Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Arctic Limits

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

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Supporting Our Veterans

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

Monday, November 11, 2013

Get Yer Elk Yet?

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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ducks Under the Nose

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nick Of Time Ducks

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

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bulls and Bruins

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

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Saying Goodbye to a Friend

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

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sheep Hunt Day 6

Last day on the mountain. Rain pounded my bivy most of the night but luckily shut off sometime this morning before 5. Heading up the ridge towards my sheep mountain the air had that crisp feel to it that only arrives in fall. There was definitely cooler air behind the weather last night. Strips of clouds drifted across the mountain and above revealing a clear sky. Once perched and glassing I could see all around that most of the clouds were cloaking everything below 8,000 feet with only the peaks jutting above. Clouds broke up everywhere in the sky and the cool breeze portended of autumn. In a distant park I spotted a herd of elk appearing to be in pre-rut mode with smaller sized members of the herd making short sprints away from a larger member of the herd-too far away to see antlers. Mountain goats remained near their chosen cliffside perches feeding on lichen covered rocks. Rams proved yet again elusive. Despite the absence of sheep the fall feel to the morning with gin clear skies, the increasing southern angle of the sun, and crisp air injected an energy of good things to come yet this season. With a long day of walking ahead I wrapped up my morning glassing and headed back down to load up camp. The hike out was long but made better by the weather. I made it back to the truck by 4 p.m. Driving out there were further signs of fall's approach as foliage along the brush choked creek was beginning to turn. Yet another sheep hunt in the books with an unfilled tag. But with each year I feel I'm getting closer. The unlimited hunt isn't for everyone. For me personally, there is no better way to end a summer or start fall than with a sheep hunt.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sheep Hunt Day 5

This morning started off not according to plan. Waking up to answer nature's call about 3 a.m. found me socked in with clouds. When it was time to get up for the day at 5, still socked in. Knowing I would not be able to glass with such conditions I slept in. At 7 the clouds showed no signs of letting up. Without anything better to do I turned on the phone to check the quota status. Season still open after two days. A good sign. It also meant no one had been seeing rams. I clicked over to send my wife a status text that I was okay and recieved tragic news. At 8,500 feet in my bivy sack on a sheep mountain I learned that a very good friend had been killed in a rock climbing accident yesterday. One wonders how they will react to such news finding it out so suddenly without any of the emotion involved in learning it directly from another human being. The only sound was a light wind whisping through the spruce trees where I was camped. Perhaps the lonliest most indifferent sound in nature. Disbelief was the initial reaction. I decided to crawl out of the tent, make breakfast and contemplate my next move. Sheep were a very distant thought in my mind now. The fog lifted about 10 and I headed up the mountain. Somehow I felt a strange closeness to Amos, my departed friend being in the high country than I might have down below. The day he died we were both on mountains doing what we liked to do. For now I simply reflected on the good times we'd had chasing trout and ducks on the Madison and Gallatin rivers. There would be time enough to face the tragedy of his death down below. I knew the last thing Amos would want me to do is not finish this hunt and abandon the possibility of harvesting a ram this year. I would be headed down tomorrow anyway. With a heavy heart I slung my rifle and backpack to make the most of the day that was left. Much of the rest of the day was fairly pleasant as the clouds broke. I ran into another hunter who'd just barely missed crossing paths with a sow griz and two cubs. He looked a little white in the face. About 5 the clouds rolled in with rain and that set the stage for the rest of the night. Gaps in the clouds provided a few moments of spectacular alpenglow on peaks in the north end of the park. Crawling into my bivy an hour after dark, thunder clapped and soon the bottom fell out of the clouds. Rain all night.

