Good News! The Groundhog saw his Shadow!

A Mama woodchuck, aka groundhog, and her brood. Photo: Wisconsin Pollinators.com

Early this morning, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, an unsuspecting woodchuck will have been roused out of a nice winter’s nap in his heated fake tree stump at Gobbler’s Knob, a couple miles out of town. Depending on whether the woodchuck sees the sun or not, members of the “Inner Circle” issue proclamations on whether we’ll have an early spring or extended winter.

 It’s all a bit of fun to break the routine of winter, and the local celebration goes back to 1886. Prior to 1993, the ritual drew crowds of around 2,000 people. Since 1993, typical crowds have been in the 10,000 to 20,000 range.

 The movie, Groundhog Day, features Bill Murray as a cynical TV weatherman who is sent to Punxsutawney to cover the event and gets caught up in a time loop of re-living the day until, at some point, he finds love with the lovely Andy McDowell and finally gets to move on. In this case, he decides Punxsutawney is now home.

 The movie was an immediate hit and is considered one of the most beloved comedy films ever made, as well as one of the best movies, overall. While Columbia Pictures spent around half a million dollars promoting the film to the Academy Awards voting committee, Groundhog Day failed to get nominated for any awards, however.

 Last year, Punxsutawney Phil didn’t have a big crowd, as festivities were canceled due to the Pandemic. It was just a small affair with the Inner Circle gathered to divine Phil’s prediction.

 All the stuff and nonsense of Groundhog Day goes back to Candlemas Day, an ancient Christian tradition celebrating 40 days after Christmas, when Joseph and Mary brought the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to be blessed and the elderly holy man, Simeon, proclaims the baby “to be the light to the world.”

Candlemas has been celebrated since the 4th Century and is traditionally the day when people bring candles to their church to be blessed by the priest. The day has roots in ancient pagan traditions of lighting candles midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.

 There is a tradition that the weather on Candlemas Day would be an indicator of weather for the rest of the winter, as told in this rhyme.

“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright

Winter will have another fight. 

If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,

Winter won’t come again.”

 There’s another tradition, that if people don’t take down their Christmas decorations on the 12th Day of Christmas, January 6, they must leave them up until Candlemas Day.

 Meanwhile, back in Punxsutawney, part of the storyline about Phil the Groundhog is that the 1886 Phil is the same as the Phil of today, and that his secret to longevity is a drink of “groundhog punch” given to Phil at the annual Groundhog Picnic every fall. In real life, however, a woodchuck’s normal lifespan is just six years.

 According to Wikipedia, the annual event is scripted ahead of time. While two scrolls are prepared ahead of time, Phil supposedly whispers his forecast to the President of the Inner Circle in “Groundhogese,” which only the President understands, and Phil tells him which scroll to select. In actuality, the weather at Gobbler’s Knob is often opposite of what it should be based on the scroll’s proclamation.

 The proclamation is also wrong much of the time as far as predicting future weather. Nevertheless, the Inner Circle maintains that Phil the Groundhog is 100 percent correct. If it seems that he’s wrong it’s because the President of the Inner Circle made an error in translating Phil’s Groundhogese. On the other hand, impartial observers of Phil’s predictions place his accuracy as more like between 35 and 40 percent.

 Groundhogs, or woodchucks, are not found in Montana, though two of its cousins are native. The Yellow-bellied Marmot and the Hoary Marmot, also called rockchucks, are Montana residents.

 Presumably, their predictions are just as accurate as Phil’s guesses, though as they’re deep in hibernation, it might be difficult to interpret “rockchuckese.”

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

Don’t Look Up!

Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica, threatened by climate change.

There has been a lot of buzz about a recent movie streaming on Netflix. “Don’t Look Up” tells the story of astronomers who discover a comet hurtling through space. The senior scientist does some calculations and comes to the frightening conclusion that the comet is on a collision course for Earth in about six months.

 The rest of the movie shows them trying to get the attention of an air-head president, as played by Meryl Streep, and top layers of government, along with appearing on TV news programs to inform the public of the upcoming calamity.

 The movie depicts a series of events that demonstrate a disdain for that kind of news by the public. A proposed military action to try to send missiles to blow up the comet or at least bump it off course is scuttled because a TV huckster convinces the president that the comet is made of all sorts of rare minerals that they could mine profitably.

 Even when the comet becomes visible to the naked eye, people continue to ignore the coming calamity, even chanting a slogan, “Don’t look up” as their mantra, with many people wearing red ball caps saying, “Don’t look up,” an apparent reference to some who have been known to wear red ball caps with a political message.

 While the movie is a fictional story, it’s not hard to recognize that it’s a satire of a similar calamity heading our way, climate change.

 Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist writing for The Guardian says the movie isn’t about a comet, “it’s a film about how humanity is responding to planet-killing climate breakdown. We live in a society in which, despite extraordinarily clear, present and worsening climate danger, more than half of Republican members of Congress still say climate change is a hoax and many more wish to block action.” He doesn’t spare Democrats either, citing a party platform that continues to enshrine massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, or the current president, who ran on a promise that “nothing will fundamentally change.”

 According to climate scientists at NASA, 2021 finished the year in a tie with 2018 as the 6th warmest year on record, and the last seven years are the hottest seven years on record. Satellite images show how warming is changing the world, as melting of ice sheets and glaciers accelerate, and sea levels rise. The Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet. Ocean temperatures are the highest on record and global sea levels are the highest on record.

Scientists are currently studying a huge glacier in Antarctica, the Thwaites Glacier. The glacier is roughly the size of Florida or Great Britain. Currently, the glacier is losing some 50 billion tons of ice each year, accounting for 4 percent of annual global sea level rise.

 According to a CNN report, the glacier is resting on an ice shelf offshore, a huge slab of ice on top of an underwater mountain. Warming ocean water is weakening the ice shelf and allowing more glacier melting and a potential breakup of the glacier, with a calamitous rise in global sea levels over a period of several decades as icebergs gradually melt.

Early this month, we had a week of cold, snowy weather, a seeming return of what should be normal weather for January. Happily, scientists reported on much-improved snowpack levels. That week of cold, snowy weather was followed by warming weather, and these last two weeks we’ve seen our snow melting in the warm (for January) sunshine. Last week one person asked me, in all seriousness, “Do you think winter is over?”

