Thursday, September 30, 2010

An Appointment with Sharptails

Taking Time to Smell the Wildflowers

"Sorry. I have an appointment with some sharptails at Loma.”

I had been in Havre covering the annual convention of the Montana Tavern Association and was having breakfast with Paul Tash of Butte, publisher of the association’s publication, Tavern Times. Though I had completed my last interviews and taken my last photo, Paul jokingly suggested I could stay for just one more meeting.

No. I had that other appointment, though I wondered whether the grouse had gotten the memo.

My destination for my hunt was a tract of public land on a high prairie ridge separating the Marias and Teton Rivers on one side and the Missouri River on the other. It’s an area rich in history. In June 1805 the Lewis & Clark expedition paused to stop and figure out which stream was the true Missouri.

Off in the distance is a kiosk on top of a hill marking the point where Meriwether Lewis stopped, after an eight-mile walk before breakfast, to look over the countryside and decide which way to go, finally deciding on the south fork.

Over succeeding years the area had an early trading post, one of the first railroad lines and an infamous battle in 1870 in which American soldiers attacked a band of Piegans huddled in winter camp along the Marias. 173 Indians, mostly women and children, were killed in the pre-dawn attack still remembered as the Marias Massacre.

Over the years, countless steamboats, keelboats and smaller craft passed through the area to and from Fort Benton, head of navigation on the Missouri. These days it’s a popular launching area for floating the Missouri River.

For several years we had taken annual trips here to hunt sharp-tailed grouse. The last time was in September 2001, just a few days after the terrorist attacks on the 11th. Looking back in my journals I’m reminded that the only grouse I saw were a few that flushed wild. I never fired a shot and the most memorable part of the trip was the silence in the skies, with all civilian air travel suspended.

That was nine years and one dog ago, though the difficult part of this day’s hunt was that Flicka, my faithful Labrador retriever, was home in Butte. If there were sharptails on this prairie, would I find them without the help of a dog’s nose?

The only guarantee, when you set off on a walk across the prairie, is that you’ll have a nice long walk and plenty of time to think, especially when not keeping track of a bird dog.

I’m struck by the abundant wildflowers, particularly black-eyed Susans, blooming in the grassland. At a series of long, brushy draws connecting the benchland prairie with the river bottoms, mule deer pop out of their beds in the brush patches. The mulies, some five in all, look fat and sassy after a summer of easy living. One of the deer sports an impressive spread of antlers.

By now, my saunter across the grassland has taken about two hours and the only birds I’ve seen are meadowlarks. “Where are the grouse?” I wonder. I’d better do some more back and forth walking to cover some more of the grassland.

My question is answered when a covey of about 20 grouse flush from a low spot. I pick a bird from the covey and swing my gun on it and shoot. The bird drops, and to my surprise a second bird also drops. I’ve gotten what’s called a “Scotch double” on the flush. I’m so surprised that I forget to try to pick off another bird from the rapidly disappearing covey, missing an opportunity for a rare triple (with a double-barrel shotgun) on a covey rise.

Fortunately the downed birds fall in thin cover and I retrieve them without difficulty and it’s just a ten-minute walk back to where I started the hunt. Even with the heft of the birds in the back of my vest I have a little extra bounce in my steps.

It meant a long walk across the prairie, but we’d kept our appointment.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Fun Afternoon of Trapshooting in Havre, Montana

Last week I wrote about missing grouse in the opening weekend of the hunting season and that I would be doing some clay pigeon shooting to get my shooting eye back in training.

I was in Havre, Montana most of last week covering the annual convention of the Montana Tavern Association for Tavern Times, the monthly newspaper of the tavern association. The convention opens with a golf tournament and a shotgunning event. Last year we enjoyed a round of sporting clays at a facility at Polson. This year the shooting event was at the Havre Trap Club.

The Havre Trap Club has an active program, with regular registered shoots, shooting leagues and fun events., as well as some special events, such as the special shoot for the Tavern Association.

