Thursday, December 20, 2012

December Mallards and Solitude Afield

20 days left to hunt ducks and geese! With big game done and fairer weather behind us most hunters have hung it up for 2012. But for the few late season fanatics now is the time to hit the rivers and find those little known pockets ducks and geese pile into on rivers and streams. The best part about it is there is little to no pressure at all. Any morning when I think about hitting the snooze and rolling back into the warm comfort of my bed, a cold nudge from my lab's nose on my arm reminds me that there are only so many hunting days left. When she's bringing in a fat, late-season greenhead I'm glad I got up.

The weather has been up and down of late but the cold snaps seem to be coming in quicker succession with only a day or two of warm up in between. The stillwater is staying locked up good now and the birds are sticking to the rivers which means better access to the birds. A half dozen dekes and a flapper are about all a guy needs. If you find them piled in already on a spot you may not need any dekes at all. If heading to a new spot scout it out the evening before to see where birds are flying to. If you can get on moving water in good grain country good shooting should not be far away. Think food and open water and birds will be there.

Don't sleep in! Get up and go get 'em.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

2012 Big Game Season Ends

Sunday November 25, the sun set on another Montana big game season. As always each season has its own character. I can say this is one of the warmer ones I can remember in the last ten years. Some years its freezing cold at the beginning with fresh snows only to be melted off by brutal chinooks the last two weeks of the season. This year was definitely a mixed bag here in southwest Montana. We only got one-what I would call good-cold snap that really got the game moving. The snow was a foot deep in my back yard only to be melted bare by last week. However during that cold snap things turned out really good for some friends of mine. Two got their elk and one got a very respectable whitetail. The last day of the season was perfect weather-cold, a gentle falling snow, a long day's hike in good country, and me getting stuck way out in the middle of nowhere after dark. Thank God for Hi-Lifts and Chains! Til next year.

Now that general big game is over there are still some weapons restricted areas running seasons into January for antlerless whitetail, check the regs and get at it while you can if you still need meat in the freezer. We also still have a good chunk of waterfowl and upland bird season to get after. The coyote pelts are going to be at their prime from now until mid February. So there is no excuse to be cooped up inside.

As for my friends-Ty(first bull!), Doug and son Cody(first head of big game ever!), and veteran Brian(Nice Buck!)-Congradts gentlemen!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Second Season

It seems like it was yesterday that we were digging out our bird vests, complaining about the heat and smoke from western forest fires.  The dogs were heavier then, also sporting more feathering on their hocks and tails.  We were mostly hunting blue grouse in September, on the mountain ridges that are now covered with snow.
We moved downhill for a few weeks of pheasant season, combined with the occasional Hun and sharptail outing. I also chased sage grouse one day with a friend from the Deep South, who was shocked at the size of the big bombers.
Then, to the dogs' dismay, the 20 and 28 gauges were moved to the back of the gun safe for a few weeks.  Antelope, deer and elk hunting took up valuable time during the precious autumn, but the thrill of the big game chase is pretty special too, when you consider the speed of the prairie pronghorn and the alertness of majestic mountain elk.
Now, the only barriers to keeping the dogs out of the field are weather and work.  I don't mind hunting in snow and cold,  but sometimes the icy roads are the real problem.  Hunting pressure is virtually nothing now, the pheasants are in the heaviest cover and Huns are full-grown and handsome.  Hunting in December is as sporty as it gets. Some days, the gun never is fired, when the roosters decide to run and the sharptail and partridge flush wild. There aren't a lot of easy birds, but that isn't the concern.  Those of us with dogs know that their lives are short and every day hunting during the second season, is a gift.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Out and About with Hunting GPS Maps

As I write this it appears the weather forecast is turning in our favor. A few flakes have started to fall and temps should dip into the single digits soon. Maybe it will get the game moving-just in time for the rut. The last two weeks have been..well...weird, in terms of weather. Usually by this time the Schnee's pacs are laced up and the wools are shedding knee to waist-deep snow up high. Just this week I'm wearing jeans and light hikers and it's the third week of general season. I guess I should appreciate it for what it is.

