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.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Time well wasted: a daddy-daughter day

One trip, two perspectives

My soon to be eight-year old daughter and I took a day trip over the continental divide and into new trout country to us.  We'd planned to do so when school ended for the summer. The premise was fishing. The idea was to explore new creeks and look for some dry fly action. It didn't really go all that well from my perspective, at least as viewed through the lens of my expectations. I'd planned to write about the trip and took mental notes in preparation. I had essentially scrapped the idea late in the day, thinking there really wasn't much to tell -  and then found that my daughter had already written about the trip. She'd captured the day's events in a little notebook in the back seat of the truck. Eight short pages of dedicated second-grade scrawl made over bumpy roads. Fresh insight into her day, and how she'd seen it through something other than my expectations.

We left the gas station with freshly washed windows, streaked in the places she couldn't reach very well.  She loves to wash the windows of my truck anytime I'm pumping gas.  Doesn't matter the weather.  She tore into the little treat we'd bought from the candy racks and shared a bite with me.

Beside me in the front seat our fly rods rattled and buzzed.  She had a new one that was all her own.  Ratty Montana road maps used to the point of falling apart lay under them. Leaving the house had been delayed when at first I couldn't find these maps. Our waist packs were on the floor boards with the fly gear for the day stuffed into them.  Her little purple bag contained a box full of "the pretty ones" she'd selected from my fly boxes earlier that morning.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

30 inches of mouse-eater: a morning of predators

When was the last time you saw a 30-inch brown and a mountain lion in the same day? 
For me it was as June's full moon faded into morning.

I chuckled to myself as I slid my net into my waist pack and looked up at the moonlit slopes.  Here I was in a fairly popular spot for recreational users without another person around.  I picked up my eight weight, slid my fingers down the heavy furled leader, along the 16lb tippet, tested the knot, and then stowed the mouse on the keeper.  This evening I had decided to try somewhere new.  I had scouted the place earlier in spring, so I had hiked it in the daylight, but this would be the first overnighter. The spot required more time investment than my usual places.  I planned to finish up about two miles from where I'd parked.  I had driven about an hour from home.  Given the added remoteness, I added my .44 to my belt.  Aside from the occasional coon who doesn't want to give way,  I haven't had any midnight encounters - but there wasn't any need to tempt one tonight by being unprepared.  Once last summer I had a bear mosey along the slopes well above me.  It moved along noisily and bellowed once as it faded away. I figured it was saying good bye.

I shut my tailgate and hit the trail.  The time was now 11:00pm.  Five solid hours of mousing lay ahead of me.  Memories of key pieces of rock structure mentally noted six weeks ago were on my brain. I'm learning to treat mousing for browns like tournament bass fishing - skip the 'so-so' water and hit the primary structure.  Then move on. No need to waste limited darkness picking the entire shoreline apart.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

My run-in with 'beaver' trout

Sunset over the house - time to get ready to fish!
There's an image burned into my brain. A week ago on a partially moonlit night I was swimming a mouse along a vertical rock wall on a river clear enough to fish but swollen with snow melt. It's a wall that's been productive over the last few summers, accounting for more than one of my larger browns. So far this summer I haven't been touched along it. I mostly chalked this up to high water, figuring it may be a holding point during lower summer flows that are yet to come. Still, I stood for several minutes and many casts making sure to work the wall thoroughly. You can't reach it all from the bank. And you can't wade. It bulges out and then tucks back in out of view. So toward the end of the time I spend on it I start getting creative with long sweeping casts that I try to make wrap around the rock face beyond the line of sight. Basically just feeding line and hoping the fly rides up against the rock. I do this from a slightly elevated position, which aids in being able to cast, but also provides a fateful view of what's below.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Mousing: June signals the opening of nocturnal big game season

