Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dogged Decisions

I thoroughly enjoyed my time back East with the family over Christmas. It's always good to see them, and my sister's kids are at the stage where they are growing up at a staggering pace, and each time I see them they are completely different people. My nephew's vocabulary has grown exponentially in the past several months, and these days the little critter is downright me. It goes without saying that as soon as the mood changes and it's nap time or someone's hungry, Uncle Evan returns them to their creators and vacates the premises for child-proofed quarters.

My Dad and I managed to slip out for a day while I was home, and made the couple hour drive to DeCoverly Kennels, an English setter breeder in northeast PA that is owned by one of my Dad's buddies/old colleagues. These are gorgeous dogs and everytime I visit the place it's all I can do to resist throwing the credit card down and putting my name on the waiting list for a puppy. Dad's friend knows I am considering an addition to the family, so he had arranged for us to spend some time hunting released chukar over two started DeCoverly dogs; one of them his own personal 2-year old orange/white male named Rye, the other a big-bodied 5-year old black/white male named Cody.

Both dogs hunted beautifully, showing off their distinctly different styles, each getting the job done in their own way but with that unmistakable setter class, ingrained through generations of strong breeding and an unyielding drive to point something. It is always a privelege to walk up on one of these dogs when they are frozen solid as the winter ground they cover so efficiently.

Pen-raised birds will always represent a shadow of the real thing, particularly when shooting chukar in a flat, snow-covered corn field in Pennsylvania. Good dog work is always the real deal, however, and I enjoyed watching Rye and Cody do their thing far more than any trigger-pulling that I had a part in that day.

Like I said, everytime I hunt over setters, I want one. It was hard to leave without sneaking one of the little spotted critters out of the kennel in my pocket, but I managed. We wrapped up our afternoon with Dad's buddy over burgers and beers at the local pub, talking about fishing and football and trips taken or those in the works. But mostly we talked about dogs. It was a fine day.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Where am I?

This is the worst nine-dollar beer I've ever had. I'm 1/3 of the way through my annual trek back east to spend Christmas with the family, and once again I find myself lost in the airport vortex. I'm holed up in the farthest, darkest corner of Wolfgang Puck's crown-jewel of express dining establishments, hiding behind sunglasses and headphones and trying to avoid prolonged exposure to the general public. I'm out of my element; alcohol and Toots and the Maytals are the only things keeping my wavering sanity in tact right now.

I think I'm in Denver. Yep, there went a pair of cowboy boots and a Stetson holding hands with a tight-panted cutie wearing giant bug-eye shades and a leather-fringe jacket. Only in Colorado. Or Missoula. All I know is that I'm glad to be back on the ground for now, because if I hadn't gotten off that plane as quickly as I did, I may have had to strike the fear of God in to the little rugrat sitting behind me. Screaming. Kicking. Constantly. At one point I turn around and ask dad, who didn't appear to be the brightest light on the Christmas tree, if we can stop playing the "Let's kick the seat in front of us" game? He gives me a blank stare that only generations of inbreeding and Budweiser can produce. Man, one burns out and the whole string won't work.

I generally dislike children. I particularly despise air travel. Unfortunately for me, it seems that exposure to one generally leads to an ample dose of the other, this time around with the added bonus of some indifferently stupid parents thrown in for good measure. My sister's kids are adorable and related to me, but I really can only tolerate even them in limited doses. I entertain them, they entertain me, but when bath time, or bathroom time, or tantrum time comes around, I promptly return them to their rightful owners. Being forcibly crammed into an aluminum can to have some redneck's stinking, screaming parasite kick the back of my head for two hours has almost driven me to sneak in to the airport bathroom and perform a self-vasectomy with the sharpened lid from a can of Copenhagen.

I don't fly very much. There's a reason I live in western Montana and actively try to isolate myself from as much of the American population as possible. I'm happy where I am. I find little need to fly anywhere, unless saltwater or the other hemisphere are involved. To paraphrase John Gierach, I don't travel to get away, because my everyday life is not something I need to escape from.

But I sure do enjoy spending time with my family, and I figure those little ones should see me at least once a year, lest they grow up to be even more unfamiliar and uncomfortable around Uncle Evan than they already seem to be. Given the distance between my little sanctuary and the East Coast, airplanes become an unfortunate necessity for me every year at this time.

