Friday, December 31, 2010

The Final Bird Hunt

The Christmas and New Year's holidays are always bittersweet for us bird hunters. At the same time that we are celebrating with family, enjoying a few days off from work, we are also trying to fit in a final couple of days hunting. Often, these final days afield are cold and miserable, providing plenty of excuses to stay home, if needed.

My final hunt in 2010, was on Christmas Day, just a few miles from town. It wasn't meant to be an all day hunt, just a quick walk to exercise the dogs and give myself a bit of breathing room between excessive bouts of eating. In fact, I didn't don my usual hunting vest and just threw five shells in my pocket.

The morning was only offering temperatures in the single digits, but without any wind, it was a nice day to be following dogs, carrying a shotgun. As soon as we crossed the first wind-swept ridge, the dogs were rigid, both looking downhill and upwind. Just as I spotted a flock of sharptail on the ground, the birds took flight, giving me a long shot at one bird, but to no avail. A few minutes later, Abby was locked up again, this time with a covey of Huns in front of her. I managed to drop two of the birds, one of which was retrieved by Abby, the other one I picked up, after the fact.

I continued my walk, encountering more sharptail, but not needing to pull the trigger. I had all I needed in my brief walk: fresh air, good dog work and one day closer to the 2011 upland bird season.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Augers and Bird Doggers?

Lame title, I know, but Cast and Blast didn't fit since there isn't any casting involved with ice-fishing. There wasn't a lot of blasting either, but we did see plenty of birds.

Scott, Ryan and I met up in northern Montana, to do some early season, warm-water (species, definitely not the water) ice-fishing, combined with late season pheasant hunting. It was an "in-between" proposition, as there wasn't an abundance of ice, but almost too much snow for decent bird hunting.

We were able to get on the ice with a four-wheeler, a machine that is quite handy for towing the abundance of gear required for comfortable fishing when the temperatures are below zero. But, with only six to eight inches of ice, we weren't overly confident driving around soft spots or cracks that would heave when driven over. The fishing was decent; the pike and perch were almost a nuisance, although some of each made their way into the bucket, to be cleaned at home once they thawed. The walleyes were harder to come by, although Scott had a good flurry of action when Ryan and I were chasing birds.

Chasing we did. The birds that have survived the past two months of the upland season in Montana are wary ones. We had decent dog work with Ryan's Griffon and my two setters. It was mostly hens that sat tightly, but we did kill four roosters the first day. We had our best luck in heavy cattails, cattails that were misery to walk through after being socked full of knee-deep snow. The second morning we had a strong wind and a temperature at a nice, round number of zero. Needless to say, we couldn't put up with that more than a couple of hours. It was also tough to compete with the sanctuary of a nearby farm yard that was absolutely loaded with birds.

But, we had enough success to feel good about our winter cast and blast. Two days later, when the fish finally thawed and the roosters were cleaned, a meal of flaky, white fillets and tender pheasant breasts was enjoyed immensely.

(I apologize for the lack of good photos. My Nikon is in the repair shop)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Mercer Bull

While doing research for an upcoming article in MSJ I came across an Outdoor Life article written by Fred Mercer in 1960. The article was also reprinted in RMEF's Bugle magazine in 1993. The article is an account of Mr. Mercer's 1958 Montana elk hunt, on which he harvested a bull that to this day is the #1 typical bull elk harvested in MT. Click here to view the article (you'll need a Google account to view).

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ed Bangs Interview

The current issue of Montana Sporting Journal features an excellent interview with Ed Bangs - the Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since the beginning of the gray wolf reintroduction in 1995. For those of you who haven't had an opportunity to pick-up a copy of the current issue, and are interested in the topic of wolves in Montana, the full interview is free to read by clicking here.

Here's an excerpt from a response that Ed Bangs provided in the interview:

"We predicted the wolf population would grow about 22% a year and it did. But I am surprised that we now have over 1,700 wolves. I believed (and still do) that the Northern Rocky Mountains will not be able to sustain that many wolves long-term."

Friday, November 19, 2010

Muley Camp - Days 5&6

The pressure was on for Friday, we had three tags to fill and this was the last full day to hunt. We kicked things off with a strong pot of coffee and a big breakfast comprised of biscuits and gravy, eggs and canned peaches. My Dad and I planned to penetrate a couple of miles into a roadless area today. We had a bit of a drive ahead of us to get to the trailhead, but made good time and found ourselves alone at the trailhead at first light.

Things looked promising early on, with several does quickly spotted. Unfortunately we couldn't find a buck. Our bad luck held out as we worked deeper into the roadless area, seeing does, but no bucks. When we finally did see a buck, things still weren't going our way. We'd stopped at a great vantage point to glass a big drainage. We'd been sitting there for a good 5-10 minutes when suddenly a buck and doe bolted out from the bluff underneath us - they'd been bedded no more than 30 yards below us that entire time! The buck, a 3x3, stopped briefly at a hundred yards, but my Dad's rifle was just out of reach.

We saw upwards of fifty elk in the morning, including some good bulls. Deer numbers just didn't seem as high in this area - perhaps due to the higher elk densities, perhaps not. Regardless, we decided to abandon the roadless area in favor of some country closer to camp where we'd been seeing excellent numbers of deer throughout the hunt.

Sure enough, as soon as we'd driven into the general area that we wanted to hunt for the afternoon, I spotted a herd of deer about a mile away, far down a deep drainage. Through my binoculars I could see that one of the deer was big bodied, a mature buck no doubt. Upon taking a look through the spotting scope my suspicion was confirmed and we set out after the buck.

We made good time dropping down to the herd's last known location and the wind was in our favor. We had plenty of time, a solid hour of shooting light remained, so we crept in, glassing thoroughly in an effort to relocate the herd. When we slowly peeked over the top of the drainage that they'd likely fed into, sure enough, there were deer. Two does. I glassed the drainage quickly, but thoroughly (or so I thought) and concluded that these were different deer, as no buck was in sight and there were fewer does. We were dejected, but still had some light remaining and decided to hunt our way back to the truck. We moved down the backside of the ridge a couple of hundred yards before I decided to peek back over at the does...just in case. I chose a terrible spot to peek over - I had nothing for cover. As I peered over the ridge I immediately new I'd screwed up, directly across the drainage was a big bodied deer - bringing up my binoculars revealed a solid buck - a buck that had seen my big head bobbing on the bare ridgeline. I dropped back out of sight and instructed my Dad to get ready for a shot, that the buck was moving up the opposite ridge and would be coming into our line of sight quickly. Within seconds a pogo-sticking buck could be seen on the top of the opposite ridge - 200 yards away. The buck stopped for a few brief seconds to look back, I instructed my Dad to take him if he could - but he hadn't had quite enough time to get set-up and the buck vanished over the ridge unscathed.

