Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Precious Partridge, Running Roosters

Staying at home in Montana over the Christmas holiday has its advantages. I am always well-fed and if the weather is not too frightful, bird season is still open.
Christmas day was just what I had asked from Santa: hunting with Dad and our dogs with December weather that was nearing 20 degrees and no wind.
Never mind that the snow had a icy crust on it, allowing the roosters to run a football field's length ahead of the dogs. The Huns, they were jumpy after a season of being bothered by man and companion, with a dozen or so sets of eyes to stand guard in each covey.
But, like anything, if you work hard enough, eventually a pheasant holds tight and Huns sit long enough for the dogs and the hunters to get into position.
In late December, you don't expect to shoot limits nor do you need to. You are walking the big spaces of Montana with cold hands and chapped faces, knowing that it is a long wait until next September. A day in the field in December is simply a great Christmas gift.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Don't Believe What I Write

More than once, both in print and in conversation, I have stated how any avid blue grouse hunter, best be in the mountains in September. The rationale is two-fold; it is usually too hot to hunt down low in early September and by mid-October, the snow makes hunting blues impractical at the higher elevations.
However, I was recently persuaded into giving it a shot and it turns out I was wrong.
Good friend Ryan Young was in my neck of the woods and had never shot a blue grouse, despite being a bird hunting fool of late. He was determined to give it a go, but I made him no promises. I warned him that blues are just as likely to spend their winter months perched in trees instead of wandering on the ground, so the attempt could simply be a walk with guns, uphill and through deep snow.
Once again, I was wrong. The snow wasn't deep enough to be a factor. And since we waited until mid-morning before making our ascent, the birds were on the ground, enjoying the warm morning sun. The dogs did their part, and we made out shots count. Ryan, who has spent his whole life in eastern MT, was in heaven. I wouldn't want to open an outfitting business guiding folks to blue grouse in November and December, but for now, I was glad to be wrong.

A Good Boot, Made Better

After having owned both the Danner Sharptail and now the Sharptail II, I can say that the improvement on the latter was significant. As promised in the Sept/Oct issue of Montana Sporting Journal, here is a follow-up on the durability of the Danner boot after a season(40 days) of hunting in the boot:
While the boot does indicate some normal wear, it definitely is still fit enough to hunt in and will carry me into next season. The Sharptail II endured the Minnesota north woods swamps, cactus and sage of eastern Montana and many miles of looking for the big bull during elk season. In the past, a season of many hard miles hunting birds in tall grass and thick brush, would nearly make my hunting boots "one and done". It will be nice having a proven boot ready to roll into 2010.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


A cold turkey sandwich and lukewarm thermos coffee comprised my Thanksgiving day meal. The menu was meager compared to the gluttonous spread of Thanksgiving day delicacies that millions of American's were indulging in. Yet deep in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness with an unfilled elk license in my pocket, there was nowhere I'd rather have been.

As I was growing up and learning to hunt alongside my Dad, hunting on Thanksgiving became something of a tradition. It was, and still is, an extended weekend at the tail end of hunting season that provides a few days respite from the responsibilities of work and school.

Unfortunately my Dad couldn't be with me on this Thanksgiving day, but it was a particularly memorable holiday spent far from the comforts of sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and college football. Throughout the day I was into elk, spotting a sizable herd at first light as they fed high above my location on a grassy, south facing slope. The herd slipped into dark timber long before I was able to cut the distance, but it was an encouraging sighting. By the time I set foot on the drainage divide where the herd had been, my GPS indicated that I'd climbed 2,000 vertical feet from the trailhead, over the course of about 2.5 miles. There was no way I was giving up that hard earned elevation so I spent the mid-day hours nearby, still hunting timbered slopes littered with elk sign. As the shadows lengthened, my attention turned to the transitional fringes of timber and the open, sage slopes where the herd had been feeding that morning.

Finally, at last light I spotted a small group of cow elk grazing just a hundred yards away, unaware of my presence. Using my pack as a rest I settled into a prone position and steadied the crosshairs. My 300 Weatherby roared and the Accubond found its mark. Working long into the night I took care of the meat, carrying out what I could in my NICE Crewcab and returning early the next morning with a sled and two friends whose willingness to put strong backs and legs to work was greatly appreciated.

I didn't harvest a mature bull elk as I'd hoped to this season, but in the end it doesn't really matter. I cleanly killed a public land elk and earned every pound of the meat that will fill my freezer, for that I give thanks.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Name That Elk Country

I've always enjoyed RMEF's "Name That Elk Country" feature in Bugle magazine. Some of you may know just where the photo above was taken. It was my first time to this particular area and we really had to work to get up there. Had I known there would be two feet of snow on top, I'd have packed the snowshoes along! Since this photo was taken, the Bozeman area has had another major winter storm that dumped 18" - 24" in town!

No elk were harvested on this day, but it was a great hunt, in superb elk habitat. The elk have migrated off this high elevation divide for this year, but I look forward to hunting this very place early next fall.

Mr. Lupus and company had been in the area very recently. The photo above was one of the larger sets of tracks in the pack. For reference, that's a .375 H&H Magnum cartridge.

