Pittman-Robertson Celebrating 75 Years of Success

Some years ago, when every hunting outing was a learning experience, a sign posted at the fenceline at a state-owned wildlife management area confused me. The sign designated the land on the other side of the fence as open to public hunting, which was good, but the last line on the sign said, “A P-R Project.“

My first thought was to wonder why the state created Public Relations projects.

Years later, some things remain the same. Every outing is still a learning experience. The more time we spend in the great outdoors, the more we come to realize how much more there is to learn.

On the other hand, I did learn that “P-R Project” wasn’t a public relations gimmick.

No, that P-R Project sign was a reminder that most of our publicly owned wildlife management areas aren’t just a happy accident. Instead, it’s a reminder of the bond among generations of hunters who have cheerfully paid Federal excise taxes on every purchase of firearms and ammunition, with the proceeds going to states to help manage wildlife and wildlife habitat.

The P-R stands for Pittman-Robertson, and the law that provides for the tax is generally called the Pittman-Robertson Act, though its official name is the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which was sponsored by Senator Key Pittman of Nevada, and Congressman Absalom W. Robertson of Virginia.

The Pittman-Robertson Act became law 75 years ago this year, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the bill into law on September 2, 1937. Over the years, the bill has been amended many times, with a significant expansion in 1970 to include handguns and handgun ammunition and archery equipment in items subject to the excise tax.

In 1950, a similar law, the Federal Aid in Fish Restoration Act, also commonly called the Dingell-Johnson Act, after its legislative sponsors, put an excise tax on fishing tackle to generate money for sport fishing restoration. That law was expanded in 1984 with the Wallop-Breaux Amendment, which added an excise tax to motorboat fuel and import duties on fishing tackle and boats.

All in all, the money raised through these taxes have generated billions of dollars that are passed on to states for wildlife management, including acquiring land, habitat, fisheries management, plus funding of public access facilities, such as docks, education, and so on. The money passed along to states is matched, in part, by money we spend on hunting and fishing licenses.

While we’re talking about Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson programs, we might also consider the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation stamps, or Duck Stamp, for short. Duck Stamps have been around since 1934 and are required for hunting migratory waterfowl. Since the beginning of the program, revenues from hunters’ purchase of Duck Stamps have been used to help purchase or lease over 5.3million acres of waterfowl habitat in the U.S.

I suppose I could go on some rant about how us hunters and anglers raise all this money for fish and wildlife habitat that benefits all us, while others do nothing. I might do that one of these days, but for now I think it’s more important to celebrate 75 years of Pittman-Robertson and related programs and how much we hunters and anglers have done over the decades, simply by indulging our inclination to buy more stuff.

A couple weeks ago, Land Tawney, a Missoula friend and conservationist, did a commentary on Montana Public Radio on Pittman-Robertson and how much it has done, going on to suggest that perhaps the program should be broadened to extend the excise tax on other hunting equipment, such as 4-wheelers, camouflage clothing, and the like. Similarly, others have suggested that since it has been such a long time since the last increase in a cost for a federal Duck Stamp, we duck hunters should double up and buy two stamps, to help compensate for inflation, as well as declining numbers of waterfowl hunters.

Those are all ideas worth considering, but for now, let’s celebrate those 75 years, and then buy more stuff.

Norwegians check out Montana

“Do you need a license to buy ammunition?”

“No,” I replied. “All you need is money.”

That exchange was while I was showing a houseguest my gun cabinet. Our guests were relatives from Norway, Inger Lise and Robert Bjoerk. Inger Lise is the granddaughter of my father’s oldest sister, which makes her a cousin of sorts, a first cousin once removed, if I understand those technicalities.

They lived many years in the city of Trondheim but after retiring from jobs as an elementary teacher and manager for ISS Norway, part of a worldwide company that provides a variety of business management services, they bought a home on the Atlantic Coast.

Robert enjoys the outdoors, especially fishing, and has a boat docked just a four-minute drive from his house. He also enjoys hunting, though doesn’t often have the opportunity to do much hunting.

