Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Arctic Limits

Old fashioned Montana December weather moved in. With temperatures between -15 and -35 across the state we got locked in an arctic icebox and that meant only one thing needed to be done-find open water and go duck hunting. Roxy and I headed out in the minus teen temps Friday morning with a 10-15 mph north wind blowing. Had about 15 minutes to legal shooting light and birds were already bombing into the spring fed slough. Once legal I goosed my first shot on a drake pintail! It got better from there though. Birds didn’t stop coming in all morning and I had a limit by 9:30. Had to put Roxy in the truck to warm up around 9 as her feet had enough. Tip:bring along a couple of carpet squares and if possible a portable propane heater for the dog to keep functionally comfortable on days like this. In the end however the hunt is over when the dog has had enough. For me nothing is worth injury to the dog to keep hunting when they can’t. After she was warming up in the truck I shot the last mallard drake for the limit. Birds were still bombing in as I picked up decoys. Helluva mornin’!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Supporting Our Veterans

Veteran’s Day weekend is always a special time for those who’ve served. For those of us who are veterans it’s an important time to reflect and take a moment to enjoy the people and pursuits important to us. We must also pause and think of the veterans who never made it home. Montana is special when it comes to honoring its veterans. This is in large part due to the fact that there are more veterans per capita in Montana than any other state. Montanans have a strong sense of patriotism as well and go to extra lengths to honor the men and women who have placed their lives on the line for their country. For the fourth year in a row, a grassroots organization called Operation Valor took 8 veterans out east to hunt mule deer in the Missouri Breaks. Two vets are paired off with their own guide and head into the sage and juniper covered hills to hopefully place a stalk on a good buck. The hunters come from many backgrounds and branches of service. The goal of OV is to reach out to veterans and provide for them an experience that is both therapeutic and fun. In the span of four days these vets faced the gamut of November weather and took some respectable bucks as well and healthy does for the freezer. For the hunters who tagged out hordes of geese awaited in nearby fields. What is most special about these hunts Montanans put up for veterans is the camaraderie that develops between them over the course of the five days they are together. Every night after the hunt veterans return each with usually a good story to tell around the fireplace at the Ft. Peck Hotel. They leave with a treasury of new experiences and friends. Special thanks go out to Rudy Smith who organizes fundraising for OV as well as Carl Mann and his team of guides at Montana Experience Outfitters. Most of all thanks to our veterans past and present. To find out how you can do more to support this outstanding program visit http://operationvalor.com/

Monday, November 11, 2013

Get Yer Elk Yet?

The transition from following bird dogs around the countryside to hopefully following elk around the mountains is not as easy as you would think.  Bird hunting is fairly routine after nearly 30 years of it; the dogs come and go, hunting partners change, but other than that, it is fairly consistent.  Not boring or mundane, but the outcomes are fairly predictable.
When the .300 WSM replaces the 20 gauge, a different skillset is required, perhaps more finesse is also needed. No more tramping around the hills, yelling at dogs, joking with peers when wary elk are concerned.  Slapping the trigger on a rifle doesn't work, unlike the more abrupt style of wingshooting that is second nature to me.  Getting a 600 pound animal out of the woods also takes considerably more planning than the three blue grouse one is allowed per day.
But, while the lows of elk hunting can be lower than the worst day bird hunting, (missing or wounding an animal, ending up miles from truck after dark, etc.) the high points are also greater.  When the success rate of Montana elk hunters hovers around 20%, each elk harvested is not to be taken lightly.
So far, my elk season is about average.  I have seen elk, amidst the timber, heck, even smelled them. In other words, I have "been into 'em", as they say in local bars and cafes.  Conditions for success haven't been perfect, but they have been good enough. And, the hunt itself has been enjoyable, as well.
Matt and I had a nice elk camp in central Montana last week, despite the effort it took to pull a wall tent, stove and the rest of the 100 pounds of gear via sled, into the backcountry.  Some might say it didn't pay off, but that is only if your idea of success is pulling the trigger.  The weather was good, the woods were ours and ours alone, and we ate well.
I returned to civilization, just in time to get the message from Dad: "Could use your help tomorrow. Got a bull down a few miles back." Roger. Success in the family, is success overall, when it comes to elk and the precious meat one bull can provide.
I haven't got MY elk yet, but there is still plenty of time remaining.  And, the sooner I can get back to chasing pheasants and Huns, well, the happier the dogs will be.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ducks Under the Nose

One of the things most fun about duck hunting is finding a new spot. Regardless of how many birds are in a given area there are a handful of places the ducks will go to right under everybody's nose. What makes finding a new spot even more fun is if it is within minutes of the house and so obvious or just obscure enough that most people stare right at it, including duck hunters, and never give it a second thought. Keep on doing this! Nothing is more exciting than to load up a small bag of decoys and the dog into the canoe and explore a small stream or secluded backwater and score on the local hideout. It may not produce a limit most times but for a few teal or a brace of fat mallards it’s worth it. More intoxicating than anything is the smell and sight of cottonwoods turning in autumn while the mid morning sun shines up the plumage on decoying birds.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nick Of Time Ducks