On another note, I've been making good use of my Hunting GPS maps app in the Garmin. My first season with it, I've been intentionally taking it to places where you have to mind which side of the fence you're on and often times the fence isnt even good enough to keep you in line-that is the boundary line is a good 200 feet away from the fence. Not a problem with this new software though. In addition to having high resolution topo features it shows color coded land ownership data along with the name of the property owner. As we all know there are great public areas that butt up to private land and sometimes its a sliver at that. With this you can narrow down to within mere feet exactly where the boundaries are. If you haven't heard of this software check it out at

Good hunting!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Road Huntin' Slobs

We were sitting on the couch, as we had just finished lunch after our successful morning pheasant hunt.  The morning temperatures had been in the upper teens, probably closer to zero with windchill. So, it was nice to take  a little break, warm up and come up with the game plan for the afternoon, which featured Huns and sharptail on the menu.

We were based in northern Montana at a quiet farmhouse, miles from a small town, hundreds of miles from something classified as a city.  On an average day, two or three vehicles may pass by, so when shotgun shots rang out, just outside the house, we rushed outside, as if we were under attack.
As my host headed down the driveway, additional shots were fired, in a slough adjacent to the gravel road. Surprised to see anyone home this weekday afternoon, the road hunters attempted to race back to the truck, ejecting shells as they jogged to the awaiting getaway car, its engine still running. My host was more cool-headed than I predicted, explaining that no one is allowed to hunt near the farmyard, especially without permission.  The "hunter" in the backseat, quickly tried his best to diffuse the situation, by offering us a cold beer from the 18-pack at his feet. The driver, who was let of the hook since he was from town, offered a number of excuses, the most memorable being the doozy in which he "had meant to ask permission, but didn't want to bother anyone during work hours".  The leader of the dumb-pack had continued to ramble on, telling my hunting partner where else we could find roosters on my host's land.  Thanks.

What is lost in the whole issue of seeking permission first, is the overall impression that road-hunting types make on non-hunters and more importantly, the farmers and ranchers that own the land.  I always have been curious about the rural folks that have to erect no hunting signs on their driveways and next to their homes. Now I know why.  Guys like this give all of us hunters a bad name.  If you fire your gun near my house,  can I trust you to not shoot the windows out of my combine or to not sprinkle lead into my herd of milk cows? Doubtful.  Instead of enrolling their entire ranch or farm into a hunter access program, based on one encounter with knuckleheads, you and and I are also banned from running our bird dogs or taking our sons or daughters deer hunting.  Beer cans and shotgun shells on the road tell everyone that hunters are slobs and they don't have respect for the countryside or those that make it their home.

This is preaching to the choir, but hunting on private land is a privilege, not a right.  Shooting off roads and littering is endangering the future of our sport.  Please clean up your act.  Even during work hours.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Easy Pheasants. Get 'em while they last.

Opening weekend is always half social event, half hunting.  The birds are young, plentiful and uneducated.  The opening-day hunters are out in full-force, staking out their "A" plan before dawn.

This opener was no different.  As we sat in the truck, listening and watching arrogant roosters as they flew from the stubble into their refuge in the CRP, it was evident that we would be seeing plenty of birds. The three of us had seven dogs between us, trying to decide which three or four would get the call this morning.  The only other decision was how long to sit in the truck before letting them loose.

We waited until 7AM.  The first bird was brought to hand at about 7:15.  By 8AM, we had five birds in the bag, the dogs doing their best to stay focused, despite the wave of overwhelming bird scent.  The morning hunt was casual, despite being our first outing for ringnecks.  We enjoyed ourselves, taking photos of the young dogs earning their first wild birds.  By 9AM, we were walking the road back to the truck, trying to keep the dogs from needlessly pointing birds that would be there tomorrow.

Before you declare this post as boastful, keep in mind it is far from an ideal day.  Shooting opening day roosters is not the challenge.  Young birds that sit tight for a pointing dog are fairly easy sport.  And who wants to be done at 9AM?  Some of the dogs hadn't left their kennels yet, wondering what they did wrong to draw the short end of the straw.

But, as anti-climatic as opening day can be, it won't last. In fact, day two is typically 30% more difficult than day two and day three, well, no guarantees of limits anymore.  As roosters are bagged and the others become wise in a hurry, pheasant hunting changes rapidly.  Snow can come by Halloween and some days, it is difficult to have a bird sit tight for a trained bird dog.  I won't complain about the easy pheasants; from here on out, they only become more challenging and a lot more rewarding.

