Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Final Hunt

I really didn't have time to hunt today. I had bags packed, bags containing clothing for Big Sky skiing, clothes for the beautiful people. And it was windy as heck. Steady winds 25-30 mph, gusts more than that.
But, I had to hunt. The Montana upland season was coming to an end. And there was no snow on the ground, no other excuses to stay indoors this late December. This hunt was more for the dogs than me. My old girl Tess, would be nine by next season and at that age in a dog's life, there are no guarantees. When I grabbed my gun and orange vest, they confirmed how much they wanted to hunt. Jumping, dancing and whining. Thanking me and begging me.
Since I only had about three hours to make hay, I had to hunt close to town. Average habitat, but good enough. The dogs were intense, I was intense. When they got the least bit birdy, I got prepared, held my gun slightly tighter than I did earlier in the season. I walked fast, wanting to cover as much ground as I could, without snow, the birds could be anywhere. They weren't just forced to seek refuge in the heavier winter cover.
When we complete our first hike, about a three mile walk through fairly good grass, close to grain stubble, we never saw a bird. I had seen pheasant tracks in the ice on the creek bottom and had seen a number of Hun roosts on the higher ground. But, no birds seen.
Despite being nearly out of time and having a four hour drive ahead of me once back in town, I couldn't end the season on a somewhat sour note. The dogs had hunted hard, but with very little reward. So, I crossed the highway and tried one more spot, a long shot, but with this mild December weather, the birds could be there.
And they were. Tess pointed three sharptail that took flight from a higher elevation. I shot quickly, hitting the bird, but decided to take a 2nd shot, to confirm that it was dead and a prize for the little setters. It might sound like fiction, the quest for the perfect ending, but it was. I was almost to the truck, when Abby pointed and Tess backed her. I took one step and a small covey of eight birds rose up. I emptied both barrels, dropping a Hun for each dog to bring back to me. I nearly had tears in my eyes, noting how perfect of a finish it was.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bonus Time

In Montana and other states such as the Dakotas, some autumns our upland seasons end early, occasionally as early as Halloween. Snow can fill the grasslands completely, often icing over, creating a crust that is unfriendly to both dogs and birds. Sure, the birds are still out there, but often they congregate in farm yards, making them off-limits and just as well, if they are subject to five months of winter survival.

Thus far, 2011 has been a wingshooter’s blessing. There has been only one significant snowfall to date and the bulk of that has melted. Pheasants are still seeking refuge in tall CRP and Hungarian partridge are spending their time, well, where you find them. I am still seeing coveys in stubble fields and the shorter grasses, and on sunny hillsides. All of a sudden I am making up for lost time, days that were taken up by work, big game hunting and other necessities of life.

Despite the obvious added hunting opportunities for hunters and our beloved gun dogs, perhaps the biggest benefactor is the birds themselves. They are still enjoying the good life, having plenty of access to food and continuing to put on fat reserves to survive the winter ahead. Fortunately, we are already down to just three months of it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Time To Come Clean

My name is Jay and I am a bird hunter.

That is my only explanation after finishing my 2nd big game season in a row without shooting an elk, antelope or deer. I guess I just shoot birds. Not the worst habit to have, but is it better to be a specialist or be mediocre at a handful of pursuits?

Granted, I passed on a cow elk, two miles downhill from the truck, the day after Thanksgiving. On the final day of Montana's big game season, I also chose not to shoot a decent muley buck, after watching him through my scope for a few minutes. I was after a whitetail this year. And, I haven't drawn an antelope tag in two years. But, I live in the middle of Montana, so no excuses will suffice.

But, if you find yourself racing home from deer hunting at 9AM on the final day of the rifle season, to pick up your bird dogs and go hunt pheasants somewhere, you might be a bird hunter. The pheasants came easy this Sunday, the dogs had a great time and I hunted in a t-shirt in late November. To heck with deer and elk.

Sure am glad that Dad shared some of his elk meat, though.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Finishing In The Sage

Upon returning to Montana from a trip to MN, where ruffed grouse and woodcock were on the menu, I added a couple of days to hunt pheasants once I crossed the border. Needless to say, shooting a big October rooster seemed like child's play, after fighting to get shots at crafty ruffs and diminutive woodcock in the North Woods.
Eventually I had to return to my email, voicemail and old school mail.
However, as I was nearing my home in central Montana, it dawned on me that the sage grouse season was about to close November 1st. Since I hadn't hunted sage grouse in a couple of years or so and I was in the midst of prime sage grouse country, I pulled over. The dogs were 7 days into a fairly intense road trip, but when their dog box opened, they still showed the same excitement they did a week earlier.
I grabbed just enough water for the dogs with about an hour hunt in mind. I headed for a large sage flat on public land where I had seen birds a few years ago. It was a case of deja vu, as the dogs became birdy on the same knob, pointing the same flock of sage grouse, which flushed in the same direction as years before. Obviously the birds were a newer generation, but everything else was a repeat. I only shot one big male sage grouse, not needing to shoot another majestic, native bird that is struggling in some parts. I headed back to the truck, but not before the dogs also found two coveys of Huns, which added to my mixed bag of birds very nicely, putting an exclamation point on my 2011 upland odyssey.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Drop in the Bucket