I've always held a slight underlying fear of commercial air travel. Something about the whole thing kinda freaks me out. 9/11 didn't help. Being vacuum-sealed in to one of those unlikely birds with 150 of my closest friends, only to be flung across the continent at the hands of faceless pilots who may be drunk, gives me an overall feeling of helplessness. Thanks to the modern airline industry, flying domestically in the U.S today has to be one of the most uncomfortable travel experiences in the civilized world.

It's in all likelihood going to get worse before it gets better. I'm killing a three hour layover here...where?...and assuming (hoping?) my plane leaves on time, I will once again be teleported and emerge from the metal tube in Washington D.C., where they're just now digging themselves out from under two feet of snow. Less than ideal conditions, a fishing guide would say. I don't know if you've ever been to the commuter "A" terminal at Dulles, but I'm pretty sure it's where you go if you couldn't land a job as a pirate in the Gulf of Aden. No one speaks English and they have to be some of the rudest, least-helpful people to ever work in the service industry. The thought of spending any more time than is absolutely necessary in that drain gutter of human existence just motivated me to switch to bourbon.

Maybe if I reek of whiskey by the time I get on the plane, thick-headed parents will get the picture and steer their spawn away from the sketchy-looking ginger in the corner.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

¿Dónde están los patos?

I'm telling myself it's for the love of the game. Why else would I be slogging fifty pounds of gear and decoys across a barely-frozen, snow-covered beaver pond on a speculative evening duck hunt that, given the way the season has been going, will in all likelihood yield little or nothing?

To get to the other side, I guess. This shortcut across the slough seemed like our best option to reach the gravel bar we're trying to hunt, but when my right foot punches through the ice and I nearly lose it as my boot stays firmly stuck in the mud, I start to question our judgment. A lone drake whistles overhead, seriously looking over the exact spot of muck we're currently floundering in, before flaring and disappearing. At least it's not -15 out anymore.

When my buddy tells me he's "not comfortable with where I'm walking," we head straight for the willows and supposedly more solid ground. My decoy bag hangs on some branches and I slip and fall on the steep snow-covered bank, but at least I'm dry. It would be a far from glorious death to be found in the spring by some dog walkers, bobbing face down in a recently-thawed beaver pond, dressed head-to-toe in camoflauge with 36 plastic ducks floating around your head.

Once set up on the gravel bar, we both agree that our decoy spread looks tempting. I think the word "irresistible" is used at one point. We even have a great place to sit and hide. This will work. I'm sweating. Why isn't it -15 out anymore?

"Now we play the waiting game," says my buddy. And wait we will.

Silence. Or, if the only thing you really want to hear is the whistling of wings or the distant honk of geese in flight, it was silence. In reality, we're just outside of city limits, and the constant whine of rush hour traffic and the occasional siren wail stretch out across the river and over our decoys like the incessant buzz of fluorescent lights in an office building. This could irritate the shit out of you if you let it.

"Did you just hear that?"

"Yeah, were those geese?"

"I think that was the ref's whistle in a soccer game."

There is another group of hunters downriver from us a ways, friends of ours. I can't decide whether it's a good thing or not that we haven't heard them shoot either.

As sunset approaches, we procrastinate picking up the decoys and making the equally treacherous walk back to the truck by feigning hardcoreness and hope, counting down the minutes until the official end of shooting light.

When there are thirty seconds left in the hunting day, my buddy belts out a series of obnoxiously loud hail calls in shear frustration, shattering the evening stillness as effectively as if one of us had pulled the trigger on our silent, frozen shotguns. A single hen, flying fast in a straight line across the tree tops, appears from up river, passes by us well out of range, and is gone.

The dekes pack up faster than expected, and with the benefit of lingering daylight, the walk back goes smoothly. I'm trudging along a two-track breaking trail, almost within sight of the truck when I hear honks: happy honks. My buddy and I stop walking and turn just in time to see eight Canadas swing and light in to the exact spot where we had just been set up.

It's hard to say why we keep going out there and sitting in the mud if the birds aren't going to come. Sure, it beats the couch, but there's more to it than that. There's hope in watching a silent sky. The beauty of hunting migrating waterfowl is that even if the birds weren't there yesterday, they could be today. So you keep hunting, and talking, and hoping, and watching an empty sky.

If you start to lose faith, just watch the dog. If this wasn't fun, and if there wasn't just the slightest hint of hope, would they keep waking up before dawn every morning to sit in a frozen swamp and stare at the sky with you? The birds will come.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Abort! Abort!

No prose here, just a grip-and-grin redneck tailgate shot of an aborted duck hunt turned surprisingly successful pheasant hunt from this morning. You can only sit still and freeze for so long before you want to go for a walk, so you might as well walk pheasant cover. Good dog.