Monday, October 1, 2012

I Bid Thee Blue Grouse Farewell

I have always stated that one needs to hunt blue grouse intently the first few weeks of the season, which  opens September 1st. Typically, at those elevations that blues call home, it can snow anytime in September.
This fall, summer won't end.  The heat and drought have even made an impact at 8,000 feet and higher.  It has been 80 degrees on the prairie and about 70 at timberline, which are both at least ten degrees higher than normal.  It is nearly impossible to carry enough water for one dog, let alone two.  The elk wallows are only mud, the creeks down to just a trickle.
But, the birds are still up there.  It was nearly a hopper-free summer, so the blues are focusing on berries and greens.  As a result, they are feeding in the woods more often than in high-elevation clearings. It makes for sporty dog work and more difficult shooting.
As of last weekend, we were still moving plenty of dusky (I still prefer blue) grouse.  It appears that they had a great hatch, as the broods we found were large.  Another nice bonus is the good number of ruffed grouse we are also seeing at the lower elevations.  Since ruffs are included in the daily bag limit, most of them had to be left alone, as we climbed back down the mountain with our three blues in our vest.  Regardless, it was good training for the dogs and nice to see the "partridge" doing well.
As the calendar turns to October 1st and the upcoming pheasant opener this weekend, I am now saying goodbye to the beloved blue grouse and the beautiful country they inhabit.  It is bittersweet, as I will miss the wonderful bird, but also look forward to the autumn that remains.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dad's Old, Crazy Goat

It was nearly 10 years to the date that found Dad and I headed up the same trail in the Crazy Mountains of central Montana.  We had found success on that earlier hunt and I was able to claim a decent billy on the second day of our hunt.  Due to my recent work schedule and other obligations, we were unable to do any high-altitude scouting this summer.  While we both had done a good deal of training to get in shape, we were not sure what to expect from the Crazies a decade later.
We had only been hiking for 90 minutes when Dad spotted an obvious white spot that looked out of place against the granite backdrop.  While there was some snow remaining above the timberline, this wasn't snow.  After setting up the spotting scope, it was confirmed; it was definitely a goat and appeared to be a big, solitary billy. It's coat was slightly off-color and it was alone. Most of the nannys would have a kid still with them.  The goat was roughly 1,500 feet above us and we would ideally would like to get above him.  Complicating things even more is the land ownership arrangement in the Crazies. Within the confines of the national forest boundary, were checkerboard private and public sections.
After finalizing our game plan, we started the long climb.  We weren't sure if other hunters would spot the same goat or if the goat had a second perch that he would move to once the sun would hit him directly.  All we could do was hope that he would be patient while we sneaked uphill.  The game plan was good and bad, as were able to stay on public land and remain out of sight of our goat.  Unfortunately, we had to pick our way through large boulders and some loose talus that made it nearly impossible to hike discreetly. Finally, it was getting so noisy and precarious that I took both of our packs and decided to drop back and let Dad finish the sneak on his own. One hunter making noise was much better than two.  We figured we were already at the goat's elevation and we only needed to go another 100 yards to be comfortably above the animal.
I had only been sitting about ten minutes when I heard one muffled shot.  It sounded like a shot that hit its target.  And hearing one shot is always a sign.  Two or three reports put doubt into one's mind.  I grabbed the packs and caught up with Dad.  He gave me the nod that the hunting part of the hunt was complete. The mood was a bit tempered as goat had tumbled downhill quite a distance. Despite spending his days on a good-sized ledge and and Dad making a perfect shot with his .270, the billy still stumbled off the ledge, breaking off half of one of its horns.  Not ideal, but a pretty common part of goat hunting.
The hunt was over at 10:30AM on the first day. It took us two hours to skin and butcher the goat on site and another two hours to get the meat, hide and skull back to the truck.  Our packs were heavy and clumsy on the big boulders, but we were in good spirits.
While I have always said my Crazy mountain goat was one of my most memorable hunts, this would rival that. Dad was now 66 instead of 56. His billy was within sight of the very ledge where my billy had spent his final days.  It is unlikely that either one of us will ever hunt mountain goats again in Montana. But, if all we have are the memories of these two hunts, it will be enough.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Back In The Birds