Fish mortality associated with irrigation ditches is a problem throughout the West. In Montana alone it is probable that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of fish (not all are trout) perish in irrigation ditches on an annual basis.

Trout Unlimited is working to raise funding for, and install screening on irrigation ditch headgates, but progress is slow. Additionally, many regional TU chapters are hosting events in cooperation with landowners to rescue fish stranded in irrigation ditches.

A fishing buddy and I recently held our own unsanctioned fish rescue on the irrigation ditch that runs by my house. This ditch diverts water from the Gallatin River, and likely claims the lives of thousands of fish every year. In about two hours of work with a boat net, a bucket and a sheet of window screening we managed to rescue nearly 100 fish. Many of them were fingerling whitefish, but a number of them were fine brown trout that belong in the river.

Our efforts were just a drop in the bucket, but every bit helps. Contact your local TU chapter to learn more about opportunities to get involved.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Pleasant Pheasant Surprise

Most of us Montana bird hunters headed into the 2011 pheasant season with lowered expectations. Winter was pretty brutal, as it started early and lasted until April, without a lot of reprieve throughout. When spring did arrive, the state was saturated, with above average rainfall and a fair amount of lowland flooding. It was an unfortunate “perfect storm” scenario.

However, thirty minutes into the opener, I commented to Ryan that there were enough birds to hunt this fall, despite the negative outlook by wildlife biologists, farmers and hunters. By ten o’clock, when we had our limit of six roosters, I upgraded my description from “enough” to “average numbers". In one field alone, we moved probably 50 birds in a mile-long walk. However, there were areas that were fairly void of birds, but typically have held pheasants in the past. Over the course of the weekend, we did put on a few fruitless miles too. But, overall, there was plenty of action and good dog work.

The trade off for more birds than expected, was the quality of the birds. According to Ryan’s dad, who is a rancher and spends a good amount of time on the land, many pheasants had an unsuccessful first hatch, but managed a very successful second hatch, due to the lush grass that developed. Since many of the late hatches occurred around August 1st, the evidence was present this opener. We saw pheasants that would cackle like a rooster, but had no coloring whatsoever. One flock of pheasants were the size of Hungarian partridge. We vowed to select only the mature roosters over points by the dogs, but despite the attempt, we still ended up with a few young birds.

It was a pleasant surprise to see what Mother Nature can giveth after she taketh away so much during winter and spring. It should make for some decent hunting longer into the season. Let’s hope that winter doesn’t arrive early this autumn.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Good Year For The Blues

Most of Montana had a wet, extremely wet, spring. As a bird hunter, we worry about the spring hatch as much as we worry about getting water in our basement. One thing I am learning is that the spring weather on the low ground, the stuff that adversely effects grouse, partridge and pheasants, may not be as detrimental to the mountain grouse populations.
In fact, we have seen some very nice broods this fall and a lot of them. It doesn't seem to matter what mountain range we hunt, what the weather is that day or what our horoscopes say; this is shaping up to be one of the best falls for chasing blue grouse up high.
But, there is one caveat to keep in mind before grabbing the shotgun and heading up in the hills: You will need to hunt hard and hunt high. Most of our birds have been above 7,000 feet and our daily jaunts have been pushing 10-12 miles.
As a result of the good fortunes up high, I have delayed most of my trips locally to look for Huns and sharptail. Those birds can wait, however. By late September, planning any trips to hunt blue grouse can get dicey. Snow comes early to the high country, making travel and hiking more difficult, if not impossible. Then, it is prairie birds or nothing. Let's hope they had a better-than-expected hatch too.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Birds and Dogs On The Front

Since I wasn't as fortunate as some of the bird hunters I know, I didn't get to hunt the opener on September 1st. But, thanks to an invite from Shoco Ranch, I was hunting Saturday morning in some of the most beautiful country around.

Shoco is located just outside of Augusta, along the Rocky Mountain Front.Shoco is an oasis amidst mostly dry cattle country, with good bird habitat along a gem of a little trout stream. The fourth-generation owner of the ranch, Sally Shortridge, now manages the ranch for birds and also releases pheasants and chukars. Not truly wild birds, but you wouldn't know as you never see a pen of caged birds on the place and they fly as strongly as any game bird I have hunted.