 I responded, “I hope not. We need a lot more snow and cold weather to build up snowpack.”

Last year was a good indication of what future life in western states could be as climate change continues to bring a warmer, drier pattern of weather accompanied by calamitous weather events, such as recent heavy winter rains causing flooding in coastal Washington.

 Look up, folks. Climate change is real and it’s scary.

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

From Field to Table – Celebrating the Hunt!

One of the many cookbooks from Eileen Clarke, Townsend MT

So, the hunting seasons are over and you’ve had a great fall. Now you have a problem. You have a freezer full of wild meat and you’re getting hints from the family that there must be more ways to cook wild game than throwing it in a slow cooker with cream of mushroom soup.

Indeed, there are more ways, in fact, more ways than you can shake a proverbial stick at. If you’re interested in cookbooks, here are a few suggestions.

 Starting close to home, John Barsness and Eileen Clarke are a husband and wife writing team, based in Townsend, Montana. John is an authority on most anything to do with guns, rifles, shooting and hunting. Eileen is an avid hunter in her own right, but her niche is cooking wild game and writing cookbooks. Her cookbooks cover upland birds, venison, soups and stews, jerky, and sausage. Their website is www.riflesandrecipes.com.

Hank Shaw is a James Beard award-winning author and chef who became hooked on wild game. He has written several cookbooks such as Duck, Duck, GooseBuck, Buck, Moose, and Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail, and more. He has a website, https://honest-food.net, and that website is full of recipes and cooking directions. He also has a Facebook page, Hunt Gather Cook, and he has followers who cook virtually anything. One person recently posted his suggestions on cooking and eating coyote, for example. Another person posted photos of mountain lion meat collected after a recent hunt. You can also get on an email list with weekly suggestions for game cooking. I recently used one of his recipes for venison Shepherd’s Pie.

Steven Rinella, also known as The Meateater, has created many TV shows featuring hunts for wild game with demonstrations of wild game cooking, and has published several cookbooks, such as The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, or The Meateater Fish and Game Cookbook. His website, themeateater.com, also has recipes, videos and demonstrations.

 Another television chef is Scott Leysath, or The Sporting Chef. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t published any cookbooks, but his website, https://sportingchef.com, is full of recipes for game and fish. He regularly has wildfowl recipes in Ducks Unlimited magazine and other publications.

Part of my personal collection of game cookbooks

 I enjoy cookbooks, and my wife collects cookbooks, so we have hundreds of them on our bookshelves. But if you have unusual ingredients, chances are you can do an on-line search and find recipes, and yes, that includes mountain lion.

 By the way, if someone reading this happens to have a mountain lion in the freezer, I’d be happy to take some off your hands and take a try at cooking some kitty cat.

 For most game cooking, chances are that whatever bird or critter you’re planning to cook, there’s a domestic version, and that means that recipes for chicken, beef or duck will work for pheasant, venison, or mallard duck.

 For example, one of my favorite recipes for venison is stroganoff, using a recipe for beef stroganoff I got from the online Washington Post. A favorite recipe for pheasant comes from a New York Times recipe for chicken paprikash. A dinner guest a couple years ago ate four helpings, if that’s an indication. I have another recipe for paprikash that was described as genuine Hungarian, as the first step is, “Steal a chicken.” My adaptation for pheasant was, “First, shoot a pheasant.”

 I will mention that any wild game cooking at our house is done by me. My wife’s position is simple, “You shot it; you clean it and cook it.” She made that clear in our first years together. We’d gone fishing and came home with some fish. She majored in biology in college and wasn’t squeamish about dead critters, but her stance on fish was, “I’ll dissect it, but I won’t clean it.”

Much of my culinary education happened because I was able to retire from real work before she did, so I pretty much took over the kitchen for several years. Wild game was often on the menu as I experimented.

 We survived, as did our marriage.

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

Last Chance for Waterfowl

My late, beloved Lab, Flicka, retrieving a nice drake mallard from a warm water spring creek.

Those hunting seasons that began way back on the first days of September and seemed to go forever are about to end. 

 The last general hunting season still open is waterfowl and the time left for hunting ducks and geese is now measured in days.

To be specific, in the Pacific Flyway areas of Montana, you have just a couple days left, as the seasons for ducks and geese close at sunset on Friday, January 14.

 In the Central Flyway there are a few more days. The last day for hunting ducks is January 18 and the last day for geese is January 26.

Refer to the Migratory Bird regulations at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website, or the printed version available at many license vendors for the official boundaries, but in general, if you draw a line from Havre to Livingston, areas east of that line are in the Central Flyway and areas west of the line are in the Pacific Flyway.

I hate to say it, but this year, I missed out on the waterfowl season. With the unusually mild weather that extended almost to Christmas, ducks weren’t coming into the warm water spring creeks on the ranch where I usually hunt ducks. Now, with the heavy snows we’ve received, I’m going to take a pass on slogging through deep snow on the off chance I might have a successful sneak on a bunch of mallards. I’ll claim an old age exemption.

 In any event, the waterfowl season is just about over and when that’s over, hunting is over until April when the spring turkey season begins.

 On the topic of bird hunting, Fish, Wildlife & Parks is proposing a change in upland bird regulations. Currently, upland bird hunting ends on January 1. FWP is proposing a change to extend the upland season for mountain grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, partridge, and pheasants through the end of January.

 While I enjoy upland bird hunting more than ducks, or elk and deer, I really am not in favor of extending the season for upland birds another month.

 My main reason is that January is typically a cold and snowy month. For upland birds, as well as most wildlife, the year is like an hourglass. Summer and autumn are times of plenty, with abundant bugs, food, and vegetative cover giving hatchling birds a fighting chance to survive and mature.

Winter is that narrow part of the hourglass where birds must scramble to find food and then it’s another struggle to find sufficient habitat to survive arctic winds and sub-zero temperatures.

 Once birds survive winter, things get easier in spring as snow melts and food becomes more available. Birds that survive winter are the birds that reproduce and replace the birds that didn’t survive the hard months.

In short, when January comes, I think upland birds need a break from human predators so they can concentrate on surviving through the winter without human disruption.

 I’d suggest a non-biological factor is that avid upland bird hunters and their hard-working bird dogs are more than likely worn out by the end of December, anyway.