While there was still a half day, morning hunt on the horizon for Saturday - in all reality the sun had set on this hunt. It was a great hunt, and any hunt that I get to share with my Dad these days is a special one. For him it was all about the experience, seeing new country and enjoying the time afield and in camp, pulling the trigger wasn't paramount.

Back at camp that evening we learned that Matt had found success - looking to fill the freezer, he'd harvested a "meat buck" in the morning. They saw a monster buck late in the afternoon and managed to close the distance, but by the time they were set-up for a shot the bedded buck had blended into the surrounding sage in the low light. Dave made the ethical choice and chose not to shoot.

With our tags filled, Matt and I had the luxury of sleeping in on Saturday morning, while our fathers hunted together for a few hours. By the time they'd returned from their morning hunt we had camp torn down for the most part and had even found time to wet a line in the reservoir.

With any luck this hunt, with these guys will become something of an annual tradition.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Muley Camp - Day 4

On Thursday morning we loaded our packs for a full day afield, rarely do we return to camp for lunch and this day would be no exception. We hiked into an area where we'd seen some deer, and a good buck, early in the week. Right off the bat I spotted a lone buck feeding over a ridge. I only got a quick look at the buck, but he appeared large enough to warrant further investigation. We gave chase, but never saw the buck again...he was probably moving quickly, covering country in search of does.

We continued covering country ourselves, doing a good deal of detailed glassing along the way. We spotted a few more does throughout the morning, but no bucks. Interestingly, throughout the week we'd been seeing a lot of elk sign nearly everywhere we hunted - yet we hadn't seen hair nor hide of an elk. The Missouri River Breaks is famous for its big bull elk (and sheep, and deer). The chance of drawing a license here is very slim, hovering around 3% in most years. This morning we finally saw elk on the hoof - my Dad glassed up two cows in heavy cover on a north facing was neat to see them.

As it turned out, this was to be quite a day for elk sightings. About an hour later, as we worked our way across the bottom of a coulee, I happened to glance to my right to see a big 6x6 bull elk bedded fifty yards away. Amazingly he was bedded in a little cutbank crevice - right out in the open sage! And then later in the day we got to see a group of 6 bulls move by us at little more than a hundred yards. These bulls were all amazing, with some in the 300-320 class, but nothing truly huge. That is until I spotted a bull moving parallel to us along an open slope late in the day...he was a ways off, but he was the type of bull that The Breaks is famous for - an enormous 6x6.

While elk were the story of the day, we did have an opportunity to put a stalk on a big 3x3 mule deer buck (yes, the bar had been lowered a bit) in the afternoon. The buck was about a half mile away when we spotted him, he was solo, and moving in our direction at a steady clip - cruising for does no doubt. When he moved out of our line of sight we scrambled to ambush him. Unbeknownst to us, during the few minutes that it took us to hike to the adjacent ridge the buck had veered to the north - a ninety degree turn that put us out of position. The buck was now 400+ yards away - out of range as far as we're concerned. We gave chase, but as luck would have it the aforementioned herd of 6 bull elk crashed the party - they'd been pushed our way by other hunters and blew right by the buck, who was nowhere to be found once the dust settled.

As we hiked back to the truck in the fading light we glassed up several does, but none were in the company of a buck. For the first time all week we beat Matt and Dave back to camp in the evening, they'd embarked on an ambitious loop hike into some roadless fact it turned out that they were the hunters who'd bumped the elk in our direction. They'd seen deer as well, with Matt coming across a buck and doe. According to Matt the buck was a big one, and provided him with a brief window for a shot opportunity. Dropping into a prone position and using his pack as a rest, Matt took the shot - with no reaction from the buck. Upon closer investigation he found no sign of having hit the buck, what he found instead explained the miss: a tree sporting a substantial gash from his bullet.

After another great dinner and night cap, we set the alarm for 4:30am - we had just one full day left to hunt and we were eager to make the most of it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Muley Camp - Day 3

The thermometer outside the wall tent registered 16 degrees when we awoke on the morning of day 3. After a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage, tortillas, canned peaches and coffee, we loaded into the trucks to head out for the day. Matt and Dave motored west, while my Dad and I drove as close as we could to the kill site of my buck. With the cold weather we were in no huge rush to get to the quarters that we'd left in the field. We worked our way in slowly, hunting all the way in an effort to fill my Dad's tag.

We weren't a half mile from the truck when we started seeing deer, and lots of them. The first bunch consisted of 7 or 8 does and a lovestruck 3x3. Moving on, we quickly glassed up another the time we arrived at the kill site a couple of hours later we'd probably glassed about 50 deer, including 4 bucks - but nothing large enough to pull the trigger.

The quarters were hanging right where I'd left them - nothing had disturbed them overnight. I skinned out the skull and we loaded up the Eberlestock pack with meat and antlers for the hike out.

On the hike back to the truck I picked up a nice 6 point elk shed, it wasn't 200 yards off the road! We arrived back at camp and got the quarters into a cooler before enjoying a leisurely lunch and completing a few camp chores. For the afternoon hunt we decided to drive into some new country to the west and do a bit of glassing. On the drive in we passed by Matt and Dave's rig parked above some good looking country - we later learned that they saw many deer in the area, including a nice 3x3 that Matt couldn't quite talk himself into taking at this point in the hunt.

The afternoon was bone chilling, with a bitter wind blowing out of the north. Prolonged glassing sessions were miserable, but we did see several does on distant ridges as the sun set.

At the end of day 3 our camp was 1 for 4 on mule deer. With my Dad having come all the way from Arizona for the hunt, I really wanted to be sure that he had an opportunity to fill his tag. In fact, I'd practically begged him to shoot the buck that I ended up harvesting, but he wouldn't hear it. I'd spotted the buck he'd said, it was mine to take. We had two full days of hunting left, I was confident that we'd get him a buck.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Muley Camp - Day 2

We awoke on Day 2 (our first full day) to find that it had rained overnight, a scenario that every Missouri River Breaks hunter fears, for with precipitation comes mud. Now Breaks mud isn't just any mud, but a special blend that sticks to everything that comes into contact with it. With the exception of the main gravel road, vehicular travel was severely restricted by slick, sloppy roads. Rather than sleeping in and waiting for the roads to dry out as I suspect many other hunters did, we made the most of it and hiked into the country surrounding camp.

My Dad and I headed east along the shore of the reservoir until we'd put some distance between us and camp. We quickly got into deer, including some pretty nice bucks, but nothing with the 4x4 configuration that we were looking for.