Sally was a good host, as we hunted over both her German shorthair and my setters. (Guess which dogs required an hour of combing and grooming that evening) The dog work was good, the shooting decent and we finished the evening at a campfire at one of the three rustic, secluded cabins along the creek.

The next day Laura and I decided to trade the shotguns for fly rods and did a little fishing. The early September day was prime hopper time and Laura landed her first brown on a Joe's hopper. The creek held good numbers of fish and there were more deep runs than we could get to in a weekend. I really couldn't think of a place I would rather have been.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Trout Up High

If you read Montana Sporting Journal, you know that we often tout Montana's great mountain lake fishing. The season is very short, the list of potential lakes to fish, so lengthy. While I am one the folks bragging up these little-fished resources, I hadn't yet been up in the mountains this summer to hike and fish.
That finally changed this weekend. Laura and I didn't have much time, just two days and one night to work with. Regardless, it was ample time to grab a pack, lightweight camping gear, and just the essentials out of my fly vest and head for the hills.
Upon arrival, the trailhead near Red Lodge was bustling with activity, which is always unexpected. Vehicles from five states, horse trailers and a couple of large vans, probably hauling groups of people were all present. However, there is no need to fret, as it is never crowded once you are a few miles into to bush. In fact, 1/3 of the people were within the first three miles of the trailhead and the horse trailers were for hauling mules to work on rebuilding parts of the trail.
The most difficult decision was to decide which lake to fish. Laura and I had six lakes to choose from, all around 10,000 feet, some of which held cutthroat, the others had brookies. We picked a lake that held both, but lacked a well-marked trail from the "base camp". The extra work would pay off, as we had the lake and its afterpool to ourselves. The fish were smaller than I had hoped, but with many of these mountain lakes, it is all about the timing of the stocking and growth rates. Two years from now, the fish in this alpine gem will be beauties.
We fished until mid-afternoon, packed three gutted trout into a Nalgene bottle packed with snow, and headed back downhill.
Once again, the time in the mountains was rejuvenating. It is always remarkable how you can be at snow level at noon and be back in Billings a few hours later where the temperature is pushing 90 degrees (Friday night in camp, water in the dog dish froze). The scenery never gets old and with a little bit of effort, you are rewarded with a little bit of heaven.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Finally Fishable

July 4th was my guess. Today is July 22nd. A couple of months ago, during "the flood", we all took bets on when our local creek would be clear enough to wet a line. This evening, there was finally enough clarity to commence the 2011 fly fishing season on Spring Creek. Was it crystal clear? No. Good enough to make you feel like you had a chance at a trout that hadn't seen anything man-made for 9 months? Yes.
It has been an amazing year in Montana. Fly shops were selling more coffee to locals than flies and t-shirts to clients. The major tailwaters, the only options for weeks, were beaten to a froth with fly casters, but still awfully productive. This week we finally heard of some near normal conditions on the Big Hole, Upper Madison and other rivers. A lot of time has been lost this year. Bitterroot Skawla frenzy? Brief. Mother's Day Caddis hatch on the Upper Yellowstone? Skipped. Hoppers on the lower Yellowstone? Let's hope so. That big girl is still running high.
My fishing tonight was decent. Not a banner evening, but not too bad. The grass along the banks was waist high, the mosquitoes were running eight or so to the pound. These are the results of a wet spring. When the creek was sprawled out this spring, covering acres of ground and flooding basements, I couldn't help but wonder about the trout. Are they eating more? Are they not feeding at all, just dodging sticks and garbage, sitting on the bottom? Well, they are still there, acting like trout, fighting like trout and occasionally frustrating me like trout. Regardless, it is nice to have our old friend back.
For those of you that have been emailing, wondering if it was worth a drive up here to fish and buy me supper (Will, Spartas, Bryan Attwell, et al), come on up. It is time.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Friends, Fishing and the Fourth

Typically in late June, early July, I am usually still chasing walleyes on Montana reservoirs, but this summer, with the lack of fishable trout water, makes it nearly a necessity. Granted, the boat ramp was completely under water and part of the campground was also damp, but our Fourth of July plan sounded like a good one.
While I expected a good walleye bite, I didn't expect to see eight species that were all on the feed this holiday weekend. Between the four of us, we netted walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, crappie, perch, sauger, and the less desirable, drum and goldeye. We each had our personal glory over the course of three days. Mike landed his biggest walleye to date, a feisty five pound fish that came out of six feet of water. Scott pulled in a smallmouth that topped four pounds. Laura finessed the most walleyes, some of which provided a nice fish fry Saturday night. And I led the group in song and played my guitar as we enjoyed the fire. Actually, we just enjoyed the fire.
Once again, I made the drive home, reflecting on how fortunate I was to live in this great state. The fishing pressure was light, despite it occurring during a busy weekend, the weather was spectacular and the fish, a true smorgasbord of riches, cooperated. What a great Fourth of July, what a great country and what a great state.