Sheep Hunt Day 4

Today dawned with overcast skies and a slight breeze out of the southwest. Sometimes this means warmer weather(not sure how much warmer it could get up here) other times it means rain and cooler temps. This close to Yellowstone anything could happen. Looking south in the direction of Yellowstone Lake it seemed to be nothing but endless clouds. The barometric pressure gave me that feeling that 'sheepier' weather was on the way. The ewes and lambs were out feeding again at first light but no rams could be located. After three days of glassing the same country I was starting to get that feeling of doubt about my chosen perch. Being someone who likes to hike all over the country its a challenge to stay put for days on end. But in this country on this type of hunt one needs to conserve energy for when they actually do see rams. However I had one other mountain 3 miles away that I knew rams had been harvested on in the past and there had already been two other hunters on this mountain. With the weather seeming to want to stay mild and possibly cooling off, it would be a good day to move camp. At 10 a.m. I loaded up camp and got to walking. The hike alone was worth it-a razor sharp ridge with wide views into the park and forest service land, all the while my next sheep mountain in sight. Finding a good spot to camp, I made the short walk to a nearby water source to re-hydrate and resupply. Life is a little easier in this spot. I hiked up to glass the rest of the day being greeted by wind and rain. Several mountain goats provided a good way to pass the time. It's interesting to watch them lie on a cliff edge like a porch dog with driving ran in their face. Their indifference to the harsh terrain they call home is staggering. The country on this mountain has the ideal ram needs according to the biologist-plenty of steep country with a pittance of grassy slopes I'd consider taking a shot on a ram in. After seeing no sheep a a half hour before dark, I eased down the mountain to camp. The rain finished up giving way to a clear night sky. A dead whitebark pine trunk near camp made the ideal spot to sip a snort and watch stars as only they appear in the high country.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sheep Hunt Day 3

This morning I climbed into my glassing perch with the .270 at the ready. Nothing is as anticipated as the first rays of light on a sheep mountain on opening day. Weather looked to be about the same. Cool in the morning, hot through the day and somewhat cooler in the evening. The morning glassing was slow again. Nothing in the avalanche chutes, nothing in the vertical strips of timber. Following another mid day break from the heat I spotted sheep finally about 7 p.m. All ewes and lambs maneuvering a cliff face to a broad grassy slope, its always a pleasure to watch the ease with which these animals negotiate crags and chutes humans have no business in. Two of the ewes wore radio collars so FWP is monitoring these guys. I watched them feed onto the slope and just before dark back into the crags. No rams today.

Sheep Hunt Day 2

At first light I was perched below a ridgeline scouring the mountain with my binoculars. By 10 a.m. I'd seen no sheep or any other game for that matter. Believe it or not this is somewhat of a good sign. According to the biologist rams in these units tend to head for the most rugged inhospitable terrain. Food and water do exist but not in great supply. I also felt good as I shared the mountain with the only outfitter guiding in the area. If they were here it was because they'd likely scouted it two months prior and it was the best place to be. Nearing mid day, temps were starting to climb. Needing to resupply water I dropped all excess weight from my day pack loading up empty bottles and the bladder. Dropping down into the drainage below it was a half hour hike to the spring. Shaded and tucked tight in a small draw the temperature was ten to fifteen degrees cooler-good place to cache meat in hot weather After downing two nalgenes purified through the Katadyn I filled up the bladder and refilled bottles heading back up the mountain. Temps were staying in about the mid 80s without a breeze. I hung out in the shade taking a mid day nap until it was time for sheep o'clock at about 4:30 or so. By dusk, no sheep. Back in camp I raised a snort of 40 Creek Canadian Whisky in good luck for tomorrow, Sept. 1, when the season opens.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sheep Hunt Day 1

I spent most of the day getting into sheep country. Finally arriving in my hunting area I dropped the 50 pound pack and felt like I could fly. With only a couple of hours glassing light left I cooked up some Mountain House grub for dinner while scanning the myriad avalanche chutes and nearly vertical strips of timber likely to be bedding areas. These bedding areas are in terrain so treacherous the hunter must wait for sheep to move into more 'gentle' feeding areas. Nearly out of water I conserved the little I had left. Tomorrow I would have to drop down a thousand feet or so to an obscure spring I'd found and top off my bladder and 2 Nalgenes. That would keep me in water for 2-3 days. For those who are not familiar with the Unlimited Sheep hunt there are several districts along the northern border of Yellowstone National Park which possess terrain so rugged and remote that sheep permits have not been restricted like they are over most of the state. FWP sells as many permits as people want to buy and maintain a district quota. Most units are a 2 ram quota. Not only are these areas rugged and remote, legal rams(3/4 curl or better) are difficult to find. This is my third season hunting the unlimited areas and I'm still trying to figure things out. Each year is an educational process if you are hunting the country correctly. On average they say it takes a hunter 5 years to figure it out and score if he sticks to it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Four Days to Sheep Season!