By late morning we'd slogged our way through the mud, and into a series of drainages containing good security cover on north facing slopes and good browse on the southern exposures. In one of these drainages we bumped into a bedded buck and doe - the buck was big - a deeply forked 4x4 with great height and mass. The buck split from the doe and never looked back, escaping unscathed. I was feeling dejected about botching that opportunity. The buck and doe had been bedded in some sparse cedars at the bottom of the ridge - had we simply approached from the north we probably could have spotted them before they bolted. I suppose I could've taken a quick shot at the buck at about 80 yards on a dead run, but I wasn't confident in my ability to make a clean shot in that situation.

At this point it was after noon, the wind was howling and the deer were all bedded. We climbed to a high vantage point on the lee side of a ridge and settled in for a long lunch and rest break. On a cold day in the backcountry, there's nothing quite like breaking out the Pocket Rocket for a Mountain House and cup of Starbuck's VIA. The fuel, stove, water pan and food weigh next to nothing, but provide a hot, fast and delicious meal.

Fat, happy and cozy in the down jackets that we pulled from our packs, it was difficult to keep from dozing off. By mid-afternoon we started seeing a few does up and feeding, signaling us to get back on our feet as well. At about 3 o'clock I spotted a lone buck standing in heavy cover nearly a mile away. A quick look through the spotting scope revealed that this was a buck worthy of closer inspection. We devised a stalk, which included provisions for some does feeding between us and the buck - does that could easily throw a wrench in things if they spooked in the direction of the buck.

The stalk went off without a hitch, until we were approaching the final ascent to the saddle that would serve as the planned shot site. Working through the deep coulee bottom I glanced up at the ridge line to the west and saw a small army of blaze orange heading in the direction of the buck! These were the first hunters we'd seen all day and they were about to become a major problem for us. They weren't aware of the buck's presence - their frequent stops to glass in the opposite direction made that evident. I quickly made myself highly visible to them, hoping it would be enough to deter them from their course, which was a beeline for the buck's location. It didn't work, they continued to the ridge top, stopping directly above the now bedded buck. They were no more than 70 or 80 yards above the buck as they stood and glassed back to the west.

As we scrambled up the last hundred feet or so to the saddle, I was muttering under my breath - something about this not being my day. I thought that the buck would surely break from his bed with the presence of the other hunters. Upon gaining the saddle I slowly peeked over the top to glass the buck's last known location and wouldn't you know it, there he was, still bedded with an ear cocked to the hunters standing just uphill from him. It was a classic scenario, a wise old buck bedded just out of sight of the oblivious hunters, waiting them out, secure and confident in his chosen location.

I now had a dilemma on my hands. A dandy 4x4 buck was bedded less than 200 yards from me, broadside. I could have easily shot the buck where he lay, but with hunters just above and behind his location I felt that it wasn't a morally sound shot to take. I was now confident that the buck wouldn't bolt from his bed, unless the hunters pushed down through the cover he was in. After waiting for an excruciating 10 or 15 minutes, the hunters finally dropped off the ridge, giving me a safe shot at the buck. With shooting light fading, I steadied my Blaser R8 chambered in .30-06 and took the shot. Hit hard, the buck quickly expired a few feet from his bed.

We made our way down to the buck, a mature 4x4 that I'd venture to guess was 3 1/2 or 4 1/2 years old. We made quick work of quartering him for the pack out. I was very pleased with the performance of my new knife, a SCKW No. 6. I loaded up my pack with two quarters and hung the remainder in trees - out of the reach of coyotes. We'd return the next morning to retrieve the rest of the meat, along with the antlers.

With the aid of headlamps we covered the two miles back to camp, arriving late and tired. In the comfort of a warm wall tent we re-fueled on elk burgers and Gatorade as we shared the details of our day with Matt and Dave.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Muley Camp - Day 1

Fresh off a fantastic, 6 day mule deer hunt in Montana's Missouri River Breaks, I'm unpacking gear, butchering venison and looking over photos from the trip.

Over the next few days I'll be sharing some of our experiences from the hunt here, on the MSJ blog.

Day 1

On Sunday night I motored east to Billings to meet my Dad, who had flown in from Arizona for the hunt. This was to be his first big game hunt in Montana. We left my sister's house early Monday morning, stopping briefly in Grass Range for burgers, coffee and to top off the gas tank. My Dad soon got his first look at The Breaks as we descended into the river valley and crossed the mighty Mo via Fred Robinson Bridge. My old man liked the looks of the country: rough, scenic, and moderately timbered - perfect for hiking and glassing...the style of hunting that he enjoys most.

Our destination was Fourchette Bay on the north shore of Fort Peck Reservoir, this remote outpost would serve as our base camp for the hunt. After turning off the highway we navigated fifty miles of good dirt roads into Fourchette, driving through a seemingly endless sea of unspoiled Montana prairie in the process.

The plan was to meet my buddy Matt and his Dad at camp, they'd arrived the day prior and set up the wall tent - and perhaps even done a little hunting by now. As the road dropped to the campground and turned the corner, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the number of camps wasn't overwhelming (it can be a tent/trailer city here at times).

Although Matt and his Dad were out hunting, we quickly spotted camp and unloaded our gear. With a few hours of shooting light remaining, we decided to get out and have a look around. We drove a few miles from camp, parked and hiked along a large ridge with numerous finger ridges descending into deep creek bottoms on either side. Deer sign was everywhere and we soon got a look at our first muley of the trip - a young buck. Just before last light we spotted a sizable herd of deer feeding on an open slope just a couple of hundred yards from us. A good size buck was with the bunch, but in the low light we had trouble determining just how big he was and neither of us were itching to pull the trigger this early in the hunt.

It was an encouraging afternoon that indicated we could expect to see some rutting behavior from the bucks. As we pulled back into camp in the dark, the wall tent was glowing from lantern light and smoke was billowing from the chimney. Matt and Dave welcomed us and had a hearty meal of spaghetti in the works. After dinner we enjoyed a few libations as rain drops began to fall on the tent, leaving us wondering what tomorrow would bring.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Killin' Roosters

I have always said I am a hunter, but I don't necessarily like killing. The bigger the animal, the more compassion I seem to have. Shooting a bear doesn't excite me much. Elk hunting is my game due to the challenge of it on public land, but I still want to make a quick, clean kill more than anything.
Many "genteel" sportsmen and women who enjoy tweed and fly fishing, hunt birds, but pass on big game blood sports. Birds are, I guess, perceived more as targets, they not being mammals running around on four legs. I get that, although I still have a lot of love for the native birds and Hungarian Partridge. Who wouldn't love any little covey bird that huddles up to survive the wicked blizzards of the prairie? I hunt all of the above, but with great reverence.
Pheasants are different. I like to shoot them dead. Especially the late season, running devils that they are. Hunting in November and December is often most productive with a couple of guys pushing birds and a couple more doing some blocking. Mix in a few dogs, doing what they do, and you can get the buggers to eventually flush. I have never said pheasant shooting is difficult, but getting them to fly can be.
The pheasant hunting I cherish the most occurs in tall native grasses or CRP. One hunter, one dog and one wily rooster. It may require multiple points by the dog and a brisk pace by the hunter, but if you are taking baby steps or expecting your dog to not relocate, you lose, the rooster wins. When it comes to pheasants, I like to win. I assume the dogs do also.

