Pheasants Forever Promotes Family Fun and Getting Outdoors

While many were braving the wee hours, and elbowing their way into good deals downtown, seven families thought better of the Black Friday chaos and opted to attend the annual Family Hunt, courtesy of Blue Mountains Pheasants Forever (BMPF). The Family Hunt is a special event that BMPF sponsors to express appreciation for our membership’s support to the Chapter and our youth program.

Families met at the Clyde Shooting Preserve (Preserve) on Friday morning, November 24th, eager to enjoy a quality pheasant hunt. The BMPF youth committee chair, George Endicott, coordinated the event with Kit Lane, owner of the Preserve. “The hunt went very smooth. Folks at the Preserve worked diligently to plant birds and keep families hunting through the morning” said Endicott. The Preserve has been a generous supporter of BMPF for a number of years.

On a typical hunt, pheasant are planted, followed shortly by the release of the bird dogs. Participants hunt their way through the designated fields, following up on the elegant and stylish canines on point. The most memorable moments of a hunt are made of a pointing dog at work, and the explosive flush of a dazzling rooster. Participating family members of all ages enjoyed what some would call an epic morning afield.

The Family Hunt is actually the culmination of six annual BMPF-sponsored youth shooting events. While habitat enhancement is the crux of the BMPF mission, youth education and involvement in shooting sports delivers an immense value to local communities.

Beginning in June, three monthly scheduled trap shoots are held to introduce children to wing shooting and firearms safety. Each trap shoot consists of five stations where the shooter is presented with five clay targets, thrown in random directions from a front and center automatic launcher. Children are afforded the opportunity to learn proper stance and shooting technique, as well as how to lead a flying target.

Two significant events are held in September, as BMPF hosts the Family Challenge Trap Shoot, and the youth pheasant hunt. The Family Challenge Trap Shoot involves parent/child teams shooting together in a friendly competition among participating families. Small prizes, sweetened by modest bragging rights, are afforded the teams who bust the most clays.

Later in September, BMPF sponsors a youth pheasant hunt during the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife-designated youth hunting weekend. The BMPF supplies pheasants, bird dogs, and designated venues for this special hunt. Participants are split into groups based on their experience levels, and everyone is afforded an opportunity at a rooster. For some participants, the youth hunt is their first hunting experience. It exposes children to the inciting experience of hunting with a well-trained bird dog, and the irreplaceable adrenaline rush from the king of upland birds erupting from under foot.

All BMPF-sponsored youth events are open to anyone age eighteen and under, with the exception of the youth hunting weekend in September, which requires hunters to be under the age of sixteen. Parents or adult mentors are asked to participate in events with their children. All events are free to participants, and all new participants are signed up as BMPF members, courtesy of the Chapter.

For more information on BMPF youth events, contact George Endicott at 509-529-3937. For general Chapter information, feel free to drop us a line at bmpf@bmpf258.com.

Upland Review

I developed a magazine with the idea of showcasing the annual activities and accomplishments of Blue Mountains Pheasants Forever, Chapter 258, through photo essay. I also included a couple additional hunting articles.

I retain the magazine as a separate publication from the Chapter with a plan of developing it into a free online magazine to showcase fledgling outdoor writers and the beauty of upland bird hunting.

Give it a read at Upland Review.

Anticipate the Flush

Every bird dog has its own style with nuances that tell a different story in a variety of hunting situations. In this post, I explain the subtleties in the posture and eyes of my oldest Llewellin setter, Finn. What has your pointing dog been telling you over the years?

Give it a read at Uplander Lifestyle!

Shedding the Blues

 

Walla Walla Union Bulletin, April 29, 2018.

I spent the last several minutes marveling over the roster’s brilliant plumage. The girls were electrified, showered in praise as I slid the rooster into my vest. It was late in the season; the thick reed canary grass was crusted hard with snow and broken over the precipitous swale the girls were working. It was our last day of the season. Turning back for the truck, I was already looking ahead to September when the grouse and deer seasons would open again, dreading the long wait ahead.

As an avid upland bird and deer hunter, the enigma of deciding which is most inciting between working birds with my setters and putting the moves on a wily buck can be vexing. I spend the bulk of the off-season reminiscing of past hunts and planning for the next. Spring turkey hunting is a reasonable distraction, but there is another option that heats up around March: shed hunting.