Monday, November 30, 2009

I'm Thankful for Bobbers and Deep Fryers

It's been a tough year for a lot of folks. Which gives us all the more reason to be appreciative of our family, friends, and the fact that we're still here. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday; if not for the fundamental principles of it, then at least for the fact that I get to eat a ton of delicious food and sit on my ass watching football.

Christmas is so overloaded with consumerism and frivolous bullshit that it has lost much of its relevance. Valentine's Day was assassinated by Hallmark decades ago. But, ignoring that whole underlying association with the genocide of an entire native people, I think the ideas and practices surrounding Turkey Day are good stuff.

Unfortunately, living in Montana means that I only manage to make it back East to visit my family a couple of times a year. For the past several seasons, I've spent Thanksgiving with friends out West in return for Christmas with the family. It's worked out well...I've never starved.

This year, Jamie and I had been scheming on a trip befitting of Turkey Day for a couple of months. Jamie's surprising inheritance of a 1965 Airstream trailer this past summer made for a good road trip right about the time my transmission went in to full melt-down. When we got back to the Zoo, Jamie tracked down the perfect guy for fixing up such an asset, and the Hanta virus-laden aluminum fuselage underwent a major overhaul throughout the fall. Now that the sucker has been restored to it's former glory, it clearly represents an ace-in-the-hole for late season river debauchery.

With a gajillion fish in the Columbia system this fall, and given Jamie's newly-found passion for standing in an icy river freezing his balls off while not catching anything, a Thanksgiving steelhead trip seemed in order. The Salmon was bounced around as an option, but weather forecasts with highs in the teens gave us nightmares of chronically frozen tip guides...fourteen feet away. Highs in the 50's and solid overcast were predicted for northeast Oregon, however. Gotta love the high desert. Grande Ronde it is.

It's a long drive over to one of the prettiest rivers I've ever fished in my life, even without a 2-ton aluminum sausage trailered to your rig. Let's just say I'm too tall to sit in the cramped cab of a little Toyota pick-up for that long, and self-medication and good music only take you so far.

But then you drop down off the bench and start descending one of the more frighteningly scenic switch-back roads in the country, and it's all good. Down there, waaaaaay down there, below all the cactus, chukar, and cows (correction: the most hardcore cows on the do they get up there...and survive?), there's a little blue river winding it's way through a narrow basalt canyon. And there are steelhead.

Given our experience on the Ronde a few weeks ago (two days swinging=no fish. one day nymphing=5 fish), I unapologetically admit that I was committed to being a nymphing whore this go around. I know, it's far from ideal, but it's late in the season, the water's cold, and they wouldn't eat it swinging last time...soooooo. Being in all likelihood my last trip of the season, I just wanted to hang one, swing be damned. With Jamie and Conner (a metalhead virgin) along for the punishment, my meager experience held clout, and handfuls of bobbers and split shot somehow found their way attached to our leaders by the time we hit the water Wednesday afternoon.

Conner recently moved out West to bite off a little chunk of the dream and hang out with Jamie. He's new to flinging flies, but I'll give him serious points for enthusiasm. Given what he had heard about steelhead, he had himself convinced that not only did he not stand a chance of catching a fish, he also thought he wasn't "good enough" to even fish for them. Seems to me you can pretty much sit on your couch playing Xbox and catch as many steelhead as I do on any given day.

Fifteen minutes in to flailing around in his first steelhead run ever, Conner hooked a fish. Not a big fish, but a steelhead. Bobber down, fish on. I saw it roll up as the rod went horizontal, and just about the time Jamie and I registered what was happening and I started to call out, "Let him ru..." the rod snapped back straight and the fish was gone. Conner was ecstatic. Oops, we just f#$%ed up another person's life.

The fishing the rest of the weekend was, well, nymphing for steelhead. A lot of casting, mending, sketchy wading, and bobber-watching going on...for hours...with nothing. Then, the bobber goes down just like it has on the last fifty rocks, you set (half-heartedly), and feel life. Solid head shakes, originating from the business-end of an eight-pound slab of muscle that grew up in the ocean and wants nothing to do with your terrestrial dumb ass. The fish were beautiful and as strong as they're supposed to be. Humbling. It didn't help that I was using a 5wt because it's "easier to cast." Well, it's sure as shit not easier to land a steelhead with, so I may be reconsidering that move before next trip.

