Ground Hog Day Fact & Trivia

For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May. Old English proverb

Today, February 2, is Groundhog Day. According to tradition, on this day, woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, emerge from their hibernation to venture outside, look around, and if they see their shadow, it means another six weeks of winter. On the other hand, if it’s overcast, it’s a sign of an early spring.

In the U.S., Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a small town in west central Pennsylvania, is generally considered Groundhog Day Central, and the setting of the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character is forced to relive the day over and over again until he can learn to give up his selfishness and become a better person. While Punxsutawney gets the most publicity, many other communities from Georgia and Alabama, north to Ontario, and as far west as Aurora, Colorado and Dallas, Texas, have Groundhog Day observances of one kind or another.

While American observances of Groundhog Day have their origins from early Pennsylvania Dutch in Pennsylvania, the celebration has its origins in early European and Celtic folklore.

An early written reference to Groundhog Day comes from an 1841 diary entry of a Pennsylvania storekeeper, James Morris, who wrote, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas Day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out as the weather is to be moderate.”

Candlemas Day has origins in the early Christian church, marking the presentation of the baby Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, forty days after his birth in Bethlehem. In some churches, people bring beeswax candles to the church on February 2 to be blessed, as the holy man, Simeon, held the baby in his arms and proclaimed he would be a light to the gentiles.

In some Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, Candlemas Day is called Candelaria Day. In Portugal, the custom asserts, “If the Candelaria is smiling (sunshine), the winter is still to come, if the Candelaria is crying (raining), the winter is out.”

We don’t have woodchucks in western Montana, though we do have other marmots, the yellow-bellied marmot, often known as a rock chuck, and the hoary marmot, which is found in high alpine areas, above the tree line. Asking, on February 2, either of these animals what the weather is going to be in coming weeks is likely a waste of time, as they are going to be in full hibernation this time of year.

As to whether to believe the various Groundhog Day weather predictions, I’d suggest a grain of salt. In 2011, for example, Smith Lake Jake of Alabama, Octorara Orphie, Quarryville, Pennsylvania, and Mountain Maryland Murray, Cumberland, Maryland, all saw their shadow and predicted more winter weather. On the other hand Grady the Groundhog, Chimney Rock, North Carolina, Minnie the Groundhog, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and Punxsutawney Phil, himself, all predicted an early spring. I couldn’t make up those names, by the way.

Groundhog Day proponents claim the predictions are right 75 to 90 percent of the time. On the other hand, a Canadian study for 13 cities in the past 30 to 40 years put the success rate at 37 percent. The National Climatic Data Center stated the overall prediction accuracy rate is around 39 percent.

In short, you’d be more accurate in predicting the weather by flipping a coin, instead of relying on woodchucks for this vital information. On the other hand, around here, an early spring as compared to six more weeks of winter is pretty much the same thing.

Finally, in this political year, I’ll mention that in Alaska, Groundhog Day is officially called Marmot Day, as there are few groundhogs in Alaska. The holiday change was passed by the Alaska legislature in 2009 and signed into law by then-Governor Sarah Palin. Gotta love her.

January’s Thoughts of Spring in Montana

The days are finally getting a little longer after the winter solstice. It seems as if those mornings are still mighty dark, but each day is slightly more than a minute longer than the day before, and in this coming week that will accelerate to about two minutes per day. It’s a slow process right now, though our days are currently about 15 minutes longer than they were on December 20.

As days get longer, the hunting season gets shorter. Of the general hunting seasons, the waterfowl season runs the latest, and right now it has just a couple days to go. Here in the Pacific Flyway area of Montana, the season for ducks and geese will close at sunset on Friday, January 13. In the Central Flyway, the duck season is already closed, and the goose season will close on Friday.

As the hunting seasons come to a close, it’s time to start thinking ahead.

Montana’s Smith River is one of Montana’s great treasures and a float trip on the Smith is an experience every outdoors-loving person should have on their bucket list. Many people consider the year a bummer if they don’t do the trip.

As most people familiar with the Smith know, all float trips on the Smith are by permit only, and the deadline for applying for a 2012 float permit is Wednesday, February 15. Applications may be submitted by mail or online at the Fish, Wildlife & Parks website.

A few cautions with the process are that applicants must be age 12 or older to apply. People who drew a 2011 permit for the most popular period of May 15 to July 15 must wait a year to apply for dates in that period, though they can apply for floating dates outside that period, as well as acquire a cancelled permit for cancelled launch dates or accompany another launch trip.

A change from a few years back is that pets are no longer permitted on Smith River float trips. This does not apply to service dogs and hunting dogs used for hunting purposes during legal hunting seasons.

If the 2011 hunting season is about done, that also means that it’s time to plan for the 2012 season. This month, FWP is holding a number of public meetings around the state to explain proposed changes in the 2012 hunting seasons and to give people the opportunity to comment on them.

In our area of southwester Montana, the first meeting is tonight, January 11, at the War Bonnet Inn (Quality Inn), here in Butte. Additional meetings will be on January 12, at the Search & Rescue Building in Dillon, January 17 at Lima High School in Lima, and January 18 at the AOH Hall in Anaconda. All meetings run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Also available at the FWP website is a full listing of proposed changes statewide. One item that caught my eye is a proposal to extend the season for mountain grouse to January 1 of each year, to be consistent with other upland bird seasons.

That Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website, by the way, the portal for all that good information about…well, Montana’s fish, wildlife and parks, is It’s a good site to bookmark on your computer’s browser.

That unseasonably mild weather of last week (hopefully we’ll be past that by the time you’re reading this) might have been pleasant, though it also meant that Montana lost snowpack in January instead of increasing it. There’s still a lot of potential for the coming months, though as these days get longer it gets harder and harder to pile up the snow before the sun turns it back to liquid.

Still, for those who really dislike our northern winters, even when it’s as mild as it has been recently, and heading south isn’t an option, take heart.

As I pointed out already, the length of our days is steadily increasing and in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, many of us experienced a sure sign of approaching spring: the first gardening catalog of the season.

One Last Visit With Old Man 2011

The soft knock at the door came as a surprise. It was late; the logs in the fireplace had burned down to a pile of embers and I was ready to turn in for the night and join my wife who had retired earlier.

If the knocking at the door was unexpected, it was nothing compared to my surprise when I turned on the light and opened the door to see Newt Gingrich standing there.

“Mr. Speaker, is that you?” I asked, not wanting to believe my own eyes.

He paused a moment before bursting into a roar of laughter, changing, even as he laughed, into a gray haired, bearded old man. It was Old Man 2011 paying an end of year visit, just as some of his predecessors had in past years.

“I thought you might get a kick out of my Newt routine,” the grizzled old man chuckled. “I thought of channeling Ol’ Newt because he’s been such an interesting guy this year. His campaign was a joke last summer when his staff all quit on him, and now he’s right back on top of the pack of the ‘Anybody but Mitt’ crew. Besides,” he added, “He has a knockout of a wife who plays a French horn. I thought you might appreciate that.”

“Yes, he has a good looking wife,” I conceded, “and I certainly appreciate people who play the horn, though I don’t know what that has to do with Newt’s fitness to be president.” I paused and added, “I am amused, however, that of all the whacky things he’s said over the years, the things that get him the most flack from other candidates and the Tea Partiers are when he accidentally says something that makes sense. Go figure.

“But, enough politics,” I said, “Can I offer you something to drink? A light snack?”

The old man settled into a recliner, put his feet up and suggested a mug of Quarry microbrew would be welcome. I got a growler out of the refrigerator and filled a schooner with dark ale and set it down along with a bowl of nuts. After taking a drink he set the mug down and asked, “My work is about done. A couple nights and I’m out of here. How’d I do?”

“I had a really good year,” I said. “My wife and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary a couple months ago. A granddaughter finished high school last spring and started college and the next one is up for the same thing in 2012. I finally published my book of hunting stories in November. I did lots of fishing and hunting. I have a great bird dog. Life is good.”

“It’s nice to know that I have at least one happy customer,” he said. “I’ve had complaints from people who didn’t like the weather. Too hot, too cold, too much rain, not enough rain, drought, floods, too many tornadoes.” He downed the last of the beer and suggested that a refill might be in order. “I don’t know why they blame me. If they’d pay attention to what scientists have been saying about extremes in weather as part of the global warming picture, maybe they’d pay a little more attention to all the junk they’re putting in the air.”

“Your point is well-taken,” I replied, adding, “but I’ve been through this enough times to know that we shouldn’t expect people to act logically. Heck, even your buddy Newt got attacked for publicly agreeing with Nancy Pelosi that climate change is real and needs to be addressed.”

“Yeah, that’s politics. Frankly, I’m tired of the whole thing. I already feel sorry for the kid waiting for me to finish. If I thought American politics was way over the top this year, he’ll really get his fill.” With that, he finished his beer, stood up and zipped his coat.

“Say, do you suppose we could get together and go fishing next summer?”

I chuckled and said, “If you can figure out how to get back here, we’ll do it.”

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.”

On getting outwitted by ruffed grouse.

  I wish I had a dollar, no let’s make that five dollars to allow for inflation, for every magazine or calendar illustration I’ve seen showing a ruffed grouse sailing over a clearing in the forest with a hunter, with gun raised, and a dog at his side.

Flicka and the day’s bag of grouse.

Over some 30 or more years of chasing after ruffed grouse I guess I have actually seen a few grouse take those flights across clearings, but they’re few and far between. Ruffed grouse survive by breaking rules, not imitating art.

Those cold rains in mid-September ushered in autumn. By the calendar it was still summer, but when it cleared there was a chill in the air along with clear blue skies after the rains washed out the smoke haze of recent weeks; in other words, the perfect time to check one of my ruffed grouse coverts.

This ruffed grouse walk took me over familiar terrain, a mountain hillside with patches of aspens interspersed with pine stands. I’ve been visiting this hillside every year for over 20 seasons. Sometimes I find grouse and sometimes I don’t. I even remember one year when there were a lot of grouse, but that was an exception.

Flicka, my Labrador retriever and hunting partner, was acting ‘birdy’ as she sniffed out bird scent along the ground in a clump of pines at the edge of the aspens. My shotgun was ready, but I wasn’t quick enough when a grouse flushed—not from the clump of pines Flicka was sniffing, but from another one 10 feet away. I caught just a glimpse of the bird before it disappeared into the trees.