Shed hunting is the art of searching for shed antlers. Each winter, deer, elk, and moose drop or “shed” their antlers to grow a new pair for the following fall. In much of the western United States, elk and mule deer inhabit the high country most of the year, but that’s not typically where you find sheds. When the snow flies, critters move down into the lower elevation “winter range”, which is typically where you want to look. In southeast Washington, mule deer can be found herded up among the bluffs above the Snake River and the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

Shed hunting is a common practice among hunters; however, for those of us obsessed with big game and working dogs, shed hunting promises to bridge the gap between the two worlds during the offseason. It can be a rewarding and downright challenging hobby as sheds blend in quite well with the surrounding vegetation. If I had a shed for each one I’ve passed within a few feet, my friends would have a lot fewer sheds. This is where Rover comes in.

Dogs with the appropriate nose, prey drive, and retrieving instinct can pick it up quickly. I won’t dive into the particulars of training a shed hunting dog, but I will say that the techniques can be quite similar to training your pup to hunt upland birds, and the same breeds are capable. Using an antler with a wax-based scent product and some practice time afield finding and retrieving the antler can feather your dog’s metaphorical cap, not to mention put a lot more bone in your pack at the end of the day.

Part of the shed hunting challenge is remaining focused. I get distracted enjoying the scenery and wildlife as I hike; hence, I walk by more sheds than I find. Having your four-legged companion participate in the search allows you to cover a lot more ground as a team, but the real advantage is that your pup doesn’t have to see the antler to find it. Finding a shed is always rewarding, but the finds are so much sweeter when you spy your pup galloping proudly back with a nice four-point shed.

Your pup will significantly improve your shed hunting game, but there are other key considerations as well. Timing can be crucial. March is a great time to begin shed hunting because most deer and elk will have shed by mid-March. You may also have great areas to choose from but do some homework on the habitat. Well used game trails and fence crossings appear to be a slam-dunk, but bedding areas and important food sources are the prime locations. Animals spend more time in these areas, increasing the odds they will shed there, where an animal on the move can drop an antler anywhere in the county.

If you want to get serious about shed hunting, treat it like any other hunting trip. Be prepared. Wear appropriate apparel, carry food and water, as well as some basic first aid supplies, and don’t be afraid to cover some miles. Possibly the most important tip of all; double check the regulations before heading out. National Parks and critical winter range may have strict regulations on if and when shed hunting or dogs are allowed.

Whether you’re a novice or have hunted sheds for years, a shed-hunting canine can be a game-changer. While solitary miles under a sixty-degree bluebird sky in April or May can sooth the soul, a hunt with man’s best friend can be epic. Turkeys are gobbling among the sparse timber across the canyon. A dull roar drifts up from the slightly swollen headwater stream tumbling below. You look up to see your pup barreling down-slope toting a considerable mule deer shed, which she delivers to hand; her fifth find of the morning. You are both ecstatic, and wagging furiously, she turns to find another.

BMPF Sets Youth Circuit

Published 24 May 2018 in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin.

“Pull…” a shooter calls out, followed by a white clay launching from the trap, sailing to the left; a random, unexpected direction. The sleek over/under shotgun tracks smoothly until the bead connects, and upon recoil, dissolves the clay into a fine dust.

In support of the national Pheasants Forever No Child Left Indoors initiative, the local Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever (BMPF) chapter sponsors a youth shooting circuit each year beginning in June. The circuit consists of four monthly scheduled trap shoots introducing youth to wing shooting and firearms safety. Each trap shoot consists of five stations where the shooter is presented with five clay targets, thrown in random directions from a front and center automatic launcher. Youth are afforded the opportunity to learn proper stance and shooting technique, as well as how to lead a flying target.

The Family Challenge Trap Shoot rounds out the trap events and puts the skills learned in prior months to the test. Parent-child teams shoot together in a friendly competition among participating families. Small prizes, sweetened by modest bragging rights, are afforded the teams who bust the most clays.

Following the trap circuit, BMPF also sponsors two fall pheasant hunts that again test the skills learned from shooting trap. The BMPF supplies pheasants and designated venues for the youth hunting weekend in September, and again in November for a special family hunt. For the September youth hunt, participants are split into groups based on their experience levels, and everyone is afforded an opportunity at a rooster. For some participants, this event is their first hunting experience. It exposes children to the art of upland bird hunting with a well-trained pointing dog (courtesy of chapter members), and the irreplaceable adrenaline rush from the king of upland birds erupting under foot.

