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.

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.

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.

Waterfowl Season Comes to a Close

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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