There are still two weeks left in the Montana general deer and elk seasons, good luck to those who still have tags to fill.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Task At Hand

While the original intent was to hunt while the Montana antelope season overlapped with the start of the deer season, the plan was more one-dimensional than expected. Maybe it was due to the fact that we had good success on muley bucks last fall or simply that I did not devote enough time the previous autumn to hunt antelope. Regardless, once afield in eastern Montana, cousin Brian and I were definitely focused on pronghorns (his expensive nonresident license was probably the biggest factor).
Obviously, antelope and mule deer don't necessarily occupy the same habitat. But, if you hunt full days in the area we set up camp, you will see both species. We even saw some whitetails that ran off into the sage country, something that we are witnessing more of each year.
However, we did avoid our "classic" muley haunts, "The cedars", "Hells Kitchen" and "The Bedroom". The mule deer we did come across or glass at a distance, we ignored. Sure, if we had seen something that was out of the ordinary, we may have traded our antelope loads for something slightly heavier.
As it turned out, it was a good antelope hunt. Now I can get back to the bird dogs and give them the attention they deserve. There may even be time to hit those muley locations later.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Water

On Friday of last week a friend and I made the journey to explore a far away and somewhat unlikely trout fishing destination here in Montana. It's the type of place that you hear very little about, it's a long way from anywhere. To get to this water you have to pass by other rivers, fisheries far more famous. The prodigious number of MT fly fishing guidebooks on the market provide little, if any, useful information on this river. There are no shuttle services, guides or fly shops on this river, we were on our own to figure out the nuances of the fishery. That said, we did stop in at the Big R Fly Shop en route, where we loaded up on quality streamers without breaking the bank. These guys probably fish our intended destination more than anyone and provided some first hand knowledge.

We got our first glimpse of the river a few hours after departure. The water looked good, albeit it looked like more of a warm water river than a trout river - deep and slow. It was early enough in the day that we had time for a quick float to test the waters. At the put-in we could hardly get rigged up fast enough as a heavy caddis hatch had the river boiling with rising fish. Several casts later our X2 caddis only produced whitefish. As we floated downriver we were starting to wonder if there were any trout in this river. We continued to pick up quite a few whitefish (up to 19") on both dries and nymphs, but no trout. Finally after the sun dipped below the western horizon we connected with our first trout of the trip, a healthy 15" rainbow that drilled a flashy streamer in fast water. We were highly stoked to get that first trout out of the way, now we could get down to business.

Over the next two days we fished long and hard, floating and wading, stripping streamers, drifting nymphs and on occasion doing a little head hunting. We had good success for trout, although that success was concentrated to a few select locations on the river and came only after rotating through numerous fly patterns. By Sunday afternoon we'd learned a thing or two about this river and its trout, yet it hadn't been quite what we'd hoped...

That is until we decided to fish one last hole on the way home, a big run that we'd not yet fished. In that final hour of the trip and on what were essentially the proverbial last casts we found what we had come for...big browns. Look for a more in depth piece on this trip in a coming issue of Montana Sporting Journal.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Summer's Last Dance

The Indian summer held out as long as it could, but Ma Nature has finally hit us with a dose of reality, the snow is flying in SW Montana today and the highs are half of what they were just a day or two ago. Personally I feel that the shift in weather couldn't have come at a better time. I'd been hoping for a break from the steady pattern of bright, warm days. I'm leaving for an exploratory trout fishing trip to a remote portion of MT this weekend and welcome an assist from the weather.

That said, I'm glad I got in one last blast of summer fishing before the sudden transition hit. A few days ago I had a chance to spend some time on the Yellowstone River under bright, blue skies fishing terrestrial and attractor dries. For all intents and purposes that was the last chance to do so for a good 10 months, unless a trip to the southern hemisphere is in the cards.

I longed to hike into the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the Gardner River looked awfully tempting as I made my way to and from a soak in the Boiling River, but I was too cheap to buy a fishing license for the park this year. I got as close as possible, starting my day's fishing just outside of the national park on a nice little stretch of water below the mouth of the Gardner River. Here I found good numbers of rainbows in the 10- to 14-inch range, fish that rocketed from deep runs and holes to slam PMX and Grand Hopper patterns. I had opportunities at larger fish, but apparently they'd become connoisseurs of foam flies over the course of the summer, rudely refusing my offerings on this day. Had I been willing to send a tandem of nymphs deep into the river I would likely have found her larger denizens, but there are plenty of long months ahead to use such tactics; this day was all about the rise.

Over the course of the day I worked my way down river, sight-fishing for a couple of nice cutts along the rocky edges of Yankee Jim Canyon, getting skunked at Emigrant and finally picking up a few rainbows above Pine Creek. I couldn't have scripted a better way to close out a great summer season on an amazing freestone river.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Gettin' Birdy

With the daytime temperatures of 90 degrees in the rear view mirror, it is finally fit for man and man's best friend afield. September in Montana has been more like August. In fact, I have only been out carrying a shotgun (and a lot of water) a handful of times. And as of this typing, the bird-chasing days have yet to extend much past noon, due to the balmy weather. I can pace myself, but unfortunately, the dogs do not, so I play it safe.
But, now it is time to get serious. The cool, damp mornings are good for scenting, good for keeping dogs and hunters fresh. The young, smallish Huns of September 1st, are now three weeks older and sportier. Farmers that were patient about letting their grain mature into September, are now expediting their harvesting operations.
It is also time for the upland enthusiast to make hay. As we get into October, anything can happen with the weather. A foot of snow can accumulate before the Trick and Treaters are out and about. For those of us that like to put some meat in the freezer, we know that big game hunting seasons will also take time away from the bird dogs, who dread rifle seasons, excursions that leave them at home. Those same dogs are now a year older than they were last season and a year for a dog in its prime is beyond priceless.
I think I need to hunt tomorrow morning.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Indian Summer

At this time of year when chill morning air and shortening days signify a transition from summer to fall, I find myself caught between seasons. On one hand I'd like to be roaming the high country, flushing blue grouse and learning the haunts of wapiti. On the other hand there is some fine fishing to be had right now. I've managed to do a bit of both, but the fishing has been winning out of late.

Over the past week or so I've had some incredible fishing in SW Montana. The upper Madison (wade section) was particularly kind to me. In fact one fish from that stretch of water is still haunting me. It started out no differently than the other half dozen trout I'd landed over the previous hour, my indicator hesitated and I set the hook, but this one felt different. The fish immediately gave a couple of head shakes and then held tight in the current, wouldn't budge, it made no play, no run. I suspected that this was a big fish, I pressed my luck and perhaps unwisely put the pressure on it to make an upstream run (vs. downstream) and wouldn't you know it, the size 18 serendipity popped out, I nearly cried.

