deer was infected with CWD.

Montana had been an island of sorts, surrounded by states or Canadian Provinces with CWD present among wild deer populations. Montana’s only previous CWD outbreak had been in a captive elk herd in the Philipsburg area, resulting in the elimination of that herd.

CWD was found among Montana’s wild deer in 2017, in south central areas near the Wyoming line and in north central Montana, near Alberta. Since then, a large outbreak of CWD was found among deer and even moose in the Libby area of northwestern Montana. 

If we in southwestern Montana felt we weren’t going to be affected by CWD, those thoughts were dashed last fall when a CWD-infected deer was found near Sheridan in the Ruby River valley. Now CWD is present in the Bozeman area.

Chronic wasting disease is here and in more and more parts of Montana, meaning it’s now established as a factor in our wild deer populations and it’s only going to get worse.

FWP is asking people to notify the agency if we should see possibly infected deer, elk or moose. Infected animals typically seem to have reduced mobility. They may also look emaciated or they may be drooling, have a seeming lack of muscle coordination. They may have what seems to be a wide posture, and their heads and ears may be lowered. In other words, they look sick.

Deer that just look thin or skinny probably are not infected. Deer are just starting to rebuild fat stores used up during the winter months. Also, female deer have just given birth to fawns and might look bedraggled. They’re also shedding winter coats, so they are look kind of shaggy and disreputable. FWP emphasizes that there is usually a combination of physical and behavioral symptoms present among infected deer.

If you see some deer, elk or moose that show those multiple symptoms of CWD infection, let FWP know what you’ve seen and where the critters were when you saw them. You could call a game warden or a local FWP office or, if nothing else, call 1-800-Tip-Mont to report your observations.

While hunting seasons are still months away, hunting is the department’s primary tool for gathering information and managing wildlife populations. FWP will be actively looking for information, and likely establishing further check stations for collecting tissue samples. We will also likely be seeing additional restrictions on interstate transport of deer carcasses. 

We can also expect to see incentives to increase deer harvest in areas with known CWD cases. Overpopulation of deer is a factor in the spread of CWD, so reducing deer populations is a tool. Think of it as social distancing for deer, and be happy that we don’t use such strict measures to enforce social distancing for ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sad to say, we are approaching the inevitable time when tissue sampling of all deer, elk and moose will likely be mandatory. Further, while there is, as yet, no established transmission of CWD to humans by eating venison from an infected critter, scientists are in agreement that it’s not advisable to eat that venison. 

Stay tuned. I expect that before we’re ready for the next deer/elk season, we’ll hear more about CWD.

Gierach on Dumb Luck and Kindness

Gierach’s latest.

Father’s Day came early this year. 

Back in late March, a package came in the mail and my wife said, “Happy Father’s Day! Do you want to open it now or wait until June?”

I suggested it could wait until the official day in June, “So I’d have something under the tree.”

A few weeks later I was going through the hourly collection of wisdom and garbage on Facebook when an advertising posting caught my eye. My wife was walking by the door of my office (or what passes for an office at our house), and I said, “Guess what, dear. John Gierach has a new book.” She didn’t say a word. She just went in the other room and brought back that package that came a month earlier and said, “Happy Father’s Day.”

She said I’d might as well have it then, before I went and ordered a copy myself. It also demonstrates that it’s best to be cautious about buying anything any time remotely near some kind of gift-giving occasion, such as birthdays, Christmas, or Father’s Day.

It came at a good time, with the Public Library being mostly closed during the Pandemic. I’d just finished re-reading Lonesome Dove, some 34 years after I’d first read it. 

So, it’s Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers, published this year by Simon & Schuster.

Gierach, by now, has a long string of books to his credit, starting with his first breakout book, Trout Bum, going on to titles such as Death, Taxes and Leaky Waders, or All Fishermen are Liars. You might guess by some of the whimsical titles of some of his books that if you’re looking for instructions on fly-fishing or where to go, you’d might as well look at some other authors. 

