Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Did I mention that I love September?

Flicka in search of grouse last September
The days are shorter and the mornings are getting chilly, though chilly mornings are the norm rather than the exception here in the mountains of western Montana.

Is this the end of summer? I don’t think so, though while early September may not be the end of summer, it is the beginning of the end of summer.

To my mind, however, tomorrow is New Years Day. I know you won’t find many calendars marking tomorrow as a holiday but it is to me, because that first day of September is the first day of the 2011 Montana hunting season.

The upland bird season for grouse of various kinds, along with Hungarian partridge and wild turkeys opens tomorrow on the first day of September. On Saturday, September 3, big game archery seasons begin. Note, however, that the pheasant season doesn’t begin until October 8 and waterfowl seasons have not yet been set. The deer and elk rifle seasons will begin on October 22, but that’s a long time from now, so we won’t worry about that for now.

Still, I look ahead to chilly dawns on top of a western Montana mountain. There’s a haze in the air from a distant fire smoldering away, and as usual there are some questions in my mind. Every year, it seems that the mountains are higher and steeper, and I have to pause more frequently to catch my breath.

Those thoughts are a given. The major question running through my mind will be whether we’ll find birds somewhere on this walk through the mountaintop sagebrush meadows.

We had a late winter and a cold, rainy and snowy spring. Did those grouse chicks chip their way out of their eggshell, back in June, to find a sunny, early summer day, or was their first peek at the world a late spring storm? The answers to that question on thousands of mountains and millions of acres of prairie add up to what kind of days Montana hunters will experience when they take their first walks of the year in search of upland birds.

While the question of what Flicka, my black Labrador retriever and faithful hunting partner and I will find is still to be answered, rest assured we will be out there taking those morning hikes. It’s what we do, and, good lord willing, we’ll keep doing it as long as we’re able.

While I mentally begin to focus on shotgunning and upland birds in coming days and weeks, it’s a focus that often shifts to trout and flyfishing. For many anglers, the summer of 2011 has been a difficult and frustrating season with prolonged periods of spring runoff.

Now, at the end of summer, rivers are in prime shape for angling. The fish are feisty and robust after chowing down during all those weeks of high water. Fishing may not be easy right now, though it may be rewarding if you’re on the water at the right time.

Tricos, those diminutive mayflies of late summer, make their spinner flights to lay eggs on the water in mid to late mornings. When conditions are right, fish go nuts over the millions of bugs coming to the water. If you enjoy fishing light tackle and tiny flies, this can be some of the most exciting fishing of the year. Using #20 flies on a 6X leader isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it sure is fun when a good trout sips it in. Of course, for comic relief, this is also the season for hoppers. Take your choice.

In short, tomorrow is September and with early season hunting, late season flyfishing, ripening chokecherries and wild plums, there are more opportunities in the great outdoors than there is time in which to do it.

I kind of hate to see those sunsets getting earlier every evening and sunrises later every morning, but it’s the rhythm of the seasons and that rhythm beats with more urgency this time of year.

Did I mention that I love September?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reel Recovery - Helping men fight cancer

Signing the vest and adding strength upon strength
“This is a sacred moment,” Stan Golub, the executive director of Reel Recovery, said, as a group of men wrote their name on a flyfishing vest before starting a day of flyfishing along the Yellowstone River north of Yellowstone National Park.

Reel Recovery was founded in 2003 by a group of avid fly anglers inspired by their fishing buddy’s ongoing battle with brain cancer. It’s a national non-profit organization that conducts free flyfishing retreats for men recovering from life-threatening cancer. Combining flyfishing instruction with directed “courageous conversations,” the organization offers the men a time to share stories, learn new skills, form friendships and gain renewed hope as they confront the challenges of recovery.

One of the organization’s traditions is that they wear vests previously worn and signed by previous participants. “This is our legacy here,” Golub, said, “think of this as a river of strength. And remember that someone, a few years from now, will be wearing this vest and sharing your strength.”