Since then I've been fishing the Gallatin, my home water now that I'm living in Bozeman. I'm still learning the river, but have had some good days over the past week. I've worked some great looking runs up in the canyon recently with varying success both on top and drifting nymphs deep. Terrestrials are still in play here and along with caddis and mayflies have the fish looking up. Of course going deep will pad your numbers a bit and will bump up the average size of your catch. Double bead stoneflies trailed by a small shop vac or pheasant tail have been doing the trick.

As I drive to and from fishing destinations, passing the trailheads leading into the high country, I'm torn. The day will come soon when I bid adieu to summer, leaving the rivers behind and journeying into the mountains in which they are born.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Time For The Blues

I don't claim to be on top of all pop culture, but since I was headed to an upcoming Modest Mouse show in Billings this week, I had been listening to more of their stuff of late. One of their more well-known offerings is called Fire It Up. I am not hip enough to know the lyrics or the song's meaning, but the catchy chorus was in my head all week previous to the MT upland opener. It was simply time to fire it up.
Dad still calls the shots when it comes to central Montana hunts, so I simply had to pack my lunch, grab the dogs and gun and be ready to roll Tuesday morning. The hunt started with a two mile ascent. In fact, there was no need to even throw the 20 gauge shut, until about two hours after leaving the truck-quite a bit of work, just to start hunting. (Right now would be a good time to name names, guys my age that wouldn't be able to hang with my Dad, in his 60s, but I won't do that to them)
The day was more fruitful than what I deserved; I had multiple easy shots at blues, over points. While the day was warm and dry, the balmy weather also put more birds on the ground, instead of perched in trees. We probably moved 20 blue grouse in our three hours of actual hunting time. The day was complete when Abby found a blue that had died after coasting farther downhill than we had guessed. This is why I still listen to Dad; his hunches for successful days are often correct. If the weather cools, maybe sharptail and sage grouse this weekend in eastern Montana. It is definitely time to fire it up.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Summer Simplicity

Sometimes a guy just needs to get back to the basics.

Small streams and fly fishing. Summer sun and mountain air. Wild trout and solitude. Wading sandals and shorts. Attractor dries and terrestrials. Reminiscence and realization.

Summer and simplicity.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Seeley Sampler

For nearly a year I'd been looking forward to my family's long planned vacation to Seeley Lake, MT. Last week all that anticipation came to fruition as we traded in the hustle and bustle of every day life for the beauty and serenity of the Seeley-Swan Valley. We stayed at the comfortable Seeley Cabin of Tamaracks Resort, nestled amongst the pines right on the banks of Seeley Lake, just a stones throw from the water. As I always tend to do with such trips, I had envisioned our cabin serving as a base camp for 5 glorious days of fly fishing, dawn to dusk. Had it been up to me, that's probably what we'd have done. For better or worse the majority of my family doesn't suffer from the angling addiction that has afflicted me. In particular my 1 year old niece and 3 year old nephew reminded me that there's more to life than chasing fins.

Thankfully though, we did find time to sample some of the fisheries in the area, of which there seemed no end. Hands down, the best fishing of the trip was on what I'll just call the North Fork (I can't give away all the secrets). Here we found a beautiful stream, full of healthy native westslope cutthroat that averaged 15-17 inches, with fish up to 22" caught...on dries no less. Big, big bull trout lurked in the deepest pools and harassed the cutts thrashing on the end of our lines.

We plied the waters of Seeley Lake itself on many evenings, working the channels, lilly pads and ledges...hooking fair numbers of northern pike up to about 30". We worked hard for bass, hoping there were still some holdouts - and surely there are - but to no avail. Seeley Lake is fed by the Clearwater River, a rather small, slow, meandering stream. My sister and nephew floated a few miles of the river with me in a canoe, some of the deep (10'+) holes surely held a few fish, but we saw just one trout and some small perch on our float. I wouldn't go out of my way to fish the Clearwater again any time soon.

I would however go out of my way to fish the Blackfoot River. The time we spent fishing the river was productive and relaxing, with lots of cutts, rainbows and the occasional juvenile bull caught. We even had a few exciting episodes of giant bull trout rushing our catch. We had good dry fly fishing at times, but picked up more fish when we conceded to dredging the runs with stonefly nymphs, pheasant tails, copper johns and such. We also spent some time poking around a tributary or two of the Blackfoot, and did pretty well for mostly native cutthroat (some surprisingly large) on these cold, clear streams.

That may sound like a lot of fishing to you, but it only wet my appetite for the regions ample opportunities. As we sailed right on by the Swan River and the Middle Fork of the Flathead River without so much as wetting a line en route to Glacier National Park, there was little I could do but grin and bear it. And then there were the high country lakes that we missed out on, and the myraid of big name fisheries within an hours drive such as the Clark Fork, Bitterroot, Rock, Rattlesnake, Jocko...so much fishing to do and so little time.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Reservoir

This was what I'd come for, I thought to myself as I released a 22" stud of a rainbow trout back into the calm, early morning water. My blissful thoughts were quickly interrupted by my fishing partner and guide for the day, Russ Kipp, who called my catch, "peanuts". I was insulted, that was one of the largest rainbows I'd ever tied into on a fly rod and I was beaming as I caressed that beauty. Of course Russ has fished and guided on this lake countless times and has seen countless more 22" trout pulled from its waters. I enjoyed the stories he told throughout the day, tales of truly monstrous rainbows and browns that prowl the reservoir known as Clark Canyon. Throughout the day those stories were interrupted by the ever so subtle dip of an indicator, followed by a bent rod and screaming reel. The chironomid sipping rainbows and browns typically ran 19" to 23", but that doesn't take into account the ones that got away. The hot rainbow that peeled out backing and never looked back, the BIG brown that smashed a bugger only to disappear into a jungle of submerged willows...those were the fish that Russ had come for and that I'll be back for.