He owns a couple long guns, a double-barreled shotgun and a rifle, and mentioned that Norwegian law requires people to store firearms in a gun safe.

According to Wikipedia, hunting is popular in Norway, and civilians can freely own shotguns and semi-automatic and bolt action rifles. There is a total ban on automatic action firearms. There are some caliber restrictions on handguns, but as long as handguns are used for sports shooting, a recreational shooter can own up to four handguns.

To own firearms, Norwegians must obtain an ownership license and show a legitimate use for the firearm. Hunting and sport shooting are considered legitimate uses. Prospective owners get their license through the local police department, and must show they are “sober and responsible,” as well as not have a police record.

Incidentally, to get a hunting license, a person must successfully attend a 30-hour, 9-session class in firearm theory, firearm training, wildlife theory, and environmental protection. There is a good population of big game, including roe deer, red deer (similar to our elk), reindeer, and moose (which are called elk in Scandinavia). In addition there are grouse and ptarmigan for upland bird hunters, as well as waterfowl.

Norway has an enviable record for an almost non-existent rate of firearms homicides, especially compared to the United States, though the tragedy of this year’s mass homicide demonstrates the fact that no set of controls is foolproof.

On their visit, Robert and I took advantage of good weather for a day’s outing, first stopping at a shooting range. We were mainly plinking at tin cans, and Robert, who had mandatory military training in younger years, was a crack shot.

The next stop was on a Big Hole tributary creek where we caught some brook trout, destined to be appetizers for that evening’s dinner.

A lunch break on the Big Hole River was the next stop, where we enjoyed fall sunshine that made the day’s chilly breezes seem quite tolerable. We agreed that a ham sandwich on the banks of a trout stream is first class fare.

The Big Hole’s fish were not so cooperative, however. We fished a couple spots on our area’s premier river without either of us having a nibble on our flies. As we put fishing gear away for the trip home I asked Robert, “In Norway, do they ever say, ‘You should have been here last week’?”

Without missing a beat, he said, “Yes, fishing was much better last week. In fact, the fish were jumping out of the water. You didn’t even have to fish for them.”

While Robert and I enjoyed a day of shooting and fishing, our wives were busy on sewing and knitting projects and they fantasized about some of the fancy sewing machines now on the market.

At this point it became apparent there was a culture gap regarding one aspect of American fishing we’d chatted about a few days earlier: catch and release.

The women had been shopping for sewing and other craft items and Inger Lise said we shouldn’t worry about the expense. “It’s no different than all the money you spend on fishing,” adding with ridicule, “and then you just throw the fish back in the river.”

A look at the fishing in Ireland

With An Rí Rá Montana Irish festival coming up this weekend I happened to think of a unique gift I received a couple years ago from Father Gregory Burns of Butte. Though I’m not a Catholic, Father Burns and I have had a cordial relationship going back a number of years. In fact, at the time I was retiring from my former career with the Social Security Administration, he suggested it was too bad that I wasn’t Catholic, as otherwise I’d be a good candidate for becoming a deacon in the Catholic Church.

A couple years ago, Father Burns gave me an Irish coin minted in 1963, which he’d acquired on one of his trips and thought that I should have it, because on one side of the coin it has the likeness of an Atlantic salmon. The other side has an Irish harp. As coin collectors know, the harp side is the obverse, or head side, and the salmon side is the reverse, or tail side. The coin is a “florin,” which was replaced in 1969 by the 10 pence coin.

The Atlantic salmon is depicted on the coin because the fishing industry, both sea fisheries and freshwater game fishing, is important to the Irish economy.

With Ireland’s cool, wet climate, there is a lot of water in Ireland and the various streams, rivers and lakes are the basis for a good fishery.

Many lakes have excellent pike fishing and every year anglers catch pike in the 20 to 30 pound range. These big pike, exactly the same as our American pike, are protected and it’s illegal to keep a pike of over 20 pounds if caught in a river or over 30 pounds if caught in a lake. The limit for pike is one per day. Unlike most angling in Ireland, anglers generally don’t need to pay for the privilege of pike fishing.

