Hunting Enthusiasts Pack Meeting

If you were to sum up public meetings held by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks this month, it could be, in Butte at least, in two words: Elk and Wolves.

I attended the meeting held in Butte on January 11, a meeting packed by local big game hunting enthusiasts interested in having a voice in Montana’s hunting regulations. There were around 60 people in the audience, along with area wildlife biologists, game wardens and FWP managers.

Along with fine-tuning of harvest quotas in area hunting districts, there is an immediate change in the special permit application process. Specifically, people interested in applying for special bull/either sex elk and buck deer permits, the deadline application is March 15. These special permits are for special management units. An example would be the Elkhorn Mountains area between Boulder and Helena, which is managed for trophy bull elk, and special permits are required for the area.

People can file applications online or by mail right now, though the FWP website suggests people should wait until after February 15, when final quotas for 2012 will be set.

The application deadline for Deer B, Elk B and antelope licenses will still be on June 1. Applications for moose, sheep, goat and bison licenses will still be May 1.

The last few years there has been a youth deer-hunting season prior to the general big game season. The two-day season is timed to coincide with the annual Montana Education Association convention, when public schools are closed. In 2013, that two-day season will overlap the end of the archery season, instead of just before the general big game season. Archery hunters will be required to wear blaze orange during the youth season in 2013.

During the discussions on upcoming elk and deer seasons in southwest Montana, there was strong sentiment among attendees that no hunters should be able to qualify for both an antlered elk and antlerless elk, as has been possible in some hunting districts in recent seasons.

There was also discussion of mule deer hunting regulations. Mule deer populations, which normally go in cycles, are currently at the lower end of the cycle. While biologist Craig Fager noted there was excellent fawn survival in 2011, there was a strong sentiment among attendees that there should be no antlerless mule deer hunting until populations improve.

A thorny elk issue was discussed, though nobody had a solution. The problem that occasionally comes up is elk taking refuge on private land during hunting seasons, often with ranchers offering trophy fee hunts. After the hunting season is over the landowners then run the elk off back to public land. FWP personnel agreed that it’s a thorny problem without obvious solutions.

On the subject of thorny problems, there was heated discussion of large predators and their impact on deer and elk populations. Jack Atcheson, a Butte resident and the veteran of some 65 Montana hunting seasons, talked at length about the impact of black bears, mountain lions and wolves on big game populations.

Another veteran hunter, Jack Jones of Butte, echoed Atcheson’s comments. He all but accused FWP wildlife managers and biologists of incompetence in wildlife management, saying that with current trends, Montana hunting seasons would end up as just “recreational hunts.”

FWP Regional Director Pat Flowers responded, strongly, to the criticisms, noting that the State of Montana was not a party to wolf re-introduction in the first place, and that with just a second wolf hunting season still under way, wolf management was still a work in progress. He also said that if people wanted to criticize wildlife managers, he’d accept that criticism, but submitted that the department’s wildlife biologists are the “best in the world.”

This is stating the obvious, but it is clear that the role of large predators, particularly wolves, will continue to be a topic of disagreement and controversy for years to come.

While some people advocate that management of wolves should mean extirpation again, that’s not going to happen, and we’d better continue seeking that elusive balance of both healthy predator and big game populations.

Last Call for Montana’s Hunting Season

Last Call came last Friday.

Since the beginning of September, I’ve been planning my schedule around one major imperative: the hunting season.

Oh, there have been other things, such as playing in the Symphony, going to meetings, publishing a book and then trying to sell it, trips to see family, etc. Still, even when there were other things going on, I was still studying the calendar, looking at weather reports, and conspiring with my wife, all with the goal of getting out of town and taking a hike, usually with a shotgun in hand and Flicka at my side, in search of a feathered or furred critter of one kind or another.

We’ve taken walks over mountaintops, across aspen thickets, through creek bottoms, wheat and barley fields, prairies, mountain meadows and wetlands.

I’ve made good shots, missed some easy shots and had lots of what-if moments, such as what if I’d been paying more attention to that whitetail buck sneaking across the meadow, or what if I’d approached that spring creek at a different angle, so the ducks wouldn’t have spooked and flushed out of range.