The reservoirs of Montana are often overshadowed by the state's famous blue ribbon trout rivers. Russ has found that getting clients to fish Clark Canyon instead of the nearby Beaverhead or Big Hole is often a hard sell, the first time around. Once they get a taste of those big wild browns and hard fighting rainbows (quite a few of which are also wild fish) they're eager for more. There is definitely a local contingent of anglers that takes advantage of the reservoir's proximity to Dillon, but it's a big lake with plenty of room to spread out and explore the many productive inlets and channels.

Next time you find yourself in SW MT with a fly rod, give Clark Canyon a shot and give Russ Kipp a shout (406-834-3469, www.mhct.com), tell him we sent you.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Staying Home

Maybe it's the fact that I put over 2,500 miles on my truck in May and June, or maybe I am just getting older, wiser, or just lazier, but lately it has been nice to stay home. Not at home on the couch, but at home, fishing locally.
From my home in central Montana, it is a half day's drive to a lot of the bigger, marquee rivers of western or southwestern Montana. While I cannot get a drift boat on the local creeks, good wade fishing for respectable trout or fishing on reservoirs via boat or float tube are options.
This past week I was able to get out a couple of times, with Scott Nelson. On Monday, we took the boat to a local "lake" and awaited the evening hatch, targeting rainbows cruising the shoreline. It was a beautiful evening and a nice reward after we both spent the day in our respective offices. Wednesday night, Scott's final night in town, I introduced him to some water on the spring creek that he hadn't fished before. We didn't hook any big browns on hoppers like I had hoped, but we did land some smaller rainbows as they went on a caddis feeding frenzy before we lost our remaining daylight.
My hope is to always have some hunting or fishing at hand, no matter where I live. The quick, simple little getaways add a lot to the quality of life quotient. Road trips are great, but sometimes just staying home, is pretty good too.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Perfect Gear

I thought I'd follow up on Jay's recent post about our Smith River trip. As Jay said, the trip went very well, the fishing was great, the scenery was spectacular and the company couldn't have been better. It was some of the best attractor dry fly fishing for good size trout that I've experienced in MT.

As Jay also eluded to, we were fortunate to have quality gear along to help make this trip run as smoothly as it did. There were two pieces of gear in particular on this trip that really stood out. If we'd brought inferior products along, the outcome of the trip may have been much different.

1) Our Yeti Tundra Series Coolers really shined, keeping our food and beverages cold, and in some cases frozen, through high temps and relentless sun for 4 days; a fact that was certainly appreciated at the cocktail hour. Our ice retention techniques were fair, yet could have been improved upon some, even so the items remaining in our coolers were still cold at the end of the trip.

The Smith River is black bear country and many of the campsites are frequented by bears seeking food. In addition to Yeti's superior insulation and ice retention the Tundra series carries a recently acquired "grizzly-proof" (bear resistant) certification from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Comittee, a board overseen by the U.S. Forest Service. We didn't have to worry about grizzlies on this trip, but if a Yeti will keep a grizzly out (see photo), it will certainly hold its own against a black bear, we rested a little better at night knowing that.

2) The SOAR 16' inflatable canoe that we brought on this trip was an agile, quick, portable, weight carrying vessel that made a huge difference in the trip. We loaded the SOAR up with both coolers, two dry boxes, a large dry bag, firewood, two men and miscellaneous gear. Early on in the trip we were certainly approaching the boats 1,000 lb weight capacity rating and you'd have never known by the way it handled. The front passenger in the canoe was able to comfortably and stably fish from a seated position while the rear passenger easily maneuvered the canoe with a single paddle, even through fast boulder strewn runs and tight turns. When the paddler did make an error and hit a rock, the tough inflatable canoe shrugged it off in a very forgiving manner, a quality that a hard sided boat doesn't have. In low water such as that encountered on the Smith at this time of year, the SOAR really showed its worth - floating through water just inches deep. This was my second extended, low water river trip in the SOAR and I can now honestly say I'd be comfortable running most rivers of approx. 150 cfs and up with a moderate to heavy load in this canoe. That opens up a lot of possibilities.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Perfect Trip

We have all had fishing or hunting trips that didn't turn out like we had anticipated. Bad weather, faulty or forgotten gear, or just plain poor attitudes, can turn a great trip into a dreadful one. However, once in a while, everything goes according to plan, causing one to look forward to the repeat adventure, even before the current unpacking is completed.
This recent trip to the Smith River was the latter. We had four days of perfect weather for floating and camping along a picturesque Montana river. Flows were adequate for safe floating, but not too high to muddy the water or dampen the fishing. The feisty rainbows and chunky browns were cooperative, feeding on the surface on a variety of patterns.
Lastly, the company was great. Brian, Emily, Will, Andre and I, all seemed to complement each other nicely and the time in camp, as well as in the boats, was memorable. We were all able to leave our stressful daily lives behind us and pretend we were just kids again- swimming, rafting, joking, telling stories by the campfire and just simply enjoying life. The meals were excellent, the laughter seemed endless. Never has four days gone by so quickly.
As soon as I finish unpacking, I need to get out the calendar and start planning next year's trip.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Shirking Work

I've recently moved to Bozeman from Billings. The move was inspired by many factors, with improved big game hunting and trout fishing opportunities ranking high on the list. I unloaded the U-haul about a month ago, right smack dab during the middle of run-off, poor timing on my part. After being out of state for two weeks, I've returned this week to find the area freestone rivers dropping and clearing. I also returned to find unanswered emails, voice mails and a heavy load of work waiting for me upon my return. Despite that, or maybe because of it, I've had a tough time staying focussed in the office this week. I've tried to do the responsible thing and stick it out until 5 each day, but admittedly I cut out a little early on one or two occassions. I hate to brag, or rub it in the face of those less fortunate, but I've wet a line every evening this week and on one lunch break. You can't pull that off in just any town and there are few others where you can do it on such high quality water. And the fishing, well it's been great. Stoneflies are hatching, caddis are thick, pmds are in full swing and I witnessed my first full blown brown drake hatch on Wednesday. Streamers are finding their mark, this is really prime time for chucking big ugly sculpin patterns along river banks. Nymphs are still the most consistent producers on most rivers, but the fish are increasingly starting to look up, making a dry-dropper combo very effective. Basically any method you want to use is producing fish right now.

