Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I Say Vote 'No" on I-161

The cock pheasant flushed from the edge of a patch of cattails and took to the air. I swung my shotgun along the pheasant’s flight path and pulled the trigger. The pheasant kept on flying for parts unknown.

I apologized to Flicka, my Labrador retriever. She’d been working the cover and finding the birds. She figures I should do my job and give her a pheasant to retrieve. Sometimes it works that way. This time I fell down on the job. Fortunately, Flicka is forgiving—as long as we’re looking for more birds she’s willing to overlook my lapses.

We were hunting on a farm along the Rocky Mountain Front. It’s a place I’ve hunted many tines and I treasure the memories I’ve stored up from many walks across the fields, as well as the three different Labs who have shared these walks. Also treasured are lively discussions over the kitchen table with the elderly couple that made their home on the farm for so many years. They’re gone now, too, but the bond of friendship continues with their adult children who continue to reside there.

Like many good hunting properties around Montana, the hunting isn’t free, though in this case the price of hunting is some good conversation.

I treasure this and some other farms and ranches where I have hunted over the years. At a time when many hunters are struggling to find a place to hunt it’s good to know there are places where I’m welcome to hunt. In fact, they often call to find out when I’m coming.

Nevertheless I still mourn the loss of some other farms and ranches where I used to hunt. One of those, a farm along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana, was a pheasant paradise. It was often tough hunting because of impenetrable brush and thorns in spots, but it seldom failed to produce pheasants.

Several years ago the owners elected to start charging their hunters a trespass fee. That’s when I stopped going there. Before taking that step they also considered leasing the hunting rights to a local outfitter, but they ultimately decided to charge a trespass fee so as to maintain direct control of the hunting.

Losing the privilege of hunting on that farm still hurts though I don’t blame them for making changes in their policies. Making a living on a farm or ranch is a tough proposition, what with the high costs of production and a razor thin profit margin. If there has been a lot of turnover in farm and ranch ownership the last couple decades, the cold, harsh realities of agricultural economics are usually at the root of change. It’s no wonder many operators have resorted to charging trespass fees or leasing hunting rights.

That’s also at the heart of an initiative on the Montana ballot this election season. Initiative No 161 (I-161) is one of the few initiatives to pass the hurdles to get on the ballot. Two weeks ago, Rick Foote, the editor of the Weekly, wrote a detailed analysis of the measure and its pros and cons. I won’t go into that detail other than to briefly summarize the provisions of the measure. In short, I-161 would end a program of outfitter-sponsored licenses for elk and deer. Under this program non-residents pay a premium price for a big game hunting license when they book a hunt with a Montana outfitter

If the measure passes, all non-residents wanting to hunt in Montana would have to enter the general drawing for elk or deer license and pay higher fees, as well.

Backers of the measure assert that abolition of the outfitter-sponsored license will reverse that trend of landowners leasing hunting rights to outfitters and, thus, improve hunting opportunities for Montana residents.

Personally, I’m not convinced that I-161’s backers have made their case. I doubt that this measure, if passed, would roll things back to those good old days. As far as I’m concerned it’s agricultural economics that forces farmers and ranchers to seek additional revenue by leasing hunting rights and I-161 doesn’t change that.

I’m voting no.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Montana's Big Game Season Begins

For Montana hunters the big day is just about here. If we’ve been out there we probably have a few grouse in the freezer and these last couple weeks have been chasing waterfowl, pheasants and antelope. A lot of hunters have been taking advantage of the archery season.

Yet, that’s all a warm-up. On this Saturday, October 23, the 2010 general elk and deer season begins at sunrise and runs through Sunday, November 28, the Sunday after Thanksgiving Day. For many Montanans, this is the hunting season, or at least the only season that really counts.

And that season beginning date of Saturday, October 23, is not a typographical error. That’s right, the big game hunting seasons now open on Saturday, at the beginning of the weekend.

I don’t know how far back that traditional Sunday opening day goes back. The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website simply notes it as “recent memory.” My Montana hunting memory goes back 40 years when the big game general season opened at sunrise on a Sunday morning and the pheasant season would open at noon. It was a long-held tradition, though it always struck me as a little crazy, in that the combination of deer and pheasant hunters all out at the same time was almost a guarantee for hunting accidents, or so it seemed.