For examples, there is one full chapter on fishing dogs he has known over the years. He notes, from the outset, that something common to most dogs is they love things, such as a bite of bacon from the breakfast table, adding, “Anyone who says you can’t buy love has never spent time around dogs.”

He also tells of Buddy, a blue heeler and a ranch dog where the owner has leased out fishing rights on a spring-fed pond to a local outfitter. The dog had figured out what fishing was all about and when anglers came to fish the pond Buddy would walk a few paces ahead of them looking for cruising trout. When he spotted one he’d crouch down, with his tail wagging. Gierach reflects that you’d think a six-foot tall man wearing polarized sunglasses would be better at spotting fish than a dog, but you’d be wrong. The best he could do was spot the trout at the same time as Buddy.

In the opening chapter, Gierach tells of a friend he’s known as long as he’s fished the streams in his home area of Colorado.  “We don’t see that much of each other anymore, but when we do get together—usually to go fishing—we pick right up in the middle of a nearly half-century conversation that will end only with one of our funerals.”

Reading Gierach’s books is a lot like that, picking up on an interrupted conversation with an old friend, even if it’s several years since the last time.

I’ll also mention another book I’ve been reading in quarantine, Thomas Jefferson – the Art of Power, a biography of Jefferson by historian Jon Meacham.

One chapter follows Jefferson after he left the presidency, and his happy life at Monticello, the home he designed and had built to his specifications. The house had three indoor privies, one conveniently close to his bedroom. Meacham tells that Jefferson used scraps of paper for hygiene, as toilet paper didn’t come along until 1857. 

On the day of Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a family member rescued several of those paper pieces. 

Those scraps of (used) paper are still preserved at the Library of Congress.

Memorial Day Reflections

Veterans Memorials in Butte MT. WWII in front, Vietnam and Korean memorials in background.

Next Monday, May 25, my mind will wander back to warm, humid mornings in my southern Minnesota hometown. I’ll be wearing a heavy, all-wool band uniform, getting ready for the annual march through town and then a short bus ride to the city cemetery for the traditional Memorial Day ceremony. 

The parade through town would include Spanish-American War veterans riding in an open car, followed by marching veterans groups including World War I veterans and then World War II veterans, the heroes of my youth, still relatively young men in their early 30s, working hard to make up for time lost during their service to the nation. 

Memorial Day is set aside to honor men and women who made the final sacrifice during wartime. It was established in the years following the Civil War, and expanded through the decades to honor the dead of succeeding wars. 

In modern celebrations we’ll see people wearing an imitation poppy purchased from a veterans organization. The poppies are a memory from the First World War. Poppy seeds were the first to germinate in battle-disturbed ground, and fields of red poppies marked the locations of bloody battlefields. The poppies are a remembrance of wartime bloodshed, but also a symbol of rebirth and new life.

As we honor the fallen soldiers, we also remember the survivors of the wars, especially the aging veterans of World War II. 

Of the over 16 million men and women who served during World War II, over 400,000 lost their lives while in service. Of the over 15 million survivors, the numbers keep dwindling. The Pew Research Center estimates the numbers of World War II veterans is now just under 300,000, and that number continues to drop at about 245 per day, and that was determined before coronavirus began accelerating death rates. Among the most recent deaths was actor/comedian Jerry Stiller.

In a twist of fate, one recent death was Phillip Kahn of Nassau County, New York, who served in the Army Air Corps during the war. He died on April 17 from coronavirus complications. He was one of twins born December 5, 1919, and his twin died from the Spanish Flu just a few weeks after he was born. 

The oldest living WWII veteran is 110-year old Lawrence Brooks of New Orleans. An African-American, Brooks has complicated memories of his service in the highly segregated military services of the era, when black soldiers were treated as second-class citizens. He served in an engineering battalion in the Pacific.