Here's to what is shaping up to be a fine summer of fly fishing in Montana and to making the most of it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Time for Trout

For some folks, "Walleye Now, Trout Later" may be the mantra of the day; with a good walleye bite occurring on the state's reservoirs (see MSJ Editor Jay Hanson's recent blog post). But for many anglers, myself included, the time for trout is now. Sure, runoff presents an obstacle, but it's a surmountable one. While freestone rivers like the Yellowstone, Gallatin and Clark Fork may have a ways to go before they clear up, there are plenty of other options right now. The Madison River, both the upper and lower, is very fishable. An afternoon float from Warm Springs to Black's Ford this past weekend found some nice fish rising along the banks and in slack water amidst a great caddis hatch. The Big Hole River and Rock Creek are dropping and clearing, with salmon flies and golden stones hatching. Of course there are always the tailwater options and spring creeks throughout the state that remain fishable throughout runoff. And don't forget about the lakes. The high alpine lakes aren't accessible or ice-free just yet, but anything below about 8,000' is a pretty safe bet. I was up at Hyalite Lake last night and had some good fishing for chunky cutts. Perhaps the true gems at this time of year are the tributary streams running cold and clear. This weekend I was out on a Bozeman area creek which feeds a well known river, I had the stream and it's feisty wild rainbows all to myself. The trout in these feeder streams are generally small, but every once in a while you might be surprised by what turns up. A couple of 14" rainbows took my caddis pupa on this recent outing, but perhaps more surprising was the elk antler I found submerged in the stream (see photo) and while it was broken below the sword tine, it had great mass and good brow tines, a big bull no doubt.

Those of you looking to get out and do a little trout fishing right now have plenty of options throughout Montana...and some good deals can be had on lodging and guiding services. Perhaps the best deal going that I'm aware of is the offer that Russ Kipp at Montana High Country in SW MT has going. Russ is offering free lodging for anyone who books a multiple day guided fly fishing trip. That's a tough deal to pass up, particularly considering that the Beaverhead River, Big Hole River and Clark Canyon Reservoir are nearby.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Walleyes Now, Trout Later

People questioned my sanity and probably my priorities, as I headed over to Fort Peck for the fourth weekend in a row. My only reply was that it was prime time on the sprawling reservoir for big walleyes-and it wouldn't last all summer.
The past few weeks on the water have been good, for both eating-sized 'eyes and trophy fish up to 31". Fortunately, we have seen fish in all sizes, which isn't always the case in this fishery. All of the fish over three pounds were released, except my fishing partner Mike Upgren, kept a pair of brutes that he wanted to mount together-probably fitting since they were caught just minutes apart.
While some fly fishermen wouldn't think of using bait (minnows, leeches, nightcrawlers) and some walleye anglers view fly fishermen as pretentious folks that all dress alike, I guess enjoy both pursuits equally. By mid-July, the walleye fishing on Peck will begin to slow and our rivers and creeks will begin to run clear, offering up some of the country's best trout fishing. For now, the walleye fishing is too good to pass up.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Feels Like Summer

After a long winter of walking on frozen ice, it was finally nice to be driving a boat across the liquid form. There is something ceremonial and refreshing about having the boat on the water for the first time each spring. Granted, there is always the hectic preparation before that first trip: replacing dead boat batteries(they seem to last about two seasons), checking the trailer lights (they are like Christmas lights, there is always one bad bulb) and organizing the terminal tackle.
But, once on the water, all the worries disappear. Spring offers so much in eastern Montana. Seeing newborn antelope fawns that can barely walk, watching sharptail perform on their annual dancing grounds and hearing rooster pheasants crowing in every direction, not only is therapy for the present, it provides hope for the upcoming fall hunting season.
The walleye fishing was not quite as productive as Dad and I had hoped for. But, the reservoir water was only 45 degrees, so the best is yet to come. For now, just being on the water is good enough.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mother's Day

Mother's Day is a highly anticipated point on the calendar for Montana anglers...it marks one of the major early season hatches in the state. This year it worked out that we were able to spend Sunday with the women and mothers in our lives, since the hatch arrived in full force a day late. Reports around SW Montana on Monday were of good to great caddis hatches and rivers that were largely fishable (water clarity is day to day). The Yellowstone River above the 89 bridge looked good yesterday with a couple feet of visibility, below that the Shields was dumping in mud, as was the Boulder and several other tributaries. Guys pulling boats out at the 89 bridge were all smiles after a day of fishing caddis and drake imitations. Somewhat surprisingly, a quick stop at the the lower Stillwater yesterday afternoon found the river in fantastic shape with plenty of visibility and of course lots of bugs on the water. Hopefully this pre-runoff window of hatches and fishable rivers will stay open just a little longer.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Hunters Welcome

With the ongoing debate over land access, to both private and public lands, it was refreshing to be wanted. Wanted by ranchers who were seeking hunters to help thin out their turkey flocks. While the problem isn't statewide, there are a number of folks in the southeastern part of the state who are tired of having 50-100 birds on their haystacks all winter.
When Ryan Y. had arranged for us to hunt on a few large "spreads", I was a little pessimistic, assuming we would be directed on where to hunt, probably asked to shoot our birds as they entered the farm yard for their nightly feed. While a bird is a bird, I would rather try to lure the bird in with a call and a decoy.
Fortunately, I was dead wrong. We were set loose on a 20,000-acre ranch, with rolling hills and timbered draws. It was definitely turkey country that was made for the foot hunter wanting to cover some ground. Our only limitation this trip was weather. A bird was tagged each of the first two days and the third day was a "snow day". We had three inches of wet snow and we didn't want to rut up the wet, greasy roads, possibly ruining our good relationship with the rancher. Hopefully, we will be welcome again next year.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Passion Afield

I will always be convinced that my father was the best fly fisherman I’ve had the pleasure to share a river with, and he was no slouch when it came to wing shooting either. I have an image in my mind that fly fishing his favorite spots on the Boulder River, in Yellowstone Park, or on the many lakes in the Cooke City country were his one true passion.