 FWP is currently accepting comments on this proposed change, and you can submit comments online at the FWP website page for possible changes in hunting regulations. Or you can submit comments by email. The email address is FWPWLD@mt.gov. The deadline for submitting comments is January 21, at 5 p.m.

 Incidentally, the cold, snowy weather of last week, normal weather for January, illustrates challenges that wild birds deal with in their daily struggle for survival.

 On the other hand, cold, snowy weather becomes a time of leisure for ruffed grouse. Ruffed grouse like nothing better than a couple feet of fresh, fluffy snow. Grouse can burrow into the snow and be cozy and warm, insulated from the cold by the snow, and out of sight of predators. During the warm parts of the day, grouse will emerge from the snow and fly up into trees, especially aspens, and feed on leaf buds.

 I grumble about shoveling, but let it snow.

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

Madison River Rules Change

Kiri posing on a Madison River rock.

2021 ended on a lame note when the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission ignored years of work and study on issues of overcrowding on the upper Madison River and voted to keep rules on the Madison River the same as they have been.

 For a refresher, in 2020, members of the Commission, as then constituted, voted to institute a system of rest and rotation on several defined stretches of the river in which commercial traffic would be restricted on specified days. This system would have gone into effect on January 1, 2022.

 This system, similar to rules that have been in effect for over 20 years on the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, came after long periods of discussion and public hearings. Steve Luebeck, Butte, presented proposals at that time, on behalf of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Skyline Sportsmen and Anaconda Sportsmen, that were eventually adopted by the Commission.

On December 23, the Fish & Wildlife Commission met online (the meeting was recorded and available on YouTube) and after brief discussion adopted rules that revert to previous policies that don’t provide for rest/rotation rules, though the commissioners were careful to point out that walk and wade sections downstream from Raynolds Bridge and Ennis Bridge would be preserved.

 In previous action, the Commission delayed implementation of a cap on outfitter use to 2020 levels to the year 2023.

In a post to the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Facebook page, Steve Luebeck expressed frustration with the Commission’s decision, first because while commissioners made reference to an extended period for public comment, there was no discussion about what the public said in their comments. Luebeck noted, “This is not an oversight, the results were the opposite of what they wanted, with 93% asking them to not repeal, so they just didn’t talk about the public comment results. Yet, they went forward and repealed the rule anyway.”

 Luebeck also underlined comments in the YouTube recording of the meeting (at the 40:27 mark) by commissioners K.C. Walsh and Pat Tabor to the effect that there should be overall limits to use on the Madison River, not just on outfitters, insinuating that private users are abusers of the resource. Luebeck says, “This is what they want to do, limit the public on the river and take off all limits on outfitters.”

 In a phone interview, Luebeck expressed his opinion that these actions are yet another step in the current state administration’s moves toward privatizing fish and wildlife. In his Facebook post, he urges people to look at the YouTube record of the meeting so we “can see your Commission at work…and hold these people accountable.”  Here is a link to the YouTube video in question: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrajO4Q4JKQ.

 I will note that Steve Luebeck and I are longtime friends and I served with Steve on the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited board of directors some years ago. I have the utmost respect for Steve and his dedication to public access to Montana public lands and waters, as well as his considerable skills as a hunter and angler.

 Steve also has a good feel for politics and if he expresses fear of the possibility that sometime in the future everybody will need a permit to fish the Madison, I wouldn’t discount it. He sees a scenario of a cap of angler days. Outfitters, however, would have first crack at that pot of days and members of the general public will have to apply far in advance for what’s left of days on the river. “It could be like getting a campsite on Georgetown Lake on the 4th of July. If you wait until July 3 to make reservations, you’re going to be disappointed.”

A footnote to the Commission action is that the only commissioner to vote against killing the rest/rotation plan was Pat Byorth, a former FWP employee and the only remaining commissioner appointed by former governor Steve Bullock.

As is often pointed out, elections have consequences. Alas, some of us predicted probable consequences of the last general election, though I take no satisfaction in seeing those fears realized.

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

Climate Change & Covid: 2021’s top stories!

The Big Hole River at Kalsta Bridge in July. The river got a lot skinnier by August.

Those gaily wrapped Christmas packages have all been opened, the gift wrap now in the city landfill. The tree is shedding needles and about to be hauled out for recycling. We may be in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but we’re thinking more in terms of New Year’s Eve than Christmas Eve.

 Before we jump into that new year of 2022, however, let’s look back at 2021, especially from an outdoors perspective.

 Something that this year has done, for better or worse, is demonstrate the grim reality of climate change, whether here in Montana, the United States or the whole world.

Let’s review Montana’s weather in 2021.

Just about all of Montana was in severe or extreme drought in 2021, as were most of the northern plains and Rocky Mountain states and Pacific Northwest. Farmers and ranchers were faced with crop failure, lack of grazing and hay crops. River levels dropped and widespread angling restrictions and closures went into effect starting in early July. We had wildfires in virtually all areas of Montana. Fisheries biologists have also found that trout populations, especially brown trout, are dropping.

Drought effects aren’t limited to rivers and crops. Wildlife suffers in drought, with lack of forage, poor nesting cover for birds, dried-up wetlands, diseases in animals. The impacts of climate change are limitless.

 The impacts aren’t just on fish and wildlife. Tourism is a major part of Montana’s economy. Fishing closures and restrictions equate to loss of income to fly shops, sporting goods stores, lodges, guides, and tourism in general.

 As we moved into autumn, the warm weather continued. Even here in Butte, a city notorious for cold weather, we had days with highs in the 60s in December. Some towns even had highs in the 70s. We’re having wildfires in December, including a forest fire just outside of Butte, not to mention the grass fire that came close to wiping the central Montana town of Denton off the map.

If we had freaky weather in Montana, think of the monster tornadoes that ravaged Illinois, Arkansas and Kentucky this month. Even my home state of Minnesota had two tornadoes this month. Yes, you read that right. Tornadoes in Minnesota in December.

I’ll also make the snarky observation that, in the face of climate change, with all the changes that are increasingly affecting Montana and all of the West, what does Governor Gianforte do? He pulls Montana out of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a multi-state coalition organized to deal with climate change. The Guv’s spokesperson, Brooke Stroyke, issued a statement that “the governor believes the solution to climate change is unleashing American innovation, not overbearing government mandates.”