The boat next to the garage suddenly became a decoration and any additional home projects are officially on hold until 2013.  As the calendar read September 1st this past Saturday, the dogs were the happiest, I was a close second, as we opened the upland bird season at 9,500 feet looking for blue grouse.
When I arrived at the trailhead, I wasn't the first hunter to arrive, but I was the first bird hunter.  The other pickups and horse trailers, all belonged to bow hunters in search of bugling elk.  I didn't mind sharing the woods with them, as I would be hiking above all of them, occasionally above tree line.  Other than the constant hazy skies from distant forest fires, it was a perfect day.  My shooting wasn't perfect either, in all honesty, but it was good enough.  The dogs didn't need much a refresher, but since they are both middle-aged in dog years (8 and 5 years old), they shouldn't need one. Beyond the birds, the shooting, I took a lot of satisfaction in the little things; just seeing the dogs jump at the sight of my double, seeing them honor each other, walking on ground that rarely sees another hunter.
As expected, the birds had a good hatch, according to my relatively small sample size.  One brood of blues numbered eight birds, which makes for a lot of noise when they start flushing out of a dog's point.  The birds' crops all showed a healthy diet of greens, berries and grasshoppers. The one males were where they should be, hanging out near timberline, with stunted trees and awesome views. The young birds were much lower, having spent the first few months of their lives in lush, more forgiving habitat.
After two days of chasing blue grouse up high, I spent Monday on the prairie, looking for Huns. They too, appear to have had a good spring hatch, following a mild winter.  But, right now, I will limit my time chasing sharptail and Huns for later. The mountain grouse window is small one and right now it is wide open.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fishing The High Country

There are many reasons to trek into the High Country in August.  Typically, the temperatures across the  West are hanging in the 90s, versus the much more comfy 70s above timberline.  While fishing has begun to slow in some of the rivers and reservoirs in Montana, the angling in many of the mountain lakes is just reaching its zenith.  Lastly, hiking uphill, at elevation, with a fifty pound pack, is great conditioning for the upcoming hunting season.
For those that are unfamiliar with the Beartooth/Absaroka mountain lakes of southern Montana, the area is host to more hike-in trout water than most folks can fish in a lifetime.  With hikes ranging from short, level jaunts to week-long adventures into remote bodies of water, choosing your destination may be the most difficult part.  The variety of trout from golden trout and grayling to cutthroat and brook trout, add to the complex menu that the backpacking angler can choose from.

On a recent three-day, two-night trip, Laura, Mark, Lindsay and I parked a vehicle at one trailhead and commenced our journey from another, twenty miles away.  We fished three different lakes, caught three different species and only saw one other party fishing. There were a moderate number of campers we met on the trail, but most didn't even carry a fly rod tube lashed to their packs.  Fishing aside, the highlight was crossing a pass between drainages at 11,000 feet above sea level. Waking to mountain goats in our camp was a close second.
Every trip in the High Country leaves me wanting more.  As Laura said, having solitude at a mountain lake campsite makes one feel very rich.  This past trip was nearly perfect; the weather was ideal, the fishing was consistent and the company was great.  The only regret is that it would be my only alpine fishing adventure this year.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

It Will Be A Good Bird Year, But.....

For those of  us that are lucky enough to feed bird dogs 12 months a year and hold our breath during every winter blizzard, hoping the wildlife will survive, we feel September 1st creeping up on us.  Yes, we are still enjoying summer, throwing big hopper patterns from a vessel or from shore, but a bird man savors the upland season like a football junkie salivates the opening kickoffs of autumn.
By all accounts (mostly mine), it should be a good fall, markedly improved from 2011. The past winter was a non-event.  In fact, for those of us that enjoy fishing through an eight-inch hole in the ice, there was a very reduced season to be had in most of Montana. Safe ice was in short supply. While the snowpack in the mountains was about average, it was mostly a dry winter across the eastern prairie. If there were major blizzards, I slept through them or just simply don't remember any.
The other major factor, the spring hatch, appeared to also be successful across central and eastern Montana. The spring was mild, without extended rainy and cool periods.  There was ample nesting cover and plenty of insects during the juvenile birds' vulnerable stages. Lastly, damaging hailstorms were also rare across the Treasure State. 
Not everything is in place to make it the stellar season afield that it could be, however.  Thousands of acres of Conservation Reservation Program (CRP) grasses have fallen victim to expiring contracts and high crop prices. In other words, one of your favorite pheasant coverts or sharptail spots, may be black dirt this year. Also, due to this summer's drought, some counties in Montana have been granted emergency grazing or haying of CRP to help ranchers survive the record-setting, scorching summer of 2012. While not as widespread as the overall loss of CRP, it still removes some of the huntable acres from the menu this autumn. 
But, it will still be a fairly good season behind your beloved bird dog.  I have seen good broods of Huns, pheasants, sage grouse and blues this summer.  It appears that hatch was early and the brood sizes are healthy. I am counting down the days.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fish, Float, Flathead