But as he aged I found out that fishing was neither his passion in later life nor in his younger years. He just loved to fish and was very, very good at it.

But when you talk about passion and hunting and fishing you have to look no further than the guys at Montana Sporting Journal. This blog space isn’t designed to sing the praises of the magazine nor to build up those who bring it to you. Still, if I’m a fan of something I like to see all sides of it.

Though there are a number of people who make this publication go around, I’m going to single out two of them: advertising director Will Jordan and editor Jay Hanson. When we talk about a passion for hunting and fishing, it goes beyond for these two guys.

They don’t just live the lifestyle of hunters and fishermen, it truly is their passion. These are the guys who work on their elk bugling in the summer, who tie flies all winter, who hunt and fish every possible opportunity that presents itself, and then spend their work weeks promoting a magazine that promotes such passion.

I’ll always think I’m passable as a fisherman and have been privileged to fish many more spots in this great state than most people you’ll come across. I also consider myself a darn good waterfowler.

But I can only tie a few flies, and my goose calling never gets better.

As readers, you can be grateful that Will and Jay are this passionate because it shows you the dedication that they put into every page of the magazine. When you read through each issue or peruse the advertisements, you are taking in a little of the passion that they are sharing with you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Business & Pleasure

It's about this time of year, when the rivers in MT become increasingly fishable, that my job as a traveling ad salesman takes on a whole new appeal. As the days lengthen and there is daylight both before and after business hours, it's easy to mix business and pleasure. Here's an example of my work/play schedule the past few days...if I'm lucky the lines between the two really blur.

4/11 - Hit the Stillwater River with Bruce Whittenberg, owner of MT Troutfitters in Bozeman and an advertiser in MSJ. We found the river off color with little more than a foot of visibility, but as Bruce said, "It is what it is" and so we fished. We even managed to catch a few trout on a variety of flashy streamers, nymphs and even dries. Some nice BWO and March brown hatches were coming off, but rises were practically non-existent in the stained water.

4/12 - Got up early, packed my fishing gear and business attire and made the drive north to Lewistown where I met up with Jay for an MSJ photo shoot for the Cooper Rifle review in our upcoming issue...what a beautiful and accurate rifle! Big Spring Creek was high and off, but fortunately there is yet another substantial spring creek nearby, this one flowing clean and clear. We both caught a few rainbows on dries amidst some decent hatches. We were both frustrated by a couple of good size rainbows that eluded us.

4/13 - Had a meeting in the morning in Lewistown and then was on my way to Livingston. Midway, at Harlow, I decided to detour west and fish the Mussellshell...it's always intrigued me. The river was very off color, with less than a foot of visibility. For various reasons I stayed and fished anyway. After working my way through my streamer box I finally found the ticket and landed a couple of nice browns. I'll be interested to check out this stretch of river this summer and see how it fares once irrigation outflows begin. After my "lunch break" on the river I was back on the road with a stop in Livingston and then onto Chico Hot Springs. After business was taken care of I fished the last hour of daylight on the Yellowstone below a brilliantly lit Emigrant Peak, there was nowhere I'd rather have been...except maybe soaking in the hot springs back at the historic lodge.

4/14 - Awoke early to find a couple of inches of snow on the lawn outside Chico and steady snowfall. Knowing that I had to negotiate the pass en route to appointments in Bozeman that morning I quickly got dressed and on the road. I had hoped to wet a line briefly in the morning around the mouths of the PV spring creeks and again on the way home that evening on the Boulder, but the winter weather suggested otherwise. It was all about business today.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Spring Training

When the calendar turns from March to April, I yank the dogs off the couch and give them the fresh air they deserve. While I have stayed in perfect physical condition over the course of the winter(ok, I may have slipped a little bit),the dogs have definitely put on a few pounds. When I grab their hunting collars off the shelf, their excitement screams, "Its about time, buddy!"
In this latitude, I prefer to wait until April 1st to run the girls. Since I chase grouse, Huns and pheasants until the very bitter end of the season, I cut the birds some slack by not pestering them until I know the worst of winter is behind us. While we received snow AGAIN last night, it melts quite rapidly from this point on. April is actually a fairly important month from my perspective. Once the middle of May rolls around, the dogs are kept on leashes since nesting season is approaching. While I don't pass judgement on those running their dogs all winter, especially in regions where the snow doesn't pile up, I am adamant about staying out of the uplands when there are eggs and chicks on the ground.
It was great to see the prairie mostly unchanged from when I last walked it in December. However, the grass was a little flattened from snows and the ditches still held some hard-packed snow drifts. And the Huns the dogs pointed were mating pairs, instead of coveys. But, when a rooster squawked at me from the same brushy draw as one did in November, I felt like I hadn't missed a thing.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fishing With Heroes

While too much of the magazine business involves business, this past weekend was a very humbling and rewarding outing. It made me more appreciative of our state, our country and the veterans that sacrifice so much, to give us our freedoms.
Sales Director Will Jordan and I met up with Libby-based Camp Patriot and their director, Micah Clark on the Kootenai River. We had the privilege of fishing with two disabled veterans who had accepted the invitation to try fly fishing on one of Montana's famed rivers. We were all the guests of Dave and Tammy Blackburn at the Kootenai Angler. Fishing was fair, considering it was still March, the water running cold and clear.
But, it wasn't about the fishing. It was about the veterans-young men who were injured serving our country. The Camp Patriot slogan is "Giving back to those who have given". Hopefully, the trip to northwest Montana did give back and provided the veterans with a new look at the life ahead of them - a life that can offer new challenges such as catching wild trout on a majestic Montana River. They deserve it, they are truly heroes that we can all be proud of.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Look for an article on the Kootenai trip and Camp Patriot in the May/June issue of Montana Sporting Journal.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