There was a day on the North Dakota prairies when my son, Kevin, and I both shot pockets-full of shotgun shells without getting a single pheasant. Then there was another day when I got a limit of three pheasants with three shots in just half an hour—with about ten minutes of that half hour spent chatting with the landowner.

There have been uncomfortably warm days and bitterly cold days, especially that one subzero day I spent sitting on a stump waiting for deer to come along. There have been sunny days, windy days, snowy days, and a strange day at the end of December when I was drenched in a rainstorm.

The main thing is that after four and a half months there were a lot of days, some 29 altogether, if I counted correctly.

Some of those days I came home with game and there were other days when all I got was fresh air and exercise along with some fresh memories. And now that the hunting season is finally over I consider myself fortunate to have had another hunting season.

My wife and I went to a 50-year college class reunion last summer and a bittersweet part of these reunions is to note the passing of some more of our classmates. In the mail this past week was an advance notice of a 55-year high school class reunion to happen this summer, also noting the deaths of another six classmates in the last few years.

My joints are creaky at times, but they’re still original equipment and functioning pretty much the way they’re supposed to, as are my heart and lungs. I may not be as adventurous in my outings as I might have been years ago but getting out there is as important as ever.

It’s a privilege to live in a part of the country where there are abundant opportunities to hunt a variety of game. Granted, those opportunities are sometimes in a state of flux. Still with a mix of public lands as well as farms and ranches where I enjoy hunting privileges, it’s perfectly feasible to be able to hunt for many varieties of furred and feathered game over a long hunting season, including the possibilities of combining early autumn outings with some flyfishing on a trout stream, or harvesting wild mushrooms and chokecherries.

We don’t have everything in Montana. I occasionally envy a friend in Indiana who centers his autumns around bobwhite quail. We don’t have quail in Montana but we make up for it in so many other ways.

In fact, it is still possible, with luck and money, to hunt just about everything that Lewis & Clark hunted when they passed through Montana over 200 years ago. That’s not too shabby, and I have friends in other states that look at our opportunities with envy.

So, hunting season is over and I’m sorry to see it end. Still, I’m grateful and I’m already looking forward to September.

Boxing Day Pheasants

Boxing Day, or December 26 as it’s shown on U.S. calendars, is a holiday in Canada and the U.K. There are various theories as to what the holiday is all about, including it being the day when the wealthy would give Christmas packages to their servants.

A Boxing Day tradition in the U.K. is to go fox hunting. Hunting, of course, means groups of people dressing up, getting on horses and chasing after a pack of hounds in pursuit of a fox, or as someone said during a campaign to ban the custom, “The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” While fox hunting was banned by Parliament in 2004, hunting continues, with hounds now chasing an artificial scent trail.

I have no inclination to chase after hounds. Those occasions when I’ve ridden horses convinced me that I wasn’t meant to be a cowboy. On the other hand, on Christmas Day one thought dominated my mind: I need a pheasant fix.

My wife, anxious to get the most out of her Boxing Day holiday, i.e., sleeping late and having a leisurely day, without husband and dog getting in the way of those plans, gave her blessings. I made a phone call to landowner friends on the northern prairies and, as expected, got a friendly invitation.

If here in mountain country we barely had a white Christmas, on the prairies there was no snow at all. Aside from bare trees and freeze-dried vegetation, it didn’t look much different at year’s end than it did in October. The big question was whether the pheasants were still approachable.

Flicka, my black Lab, and I found a bird soon in our first walk. I was helping Flicka through a gap in a woven wire fence when a rooster pheasant flushed from farther up the fenceline. I swung my gun and got off two shots. The bird kept going, however. It was a shot I should have made, though it certainly wasn’t a gimme.

We’d made a circle of the farm before we ran into more pheasants in a corner with a cattail slough, tall grasses, cottonwoods and dense willows. Flicka put up two pheasants in the willows, with one of them a scolding rooster. I wasn’t able to see either of them, as they were totally screened by the willows, something that has happened numerous times in that exact spot.