Trip of a lifetime is a bit cliche'.  However, these opportunities do exist---even for those of us residing in Montana. This past trip for field staffer Dan Peterson was one of his best fly fishing trips to date.
Dan hooked up with Glacier Anglers, a company based out of West Glacier, on a four-day float on the upper Middle Fork of the Flathead River in the Great Bear Wilderness Area.  Glacier Anglers (and parent company Glacier Outdoor Center) is the only entity with commercial permits on this stretch of the river.
Before you start planning your own freelanced adventure, keep in mind this was no weekend trip that started after work Friday evening.   In fact, while the gear was transported by mules six miles into the bush, the fortunate participants hiked ahead of the pack train, not knowing quite what to expect once they reached the Flathead.
Once arriving at the holy grail, the rafts were present, thanks to two young strapping lads who hauled them in on their backs the night before. Between the six mules, the 1,200 pounds of gear (dutch ovens included) were loaded into the three rafts and the trip was on.  Miles from civilization, the likelihood of seeing a bear (black or grizzly) was more likely than another angler.
And the fishing.  In a nutshell, Westslope Cutthroat, over 20", all on large, dry flies.  100-fish-days were the norm.  The fish were healthy, abundant and aggressive.
Fishing was only part of the adventure.  Great meals, well-versed, experienced guides and top-notch gear made the trip enjoyable and trouble-free. Finally, the final day of the trip was exciting whitewater rafting, which was an added bonus during the heat of the day. This was the trip of a lifetime for any angler who enjoys the combination of stellar fly fishing in a truly wilderness setting.

Look for a complete article in the fall issue of Montana Sporting Journal.

To contact Glacier Anglers, visit

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Good Goat Karma

2012 GOAT LICENSE (313-00)
District 313-00 was your 1st choice for the ‘2012 Goat License’ Drawing.
I called Dad last night at about 10PM, which is a pretty dark hour in his house.  I had just checked my goat and sheep applications on the FWP website, UNSUCCESSFUL.  I then checked Dad's, Winner, Winner. He had drawn a coveted mountain goat permit in the same area that I had killed a Billy years earlier.

In 2000, I was lucky enough to draw a goat tag in the Crazies, the first year that I had applied.  It was a great hunt, a rewarding hunt and a tiring one. In fact, I recall Dad saying afterward, "I probably won't be able to hunt up there when I do finally draw a goat tag." Well, the time has come and knowing Dad and his above-average fitness for his age, he will be fine. 

Since Dad was with me every step of the way in 2000, helping me get the animal down in one grueling trek downhill, it is only fitting that I return the favor this September.  His good deed then, has earned him his goat tag and my company.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Summer Conundrum

It started this weekend in typical June fashion; Fort Peck Reservoir was offering up walleyes, teethy northern pike, scrappy bass, and large catfish. How does one decide? Matt and I tried to do it all, catching seven species, which included perch, crappies and drum. It was a nice mixed bag, with fish caught on both fly and spinning gear. Some were released to fight another day and a few came home with us. Meanwhile, freestone rivers are starting to lose their milky appearance and Montana's tailwaters are continuing to fish well. It is shaping up to be a great season on the state's best-known, and little-known, fisheries. So, begins the balancing act of making time for all of the various opportunities across the state, along with, unfortunately, work. All you can do is fish when you can. Yard work can wait.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Turkey Troubles

In Montana, there are many cures for spring fever. Along with a variety of fishing opportunities, there are also spring bear and turkey hunting seasons to make time for. While I don't hunt bear, I do manage to fit in an annual trip to southeast Montana to chase gobblers. Turkey hunting requires favorable weather more than any other variable. Wind makes calling impossible and rain in southeast Montana makes the roads greasy and impassable, not allowing us to get to our remote honeyholes. So, after postponing our trip the previous weekend, we juggled our schedules and grabbed our shotguns. We had received reports that turkey numbers were down, but assumed that we would still find plenty of birds. Our first morning was as perfect as forecasted. No wind, clear skies and moderate temperatures. Immediately after stepping out of the truck, we heard a Tom gobble in the distance. Brian, Ryan and I grabbed our decoys, calls and guns, and sneaked into the Custer National Forest woods. After closing the distance between us and the birds, the two Toms were clearly "henned up", seemingly sharing the four hens between the two of them. One hen started to make her way to investigate our calls, giving us the hope that she would lead the Toms are way. But, not the case.
The rest of the weekend would lead to more disappointment. We put many miles on, by both hiking and mountain biking quietly on trails closed to motor vehicles. Turkey droppings and tracks were noticeably absent everywhere we explored. We only had three responses in two and a half days of calling and none of those were fruitful. Even the number of "backyard birds" that we usually see behind ranch houses and feedlots were scarce. While it was great to get out and be in the woods in May, we all were yearning for that magic moment when an interested Tom comes toward the hunter and a clean kill is made. Unfortunately, that may have to wait until next spring.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Eye Time