But the fishing this time around was an after-thought. We didn't come to catch fish; we just needed an excuse to trailer up the Airstream and drive somewhere pretty to spend time with good friends over Thanksgiving. That part of the mission succeeded beautifully. Jamie picked up a turkey fryer before we left, so the looming question of how to cook the bird in a tiny trailer oven was easily resolved. Let me just say, if you have never deep-fried a turkey, you may as well not know how to walk. Do it.

Thanksgiving dinner was beyond memorable. I've got almost 30 Turkey Days under my belt, but over all the good times with family and friends that I would never trade for the world, this one took the cake. Hard to beat a restored Airstream trailer parked on the banks of the Grande Ronde, the smell of a freshly caught buck on your hands, watching a turkey fry. Keeping an eye on the green-bean casserole in the Dutch oven while throwing a stick for the dog. Popping another PBR. Stepping inside the camper to a welcoming of warmth, Talking Heads, and Jamie cooking a turkey neck in gravy. When the feast came, it was destroyed, and our party was immediately comatosed for the rest of the night. Thanks.
Conner didn't encounter another steelhead for the rest of the trip. That's how it works. I was hooked long before I actually hooked a fish. I don't know if Conner will abandon what he previously thought of as "fall" in favor on numb extremities and questioning glances from non-believers for the rest of his days, but he's off to a good start.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Havre Meat Run

Serious windshield time the past two weeks as a sort of fall season/Turkey Day culmination. Charge 'til death, as Big Timber says.

I wanted to get back up to Havre one last time before winter to hunt with Brett and his dogs again, but schedules and weather were making it look like it wouldn't happen. When Brett called and told me his young stud Nash was sick and would need surgery the weekend we had planned to hunt, it seemed a wash. Brett and Lisa didn't need the distraction and added burden of me being up there while one of their two dogs was recovering from surgery.

But I underestimated my friend, again. Brett said Nash would be staying at the vet over the weekend, and that since it would be no "burden," I should still come. I got my ass off the couch, threw my gear and the dog in the truck, and hit the road.

We both had deer tags to fill, and Brett also had a cow elk tag for the Bear Paws, so he lined us up to hunt big critters on some block management Saturday, and little flying critters on some other block management Sunday. Having a buddy who is an insanely passionate hunter up in the sportsman's paradise that is the Hi-Line is not a bad deal at all.

We hunted gorgeous rolling ponderosa high-country on Saturday in nice weather, although it was a little warm and we dealt with a brutal, lean-in-to-it wind all day. We were in mule deer most of the day, including the decent buck that I farmed no more than ten minutes in to our day. Don't get Brett started.

Should've taken him, because it was the best opportunity I had all day. With no signs of the bigger things on Brett's list, and only does to be found after lunch, a little muley spike became freezer filler in the afternoon. It was an easy drag and we were headed home by sunset to eat homemade stroganoff (thanks Lisa!) and watch football.

For our Sunday ditch parrot pursuit, Brett took me to a piece of property in a creek bottom that I had not hunted before. It was the thickest, nastiest, Eastern-grouse-coveriest, birdy-looking cover you could imagine, and gotdam was it holding some pheasants. I bet we put 50 birds up that day, though many flew from thick cover to thicker cover with no shot. Still no excuse for some of my always inexcusable misses, although we did manage to knock a few'd be a safe bet to assume some of Brett's lead was in all of them. A great hunt nonetheless, with plenty of action in gorgeous country in the company of some of my favorite people and dogs...who can argue?

Good thing Brett accepts growlers of Cold Smoke as payment for his guiding services...I better shoot clays next summer or he's going to fire me. Thanks buddy!!

That deer will be at the processor tomorrow morning, minus the tenderloins and backstraps, which I think will be joining us for Thanksgiving on the Grande Ronde along with some of those roosters. Oh, how I love the fall.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Giving Chase

When you spend nine out of the last fourteen days sleeping in the dirt alongside steelhead rivers somewhere in the PNW, you don't exactly stumble across a lot of wireless hotspots. So I apologize for the momentary lapse in blogramming. I don't apologize for going fishing.

The Salmon slowed down for us last weekend. It didn't help that I apparently felt the need to screw up most of the grabs I got on the swing. Fought a swung fish in to the shallows one evening before he spit the hook, and hooked another under the bobbercator that I also botched. Other than that, I don't think I even saw a tackle guy with a fish on the rest of the weekend. But my feet sure were cold, so that was nice.

Undeterred in our psychotic gluttony for punishment, we turned right around and left for the Grande Ronde the next day. Spent three days over on that gem of a river with Seth, where we found steelhead that would eat...they just wouldn't eat on the swing. After two days of slinging the long rods around, and seeing a couple of dead hatchery mutants hanging from the stringers of nymph fishermen, the bobbers came out.