So, how’s that working for us, Governor?

 The other big elephant in the room is Covid-19.

 Since March 2020, when the Pandemic hit Montana, 2,890 Montanans have died of covid. 195,417 cases of covid have been reported, meaning almost 200,000 people have been infected, which likely translates to the majority of Montana households having been affected by the Pandemic one way or another. (Note: figures are from a week ago)

As of last week, just 54 percent of Montana’s citizens have been vaccinated for coronavirus, and the percentage of fully vaccinated with a booster shot is just 37.9 percent (source: Washington Post). The overall percentage for the U.S. is 62 percent.

 Vaccinations are a highly effective means to prevent covid-19 infection, and to reduce severity, need for hospitalization, or death in “break-through” cases.

 I guess we could take pride in being better than Idaho, which has vaccinated 46.1 percent of population or Wyoming, with 47. 2 percent. Even Mississippi and Louisiana are doing better than those states.

 Again, I fault the Governor for lack of leadership in promoting vaccinations, not to mention his active stances against mask and vaccination mandates. While we’re pointing fingers, let’s note Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who has filed multiple lawsuits protesting federal vaccine mandates, not to mention attempting to bully a Helena hospital into administering ivermectin to a covid patient.

 Remember the good old days when elective officials worked FOR the people of Montana?

  Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

A Christmas Walk on a Snowless Mountain

Kiri searching for grouse scent on a snowless mountainside.

I took my Christmas walk early this year.

 Taking advantage of an unusually mild December day, I went for a walk on an aspen-covered mountain draw, the site of many searches for ruffed grouse for the better part of 30 years.

 After a long career when climbing the career ladder involved relocations and trying to figure out hunting and fishing in yet another place, it seems a bit strange to be able to recall three decades of hunts in one grouse covert.

Of the five Labrador retrievers that have been part of our lives, four of them have been my best friend and hunting partner on these walks across these Continental Divide aspen patches.

 These hills are full of memories—memories of dogs, grouse, deer, moose, and the always-changing colors of the forest as we travel through the seasons, from late summer to autumn in the peak of colors, late autumn, when the colors are mostly faded to shades of gray and brown, and to occasional hunts in knee-deep snow.

 Like Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Eve, these walks are a reminder of memories, or the spirits of autumns past.

 It seemed strange, in early December, to not have snow on the ground. Over the years, there have been snowstorms in the early season, as early as mid-September, so that patches of snow here and there are the norm. On this day, however the ground is bare, though as Kiri, our current Labrador retriever, and I start our walk, the leaf litter on the forest floor is wet and frozen from a rainstorm of a few days earlier, with some snowflakes dotting the frozen leaves.

 Our hunts follow a pattern. We start by working our way up the mountainside, sometimes following an old logging road going up and around the hillside. I recall a previous Lab, Flicka, who pointed grouse hiding on the hillside just below the edge of the road and running far down the hill to retrieve a grouse that I managed to hit with a blast from my shotgun.

  This time, we take our time and patiently walk up the steep hillside, as I begin to wonder if we’ll find any grouse on this walk.

  We stop is at the edge of an aspen thicket high up the mountainside for an early afternoon lunch break. Depending on the weather and temperatures, I find a spot that’s in the shade or in the sun or sheltered from cold winds. There’s a good view from this vantage point. In the distance is the sound of migrating snow geese.

 Our lunch over, we start working our way down a draw where we’ve often put up grouse over the years.

Farther down the hillside, where the draw starts to flatten out, I note some willow clumps where, one year, several juvenile grouse flushed, going from one willow clump to the next, fooling me every time.

Near the bottom of the draw, I recall flushing a grouse several times, and finally dropping it on the third chance, and the bittersweet memory of that being the last grouse that Flicka retrieved.

A mountainside spring, and a reliable source of watercress salads.

 A spring near the bottom of the draw nourishes a patch of watercress. I’ve picked many a watercress salad over the years.  Several times I’ve been startled by the flush of a grouse from the tree where I’d leaned my shotgun while harvesting watercress.

There’s a brushy spot nearby where Kiri, in her puppy season, seemed more intrigued by some deer droppings than in looking for birds. I got exasperated and yelled at her to “Leave it!” only to see a grouse flush less than a foot from where Kiri was, as I stood, open-mouthed in surprise, as the grouse disappeared off into the trees.

 Our walk, this day, ends without seeing any grouse at all, though a watercress salad is a reliable souvenir of our walk.  

I left the forest for another season, trusting that snow will be falling to help my ruffed grouse survive winter nights, cozy under a foot of powdery snow, out of sight of predators. I’ll return in the autumn to again revisit the ghosts of autumns past.

Merry Christmas.

Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

Black Powder Season!

Bring out your inner Daniel Boone and go hunting with a muzzleloader!

For people who have an unused deer or elk tag nagging you, there’s another hunting opportunity happening right now. There is a catch, however.

This new opportunity started last Saturday and runs through this coming Sunday, December 19. And the catch is that you have to use a traditional muzzleloader firearm.

 There’s nothing about the muzzleloader season in the printed deer and elk hunting regulations, as the season was established by the Fish & Wildlife Commission, presumably after the printed regulations went to press.

There are many options for your muzzleloader gun, but a modern in-line black powder gun is not one of them. The classification in the regulation is a “Heritage” firearm. That’s defined as a traditional muzzleloader that is loaded by pouring a pre-measured charge of loose black powder, pyrodex, or other black powder down the bore. A plain lead projectile is placed over the powder charge by pushing it down the bore from the muzzle end and seating it on the powder charge. The gun is discharged by use of a flintlock, wheel lock, matchlock, or percussion mechanism.

 In short, you must use a firearm that Daniel Boone would recognize. You can use only a “plain lead” projectile of .45 caliber or larger, not one that is in a sabot, a devise that fits around a projectile to center it in the barrel.  The barrel may be rifled.

While I do happen to have a couple muzzleloading guns, I won’t be going deer or elk hunting this week, in that I didn’t buy a deer or elk tag prior to November 28, which is the first requirement.

 Years ago, I received a Christmas gift of a muzzleloader double barrel shotgun kit. That meant a box with metal parts and an unfinished wood stock. It was a fun winter project to get things assembled, as well as sanding, checkering and finishing the stock. The following summer I took it out to the trap club and blasted a couple clay pigeons with it and gave a couple other people the opportunity to do the same.