From the sound of wings as the bird flew off, I didn’t think the bird went far. The trick was to find out just where the bird went.

We tramped through the aspens, Flicka occasionally finding tantalizing whiffs of scent, though nothing that resulted in a flushing grouse. After a couple wide circles, however, a grouse flushed from the top of a knoll, flying downhill through the trees. I got off a couple shots at the disappearing bird, but they weren’t good shots.

We walked down the hillside, again hoping to flush the grouse, optimistically thinking that the third time would be a charm.

We did find that bird a third time. This time it was up in the twisted branches of a pine tree that recently perished to a pine beetle attack. The bird flushed from high up the tree and disappeared without giving me a glimpse. We tried to get yet another flush but this time the grouse gave us the slip. We searched the area hoping to see it one more time, but this bird didn’t hang around any longer. Chalk up another score for ruffed grouse.

Some of my favorite places in southwest Montana are ruffed grouse coverts. Ruffed grouse and aspens go together like a horse and carriage. Aspen thickets are islands of color, sunshine and moisture in autumn, as aspens and underbrush turn from green, as they were in mid-September, to shades of yellow and orange, as they will be these next couple weeks. A month from now, after the leaves drop, the aspen thickets will be austere shades of brown and gray.

Ruffed grouse habitat is dynamic and always changing. In recent years it seemed like pines were taking over many of my grouse coverts. Then pine beetles came along and now new aspens are popping up.

Whatever the season, ruffed grouse depend on aspens for shelter and livelihood, and that means I keep coming back, and sometimes things work.

On that outing, after Flicka and I circled back to the truck and had a lunch break, we tried another spot. We hadn’t gotten far when I realized that Flicka had gone on point. I prepared for a flushing grouse and was ready when it took off. Another pine tree bravely sacrificed a branch, but enough #8 shot slipped through to drop the bird.

There are never guarantees but sometimes those meanders end with the makings of a gourmet dinner.

Blue Grouse Training Camp

Flicka and the first grouse of 2011

It’s been a tough fall training camp, up on that western Montana mountain.

Trudging up and down those mountainsides, I couldn’t help thinking back to those long ago twice a day football practices back in my high school days. Those sweaty sessions under a steamy August sun were a long time ago, to be sure. In fact, I have to concede that the last time I put on cleats and pads, President Dwight Eisenhower was running for reelection, if that’s any indication.

Still, the goal of those practices: to get in good physical condition so that playing football games would seem easy in comparison, seemed altogether too much like the opening of the upland bird season over Labor Day weekend.

In recent years we’ve spent Labor Day weekends camping at a Forest Service campground convenient to both flyfishing and grouse hunting. There’s a Forest Service road that loops its way to near the top of a mountain and over the years I’ve established about five different areas that have blue grouse habitat. There are other areas on the mountain that look pretty much the same to me, but I never found grouse there. I guess you’d have to ask the grouse why they never go to these other spots. If you can find them, that is.

On opening day we drove up that mountain road before dawn and halfway up the mountain I spotted a covey of grouse on the road. The birds nervously moved off the road when Flicka, my Labrador retriever hunting partner, and I made our approach, but we managed to get shots at the flushing birds and dropped one of them. With one bird in hand we pounded the bush but the birds had scattered and didn’t want to be found.

At the top of the mountain we ran into another covey of grouse. I missed a shot at one bird, but another bird flew directly at me, about 15 feet off the ground. It’s an easy shot to miss, but I got this one. The bird folded, though its momentum carried it so that it actually crashed into and bounced off my leg. Flicka was at my side and caught it in midair on the bounce—an easy retrieve.

On another sagebrush ridge we put up just a couple birds that flushed at the edge of shooting range. I got off a couple shots but nothing dropped. We had friends coming to our camp for lunch that day so that ended that first day of hunting. I felt pretty good about getting a couple of those big, chunky birds.

In succeeding mornings, however, those grouse outfoxed Flicka and me at every turn. They’d flush when we were still 50 or so yards away. If we followed them into the timber they’d flush from the tops of trees, and I learned long ago the hard way that that’s about as tough a shot as they come.

I called the birds blue grouse, though if you look in the upland hunting regulations you’ll see the birds referred to as “dusky” grouse. In 2006, the American Ornithological Union designated blue grouse into two different strains. The grouse of inland mountains are now officially dusky grouse and the grouse of Pacific coastal mountains are “sooty” grouse. In the current issue of Montana Outdoors, writer Dave Carty wrote about hunting mountain grouse and used “dusky” throughout the article. He explained the official name change, though he acknowledges that when he’s talking to his hunting buddies, he’ll still call them blue grouse.

Whatever you call those grouse, don’t call them fool hens. While blue grouse, or dusky grouse, if you want to be correct, often have a reputation for innocence, I can take you trekking across a mountain where I know grouse are to be found, but after they’ve flushed at long distance, or flushed where a big tree screens their escape flight, you may start calling those grouse some new names, but fool hen won’t be one of them.

There may be fools on the mountain, but it’s the hunters, not the grouse.