Next to some cottonwoods Flicka put up another rooster, giving me an easy shot. At least it should have been easy. I emptied both barrels at the rocketing pheasant and stood there in disbelief as the pheasant kept on flying. It reminded me of the old joke of a hunter telling a younger companion, “Son, you’ve just witnessed a miracle: a dead pheasant that’s still flying.”

We reworked cover we’d walked before, seeing nothing, so I decided we should walk a long grassy strip going through the center of the farm, leading back to where I’d parked a couple hours earlier. As we approached the farmstead, I could see dozens of pheasants flushing from the grass 200-300 yards ahead of us, flying and running off into adjoining barley stubble, and then disappearing into seemingly thin air. The birds weren’t in the grass or the barley stubble, or in the tall cover along the fenceline at the end of the field. The birds were just gone, presumably spending the afternoon on a neighboring farm.

After a sandwich break, Flicka and I made another circle of the farm, this time not seeing anything, and we reluctantly declared the hunt over.

I’d made a three-hour drive for a pheasant fix. I won’t say the trip wasn’t a success, though. It depends on how you define a fix. Sometimes that means birds in the freezer. This time the pheasants fixed me.

Before returning home, I spent a pleasant hour at the house, catching up on friends and family, with everybody enjoying a good laugh about my disappearing pheasants.

The pheasant season ended on New Years Day, so there’s a long 10-month wait for the next pheasant hunt. But as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie character used to say, “I’ll be back.”

Montana’s big game season comes to a close

The first rays of sunrise were shining on distant mountain peaks, holding the promise of some solar energy to warm things up a little. About then I would have really appreciated some of that solar energy. It was a bone-chilling 8 below zero when my hunting partner for the day, Nick Gevock, and I left the truck to walk up a wooded hillside in search of a good spot to wait for a white-tailed deer to show up.

I found stumps to sit on where I could look over a brushy meadow and settled in to wait, while Nick walked further to set up on another spot.

Stump sitting in sub-zero weather has several requirements. First of all, you need a pad so you’re not sitting directly on a damp, frozen stump. Second, you need enough patience to stay on stand, even when common sense tells you to go back to the truck and turn the heater on high.

It’s not bad at first, but the cold gradually begins to penetrate the layers of warm clothing.

I glance around the meadow and suddenly a whitetail buck materializes in front of me. It’s just 50 yards away and looking directly at me. I try to be motionless and as long as I’m perfectly still he can’t figure out just what that new object in the forest is. Finally, I decide I’d better raise my rifle. The deer decides that whatever I am I’m up to no good. Before I can get my rifle in any kind of business position the deer is gone.

And as the deer disappeared off into the forest, so did my best chance to put venison in the freezer. No other deer showed in that meadow this morning, even when the sun finally came up high enough to add a little warmth to the Christmas card scene of fluffy, white snow and blue skies. Nick rejoined me in late morning, reporting that five cow elk had spent the morning browsing about 25 yards from him. He’d gotten an elk the week before, however, so aside from the thrill, it was an empty morning.

We spent the afternoon on another hillside, with meadows full of deer trails through the snow. It had warmed up to +8˚ by then and with the sun shining it felt relatively comfortable. As the afternoon slowly waned, overcast moved in and chill began to take over. At sunset, I felt chilled to the bone, and finally stumbled back to the road through the twilight, not having seen any deer all afternoon.

A couple days later I had an afternoon free before other commitments would take over the weekend. I asked Flicka, my Labrador retriever, about hunting and she enthusiastically endorsed looking for pheasants. We put up a couple hen pheasants in a couple brushy river bottoms, plus one rooster that flushed out of range. In one brush patch I spotted a couple deer just a few yards away and I made a resolution that I should start carrying slug loads in my pocket for just these kinds of opportunities.

A couple days later we were on the road to spend Thanksgiving with our daughter in California. My deer season was over and I had somehow frittered away that long five-week big game hunting season without anything to show for it.

Hunting seasons are starting to wind down. The deer and elk season closed on November 27. The mountain grouse season will close on December 15.

Still there are a lot of hunting opportunities in coming weeks. Except for mountain grouse and sage grouse, upland bird hunting continues through New Year’s Day, and waterfowl seasons for ducks and geese continue through January 13 in the Pacific Flyway areas of Montana.