Brown trout are the native trout of Ireland and there are many miles of streams and rivers with a good trout fishery. In Ireland, most trout waters are privately owned or leased, so anglers have to pay for the privilege, though for a visitor, it may not be all that bad, as angling fees, according to the website, www.fishinginireland.com, run around €10 to €20 per day (that’s Euros, by the way). Some larger loughs (lakes) don’t require an access fee.

Ireland’s glamour fish are Atlantic salmon and sea trout and a large number of rivers and lakes are managed for salmon and sea trout. Sea trout are brown trout that have gone to sea, much like a steelhead, and return to fresh waters to spawn. Kirk Deeter, a field editor for Field & Stream magazine recently made a fishing trip to Ireland and wrote in the magazine’s blog site about fishing Lough Currane. Pointedly, he doesn’t tell of his personal angling success, though he does report on a ghillie (guide) who put a customer on an Irish record 13 pound, 5 ounce sea trout this past May.

Atlantic salmon have a couple peak periods of angling. In summer, grilse, or immature salmon, enter the rivers and offer excellent angling for three to six pound fish. Mature salmon return to Irish rivers beginning in autumn. A 57-pound salmon was caught in 1874 and it’s not likely that record will ever be broken. Only a few salmon of over 20 pounds are caught annually.

In addition to pike, trout and salmon there are also “coarse” fish in Ireland, with unfamiliar names to American anglers such as tench, roach, or rudd, plus the more familiar perch and carp. Though there are liberal bag limits for coarse fish, there are no closed seasons and most waters offer free fishing.

In addition to fresh water angling, there are abundant salt-water opportunities, whether it’s surfcasting along shorelines, or in small boats in sheltered bays and estuaries, or deep-sea fishing.

In short, there is a lot of good fishing to be had in Ireland, and for Irish visitors in Butte this weekend, I’d suggest they sample our fishing here in southwest Montana.

Salmonfly Time in Montana – if You’re Brave Enough

High water on Montana’s Big Hole River. There is usually about 10 feet of clearance under this bridge.

Sometimes there’s nothing like opening up a fish’s tummy to find out what they’re eating. You may find surprises.

A couple weeks ago, when my son, Kevin, and I kept some North Dakota pike for dinner, we checked stomach contents to see what the fish had been eating. One pike had inch-long fish in its belly. That was no surprise, as pike love to eat other fish. Another fish, however, had white stringy-looking aquatic worms of some kind in its stomach. There have been other times when we’ve caught pike full of crayfish. We’ve also caught pike with bellies full of scuds, or what many think of as freshwater shrimp.

All of which demonstrates that northern pike are opportunistic feeders and there isn’t much in a pike’s neighborhood that they won’t eat, including baby muskrats and ducklings.

I seldom keep trout for dinner, so I usually don’t get that kind of information from trout I catch. Still, when I have a streamside chat with another angler it’s a good idea to pay attention when they provide post mortem information. A few weeks ago when camping on the Madison River, an angler from another campsite volunteered that he’d kept a couple fish, including a rainbow trout with a belly-full of salmonfly nymphs.

That was important news, a sign that salmon-flies, those stoneflies on steroids, were getting active in preparation for the annual transformation when Pteronarcys californica, or giant stonefly, leaves its home on the bottom of western rivers to crawl out of the water. Once out of the water, the insect climbs up streamside vegetation, such as willows or other brush, crawls out of its exoskeleton and emerge as a flying winged insect.

Fish feed on stonefly nymphs on a year-around basis, of course, as nymphs lose their grip on rocks and get picked off by alert fish. This time of year, however, those opportunities increase as nymphs migrate towards river shorelines, followed by trout in search of these big bites of protein.

The salmonfly emergence happens on many western rivers, though it’s not totally predictable just when those first nymphs will emerge from runoff-swollen rivers in search of a new identity and a literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to…shall we say, get lucky. Those female insects that don’t fall back into the river or get eaten by birds, and manage to mate, end their life cycle by flying back over the river to lay eggs along the water’s surface to start the next generation of giant stoneflies. It’s a cycle that has gone on for millions of years.