No Love For Lake Trout

For some folks, lake trout are on a list of the most despised creatures, to some, only trailing wolves and Bernie Madoff. Lakers, Mackinaw, Macks-whatever the moniker - are labeled by a few as voracious , non-native bullies, that deserve to be treated as an invasive species. In Yellowstone Lake, where they were illegally introduced, they are being netted and poisoned as fast as possible to protect native cutthroat species. On Flathead Lake, fishing tournaments are held throughout the year, with the hope of culling a booming population of smallish lakers.
Lake trout are an aggressive fish. Aggressive sport fish on light to medium tackle, can provide wicked fun. And when those fish start reaching the 15 pound barrier, landing one through an 8" hole in the ice is harder than it sounds. A recent outing provided just that: fish from 10-15lbs that would just about rip the small rod out of your hand. Once hooked, they shook their heads like a marlin in mid-air.
Lake trout do have a place in some of our Montana reservoirs. And they don't belong in others, especially when introduced by a self-serving bucket biologist. But, for those that seek big, strong fish, lakers are one of Montana's best.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A New Adventure

After reading in a number of publications about the rebirth of rabbit hunting, I thought I’d give it a try. Wind has been keeping me off the rivers and a hunting itch is really starting to scratch again. Besides, I’d just seen an episode of "Iron Chef" where these world-renowned cooks made amazing meals from rabbit.

Of course rabbits aren’t exactly a rarity in Yellowstone County and I knew a trip out to the farm would likely get me some shooting. And I know those rabbits aren’t any little Peter Cotton Tails, there are some serious Boone and Crocket bunnies out in the boonies.

I’ve never shot a rabbit and not sure exactly what sort of ethics of fair chase or the preferred weapon of choice would be. To tell the truth, I wasn’t exactly sure how to pose for a picture with a rabbit either, do I crouch down to show his ear spread or do I hoist him up to show his whole body. Finally, I’m not sure I have enough block and tackle set-ups to account for the half dozen hares I hoped to bring home!

I pondered all this as I made my way to the hills with a small arsenal of weapons, the least of which was my Daisy slingshot. As I got closer to the bluffs I still hadn’t decided what hunting method to use. Why doesn’t anyone hire out as a bunny guide to tell me these things?

As I opened the gate I noticed three coyotes working toward the coulees and in about ten minutes I was close enough to get two pretty easy shots on them. I dragged them back up the hill and loaded them into the back end of the truck and drove home and watched Bugs Bunny cartoons with my nephews.

I never knew rabbit hunting was so perplexing. . .

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Got Neoprene?

My cabin fever has been running high throughout the month of February. While we could certainly stand to be building on our mountain snowpack, I won't complain about Ma Nature providing us with a reprieve from winter over the past week or so. On a sunny afternoon last weekend I worked the banks of the Stillwater River with a fly rod and low expectations in tow, I did the same yesterday. On days such as these when I'm grateful just to get out, feeling a tug on the end of my line is a bonus. It turned out that the fishing was pretty good considering it was still February. I managed to pick off a few rainbows, which were colored up nicely and were most likely early runners out of the Yellowstone. I arrived at the river mid-day yesterday to find slush ice from bank to bank, reminding me that it's still winter - thankfully it melted off within an hour of my arrival. Sporadic midge hatches occurred throughout the afternoon, but no fish were rising in the icy water. The Montana license year expired yesterday, it was great to be able to squeeze one last day of fishing out of it...the trick will be remembering to buy myself a new annual license before my next outing.

Think snow.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Catch a Fish, Thoreau it Back

Henry David Thoreau once said, “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after." Following a sub-par fishing weekend, that thought is comforting to say the least.

While I’m sure that a fly fishing weekend is not exactly how my new wife envisioned her first married Valentine’s Day, I’m sure she expected it to happen at some time. Fortunately the comfort of the River's Bend Lodge was some consolation. But as we stood cold on the icy banks of the Yellowstone at the trailing midge patterns through beautiful, yet tough to access, riffles, I think she understood my passion just a little bit more.

We stood staring up at Emigrant Peak with both of us wondering why we were still out trying. I questioned my fly choice, my drift, and my method. She no doubt questioned some of her choices as well.

Finally a sympathetic Brown trout, maybe a three pounder, took the edge off and took the Midge. As I started to bring the fighter in closer, I noticed a little icy build-up on my wife’s eyelash. This was one cold woman and one foolish man.

The Brown readily gave in and I returned the favor by smoothly returning him to the depths, thankful that I’d taken the time to bend the barbs on the flies. My wife, seeing her husband satisfied with his catch knew the cold day was over.

As we walked back to the Rivers Bend Lodge I think we both knew a little bit more about what Thoreau was trying to say.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sometimes The Killing Is Hard To Accept

As we approached the area of the lake that we had fished the evening before, I could see something on the ice that wasn't there previously. Could it be a coat we had left, maybe a tumbleweed, maybe a coyote eating our dead minnows? The four of us approached slowly and without words. We were all hunters, but seeing this young mule deer that had died in the past eight hours, still struck a nerve with us.
It was obviously a violent, gruesome death, nothing I could publish in MSJ. The coyotes had killed the deer, on the ice, a place where deer are very vulnerable. Blood was pooled in a couple of different areas, patches of hide were drifting with the wind across the frozen lake. The coyotes probably numbered at least three from the number of tracks leading away from the kill site, possibly more.
I couldn't help but feel some sympathy for the mule deer. I tried to lessen the animal's struggle, thinking maybe it was sick, injured or was just dragged on the ice, already dead. Doubtful, I knew. Even as a hunter, someone who is also at the top of the food chain, I wish I didn't have to visualize what took place on the ice that night.
One of my companions was more at peace with the event. His rationale was fair and factual- sure one deer died, but that pack of coyotes, coyotes that struggle day after day to find food to stay alive, succeeded and earned another week or two on this earth. Survivors. Hunters. Just like us.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Rather Blustery Day

I grew up in a house where you fished in the spring and summer, hunted in the fall, and spent the winter hoping that spring would hurry again. Consequently my days fishing in the colder months of year have been few and far between. So when the opportunity arose this week to combine a work day with an hour or so of fishing the Bighorn, I had to jump at the chance.