Mountain Creeks and Brook Trout

Charley casting to brookies with Flicka supervising

Our southwestern Montana rivers are finally dropping. They’re still high by normal late July standards, but there finally seems to be a light at the end of the runoff tunnel.

Right now, conditions are about prime for floaters on the Big Hole River and if our last weekend on the river is an example, people are taking full advantage of water conditions more typical of late June than late July.

Still, I’d bet that we’re still a good week or so away from good wade-fishing, and if you do find a good spot to walk along the edges of the river, you’ll be facing a long parade of drift boats and rubber rafts coming your way.

An alternative might be to explore some of those many squiggly blue lines on topographical maps, those high country creeks that have been pouring all that water down to our rivers the last couple months. That reservoir of melting snow is finally diminishing and the creeks are dropping.

Our friend, Charley Storms of Evansville, Indiana, joined us this past weekend for camping and fishing. He and a cousin from Philadelphia had spent the week at an area fishing lodge, enjoying good float fishing, but when I suggested exploring some creeks, he was ready for new adventures.

The first creek we tried didn’t pan out, though the drive up the valley was worth the trip from the standpoint of wildflowers. The mountain meadows were a riot of color from a profusion of wildflowers. The creek, however, was still too high for flyfishing.

We moved to another creek and had some action, catching a couple fish plus getting a few more rises. Still, the lower part of the stream had more water than desirable, so we drove farther up the valley.

At higher elevations, conditions were about perfect. There was plenty of water, but it was easy wading up and down the creek. The biggest challenge was finding runs that weren’t choked with willows. By walking around, however, it was no problem to find runs and pools where there was casting room.

Creek fishing is flyfishing simplified. You don’t need fancy equipment or hundreds of different flies to match the hatches. In high country creeks, the growing season is short so fish can’t afford to pass up too many tidbits of food passing by. A small, bushy fly, perhaps one already chewed up on some other trip, is just about perfect.

For better or worse, most high country creeks are overrun with small brook trout. I think of them as the knapweed of trout. They’re not native to the West and they outcompete our native cutthroat. Ironically, on many eastern waters where brook trout are native, rainbow trout, originally imported from West Coast rivers, are the evil alien invaders. On the bright side, brook trout are abundant and if you’re hungry for a fish dinner, go ahead and fill your creel, and if you don’t have a creel a plastic grocery bag or forked willow stick will work almost as well.

I have a friend in Idaho, Chris Hunt, who is a writer and a staffer for Trout Unlimited. He has a website titled,, and a slogan, “Save the west; eat a brook trout.” If you need an endorsement for guilt-free fish munching, go no further.

The fish Charley and I caught weren’t trophies, unless you consider an 8-inch fish a trophy. Despite their diminutive size, these brookies are mature fish and one of them was even full of eggs developing for fall spawning.

The final reward for a fun-filled day of fishing, however, was back in camp. I spritzed the fish with olive oil, sprinkled them with salt and pepper and put them on the charcoal grill. In a few minutes the fish were perfectly done and we ate them as appetizers while venison steaks took their turn on the grill for our dinner’s main course.

I’m looking forward to fishing the Big Hole and other waters during what’s left of summer, but I’ll reserve more time for some of those headwaters creeks.

Saving Montana’s Remaining Westslope Cutthroat Trout

Déjà vu all over again?

No, though it’s too bad there wasn’t a way to change the name of that creek in the East Pioneer Mountains to something other than Cherry Creek.

This Cherry Creek is a stream that flows into the Big Hole River near Melrose, Montana. Most of the stream’s drainage is described as a “relatively pristine watershed.” Most of the stream is on either Forest Service or BLM land, so it’s accessible, with some effort, to the public, except for the lower end of the creek, which is on private land. Most angling takes place on a couple small headwaters lakes, Cherry Lake and Granite Lake, both of which have populations of hybridized westslope cutthroat trout.

Cherry Creek gets little if any fishing pressure because it’s small and has dense willows in riparian areas. It’s important in that until recently it held populations of pure westslope cutthroat trout. In 2005, according to an Environmental Assessment prepared by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, non-hybridized cutthroat trout were still present in the stream. In 2008 and 2009, sampling indicated that rainbow trout had moved into the stream and were hybridizing with the native trout. In addition, brook trout had established a foothold in the stream.

FWP plans to chemically treat the Cherry Creek watershed to kill off all the fish in the stream and the two lakes and then restock with genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout. A second part of the project is to build a barrier at the lower end of the stream to prevent non-native fish from migrating back up the creek.

Construction of the barrier will take place this spring and the fish removal process would be done in late summer and fall of 2011. Similar projects are in the works on two other creeks: Dyce Creek, an upper Big Hole tributary near Wisdom, and McVey Creek, a tributary of Grasshopper Creek west of Dillon.  Those two streams still have populations of genetically pure cutts, and the goal will be to get rid of competing brook trout and keep them out.

The déjà vu aspect is a look back an another Cherry Creek, a stream that flows into the lower Madison River—with a kicker: a big chunk of that creek’s watershed is owned by media mogul Ted Turner, America’s biggest landowner. That project went through a long round of public hearings, appeals, court appeals and downright bitter controversy. That project finally got started in 2003. It ended the way it started, in that when the biologists treated the last patch of water above the barrier in 2010, something went wrong and there was a fish kill in lower parts of the stream, triggering one last round of controversy.