The Family Hunt is held the Saturday after Thanksgiving as a token of appreciation for the BMPF membership’s support of the chapter and youth program. This event serves as the culmination of the annual shooting events. Held at the Clyde Shooting Preserve, the Family Hunt provides youth and family members the opportunity to experience a unique, quality pheasant hunt provided at a professional establishment.

On a typical hunt, pheasant are planted, followed shortly by the release of the hunting dogs. Participants hunt their way through the designated fields, following up on the elegant and stylish canines on point. The most memorable moments of the hunt are made of a pointing dog at work, and the explosive flush of a dazzling rooster. Participating family members of all ages enjoy what some would call an epic morning afield.

All BMPF-sponsored youth events are open to anyone age eighteen and under, with the exception of the youth hunting weekend in September. The youth hunting weekend is designated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and requires hunters to be under the age of sixteen. Parents or adult mentors are asked to participate in events with their children. All events are free to participants, and all new youth participants are registered as BMPF members, courtesy of the chapter.

Youth event details are announced in advance through local events calendars, as well as at the BMPF website www.bmpf258.com. General chapter information is also available online, and the chapter may be contacted via email at bmpf@bmpf258.com.

 

Carving an Upland Niche

“As an upland jack of all trades, my setters have adapted to a variety of situations, most of which (exception = chukar) they handle well, but there is something to be said for those who carve a niche on a particular quarry.”

Primarily a pheasant hunter, I fell victim to an affair with California quail, and have not looked back. The dog work and camaraderie I have experienced in the quail coverts, particularly over the 2018-2019 upland season, has piqued my interest and opened my mind. Jimmy Carter once said that “life’s just too short to go quail hunting with the wrong people.” On the contrary, show me quail hunters and I’ll show you the right people.

So, what’s your upland niche? Read more at Uplander Lifestyle.

Flat Water Char

What should have been an epic morning of dry fly action on high desert lake brook trout turned out to be a technical game of trying to match a midge hatch. In the long run, a dry fly/dropper nymph combo worked out for the tenkara rod in tactical fixed-line fly fishing style.

Tenkara Angler Summer 2018 Issue

Pheasant Hunting the Walla Walla Valley Uplands

Published in the Union Bulletin, September 23rd, 2018.

I sat alone in the gray calm of dawn, gazing contently across my food plot. A few wary whitetails snagged a snack on their morning commute. Steam curled up from a hot cup of coffee, tickling the hairs on my face and nose as I sipped in peace. It was early December. Not quite frigid, but the bunchgrasses were frosted and brittle.

My Llewellin setters, Finn and Yuba, and I hunted pheasant hard the prior six weeks and I needed a break. But the girls lay anxiously at my feet, keeping a keen eye on their orange vests and the cased shotgun by the door. They knew it was a hunting day. Any other morning we would be working roost cover along thick reed canary grass in the low swales, or working a creek side brush line at first light. But not today. This day would be different.

As the clock reported 8:30am, I decided to act like a dedicated bird hunter.  The girls had succumbed to pessimism, lying, groaning, sulking. But they cast a suspicious glance as I approached the door. A hand outstretched for my shotgun sparked utter bedlam.

Hunting reliable roost cover early in the day can be productive, but hunting pressure may call for adjustment to keep on the birds as the season progresses. Understanding pheasant behavior provides insight to changing tactics throughout the day, as well as across the season.

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Lowland swales, wetlands, and riparian areas provide prime pheasant roost habitat. When left to their own devices, pheasant rise in the morning and move out to feed soon after sunrise. Early in the season, birds may loaf in or near roost cover, but reacting to hunting pressure, birds will push out incredibly early, at times in the dark on public land. While pheasant may adjust their schedules to hunting pressure and weather patterns across the season, when and where to find them at any given time can be predicted with moderate certainty in the Walla Walla Valley.

Seeds and berries are common pheasant diet components in fall and winter. By mid-morning, birds are foraging on upland slopes and moving toward or into crop fields. Tall wheatgrass (an introduced Eurasian bunchgrass common to southeast Washington), wheat, canola, or other seed-producing crops offer forage throughout the season. Woods rose and blue elderberry provide dual function of food and cover when growing in dense patches. Birds may spend more time in this type of cover in the early morning, particularly in freezing conditions.