Weird, steelhead eat nymphs. We got 'em on Frami (plural of Framus...I think) and black stonefly nymphs, and Seth got the steelhead monkey off his back. It was a big-ass monkey too, let me tell you.

What an awesome's just gorgeous. I love it over there and feel even more strongly about the Ronde after this last trip. We had great weather (it didn't even get below freezing at night, meaning our wading boots were still in somewhat liquid form in the mornings), good company, and caught some bobs. Plans are in the works for another round over there on Turkey weekend with Jamie's Airstream in tow. But that's two weeks away...where are we going fishing tomorrow?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Skeena AMP Under Review Again. Speak Up!!

U.S. anglers who have any interest in fishing the Skeena system in British Columbia need to once again pay attention and speak up.

For the past year or so, the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Tourism has been drafting and reviewing a new "Angling Management Plan" for the Skeena drainage. Recommendations on the management plan, which is mainly supported by local guides and anglers, include guided-only rivers, limited-entry lotteries for individual rivers, time restrictions, and increased license and daily river fees. If passed, the plan would make it extremely difficult as well as expensive for non-resident anglers to fish unguided on some of the greatest steelhead rivers remaining in the Pacific Northwest.

Last year I signed a petition discouraging the ministry from approving the management plan. After much public input and opposition (nice work motivating the angling masses, boys), the plan went back to the drawing board for review.

Well, today I received an email from Mike Hendry, the author of the initial petition last year, letting me know that after considering public input for the past year, the ministry has just released the "Phase 2" consultation report. They are again taking public comment in response to the recommendations outlined in the draft, but only until mid-November! Not much has changed from the first draft, and the approval of this plan would still be detrimental to non-B.C. resident steelhead anglers.

Mike is once again spearheading the effort to let the ministry know the angling plan is B.S. We have a limited amount of time to tell the ministry that if they approve the Skeena AMP, we will not be spending our money in B.C.! Whether you have fished the Skeena system or not, this is a significant public access issue that is worth putting your two cents in to!!

Read the Management plan, status, and updates here:
Skeena Quality Waters Strategy, B.C. Ministry of Environment

Fight the Skeena Angling Management Plan!!
Oppose Skeena AMP

More information on the Skeena watershed, and an easy way to contact the Ministry and let them know what you think:

Voy a pescar en la mañana.

Work/school-wise, this has already been a kick-ass week, and it's only Wednesday. Gettin' A's and gettin' published makes for one happy journalism student. But we still have a problem.

Seems I can't get those ocean-mutant, leech-slurping rainbow trout off my mind. All week I've been sitting here at the computer scripting fascinating prose about DUI charges or city elections, while my mind is completely preoccupied with how many turns of purple guinea I'm going to use for the collar on my next bug.

I need to get down to the Salmon ASAP. I want to be southbound on 93 in a rig full of buddies, dogs, and gear. I want to spend more hours each day in soggy waders than out of them. I want to stand nuts-deep in cold, green water watching my line swing. I want the tug. Mostly, I just want to lounge on a gravel bar in an ecstatic, half-dazed stupor with a spey rod and my dog, soaking up everything that is a steelhead river in the fall.

I just remembered that I was planning on either fixing my increasingly leaky waders this week, or replacing them. That was tomorrow's project. Shit. I guess my feet are gonna be wet and frozen again. They'll thaw out on the drive home.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

New Wingshooter's Blog

Put this one in the category of "worth-while." Tosh Brown and Bruce Smithhammer have a new bird dog/wingshooting blog that's well-written, entertaining, and worth a look. Check it out:
Mouthful of Feathers

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

Doublin' Down

Undoubtedly one of the best aspects of living in western Montana is the diversity and relatively easy access of recreation around here. Within 15 minutes of Missoula you can access quality fishing, hunting, skiing, climbing, hiking, biking...jeez, hang-gliding, if you're in to that sort of thing. If you're willing to drive an hour or two, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

Which is reassuring when you venture out to do one thing, and it pretty much sucks. Duck hunting this morning was, let's say, less than mind-blowing. I think I saw a couple of a distance...headed the other direction. After a couple of hours in the blind, scanning the sky for birds that weren't coming, I began to question why I slogged all this shit down the hill to sit in the mud and watch starlings. Sleeping in sounded good right about then.