A guest shooter for the afternoon was Max Erickson, owner of Erickson Financial Services of Havre and a sponsor of the shooting event. Max is a Butte native, the son of Len and Mona Erickson.

Max demonstrates that when participating in shooting sports presents some challenges, there are ways to meet those challenges.

Max has complications from diabetes. He has some mobility issues, so he shoots from a chair, which is not particularly unusual in the trapshooting world. A more serious complication is a vision loss in his right eye. Actually, that’s a variation on a relatively common problem in shotgunning: a master eye that is at odds with the body. Many shotgunners are right-handed but have a left master eye, or have a cross-dominance problem, in other words.

There are different solutions to the cross-dominance problem. Some shooters simply close their left eye, or even put some translucent tape across the left lens of their glasses to force the right eye to take over.

The loss of vision in one eye complicates things, as closing the left eye won’t solve the problem. Max tried shooting left-handed but that didn’t prove to be satisfactory. A local gunsmith came up with a solution in the form of a secondary gun muzzle, about an inch long, attached to the left side of the end of his shotgun. This gives him a secondary reference on which his left eye can focus in tracking flying targets.

It’s not perfect, but as some members of the Havre Trap Club related he now normally misses around four targets in a 25-shot round of trap, whereas when he tried shooting left-handed, he’d hit about four targets. In the competitive world of trapshooting, that won’t win many trophies. On the other hand, for a recreational shooter it’s the difference between acute frustration and enjoyment.

On the topic of trapshooting, the Havre Trap Club went out of their way to create a fun program for the convention shooters. We shot a couple rounds of standard trap for loosening up as well as to help work up an appetite for lunch.

Later they came up with games to test shooting and reflexes. We lined up at the firing line and divided into groups of three. The first person would call for the target and shoot. If he missed the second person could shoot and if he missed the third person could shoot. It’s trickier than it sounds. If a person shot after the target had already been broken, or shot out of turn, he’d earn a disqualification point. It didn’t take long before most of the shooters became bystanders while Max Erickson and Ralph Ferraro, a Bozeman restaurateur, were the last ones shooting with Ferraro finally prevailing.

I’ll modestly mention that in a second heat your reporter ended up as the winner.

Still the main thing to the shooting event was to have fun and we succeeded in a big way. Another bonus is that we had a good refresher course in shotgunning and that should pay dividends in grouse and pheasant hunts this fall. During the afternoon we each went through about six boxes of shotgun shells and I’d bet most of us don’t go through that many shells in a full season of shooting.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Art and Frustration of Shooting Flying

Flicka and our first grouse of 2010

Standing New Year’s Resolution No. 3: Go shoot some clay pigeons before the next upland bird hunting season rolls around.

Alas, that resolution, along with those resolutions to go on a diet and become a better human being, is one that gets forgotten on January 2.

Then, when September rolls around and those first grouse flush, I’m reminded about that neglected resolution. The birds are in the air and instead of picking out a bird and focusing on it, I’m poking my shotgun in the general direction of the grouse and shooting.

Shooting at flying grouse, or clay pigeons for that matter, is a lot like playing tennis. One of Butte’s tennis aficionados occasionally reiterates her Three Rules of Tennis. 1. Keep your eye on the ball. 2. Keep your eye on the ball. 3. Keep your eye on that danged ball!

Ignoring those rules of tennis generally translates into taking an ineffective poke at the ball or what tennis commentators refer to as an “unforced error.” Baseball coaches give similar advice to both batters and fielders, and football coaches give that advice to pass receivers. Keep your eye on the ball.

The same goes for shooting. Keep your eye on the bird.

Fortunately, there’s nothing like missing some shots to reinforce the need to keep your eye on the bird. Things do get better.

On those first walks for grouse at the beginning of the Labor Day weekend there was mostly frustration.

First of all, on the mountain where Flicka, my Labrador retriever, were searching for blue grouse, there was evidently poor reproduction. Last year, hunting the same mountain, there were five separate areas where it seemed I could reliably find blue grouse. This year, just one of those spots, a long sagebrush ridge, had a covey of grouse. In any event, when Flicka finally had a chance to go on point, when the birds flushed I poked my gun in their general direction when I fired and, predictably, nothing fell.