As of a week ago, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission was still taking comments on extending the wolf season through January

A winter wonderland for a November deer hunt

. The wolf harvest was at just 93 animals, far short of the goal of 222.

The big game hunting season may be over, but my plan for the next month is to go hunting.

Montana’s deer and elk season winding down.

Time goes fast when you’re having fun, as the saying goes.

A prime example is the big game hunting season. That long five-week season is now down to just a week and a half

According to reports from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the overall deer and elk harvest so far has been below average.

Mule deer populations, for reasons wildlife biologists keep trying to find, tend to have wide swings and this year the pendulum has swung to the low end. In addition, there are many areas where wildlife populations suffered because of the last winter season.

Still, there are hunting success stories, usually having a lot to do with being out in the hills at the right time.

For example, a neighbor of mine opened the big game season at a large group hunting camp on the upper Madison and reported, when he came home near the end of the first week of the season, that hunters in the group brought in a total of ten elk. Last year, the same group of people came home with just one elk and felt good about that.

In a mountainside conversation, an Anaconda resident told of helping his 14-year old son get a cow elk on the second day of the season. This was his son’s first elk so the whole family was pretty excited about it. Later that day, with one elk taken care of, he went back to the mountains and at sunset found a 4-point bull in his sights. It was almost midnight before he got back home, but he had that elk.

A Facebook friend posted a story of going to help a friend get a pronghorn antelope. They had a successful hunt and were packing the antelope up a steep, rocky hill. When they got to the top they saw some mule deer does, followed by a 5-point bull elk. He got off a quick shot at the bull and two hours later they were on the road for home with the elk as well as the pronghorn.

My neighbor’s son told me that he and a friend were out in the hills looking for deer. In mid-afternoon they had returned to the truck for a sandwich and were sitting in the truck when a bull elk walked by within shooting range. He not only got the 6×6 bull elk, but also dropped it close to the road. With a smile he added, “We kind of had the road blocked, so we had all sorts of help loading it.”

Something these successful elk hunters noted was, “a small bull,” in terms of antler size. “A small 6×6,” as my neighbor’s son put it. I replied, “There’s no such thing as a small 6×6.” He clarified, pointing out that the antlers were basically that of a young bull, what’s usually referred to as a “raghorn.” In normal years, a raghorn probably wouldn’t have a 6 point rack, but with this year’s exceptionally good forage conditions, these young bulls grew big sets of antlers, even if they didn’t have the mass of a mature bull.

That small 6×6 carcass was hanging in the garage and I will testify that even if the antlers weren’t huge, the elk’s body was plenty big and in excellent shape.

As of today, there are 11 days left in the general deer and elk season and many people maintain these last days of the big game season are the best. We’ve had several snowfalls and this past week we’ve had sub-zero weather, both factors that force elk to leave high mountain hideouts and head for lower elevations where it’s likely to be a bit warmer and where food is more easily available.

This week is also likely the peak of the breeding season for white-tailed deer, and a prime time to be looking for these usually elusive deer—when they’re more interested in procreation than safety.

So, if you still have elk and deer tags, this is the time to be out there and invite a critter home for a Christmas dinner.

Pheasants on the Montana prairies

Flicka and I celebrating a successful pheasant hunt.

A rooster pheasant flew across the road leading to the Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area’s campground as if to greet or, more likely, to tease us. Was this a good omen for the week’s hunting?

As we set up camp after getting our trailer parked my wife asked if I wanted to take a break to find that pheasant. “He’ll wait,” I replied. “Besides, it’d be almost dark by the time I got my hunting stuff together and walked down to where we saw it land.”

As it turned out I never did go after that particular pheasant, as on following days I hunted on farms where I had permission to hunt and that was more than sufficient.

Pheasant hunting in that area, at least, was surprisingly good, especially considering that prior to the trip I had no positive expectations. As we all know, the winter of 2010-2011 was tough, and there was a cold, rainy spring: a combination that’s not conducive to good reproduction among upland birds.