 It was literally a “blast,” with a big cloud of smoke out in front, but the recoil wasn’t much different than a regular shotgun, and the clay pigeons shattered when the shooter did his part.

 I took it hunting once, thinking it would be fun to bag a ruffed grouse with an old-fashioned fowling piece. As it happened, we didn’t find any grouse, and then at the end of the hunt the only way to unload the gun is to shoot it. Then, after getting home, you must flush the gun out and scrub it, let it dry and then give the barrels a light lubrication. In other words, there’s a lot of hassle using an old-fashioned black powder gun. It increased my appreciation for the modern (as in the last 150 years) technology of smokeless, non-corrosive powders and primers, brass cartridges, or paper or plastic shotshells and other new-fangled accoutrements of the early 20th Century.

  I also have a muzzleloading .50 caliber rifle that, in fact, I haven’t shot since I got it some years ago. I won it in a drawing at an outdoor writers conference. We had a morning at a firing range where we got to try out various guns, including this one, and some of the manufacturers put their wares in a drawing. Proving that lightning can strike twice, this is actually the second muzzleloader rifle I won in a drawing. I won one a few years earlier, and when I got the second gun I gave the first one to my son, Kevin. I don’t think he’s taken his out, either.

 Using a muzzleloader can be educational. You learn the meaning of old expressions such a “flash in the pan,” or a “hang fire.” Then there’s the smell of burnt sulfur and rotten eggs when you scrub the barrel.

 Still, these old smoke poles are accurate at reasonable distances, and some lucky shooters will bring home their venison the old-fashioned way.

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

“Timmer” Reeves, Bighorn Sheep Booster

Timmer Reeves – Storyteller of bighorn sheep adventures.

John “Timmer” Reeves is kind of a nut—about bighorn sheep.

 I just spent a couple hours getting to know Timmer, and it’s hard to keep up with him, because he’s bubbling over with projects, books he’s written, books he plans to write, and the continuing theme is wild sheep, especially Montana’s bighorn sheep. It comes naturally, considering he grew up in Anaconda, where a band of sheep regularly comes down to the highway in the West Valley. He lives in Butte, now, and the sheep in our area Highlands mountains are known for trophy horns.

“Wild sheep are my favorite animal,” he explains, and it’s a true enthusiasm for wild sheep because, despite his passion for sheep, he’s never hunted sheep. That’s not for lack of trying, but in some 40 years, he has yet to hit the jackpot and get drawn for a tag. Getting a permit for a bighorn ram is something that many people aspire for, and if they win the lottery, they had better hunt hard because the odds are they’ll never have another chance. The real trick is to draw that tag before they get too old to use it.

 Still, his enthusiasm continues to boil over and he’s a fixture in Montana’s wild sheep community, as he has collected the stories and photos from the lucky people who have hit the jackpot and followed up with collecting a trophy.

 Those stories are the basis for Timmer’s first book, Giant Rams of Montana, Volume 1.

 Timmer’s fascination with sheep also carries over to mountain goats, the ghosts of the high peaks and vertical alpine cliffs, and stories of mountain goat hunts will be published next month in Rocky Mountain Goat Hunts, Volume 1.

He has two more books in the works, with Quest for Giant Dall Rams, Volume 1, to be released in the fall of 2022, and Giant Rams of Montana, Volume II, to come out in 2023.

 Timmer has had more challenges than collecting all those hunting stories, as he has also been fighting cancer for the last few years, and he’s clearly a survivor. He also plans to finally go on a sheep hunt next August, when he’ll go to Alaska in search of a Dall sheep.

 Timmer’s books are published by Stoneydale Press Publishing Company of Stevensville, Montana, and can be purchased through Stoneydale’s website, www.stoneydale.com.

 On the topic of books, I regretfully note the death, on November 13, of one my favorite authors, Wilbur Smith. Smith died at his home in Cape Town, South Africa, at age 88.

Smith was known as an author of “swashbucklers,” stories that author Stephen King described as books “in which the bodices rip and the blood flows.”

 Many of his books tell the stories of the adventurers who plundered Africa, collecting ivory, mining for gold and diamonds, and falling in love with beautiful women.  They had to defeat the most villainous of villains and overcome great odds to prevail and create dynasties for their descendants. The settings are often in the 19th Century, though he also wrote a brilliant series of novels set in Egypt during the time of the pharaohs.

 I somehow got acquainted with Smith’s novels around 40 years ago, though they were difficult to find at that time. We were living in eastern North Dakota at the time and on a day trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, I shopped several bookstores and found a whole trove of paperback editions of Smith’s books that had been published in Great Britain, but not distributed in the U.S.

As it happens, I just started reading a new book by Smith, another novel of ancient Egypt, The New Kingdom. Presumably, this might be his last book, though this one, along with several other recent novels, had a “co-writer” Mark Chadbourn. I was once a fan of another popular novelist, Robert Ludlum. He died in 2001, but other writers keep churning out “Ludlum” books.

 I have thoroughly enjoyed Wilbur Smith’s novels, but I’m willing to let Smith rest in peace.

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

Montana Deer/Elk Seasons Close (mostly)

This year’s elk and deer season came to a close on Sunday evening—sort of.

 Because of the mild and mostly snow-less autumn, several elk districts in Region 2 will stay open on mostly private lands for elk B tag holders until January 15.

In addition, several elk districts have shoulder seasons that will extend the season into February.

 In short, depending on what tags you have left in your pocket, there is still elk hunting to be done, though deer are now off-limits until the 2022 seasons.

 According to press releases from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, hunter success, as gauged by hunters coming through check stations, has been about average to less than average in most regions.

 Of course, statistics on hunter success are mostly meaningless when it comes down to the individual hunter, as our personal perspectives of what constitutes a successful season usually equates to our own success.

 I follow a Facebook page, My Montana Hunt, which has had all sorts of photos and brief stories of hunting success, with many showing photos of first deer or elk taken by youth, plus some stories of tough hunting but eventual success, including one that caught my attention, of finding a big mule deer buck some six miles from where the hunt began. I’m glad I wasn’t packing out that big deer.

