Saturday, March 10, 2018

When the "big" one doesn't get away...

It is still about three months till mousing season will begin again in earnest.  At least here in Montana, where the lakes remain frozen over and in the hands of the ice fishermen. My yard has been covered with snow since well before Christmas. But every time I see a field mouse dash across the road in my headlights or find their tracks around the house in fresh powder I am transported back to July in my mind.  There are those hits that leave you aching for a second chance.  Those hookups that never get landed and fuel your imagination in the off season of what next year will bring. And "next year" is now closer than "last year."

Then there are those hookups where the "big" one doesn't get away.

scooping a  mouse-eating brown
Honestly, it's usually the other way for me - meaning that once a fish is in my net and illuminated by headlamp I often find it was bigger than I thought.  I'm pleasantly surprised when a fish I am fighting in the dark winds up being larger than I expected.  I don't typically find that I've misjudged upward.  Maybe it's because I just about never use an 8-weight for my daytime fishing and am thrown by the extra stoutness. Could be I'm just a conservative estimator.  But I'm also slow to react - often letting a good chunk of fight go by before I 'call' what I think the fish is.  Maybe that's cheating with regard to judging a fish, if there is such a thing.  But even then, with a heaping helping of clues, not everyone is right all the time.  So when you lose a "big" one, just how big was it?  Was it anywhere near as big as you imagined it?  Bigger even?  Who knows.  You'll never know, especially in the dark.  Who's to say you didn't snag a duck....

Several weeks ago now I was driving down a dirt two-track road in the dark after a late season deer hunt. A storm was coming.  Although the weather was calm and eerily still right then - and golden sunlight had just finished bathing the sagebrush-covered landscape in setting sun like a summer post card - it was December and snow would soon be falling. That night in fact. 

Mice were everywhere it seemed.  Scurrying and bustling in preparation.  Shooting across the tire ruts in the headlights.  They appeared to know that this could be the end - the last chance to get around from bush to bush without tunnels under the snow until spring thaw.  The fact that snow wasn't already piled over them was just good fortune on their part.

Of course I instantly thought of trout sucking them down - imagining a big whoosh of white foam when one swam out into the stream...... well, ran across the jeep trail.  They were all standard field mice.  I'd spotted about half a dozen of them in the last mile when suddenly I saw a whopper.  It was a kangaroo rat.  Twice the size of the other mice I was seeing, with a super long tail.  A very defined tuft was at the end.  It was in no hurry to escape the headlights but evaded me when I got out to take a picture.  My first thought was "Man!  I need to fish mice with longer tails!"  And then I began to imagine the monster brown that would eat this giant.  I chuckled because I figured it probably didn't matter - it'd get smacked by a 14-incher.  Which reminded me of a hot July night that'd I'd been fooled.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Prairie Double

A lion and a deer. And a pick-up truck.

It was the second mountain lion I'd seen this year.  The first had been after an overnight fishing trip in June.  This one was at the beginning of a deer hunt.  They both came with other significant things - the one in June had been my first 30-inch brown trout.  This one came with a unique buck.

This has been a full fall.  Not necessarily in the busy sense, but the satisfactory. It was filled with good trips, lots of action, and multiple hunting partners with successes.  Even a tank of a brown trout made it to the net between hunting trips.  I was with one guy when he took his first animal ever.  I helped quarter and pack another friend's 370-class bull-of-a-lifetime.
I watched two different hunting partners make their longest shots yet, and both animals dropped where they stood.  I was with another hunting partner when he took his first two antelope on consecutive days. And then there was my own action.  One day in particular stood out over the others.  A day where I took a big game double out on the rugged prairie.

In September,  night trips for big browns morphed into nights sleeping on the ground among sagebrush once bow season kicked in. There were encounters with bulls, including a time I walked in on two battling it out and still didn't get a shot. I never fired an arrow of my own all season long, but took part in packing two archery elk. 

I spent time trailing bucks.  Good bucks on three different hunts.  One day I followed a bachelor herd of seven the entire day without ever closing the distance to bow range. Four were shooters.  The biggest had back forks that forked twice and sported extra kickers on top of that.  I vowed to return during rifle season.....

Opening of antelope in October was a blast.  Myself and two hunting partners tagged out on bucks and a couple does.

On opening of general rifle season two weeks later my hunting partner and I made some moves on an elk herd across canyons and burns at high elevation that resulted in a bull taken.  Our day had begun at 2am and with a thirteen hundred foot vertical gain.

And rifle deer was yet to come.
Deer hunting - and more and more mule deer hunting in particular - is my favorite.  Especially during rut. I look forward to the waning side of November every year and reserve a block of time toward Thanksgiving to be devoted to it.  This year I had a specific place in mind - right back in the same basin that I'd followed that bachelor herd around in with my bow. 

For three consecutive years I've been elk hunting in a piece of scrubby, broken, and rugged country during archery season.  Each year I've seen good bucks.  And each year I'd sworn I'd return during rut to hunt it in rifle season.  Somehow two years had passed without making it happen.  And the first trip I'd planned this year in mid-November was snowed out and hampered by single digit temps.  The trip just wasn't smart to make.  