The first farm I hunted was new to me, but the landowner said there were a lot of pheasants out there. On the opening day a party of hunters got their limit of pheasants in just two hours. It took me more than two hours to get three pheasants, though it wasn’t for lack of seeing birds. The pheasants that survived opening weekend some five days earlier acquired an education in a hurry, as they always do. Most of the birds I saw were getting up around 50 to 100 yards out, especially if they were in light cover, such as the barley stubble I walked across in our first walk.

The farm has a marshy draw going up a hillside, where springs create patches of cattails and tall cover. Flicka, my Labrador retriever, went on point at the edge of some tall grass. When the bird couldn’t stand it any longer it took to the air, giving me a quick chance to swing my shotgun on it and pull the trigger. The bird folded and Flicka quickly retrieved her first pheasant of the year.

The next rooster pheasant came just a couple minutes later, though it took several more hours before we got our third pheasant of the day, along with a bonus Hungarian partridge. Flicka and I did a lot of walking, but that was to be expected.  Pheasant hunting has always been synonymous with long walks across the prairie. Expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised by the day’s hunt.

Rick Northrup, the Game Bird Coordinator for Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks said, in a phone interview, there have been some surprisingly good early reports from Montana’s pheasant hunters, with some caveats. “This is one of those years that where birds had good cover, they did okay.” On the other hand, he said, “There are some marginal or poor areas that sometimes do okay when they have mild winters and optimal spring conditions that were pretty disappointing this year.”

There were some factors that, in Northrup’s opinion, mitigated the harsh winter. “Some ranches, where they were feeding cattle, had enough traffic to beat down the snow so pheasants were able to move around and find food, even if there was a hundred inches of snow.” Still, he conceded, “There were vast areas that weren’t too great.”

As so many Montana hunters have turned their attention to big game hunting, pheasant hunting will continue to provide a lot of opportunities. With most hunters concentrating on deer and elk, there’s a lot less pressure on upland birds as well as fewer hunters competing to get permission to hunt pheasants on private land.

There is a newer challenge in some areas, however. People hunting in some parts of eastern Montana might find good hunting, but in many oil patch communities, motel rooms are booked up indefinitely, so if you think you want to hunt there, you’d better bring your own accommodations.

This just underscores that whether you’re a pheasant or a pheasant hunter, it’s all about habitat and finding a place to get shelter.

Deer and Elk Seasons Begin in Montana

The wait is almost over for people who pay no attention to the early upland game, antelope and archery seasons. Yes, if hunting season means chasing deer and elk with a rifle, the hunting season begins this Saturday at dawn.

The Montana deer and elk firearms season opens Saturday, October 22 and runs through November 27. It’s the time of hunting camps, lost sleep, and shivering on frozen mountainsides before dawn in hopes of an elk coming your way to help fill the freezer.

New for 2011 is a youth deer hunt on October 20 and 21, an important prelude to the general season.  The regulations for the youth hunt are simple. Participants must be legally licensed hunters age 11 through 15. During these two days, youth hunters with a general or deer B license may take those deer species and sex otherwise available on the general or deer B license the first day of the general firearm season in the specific hunting district the youth is hunting. A non-hunting adult at least age 18 or older must accompany the youth hunter in the field. Shooting hours and all other usual regulations apply during this two-day deer season.

One of the usual regulations that some people, unfortunately, prefer to ignore is the requirement that big game hunters must wear a minimum of 400 square inches of hunter orange above the waist. Hunter orange requirements across the nation have done a lot to minimize tragic shooting accidents. I personally get irritated when I see so many magazines and TV hunting shows depicting hunters not wearing orange. Wearing an orange vest and cap may save your life, as well as help some other hunter avoid making a tragic mistake that could ruin their life as well.

On the blaze orange requirement, let’s note that archery hunters hunting during the general season must also observe the blaze orange rules. Personally, I think anyone who is out in the field during the firearms season is taking foolish chances if they’re not wearing orange, even if they’re not hunting.

The general firearms season also means that the firearms season for wolves will also be on. Wolf hunting may be controversial in some quarters, though I think many would agree that there are a lot of good reasons to have the season.