Monday, October 25, 2010


I'm back in front of the computer on this stormy Monday morning, working, following an abbreviated elk hunt. I returned to Bozeman - on the afternoon of day 2 of what was supposed to be a 4 day hunt - with nothing but excuses.

Things were going according to plan as I arrived in camp on Friday afternoon, a warm wall tent and a cold beer awaiting me. The alarm went off at 4am opening morning and after a hot breakfast we hit the trail, climbing high into some great elk country. We got to the top a half hour before first light and split up, making plans to reconvene at noon to compare notes. Over the course of the morning I covered a lot of country, making a brutal loop that took me up and down ridge after ridge. I was into elk, but passed up a very marginal shot opportunity at some cows nervously milling around in heavy timber after I sneaked into their bedding area.

On the way back to our pre-determined rendezvous point, I bumped a lone spike bedded at the upper end of some north facing timber. He made the foolish mistake of running over the top of the ridge and onto a big open slope, where he dodged no less than a dozen bullets lobbed from obscene distances by other hunters.

There was blaze orange everywhere, particularly along my ill conceived route near the western border of the National Forest, where unbeknownst to me, hunters were easily accessing the area from private land. I'd never been to this location on opening morning...and probably never will again - it was a circus.

When I met back up with my comrades, I learned that although they too got into elk that morning, their plan didn't work out quite as intended. Prior to the hunt they'd scouted a herd which was making use of a high saddle for two straight days prior to opening morning. Their plan was to ambush the herd at that saddle. Well, long story short they bit off more than they could chew with the hike to the saddle, and weren't there at first light. Other hunters beat them to it, downing a couple of elk at the saddle just minutes into the season...those guys had it dialed.

After lunch I elected to stay up high for the remainder of the day, too stubborn (or smart?) to give up my hard earned elevation. I was pretty worn out from my ambitious morning hike and decided to sit and watch an old burn for the evening hunt...nothing materialized. I arrived back in camp long after my hunting buddies, and they had good news and bad.

The good news: when we parted ways after lunch, they dropped off the divide into a rugged drainage where one of them harvested a nice mule deer buck. The bad news: a Forest Service employee had just stopped by camp and informed them that we had to tear down our camp and be out of there by Monday morning at the latest! I was livid.

We were aware of the fact that there was heavy machinery and new culvert material located a couple of miles down the access road. What we weren't aware of was the fact that the contractor had dropped the ball and didn't get the project done over the summer as planned, and he had the audacity to think he should commence the project (which would require shutting down this dead-end access road) during the general hunting season! But as much angst as I have for the contractor, I'm even more upset with the Forest Service. After the ranger stopped by camp on Saturday evening, we decided to hunt close to camp on Sunday morning and pull out that afternoon - we had little choice in the matter. No sooner had we torn down the wall tent and loaded up the trucks, a different FS ranger stopped by camp. His update on the road closure status was bittersweet. Apparently the agency had come to their senses overnight, postponing the project until next summer.

So here we were, Sunday evening with camp completely packed up and a cold, heavy rain socked in. I would have been all for erecting camp again, in the rain, and staying for two more days, but no one else even seemed willing to consider that option.

It was a disappointing way to begin the '10 hunting season, but fortunately there's plenty of time remaining.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Countdown

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

After a couple weeks of working some very long hours to get the next issue of Montana Sporting Journal off to the printer, we're nearly there. We're proofing article layouts, making final edits and waiting on artwork from a couple of advertisers. Our art director, Rebecca Reinker, has done a great job on layout for us yet again. Her behind the scenes work, attention to detail and eye for design are particularly impressive this issue.

We've had our challenges with this issue, Rebecca's Mac computer self destructed less than a month ago, leaving us scrambling to pick up the pieces and get this issue completed, but we're nearly there.

I'm increasingly having a difficult time keeping my mind on work...Montana's general deer and elk season opens this Saturday. I've been looking forward to that day for a long time and now there are just under 72 hours to go before shooting light on opening morning. Our rifles are tuned up, backpacks are full of gear and anticipation levels are high. This weekend I'll be focusing on public land elk, hunting out of a traditional elk camp in the mountains of SW Montana.

Good luck to everyone getting out this weekend!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hanging On

Yesterday I fished hoppers on a MT trout river close to my home. I hadn't expected to have the opportunity to fish the big terrestrials, considering that it was October 7th. In fact I was pretty much resigned to nymphing deep on this bright, sunny fall day. A funny thing happened as I walked the path to the river, dozens of hoppers scattered in the grasses ahead of my feet! At the river's edge I tied on a big, yellow, Morrish hopper - a pattern that had produced nicely for me throughout August and September.

The ensuing action wasn't off the charts, and in fact most fish took the beadhead pheasant tail that was suspended below the hopper. Yet there was a window of time, perhaps two hours in length during mid-afternoon when the fish were taking the dry fly. Several small rainbows, along with a couple of nice browns, seemed to know - as I did - that hopper season was waning. They took the hopper with reckless abandon, reveling in their good fortune of an Indian Summer.

Looking out the window this morning, it is cloudy and gloomy...a baetis day, but certainly not a hopper day. Looking at the extended forecast, it appears that a frost isn't in the cards tonight and that Saturday and Sunday will again be warm and sunny. This weekend will, more likely than not, be the last opportunity to effectively fish hoppers for a while in Montana. In fact, by my count we're looking at nine, long, hopperless can probably guess what will be on the end of my line this weekend.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dog Dangers

For those of us that love our dogs like children, we treat the animals as such. We cringe when we are forced to leave them overnight in a kennel, would prefer that they never are transported in a dusty dog trailer and definitely wouldn't let them ride around in the back of an open pickup bed.
No matter how hard we try, there are still risks out there. On a recent hunt in central MT, it was full of bizarre events, causing me to question if I was crazy for hunting the Montana prairie. I made it home after a couple of close calls, either of which could have been tragic.
The first oddity was a coyote that was as brave as any I have seen. Maybe it was young and naive, maybe it had rabies. Regardless, it was a predator that was fixated on my two, white, setter girls, oblivious to the fact that a human was with them, giving them water, as it slowly creeped closer. At 40 yards, my partner said, "You'd better shoot", so I did. That finally averted the coyote, but then the dogs were confused, taking off in pursuit of the wounded predator. Moments of chaos followed, with my dogs finally at my side, fortunate that the coyote didn't put up a fight in its last stand.
Later that day, with blue skies and a temperature near 65, I was enjoying myself, watching the dogs work the edge of a stubble field for Huns. Perfect weather for hunting and as I found out, a perfect day for rattlesnakes. Typically, one hears a rattlesnake before he sees it. In this case. the rattler was coiled like a cobra, slightly taller than the grain stubble, catching my eye just as Tess and Abby both neared it from opposite sides. Instinctively, I cut it in two with a shot from my 20 gauge, the dogs not realizing what the commotion was for.
Throw in a porcupine that could have presented more of a hassle than a danger and a deep, open well, there was plenty of excitement to be had. No, I don't shoot everything I see when afield. The porcupine was spared, in case you are wondering. But, when events unfold in just seconds, as in the case of a fearless coyote or an angered snake, one has to react quickly.
One more reason why I like my dogs to hunt closer than some. I would take a bit of uncovered ground over a dog that has to brave the dangers alone.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Northern Hospitality