Spring walleye fishing can be fickle. The window of opportunity from ice-out through the spring spawn can open and close and open again in hours on Montana reservoirs. When water temperatures creep into the mid-forties, walleyes begin their quest to reproduce and point their noses up rivers and creeks. Anglers also become anxious this time of year, looking forward to that first boat ride of the year and with a little luck, the first 'eye of the season.
The first open-water adventure of 2012 was a complete bust. Dad and I never caught a fish in 7 hours of fishing. The Mighty Mo' was running muddy and cold. I had envisioned having the market corned on large, spawning walleyes, but came home with my tail between my legs.
This past weekend, things had changed. The water was clearer and slightly warmer. Good numbers of walleyes were in shallow water, two to 12 feet deep. Our presentation was simple, just pitching jigs and minnow toward shore, keeping the boat just out of the heavier current.
While the majority of the fish were males, we did catch a few larger females that were pushing 25". We practiced a somewhat-selective harvest, keeping mostly smaller males, but a few females around three pounds also became a very appreciated, new culinary success back home. Walleye season is officially underway.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Big Spring Creek

You would think that current fishing reports pertaining to Big Spring Creek would be a staple of this blog, yet such reports are suspiciously scarce. Montana Sporting Journal editor Jay Hanson resides in Lewistown, within walking distance of the creek. His lack of reporting signals to me that he's either taking this great fishery for granted, or that he's trying to keep it quiet. I suspect it's a little of both.

The only reason that you're reading a report about the creek is because I traveled to Lewistown this weekend to meet with Jay. It was the second leg of an ambitious road trip combining business and fishing (read the full report here).

After wrapping up our meeting Jay guided me to one of his honey holes upstream from town. Upon arrival I was surprised to find the creek running a bit high and off color, the result of low-elevation snowmelt during this unseasonably warm spring. Even so, the spring creek was in much better shape than many of the regional freestones, some of which were too turbid for productive fishing over the weekend. From Brewery Flats upstream, the creek had two to three feet of visibility - clearer up near the hatchery, and dirtier further downstream.

Each of my first two drifts through one of Jay's favorite runs resulted in trout, both took a size-16 pink soft hackle fished deep under an indicator. Over the ensuing couple of hours I worked my way upstream, picking up a trout or two in most of the larger pools and runs that I came to. The aforementioned fly, along with a San Juan worm, accounted for most of these fish. I also spent some time methodically working a streamer along banks with structure. A black sex dungeon affixed to a heavy sink-tip line lured two nice browns, one that I landed, and another that charged out from a rock, but wouldn't commit.

Good numbers of baetis were hatching from about 1pm-3pm, most of them were a size 18, with a few that were closer to 16. The dry-fly fishing was non-existent due to relentless high winds all afternoon. Anglers who find themselves on the creek over the next couple of weeks on warm, overcast afternoons with calm winds should come prepared for baetis hatches and rising fish.

Who knows, perhaps Jay will surprise us all and report on the productivity of a simple Adams (#18) and pheasant tail emerger (#18) combination (fished on 5x tippet with a long leader... hint, hint) in the coming weeks. If you make it up to Big Spring Creek yourself, be sure to drop him a line reporting on just how good the fishing was out his back door.
Look for a feature on central MT trout water, including Big Spring Creek, in the next issue of
Montana Sporting Journal.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Last Ice

When you leave town with your truck full of tip-ups, a Jiffy auger and a bucket of minnows while people are raking their lawns and hitting golf balls, you question the quality of the ice you will be seeking. But, you can’t catch fish from your garage, so you have to go.

Fortunately, the climate varies greatly from the Canadian border to where I reside. While Fergus county area ponds and reservoirs were losing their ice to 60-degree Chinook winds, lakes on the Hi-Line were still holding up fairly well. In fact, I had planned on walking out on the reservoir, pulling out my gear in my Otter sled. But, with a solid 14” of ice, we were able to travel by four-wheeler.