Certainly there’s no getting around the fact that wolves cause problems when they get around livestock. An Angus cow is certainly an easier animal for a pack of wolves to bring down than deer or elk.  The number of times we’ve read of government trappers eradicating problem wolves is a sure indicator. Wolves are smart animals and it seems to me that when they learn that they are being hunted, they’ll also figure out that staying away from people gives them a better chance to survive.

My daughter, Erin, lives in California and relayed that a friend of hers was aghast that Montana and Idaho are having wolf seasons again. She had the impression that wolves were going to be hunted right in Yellowstone National Park, which certainly isn’t the case.

As of a week ago, a total of 18 wolves, out of a quota of 220, had been killed during the early seasons, including 4 in hunting district 313/316, an area of high mountain country directly north of Yellowstone National Park. That completed the harvest quota for that hunting district. If you’re hoping to fill that wolf tag, it would be a good idea to regularly check the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website ( to make sure the harvest quota for a specific hunting district hasn’t been completed.

Another reminder is to be careful about property boundaries. If you’re hunting private land in Montana you are required to have permission to be hunting there. That also applies to crossing private land to access public land.

Above all, enjoy the season. People across the country envy the hunting opportunities we have in Montana. For many, their concept of the hunt of a lifetime is something we take for granted.

October is a great time to be in Montana’s outdoors!

Flicka with a pheasant from 2010

And now it’s October, and in my opinion, any outdoors-loving person who isn’t happy about that should probably have their Montana residency permit revoked.

What a wonderful time of year! In early October we have those wonderful fall colors that are worth a trip into the nearby mountains just to see the aspens and other trees at this fleeting moment of glory. It doesn’t last long, so don’t miss it.

Of course, leaf peeping is just a sample of what October has to offer.

We’ve already had a month of upland bird hunting and archery hunting though the reality is that it’s just starting to get good. For most of September it was really too warm for serious hunting. For those lucky archery hunters who managed to down an elk or deer, it would have been a race to get their animal taken care of in time. That situation will only improve.

Of course, this is the month when everything happens. The waterfowl season opened last Saturday and will run into January. Personally, I don’t worry too much about the ducks until the weather starts getting seriously cold, but ducks are on the move, with early migrating ducks already looking towards heading for wintering grounds.

That’s just a start. This coming Saturday, October 8, is the next major date for hunters, whether their preference is shotgun or rifle. The pheasant season and pronghorn antelope seasons both open on Saturday. Unfortunately, all indications are that pronghorn and pheasant populations are down across much of Montana because of a severe winter and cold, wet spring. Still, for those lucky hunters who drew a pronghorn tag and anyone who lives for the sight of a scolding rooster pheasant clawing for flight, it’s better to be out in the field at this time of year than to be anywhere else.

Of course, many people don’t recognize any hunting seasons other than the general deer and elk rifle seasons, and that opening day is Saturday, October 22, just over two weeks from now. It’s time to hurry up and check to see if your rifle is still sighted in. If you’re thinking of getting a new pair of boots for the big game season, the time to do it is now, so you can at least get a start on breaking those boots in before the fun begins. It’s not fun to be walking around with blisters. It’s even less fun to have to quit hunting because your feet hurt too much.

For anglers, many consider October as the best month for catching big trout. The catch is that you have to take time that you might rather use for chasing pheasants on the prairie or sneaking across a prickly pear cactus patch to get into a good shooting position for a buck pronghorn. Decisions, decisions.

If I seem to get carried away with the glories of October, I come by it naturally, in that I was born in October. It has always seemed right to celebrate the month, though the perspective is changing. I used to look forward to October because it meant I’d gained some new privilege, such as a driver’s license. Now I celebrate October because it means I survived another year and am still having fun

October is also the month when I first sampled the fun and challenges of hunting pheasants, which was my entry into that great big world of hunting. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to broaden my experiences over the years, though the sight and sounds of a flushing pheasant, preferably sniffed out of its hiding place by a good dog, still defines to me almost everything there is to the thrill and adventure of hunting.

Of course, it there’s a down side to October it’s the certain knowledge that winter is breathing down our necks. October, in our imagination, is all about clear, blue skies and brilliant fall colors. But, October can also mean early winter storms and sub-zero temperatures.

And, if it doesn’t happen in October it will in November.