For most of us do-it-yourself hunters, we are quite accustomed to fixing our own meals afield, making shelter for a night or two of sleep and most importantly, finding a quality place to hunt. This weekend was a nice change for me.
I was the guest of Jacob and Sarah Dusek, proprietors of Sage Safaris, north of Havre, MT. I told them not to fuss for my visit, but upon arrival, I was shown my deluxe wall tent, with the wood stove already stoked, the lanterns already lit. I wish my elk camp was that comfortable.
The next day, Sarah had a superb breakfast ready at 8 o'clock, as we watched antelope bucks in rut, chase each other across the sage. We literally began hunting as we stepped away from the camp, Jacob directing me toward areas which often held Hungarian partridge and sharptail. The dogs' first point of the day nearly fooled me, as the Hun-sized birds were actually young pheasants. I quickly put my gun down and thanked Tess for doing her best anyway.
In the course of the morning, we did see sharptail and Huns, along with a bunch of pheasants, including some mature birds that had the audacity to squawk at us, seemingly knowing that they were safe until the October pheasant opener. My shooting was a little rusty, but good enough to make the day a success. The dogs did well, despite the day warming quite rapidly.
Being five miles from the Canadian border, the Duseks do see their share of winter. Jacob explained that they had a moderate winterkill in 2009-2010, with deep snow that lasted from December until March. Seeing as many birds as we did, was a pleasant surprise. Jacob has also done some upland improvement on his family farm, planting various food plots and limiting the grazing of certain vital winter habitats.
My mind was on lunch as we hunted our way back to the camp and as expected, Sarah's midday meal, didn't disappoint. Stuffed pork loin, fresh vegetables and some very tasty banoffe (google it), was as good as any big city restaurant. Being pampered isn't a bad thing. However, I did draw the line at Jacob's offer to clean my birds. Some things hunters must do themselves.

My only complaint of the entire trip was noisy neighbors. At about 3:00AM, I awoke to the loud discussion between three different groups of coyotes. One group was so close to camp, I had to yell at them to knock it off. Upon hearing a human scolding, they did stop their starlight serenades. I will take coyotes over big-city sirens and car horns, any day.
Thanks for the great time Sarah and Jacob.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Golden Trout Timeline

7:00AM-Alarm-last minute packing. Rain gear? Of course. Tuna-Helper or Ramen? Both.
8:00AM-Big breakfast-today I will burn it off and it won't be at the gym
9:00AM-Depart for mountains-that snow looks so far away.
11:00AM-Begin hike from trailhead-already 80 degrees.
2:00PM-Realize we missed the lake's turn. Walked 5.5 miles instead of 4.
3:15PM-Too stubborn to do a 180. We are going cross-country.
5:00PM-Going cross-country was dumb. We went up 2,000' and then back down.Out of water.
5:30PM-Laura's first dirty look. Almost there. Promise. Happy B-Day by the way.....
6:30PM-Found a place to camp near water. Small victory. But, I would have preferred to sleep near trout.
Midnight-Decent storm. Do we really need three dogs in the tent?
7:00AM-Oatmeal for breakfast. Pack light for final ascent. Surprisingly, blisters didn't heal overnight.
9:30AM-Finally fishing, at snow level. Why do goldens have to be so picky?
10:30AM-First Golden. A beauty, 18"er. Orange scud. Pictures. Release. Too pretty to eat.
11:00AM-Laura's first fish. She doesn't realize that she just joined an exclusive club.
12:30PM-Head back to camp. Pack up.Downhill most of the way, but still steep.
5:00PM-Back at the truck. Tired. Sore. One of the best trips ever.

Look for the complete story in the Summer 2011 issue of Montana Sporting Journal.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fishing, But Mostly Floating

Since I had to eat my Smith River permit this spring (the river would have been at an ideal flow those days), I attempted to get a bit of that missed opportunity back by a recent float on the Longest Un-Dammed River in the US. I was hearing reports of good hopper fishing, the river was just right for floating, and I found a raft to rent.

As bad luck would have it, Saturday morning was cool with light rain. Not a great time to throw camping gear and a dog into a raft and push off downstream. And, definitely not an ideal time to expect great hopper fishing. So, we took our time in Livingston and spent some money on fancy coffee and a few necessities at Dan Bailey's.

Fortunately, the rain eventually broke and Saturday afternoon and Sunday were quite enjoyable. I had envisioned a great hatch at dusk Saturday night near our island-based campsite, but the wind killed that too.

Sunday was a sun-day, forcing Laura and me to change from wind-breakers to beach-wear. The fishing was only slightly more productive, with a fish or two on a Dave's Hopper, a fish or two on an ant dropper, and a fish on a streamer. Just nothing to get too excited about.

Fishing aside, it was an enjoyable trip. There aren't many rivers which allow you to float 30 miles in two days, camp on an island of public land, and fish without having to alter your course due to other vessels. We saw our share of wildlife, had beautiful sunrises and had views of three mountain ranges. Not too bad for a weekend trip that came together on Thursday evening.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Full Of It

If you have fished or boated on many of the reservoirs in Montana the past decade, you have seen a prolonged period of drought and low water levels. However, decent mountain snowpack and moderate spring moisture have changed that. As of now, Fort Peck and nearly all of the major reservoirs on the Missouri River watershed are full. A few are even spilling into their flood pool.
It is truly a great sight to see people using the entire length of Fort Peck "lake". Boats can now travel from Crooked Creek all the way to the dam, a good haul of roughly 80 miles. Compared to fishing on some Midwestern lakes, Fort Peck fishing just went from quiet to desolate.
On a recent trip, Laura and I took the Lund into a weedy bay that we had to ourselves, roughly 10 miles from camp. We started fishing along the edge of young cottonwood trees, trees that were now nearly submerged from the lake's rapid rise. The first fish was a strong one, a fish that peeled off line like a northern pike. A pike it wasn't, as it was a meaty 32" walleye that was feeding in seven feet of water. I rarely had experienced good walleye fishing by casting crankbaits, but in this case, it was what the doctor ordered.
Deeper in the bay, we caught gold eye, sauger, catfish and even crappies on cranks. While it was remarkable to see the lake rise nearly 20 feet in two springs, it was even more remarkable to catch fish in strange places by methods I don't typically use. The big question is how the fish react this winter and next spring.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Legend & Lore

I don't remember just when or where I first learned of the creek. Maybe it was at Bud Lilly's in West Yellowstone as I eavesdropped on a hushed conversation while perusing the fly bins. Or perhaps it came from loose lips over a frosty pint at the Silver Dollar in Ennis. Truth be told I probably couldn't trace my fascination with this particular fishery back to any single source. Bit by bit over the past couple of years I've accumulated a pittance of knowledge about the place...never enough to really go by, but just enough to keep me intrigued.