Golub, who lives in Needham, Massachusetts, was one of the founders of the organization and is the organization’s only employee. The core of the program is a network of volunteers who organize retreats, facilitate discussions, and, of course, take participants fishing. This past week at a retreat held at Dome Mountain Ranch, a number of area fishing guides, and this reporter, took days off from guiding to become “fishing buddies” for participants.

I was a buddy for Josh, a computer programmer from Missoula, who is recovering from throat cancer. Last year he went through surgery and radiation for his cancer, losing several months of work as he coped with his illness. Josh, as it turns out, is an experienced angler, so didn’t need any instruction and when we went to a private pond on the ranch, did well, latching onto seven nice trout.

That afternoon, I was a buddy for Jim, a retired rocket scientist (really) from Hamilton, as we floated with Randy Kittelson, a Presbyterian minister and flyfishing fanatic from Denver. Randy was at the retreat as a facilitator, with a unique perspective, in that he first came to the program as a volunteer, and then as a participant after he came down with prostate cancer—his second serious bout with cancer. Unfortunately, Jim, a beginning angler, didn’t catch any fish though we didn’t feel bad about it. It seems that if you didn’t have the right fly, the fish weren’t hitting. The hot fly, it turns out, was a lavender-bodied grasshopper imitation.

Why trout would prefer a lavender hopper makes no sense. Surely they’ve never seen a real bug like that, but sometimes that’s how it works.

Reel Recovery, which initially received some money from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, held its first retreat in June 2003 in Loveland, Colorado, and did their second retreat in October of that year.  In 2004, they held six retreats. In 2011, they’ll be holding 19 retreats in 14 states. Retreats are free for participants, and Reel Recovery gets funding from a number of foundations, corporations, Trout Unlimited chapters and fishing clubs, as well as local fundraisers.

Though participating in a Reel Recovery retreat is generally a one-time event, many past participants come back as volunteers, often acting as facilitators and starting retreats in states that previously hadn’t had retreats.

Of course, some people also get hooked on flyfishing and one facilitator remarked that he’d heard from the wife of a participant that her husband came home, went to a flyshop and bought one of everything. She was ecstatic. “He finally has a reason to get out of the house.”

“We encourage the men to stay in contact,” Golub said. “We hear that many of the guys get together regularly and they’ve become the best of friends.”

Participants go out, Golub concludes, “To have fun, get a break from their routine and to get a new perspective on dealing with cancer. Certainly, they get to know other people whom they can relate to in a special way.”

Finally, Reel Recovery’s motto: Be well; fish on.

For more information, they’re online at

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Evening flyfishing - a special time

Evening shadows lengthen and the river bottoms come to life at the end of the day. An owl flies into a cottonwood tree to get a good lock at the anglers walking into its domain. At the end of a warm and sunny day, it’s time to put on a good helping of bug spray and go out in search of some of those fish that ignore anglers during the day.

Now that it’s mid-August, tactics that worked a few weeks ago probably aren’t as effective anymore. Pale Morning Dun mayfly hatches aren’t as prolific as they were a month ago and trout aren’t looking up at the water’s surface for their next bit of food with any reliability.

That doesn’t mean fishing isn’t good. It’s just time to switch gears and go fishing when the fish are feeding, which is about the time that everybody else gets off the river.

Our son, Kevin, and his family, have been camping and fishing with us the last few weekends, so Kevin took a walk with me through the mosquito haven that is the lower Big Hole River in search of fishing action.

Unlike the daytime hours, when the river is filled with float anglers and recreational floaters, the evening more often is a time for the solitary angler willing to brave mosquitoes and falling temperatures in hopes of finding trout on the feed.

There are never guarantees, of course. Still, when Kevin and I walked through the tall grasses and brush, we were filled with anticipation. We were heading for a spot that has rewarded us many times in the past, a bend in the river where we can wade the shallows and cast toward deeper water along the opposite bank.

Aquatic entomologists sometimes talk about an ‘evening drift,’ a time when mayfly nymphs let go of their rocky shelters on the stream bottom and go for a little trip. Fish, of course, take advantage of this chance for an evening snack, though sometimes those bits of aquatic food have a little sting, often in the form of a soft-hackled wet fly, part of the legacy of Syl Nemes, whose death I noted a month ago.

