Montana Outfitter Places in Contest

Last month we reported on Donna McDonald, an Alder-area outfitter and guide who was running for the title, “Extreme Huntress,” in a contest sponsored by Tahoe Films, a company that produces adventure films for television.

When on-line voting concluded on New Year’s Day, Ms. McDonald came in at fourth place. The winner of the contest was Rebecca Francis, who started hunting as a child and tells of celebrating her honeymoon in a tiny two-person tent in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska while bow-hunting for mountain sheep. In later years she put each of her babies in a backpack while she hiked into the mountains in search of elk and deer. After telling, “I have even gone so far as to bare my white butt in order to mimic a bighorn sheep, so that I could sneak up to 28 yards for my successful bow shot,” I’ll accept her concluding statement in her essay, “I am proud to be the most hardcore WOMAN huntress around! “

While she didn’t win, Donna McDonald has no regrets at entering the contest, though she had to overcome some initial reluctance. “I debated even entering the contest,” she said in a phone interview. After entering the contest, she reports that it turned out to be a positive experience, adding, “I wouldn’t care if I came in last. It gave me a chance to share the Montana experience.”

Highlights of entering the contest include getting messages from people around the country, many of them past or current clients of Donna’s and her husband Jake’s outfitting business, Upper Canyon Outfitters. “I also had some people contact me about booking hunts,” she adds.

Perhaps the best part of entering the contest, in Donna’s mind, is that her essay gave her another opportunity to promote something that’s near and dear to her heart, Big Hearts Under the Big Sky, a program under the auspices of the Montana Outfitters & Guides Association. The program works with several other organizations, including Catch a Dream and Hunt of a Lifetime, which offer outdoor experiences, such as hunting and fishing, to children and youth with life-threatening illnesses, Casting for Recovery, which offers retreats and outdoor programs for breast cancer survivors, and Honored American Veterans Afield, which helps disabled veterans rebuild their lives by helping them re-connect with the outdoors.

The Montana Outfitters & Guides Association formally launched the Big Hearts program in 2008, though many outfitters had been participating in hosting trips through these organizations in prior years, as well.

Donna speaks warmly of her personal experiences with people who have taken hunting trips through the Big Hearts program, quoting from a letter she received from a teenager with cancer who reported, that while on a sponsored hunt, “This was the first time I didn’t have any pain.”

This coming August, Donna and Jake are closing their guest ranch facilities on the upper Ruby River for a weekend in order to host a Casting for Recovery retreat for a number of breast cancer survivors along with their support teams of doctors, nurses and caregivers. The Casting for Recovery program is built around the principle that flycasting is an excellent form of rehabilitation for women who have had breast cancer surgery. “We have a pond next to our lodge stocked with trout and I hope all the participants catch some fish.”

For more information about Big Hearts Under the Big Sky, go to The website also offers a link to the Big Hearts Under the Big Sky program though that website is still under construction.

Changing topics, last week a friend asked, “What do you think of this new game; bowling for sheep?” He was referring, of course, to the recent incident where a motorist traveling west of Anaconda, Montana plowed into a band of bighorn sheep on the highway, killing eight sheep, including two trophy rams. In other areas of Montana there have been further die-offs of wild sheep due to pneumonia — something which has happened repeatedly over the years.

To me, it’s so immensely sad — and ironic — that wild sheep, that icon of wild country, are so vulnerable. It’s tragic.

Waterfowl Season Comes to a Close

It’s a crisp, still morning in southwest Montana. The sun is up but not making much of a dent in the sub-zero temperatures. In short, it’s a perfect morning for duck hunting.

Clouds of steam and fog hang over the warm springs, marking likely spots where mallard ducks, those hardy, wary and, fortunately for hunters, delicious birds come in at night seeking warmth and open water after a day of feeding on area grain fields. It’s a dry winter, so far, so the fields are mostly brown. The rushes and brush along the springs and creeks are, however, a brilliant white from hoarfrost, sparkling in the morning sun.

Flicka, my black Labrador retriever, and I are approaching a warm spring pond where I’m hoping ducks are enjoying the balmy microclimate of warm air hanging over the steaming pond. We’d made another approach on a nearby creek earlier. Hundreds of mallards were in that creek, though were flushing out, far ahead. Cattle and sheep in the field were moving nervously, and the ducks took their cue from the livestock. Still, there were ducks that stayed tight until we got in shooting range and I managed to make a rare double on the flush, dropping a pair of mallards.

The ducks were on the pond, not disturbed by those earlier gun shots, and when we came close, the air filled with ducks, their green heads and blue wing markings shimmering in the sun. I have a sorry record when it comes to shooting when there are a lot of birds in the air and this was no exception. I emptied my gun and the birds flew away unharmed. I thought I had picked out individual greenhead mallard drakes, but, if results are a true indicator, my focus was evidently on the flock.

That’s how the morning went. I made a couple more sneaks on other ranches and on one walk, I dropped a duck with my first shot but when I looked for another mallard drake, the rest of the birds were already out of range. On yet another sneak, I again came in just right, and, again, filled the air with shot without positive results.

I suppose I could have gone home that day feeling frustrated about the whole business, but I couldn’t help smiling.

If my shooting lacked accuracy, it wasn’t that big a deal. I still went home with three prime mallard ducks, and after I’d finished plucking feathers from three ducks I felt no need to pluck more. Moreover, from the perspective of whether this was a successful hunt, it was one of those days when almost everything went right. The cold weather concentrated the ducks on the little warm-water spring creeks and my hunting strategies put me in shooting range when the ducks flushed, and Flicka was elated to be able to make a few more retrieves before we came to the end of the season.
The waterfowl season, the last of the general hunting seasons, is now over, marking the end of almost five months of hunting, starting with chasing blue grouse in early September, moving on to ruffed grouse, pheasants, deer, and waterfowl. Flicka and I have walked mountainsides, wetlands and prairies from western Montana to western North Dakota and back again. We’ve had hunting thrills, along with a moment of sheer terror when Flicka got in the path of a car back in November. Yet, here we are in January, finishing up the waterfowl season with a flourish.

In short, I’m content. I’m hoping for a lot of new snow for skiing. It’s time to do some flytying, and to get going on a rod rehabilitation project. I want to try some new recipes for cooking wild game. The days are getting longer and on some mild afternoons I’ll probably sneak out for some flyfishing. Maybe I’ll try to organize a spring turkey hunt, but in any event the next hunting season is just over eight months away. We’ll figure out something to do while we wait for September.