There were 464 servicemen who were awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII. Two of those Medal of Honor recipients are still living. Charles H. Coolidge, age 98, served in the Army, and Hershel W. Williams, age 96, served in the Marine Corps.

Among notable living veterans of WWII are singer Harry Belafonte, songwriter Alan Bergman, actor Mel Brooks, former President Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 1947 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack, former FCC chairman Newton Minow, actor and director Carl Reiner, trumpeter and bandleader Doc Severinsen, former Montana Governor Ted Schwinden, former Secretary of State George Schultz, and former senator (and Elizabeth Taylor’s husband for a while) John Warner.

Long time TV journalist and author Tom Brokaw wrote about those remarkable men and women, “The Greatest Generation,” who grew up in the Great Depression and then went to war. After winning that war, they returned home to transform the country, flocking to colleges and universities under the G.I. Bill, then turning to business, sports, entertainment, and politics, not to mention catching up in a big way on making babies. 

On Monday, I’ll feel a sense of relief that I won’t be sweating under a hot sun in a band uniform while listening to some local politician’s oratory. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the privilege of having been able to know, work with or for, and live next door to so many of that greatest generation. 

While we treasure that small band of survivors still with us, we revere the memories of those gone to rest. 

Mother’s Day Caddis Coming!

From L to R: Al Troth’s Elk Hair Caddis, A.K. Best Spent Caddis, Nemes’ Partridge & Green soft-hackle wet fly.

Mother’s Day was last Sunday. That means I’m optimistic that one of these days I’ll go fishing and I’ll catch fish.

Going back to the end of February, I’ve done lots of fishing and most of the time it has been a lonely pursuit, and fish, for the most part, have not been involved in my quests for fish. I think it was on Facebook that I ran across something that felt all too true. It was a list of common excuses for not catching fish, many of which felt much too familiar these last couple months, with the author concluding that all those excuses were legitimate. It’s too cold. It’s too windy. It’s too sunny. The water is roiled up. If you’ve been fishing at some point in your life you most likely are familiar with these excuses and have used them. 

Fortunately, nobody has been going hungry because I’m an unsuccessful angler. I normally release any trout I catch, so my wife might ask if I had fun on my day on the river, but that’s mainly out of courtesy and politeness. Kiri, my Labrador retriever, gets excited when I catch a fish but her urge to jump into the water I’m planning to cast a fly into is more important than fish. It might be one thing on the Big Hole or Madison Rivers, but her jumping into a quiet pool on Poindexter Slough pretty much guarantees I’m not going to catch any fish for a while.

But, as I said at the beginning, Mother’s Day makes me optimistic about catching fish. That, of course, is because of the Mother’s Day caddis hatch happens sometime around that time.

There are earlier hatches on area rivers, such as baetis, or blue wing olive mayflies if you prefer. The skwala stonefly gets fish excited—sometimes, if you’re lucky. But, if you really want to get fish excited about a bug you need something big enough for fish to notice and in numbers profuse enough to satisfy a fish’s appetite. The Mother’s Day Caddis hatch usually satisfies those needs in a big way. 

It usually takes a few days of above average warm weather to get the hatch going and that’s a moving target. It might be around early May, but I’ve seen it in late April and even early to mid-April. 

The other big issue for the caddis hatch is river conditions. It seldom happens when water conditions are ideal, from the standpoint of spring runoff muddying up the water or running too high and fast for fish to be interested in feeding on bugs on the water’s surface. 

But it does happen, that miracle of insects and water conditions both behaving well enough to make it fun and productive.

Once that first caddis hatch happens, chances are the fish will be looking at caddisflies until October. There are many caddis subspecies and at some point during the day trout will look at it and decide it’s good enough to eat.

Of course, there are many flies designed to imitate the humble caddis and its various life forms, though most concentrate on the adult phase.

Al Troth’s Elk Hair Caddis is one of the classic imitations and I feel privileged I got to know Al while he was still living, even if I didn’t get any coaching on how to tie his famous bug. 