The weather finally climbed back into the upper 30s, but wind has a way of ruining drift and makes casting a practice in futility. And dare I say that changing leader and tippet in the middle of a gust is not the most pleasant experience, though it begs the question, "should I keep my gloves on and have no dexterity in this delicate maneuver or take them off and watch my wind-chilled hands struggle to grasp leaders and flies?" On a day like this, even mending the line in the drift produced interesting developments. I kept looking for a remote control to turn the wind down just long enough to make my adjustments.

Though we caught a few fish, my actual fishing time probably lasted about 45 minutes, and my partner soon grew weary of battling the elements. The sandwiches back in the truck tasted so good and even the lukewarm sports drink went down smoothly. With the wind now locked outside the vehicle and the Ford heading back up the road past fields filled with thousands and thousands of geese, we lamented the fact that we’d had the day cut short.

Then we laughed at ourselves, remembering that we were fishing in January in Montana—that very thought filled with wonder: wonder that anyone would dare fish in the coldest month of the year, and wonder that we live in such a place that such irrational behavior is, in fact, quite logical.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Survivor

When I interviewed Don Laubach, a businessman and seasoned big game hunter from Gardiner, MT, I asked him what his dream hunt was. He matter-of-factly replied, "My next coyote hunt". And, I guess I see why.
Coyotes in Montana can be found nearly everywhere, from the brushy river bottoms to the rugged mountain ridges. They are active, always looking for their next meal. Often referred to as "surviviors", they are as sporting as hunting gets.
This past coyote hunt, we had better luck than one can usually expect hunting coyotes. Four different animals came into the wounded jackrabbit call and only one left, now an older and wiser creature. They used all of their senses coming into the calls, pausing at times to listen, positioning themselves downwind, and watching for any unusual movement. I have been told that if you can kill one out of four coyotes that respond to your calls, you have been fortunate. So, I know our luck will run out. When it does, another survivor will be created.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Partners in Crime

Good hunting and fishing partners are tough to find. In addition to sharing similar hunting or fishing ethics such as whether you’ll fully endorse catch and release policies, your beliefs on the use of mechanized waterfowl decoys, and whether you like steak or ground beef in your pasties, this has to be a guy you can fully trust and with whom you can enjoy spending time.

I feel fortunate to have a number of good hunting and fishing pals. Two of them are brothers, and they are as different as night and day. Without a doubt I can say that if I were lost in the woods and our very survival depended on my partner, I would choose Kevin 7 days a week and twice on Sunday. But if our rescue was only a matter of time or nonexistent, I’d sit there on a log and listen to Pauly all day long.

Pauly is the entertainer; I’ve watched him fly headfirst out of boats trying to help a fisherman net a big fish, he has the best stories in the duck blind, and the ride to the hunt and back are full of jokes, stories, and comical musings. I floated part of the Smith River with Pauly and between our hitting rocks and missing fish I was constantly in the company of a great sportsman.

Kevin is the survivalist; as a high school senior he wanted a water purifier for Christmas and when stranded on a river island during a January goose hunt, he simply stripped down and swam across the ice-filled river channel to retrieve the errant canoe. And it was Kevin who patched the raft the day after Pauly and I bounced down the Smith.

Life is too short to hunt and fish with guys you feel lukewarm about. And by the way, I like my pasties with ground beef.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cold Duck

This is the only time of the year I get somewhat serious about waterfowl. Owning wimpy pointing dogs limits your hunting to mostly upland birds. Which is fine. But, I always enjoy getting out this time of the year; the waterfowl season extends into January, the winter wonderland is beautiful, and I enjoy the taste of mallard.
But, would it have to be this cold? Especially when I am my own retriever and my old neoprene waders seem to have lost a battle with a barbed-wire fence at some point.
The game is completely different from the one I played all autumn with my setters. Instead of the dogs finding the birds, the birds have to find me and my meager spread of two decoys. All fall, I watch my dogs, now I watch the sky. I even put my little 20 gauge into the safe and break out the 12 gauge pump.
I will never claim to be a waterfowling expert. But, I sure enjoy the little taste of it I get each January.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

One Last Hunt

It is with two tired dogs and a heavy heart, that I write this as the sun just set on another Montana bird season. There is so much to be thankful for this past season: a couple of great blue grouse hunts in September, where we shared the high-country with no one but the elk and mule deer. While the pheasants, sharptail and Huns were down slightly in central Montana, the birds seemed to be thicker in some of my haunts in northern and eastern Montana. Dad fully recovered from his previous ailments and can still outwalk anybody I know. Tess and Abby are no longer projects, but both cherished hunting parters in the field.
Regardless of the positives, I still hate the thought of putting away my bird vest and shotgun for another eight months. So, while I hesitated to leave the house this New Year's Day, I knew I had to. Icy roads, deep snow in the field and my concern for the birds themselves (who are now in winter survival mode with 12+ inches of snow on the ground), were overshadowed by my need for one more try. One more day for the dogs to see their orange collars and jump up and down in the kitchen. One last day of a watching my girls work the grass and thickets, doing what they love to do-doing what never lasts forever, for any dog. Tonight they sleep, waiting for their next, first day.