It’s an old tradition that on the Big Hole River, the salmonfly hatch begins on or about June 13, or Miners Union Day in Butte. On the other hand I’ve spotted adult salmon-flies on the Big Hole as early as Memorial Day and as late as the first week of July.

Just guessing, but this year the hatch will likely run late because of the cold spring we’ve had, as the hatch is triggered by a complex combination of water temperature and hours of daylight, or at least that’s how I understood the explanation that now-retired state fisheries biologist Dick Oswald gave me some years ago.

Another question is whether the Big Hole and other rivers with salmonfly hatches will be fishable when the big bugs emerge. Last week the amount of water rushing down the Big Hole River almost doubled to around 10,000 cubic feet per second as rains cut into the heavy mountain snowpack. There will, no doubt, be anglers out there floating the river during the high water, but for average boaters it’s downright dangerous in current conditions.

Still, the natural process continues and salmon-flies are emerging somewhere. In checking around I came across the website for Rock Creek Fisherman’s Mercantile, a flyshop near the mouth of Rock Creek. The shop reports the river is a roaring, chocolate torrent of water as it nears its confluence with the Clark Fork River. Still, salmon-flies were spotted on streamside bushes, preparing for the propagation of the species.

Life goes on, even if we’re not fishing.

Wind and Water on the North Dakota Prairies

Flyfishing for northern pike is fun – and tasty.

Wind and water.

That sums up some our travel of the last couple weeks.

Last week I wrote about impending flooding on southwestern Montana streams. The cold weather around Memorial Day pretty much put the local flooding on hold, though flooding in other parts of Montana, particularly in Hardin and Roundup, made national news.

We took a road trip out of Montana, though that didn’t get us out of flooding areas. In fact, it put us right in the middle of flooding. We went to Minot, North Dakota for Memorial Day weekend to take in the festivities of a granddaughter’s graduation from high school. While we were there, it also seemed like a good idea to do some fishing on area lakes with our son, Kevin.

There are a lot of lakes in north central North Dakota, though there is always the question of whether the wind will let you put a boat on the water. Our first day of fishing was breezy, though there wasn’t any problem with boating, at least not on the smaller lake we fished. In an afternoon of fishing we caught a number of pike and invited a couple of them home for a fish dinner.

The next day was one of those windy prairie days. It didn’t keep us from fishing, though we elected to leave the boat at home. We’ve fished this lake a number of times over the years and there’s a concrete pier at the public access point on the lake where we’ve tied up Kevin’s boat in the past. With a couple winters of heavy snows, the lake level is up and the pier is under a foot of water. This actually made for a good fishing spot, as there was deep water easily accessible for casting streamers for pike.

Flyfishing for northern pike still seems like kind of a novelty in Midwestern states, even if it’s a trendy thing to do among a lot of fly anglers. In any event, flyfishing seemed the most effective way to catch pike on this trip, with a purple Wooly Bugger, which resembles a leech in the water, the hot fly.

While we spent several days fishing, the weather continued to be a hot topic. This past winter was a hard one, with heavy snows all across central North Dakota and on into Canada. Back in 1969, Minot had a major flood that dominated the national news. Since then, Minot built a system of dikes along the Souris River, which flows through the city, and flooding in the city seemed to become a thing of the past.

This spring there has been a long flooding season in rural areas both above and downstream from the city. Driving out of town, looking at flooded areas downstream from the city, Kevin remarked, “It’s been like this for a couple months already, and there’s no end in sight.” That week, City crews feverishly hauled dirt to build up the level of the dikes in town.

Over that weekend rain dominated the weather. Heavy rain fell the night before Memorial Day, though it stopped by midday. Kevin and I took another fishing trip, fishing through what the Irish might call a “soft rain.” We hit the road to go back to Minot when Kevin’s wife phoned, concerned about our being caught in the storm. “What storm?” he asked. A thunderstorm had rolled through Minot that afternoon, with heavy rain.