Fishing in March provides an opportunity to possibly catch a behemoth walleye, full of eggs on her way to the spawning grounds. However, we were fishing deeper structure, mostly perch habitat. In fact, the only three walleyes we caught were males. The weather was probably the highlight; fishing in the March sun, with no wind, is a great cure for cabin fever. Don’t tell my dermatologist, but I almost look forward to the first sunburn of the spring, especially if that occurs while fishing on the ice, grilling bratwurst.

As I write this three days later, the ice if vanishing from larger reservoirs such as Petrolia and Fort Peck. The next sunburn will most likely occur while in a boat.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

River Report

Winter '12: Sunshine, solitude, and good fishing.
At this time last year my home water – the Gallatin River – had substantial anchor ice, shelf ice, and slush ice throughout its valley reaches. Looking back at my fishing log, the fishing was generally slow, if there was any fishing to be had at all. This year has been a reversal of fortune, in that the river has remained open and fishable nearly all winter long, its banks largely devoid of ice. The unseasonably warm weather has been the bane of hardwater anglers, but has resulted in some very good trout fishing not only on the Gallatin, but on rivers throughout Montana.

My home office is located just a stone’s throw from the lower Gallatin River and lately it has been a rare day when I haven’t managed to get in an hour of fishing during the warmest part of the day, mid-afternoon. Midges are hatching, and on overcast days a few fish can be found rising to them. The nymph fishing has been very productive with caddis larva, midge larva and pupa, grey and pink sow bugs, red worms, eggs, and increasingly, stonefly nymphs… the usual winter line-up.

Streamers have even been producing recently, both with an active retrieve and dead drifted. Reports have been surfacing of quality streamer fishing on the Yellowstone River near Livingston, with conditions even allowing anglers to float the river - an extreme rarity in February.

The trick to good fishing at this time of year is finding the winter holding water. Trout are not evenly distributed throughout a river at this time of year, rather they are congregated in the deepest, slowest holes. Where there is one fish, there are likely to be many more holding in the same location. I was reminded of this fact this past weekend while fishing the lower Madison River, where I caught all of my fish from just two holes along a half mile stretch of river. Repeatedly drifting through these holes produced fish after fish, and when the action died, changing flies (particularly the fly size) produced more fish.

As enjoyable as the winter fly fishing has been this year, I think most of us are ready for a solid dose of winter weather to close the season out - quality summer fishing depends upon it. The Gallatin and Madison watersheds are currently sitting at 70% and 74% of average snowpack, respectively. Old Man Winter has some catching up to do.

Friday, February 10, 2012

FAS Sponsor

We just received our FAS sponsor certificate in the mail. MSJ has adopted Black's Ford FAS, a heavily utilized access point on the lower Madison River.

As part of the sponsor agreement we'll be organizing bi-annual clean-up events at the access site... stay tuned for dates and details.

The Madison River Foundation has been proactive about finding sponsors for FAS locations along the Madison River. Sponsorship opportunities are available for FAS locations throughout Region 3, for more information contact MT FWP.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Perch Are The Prize

I used to fancy myself as a walleye specialist. If I was not catching eating-sized walleyes, in that perfect 1-2 pound range, with the occasional trophy, I was just wasting my time. Northern pike were slimy and perch weren’t worth messing with. While pike can still make a mess of your lines when ice-fishing, I have changed my opinion on perch.

Perch are an ideal winter species. They are great eating (walleye is a member of the perch family) and easy to fillet. Perch are often very prolific in the right fishery and their numbers can swell quickly, making them available and aggressive. When the perch population is robust, a bucket of fresh perch in an afternoon of sitting on the ice is a real possibility. The goal is to find the happy medium between good numbers of perch, but also maintain that “jumbo” quality, not a bunch of stunted fish.

A trip north this weekend was a perch outing on somewhat thin ice with the warm temperatures of late. Once on the lake, it was a matter of finding the proper depth and the right presentation that attracted the larger perch. Eventually, I settled on 29-30 feet of water, with a Swedish Pimple and a minnow head. A full minnow was too large and caused me to miss too many fish on the hookset. A mealworm enticed too many small perch to race to my lure. My Vexilar was worth its weight in gold.

As a result, I brought home about 18 perch to clean that evening. They weren’t perch pushing that coveted one pound threshold, but they were close. Dipped in Italian bread crumbs and fried in olive oil, the white flesh was like candy. Who needs walleyes, anyway?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Untraveled and Unforgiving

There are certain times when high-risk pays off with high-reward. Like shooting a big bull elk miles from the nearest road or catching your biggest trout in a remote mountain lake, sometimes hard work pays off.