But the weather broke and warmed to the point that as the last week of the season approached, I could foresee the possibility of breaking out the bivvy gear and putting it back into use.  Nights were not forecasted to drop lower than the upper 20s.  Sleeping on the ground would make penetrating the country I wanted to hunt possible.  The plan for this hunt was very clear - target the area I'd seen most of the largest racks and glass for days.  I would be passing on all until I found a buck of the caliber I knew was there.  But all that can change.  Expect the unexpected and be flexible.


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Kids on the night shift

I've been wanting to get my kids out for the night experience. Earlier opportunities this summer involved high water, and I just wasn't crazy about little kids streamside in elevated flows in the darkness. I also wanted some moon - not that I'm picky or anything, but I wanted their first trip out to be enjoyable, and I figured being able to see their surroundings would make it all the more pleasant and awe inspiring.

I saw a handful of mice dart across the road in the headlights as we vibrated over the washboards in darkness to where I wanted to start. Always a good sign that the 'hatch' is on.  As we got out of the truck I noticed another mouse on the gravel of the road. The kids bailed out and gave it a good chase. They had it cornered a couple times before losing it into a crevice. That seemed to set the stage for a good night of adventure and mousing. Well, it would only be a couple hours. Maybe three. It certainly wouldn't be all night.

We hiked to what I figured was a decent starting point for both fishing structure and minimally hazardous waterline. The kids experienced how well they truly can see in the ambient light of night (at least in the wide open unvegetated world that is Montana) because I had them hike with lights off. The pale dirt of the trail was easy to see, and as eyes adjusted to the dimness the texture of the ground surface could be seen. The hillsides were white in the moonlight but were still only a vague suggestion of the terrain.

When we arrived at the water's edge, they both slipped a life jacket on.  We'd discussed this ahead of time and they accepted my requirement without any pushback.

As the night wore on we did things I never do. We shined lights everywhere. We observed bats.  I knew there were a lot, but it wasn't till this night that I knew just how many filled the air. We watched them eat and flitter. We watched them react to the flying mouse fly. I pointed out the sounds of the bats and of landing waterfowl. They spotlighted my mouse and watched how it came to life in the water. I was tossing one of Chris Cutler's arti-mouse creations I'd gotten from him earlier in the summer. My daughter exclaimed "It looks just like a real mouse!"

Thursday, August 24, 2017


I was on the edge of my seat - for 12 hours.

We were driving from Montana to southwest Washington to visit family and friends over a long weekend. I was going to be steelhead fishing the next day, back in familiar territory from nearly a decade ago now. I'd lived there for six years and had fallen in love with steelhead in small streams.

Who wouldn't?

Since then I've been back for them only once. I hoped that I'd get the opportunity to tangle with one. I only had a single day to try. And steelhead - well, if you've fished for them you know -  can be like hunting for sasquatch. Elusive. Seemingly impossible, nonexistent. Like elk hunting - you wander the hills for days and question your own sanity until suddenly you are into them with nonstop thrilling action. Much like that hour-long line at the roller coaster for a 90-second ride. But I'd be fishing with one of the best friends I've ever had. So really, catching one would be icing.

Joe and I met when we were both in our 20's. One of us turns 40 this year.  I do not entirely remember the sequence of events under which we met, those piddly details are overshadowed by the fishing adventures that began almost right away. On top of that our wives became good friends and the four of us spent lots of time together. Joe and I endured their wrath [loving tolerance?] whenever a fishing trip resulted in returning closer to midnight than suppertime.

Even on this trip when it was over and our families were saying our goodbyes, I kidded with Joe that I would pick him up before daylight the next morning to fish. His wife Amber slid over and said,
"Are you serious about fishing in the morning?"
"No," I said, "Just joking."
"Okay, I'll give you a hug then."

Wherever I have lived and fished in my life I have always seemed to leave behind a trail of disgruntled wives. On this day-trip Joe and I came rolling in somewhere near 11pm. Barely an eyebrow was raised, so somewhere along the way people have at least gotten used to us.

We met in the morning shortly after 6am. Our start time was limited by the opening of the establishment where I could purchase my license. We tossed our gear into his pickup truck and then loaded the four-wheeler on to the back. The thought was to use it to access some more remote areas. But in the end what it actually did was allow us to bite off way more creek then we might have fished without a shuttle and ensure that we would be home just as late as ever.

After an hour of rolling through the hills over familiar logging and forest roads we parked the truck at a spot we knew we didn't want to miss. We still had not formed a plan exactly, but there was no one on this stretch and there's a hole here that's as close to a sure thing as we know to exist in steelhead fishing.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Fishing the Earthquake

I've always liked how fishing serves as a gateway to experiences. It's a reason to go somewhere. It's a reason to get out of the car. It's a reason to choose one hike over another. It's a reason to be outside in places and at times you may not otherwise have gone or been there. And when there, you often get to witness things you wouldn't have experienced or seen otherwise.
Sunset over the house a couple hours before the quake.

This week I had the pleasure of being one of the few -  if not the only - fishermen to be picking my way along the river's edge when a 5.8 magnitude earthquake jostled the region at 12:30am. I did not know how widely it had been felt in that moment, so I noted the time on my watch and planned to look it up later to learn the details. But as dawn glowed on the horizon and I found myself driving back into cell range, my phone began dinging with various alerts and updates about it - when it happened, how big it was, where the epicenter was, check my structures, report gas leaks, etc.  Social media was plastered with people's stories of surprise, shock, and general uneasiness. It had provided a good scare back in civilization.