It was pretty warm out and I had seen rise forms from a couple of trout in the slough I was hunting, so I started thinking about fishing. Weird. An inquiring text to Jamie and my back-up plan was created. You can even bring your shotgun on float trips this time of year. It's awesome.

Late-fall cloud cover and baetis on the lower Bitterroot is usually a good, albeit frustrating, time. As was the case today. Fish were eating midges and BWOs most of the day until the W blew the bugs off the water about 4. Tough fish, but catchable, and we caught some on little dries, including some nice ones. As usual, I whiffed a few.

Also caught a couple of fish on a sculpin pattern fished under a sink tip. Jamie had a nice fish follow the fly and try to eat it several times on his first cast of the day...after that we were both psyched for a great streamer bite and maybe a big brown fish or two. Nope.

The wind picked up about the time Jamie decided that he was going to be really late for his lady friend's soccer game, so we hit the sticks and got off the water about a quarter of 5. A fun day of multi-sport recreation, the final event being beer drinking at the house later that night.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Hang Around Until You Catch One"

That's what the motel sign says. Good marketing and sound advice to steelhead anglers on the Salmon River this time of year. And from the looks of things, between the hunters and fishermen, business is hopping right now...we can barely find a place to park in front of the gas station in North Fork. Jamie and I have hauled a boat, 5 fly rods and a dog over Lost Trail Pass for a few days of swinging; judging from the number of Montana plates in the parking lot, this seems to be the cool thing to do this weekend.

Licenses, propane, whiskey. Bases covered, we set up camp and get down to fishing. There's a great run out back of the campground, so we figured why not get the lines wet right away? Jamie hasn't cast a two-handed rod very much, but he did well the last time I saw him cast (2 or 3 years ago), and he picked it up quickly this time around as well. After watching clients struggle with single-handed casting all season, and recalling my own frustration with learning to spey cast, watching him naturally fire out 70 footers shortly after picking the rod up was pretty entertaining. It also pissed me off a little bit...

We had great steelheading weather most of the weekend; it rained a fair amount Friday night, which motivated us to go in to Salmon for dinner and drinks at the Shady Nook in lieu of sitting around the fire in the rain. Fried chicken night, good call. And an upstream wind kicked our asses a little bit on Saturday afternoon, relegating these right-top-hand-only casters to the left bank so we wouldn't pelt our faces with string leeches. But overall the weather was good, the water was green, and the whole weekend had that late-fall, achingly fishy feel to it.

And the steelhead were grabby. We got blanked in a couple of runs Friday evening, but connected with half a dozen fish Saturday, landing two hatchery hens. Nymphing out of the boat covered the water between swinging runs, and we hooked fish both on the swing and under the bobber. When the gal doing fish counts for Idaho Fish and Game stopped by the take-out, we proudly told her that we had caught a couple of fish. She smirked and said, "Yeah, it's been pretty good." I think we were bringing the average down.

A short note about dinner Saturday night. Campfire. Clear skies. New York strips on the grill, caesar salad, and red wine. Cookies. That is all.

Sunday we floated the same stretch as the day before. On Saturday we had been able to avoid much of the traffic...I think we only saw one or two other boats the whole day. Sunday we had a little more company, including the seemingly ever-present guy that insists on pulling plugs through the end of your swing. Whatever, the sun is shining and the fish are biting.

Jamie got the stink off his spey-casting career in fine form that day, hooking a solid 7-8 lb hatchery hen on the hang-down late in the morning. That's a solid fish on the Salmon, and Jamie was rightfully pumped.

The day was a success at that point, and we wanted to hit the road back to Missoula reasonably early that afternoon. But don't think that I didn't want a fish of my own, and the afternoon held promise. We pulled in to a run where the afternoon before I had hooked and lost two fish, bringing one all the way to the bank before the hook popped. As I swung through the sweet spot this time around, the line again went tight...a very slow, soft grab. A couple clicks off the reel, and I came tight on her. Fish on! After giving me the treatment, I was able to get the upper hand and bring her in to the shallows, snap a couple of pics, and let her go.

More than satisfied, we pushed the boat out, Jamie hitched a ride back up to the truck, and we headed back to break camp. Highly motivated on steelhead and Budweiser, camp came down in near-record time. One last stop at the North Fork store for gas and some air in Jamie's ailing front left tire, and we headed back over the pass.