Coming back into town, we could see rivers of water pouring down road ditches and hilly draws. That evening another rainstorm pounded the area and the next day large areas of the city were evacuated in fears that the dikes would fail, following reports of 4 inches of rain in areas northwest of Minot.

Other areas of North Dakota were bracing for a deluge of water coming from Montana’s Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, and the night before we visited friends in Fargo, they had winds estimated at almost 100 mph.

Yes, this is the season for wind and water and Montana and the Dakotas are at the center of it all.

The State of the Fishery in Southest Montana

The lower Ruby River – runoff still on hold

Heavy snow falling outside reinforced a fact we already knew: 2011 is going to be another good water year. It also reinforced the reports Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries biologists made at last week’s annual George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited State of the Fisheries meeting.

If there was a common theme in the reports it was that after several years of healthy water flows on the area’s premier trout waters, fish populations are responding in terms of both numbers and quality. Here’s a brief rundown on the biologists’ reports.

Matt Jaeger reports that Clark Canyon Reservoir is poised for great fishing after several down years following extremely low pool levels in 2000 – 2005. The reservoir is now at full pool, and approaching flood levels this spring. There are numbers of trophy-class fish in the lake and fish stocks are being replenished by natural reproduction in feeder streams in addition to hatchery stocking.

After a number of years with sharply reduced winter flows from the Clark Canyon Dam, which had a significant negative impact on fish populations, Jaeger is hoping stronger stream flows will help rebuild the fishery. He’s also optimistic that stronger flows may blow out some sediment deposits from a tributary, Clark Canyon Creek. The outlook for 2011 is good.

Jaeger reported Poindexter Slough, the spring creek on the outskirts of Dillon, much of it on state land, has serious sediment problems and he hopes to divert some Beaverhead River flow to blow some sediment out. Still, Poindexter has incredible fish populations and is a real fish factory.

Travis Horton, Fisheries Manager for FWP Region 3, reports that rainbow trout numbers in the Jefferson River are up as a result of continuing good water flows and brown trout populations are stable.

Horton talked at some length about northern pike. Pike moved up the Missouri River from Canyon Ferry Reservoir and are now established in the river’s reservoir above Toston Dam. Biologists have found pike in the Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers, including upstream from Whitehall. Obviously, that means it’s entirely feasible for pike to next move into the lower Big Hole and threaten the Big Hole’s blue ribbon trout fishery.

Grayling recovery specialist Jim Magee reports that long-term projects are finally beginning to show some results in upper Big Hole tributaries. He also notes they have documented natural grayling reproduction in the upper Ruby River for the last two years.

Jim Olsen reported on a 2009 study estimating a total of 77,579 angler days on the Big Hole River. The majority, 43,199, were residents and 34,381 non-residents. While that’s a lot of fishing pressure, it’s nowhere near the Madison River, with 173,339 angler days, making it Montana’s most heavily fished river.

Olsen reported on 2010 shocking surveys on the Big Hole, indicating the highest trout densities, some 2,500 per mile, are in the Jerry Creek section of the river, in contrast to 1,500 per mile in the Melrose and Hogback areas. The Pennington Bridge area has the lowest trout numbers, with just 500 per mile. Olsen attributes the low numbers to poor spawning habitat in the lower river, though there is good adult fish habitat. Those fish counts don’t count juvenile fish (under 10 inches) or whitefish, which he notes, “are still the most abundant fish in the river.”

Olsen also notes that while the fish populations in the Jerry Creek area are high, the size of fish is smaller than in the lower river, indicating that fish populations are at or above carrying capacity, and “anglers shouldn’t worry about keeping and eating some of those fish.”

The last two years, FWP has been tagging trout in the Big Hole and early reports from anglers indicate that some fish are real travelers. An example is the 16-inch rainbow trout first tagged in 2009 in the Hogback area. An angler caught and released the fish on March 22, 2010 in the Hogback area. A little more than a month later, on April 26, 2010, another angler caught that same fish near the East Bank area some 50 miles upstream. That’s a tourist!

A First Time on the River!

My fishing partner patiently waiting for me to catch a fish…or find something for her to eat.