PS. Don't judge Scott by his hat. He is actually fairly sophisticated and worldly, but after two days of sun, he was desperate for shade.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Peak Flows

The Gallatin River at 7,000 cfs on June 24, 2011
It's June 24th, and most of Montana's freestone rivers are still far from fishable. In fact many rivers recorded their highest flows of the year last night!

This is a year with the potential to set records, both in terms of maximum discharge and late dates for peak flow.

A couple of untamed rivers in southwest Montana are perfect examples: the Yellowstone and the Gallatin. The Yellowstone near Livingston went over 30,000 cfs last night and is still climbing. The river hasn't recorded flows that high since 1997 when it measured 38,000 cfs on June 6th - a peak flow nearly three weeks earlier than what the river is experiencing this year... assuming today's flows are the peak. The Gallatin River near Gateway touched 7,000 cfs last night, it hasn't seen those levels since - you guessed it - 1997 when it hit 9,160 cfs on June 2nd. Those high flow events in 1997 were the highest measured discharge (at said location) on record for each river.

Only once in over 100 years of recorded data has the Gallatin River peaked as late as July - an event that occurred on July 4, 1975. Similarly the Yellowstone River's latest recorded date for peak flow came on July 6, 1975. The calendar is creeping toward those dates and considering the abundant snowpack remaining at high elevations, some of Montana's rivers could come awfully close to setting 100 year records for the latest date of peak flow.

This late runoff is a frustrating prospect for anglers, but with the bigger picture in mind these extended flushing flows are great for the fisheries. For those who just have to fish, most of the tailwater rivers (ie: Bighorn, Missouri, Beaverhead, etc.) are fishing pretty well. The Big Hole is dropping and clearing just in time for the salmon fly hatch. Countless headwater streams are an option, as are numerous spring creeks and a myriad of mid- to high-elevation lakes.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Belated Father's Day

Traditionally on Father's Day, my Dad and I make plans to go fishing somewhere locally. Often it is fishing walleyes, occasionally trout fishing. The routine is only fitting since he introduced me to the sport many years ago.
Once again, the Dismal Spring of 2011, hampered any plans to recreate this past Sunday. In fact, my boat hadn't moved from its parking spot since last fall, when it was officially cast aside for hunting season.
Since the weather finally perked up today, very fitting on this first day of summer, Dad and I hooked up the Lund and headed to a local reservoir after work. There aren't many options of any kind right now, as the streams are still raging mad from snow melt and consistent rains.
In my haste to leave town at 5PM sharp, I neglected to grab my fly rod. While I had spinning gear in the boat-an assortment of mostly warmwater gear for fish that don't rise to tiny insects-I wasn't too pleased with myself.
For what ever reason, maybe out of sympathy, Dad wasn't using his fly rod, instead throwing a variety of small spinners toward shore. Well, someone might as well put the 5-weight to work, so I helped myself. Eventually, we found some fish, near the face of the dam that were occasionally rising. There wasn't a lot of surface action, but it helped our morale, just seeing some rainbows near the boat. With the help of a small indicator, I moved a couple of fish that liked my beadhead prince.
It was finally the summer evening that we had been waiting a long time for. A fitting end to a Father's Day that came a couple of days late.
Thanks for sharing it Dad. The sport, the day and the fly rod.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On The Water Again

For some of the purist fly anglers that subscribe to MSJ or only follow this blog, I realize you are probably very indifferent, or perhaps even disgusted, by my walleye and other warmwater activities. Fishing out of a motorized boat, using live bait, often nightcrawlers, may turn your stomach.
Well, right now I am glad I am fairly diverse angler. While I enjoy fly fishing and appreciate the intricacies and the simplicity of the form(see other May blog entries), I grew up fishing walleyes, panfish and pike. The spring fishing season and its preparation, was as much of an event as the first day of pheasant or deer season.
Nostalgia aside, fishing the big reservoirs for 'eyes is practical right now. While the majority of the states' rivers are running high, muddy and some, dangerous, the "lakes" of central and eastern Montana are fishable. Water temps are a little behind schedule, but they are creeping up slowly.
Getting that first bite of the spring is just like a child riding the bike he received from Santa. Despite not experiencing the slight tug of a walleye on our minnow/jig offering for six, seven months, we know exactly what to do. And we are just as excited to feel that sensation as we were last spring, and the spring before that.
Granted, the weather wasn't kind this holiday weekend and I only had one day to fish. With adequate rain gear and good sports along side of me, we made the best of it. And we caught fish.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Opener

Josh and Boges admire a solid Yellowstone cutt.
The MSJ fly fishing columnist, Josh Bergan, and I got out for the MT general fishing season opener on Saturday. We fished Notellum Creek for the large, migratory cutthroat trout that are rumored to be found in the stream. Prior to this trip I'd fished the creek on three separate occasions over the course of two years, not once catching a cutt - I was beginning to think it was all a myth.