Certainly, a segment of the hunting public cheering this change will be many clergymen who, over the years, have looked over their congregation on opening day Sunday mornings and noted all the absentees—while also feeling a little jealous because they couldn’t go hunting until they’d preached sermons and prayed their last prayer. This year they can go out on opening day with everybody else and if they’re lucky they can conduct Sunday services while their deer or elk is cooling, waiting to be turned into steaks and roasts.

While we’re on the topic of big game hunting, FWP reminds hunters to follow common sense rules if they use an Off Highway Vehicle when hunting. For example, whether you’re hunting Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or State wildlife management areas the rule is the same when it comes to using an ATV or other OHV. It’s unlawful to drive the vehicle off designated public roads or trails. If you’re hunting on private land, don’t drive off-trail unless the landowner has already given you the okay. Unauthorized use of an ATV, spreading weeds as you go, is a good way to lose your welcome at a hunting spot.

The rules for off-trail use on public lands don’t have an exception for retrieving game. Yes, it can be a real challenge dragging out a big deer or elk, but it’s still illegal to drive off designated roads and trails.

You likely don’t have to look far to see where people have violated the rules. Last month I noted a 4-wheeler track heading up a mountain meadow. Last year I noted a spot where people had been running circles with ATVs next to their archery hunting camp. They left ruts and bare tracks where they’d gone. A year later those scars are still there. It takes a long time for Nature to heal.

Don’t forget that it’s necessary to have permission to hunt on private land in Montana. This permission may be granted in person or by phone, or by posting of land as open to hunting. There are nine million acres of private land open to public hunting through the Block Management program. Don’t forget to follow the rules of getting permission slips, either through personal contact or at a designated sign-in box. If you haven’t followed the rules you don’t have permission.

Above all, be sure to wear hunter orange clothing during the big game season. When the countryside is full of hunters you want to be visible.

While there are always caveats about responsible hunting, let’s remember what a great time of year this is. People from all over the world envy us when it comes to hunting opportunities. Be safe, be legal, and have a great hunt!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Puffballs - a Bonus to a Ruffed Grouse Outing

A Woodland Prize - a softball-sized puffball

I thought it would be a deal she couldn’t refuse.

On a September weekend of camping, fishing and grouse hunting, I suggested to my wife, “Why don’t you come along with your mushroom field guide and pick mushrooms while Flicka and I look for grouse?”

After the soaking rains of early September followed by relatively mild and sunny weather there has been an explosion of mushrooms in the mountain woodlands. They’re growing on stumps or emerging from decomposing leaf litter in the aspen thickets. I’m pretty sure a lot of them are edible, though a guideline you ignore at your own risk is to never eat a wild mushroom unless you’re certain about its identity.

My wife has the advantage here. She studied mycology (the study of fungi) as part of her college biology major and understands the scientific lingo when a guidebook discusses the identifying characteristics of mushrooms.

While I though it was a great offer, she still passed it up. Go figure.

So I wander the forest, looking at thousands of mushrooms and wonder about them.

On the other hand there are some mushrooms that are not only edible; they’re easy to identify. In spring and early summer morel mushrooms are treasures when you can find them.

Puffballs are edible mushroom that are easy to find and identify. In fact I often have puffballs growing in my yard, though they’re usually too small—marble-sized—to make picking worth the effort. Usually when I pick them they’re golf ball sized.

On an early October hunt I could hardly believe it when I looked down and spotted a softball-sized puffball. “It’s going to be all mushy,” I told myself, not wanting to get too excited about my find. I gave it a squeeze and it was nice and firm, just the way a good mushroom should be. I added it to my game bag and continued on my way.

While that softball-sized puffball was a prize it’s far from a trophy. I’ve seen them as large as a basketball and they get bigger than that. The trick is getting a large puffball that’s still fit to eat. According to a couple internet sources, when the puffball flesh is soft or looks yellowish or green, it’s no longer edible. In its final phase the puffball flesh dries and if you step on it a puff of powder comes out. Each of those little grains of powder is a spore capable of starting a new puffball. The number of spores in a giant puffball can be trillions. That’s a lot.