The air temperature was 50˚, though the wind blowing down the Madison River’s Beartrap Canyon felt much colder as I stepped into the river’s icy waters.

There was nothing I could do about the wind. It certainly wasn’t a surprise. The only surprises about wind along the Madison River are days when it isn’t blowing.

Wind or no wind, it seemed important to take advantage of a relatively warm day and go fishing. My last fishing outing was back in October, a few days before the pheasant season began, which now seems ages ago. Flicka, my Labrador retriever, agreed. She watched me gather clothing and gear and started barking in excitement. We do daily retrieving sessions and take frequent long walks but that’s hardly a substitute for a real outing, if I interpreted her barks and body language correctly.

There was another reason for a fishing outing. When Santa Claus stopped at our house at Christmas he dropped off a new fly rod along with other goodies and that rod has been talking to me lately, suggesting it was time to head for a river and give it a good baptism.

That baptism turned out to be more literal than figurative. As I stepped into the water something distracted me and I accidentally dropped that new rod into the river. I dropped a rod in the Big Hole River a couple years ago and was horrified to see the current sweep it away. This time there was no problem. The water was crystal clear and calm at the edge of the river. I just picked it up and shook it off. No harm done.

I wish I could tell tales of splashy rises and scrappy fish putting a good bend on the new rod but that story will wait for another outing. The fish simply weren’t biting. According to other anglers, there was some action happening before the wind came up but the fun came to a rapid halt when the wind began to blow.

Catching fish is better than not catching fish but we’ll make up for it as the weather warms up and fish get more active. The new rod works, my waders didn’t leak and I still remember how to use a fly rod. I’ve had worse outings.

Flicka enjoyed the outing, keeping company with me in the icy river, checking shoreline brush patches for interesting scents and, finally, sitting on the bank and patiently watching for some reason to get excited.

When we walked back to the truck for a snack and a chance to warm my feet Flicka had a chance to romp with another angler’s English setter, and then another setter that came running across the parking lot to join the two dogs. Two setters and a pointing Lab, I mused, what hunting stories they might be able to tell each other if they had the gift of speech.

Perhaps it’s for the best that we humans can’t always interpret a dog’s stories. If Flicka started telling about how I stumble around in the fields, looking in the wrong directions when birds get up, and missing easy shots, there would be no end to the hush money she’d be able to extort.

Fortunately, dogs are of a higher character than most humans and until they learn to write or talk, our secrets are safe.

This interim period between hunting and flyfishing has seemed like a long drag, especially with unrelenting news from Congress and the legislature (Montana and several other states as well) that makes a person wonder if there is hope for the future.

That’s why it often seems essential to get outside and stand in a river and concentrate on a task that on its merits seems a waste of time.

John Voelker, the late Michigan jurist and writer, probably better known by his penname of Robert Traver, probably said it best. “I fish…not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant—and not nearly so much fun.”

Things to do during those winter doldrums

The Super Bowl is over, the end to a seemingly endless football season. It’s now almost a month since that last hunting outing of the season and with subzero weather dominating this past week, flyfishing seems a long way off, and I’d rather go skiing than stand out on a frozen lake, looking down at a hole in the ice and waiting for a trout to jiggle a bobber.

Skiing is great fun and good exercise, but it isn’t hunting and it isn’t fishing.

Yes, this is the awkward time of the year and it is challenging to keep connected to the outdoors during this period. That doesn’t mean we should succumb to seasonal affective disorder and go into full-blown depression. There are too many things to do.

Something that’s easy to put off is to clean up equipment from the past hunting season. The last couple weekends I cleaned hunting boots and put a good dressing on them to keep the leather supple, so that when the next seasons starts my boots won’t hurt when I put them on for the first time.

Another aspect of the process is to give guns a good cleaning with those brass bore brushes and mops so those gun barrels gleam, inside and out. Don’t forget to take a close look at the wood on those guns and touch up the finish as needed. I did that last weekend and was dismayed to see a chip in the walnut next to the receiver of my pet 20-gauge over/under shotgun. I haven’t quite figured out how I’ll repair it.

