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.

No Turkey Talk Around Here – Again!

I hate to gripe. It rarely does any good, and it won’t this time either, but what the heck.

The Montana spring turkey season opened last Saturday and, as usual, I wasn’t out there chasing those sneaky birds. Time is always the enemy of outdoor recreation, especially hunting—especially hunting something that requires travel to another part of the state. I admit it’s my own fault, but my life is over-scheduled. Another way of looking at it is that I’m blessed in being able to lead a full and varied life. There are people who achieve geezer-hood and find life boring. So far, I’ve been spared that fate, for which I’m thankful.

On the other hand, I’d appreciate a little more luck in spring turkey drawings. While there are unlimited over-the-counter turkey permits for big areas of eastern Montana, the problem is, again, time. You need time to get there, time to get back, and, above all, time to hunt, which also means time to hunt up a place to hunt. Then I look at my calendar, full of meetings, rehearsals, dental appointments, jury duty, concerts, grandchildren, conferences—all things that translate to that full and varied life—and again fail to find a decent block of time to get out of Dodge.

Of course, there are turkeys here in southwest Montana. We spot them while hunting deer in the fall, while fishing in the spring, while driving along the Interstate, while looking for blue grouse on mountaintops. There are turkeys to be found. I figure if I drew a permit I could go hunting almost every day, or at least as often as I can tolerate setting an alarm clock for 4 a.m.

Every year I put in for a Region 3 spring turkey permit and every year I fail to get drawn. Then I hear from people who draw permits in consecutive years, or my oil change guy tells of a customer who put in for a permit just to see if he could get one, then got one and didn’t go hunting. I would have used that permit.

I understand that these drawings are random, which means it’s like going to a Vegas casino and putting money in the slots. Still, one of these years, before I get to be too much of a geezer to care anymore, it’d sure be fun to draw one of those spring permits. At least I’d have to find something else to gripe about.

On the topic of turkey sightings, when we were in California a couple weeks ago, one early evening there was a faint sound of wild turkeys gobbling. “My ears are playing tricks on me,” I thought. The next morning, while taking a short drive down the hill to pick up a newspaper at a convenience store, there was a wild turkey pecking away at something on the edge of the street. Was it my imagination, or was there really a sneer on his ugly face saying, “You can’t hunt me here, either.”

On the bright side of not drawing that special turkey permit, when I do have a free day, or just a free afternoon, I’ll still have time to go fishing.

If wild turkeys are thriving across much of Montana, sage grouse populations are dwindling. Sage grouse need vast expanses of sagebrush habitat and that specific sage grouse habitat is changing for varied reasons.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a program to give western farmers and ranchers financial incentives to improve sage hen habitat. USDA has budgeted some $16 million to fund projects in 11 western states where sage grouse are found.

The deadline for signing up to participate in sage grouse projects through this program is April 23. The program is administered by USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Program, and any landowners interested in participating should contact a local office (offices located in Dillon, Sheridan, Whitehall, Deer Lodge and Philipsburg) or call the NRCS state office in Bozeman at 406-587-6919.

Sage grouse are an important part of our western hunting tradition—too important to lose.