So, aside from all the controversy, how did that project turn out?

Mike Vaughn, a fisheries biologist at the Bozeman office of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, described it as a multi-phase project starting with treatment of the upper ends of the watershed and beginning the restocking process until it was finally completed in 2010. The final results were totally satisfactory. “The westslope cutthroat trout are repopulating the stream and are thriving. We have a watershed with many miles of stream with westslope trout, and that’s mighty rare in this area.”

Last week’s hearings in Dillon and Butte were mostly peaceful, with the exception of Pollyana Thurmond, a Butte woman who came with a fistful of computer printouts ostensibly demonstrating dangers of the chemical rotenone, which the biologists on hand patiently tried to refute.

Westslope cutthroat trout are the official fish of Montana and at one time were found in the entire Missouri River watershed upstream from the Great Falls, occupying, at one time, 10,000 miles of streams. That is now reduced to a mere 400 miles of streams, mostly isolated populations scattered in headwater creeks.

FWP will accept comments on the projects through Sunday, April 24, though it is my hope the project continues. These native fish are an important part of our heritage and if we don’t act they could become extinct in Montana and that would be an even worse déjà vu.

From Skiing to Turkeys – Springtime in Montana

The transition from winter to spring keeps dragging, though it’s a process that’s unstoppable, even as snowflakes drift down, seemingly almost daily.

Though it has been an outstanding ski season, ski hills are closing down. Discovery Basin closed last Sunday. Lost Trail Powder Mountain, west of Wisdom, closes this coming Sunday, April 10. Bridger Bowl, north of Bozeman, is extending the season through April 12, though they closed a few lifts on April 3. Maverick Mountain hadn’t posted a season ending date on their website as of press deadline.  I’ve heard that Big Sky will be operating through the middle of April, so that will be the place to go in this part of Montana if you need that one last ski trip to tide you through the summer.

Appropriately, on the morning of March 25, which turned out to be my last ski trip of the season, the sound of robins chirping around the neighborhood greeted me when I stepped outside. It always seems like the robins make it to our part of the world prematurely, and that March arrival was a case in point, considering that we had snow showers daily for most of the following week.

Another sign of spring is that this Saturday, April 9, is the beginning of the Montana spring turkey hunting season, coinciding with another sign of spring, my annual gripe about again not being drawn for a Region 3 permit.

Out of curiosity, I contacted Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to find out what the odds were. There were 35 general adult permits allotted for Region 3 and there were 359 entries for the drawing, making the odds roughly 1 in 10 for winning a permit. Those odds are a lot better than getting rich in the Powerball lottery, of course, though with those odds you’d think that after 15 years or so I might someday luck out.

This brings to mind a cartoon of a few years back showing a man in a hospital bed, legs raised in traction and tubes everywhere, with his wife at the bedside going through a stack of mail, saying, “Oh, here’s some good news. You got your elk tag.”

My math-minded adult children might give me a lecture in statistics demonstrating that in a true random drawing your chances of winning never improve. It is, after all, random. To which I might say, “Don’t try to make me feel better. It’s not working.” I’ll have to try to clear a few days on my calendar and maybe get away to points east where a special permit isn’t needed.

If we get tired of the slow progress of spring, continuing cool weather does mean that this year’s big load of snow in the high country is staying in place a little longer. One of the symptoms of climate change here in the northern mountain states has been earlier melting of snowpack, meaning the mountains are tinder dry by August, a common scenario in many recent seasons.

Cool weather also means that area rivers, such as the Big Hole, may be fishable for a little while longer, before serious spring runoff starts. April is the time for early hatches, such as the skwala stonefly and the baetis, or blue wing olive mayfly, depending on whether you like your bugs with a bit of Latin.

With occasional warm days or April showers happening, rivers can bounce up and down with surges of runoff and an excellent tool to help plan spring fishing is the U.S. Geological Survey water data website, which tracks stream flows at numerous gauging stations on Montana rivers and streams. It won’t tell you whether the fish are biting, but it will help you figure out if things are fishable, or if the water is likely to be high and muddy.

In any event, depending on your interests there are a lot of possibilities this month. Turkey hunting, flyfishing, early gardening, symphony concerts, and…there was something else, too, wasn’t there?.

Oh, file tax returns. You had to remind me.

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.”

Time to get your new fishing license!

If you want to go fishing in March, you’d better get a license!

The first day of March came and, unusually, I didn’t have any big urge to go fishing. The garlic and tulips along the south side of our house hadn’t sent up any green shoots. If those courageous plants thought it was too cold, it was too early to go flyfishing.

Rest assured, the fishing season won’t wait much longer.

Whether the fishing urge is to find open water for early flyfishing or ice fishing before the ice deteriorates, there is an important first step, and that’s to go to an office of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks or to a local license vendor, or on-line, to get properly licensed before heading out to hit the water.

Our 2010 Conservation License and all those various hunting and fishing endorsements expired at the end of February and if we go fishing on or after March 1 we need a 2011 license to be legal.