Despite the forecast for heavy rain, the long drive, the grizzly warnings and the potential to arrive only to find a muddy creek - Josh and I went through with the trip. We were confident that we had our timing right for this trip - and timing is everything on this stream - but what concerned us was that we were completely at the mercy of whimsical Ma Nature. Fortunately a cold front moved through the state last week, slowing runoff and rendering Notellum Creek fishable, with 2-3 feet of visibility for opening day.

A big cutt, a small stream and the stuff of dreams.
We worked the water thoroughly, employing various nymph rigs and covering a lot of water with gaudy streamers. The first couple of hours didn't turn up any cutts, but I'd spooked what I was sure was a big trout and Josh saw another one break the surface. Josh was the first to hook-up, a solid 18-20" cutt chased down his sculpin imitation - unfortunately an overexcited pup rushed into the water, severely spooking the fish which came unhooked. Fortunately Josh got another shot later in the day, catching two 20 inch cutts in quick succession. I was a little slow to get in on the action, but a few gorgeous grayling helped ease my anxiety throughout the day. Eventually I managed to connect with a very healthy cutthroat, a fish that was the culmination of two years of dreaming and scheming about such a moment on Notellum Creek.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Lodge at Eagle Rock

I hadn't planned to spend back-to-back weekends on the Missouri River, but when the invitation was offered by a lodge to check out their digs and fish for for a day, I jumped at the chance.

The Lodge at Eagle Rock, located on the river in the beautiful Mid-Canyon section of the river is officially open for business after an extensive revitalization. The owners have done things right and started with an excellent management team and staff. Jen Newmack, of Great Falls, is the general manager and her energetic attitude will be a great fit. The fishing side of the business is also in good hands, those of her husband, Jason Newmack of 45 Degrees North Outfitters.

Our trip started with Laura and me meeting Jason for a day of fishing at the boat ramp at 8:30AM. After being rigged with nymphing rigs, we were fishing by 9:30. It was a great day to be on the water and it wasn't long before Laura had the first fish of the day, a decent brown, which Jason said was a bit rare for this stretch of the Missouri. That info would be deemed plausible as it would be the only brown of the day. The rainbows were numerous, however. And healthy. Jason had us into numbers of quality fish throughout the day. Fortunately for me, I don't mind being outfished by my female companion. And I was. I did make sure Laura knew that she had a very significant advantage by being in front of the boat.

We wrapped up our day on the water, anticipating our evening at the lodge. After a quick tour, we kicked back and enjoyed appetizers which were the creation of chef Geoff Langell. That was later followed by a wonderful four course meal, accompanied by great conversation, and a few fish stories. Laura would later comment that I was in my element, as we were enjoying some hockey on television, mixed in with some ping pong and shuffleboard, after a great meal and a great day of fishing. She was right. Thanks a million, Jen, Jason, Geoff and The Lodge at Eagle Rock! - Jay

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Mighty Mo and Mom's Day

After weeks of reading Will's fishing reports and waiting in vain for good turkey calling weather, I had to make my own music. I didn't want my first blog entry in weeks months to be about watching playoff hockey or creating better Feng shui in my home.
So, Dave and I met up at the epicenter of the Missouri River- Craig, MT- and pitched camp for the weekend. Sources advised us that we should probably be looking at the Yellowstone and the pending caddis hatch instead. But, we liked the idea of an overlooked Missouri instead this weekend and spending time in Craig is always a nice break. The cell phone reception is just poor enough that you feel like you truly are off the grid. Then again, an excellent dinner and more playoff hockey at Izaak's, kills that argument.
Saturday the fishing was slow to fair; I have yet to have a banner day on the stretch from Holter Dam to the Wolf Creek bridge, and that rut continues. As we drifted closer to Craig, the fishing improved. We were forced to nymph the entire float with only a handful of rises seen all day. While the quantity was average, the quality was great. One 22" bruiser fought like a steelhead and I am still amazed that it was eventually brought to the boat. After a nap, an early supper, Dave and I headed downstream toward the Dearborn, fishing on foot, looking for some rising fish. There were a decent number of baetis appearing at dusk, but nothing to write home about.
Sunday morning we swallowed our pride and went and saw Mark and the guys at Headhunters. Dave was nice enough to offer up my debit card ("oops, I left my wallet in my waders") and asked them to hook us up. They did, gave us a discount for being great guys ("industry stiffs") and Dave was tying on new midge patterns before I had signed my receipt.
It was a beautiful morning and we only shared the river with geese and goslings. The fishing below Craig was looking promising as Dave caught a decent 'bow right off the bat. He credited Headhunters, but I think it was partly due to my excellent boat control and the suggestion to remove the gigantic orange strike indicator for a more subtle black bobber. Regardless, it was a great, albeit short float. Our Sunday morning ride on the Missouri was only three hours long, but then again, I had to get home to see Mom.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Gallatin River on Borrowed Time