If caddisflies are on the water, a soft-hackle fly, such as a Partridge & Green, will also get attention from trout, especially those trout more interested in cruising for bugs caught in the surface film of the water.

A fly I plan to add to my arsenal is A.K. Best’s Spent Caddis, and I learned that from a YouTube video by Tim Flagler, one of the best presenters of flytying on the Web.

If you like complicated flies, you might try Mercer’s Missing Link. It’s a tricky bug to tie, but the first time I tried it and took it to the Big Hole for a test drive, the trout went crazy for it. 

Go figure.

Fishing in a Pandemic

Social distancing on the river (though dogs don’t worry about it).

Those almost summerlike days of a week ago made it clear that the seasons were changing, if not already changed. Have we seen the last of snow and cold weather? Not bloody likely. Not here in the northern Rocky Mountains. Still, when we get a day in the 70s in April, we’ll take it.

The warm weather sent a surge of snowmelt down our river valleys. Rain also came to help with the greening of the landscape, and perhaps triggered some morel mushrooms to sprout up. 

While many of us have been fishing regularly during this period when we inch away from winter and into spring, it probably took last week’s warm weather to get the juices going for many people.

Obviously, the urge to go fishing or other outdoor recreation doesn’t change the fact of the elephant in the room. That elephant didn’t go anywhere. I’m referring, of course, to coronavirus, and covid-19, the illness that the novel coronavirus causes. 

I’ve written about this before, but as we get serious about outdoors recreation, we likely need reminders that we still need to be careful about our outings.

I’m on an email list for Angling Trade, a trade publication for flyshops and other fly-fishing-related businesses. Last week, Kirk Deeter, the editor for Angling Trade and also Trout, the Trout Unlimited magazine, issued reminders of the need to be careful so that a day in the great outdoors doesn’t turn into a life-threatening bout of illness. He sought out Eric J. Esswein, an angling friend and a retired public health officer with an arm-long list of degrees and honors, for comment.

Esswein says that a 9-foot flyrod is a pretty good measure for social distancing, but adds that we should wear some kind of face covering, such as a neck gaiter or Buff, don’t drive together, plus “net your own fish…fish with family members.” If you’re having any kind of covid-19 symptoms, seek medical advice, but if you’re feeling well enough for an outing, “fish alone, plan and prepare to be completely self-sufficient, have…all you’ll need for a day afield.”

Esswein notes the reality that people who are age 55 and older are at greater risk for getting sick, especially if there are additional pre-existing health issues. People who go on float trips with other people, or book a guided float trip put themselves at additional risk for accidentally contacting other people who may unknowingly be contagious. He further notes that guide trips are expensive and that it’s those older people who are more likely to have enough disposable money for those trips.

I don’t want to steal the entire article, though you can read it for yourself at www.anglingtrade.com. Esswein does comment that if we’re at all unsure about recreating safely, perhaps we should stay at home and tie flies or read a book about fishing.

Kirk Deeter comments that as far as he’s concerned, he’s not letting anybody but people from his own household in his boat until six-foot social distancing is no longer a concern. He emphasizes, as well, that flyshop operators, guides, outfitters, and others in the business are likely even at more risk than their elderly clients, as they’re in contact every day with strangers from around the country and the world.

Like most people, I was happy when the governor cautiously lifted some of the restrictions on business operations last week, which did include guided fishing trips. We might complain, at times, about the numbers of guided anglers on our rivers. Still, they’re an integral part of Montana’s tourism industry, and our guides and outfitters offer an important service in giving visitors a safe and pleasant introduction to Montana’s great outdoors.

From what I’ve read, it’s good to be in the great outdoors, where breezes quickly dissipate viruses floating in the air. That doesn’t mean we’re totally safe when we’re outside. 

In any event, if you’re not able or willing to go out by yourself for fish or mushrooms, you might be better off staying home and putting in your garden.