May has given way to June.  With that shift begins a new summer of night fishing.
Mousing has picked up.  There was surface action the entire month of May, but it is
Best mousing brown in May 2017
Best mousing brown of May 2017
just getting better the deeper we get into June. The waxing moon in the first part of the month is making casting easier and the takes visual. The number of strikes received in a night is climbing as the water warms and shallow water forage becomes more prevalent. I'm seeing more  scampering mice both by headlamp along the river  and in my headlights while driving. Frogs will be out soon. I'm beginning to see crayfish venturing along the margin of water and dry land.  All in all, the reasons for a big trout to hunt the shallows in the dead of night are mounting up.  To me, this is some of the best opportunity of the year to tangle with a trophy trout.  And what better way to do it than on topwater baits during the adventure of nighttime on a river void of other anglers.

On the night of June 2nd and into the 3rd, I was accompanied by my friend Josh who has worked in the fly fishing industry but had never moused. The night was calm and partially moonlit. Once the sun was fully gone around 10:30 p.m. and darkness had set in, we dropped into the section of river I intended to fish and began some practice and instruction. Nothing major, just getting the general feel for what we'd be doing.
Night tools
Night tools

Mousing to me is kind of like swinging streamers at short range. It's everything you're not supposed to do when dry fly fishing. Downstream casts. Drag. Tight line. Wake. Splashes.
During our practice run Josh had two hits. He asked "Is this one of your special spots?"
"Nope, this is a 'nothing' spot. Just meant to practice." That boded well for the night. 

A short distance downstream we came to the first piece of serious structure I wanted to target.  We scrambled over some boulders and got into a decent casting position. Within a cast or two Josh fed his mouse to where the current wrapped around the point of a boulder just as I described. An audible slurp signaled a take and Josh set into solid fish. It didn't break top again in any of the usual ways. No rolling, splashing, or jumping. It just turned downstream and set Josh's reel to singing - and against a tight drag. He was through the fly line and into backing almost instantly. The fish blew through the next few points of structure I'd intended to focus on and went around a big jam - passing around the outside edge and then tucking in behind it downstream, still peeling line as it plowed into the next big pool.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Out of the ordinary

The prairie is an intriguing landscape - it can be exceedingly more rugged than you might expect, or be soft and endlessly rolling like swells on the ocean.  Sometimes forested island mountain ranges pop up out of the sea of grass.  Other times deep coulees or canyons filled with stands of piney timber - and big enough to swallow entire cities - are abruptly carved from what first appeared to be flat land.  In the far east and north of Montana the prairie flattens and becomes wetter as the higher plains give way to the prairie pothole region.  Throughout each of these terrains flow streams.  Streams that wind through miles of empty space, draining vast pieces of America and southern Canada that most of the population never sees.

Across northern Montana, each of these make their way to the Missouri River on their eventual path to the Gulf of Mexico.  The waterways are not as plentiful as they are in the mountains.  The relaxed landscape contains watersheds spread over many more square miles than those squeezed into the small spaces between ridges and ranges.  Many of the tributaries only flow intermittently. Some perennial creeks flow muddy and are steep-banked.  Many flow surprisingly clear. Often I can find pike or walleye in them.  I've caught northerns in the tiniest trickles, in larger rivers, and in isolated ponds. None of these waters are places that many people purposely seek out.  The locals fish them of course, but no one travels to Montana with these streams in mind.  I enjoy the small opportunities I'm handed when travel takes me across them.  I make sure to be ready.  This time I was hoping for pike.
UPS truck on a rural prairie road

My vehicle was packed. Everything I needed for a few days of work was in there. And then there was everything else - a tote with various boxes of plugs and bags of plastics, several spinning reels, just as many fly reels, three different lumbar packs prepped for spinning or fly, waders and boots, a net, and multiple rod tubes. Surprisingly all this recreational equipment fits into nooks and crannies and was out of sight. Hopefully there'd be time when each day's work was done. I knew there would be. I have a way of always finding that time. Even if it is dark before I start.