The drive home went easily, especially since I didn't have to maybe I should call it my ride home. We made a stop at the Broken Arrow in Gibbonsville, which is the greatest little hole-in-the-wall-Mexican-restaurant-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-that's-never-open...and, thank God, it was open. Full bellies, high spirits, and one damn fine trip. When can we go back?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Filthy Egg-Suckers

The weekend warrior is on the hunt again. Real-world obligations have (mostly) been taken care of for the week, and all that's standing between me and some serious swing-time on the Salmon are a few pints at the Kettlehouse tonight. I've been itching to get back down to Idaho since, well, leaving Idaho. Egg-sucking string leeches were manufactured this week during bouts with procrastination.

Jamie and I are leaving at dawn tomorrow and hope to be on the water by mid-morning. This will be Jamie's first steelhead trip to Idaho. I hope he knows what he's in for. It should also be interesting/hilarious because he doesn't have a spey rod and plans on slinging some 10' 7wt around all weekend. He'll probably outfish me.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Havre has it...

Nima and I made the 4+ hour trek northeast to Havre this past weekend to visit our friends Brett, Lisa, Lady and Nash up on the Hi-Line. Brett and Lisa are both teachers up there, and Lady and Nash are their English setters; Lady's the old veteran, Nash the 1 1/2 year old bird-stud in training. These are some of my favorite people/dogs, and it was great to have the chance to observe them in their natural environment.

There is nothing like spending time up in this part of Montana in the fall...the sprawling open country, the small ranching towns, and the abundance of game seem reminiscent of a past era. The place is a hunter's paradise. What people do in Havre the other eight months of the year, however, when you can't shoot stuff, is a mystery to me.

Northeastern Montana had some cold, wet weather this past spring/early summer, and supposedly bird numbers are down because of those storms. Brett as well as some other friends have found tougher than usual hunting in the area so far this season, and FWP reports say upland birds of all species are below average this year in that part of the state. Nonetheless, this is flippin' birdy country, and we found roosters in all the spots we hunted over the weekend...maybe not as many as last year, but they were there, and they were in the right places. Rudy was just as wily as ever, and we probably missed or didn't have shots on more birds than we killed. Pretty par for the course for me...

Brett is a high school biology teacher in town, and he benefits from connections with students' parents and faculty who are landowners in the area. Nothing like private access. He is also a passionate bird hunter, and the guy does his homework (let's just say that every flushed bird is entered in his GPS). We were able to hunt a variety of public and private land over the course of two and a half days, and saw plenty of pheasants, Huns, antelope, whitetails, and mule deer. Even ran in to a rattlesnake one morning that caused us to change our minds regarding a hunt in a particular creek bottom. Usually they would be in their dens by this time of year, but it's been so warm recently that it's obviously still good advice to mind your step.

Speaking of speed goats, after pheasant hunting Saturday morning, we put the sneak on a group of antelope that had several big bucks milling around in it. I didn't have an antelope tag for that unit (they sold out in a matter of hours this summer), but Brett did. We belly-crawled up to the crest of a rise where Brett was able to make a 300 yard shot with his 7mm Mag., dropping this 15 1/2 x 16 1/2 buck in his tracks. We spent the rest of the afternoon getting him cleaned up and considering which part of him to eat first.

Needless to say, breakfast Sunday morning was pan-friend antelope tenderloin. We did a cast-and-blast on a local river that I've been asked to withhold the name of, and had good pheasant hunting...and poor to very poor fishing. Good thing we're keeping it a secret! A handful of trout were farmed on dry flies (mostly on my part, of course), and we saw some massive brown trout push out of a couple of shallow tail-outs. 'Tis the season for those big boys to be fired-up and aggressive, but the quality of the streamer fishing that day didn't show it. It was still a great day: I'll always sign up for new water with good friends.

With a long drive home ahead of me Sunday night, we got off the water reasonably early and hit the road. Another weekend well-spent in good company and great country. I look forward to making it up that direction again in November for some deer hunting and so I can take another crack at some of the roosters I missed.

Photographs by Brett Shelagowski

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Backyard Bruin

I've been staying with my friends recently who have a great place way up the Rattlesnake in Missoula. They have a big yard that backs up to forest, and there are usually lots of whitetails, turkeys, and assorted vermin (skunks, 'coons, etc.) hanging around. This afternoon as I was leaving the house, we spotted this critter eating apples out of the neighbor's tree. With the weather we've been having recently (cold), I'm surprised this guy isn't hibernating yet! It is still October...things are supposed to warm up later this week and conditions look pretty fishy for the weekend...

But, I think I'm headed north to the Hi-Line to hunt birds with my buddy Brett and his great English setters. Bird numbers apparently aren't all that good up that way this year, but I'll never know for myself if I don't go. Besides, if I don't give the steelheading a rest for the week, I may end up strapped to a table in the Orofino insane asylum.