While spring fishing seems a long way off, it’s not as long as you think and this is a good time to check fishing equipment and make any necessary repairs.

Above all, this is the flytying season. It’s time to look back and ask yourself what were the more productive flies you used last season and then start replacing flies that ended up in streamside pine trees.

Every year when I get back on the streams I open some of the fly boxes in my vest and make a vow that next winter I’ll just throw everything out and start all over again and start the next fishing season with all new flies. At the least, I should go through those jumbled up and matted globs of hooks, feathers and hair, and at least organize them in a meaningful way.

When I look at some other anglers’ fly boxes and see immaculate rows of flies, all perfectly tied and organized, I want to go behind a tree when I get ready to fish so they won’t see what a mess I have. Then reality sets in and I face the reality that I’m not an organized person. That jumbled up, matted glob of flies in my fly boxes is, in its way, a reflection of my corner of the room in our house that I laughingly call an office.

I’m one of those people that uses the floor as part of my filing system, with a folder of bills to pay, press kits from last year’s writers conferences, catalogs, clippings of articles I’ve written and clippings of other articles that I hope will inspire me.

If it seems hopeless I’ll claim in my defense that I usually find things I’m looking for, and that goes for both my office and my flies.

If frigid weather keeps us indoors it’s still important to get outside and do something, such as take the dog for a walk. I need the exercise and so does the dog. It’s also important to get some sunshine. Medical researchers have learned that we need a lot of sunshine to help our bodies manufacture vitamin D, an important factor in maintaining health.

Next week I’ll suggest another project for an outing in your backyard or neighborhood. In the meantime, don’t weaken. Spring is coming. Every day is a bit longer than the day before. Go browse a gardening catalog and dream.

The Not So Silent Prairie

When we think of prairies we usually think in terms of open vistas of rolling plains and grasslands. We don’t often dwell on the sounds of the prairie.

We took a springtime trip across Montana to Minot, North Dakota this past week to see our son, Kevin, and his family. While there, we went fishing, of course. It’s a good reason to go there in the spring.

Fishing, of course, doesn’t come with guarantees. All you can do is wet a line and hope for the best. Sometimes, spring trips produce a lot of fishing action but this wasn’t one of them. The end of April and beginning of May seemed unseasonably cold here in western Montana, and that was also the case in North Dakota. One of the things TV weathermen keep tabs on in North Dakota is soil temperature, and while we were there soil temperatures were dropping—which is bad news for farmers putting in their crops.

While fishing was slow, there was lots of activity going on all around us.

We spent one day fishing at Devils Lake, the massive eastern North Dakota lake complex that has, in the last 20 years, tripled in size. Kevin pointed out that a few years back he’d go there and marvel at fishing spots we went to back in the 1970s and 1980s that were no longer accessible, as they’re all under water. Now it seems to be a yearly thing. You look for a spot where you fished the year before, and now it’s gone. Farms are continually going under water—and it has nothing to do with the mortgage bust.

But birds are everywhere. There are incredible populations of waterfowl, with ducks of all kinds, giant Canada geese, and shorebirds everywhere. The Devils Lake area is a magnet for birdwatchers that come there just for the myriad shorebirds.

On another day I went to Lake Sakakawea, the big Missouri impoundment downstream from Montana. I fished along a shallow bay, hoping the sheltered waters would be warming a bit. It was a good plan, even if the fish didn’t go along with it. In recent years I’ve spent a lot more time hunting pheasants along the lakeshore than fishing, and it was hard not to think of pheasants on this pleasant spring day.

As the saying goes, in springtime a young man’s fancy turns to love, and that’s certainly the case with pheasants. Cock pheasants in springtime are a vocal group, presumably advertising to hen pheasants their availability for a good time, as well as letting other roosters know that the territory is already staked out.

A discordant note comes from an oil-drilling tower at the head of the bay I was fishing. Western North Dakota is a beehive of oil drilling, exploration and pumping, along with heavy truck traffic. In fact, it’s downright mind-boggling. A few weeks ago, the New York Times did a feature story on the difficulties oil patch workers have finding housing in Williston, the informal capitol of the western North Dakota oil fields. There are lots of jobs, but finding a place to live after work is tricky.