Legend has it that the creek hosts a mysterious, almost ghostly run of very large cutthroat trout. What's more, the rumor of this run is substantiated by sound, but antiquated, stream survey data compiled by fisheries biologists. My own trips to fish the creek have done little to sort out fact from fiction. Were it not for an occassional rare, unabashed report from fellow anglers, I'd probably have given up on the place long ago.

Last Friday marked my third trip to fish the creek in search of its phantom cutthroat trout. The two previous trips had resulted in few if any trout caught and those that were caught certainly weren't of mythical proportions. This trip proved to be no different, nary a trout was brought to hand despite the fact that an able angling comrade and I spent eight hours methodically prospecting some excellent looking water along various portions of the stream.

Fortunately the creek offers more than a long shot at hooking up with migratory cutthroat trout. The watershed harbors a remnant population of a rare, wild fish native to Montana - the arctic grayling. I've caught the species in some mountain lakes throughout Montana - and even as far south as Arizona - but this particular population is special. They are one of the few remaining fluvial/adfluvial populations of grayling occupying native habitat in Montana - the only state in the lower 48 where the species still occurs naturally.

I'll always look forward to returning to this mountain valley for its unspoiled beauty and for the grayling, yet I'll always be hoping for something more. Should I ever find myself tight to a big cutthroat on this stream I'll thank my lucky stars. In the meantime I'll enjoy the legend and lore that the creek is enshrouded in, and the process of unraveling the mystery.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cliff and Wade

This past weekend I found myself in the region that is often called "The trout heart of America", which is of course West Yellowstone, Montana. As I was en route from Bozeman to W. Yellowstone I was kicking myself for not departing early enough to leave time for some fishing. The Gallatin River looked incredible above the Taylor Fork, flowing clear - and no doubt cold. And then there were the enticing glimpses I got of Grayling Creek, but again, I had people to meet and places to be. I was no less torn as I drove over Duck Creek and the Madison River above Hebgen Lake.

I did eventually find time to wet a line on the Madison River between the lakes on Friday evening. I fished above the Cabin Creek confluence, and had excellent fishing on a variety of subsurface fly patterns ranging from stonefly nymphs to midges. The catch consisted largely of rainbows, along with whitefish.

As the light began to fade I motored west, toward Cliff and Wade Lakes, where I had more business to attend to on Saturday. I pulled up to Wade Lake in time to witness an incredible sunset over the lake. I awoke Saturday morning to my first daylight view of Wade Lake. I could hardly believe my eyes...I'd seen pictures and had heard about the lake's beauty, but seeing it for myself was really something. Both Cliff and Wade Lakes are spring fed and have incredible clarity. Under the right lighting conditions the lakes have a beautiful emerald green hue to them.

I spent most of the morning photographing the lakes and visiting with a local lodge owner. Around noon a prolific callibaetis hatch emerged over Wade Lake, enticing its finned residents to the surface. The dry fly fishing would no doubt have been exceptional, but again, I had places to be.

I'm looking forward to getting back to Cliff and Wade Lakes this summer when I have ample time to fish. I learned much about the fisheries while visiting with the locals and I look forward to applying that new found knowledge.

Montana Sporting Journal's regular fly fishing columnist, Josh Bergan, will be educating readers about these unique trout lakes through a full length feature article in the upcoming summer issue of MSJ...stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Walleye Cheeks

On a recent fishing weekend at Ft. Peck Reservoir, I was given an impromptu invitation to sit down with my neighbors at their trailer and eat a lakeside dinner. As the sun was setting above the water's glass-like surface, I was told the source of the main entree; it was a ten pound walleye caught the day before. I was even given a walleye "cheek", a scallop-sized morsel behind the eye of the large fish. It is rarity, given the fact that any fish under 4-5 pounds is too small to make the trimming of the cheek worthwhile.

I was immediately perplexed. Really? We are eating a trophy fish? A fish that I have always preached should either be released to spawn again next spring or sent to the taxidermist, so the behemoth could be celebrated for eternity? The walleye was battered and deep fried and tasted darn good, despite the pre-existing sour taste in my mouth. I kept my thoughts to myself. Who can argue with people nice enough to invite one to dinner?

I enjoyed my share of the bounty, along with a smattering of salads and other spectacular dishes. I thanked my gracious neighbors and went back to my chores and preparation for tomorrow's fishing.

It wasn't until the next day that I nearly walked back over to my neighbors to apologize-an apology for my narrow-minded thoughts and holier-than-thou beliefs that every big fish should be released. A fish that would be released back into a reservoir in which very little natural reproduction occurs. Sure, the fish could be caught again if released, but maybe it wouldn't have survived anyway.

This was my neighbor's first ten pound walleye in 40+ years of fishing. She had a right to keep that fish and enjoy it anyway she pleased. My neighbor chose to enjoy the walleye by hosting her neighbors for dinner. Sorry Marian. And thanks for the great dinner.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hold Your Fire

Here's a snapshot of my Friday evening:

3:00pm - Matt calls, wanting to know if I'll join him on an evening bear hunt...we'd leave in an hour.
3:05pm - I work feverishly to put the finishing touches on an advertising proposal.
3:45pm - I'm frantically pulling mothballed camo out of the closet, and loading my Mystery Ranch Crew Cab with a few essentials.
4:00pm - A quick stop at the post office to fire off the proposal.
4:15pm - I arrive at Matt's, late as usual. We hop in his rig and hit the road.
5:45pm - We arrive at the trailhead and with my naked eye I can see a herd of elk in a distant meadow. This is new country to me, and it looks great! Heavy timber interspersed with grassy parks and a lush creek bottom look like ideal bear habitat.
6:15pm - We're glassing from a great ridgetop vantage point with a commanding view of several meadows. There are elk in nearly every meadow, including a couple of sizable herds and some bulls sporting a bit of antler growth.
7:00pm - Getting antsy now, we're still at the same vantage point and despite abundant wildlife, no bears have shown. Matt hunted this location the evening before, but was much further down the drainage. At 7:30 lastnight he had spotted a big bear in one of the meadows we were now overlooking, but he couldn't cut the distance in time. Tonight we're in good position and hoping for a habitual routine from the bear.
7:15pm - We decide to start working our way down to the bottom of the drainage, to getter a better view of the creek bottom meadow directly below us.
7:30pm - We come to a slight break in the timber as we head downslope...enough to glass the meadow and - right on schedule - Matt spots a bear. With the creek covering our noise and the wind in our face, we make a beeline for the meadow.
7:45pm - We creep to the edge of the meadow and there is the bear, unaware of our presence. Matt is pretty calm and collected considering the circumstances, and is getting into position for a clear shot. Being the ethical hunter that he is he takes one last look around and wouldn't you know it - this big, jet black bear is a momma.
8:15pm - We've been watching this sow and her two cubs for about a half hour from a hundred yards, the cubs are pretty entertaining, wrestling with each other, scurrying around the meadow, climbing trees... and generally causing mischief.
8:30pm - We spend the last half hour of shooting light hiking along the creek bottom, seeing bear sign, and loads of elk and deer, but no more bears.
9:00pm - In the twilight we hoof it up a thousand feet out of the drainage and back to the truck. I'm out of shape.
11:00pm - We roll back into Bozeman, tired, but happy with our evening hunt. We'd lucked out and found a bear, perhaps the same bear that Matt had seen the prior evening. Above all else we felt fortunate that Matt had spotted the cubs before pulling the trigger, which would have effectively ended the lives of three bears. In the heat of the moment it would have been all too easy to assume the bear was alone, since the cubs were well concealed in the timber at the edge of the meadow.

The moral of the story? Hold your fire.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Smith River Trip

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Right? After a challenging Smith River trip, I'd like to believe that is the case. After a few days of indecisiveness leading up to the launch date, due to river conditions and a member of our party canceling, we decided to go ahead and float the Smith River anyway. I really had my heart set on spending my 30th birthday on the Smith and with a forecast calling for cool temperatures, we were hopeful that the river would be dropping and clearing throughout our trip.

On the morning of Tuesday, the 27th, we launched our canoe at Camp Baker with beautiful weather and pretty good river conditions (2' of visibility). Most folks do the Smith over 4 nights and 5 days, we opted to extend the trip by a night and a day to ensure that we'd have ample time to fish over the course of this 59 mile float.

The first day and a half of the trip went off without a hitch and we stopped frequently to wade fish the more productive looking water. The first flies out of my box were a JJ Special and a San Juan...I never had to deviate from that tandem setup. The fish were all over both flies on the drift, and a few took the JJ on the swing. Lots of heavy browns up to 17" and quite a few solid rainbows came to hand those first couple of days on the water. Best of all, the 70-80% chance of rain on Tuesday night and Wednesday didn't materialize...things were going great!

But then things took a turn for the worse late on Wednesday. Long story short, we dumped the canoe in a pushy cliffside sweeper that we approached much too casually. That debacle cost us dearly, we lost a paddle, a rod, an axe and 3/4s of our beer! Fortunately we were less than a mile from our boat camp and the clouds never opened up that night, giving us a chance to quickly build a warming fire and dry ourselves out. Hypothermia avoided, we settled into our respective tents for the night, looking forward to more fishing and paddling in the morning.

It wasn't to be, at dawn on Thursday morning I awoke to the sound of quiet, but persistent spattering on my tent walls...a light drizzle I assumed. As I peered out of the vestibule I was surprised to find a wintry scene with snow falling hard and accumulating quickly; this hadn't been in the forecast! By the time I'd finished my first cup of coffee the storm had intensified greatly, with heavy snow blowing in sideways on a fierce, sustained wind. This wasn't a day to be on the river in a canoe. We got a hot fire going and fed it steadily as the snow piled up in the canyon. We hunkered down and waited out the storm, spending three nights and two full days at the Canyon Depth boat camp as more than 2' of snow fell over a 36 hour period.

The storm broke late on Friday and we covered the final 40 miles or so of river in short order, putting in a 30 mile day on Saturday and a 10 miler on Sunday. We were pushing to get off the river and didn't fish much over the final two days and when we did it was unproductive. The trip was challenging and offered up the worst weather conditions I've ever experienced on an extended, self-supported backcountry trip of any nature. But we survived it, learned a few things along the way and gained some valuable experience. I like to think I'm stronger for it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

That Urge

After a weekend of hockey in Missoula, I was too stiff and sore to get out of the car and do any wade fishing on the route back home. I did get out and take a peek at one of my favorite little streams, mostly to take a break from the highway. Laura and I could see some fish in a deep pool, but couldn't tell what they were. But, we soon identified them, when fish would leave the deep water sanctuary and scoot their way up stream, in just inches of water, into a smaller side channel. They were beautiful rainbows, doing their best to get upstream and spawn. Within minutes, I was back at the car, fly rod in hand.
The 'bows had a barrier upstream which wasn't man-made, but instead made by some crafty beavers. Below the dam, 30 or more trout were stacked in the small waterfall's eddies. Every few minutes, you could hear and see the commotion of a stubborn rainbow attempting to clear the 3' dam. It was an incredible sight. Laura tried to capture a leaping spawner on camera, which proved to be more difficult than anticipated. I walked downstream a bit, hoping to land one of the healthy fish. The fish refused both surface presentation and a variety of nymphs. I put on a big, flashy Zonker and had a fish chase it right away. I then lost a big male that came out of the water like a steelhead I had hooked years earlier in Canada. Finally, I landed a nice 19" male and released him into the water, to continue his mission. I decided that I best leave the creatures alone after just 20 minutes of fishing. Something didn't seem right, interrupting their calling to head upstream, their behavior like sailors on leave. One fish was enough. I felt like I had been fortunate enough to experience one of nature's great performances.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hunting Again

I am never prepared for the first turkey outing of the year, despite having an entire winter to prepare. The night before the opener, I am digging out the camo clothing I haven't worn since last spring and give the mouth call one annual, sorry attempt. I throw the box call in the backpack instead and decide if I need warm clothes or really warm clothes. The forecast called for a low of 17 degrees, so I chose the latter.
Dad showed up without a hefty outer layer, so the plan would be to run and gun, hiking and calling until we had a response from an interested or perhaps agitated gobbler. Unfortunately, we had no response. While he had seen some birds wandering through the area a few days earlier and this quiet, calm morning was ideal, the birds obviously continued wandering. In fact, we didn't see any sign of large birds in the woods the entire morning. But, any day in the woods in spring is a nice change of scenery and I did find one nice six point elk shed.
Of course on the drive home, we saw birds crossing the road, giving us one last reminder that we had a mediocre morning. But, despite the lack of success this first morning, at least now I have my turkey gear ready to go. And, best of all, there are four weeks remaining in the Montana spring turkey season.

