Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Glad to be in Montana on a Spring day

Spring keeps happening by fits and starts. A few days ago I decided I needed to go fishing. It had been a busy week and I needed to get away from computers and telephones. If there was a hitch in my plans for the day, it might have been the fact that it was bone-chilling cold that morning across the region.

My destination for the day was Clark Canyon Dam, the reservoir south of Dillon. I keep hearing stories about the red-hot fishing on the lake about the time the ice is going out. As I drove south from Butte my biggest concern was that I waited too long and the ice was out and the magic time had passed.

Those worries were for nothing. After a couple nights of temps in the teens, there was likely more ice on the lake than a week earlier. There were spots of accessible open water along the shoreline, but in those spots there were already lots of people already fishing there. Probably from some people’s perspective things were still un-crowded, but not from mine. Rather than shoehorn myself into a spot I decided to head to the Big Hole River.

Taking a hike upstream from a Fishing Access Site on the lower river, accompanied by Flicka, my black Lab, who really appreciated a hike along the river, I got to a stretch of water that has been a long-time favorite.

It’s fun to tell stories about fishing outings when you can’t keep the fish off your hook, but this wasn’t one of them. I had just picked up a fishing magazine with an advertisement on the back cover suggesting that what we say isn’t always what we mean. For example, if someone says, “I don’t care about the fish. It’s all about being out on the water,” chances are what he really means is, “I’ve already caught seven fish and you’ve only caught two.” In my case, being out on the water was all I had.
While frequent interruptions from hungry fish would have been pleasant, it was a glorious day to be out. The frigid weather of the morning changed to pleasantly warm sunshine by early afternoon.

Canada geese were flying overhead or could be heard in backwaters as they go about the routine of setting up spring housekeeping. Mallard ducks were paired up in some old oxbows, and to prove that the season had really changed, the call of sandhill cranes echoed through the river bottoms.

The riparian areas were still dry, in need of spring rains to get some greenery going. In good water years, there is also flooding to give the thirsty ground a good drink, though that’s not likely to happen this year. Still, green grass is poking through the fallen leaves and desiccated grasses of last year.

While waiting for some fish action, I reflected on my good fortune to be living in Montana, where standing in the river is a right guaranteed by both statute and court rulings.

I had just read, in the online version of the Wall Street Journal, of controversies in Colorado, concerning landowners who would like to cut off floating access on waters flowing through their property. In Colorado, the courts have long ruled that fishermen can’t wade into rivers flowing through private land without risking being hauled into court for criminal trespass.

While that’s settled law, a current issue is whether landowners can bar access to floaters. Some property owners who have developed dude ranch operations would like to be able to advertise private fishing on what they consider their water—without the annoyance of rafters disturbing the peace and quiet.

Currently, some landowners are threatening to sue floaters, while in the legislature one representative introduced a bill to guarantee the right to float, though it got bogged down in the state senate. Currently, people on both sides of the issue are circulating initiatives to bring the question to the voters this November.

Yes, nothing like warm sunshine, and a comparison to Colorado, for example, to make me fully appreciate a spring afternoon on the Big Hole River of Montana.

Note: the photo above is Clark Canyon Reservoir on April 10

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

No Turkey Talk Around Here - Again!

I hate to gripe. It rarely does any good, and it won’t this time either, but what the heck.

The Montana spring turkey season opened last Saturday and, as usual, I wasn’t out there chasing those sneaky birds. Time is always the enemy of outdoor recreation, especially hunting—especially hunting something that requires travel to another part of the state. I admit it’s my own fault, but my life is over-scheduled. Another way of looking at it is that I’m blessed in being able to lead a full and varied life. There are people who achieve geezer-hood and find life boring. So far, I’ve been spared that fate, for which I’m thankful.

On the other hand, I’d appreciate a little more luck in spring turkey drawings. While there are unlimited over-the-counter turkey permits for big areas of eastern Montana, the problem is, again, time. You need time to get there, time to get back, and, above all, time to hunt, which also means time to hunt up a place to hunt. Then I look at my calendar, full of meetings, rehearsals, dental appointments, jury duty, concerts, grandchildren, conferences—all things that translate to that full and varied life—and again fail to find a decent block of time to get out of Dodge.

Of course, there are turkeys here in southwest Montana. We spot them while hunting deer in the fall, while fishing in the spring, while driving along the Interstate, while looking for blue grouse on mountaintops. There are turkeys to be found. I figure if I drew a permit I could go hunting almost every day, or at least as often as I can tolerate setting an alarm clock for 4 a.m.

Every year I put in for a Region 3 spring turkey permit and every year I fail to get drawn. Then I hear from people who draw permits in consecutive years, or my oil change guy tells of a customer who put in for a permit just to see if he could get one, then got one and didn’t go hunting. I would have used that permit.