 On a personal note, I’ll report that this season I never took my rifle out of the house and didn’t buy a deer tag, either.

 As any hunter can verify, the great outdoors is one big minefield of hazards waiting to trip us up. In my case, back in October, near the end of a day of chasing pheasants across the prairie, I tripped on something in the grass and took a fall, landing mostly on my right shoulder.

 The medical diagnosis is that I have a rotator cuff tear, and I’m currently doing therapy to try to restore arm and shoulder function, in hopes that I’ll be able to avoid surgery. In any event, when an opportunity to go look for a whitetail deer came up, I took a pass. Shooting wouldn’t be a problem, as I’ve been bird hunting with a shotgun, but dealing with deer hunting success, from field dressing to loading up to taking care of a carcass at home presented a lot of issues.

I still have venison in the freezer from last year’s successful deer hunt, so I’ll continue working on clearing out the freezer.

One of the many dead deer I saw in North Dakota: a victim of EHD. It’s not pretty..

 Deer have, however, been on my mind the last few weeks. My last two columns were about hunting pheasants in western North Dakota in early November. A downside to those hunts was finding dead deer on my walks.

 Some areas of North Dakota had an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) this autumn that caused widespread deer mortality. EHD is a viral disease, transmitted by tiny biting midges. EHD primarily affects white-tailed deer, though mule deer and antelope occasionally get it, too. Infected deer get sick and die within 8 to 36 hours.

 During three days of wandering around in search of pheasants I saw seven deer carcasses in various stages of being recycled by scavengers. We talked to an area farmer who said he’d seen 21 dead deer in one creek bottom. Infected deer feel dehydrated and seek out water sources, such as creeks.

 A ranch on the Rocky Mountain Front where I’ve hunted pheasants for many years had an invasion of whitetails where, previously, most deer on the property were mule deer. Then, around ten years ago, I found several deer carcasses, all victims of EHD, all near an irrigation ditch where they went for water. I haven’t seen a whitetail on the ranch since then.

 The midges that carry the EHD virus usually die off after the first frost of autumn. Western North Dakota didn’t have a hard frost until late October, a good month behind schedule. In essence, those dead deer were a victim of climate change.

 It’s not pretty.

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

Happy Endings for Thanksgiving

Kevin and Kota (Kota is the dog!)

A rainstorm pelted the truck as Kevin drove to our hunting area along the shores of Lake Sakakawea in western North Dakota.

The rain was letting up as we approached the Wildlife Management Area and started our pheasant hunt. Kevin had his 12-year-old black Lab, Kota, to go with my Lab, Kiri. Kevin and Jen adopted Kota a couple years ago, when his previous owner couldn’t take Kota on a move.

 After severe drought, the lake level is dramatically lower than in previous years. There are wide expanses of muddy beaches, plus thick cover that grows strong and tall on the old lakebed. That cover is head-high and tough to walk through, but pheasants love it. It wasn’t our plan to hunt in this jungle, but the dogs said, “It smells like pheasants,” so we followed the dogs.

A month into hunting season, the pheasants are wary and wild. We’re seeing pheasants, but mostly a long way out. We’re working our way out of the jungle to have a lunch break when I finally got a good shot on a pheasant and dropped it into some thick cover. I find the bird, but then Kevin said, “I lost track of Kota.” He added, “He was right here, but then he disappeared when I was stumbling in the driftwood.” A high-water mark of a few years ago is marked by a long line of driftwood from stands of trees that grew up in previous low-water cycles.

 We postponed lunch as we called and whistled for Kota. After no response we took a break and then headed back into the cover, as we shared thoughts of, “I don’t have a good feeling about this.”

 During our afternoon hunt, we both did some shooting. I connected on another pheasant and we both took wild shots at a covey of Hungarian partridge. We hoped Kota might come to the sound of gunfire, though Kota likely has some hearing loss, as well as selective hearing loss, especially if he’s on an interesting scent.

Looking at the rank growth that goes on for miles, it looked hopeless. We had to get back to Minot, so we left a water dish and one of Kevin’s jackets where we’d parked the truck. We also stopped at a local farm, reporting the lost dog, and asking them to keep an eye out for Kota.

 We returned the next day and widened the scope of the area we hunted. Again, we had no response to calling or whistling for Kota. There was no indication that Kota had visited the jacket or water dish. After a day’s hunt we had to get back to Minot. We were devastated by Kota’s disappearance. We speculated that Kota possibly ran himself into exhaustion and died out in the cover. It wouldn’t be a bad way for an old bird dog to go, but we hated the thought of not knowing what happened.

 Kevin had printed some “lost dog” flyers the night before and he posted them at a couple WMA access points. He also left another flyer at the truck stop in the nearest town.

 We were about halfway back to Minot when Kevin got a call from a hunter saying, “I saw your dog trotting along the road. I thought it might have been an oilfield worker’s dog, but then I saw your flyer at the WMA access.”

We did an immediate turn-around and headed back to the hunting area. Then we got another call, this time from the farmer’s wife, who said, “We’ve got your dog. He just walked into our yard.”

 We had a huge sense of relief as we drove into the farm for a happy reunion. It was a much happier drive home than we had anticipated an hour earlier.

Happy reunion at the farm.

 Kota seemed none the worse for his night out in the field. The next day we stayed in to watch football and, several times, I asked Kota, “Tell me about your adventure.” Kota declined to share any stories with us. What happened in the pheasant fields stays in the pheasant fields.

Kota relaxing at home after his adventure, but he isn’t talking.

This week, many of us will be gathering with friends and family for a festive Thanksgiving dinner. If the conversation drifts around to “What are we thankful for this year,” I just happen to have a dog story with a happy ending.

 This is a most Happy Thanksgiving.

North Dakota’s Wily Pheasants

Public lands pheasant habitat – owned by all the people of America

Something we always look forward to is our autumn trip to Minot, North Dakota, to see Kevin and Jen, our son and daughter in law, and, purely coincidentally, of course, do some pheasant hunting, too. The area we hunt is public Wildlife Management Areas along Lake Sakakawea, the big impoundment on the Missouri River. I first started hunting there over 40 years ago, when we were living in North Dakota, so I have a lot of memories of hot spots, past hunts and hunting companions, both two and four-legged, piled up in my memory bank.