Few things are as anticipated as eagerly in my circle of friends as opening weekend of waterfowl season. Equally as anticipated is the first hunt in new country. This year we struck out in search of new horizons. Rather than venturing to traditional haunts like Freezout we chose to explore the high mountain haunts of Red Rock Lakes. Situated in extreme southwestern Montana along the north slope of the Centennial Range, this high altitude wetland delivered on the birds. Initially low water as well as bird counts didn’t bode well for opening weekend but successive cold fronts the week prior provided ample shooting opportunity. We were told by one of the refuge wardens that this was a ‘slow’ opener in terms of crowds and birds. We wouldn’t know any different as birds flew all day long and we never ran out of shot opportunities until we finished up in the late afternoon. Water was definitely low. My black lab, Roxy, slogged through chest deep mud all day bringing in the birds. The highlight was a 100 yard retrieve in the quagmire on a gadwall drake. Species diversity was the order of the day. Gadwall took up the lion’s share of the bag but we had a fair amount of teal, two canvasbacks, pintail, widgeon, and mallard. Weather was mild on Saturday with temps rising into the 50s and mostly overcast. Things turned ugly towards the end of the day and overnight with straight line winds settling in and topping 60 mph. We had very few shots Sunday morning as most birds that tried to decoy in were scattered to the four winds, literally. Perhaps most unique about Red Rocks Lakes are the surroundings. The towering Centennials, Madison, and Snowcrest ranges can all be seen from the duck blind. Moose abound in the willow choked upper lake area and a grizzly wandering through the decoy spread is not out of the realm of possibility. Lucky for us we were able to experience it before the government shutdown. With the onset of that hunting was closed indefinitely pending a budget deal. Regardless of politics winter weather dovetailed on the heels of the shutdown likely freezing up the thin sheet of water that was on the lakes. Winter comes early at this altitude. For now we will head to non-federally controlled, lower elevation environs.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bulls and Bruins

It seems that fall is arriving on schedule this year and snow is hitting the high country as I write this. My buddy Dan and I have been getting out to chase the elk a bit with our recurves. Elk are definitely bugling but proving difficult to get close to in our chosen haunt. In late morning we set up on wallows to see if anything comes in to cool off. There hasn't been much fresh activity in the wallows. But is has been cooler than usual this bow season. For the first time in several seasons there has been a frost on the ground in mid-September. A welcome sign. The leaves are already turning and soon it will be below freezing most nights. Bring it on. Dan clued me in to a bear 'sign post' tree several years old near one of the wallows we set up on. Something neat to see. This was likely done by a black bear as they are able to dig their short, sharp claws into a tree easier than a Griz. This one looked like it climbed up than let it's body drag it's claws for about 3 feet or so. It could almost be a sign post tree for Wolverine(the comic hero) with the length of one marking. A tree like this is a rare find. Luckily for us it looks rather old and he probably isn't in this area(that we know of). A friend of Dan's whose hunted this area as well said he came in one afternoon to hunt and spooked the biggest black bear he's ever seen. So big he decided to leave in a hurry. If the tree is any indication we know why.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Saying Goodbye to a Friend

As mentioned previosuly, on day 5 of my sheep hunt, I learned of the tragic death of my good friend, Amos Ridenour. Amos appeared in Montana Sporting Journal (Fall 2007) in an article I wrote on winter fly fishing. There couldn’t have been a better guy to personify the spirit of winter fishing. If something was more difficult, the conditions harsher and less people willing to do it, Amos was all about it. Fearless defined him to the core. As a surfer in the Atlantic Ocean and avid climber scaling frozen waterfalls and cliffs in the nearby Gallatin Range, he gravitated towards nature’s ultimate challenges, be it water or rock. As a sportsman he gravitated towards fly fishing (mostly at first because his wife, Liz, was an avid angler) and waterfowl hunting. More than anything he seemed to enjoy the inherent camaraderie the two pursuits naturally produce. A duck hunt or a day of fishing was always brighter with Amos along. He was the first one to break out a fine cigar during a lull in duck blind action. He was also the first one to laugh at you if you missed an easy shot, lost a fish, or fell in the water. More than all of that, he was a dedicated husband and father with a deep faith in God. He always seemed to show up in your life when you were in need of some good advice. In the short span of time that was his life on earth, he affected more people than most of us will in a long lifetime. All of us who knew him are better for having him in our lives. Still processing and grieving the loss, I will never look upon certain places with the same eyes again. From the Bear Trap stretch of the Madison to the spring fed runs of the East Gallatin, all hold a deeper significance now. I will still go but they will not be the same. Amos’ spirit will always be there in the rush of the water, the tight line of a hook-set brown and the hum of a mallard drake bombing into the decoys. All the while I will be waiting for his laugh or a wise crack that he always had ready no matter what you did. As Norman Maclean said at the closing of A River Runs Through It, ‘I am haunted by waters.’ To that Amos would probably say ‘Bro! Please! Don’t be so dramatic’ but I can’t help feeling it. He wouldn’t stand for any of us letting sadness getting in the way of and putting off doing the things we enjoy. So while a normal aspect of grieving is lacking interest in things we enjoy doing, I will commit to the opposite. Never let an opportunity to hunt or fish, especially with good friends, get away from you. Soak it up and savor it as none of us know when we will catch that last fish or take that last shot.