As a brief review, an $8 Conservation License is required for all resident anglers age 12 and older. For youth age 12 – 14, or age 62+ seniors, that’s all that’s needed. For everybody else, age 15 – 61, an $18 fishing license is required, though there is a two-day resident license for just $5. The Resident Sportsman and Youth Sportsman licenses include fishing.

At the same time you purchase your 2011 Conservation and fishing license you can also purchase hunting licenses, including elk, deer and upland birds, for the coming year as well. As a special reminder, with winter still dominating the landscape it may not seem possible, but the spring wild turkey season begins just a month from now, on Saturday, April 9. If you’re hoping to hunt turkeys in western Montana you have to put your name in a drawing for a special permit, and the deadline for that is tomorrow, March 10.

I hate to mention that special drawing deadline. I’d just as soon keep it a secret so that my odds of drawing a permit improve.

The Montana Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee would have heard testimony yesterday, March 8, on HB 309, the bill that threatens public access to almost all of Montana’s rivers and streams. Presumably there should still be time to phone and leave a message with legislators that you oppose this terrible piece of legislation. The phone number is 406-444-4800, and you can leave a message for one or more state senators.

This time of year I always look forward to a long season of fishing on our rivers and streams. The Big Hole River often seems like a home away from home and there are a lot of mosquito families depending on us to keep them fed and happy in coming months. Let’s hope Montana citizens make their voices heard, and heard loudly, to preserve public access to those waters.

In this column we’ve followed the dwindling number of veterans of World War I.

There is a new grave in Arlington National Cemetery for America’s last doughboy, Frank Buckles, who died February 27 at his home in West Virginia at the age of 110.

Mr. Buckles was only 16 years old when he enlisted in the U.S Army in 1917. In an archived NPR interview, Mr. Buckles insisted he didn’t lie when he enlisted, but did admit to “misrepresenting” his age. After enlisting, Mr. Buckles volunteered to be an ambulance driver, which was promised to be the fastest way to get to France.

After the war, Buckles worked for steamship companies and happened to be in Manila when Japanese forces occupied the Philippines at the beginning of WWII. He was imprisoned until liberation in February 1945. After retirement he continued to run cattle on his West Virginia farm and was still driving a tractor until age 106.

According to the New York Times there are just two remaining veterans of the Great War, Claude Choules, a British Royal Navy veteran living in Australia and Florence Green, of Britain’s Women’s Royal Air Force, living in England.

Rest in peace, Corporal Buckles and greet Marine Private Mike Mansfield for us.

Help Stop HB 309 and Preserve Public Access to Montana Rivers

This is what’s at stake with HB 309.

“We’ve gone 27 years with the Montana Stream Access Law without a problem. All of a sudden we’ve got a problem.” Scott Reynolds, Ramsey, a speaker opening a meeting last week hosted by the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited. TU sponsored the meeting to inform the public of potential problems with House Bill 309.

Rep. Jeffrey Welborn (R-Dillon) sponsored HB 309. Ostensibly, the bill would reverse a 2008 Montana Supreme Court ruling that Mitchell Slough, a 16-mile side channel of the Bitterroot River, is open to the public under the Stream Access Law.

The reality, according to Reynolds, is that, based on discussions with water law lawyers and hydrologists, the proposed law would have the effect of redefining most of Montana’s rivers and streams as ditches and thus not open to public access. If this sounds surreal, Reynolds adds, “We didn’t dream this up. It’s a real problem.”

This opinion is supported by testimony at the House Agricultural Committee on January 27 by Bob Lane, Chief Legal Counsel of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Lane said, “HB 309 almost completely repeals the public’s right to recreate on rivers and streams: by making any stream or river a private stream or river where the return flows from irrigation are the majority of the flow; and by privatizing side-channels of braided rivers and streams.” Lanes goes on to say “almost all rivers and streams in Montana, except those in wilderness areas and the headwaters of streams on Forest Service land, could no longer by used by the public. HB 309 not only doesn’t work, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Speakers displayed aerial maps of portions of the Big Hole and Jefferson Rivers citing various diversions, head gates and ditches, all representing potential access problems for anglers and floaters. The dam on the Beaverhead River forming Clark Canyon Reservoir was built for irrigation and flood control. Under HB 309, the entire Beaverhead River could be off limits.

An unidentified woman asked, “My brother-in-law owns property on the Boulder River. We camp and fish there. It’s downstream from a diversion structure on other property. Does that mean we wouldn’t be able to use the stream? We couldn’t let our kids play in the water?”

Speakers said her fears were justified.

Is there a need for legislation to prevent anglers from trespassing on irrigation ditches? FWP Counsel Lanes asserts, “FWP recognizes the rights of landowners to not have their property rights burdened by the public attempting to recreate in irrigation ditches. The stream access statute does precisely this and there is no need to clarify its precise language.”

Al Luebeck, a Butte resident and former legislator sees the influence of money. “A lot of ranches are being bought by out of state people and they’re the ones behind this bill.” Noting that the bill passed the House in party line voting, Luebeck suggests, “Ask your Republican friends what is going on. This is a betrayal of Montana citizens.”