Later that day we took a walk up a brushy creek bottom in search of ruffed grouse. A grouse flushed and I had what should have been an easy straightaway shot. Again, I poked in the general direction and nothing fell. Flicka, bless her heart, went over in the optimistic hope that there would be something for her to retrieve, but her hopes were again dashed.

A few minutes later four ruffed grouse flushed and I swung on the birds, but when I pulled the trigger nothing happened. I had neglected to flip the safety to the ‘fire’ position. That’s a pretty basic error in gun handling.

The next morning we returned to that sagebrush ridge. Flicka, bless her heart, picked up the scent of the grouse and several grouse flushed from a brush patch. I missed what should have been an easy shot at the first bird to get up. I quickly reloaded and a couple more birds took off. This time I concentrated on the grouse and kept swinging on it, even after I missed the first shot. With the second shot from my over/under shotgun, the bird dropped. Flicka made the retrieve and I happily put the first bird of the season in the back of my vest.

A few minutes later I had a shot at another grouse and dropped it with my first shot.

The morning’s hunt ended with a vest pocket holding two blue grouse and a handful of fired shotgun hulls. It was one of those mornings where it felt like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once famously said. When I got into my first bunches of birds last year I did a lot of shooting before we actually put some birds in the freezer.

I take comfort in knowing that things get better after getting those misses out of the system. That shotgun starts feeling like an old friend again and shooting at flying targets, whether feathers or clay, gets to be fun.

Nevertheless, I did shoot some clay pigeons this week. Better late than never.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Trico Time in Montana

My Lab Flicka sitting on a rock in the middle of the river keeping an eye on the action

It’s mid-morning and the pool of water below the riffle looks calm. It looks calm but looks can be deceiving. The surface of the water is calm but the mayhem is about to start.

While I don’t see any fish rising I tie on a small dry fly and cast it out on the water. There’s a dimple on the water’s surface and I tighten the line; a nice fish is on the other end and it’s not at all happy about that little hook in the corner of its jaw. After a short but splashy fight I draw the fish up close so I can unhook it and send it back to the water.

For the last couple weeks I’ve been spending time on the Big Hole River following the trico hatch, that late summer blizzard of tiny mayflies that get the trout in a brief feeding frenzy just about every morning.

The trico, short for Ttrichorythodes, is tiny but prolific. As is the case with most aquatic insects, that last stage of life as an adult flying insect is brief. The bug emerges from the water in the early morning hours and in the next few hours will change from a dun to a spinner, breed in mid-air in a swarm of many thousands of bugs and then return to the water to lay eggs and die. At that point its mission in life is complete. It became an adult flying insect and procreated.

The insects feed the fish in all its life forms but it’s that final stage, the spinner fall, which triggers the feeding frenzy, though there was a time when fly anglers occasionally looked at the trico hatch as the “white curse” because they really hadn’t come to an understanding of this tiny bug and how to fish for trout during the trico season.

The sheer numbers of flying insects in the air is more than most of us can imagine. Swarms of tricos fly over the river in a visible cloud. Gusts of wind will scatter the swarms and it’s almost like a snowstorm.

On this particular morning at 10:30 the mating swarms hadn’t shown up yet but the fish were waiting and eager to nibble on anything small and dry. While I unhooked that first fish I could see some tricos in the air and at the same time I could see the rings on the water’s surface where fish were sipping in the little bits of protein. As they got into it there were rises all over the pool, with splashy rises becoming common as the trout got caught up in the moment.

On that last weekend in August I fished the same pool on two successive mornings and on the first morning I caught mostly rainbow trout. The second morning I caught mostly brown trout. Of course it’s hard to fish the trico spinner fall without catching whitefish. Whitefish really seem to love sipping in those tricos and sometimes it’ll seem as if there are nothing but whitefish in the river. On an earlier weekend I fished another stretch of the Big Hole and whitefish, along with a few yearling grayling, furnished almost all of the action.