Perhaps if I left that puffball where it was, next year the whole hillside might have been covered with puffballs. We’ll never know because after bringing it home we sliced it and fried it in butter. That mushroom is gone.

While the puffball was a treat, it was just a bonus to the outing. Ruffed grouse were the goal of the trip and when Flicka and I finished our hike up and down the hills we had flushed several grouse and gotten two of them.

After we finished the hunt I drove on to the Big Hole River. After a late lunch in the shade of a golden cottonwood tree I rigged up a flyrod and waded up the river. It was mid-afternoon and the main dry fly action of the day was over. One trout came up and looked at my fly and turned away.

A couple minutes later another trout wasn’t so fussy and took the fly. This trout wasn’t a bit happy about being fooled into taking an artificial bug but after a few minutes I was able to bring it to hand long enough to unhook it and send it back to get a little bigger, though to tell the truth a 20-inch brown trout is just fine as it is.

We’d had a real western Montana day. A pleasant walk through the aspens on a golden October day, two ruffed grouse, a giant puffball and a 20-inch brown trout.

I love living here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Montana Pheasant and Antelope Seasons Open

A memory from the 2009 pheasant season.

The autumn season is progressing rapidly. While we had warm, sunny weather at the end of September, days keep getting shorter.

A sure sign of changing seasons is the colorful autumn foliage, both in cities and the mountains and river bottoms.

Quaking aspens, an icon of autumn in the Rocky Mountains, reached their peak last week, though there are still isolated clumps of aspens still holding on to their leaves, and some that are probably just changing colors. Aspens spread by cloning themselves and there’s no better indication of that than to look at a hillside this time of year and to see how clumps of aspen trees change colors. At any given time we might see aspens that are a bright yellow or orange, while other clumps of trees have shed their leaves and others are still green. Those clumps of aspens are made up of a number of trees but they’re still basically one big organism. They’re pretty amazing trees.

If you’re thinking of a fall color tour I’d do it this weekend as the colors are probably past their peak in the mountains, while the cottonwood groves in the river areas are just approaching their peak.

Either way, hopefully we’ll avoid that deep freeze cold front that robbed us of our fall colors last year when trees all over Montana froze their leaves before really changing color.

This weekend is a big weekend for Montana hunters.

The pheasant season opens on Saturday, October 9. Some people get excited about elk and deer. It’s pheasants that pop up in my dreams this time of the fall. There’s something about the sight of a pheasant exploding from a patch of brush that never fails to stir my senses, and I hope it never does.

While the pheasant isn’t native to North America, this import from China has certainly found a good home here in America’s heartland. They’re a bird at home in cornfields, wheat and barley stubble, wetlands, river bottoms and anywhere else they can find food and shelter.

Pheasant hunting is always a challenge. Pheasants may have no more brains than a barnyard chicken, but these birds develop an acute sense for what’s going on in their neighborhood. Pheasants are seldom caught by surprise. It’s figuring out what they are going to do that makes them so fascinating. Some birds are expert at hiding, hoping hunters and other predators will walk by without finding them. Then other birds will simply bug out, either on foot or on wing, as soon as they sense unwelcome company.

A good bird dog with a trained sense of smell is an invaluable partner when it comes to productive pheasant hunting. A good dog will find where birds are hiding and, almost more importantly, will find where a pheasant fell after a successful shot. A rooster pheasant is a gaudy, bright colored bird but it’s amazing how it can disappear into a little clump of grass or weeds.

The pheasant season runs through New Year’s Day, so there will be many opportunities in the next couple months to chase these wonderful birds.

The Montana pronghorn antelope season also opens on October 9 and runs through November 14.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Montana is second only to Wyoming in pronghorn populations, so if you needed another reason to be happy about living in Montana, there you are.

While pronghorn populations are thriving in most of southwestern Montana, hunters heading for southeast Montana, usually a mecca for pronghorns, may have a little more challenge this year. Pronghorn populations are down after tough winters the last couple years. In the Miles City area, FWP estimates populations are down 37 percent from a couple years ago.

Whether you’re looking for pheasants or pronghorn this weekend, keep in mind that it is always necessary to have permission to hunt private land in Montana. On the other hand, there are some 9 million acres of land open to hunters through the Block Management Program. Do your homework and you may find some hunting treasures in the Treasure State.