Other speakers, including Steve Luebeck and Bob Olson, president of the local TU chapter, both Butte residents, advocate citizen action. Specific steps include contacting local state senators Steve Gallus and Jim Keane, members of the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation committee, as well as all state senators.

Second, they urge a big turnout of citizens before the Senate committee when they hold hearings in room 303 at the state capitol at 3 p.m. on March 8 (subject to change).

For people with a Facebook account, Montana Coalition for Stream Access has created a Facebook page, and changes and new developments will be posted on the page. Chris Bradley of The Stonefly fly shop suggested that people without computer access could contact their store to get the latest news on the bill as well as information on car pools to go to Helena.

Tony Schoonen of Ramsay, a grizzled veteran of the legislative battles to enact the Stream Access Law years ago commented on the law having survived numerous legal challenges, adding, “They couldn’t kill the law in the courts. Now they want to turn all our rivers into ditches. Everybody better get on that Twitter—whatever the heck that is.”

Winter Ice Jams and One Last Duck Hunt

The last retrieve of the season.

“Something we hydrologists occasionally forget is that water isn’t always a liquid.”

That was something a now-deceased hydrologist and friend of a neighbor liked to point out concerning the occasional problems that frozen water, better known as ice, causes. Recent ice jams at Twin Bridges and Ennis are cases in point.

This time of year, I frequently go through the community of Twin Bridges on my way to and from some of my duck hunting spots (and that is as specific as I’ll get as to just where I hunt those ducks). As always, it’s interesting to see what happens when winter hits western Montana and some of those rivers, such as the Jefferson and Beaverhead, start freezing.

The town of Twin Bridges was built right on the banks of the Beaverhead, including some businesses and the local high school that are just feet away from the river. Fortunately, the banks on the other side of the river are a bit lower so when there’s high water, the river can spread out without causing catastrophic damage.

A couple weeks ago I went through and everything looked normal. The river was flowing along with patches of slush ice on the surface. On the west side of the river there is a small park and rest area on the north side of the highway and the Madison County Fairgrounds on the south side.  Every December a low spot in that little park is flooded to create an outdoor skating rink.

In most years skating doesn’t last long, as there are usually warm spells in early January that turn the rink into slush. If you’re a skater, you have to get out there and enjoy it during the short period before the ice melts.

It was a surprise when the flooding on the Beaverhead due to ice jams downstream from Twin Bridges became the hot news a couple weeks ago. The flooding would have happened a day after I was there when everything looked normal.

My last duck trip of the season came after several days of warm weather gave the ice a chance to break up and let the water recede, though subzero weather had returned on that hunting day. In the morning the river was running pretty much normally. By noon, the ice floes had merged again and the water was again rising.

Ironically, the skating rink was closed, this time because the park was iced over. The ice rink was under a couple feet of water and new ice. Benches poking up above the ice marked where skaters might have taken a break a couple weeks earlier. The good news was that the ice rink was dramatically larger than usual. The bad news, of course, is that the new ice is unsafe; otherwise there’d be enough ice for an Olympic racing oval.

All this underscores problems humans create when they build communities next to rivers, seemingly without worrying about what might happen when streams go over their banks.

If those ice floes cause problems, they also create opportunities. In fact, when it comes to duck hunting, I depend on river ice to move ducks off the rivers and onto the warm water spring creeks I hunt.

 As the season winds down duck numbers drop as more and more ducks decide there must be better places to spend the winter than Montana. Still, on that last mid-January hunt Flicka, my faithful Labrador retriever, and I managed to get within shooting range of a small bunch of ducks and Flicka happily swam across a warm pond to retrieve one last drake mallard to end our season. After a couple minutes, Flicka was frosted with ice that formed on her coat in the zero degree temperatures. I doubt she even noticed that it was cold outside.

The hunting season is over. It has been a long time since those hot days of early September to January’s deep freeze, but it went all too quickly. It’s time to clean guns and equipment and put things away for the season. It’s time, and I’m content.

Just try convincing Flicka

Mallards on Montana’s Frozen Tundra

Flick retrieving a winter mallard

The frozen tundra is an over-used term, often describing late season football fields, particularly after the frozen, subzero NFL championship game in Green Bay in 1967. Still, as Flicka and I trudged our way across the snowy field, I couldn’t help but think frozen tundra.

A couple months earlier, the field was tall, green alfalfa. In January, that green field had been grazed down and this morning, after recent snowfalls and steady winds, the snow was an untracked arctic expanse. The wind put an extra edge to the subzero temperatures.

Hank, a neighbor when we lived in North Dakota, liked to hunt but he steadfastly refused to hunt ducks. “It’s too cold,” he’d whine. Yes, we’d have some chilly days when hunting ducks, but it would still be in October. Hunting ducks in eastern North Dakota was an October game because you could almost depend on a hard freeze in early November, and after the little potholes froze up the ducks didn’t have much choice but to get back in the air and resume journeys south.

I don’t know what Hank would say about trudging across frozen fields on frigid January mornings. He was around, but probably too young to appreciate at the time that his hometown of Parshall, North Dakota, set that state’s record low temperature of -60° F, set one frigid morning in February 1936, in a winter that set records for cold temperatures all over. By that standard, this January morning was shirtsleeve weather.