Brett, Lady, and Nash with a Montana sharptail.

Missoula Monument to Honor Rev. Maclean, Architect Gibson

"The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana."
-Norman Maclean

A monument has been erected in front of the First Presbyterian Church, 235 S. Fifth St. W., in Missoula to honor the Reverend John Norman Maclean and architect A. J. Gibson. Via The Missoulian, Oct. 8, 2009.

The Reverend John Norman Maclean

Monday, October 12, 2009

2 Out of 246,321 Ain't Bad.

I just returned from three days in Idaho where the Clearwater River and I elected to continue our love/hate relationship. I love that river...and it hates me. True, it is one of the more notorious rivers in the PNW when it comes to finding steelhead willing to take a swung fly. Finnicky. Tempermental. Call it what you will, but Clearwater steelhead love to kick ass and take names, especially when it comes to us fly-pole-swingin' hippies from over the pass. What haunts me about the Clearwater is that those fish will take a swung fly (I've seen 'em do it), and a lot of them are BIG. It's just that they choose to eat said flies with maddeningly unpredictable infrequency. With cool fall weather in place, low, clear water conditions, and fish counts over Lower Granite Dam through the roof, conditions this past weekend seemed ideal for hanging in to one of those big B-runs...

And yet, after two full days of flogging the water with everything from skaters and little traditionals on dry lines to egg-sucking string leeches on heavy tips, Karl and I had yet to have a confirmed encounter with a Clearwater steelhead. Hadn't even talked to any other fly fishermen who had touched a fish either. By the morning of day three, we were hungry and pulled out all the stops.

We launched the spam-can at Ahsahka at dawn and immediately pushed downstream to nymph the outlet pipe of Dworshak Hatchery. Classy, I know, but when you're itching to connect with some Clearwater steel of any sort there are few better bets than dead-drifting egg patterns through the outlet of the largest steelhead hatchery in the country. It's worked before. This trip, however, it was not to be.

In search of greener pastures, we moved downstream and swung flies through a historically productive run. Karl has caught several fish in this water, and made good swings through the no avail. There ain't no steelhead in this river.

To ease the unending monotony of not catching anything, I broke out the stove and cooked up some bacon and eggs on the bow of the boat for breakfast. Certainly a highlight of the weekend, so far!

Well-fed and full of foolish optimism, we moved on to Plan C and set the plug rods out. Utilizing Karl's expertise following several seasons of guiding fly and tackle anglers on this river, we pulled his favorite plugs through some of his favorite water. Nope. Ain't gonna happen.

After going through the motions of fruitlessly swinging flies through yet another beautiful, "historically productive run," all the while listening to bait chucking locals whoop and holler fighting yet another fish from the next run downstream, we'd had it.

Out came the side-drifting rods and cured eggs. We aren't purists, we're fishermen. And when all you've caught after the better part of three days fishing with more noble tactics is a sucker, a squawfish, a small jack salmon, and one trophy whitefish, all bets are off. We threaded the needle between two big jet-sleds full of Real-Tree clad enthusiasts and moved in to the next run. Drifting our tasty egg morsels in to the bucket, the rod tip registered an unmistakable tug and...wait for it...low and behold, a steelhead miraculously manifested itself on the end of my line. No shit. A short, but heated five minutes later and a 12-pound hatchery hen was on the beach. It felt pretty good just to grab one by the tail.

When you've found a biting steelhead, chances are that fish has friends. Rowing back upstream to make a second pass, we pushed in to the run and started another drift. About fifty yards below where we had caught the first fish, the rod tip once again responded; this time, there was no was a yank. Actually it was several yanks, and after a solid hookset and 100-yard run upstream, a big buck went airborne, cartwheeled over the river, and streaked downstream. This fish was pissed-off and had no interest in remaining in the county, much less the run we had hooked him in. Karl pushed the boat downstream after the big boy, and after a couple more heart-stopping jumps and having to manipulate the fish through a fast, boulder-strewn riffle, we slid him in to calm water and put the net under him. A solid, 18-pound hatchery buck swimming in the net is a welcome sight for two battle-weary anglers on the brink of mental instability.

We may have had to resort to less-than-ideal tactics, but putting two big steelhead in the boat back-to-back at the end of the trip sure made the four-hour drive home back over the pass a little easier to swallow. Next trip might have to be to the Salmon, where the steelhead have been known to actually eat flies...