On this one day ice-fishing trip, we didn't make it easy on ourselves. Dad, Scott and I were determined to try a remote access point on Fort Peck Reservoir that anglers rarely visit. We were betting on good ice in this fairly protected section of the lake and with the lack of snow this winter, the road appeared to be in find shape.

We left town at 5AM and were on schedule when we arrived within sight of the lake at dawn. We played it safe and left the truck on top of the final rise, before a steep drop to the water's edge. The ice was adequate; it varied from six to ten inches. There were some pressure ridges that looked sketchy, but none that we had to cross.

As far as ice-fishing goes, the day was balmy. No need to skim ice from the holes, Scott pointed out that despite it being the end of January, none of us wore gloves. Elk steaks at lunch completed our peaceful setting.

But, things changed quickly. The strengthening chinook winds from the west blew warm air that felt like a furnace. By the time we finished our midday meal, there was an inch of water on top of the ice. At times, we had waves on the top of the ice. Water was literally running down our holes like a drain. When we saw the ice near shore deteriorating before our eyes, we decided to pull up the lines.

The dry roads we had been impressed with on the drive in had turned ugly. Frost in the gumbo had been released, turning the top layer into slime. The four-wheeler had all it could do, pulling our sleds uphill, pushing mud in front of it. When we made it to the truck, Scott stayed on the Polaris, making sure the final stretch was fit for a vehicle pulling a trailer. We made it out to the main gravel road and all breathed a sense of relief.

As mentioned, if Fort Peck had rewarded us with a mess of walleyes or a monster pike, it would all have been a minor hassle. But, the fishing was less than spectacular with only a few, small fish to show for our efforts. It appears that this may be the shortest ice-fish season on record.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bighorn River Report

It may come as a surprise, but solitude can be found on the Bighorn River. The tailwater trout fishery is world famous, and rightly so, but all of the attention it receives during the summer months does tend to detract from the overall experience. Fortunately there is an off-season. November through March finds the river largely void of anglers, anglers who are missing out on the joys of cold fingers, iced rod guides, and productive fishing for large, hungry trout.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week a couple of fishing buddies and I found ourselves floating prime trout water below Yellowtail Dam. Despite the unseasonably warm weather, over the course of two days we saw only a couple of other boats. The fishing was very productive, with both nymphs and streamers taking scores of fish. The streamer bite was particularly strong, with a variety of colors and sizes taking fish from late morning through evening. 200-grain sink-tip lines were generally relied upon to pull fish from winter holding water. Nymph rigs consisting of soft hackle sow bugs and midge pupa drifted deep accounted for many fish, particularly earlier in the day before the streamer bite really picked up. Midges - and even a few baetis - were hatching, but there were very few fish consistently coming to the surface.

We were fortunate enough to share some time on the water on Tuesday with Mike Faris, a guide for Bighorn Trout Shop. To say that Mike's knowledge of the river was helpful would be a drastic understatement; I'm always amazed by how much I learn when in the presence of a veteran guide. For up to date river reports throughout the off-season (and a guide if you'd like), the folks at Bighorn Trout Shop are your best resource.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Looking For Ice

Typically in early January it is easier to find ice in Montana than to avoid it. In fact, on many lakes by this time of year fishermen are brave enough (or foolish) to drive one-ton trucks across 12-18 inches of hard water.
2012 has been an oddity thus far. As of today, Fort Peck reservoir is still void of ice on most of its expanse. Canyon Ferry has some ice, but it also has some areas that are not safe for an angler on foot. By this date last year on my January ice-fishing trips, we were driving on roads that were carved out of snowbanks and drilling through 20 inches of solid ice.
On this first trip north, we changed up our normal routine somewhat. Instead of driving on the ice, Laura and I pulled our gear with ice skates. We made it to our destination in a matter of minutes and were fishing as soon as the holes were drilled. To save weight, we carried a hand auger instead of a gas unit, which wasn't an issue considering the ice was only ten inches thick.
While the fishing was less than stellar, it was nice to be back on the ice with nothing to worry about except keeping your fingers warm and your bait fresh. While there is a lot of technology available to ice fishermen these days, the simplicity of staring at a hole in the ice, waiting for a subtle tap on your line, is a refreshing change of pace. We only brought home enough perch and walleye for one meal and since it was months removed the last taste of fresh fish, it was a welcome treat. As was being back on Montana ice.