On another outing, this time to a small lake away from oil country, at the public access point I was greeted by a chorus of birds, including the usual ducks, geese and shorebirds, but also song birds of various kinds concentrated in a patch of trees and shrubs. There were dozens of bird songs happening all at once, with birds trying to out-do each other in making themselves heard above the crowds. And, again, pheasants were calling from their hangouts on the prairie hillsides.

While the prairie was full of sounds, tiny prairie wildflowers were in bloom, adding bits of color to the green shoots of grass and last year’s dried grasses.

At the end of the day, birds settle down, but there are new sounds. Stepping outside Kevin’s house one evening, frogs were talking from a nearby wetland and open field. “Those are western chorus frogs,” Kevin explained, as we enjoyed the sounds of the chilly evening.

The photo above is Kevin and our Labs in the Devils Lake area. A year ago, farmers were driving tractors and farm trucks down this road.

A View of Earth Day 40 Years Later

The annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America will be held, this coming June, in Rochester, Minnesota. Assuming I go, it’ll be a trip back home, as Rochester is about 30 miles from my hometown of Zumbrota, a small town that got its name from the Zumbro River, which wanders through southeastern Minnesota on its way to the Mississippi River.

A part of the conference program that caught my eye was trips to trout streams of the area, plus smallmouth bass fishing on the Zumbro River. Previously, I’d also heard from others about great smallmouth fishing on the Zumbro.

The reason I have to do a double-take about smallmouth bass fishing on the Zumbro is that when I was a kid there weren’t, to the best of my knowledge and recollection, any sport fish on our local river, and certainly nobody was doing guided trips on the Zumbro. Nobody went fishing on the Zumbro, except for rough fish, such as carp or suckers.

Why wasn’t there sport fishing on my hometown stream? That’s an easy one. Pollution.
Just for starters, my hometown and neighboring communities all dumped raw sewage in the river. There’s a local cheese factory in town where most of the local dairy farmers sell their milk and cream. My dad made trips to town every few days to fill old oil drums with whey, the watery part of milk that gets separated in the cheese-making process. The cheese factory gave it to any farmer, free for the taking, and my dad fed it to the pigs on our farm. What the cheese factory couldn’t give away went straight into the river, which was, conveniently, just a block away, and the cheese factory had a direct sewer line that fed into the river.

The town also had a dump right on the banks of the river, and no, it didn’t rate being called a sanitary landfill, and you’d better believe a lot of what went to the dump ended up in the river.

In the context of the times, there was nothing particularly unusual or newsworthy about this pollution. In 1969, Time magazine reported on the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, Ohio, “Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly. ‘He decays.’ The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.’ It is also — literally — a fire hazard.” In fact, over a hundred year period, the river caught on fire a number of times, including 1969.

Closer to home, the Yellowstone River is considered one of Montana’s premier recreational rivers and is celebrated for a premier trout fishery in the upper river. In the lower river, downstream from Billings, there’s a thriving fishery for paddlefish, channel catfish, smallmouth bass, walleye and sauger.

Yet, as many people will recall, at one time the community of Gardner dumped raw sewage into the Yellowstone, as did the city of Livingston. My wife grew up in Glendive in eastern Montana, and when she was a kid nobody fished on the river—because of the pollution.

What happened to restore these rivers and fisheries? We can look directly at Earth Day, which happened the first time on April 22, 1970, just 40 years ago this past week, and a grass roots movement that led to the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and the framework to create wilderness areas, as well as creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—all achievements of a Republican administration.

Last week, public television broadcast a documentary on the history of Earth Day, with a narrator noting that while President Nixon “didn’t have an environmental bone in his body,” he certainly had a fine sense of how political winds were blowing. And that’s how the bi-partisan legislation that has done so much to restore America’s rivers happened.

From today’s perspective of perpetual congressional deadlock, it seems even more amazing.