Fish each day like it's your last.

That's been the mantra in Montana over the past week... runoff is overdue.With runoff will come weeks, months even, of excruciating non-fishing activities.

Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday found me on the Gallatin River, reveling in the good fortune of fishing in May. Mid-day hatches of March browns have been excellent, baetis are coming off in good numbers on overcast afternoons and there are even a few lingering skwala stoneflies. The streamer bite has been productive in late afternoon, and nymphing has been consistent all day.

The river has picked up some color in recent days, but still has 3+ feet of visibility. One only has to glance at the snow laden mountains looming over the river valley to realize that we're fishing on borrowed time - enjoy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Day on the Yellowstone

After working all weekend I decided that I needed a day off on Monday. It just so happened that a couple of my fishing buddies also had Monday off, and so plans were made to float the Yellowstone River near Livingston, from Pine Creek to Carters. The forecast was favorable, in the sense that they (NOAA) were calling for relatively calm wind out of the SW, to go along with a strong chance of precipitation.

The river had been warming into the upper 40's consistently every afternoon, and reports of good streamer fishing sounded promising. We launched at Pine Creek Bridge late in the morning under overcast skies. Right out of the gate our double nymph rigs were working well - although much of the catch consisted of whitefish. We caught trout on a variety of patterns, including stonefly nymphs (girdle bugs, etc.) and smaller trailers such as soft hackle pheasant tails, SJ worms, and caddis larva (green rock worm, etc.)

We stopped to wade fish at a location where the river split into multiple channels, and it was here that we felt the first powerful wind gusts blast us from the north. A couple of eddies along the channels produced numerous fish, many of which were rainbows that aggressively chased a streamer.

We continued our float downriver, stopping at a few likely looking runs where we caught some sizable browns and rainbows on the soft inside corners of riffles - and in the riffles themselves. But the weather was becoming a concern. The wind was blowing hard out of the north, posing less of a problem for fishing than for rowing - a brutal headwind isn't much fun in an oar powered boat. Despite the wind, the fishing remained good - although we had to push through lots of great looking water in order to get off the river by dark. Baetis hatched throughout the afternoon, and a few March browns were spotted.

The Yellowstone still has a brief window of opportunity for good fishing over the next couple of weeks. It was already a bit off color, particularly below town. The nymph and streamer fishing should remain very good until runoff hits - and with any luck we'll see the caddis hatch while conditions are still favorable.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Talking Turkey

Spring turkey season opens tomorrow, 4/9, in Montana. Old man winter is back for an encore - a couple of inches of fresh snow fell overnight in the Gallatin Valley. If the winter conditions persist into tomorrow, it should make for a productive morning of turkey hunting.

The gobblers are responding to calling, and the cold conditions are keeping them in their tree top roosts late into the morning. I watched a sizable flock this morning from first light until about 7:30am - the majority of the birds didn't hit the ground until well after 7:00am - a full half hour later than usual.

For those getting out tomorrow: best of luck and enjoy the time afield.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

It's In The Air

Yesterday I awoke early to stormy skies and a brisk wind, not the best of conditions for a planned day of fly fishing. But by the time I loaded my gear in the truck and had filled the Thermos with coffee, the wind had abated.

Our crew met up at a buddy's house, which is conveniently located within ten minutes of what would be our fishing destination on this day. Breakfast was sizzling on the stove top when I arrived, and talk of trout filled the room.

With bellies full of pancakes, eggs and coffee, we headed downstream from the county bridge spanning the river. A couple of us were hell bent on throwing streamers, while the more practical among us employed a tandem nymph rig. Despite the recent warm-up, the streamer bite was non-existent. After working several great looking areas of winter holding water without a single chase or flash, I clipped off the streamer and affixed an indicator, hare's ear nymph, San Juan worm and two BB's to my leader... I never had to change from that set-up the remainder of the day.