This evening, the action is slow in starting. In fact, I begin to wonder whether there will be any action. It somehow seems that when I’ve had hot action it was when the water is lower than it is this season of high water flows. I finally have a strike from a fish that grabs the fly and goes for a short run before shaking the hook.

I walk a little farther downstream and change flies and this one; a soft-hackled pheasant tail nymph seems to have some magic to it. I catch an energetic brown trout that puts up a good fight before I’m able to bring it in for the release. Then I get a substantially bigger brown that goes on one long run after another before tiring. A third fish follows that one.

By then it’s almost dark. The air temperature has dropped and I’m feeling chilled from wet-wading in the cool water, so it’s actually a relief to walk back through the trees and warm up a bit while we slap mosquitoes. We’ve done better on other occasions but we had enough action to make us happy.

We weren’t the only anglers on the river that evening. Earlier we’d passed a bait fisherman excited about a three-pound brown trout he’d caught a little earlier. He was gone when we came back but we heard the next day he’d caught several more browns, including a deep-bellied, nine-pound brown trout that I suspect might stop at a taxidermy shop along its way to a trophy wall.

Late evening and night fishing isn’t for everyone, though on a visit to Michigan a couple years ago I learned that there it’s almost a religion during early summer brown drake and ‘Hex’ hatches. Here in Montana it’s almost a given that you’ll have the river to yourself.

Just don’t forget the bug dope.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A look at the fishing in Ireland

With An Rí Rá Montana Irish festival coming up this weekend I happened to think of a unique gift I received a couple years ago from Father Gregory Burns of Butte. Though I’m not a Catholic, Father Burns and I have had a cordial relationship going back a number of years. In fact, at the time I was retiring from my former career with the Social Security Administration, he suggested it was too bad that I wasn’t Catholic, as otherwise I’d be a good candidate for becoming a deacon in the Catholic Church.

A couple years ago, Father Burns gave me an Irish coin minted in 1963, which he’d acquired on one of his trips and thought that I should have it, because on one side of the coin it has the likeness of an Atlantic salmon. The other side has an Irish harp. As coin collectors know, the harp side is the obverse, or head side, and the salmon side is the reverse, or tail side. The coin is a “florin,” which was replaced in 1969 by the 10 pence coin.

The Atlantic salmon is depicted on the coin because the fishing industry, both sea fisheries and freshwater game fishing, is important to the Irish economy.

With Ireland’s cool, wet climate, there is a lot of water in Ireland and the various streams, rivers and lakes are the basis for a good fishery.

Many lakes have excellent pike fishing and every year anglers catch pike in the 20 to 30 pound range. These big pike, exactly the same as our American pike, are protected and it’s illegal to keep a pike of over 20 pounds if caught in a river or over 30 pounds if caught in a lake. The limit for pike is one per day. Unlike most angling in Ireland, anglers generally don’t need to pay for the privilege of pike fishing.

Brown trout are the native trout of Ireland and there are many miles of streams and rivers with a good trout fishery. In Ireland, most trout waters are privately owned or leased, so anglers have to pay for the privilege, though for a visitor, it may not be all that bad, as angling fees, according to the website,, run around €10 to €20 per day (that’s Euros, by the way). Some larger loughs (lakes) don’t require an access fee.

Ireland’s glamour fish are Atlantic salmon and sea trout and a large number of rivers and lakes are managed for salmon and sea trout. Sea trout are brown trout that have gone to sea, much like a steelhead, and return to fresh waters to spawn. Kirk Deeter, a field editor for Field & Stream magazine recently made a fishing trip to Ireland and wrote in the magazine’s blog site about fishing Lough Currane. Pointedly, he doesn’t tell of his personal angling success, though he does report on a ghillie (guide) who put a customer on an Irish record 13 pound, 5 ounce sea trout this past May.

Atlantic salmon have a couple peak periods of angling. In summer, grilse, or immature salmon, enter the rivers and offer excellent angling for three to six pound fish. Mature salmon return to Irish rivers beginning in autumn. A 57-pound salmon was caught in 1874 and it’s not likely that record will ever be broken. Only a few salmon of over 20 pounds are caught annually.