On some waters trout are notoriously selective about taking flies that are a close match to the real thing. That means flies that seem almost microscopic, especially for those of us well advanced into the bifocal generation. Personally, I find tying flies on #24 hooks more trouble than it’s worth, and trying to thread the end of my tippet into the eye of the hook almost impossible.

On the Big Hole, at least, I can usually get away with using larger flies, if you call a fly on a #18 hook large. On this particular morning I started with a standard #18 Adams. After several fish the fly looked pretty tattered but as long as it floated it caught fish.

Elk and upland birds are taking over the spotlight right now, but don’t forget the trout. There’s a lot of fun going on.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Montana's Hunting Outlook for 2010

The aspens in Montana's mountain country will be turning golden in a few weeks.

The upland bird hunting seasons opened today at sunrise and the archery deer and elk season will open on Saturday. As we plan early hunting outings, what are the prospects for success?

According to a phone interview with Rick Northrup, upland bird coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Helena, the overall prospects for bird populations are good for most upland game birds, with some localized exceptions.

Northrup explained that the projections of bird populations are based on a combination of looking at 2009 hunter harvest statistics, adding in data for weather conditions during late spring and early summer when birds are trying to lay and hatch eggs and get the chicks through their first couple weeks. Finally, they add in about 30 years of weather data, hunter harvest data and try to correlate all those statistics into projections for brood survival. He sums up, “We’re trying to be scientific.”

In Region 3, which includes much of southwest Montana, FWP predicts bird populations to be similar to 2009 with the exception of the southern portions of Beaverhead, Madison and Gallatin Counties, which had severe cold and precipitation conditions during the crucial nesting period. Otherwise, hunters should find average bird populations among mountain grouse, sage grouse and Hungarian partridge. The pheasant season doesn’t open until October, but bird populations should be similar to 2009, when the pheasant harvest was slightly above average.

The northwest and northeast corners of Montana are exceptions to the generally optimistic outlook for relatively healthy bird populations. Northwest Montana had severe weather conditions this spring that affected nesting success.

Northeast Montana, a popular destination for pheasant hunters, had a severe winter in 2008-2009. Pheasant hunter success in 2009 was just 41 percent of average and sharp-tailed grouse success was 74 percent of average. The 2009-2010 winter and 2010 spring conditions were better than a year ago, but putting it in sports terminology, this is a rebuilding year.

Some areas of the Rocky Mountain Front had severe weather in late April 2009 that caused pheasant and partridge deaths, and lower fall populations. There should be some improvement in 2010 populations.

While FWP makes projections based on those complex factors, the best idea is to put on those boots and see what’s out there in the areas you like to hunt. That’s what I’m going to do.

In other hunting news, FWP has tentatively sent dates for the waterfowl seasons. In both the Central and Pacific Flyway areas of Montana, duck and goose hunting will begin on October 2. In addition there will be a combined Youth Waterfowl Season and Youth Pheasant Season on September 25 and 26. These special youth seasons are statewide and are to encourage younger hunters to get involved with hunting. Youth are classed as age 11 -15, legally licensed and accompanied by a non-hunting adult age 18 or older.

For archery hunters looking for early season elk, as well as rifle hunters looking ahead to October, Vanna Boccadori, a big game wildlife biologist at the FWP Butte office says, “It’s a good year for elk. We had spring rains and summer rains, the grass is belly-deep all over in our area.

“The calf counts are good, and last year’s spike bulls are raghorns this year. We had good recruitment among this class of elk.”

On the other hand, she reports mule deer numbers are down and “They are generally depressed around Montana—it’s one of those periodic cycles, and it’s reflected in a cut in numbers of B Tags available in Region 3.” She also reports pronghorn antelope numbers are up and for a little variety she mentions, “We’ve had a lot of black bear sightings. People who still have a bear tag left over after the spring season should take it along just in case. And, as usual, whitetail deer are thriving.”

The important thing, as always, is that the hunting seasons start this week. Whether you carry a shotgun or archery equipment, our time, the best time of the year in Montana, is finally here. But don’t forget your fishing rod.