We were into fish consistently with nymphs, in hole after hole. Ninety percent of the catch consisted of rainbows in prime, pre-spawn condition. The average trout stretched the tape to 15 inches or so, and the largest went 19 inches - pretty impressive for a freestone stream in late winter.

We couldn't have asked for nicer weather, after a few brief bouts of rain and sleet in the morning, the clouds parted. Wildlife was abundant throughout the day. Large flocks of ducks and geese filled the sky, roosters flushed across the river, bald eagles soared overhead and whitetail deer fed in riverside fields. All in all it was a memorable day of winter fishing in Montana.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Feeding The Home Covey

After record low temperatures last week and officially having snow cover in Central Montana for the 4th full month, I couldn't take it any longer. I had to check on the local partridge covey. They aren't birds I hunt, but birds that my dogs get to find, point, and sometimes chase, throughout the spring, summer and fall. Huns are often predictable in their favorite haunts and they were here again, midday on a windy, wintry day.
Unfortunately, the covey of 11 Huns in November, numbered only 7 this day in February. Different covey? Possibly, but doubtful. They flushed to their usual refuge, a patch of buck brush, just over the ridge. They sounded the same, flew the same, but I felt sorry for them. When the landscape is nothing but white, crusted snow, I really wonder what they eat. I feel less sorry for pheasants, as they are bigger, can eat foods such as Russian olives and can scratch through some snow. Sharptail and sage grouse, I don't worry much about, as they are more native than we are.
Folks like myself that hunt, often tout that the hatch is more important than winter mortality numbers. Sure, the hatch can make or break a hunting season. However, if the birds are dead in a March blizzard, their nests in May don't exist.
So, I completed the mission on this long, lunch-break from work. I carried the Home Covey a bag of food and spread it on the only bare knob on which they like to sit and scratch grit from. It may be without benefit, it probably wouldn't sit will with Montana Fish and Game. Feeding wildlife is frowned upon, but I had to do something. Let's hope there are 7 Huns remaining when this long winter finally comes to an end.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Not Done With Winter Yet

After having a number of schedule conflicts in January, my ice-fishing jaunts were severely in jeopardy of being cancelled until next winter. Work, combined with a week of temps in the 50s and early runoff entering some of the rivers, made me look toward spending time in the boat, not sitting in an ice shanty.
Hold the phone. With one simple Alberta Clipper, Montana had another visit from ol' man winter, and I was packing up ice fishing rods, fish houses, heaters and plenty of warm clothing.

Arriving at the lake, I was surprised that it was deserted. Then again, with the combination of earlier reports of ice deterioration and now with expected high temperatures in single digits, there were a number of reasons why people wouldn't risk a trip to the outback of Montana.
As typical of post cold-front fishing, the walleyes were a bit sluggish. Most of the 1-2 pound "eaters", were caught in the twilight hours. Northern pike were active during the day, giving us problems trying to land the toothy, aggressive fish on lighter walleye and perch tackle. We did get a few of them up onto the ice, Andy bringing in one around 18lbs, that he released.
But, as is usually the case, the fishing trip was only partly about the fishing. Scott treated us to a meal of elk burgers Saturday night, mule deer surrounded us the entire weekend, with coyotes howling in every direction. And when my diesel truck wouldn't start Sunday morning at 15 degrees below, I was quickly reminded that we have plenty of winter remaining. Maybe too much.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

HB 309

Montana's stream access law is under siege by HB 309. With its supposed intention of "Clarifying the prohibition of recreational use of water diverted from a natural water body...", HB 309 seems innocent enough, but a closer inspection of the bill's language reveals its inherent evil.

The bill was introduced by Jeffrey Wellburn (R-Dillon) and was supported by an alarming number of our elected officials as the bill made its way through the House of Representatives this week.

The analysis' of HB 309 from trustworthy organizations that have our interests at heart: Montana Trout Unlimited (TU) and Fishing Outfitters Assoc. of MT (FOAM) reveal that the bill is a serious threat to the status quo of stream access in Montana. You can read a thorough dissection of the bill on the websites of those organizations, but the gist of it is that the bill aims to do more than simply clarify the law as it pertains to irrigation ditches. Rather, the bill would broadly define an irrigation ditch as, "Any waterway created at least in part by waters diverted from a natural water body where the diverted water is the principal source of water in the water body."

There's a lot of gray area in that type of language, it could be interpreted in a number of ways. In a worst case scenario the bill's passing would prohibit public fishing on a lengthy list of the state's best water - from small streams to mainstem rivers.