I understand that these drawings are random, which means it’s like going to a Vegas casino and putting money in the slots. Still, one of these years, before I get to be too much of a geezer to care anymore, it’d sure be fun to draw one of those spring permits. At least I’d have to find something else to gripe about.

On the topic of turkey sightings, when we were in California a couple weeks ago, one early evening there was a faint sound of wild turkeys gobbling. “My ears are playing tricks on me,” I thought. The next morning, while taking a short drive down the hill to pick up a newspaper at a convenience store, there was a wild turkey pecking away at something on the edge of the street. Was it my imagination, or was there really a sneer on his ugly face saying, “You can’t hunt me here, either.”

On the bright side of not drawing that special turkey permit, when I do have a free day, or just a free afternoon, I’ll still have time to go fishing.

If wild turkeys are thriving across much of Montana, sage grouse populations are dwindling. Sage grouse need vast expanses of sagebrush habitat and that specific sage grouse habitat is changing for varied reasons.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a program to give western farmers and ranchers financial incentives to improve sage hen habitat. USDA has budgeted some $16 million to fund projects in 11 western states where sage grouse are found.

The deadline for signing up to participate in sage grouse projects through this program is April 23. The program is administered by USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Program, and any landowners interested in participating should contact a local office (offices located in Dillon, Sheridan, Whitehall, Deer Lodge and Philipsburg) or call the NRCS state office in Bozeman at 406-587-6919.

Sage grouse are an important part of our western hunting tradition—too important to lose.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Fond Farewell

The problem with dog stories is that they never have a happy ending.

“Marley and Me,” John Grogan’s hilarious and best-selling story of his whacky yellow Labrador retriever, and “Merle’s Door,” Ted Kerasote’s story about the stray dog that adopted him, are examples of dog stories that keep the reader laughing until, of course, the bittersweet end.

At the end there are always tears.

In the fall of 1997, Alix, our aging chocolate Labrador retriever started going downhill. On our way home from eastern Montana after the opening weekend of the pheasant season, we met with a Billings area Labrador retriever breeder who was peddling puppies. The retrieving and hunting background of the litter looked good and we made the deal to purchase a black puppy.

The pup had shown an early talent for digging holes in the yard, earning the nickname, Digger. As we got ready to leave, the breeder said, holding back a few tears, “Goodbye, Digger. Have a wonderful life.”

As she snuggled into the lap of whoever wasn’t driving, we discussed a name for the pup. It didn’t take long before the name of Candy emerged—simply because she was so sweet.

As that fall gradually turned into winter, Candy started going along on hunting outings. By December, Alix stayed home and Candy, just four months old, took over as my bird dog. On December 8, Candy retrieved her first duck, and ended the outing with three retrieves. A couple days later she retrieved five ducks and two Hungarian partridge. We were thrilled with this precocious puppy.

As that hunting season ended, I wrote a note in my hunting diary, “She has an irrepressible personality, and is absolutely ding-dong nuts about retrieving. It’s going to be fun seeing her develop as a maturing dog.”

In the following years she learned about blue grouse, ruffed grouse, sharptail grouse, and pheasants, as well following me through the fishing season, though she was sometimes less than helpful, continually bringing me sticks for me to throw for her.

Whether we were hunting, fishing, or just going for a walk, she was always ready to go. She also developed a fetish for retrieving tennis balls, culminating with her greatest achievement when we took a vacation trip to the Oregon coast, where she somehow found a tennis ball in the Pacific Ocean.

In October 2004, we took a trip to North Dakota, which included hunting pheasants with our son, Kevin. Walking back to the truck with vests full of pheasants I noticed Candy was limping, holding up her right rear leg. At home, a few days later, her veterinarian diagnosed a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in the knee.

She had surgery to repair the knee and she made a good recovery. The next fall, just before a new pheasant season, however, she blew out the ACL on her other rear leg. At that point we decided to retire her from hunting and invest in a new puppy, which is when a new Lab, Flicka, joined us.

We went to California, that Thanksgiving, to see our daughter, Erin, and she and Victoria asked to adopt Candy. It was a hard decision, but we agreed, and Candy began her new career as an urban dog, living in a house with two women and three cats. Instead of hunting she went on daily walks in their wooded, hilly neighborhood, occasional wine tastings, and otherwise enjoying her new career. She drew admiring looks from many people for her look of athleticism as well as her friendly demeanor. Heck, even the cats loved her.

Four years later, Candy is an old, old dog; her hindquarters atrophying, and walking, even just standing, was difficult. We were in California at the end of March and we could see, in just a few days, continuing deterioration. Erin said she had perked up before our arrival, but then quickly went further downhill. The day after we left she made one last trip to the veterinarian for a little help on her way to her last great adventure.

Candy had great careers as a family member, bird dog, and happy retiree.

She had a wonderful life and we’re the better for it.

Note: the photo is from 2004, about 50 dog years ago--and when we were both much younger!