Hard to believe summer is nearly over. With the present fire situation and continued heat we wouldn't know it. Temperatures and fires aside sheep hunting in the unlimited district opens September 1. I've got a sheep tag in my pocket and I'm going. Fires in the southern end of the district forced me to take a different route in but pleasant surprises awaited at 9,500 feet. One immature ram I began watching last year has continued to grow and will be looking good one day. Grass is greener this year than at this time last year and my water source hasn't gone dry. Life is good. Archery season will open before we know it too. If you haven't been shooting and scouting-You're Wrong! Best of luck to all of you heading afield this fall. I will keep you posted on how the sheep hunt goes. Out for now.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Summer Switch

It may have been a nearly perfect spring.  There was plenty of moisture to help fill reservoirs and streams and create lush habitat for wildlife.  There was localized flooding, but overall, there wasn't damaging hail or cold, damp weather to hurt nesting birds.  And the spring fishing, well, it hasn't disappointed.
While there has been a little fly fishing done on select tailwaters and spring creeks by this writer, mostly it has been warmwater adventures on some of the largest bodies of water in the state.

For those that aren't aware, Montana isn't home to just magnificent streams and chunky trout. It is also home to world-class walleye, northern pike and smallmouth bass.  Reservoirs such as Canyon Ferry, Tiber, Nelson and Fort Peck have all produced numbers of quality fish of late.  Unlike lakes of the Midwest, there aren't long lines at the boat ramps or cabins ringing every inch of shoreline.  Fishing trips are more adventurous, but the reward is often solitude and fresh fish for dinner.
Now, as we pass the summer solstice, things are heating up in the trout world too. Literally and figuratively.  Mountain snow pack has mostly melted, rivers have cleared and there have been reports of phenomenal hatches on the Yellowstone, Madison and Big Hole.  The Missouri and Bighorn have both been fish factories for the past three months. The only concern I have heading into midsummer is whether or not I will have enough time to wet a line in those same legendary rivers. All I can do is try.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Much-Delayed Montana Gratification

Jokes about Al Gore, Mother Nature and snow tires are running rampant right now in Montana.  When in doubt, it is always easy to chat with your neighbor about weather, but currently most have tired of that too. It is nearly as fun to discuss tax day.
While March began to transition nicely, April has been a setback to progress so far.  Some reservoirs were nearly ice-free, but began to refreeze the past week. Geese that have flown north have been met with snow and ice.  Spring bear season has opened, as well as turkey season, but so far, both hunters and game have been confused on how they should be acting.  I have my ice-fishing gear, cohabiting with my boat and fly rod currently.
But, spring will happen, and eventually summer. With the exception of perhaps upland birds who are vulnerable to spring blizzards, an extended winter, with additional snow and rain is probably a blessing.  The snowpack in the mountains is still virtually at mid-winter levels.  This moisture should keep stream flows at trout-friendly levels longer this summer.  Reservoirs will be filled more than expected after they took a modest drop in 2012.  Fire danger will still be an issue come August, but it too should be more manageable with the much-discussed, often-cussed, sixth month of winter.

Did you get your taxes in?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Last Ice

During the worst of winter, ice fishing can simply seem like survival.  Roads to and from the destination can be treacherous.  Snow can block roads behind you, making your return home troublesome.  On the lake, your holes freeze up as fast as you drill them.  You hunker down in your shelter, only going outside when absolutely necessary.
Typically, the game changes toward the latter half of February.  Temperatures moderate greatly and allow you to enjoy the fresh air.  Often, one doesn't even need a fish house or if you do, it doesn't require much to heat it.  Heck, sunburns are more likely than frostbite.  
This recent trip was all you could ask for.  The highways were dry, a lack of snow on the ice made travel easy and temps near 40, made for less focus on fighting Mother Nature, and more focus on fishing.
Fortunately, the fish also cooperated.  We had a nice assortment of walleyes, perch and northern pike.  Some of the pike, which mostly came on our tip-ups, were trophy fish, exceeding 15 pounds.  We threw most of the larger pike back, only bringing a few smaller northerns home, along with our legal limit of walleyes.  While jigging up a large northern, a chunky walleye or a jumbo perch is a lot of fun, eating these flaky, tasty species is just as enjoyable.