 We usually try to take this trip over the Halloween weekend, but I had conflicts, so we did the trip the first week of November.

 I hunted alone on our first day there, as Kevin had to work—he’s a mathematics professor at Minot State University. Our black Labrador retriever, Kiri, would be my hunting partner for the day.

 We started our hunt at an access point to the WMA that has been a favorite spot for many years. It’s next to a couple long shelterbelts that almost always produce some pheasant action. A quick indicator was when I let Kiri out of the truck and she immediately ran into the brush and flushed a rooster pheasant before I had even gotten my gun out of the truck. We had just started our walk when a covey of Hungarian partridge flushed. As is usually the case, when the birds flushed, I was so startled that the birds were out of shooting range before I could get my gun up.

As that first pheasant indicated, seeing pheasants is not the same as shooting pheasants.

Kiri put up at least half a dozen pheasants as we walked along this brushy shelterbelt. Some went the wrong direction, going off into the adjacent grainfield, unfortunately off-limits. Some got up in thick brush so I couldn’t see if it was a rooster or a protected hen until it was out of range or got up and flew in the direction of the sun, and I couldn’t identify whether it was a rooster until it was out of range. In other words, as I later told a friend, all the usual excuses we have for lack of success.

When Kiri and I got to the end of the shelterbelt, a mile or so from where we started, I looked at a brushy corner and just knew there were pheasants there, both from experience and a strong hunch.

I called Kiri over and we stepped into the heavy cover. I went just a few steps when two pheasants flushed right in front of my boots. One was a rooster, and, in my excitement, my first shot was wild, and my second shot was way behind the rocketing bird, and a solid miss.

Though I was disappointed in my shooting, I had to laugh at myself. In that moment when the pheasants flushed, I mostly reverted to one 15-year-old farm boy on his first pheasant hunt, who was so surprised by the first flush of a pheasant that he almost forgot to shoot and then was almost knocked over by the recoil of his brand new 12-gauge single shot shotgun.

 While I consider myself a pretty good shot on pheasants, I’m not going to be too hard on myself. I’ve had many pheasant hunts over the intervening years and have brought many of those wily birds home for dinner. Still, when the day comes when a pheasant flushing right in front of me doesn’t startle me, I figure it’ll be time for me to quit hunting pheasants.

Kiri enjoying a chance to rest and rejuvenate

The rest of the day was anti-climactic, and the bird that got away was like the big fish that gets away. Those are the ones we remember.

The next couple days, Kevin and I were able to hunt together. I’ll save that story for next week. I don’t want to go into any detail at this time, but I will predict that it will be a good story for Thanksgiving week.

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

When the Cannons Fell Silent

The Veterans Memorial in Butte, Montana. The obelisk on the right side honors those who fought in the “Great War.”

On this day, November 10, in 1918, the “War to end all wars” raged on, but in those first days of November, Germany, Austria-Hungarian Empire, and Ottoman Empire, collectively called the Central Powers, were disintegrating. Here’s the timeline.

On November 1, Serbia, Albania and Montenegro, under the leadership of Peter Boyović, commander of the First Serbian Army, separated from the Austria-Hungarian Empire.

On November 2, British and Canadian forces captured Valencienne, France, in one of the war’s last battles. 

On November 3, thousands of supporters descended on the German port of Kiel in support of a mutiny by German sailors. While the Navy repelled the crowd with gunfire, the mutiny is considered the start of the German Revolution. Incidentally, in Iowa, Bob Feller, the future pitching star of the Cleveland Indians and a Navy Chief Petty Officer in a future war, was born. 

On November 4, German militia were sent to Kiel to occupy the city. Instead, many in the militia crossed the lines in support of the mutiny and by day’s end, 40,000 people occupied the port and sent demands to the German government.

On November 5, workers’ councils met in Lublin to discuss forming a Polish government that would break away from the Austria-Hungarian empire.

On November 6, a German parliamentary leader urged Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate the throne to avoid a potential revolution. In France, French and American forces took control of the city of Sedan and much of the territory along the Meuse River. 

On November 7, German revolution groups spread to other cities in Germany, including Frankfurt and Munich. Ludwig III, the last king of Bavaria, fled from his palace in Munich. In the U.S., future evangelist Billy Graham was born.

On November 8, the People’s State of Bavaria and the Free State of Brunswick were established, as the German empire began dissolving into free states. 

On November 9, the German empire officially dissolved, and Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, and on the next day fled to the Netherlands. In the last naval engagement of the war, a German submarine sunk the British battleship HMS Britannia. In the U.S., Spiro Agnew, a future Vice President, was born. 

On November 10, a Council of the People’s Deputies was established as the new governing body of Germany with the goals to enter into an armistice with the Allies, and prepare for a national election, the following year, of a National Assembly. 

The next morning, sometime after 5 a.m., that armistice agreement was signed in Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s railroad car at Compiegne Forest, France, and hostilities ceased at 11 a.m., the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

In the aftermath of the war, maps of Europe had to be re-drawn after the dissolution of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires. New nations were created, including the nations of Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. 

The nation of Turkey emerged from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, and Great Britain and France established “mandates” over other territories, such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and the Arabian Peninsula, which includes Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

The United States didn’t formally enter the war until 1917. While some 4 million men were drafted into the American military, they didn’t have much impact until 1918, when American troops started arriving in France at the rate of 10,000 a day. By summer, 2 million men had arrived in France, and half of them served on the front lines. Around 35,000 women entered military service, serving as nurses, switchboard operators, and other administrative service.

At war’s end, U.S. troops began coming home as transportation became available. There was, however, no GI Bill or other services for returning veterans. In order to gain political power to create change, veterans formed organizations, such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. 

Frank Buckles, the last living U.S. veteran of the war died in 2011, at age 110. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

The cannons that thundered over Europe a century ago went silent, but the echoes still reverberate. 

Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

Going hunting? Make sure you have ammo!

An essential for big game or upland bird hunts: ammunition.

“Can you check your sporting goods stores for .270 or .30-06 ammunition? Our local stores don’t have any.”

That was a request from our son, Kevin, who lives in Minot, North Dakota. He drew a deer tag for this year’s hunting season and decided he’d have a better chance for success if he had some ammunition. He’d checked stores in Minot and except for some exotic loads better suited for a safari in Africa, the shelves were empty.