There are scores of water bodies throughout the state that suffer from low flows during late summer. This situation is exacerbated by - and in some cases rooted in - irrigation out flows. I'll never forget one August day a few years ago when I stopped at Selkirk FAS on the Musselshell - the river was a collection of pools connected by a mere trickle; yet the irrigation ditch paralleling the river was plum full. That is an extreme example, but it's certainly possible that - during periods of low flow - the primary source of in-stream flows on numerous waterways is the return flow from irrigation ditches. HB 309 would define a free flowing river or stream as a "ditch" in such instances.

Looking at the bill from a pragmatic and simple minded angler's perspective, it's completely unnecessary. Assuming that the bill's true intention is to clarify the prohibition of recreation on irrigation ditches, the current stream access law already has that covered. And what's more, who wants to fish a ditch anyway? I can't imagine it really being an issue for landowners.

The bill - and our collective fate - now rests in the hands of the state senate. Whether you live in Montana or not, contact your senator... any MT senator... a republican senator. Should the bill pass the senate, our last line of defense against HB 309 lies in a veto from Governor Brian Schweitzer, but let's not allow it to get that far.

If you don't think this is a big deal, think again - and if you need a second opinion just ask any Utah angler.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Going Back

It happened to my Dad quite a few years ago, in the north woods of Minnesota. Dale Spartas, fantastic photog and well, decent friend, also speaks passionately about it happening to him. During my college years, it happened to me, before I even knew how serious it was. For sportsmen, it is one of the most despicable acts known. I don’t have a name for it, but simply, as Dale calls it, “Going Back.”
Going back is when you show a so-called friend, one of your hard-earned hunting or fishing honey holes and they make it their own. It can be an inconspicuous stretch of stream that holds larger-than-average trout. Maybe it is a hidden drainage that offers up more big bull elk than normal. For some reason , the classless act seems to torment bird hunters more than most. Maybe it is our need for elbow room, the onset of dwindling access or maybe we are just solitary folks. Regardless, many of us serious bird hunters are very careful who we hunt with. We will often hunt alone, before we hunt with some we don’t know or trust.
I won’t defend any guy that “goes back”, but for some, they are just ignorant. When it happened to my dad, the scofflaw had the gall to brag to my Dad about a recent hunt he just had in the very grouse and woodcock covert that was previously shown to him. I caught my college friend red-handed, just as he and his dad were returning to their truck, exiting the pheasant bonanza that I had driven him to the weekend before. Needless to say, I didn’t stop to chat.
Poaching another man's spot isn't always black and white. How about on private land, if the landowner says you are both invited back, when it was you that introduced the two? Can your buddy go back when he pleases or only with you? Same question applies to Block Management. It appears in a public pamphlet, but you did the groundwork to determine good from bad Block Management? Bottom line, if in doubt, don’t go back.
So, Dale, don’t you think after all of these years, we can finally hunt together in Montana? Let's hunt your Hun stuff first.....

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Tim Tollett of Dillon, MT
It's the dead of winter here in Montana. Sporting opportunities are slim to none, unless you're into ice fishing or predator hunting. Most of us are in a state of semi-hibernation, spending long hours watching football, tying flies and reloading.

This weekend a local fly shop gave guys - and even a few gals - a good excuse to get out of the house for a couple of hours. Montana Troutfitters, a Bozeman fly shop, has recently started up their annual "weekends with the legends" series on Saturday's. To those of you who aren't into fly fishing, this may sound like a mundane outing. To those of us who are passionate about the sport of fly fishing and the art of fly tying, it was very interesting.

This weekend's presenter was Tim Tollett of Dillon, MT. Before listening to Tim speak I knew him as the owner and operator of Frontier Anglers, but to be completely honest I had no idea just how legendary he is in the world of fly fishing.

His knowledge seemed infinite, his story telling was top notch and his tying tutorials were educational. All in all it was a fairly humbling experience, making me realize just how much I still have to learn about fly fishing.

Those flashback nymphs that we've all relied upon at times over the years - yeah - Tim is responsible for bringing those onto the scene in the states. He told stories about fishing with the likes of Al Troth and Lee Wulff, famous anglers and innovators from a bygone era. He dispensed more knowledge in the two hours that I was in attendance than many anglers learn in a lifetime of fishing.

Check out the line-up of legends that will be presenting at Troutfitters over the next several weeks and make it to the shop if you can, there's a wealth of knowledge to be had.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Yellowstone Wolf Documentary

While drinking my coffee this morning I visited Dan "Rooster" Leavens blog, Rooster's Ramblings. Here I found a video trailer for an upcoming documentary about the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction's impact on wildlife and hunting in SW Montana. The name of the documentary is, "Yellowstone is Dead" - you can probably deduce the viewpoint of the film makers from that. The video includes an appearance by Don Laubach of ELK Inc. - living in Gardiner, MT Don has witnessed the downfall of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd over the past 15 years. The full length documentary promises to be interesting.