Monday, March 29, 2010

On Thin Ice

Most folks living in Missoula or Billings would assume the entire Great Plains would be ice and snow free, since their balmy weather has greened up the grass and muddied up the rivers the past few weeks. But, on Montana's northern-most reservoirs, there was still enough ice recently to partake in a final ice fishing outing.
I typically enjoy "late" ice better than those days in December, when a lot of anglers are excited to try their new gear or are perhaps just bored with sitting inside. I am typically still running the dogs on wary birds and can't make time for fishing. But, in late March, I enjoy curing cabin fever by sitting in a lawn chair, jigging for perch and walleye. The days are longer, the sun brighter and the fish often are cooperative.
This final trip was hot and cold; the perch bite was slow throughout the day, but the walleyes turned on very nicely during the fade to dusk. We caught only the smaller-sized male 'eyes, which was fine with us. They are better eating than the larger females, females that have important business to tend to in the next month or so.
Upon arrival at home, my gear went directly into storage. Now I am truly ready to trade the auger for a boat, warm boots for flip-flops.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sometimes It All Comes Together

Some people seem to have luck on their side when it comes to fishing. My friend Matt is one such person. Now that's not to say that he isn't a skilled angler, for he is, but he just seems to have a little extra river karma going for him. He's caught some very nice fish in my presence over the past year, none more so than the rainbow he landed on the Missouri River last week.

Unfortunately we didn't have a tape measure along, but there is no doubt that it was somewhere in the 23-25" range. As impressive as its length was, the girth of this fish is what really set it apart, it was massive!

In other news, I fished Big Spring Creek on Thursday afternoon following a morning business meeting in Lewistown. While the creek looked great to me, the locals were complaining about it being off color from low elevation snow melt. There was 3-4' of visibility, which turned out to be plenty. I fished above town and caught good numbers of rainbows, and an occasional brown, up to 14". Most fish were taken on a shop vac/pheasant tail variation, but a couple fell for a small partridge and pink soft hackle. I also saw my first blue winged olives of the year...there weren't many and the trout weren't really looking for them, but it was great to see - spring is definitely in the air.

The weekend found me in Kalispell for the Great Rockies Show and although I brought my fishing gear, it wasn't until the drive home on Sunday afternoon that I had a chance to fish. The young lady that accompanied me - and who was essentially my guide for the afternoon - put me onto some great looking water along the upper Blackfoot. Karen was even gracious enough to leave her rod behind so that I could fish more, what more could a guy ask for? But it was to no avail, the water was cold and the fish were a bit lethargic. I did have one take in the last run we fished, but I must have been hook set was poor and the trout slipped off. Even so, I can't remember a better couple of hours spent on the water in quite a while. It all came together on this day with beautiful weather and great company on the river.

Friday, February 26, 2010

No Spring Fever Yet

While Will and his cohorts are fishing the big rivers like the Bighorn and the Missouri, cussing the ice on their rods, there are still some of us that are embracing frozen water.

I have always enjoyed introducing newcomers to ice-fishing. Most folks envision the activity as sitting by a hole in the ice, being bored to tears, shivering in the frigid temperatures. But, with some planning (and a lot of gear, i.e. auger, shanty and heater), fishing through the ice for trout, walleye, pike or perch, can be a lot of fun and is a nice winter break.

I had first put Laura on some perch on a local reservoir and she quickly picked up the knack of hooking the tasty little fish, as they nibbled on the waxworm/ teardrop jig presentation. We enjoyed a thermos of a warm beverage and listened to the local radio station, as we jigged next to the propane heater in the canvas shack. She was hooked.

The next adventure was a hunt for big trout-fishing that would provide less action and require more finesse in trying to get the feisty rainbows onto the ice. The adventure started out ugly; we drilled holes by hand in blizzard, white-out conditions. But, once inside the shack, the heater was on, and so was the action. The clear water allowed us to watch the occasional fish cruise by, with Laura quickly landing a nice 20" fish, with very little advice from the "know-it-all". Spring fishing can wait for a few more weeks. Some of us are still catching fish through eight inch holes drilled in the ice.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Off to a Fine Start

February is a slow time of year for sportsmen in Montana. Waterfowl season has closed, we're still two months from spring turkey season and an ice auger is needed for most fishing endeavors. I've been spending a good deal of time tying flies in anticipation of spring, but all this tying and talk of fishing makes my cabin fever even worse.

Going against my better judgment, I've been out fly fishing a bit recently. It's difficult to be self-motivated about getting out on the river at this time of year. Fortunately a couple of my friends have no qualms about bundling up and wading icy rivers in an attempt to shake the winter doldrums.

A recent afternoon outing on the Gallatin River with my buddy Matt was an exercise in futility. Much to our surprise, by the time we fished our way downstream to the run that was our destination, we found a couple of anglers had beaten us to it! This on a weekday in February...must be the economy. As the smell of skunk intensified over the course of the afternoon, we lowered ourselves to sight fishing for whitefish...with no luck. But it was a beautiful afternoon with snow flurries mingling with shafts of sunlight.

Last Friday I got out for a few hours of fly fishing on the Lower Madison River, a local tailwater. On this trip I was accompanied by Josh, the fly fishing columnist for MSJ and his friend Brady. Brady was into fish almost immediately and continued putting on a clinic throughout the day. I was a little slower to catch on, landing a couple of rainbows on an egg pattern early on before hitting a serious dry spell. Fortunately Brady eventually took pity on me and furnished a fly he calls, the "Lower Madison Special". As it did on this day, it never ceases to amaze me when the fishing goes from ho-hum to great after simply changing fly patterns.

Winter fly's not all bad.

On a separate note...a quick reminder to get your Smith River permit applications into MTFWP by Feb 16.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Indoor Season

The outdoor, fishing, hunting, RV, guns, knives, etc., show season has definitely hit its stride.

Will just returned from SHOT in Las Vegas, where every firearms, shooting and hunting manufacturer was present. From the attendance and excitement at SHOT, you would never know this country went through a recession in 2009.

Montana has its own quality outdoor shows. Bill Reier, Jr. has done a great job of finding good venues in Montana's biggest markets, with a nice mix of outdoor vendors and good traffic. Here the schedule for the Great Rockies Sport Shows:

Billings: January 15-17 at MetraPark
Bozeman: January 29-31 at the Gallatin Country Fairgrounds
Great Falls: February 5-7 at the Montana ExpoPark
Kalispell/Whitefish March 12-14 at the Flathead Country Fairgrounds.

Check out the shows and stop by the Montana Sporting Journal booth and say Hi. And yes, Bob Jacklin is holding a spincast rod in the picture. His fly fishing instruction is still legendary.