In addition to pike, trout and salmon there are also “coarse” fish in Ireland, with unfamiliar names to American anglers such as tench, roach, or rudd, plus the more familiar perch and carp. Though there are liberal bag limits for coarse fish, there are no closed seasons and most waters offer free fishing.

In addition to fresh water angling, there are abundant salt-water opportunities, whether it’s surfcasting along shorelines, or in small boats in sheltered bays and estuaries, or deep-sea fishing.

In short, there is a lot of good fishing to be had in Ireland, and for Irish visitors in Butte this weekend, I’d suggest they sample our fishing here in southwest Montana.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

New Trend: the Locavore Hunter - and Welcome!

A pair of sharptailed grouse from last year - the beginnings of a couple gourmet dinners.
The summer is flying by. Now that southwest Montana rivers are finally getting into good shape, it seems like the fishing season is just beginning. On the other hand, we look at the calendar and realize that the 2011 hunting season is just a few weeks away, with upland bird hunting beginning on September 1 and archery season on September 3.

Hunting was a hot topic at last month’s annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, held at Snowbird resort at Salt Lake City.

Keynote speaker Hank Shaw predicts a wave of new hunters coming on the scene, helping to reverse a decline in hunter numbers in many states. Shaw calls them “Adult Onset Hunters,” people who have not grown up in hunting families or in a hunting culture.

Shaw is a longtime political reporter who has gravitated towards a new career as a food writer and blogger, and he counts himself among this new wave of Adult Onset Hunters, people who are out there for the food. He says, “I’m a cook who hunts. We enjoy the experience, but at the end of the day, we want food on the plate.”

Shaw, who also describes himself as, “the omnivore who has solved his dilemma,” (a reference to the bestselling book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan) is a person who enthusiastically looks for natural foods and writes about it at his blog, “Hunter Angler Gardener Cook” ( He also wrote a book on the topic, “Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the forgotten feast.” To indicate he’s serious about it, he reports that grackles, a bird that mostly annoys people, are great eating. “They’re seed eaters, and as a general principle, seed-eating birds are good eating.”

Shaw says he is continually running into prospective hunters at places not traditionally associated with hunting, such as food co-ops or on online forums, or at restaurants where there are chefs who feature game and foraged food. He asserts that there’s a whole new world of hunters out there and they’re eager for information on how to get started hunting, and then how to turn that bounty into food on the table. That wild bounty includes things such as starlings, jackrabbits and the like, as well as more mainstream wild game. His website also has many recipes for wild game and foraged food.

Shaw also suggests that state game agencies should offer additional hunter education classes geared for adults, as a beginning adult hunter may feel like a misfit in a class of 11 and 12 year-olds.

Jackson Landers is another hunting advocate who has made a reputation by teaching hunting basics to people who hadn’t been part of any hunting tradition but recognize wild game as an excellent source of locally grown, natural food. He regularly teaches classes on deer hunting, including field dressing animals, meat cutting and cooking. The New York Times produced a video about his classes, “Closer to the Bone,” in 2009, which can still be viewed online.

Landers recently completed a book, “Hunting Deer for Food,” which will be issued next month, and is working on another book project, “Eating Aliens,” about hunting and eating alien invasive species. He also has a website, “The Locavore Hunter.”

Landers grew up in a vegetarian household and never tasted meat until he was ten years old. He learned to enjoy eating meat and when, in his 20s, he inherited some guns, he took up hunting, and has turned that into a career.

Of his classes, Landers says, “I’ve had hundreds of people take my classes and they’ve become serious hunters.”

Landers does point out, however, that these new locavore hunters haven’t gotten much recognition, especially by the mainstream outdoor press, which generally focuses on lifelong hunters. He asserts that, “New hunters need the wisdom of old hunters; old hunters need these new hunters to maintain hunter numbers.”

Maintaining these hunter numbers is essential to preserving our hunting tradition as a mainstream, politically accepted means of outdoor recreation and, of course, meat in the freezer.

Welcome to the gang and bon appétit.