I took a tour of local stores and came up with pretty much the same story. I went into one store and the guy behind the counter had several people lined up looking for ammunition. “I don’t have .270, .30-06, .308, .243, or 6.5 mm,” and he went on from there. 

One of the potential buyers responded, “So, if I have some weird caliber, I might be okay?”

Perhaps, but he’d probably have a better chance of winning the lottery. Kevin, however, mentioned being in a store when someone spotted a box of some rare caliber ammunition and the person hopefully asked an employee, “Do you have a rifle that uses this?” 

Kevin also asked me to check on 20-gauge pheasant loads, and one store had 20-gauge turkey loads, and those, for all intents and purposes, were the only 20-gauge shotgun shells in Butte.

So, what’s the deal?

It’s a combination of factors. First of all, firearms sales have been at historically high levels, and every time a new firearm goes out the door of a store, chances are a box or two of ammunition goes out with it. Also, during the pandemic, people have been going outside for recreation and shooting has been a popular way to recreate outside. Also, because people perceive a shortage, if they go into a store that just got in an order, they often buy more than they need.

Remington, one of the oldest manufacturers, went through a bankruptcy and temporally shut down its ammunition production line in the process, and that took a big bunch of production out of the market. 

 So, what can a hunter do?

Obviously, the middle of a hunting season might be the wrong time to start looking for ammunition. If there’s a shortage, you can bet it’ll be in November. If you’re from Wisconsin or California, you’d better start shopping for ammunition long before you hit the road for that dream elk hunt in Montana. 

If you have some ammunition but not an extra box or two, you can make it stretch if you’re careful. There has been a lot of ballyhoo about ultra-long-distance shooting. Forget that nonsense. It may be possible for highly skilled marksmen to hit a deer or elk at a thousand yards, but that’s low percentage shooting. Limit your shooting to animals that are in range for a high percentage shot. 

Don’t take shots at moving targets. I had a work colleague who joked about shooting at deer or elk twice, “Once to get them running, and then drop ‘em on the run.” Again, running shots are for highly skilled marksmen, not for people like me. 

Don’t shoot unless you have a solid rest for your rifle. Sometimes that’s a challenge, but look for a tree, stump, or fencepost, or a coat or backpack for a rest. Again, a skilled marksman might be able to hold a rifle and make a successful offhand shot. Not me, and maybe not you, either.

This might not help for now, but in the coming offseason, you might try reloading your rifle ammunition. I understand reloading components, such as bullets and powder might be in short supply at times, but when it’s available it might not fly off the shelf like ready-made ammo. 

For our son’s situation, Kevin has a full box of .30-06 ammunition and that should take care of this year’s deer hunt. He also has most of a box of 20-gauge pheasant loads and I have a couple more boxes that I can share with him.

Somehow, we’ll muddle through—as usual. 

Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.

Pheasants on the Front

A study in horizontal lines, as the sunrise lights up the Rocky Mountain Front, as seen from Freezout Lake.

There’s something about the Rocky Mountain Front of northern Montana that keeps bringing me back. There are the wide-open vistas where a person perhaps can’t see forever, but it seems like it. There are the technicolor sunsets and sunrises, and the ever-changing show of lights and shadows, or the nightly star show unspoiled by city lights. Often, it’s the wind, whether a gentle breeze or a roaring storm that upsets trucks and rattles houses. 

The changing show of clouds and sky.

 I like to imagine, occasionally, of going back to pre-European settlement days, what it might have been like to have been part of the Blackfeet Nation in that brief golden age of the Plains Indian horse culture, and to be able to wander at will through that prairie and butte country. It’s hard to imagine a life with more freedom.

 Then, of course, there are the pheasants that have adapted to life on the high plains, finding a niche around the fringes of agriculture.

Pheasants from Asia and gray partridge, or Hungarian partridge if you prefer, from Europe have found a home on these semi-arid windswept plains, along with the native waterfowl and sharptail grouse, all of which keep calling me back to that wild country.

For over 30 years, I’ve been hunting pheasants on the Front, or more accurately, a few tiny parts of that vast area. I’ve come home with limits of pheasants, with occasional grouse or partridge, and I’ve come home empty-handed, too. I don’t think I’ve ever come home without feeling exhilarated from spending a few days there.

 While many Montanans are consumed by the chase for elk and deer right now, my mind is still on my mid-October pheasant hunt.

The wind is usually a factor on those pheasant hunts. Sometimes it’s a handicap, as when a pheasant takes to the air, they get into the wind and they’re gone, as if jet-propelled. On the other hand, on a windy day, they may hunker down in thick cover to stay out of the wind.

 Kiri, my Labrador retriever, has learned to seek out those hiding pheasants. She’s not a pointing Lab, as was Flicka, her predecessor, but she has learned to approach that cone of pheasant scent with caution. For example, she was sniffing the tall weeds and grasses along a line of shrubs and paused to sniff with focus. A few seconds later, there was a flash of iridescent gold and purple as a pheasant emerged from cover and took to the air. I was ready and I folded the bird with a blast from my 28-gauge shotgun.

Kiri is proud of our day’s work.

That scene happened several times, though once the bird kept on flying, despite my having sent bird shot after it. On another walk, Kiri put up a pair of rooster pheasants. I swung my gun on one of them and pulled the trigger, and my gun went, “click, click.” After saying a four-letter word or two, I had to laugh because when we took a break for lunch, I unloaded my shotgun before putting it in the back of my truck and forgot to reload when we resumed the hunt.

While we had success on a couple hunts, I also struck out on another. It was on a farm I’ve been hunting for years and where I’ve gotten many pheasants. Two years ago, you may recall, the Front country was clobbered with a late-September snowstorm that dumped heavy, wet snow across the region. I haven’t gotten a pheasant there since, though I keep going back to visit with my friends at the farm. A stop at the house for tea and cookies or brownies is a mandatory part of the day.

 This year, there was an additional hazard in the form of Brutus, an all-black Dachshund “wiener dog” the landowners had recently adopted. Brutus decided I was alright and climbed on my lap and settled in. He was not a bit happy when I reluctantly put him down so I could leave.

 Grizzly bears are occasionally seen in the neighborhood. In this case, I was nearly taken prisoner by a Dachshund.

 The Rocky Mountain Front is full of surprises.

 Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.