While it’s cold, billows of steam mark where a warm water creek goes across the field. On cold winter nights the warm water spring creeks of southwest Montana draw ducks like a magnet, with warm water, aquatic vegetation and a layer of tropical air just above the water’s surface. Still, after a week of cold weather, the question would be whether ducks were still in residence or if they had moved on.

I made a couple trips to this ranch in mid-December when things worked as they should and when Flicka, my black Labrador retriever and I approached the creek hundreds of mallards would flush. It’s a memorable sight, with the vivid blue and white markings of drake mallards sparkling in the morning sun.

Not this morning, however. As we approached the creek nothing happened. The ducks hadn’t come in to relax in their warm water spa, or at least not this one.

There are other ranches and other creeks, however.

On an approach to another creek we didn’t see ducks, though a red fox exploded out of creek-side cover and hightailed it for the hills. At another spot, a jackrabbit hopped away in a casual lope. At another creek the springs weren’t warm enough to keep the creek from freezing.

There was one creek left. Flicka and I made a wide swing across the field before making an approach to the creek near a line of willows. The snow near the creek was deep and powdery, where the brush slowed the wind and the snow could settle out. At first I didn’t think there were any ducks here either, but then a dozen mallards flushed from about 20 yards away. I tried to pick out a drake and then missed with my shot. Then another mallard drake left the water and this time I connected.

Flicka floundered a bit in the deep snow to get to the duck but she found the duck and brought it to me.

Occasionally, I wonder about some of these late season outings, driving an hour or so to get to these ranches where I have permission to hunt, and then trudging across snow-covered fields on the off chance there are still some ducks around and that I’ll be able to get within shotgunning range. Certainly, if I attempt calculating the cost of those roast duck dinners in coming months it’s hard to justify.

As of today, there are just a couple days left in the waterfowl season. I’d better get out and take one more look. It’s a long time until September.

Merry Christmas from Montana

Flicka and I wish you a Merry Christmas from Montana

‘Twas a couple nights before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, except for the writer pacing the floor, disturbing even the mouse.

“Will you shut down that computer and call it a night?” asked—no, demanded, the writer’s wife. Staying up late, staring at the computer, didn’t seem normal. Now, if he had fallen asleep in the recliner while watching the Kumquat Bowl, or some other ridiculous football game, that would be more typical.

“I’m sorry, dear,” the writer responded, sipping stale coffee. “I’m having a terrible time with my Christmas column. My deadline is tomorrow—and you know how the editor is when my copy is late.”

“So why do you always wait until the last minute to get started? You’ve had all week.”

“I was hoping to have more to write about,” he responded sleepily.

“Write about your last hunting trip. Isn’t that what you usually do?”

“I guess, now that you mention it.” He sipped his coffee and added, “But it’s easier when I have something positive to tell about. It’s difficult when the trip is a failure.”

“This certainly wasn’t the first time you went hunting and didn’t come home with any game. What’s the big deal?”

The writer pondered her question as he poured himself another cup of coffee and mentally reviewed that last pheasant outing.

It was a mild morning when he left to hunt a ranch an hour’s drive away. It was a ranch he usually put off hunting until the late season because the pheasants generally hang out in this big, marshy creek bottom, with thick willows along the creek, with patches of cattails and marsh grass. There are springs that feed the marsh and he liked to wait until cold weather froze all the water and it would be easier to get around.

East of the Continental Divide the weather looked nice, with bright sunshine reflecting off the snow. The wind, however, was roaring down the eastern slopes. The snow was crusted from recent thaws; otherwise there would be a lot of drifting.

He trudged through sagebrush above the creek, noting pheasant tracks in the snow. The birds are around, he thought, and they’ve been out feeding. With the wind, he figured the pheasants would be in heavier cover. With his black Lab leading the way he wandered around in the tangled willows and other trees before coming out to the marshy area. He hadn’t gone far when he broke through the ice and water seeped in over his boot tops.

The treacherous ice didn’t bother the dog. She scampered across the marsh, plowing her way through the cattails, and then went into a big patch of tall grasses next to the creek. A whitetail buck scampered out, followed by a hen pheasant flying to safety, and then a doe and half-grown fawn.

He tried to work himself to where the dog was, but the brush was too thick to get through. The dog put up a few more pheasants from inside the willows. All he could do was think bad thoughts as he heard pheasants fly away. Finally, after slipping on some solid ice, making a hard landing on his hip and elbow, and following that with breaking through more ice, he decided that this trip wasn’t much fun. He and his puzzled dog limped back through the snow to the truck and went home.

Telling the story to his wife he concluded, “See? That’s not much to write about.”

The wife smiled consolingly, but reminded him, “So it wasn’t your best hunt. So what! Just think how lucky you are. You have good places to hunt. You put up some pheasants and you saw lots of other wildlife. It’s Christmas time and you’ve been hunting since the beginning of September. We have game in the freezer.

“Why don’t you just write that you’re having a good hunting season and wish everybody a Merry Christmas?  It can’t be that difficult.“

And so the house eventually grew quiet, though the mouse wondered, “So what was all that about?”