Pheasant spend a large part of the day working edge habitats such as the crop field/grassland interface common among farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Short wheat stubble lacks adequate cover from avian predators, so pheasant typically don’t roam far from secure refuge when browsing cut crop fields.  By late afternoon, birds grab a final snack before flying into roost, within about forty-five minutes of twilight.

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As 9:30am approached, the girls quivered with anticipation alongside my old Fox 16-gauge double, broken open across the tailgate. I released the girls and strode quickly through lowland, waist-high Canada thistle and reed canary grass in route to the uplands. A whistle-blast and hand signal turned the girls to the high ground. We worked into the wind up a long ridge spine toward a wheat field, paralleling a steep slope. Native needle-and-thread grass and bluebunch wheatgrass grew low and lush, hiding pheasant along the slope edge.

Having quickly lost sight of Yuba, I turned toward my last visual of her, but a familiar arrythmia pulsed in my chest as Finn locked up mid-stride. Going in for the flush, the hen held tight enough I nearly left her thinking the bird had escaped on foot. A stellar performance by Finn to kick off our late morning jaunt. Upon release, Finn sailed toward the slope, dropping out of sight. My pace quickened.

Approaching the edge, I spied Yuba standing staunch, tail high, with Finn cautiously backing. Hastily, I circled wide, approaching from the front to pin the bird between us. At ten feet out, Yuba’s penetrating gaze identified a thick round of bunchgrass three paces to my right. Turning to face the unseen bird triggered an eruption of parting bunchgrass with the onset of heavy wing beats. A splendid wild rooster gained altitude over a backdrop of rolling golden wheat and grassland.

My Fox came up smoothly, followed by the girls launching over the edge, their eyes fixed firmly on the prize. At approximately 10:00am, I softly slid our first rooster of a lazy morning into my vest, admiring his emerald green head, long, striped tail, and modest spurs.

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As the season progresses, get creative. Try new territory. Don’t be afraid to get a late start. Play on pheasant feeding behaviors; consider upland food sources over lowland coverts. Relax. Relish every point. Enjoy the hunt!

Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita: The Marvel of the High Sierras

 

Article extract

California’s golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) was first described by Dr. David Starr Jordan in 1893 as a species of trout of unusual beauty. Native to the South Fork Kern River and Golden Trout Creek and its tributaries, their narrow distribution has been threatened by human impact for more than a century.

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In the 1960s, the State of California embarked on an intense conservation program to conserve the species and their habitat. In 1978, the Golden Trout Wilderness was established within the Inyo and Sequoia National Forests, protecting the upper watersheds of the Kern and South Fork Kern Rivers.

In 2004, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife signed an agreement with federal agencies to work on restoring backcountry habitat as part of a comprehensive conservation strategy. In that document, genetic introgression from other species is listed as the present greatest threat to golden trout within their native distribution.

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While threatened in their native range, golden trout have been transplanted throughout backcountry habitats in numerous western states to include a plethora of alpine lakes in the High Sierras. As early as the late 1800s, golden trout were transplanted from Golden Trout Creek or its tributaries into nearby Cottonwood Creek, and then Cottonwood Lakes. Decades later, fish from Cottonwood Lakes would serve as the founding population for transplants.

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A number of high Sierra lakes presently offer remarkable angling opportunity for this captivating species among breathtaking wilderness views and elevation. Traditional tenkara and fixed-line fly fishing can be quite productive in the shallows for cruising fish, but the often-overlooked cracks draining and feeding golden trout lakes offer unique challenge for their shy residents.

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Hunting for Habitat

Pheasants Forever hosts their first hunt test fundraiser to bolster habitat and youth shooting funds. Published in the Waitsburg Times, February 14th, 2019.

14 Feb 2019 Hunting for Habitat

From Raghorns to Riches

An special draw elk hunt in Idaho’s Unit 37, Big Lost Wilderness, gave us four seasons with warm summer sun, firgid winter temps, gale-force winds, snow and fog, forty-five miles of steep mountain terrain, botched stalks, and sleepless nights. What we took from it? Incredible scenery, solitude, mental and physical health, and in the end, a hard-earned, beautiful raghorn bull elk and heightened sense of respect for the wilderness.

Read the full story in the Spring 2019 edition of Strung Magazine.

Raghorns to Riches (2)

Raghorns to Riches (3)

Back-country Trek for Treasure Lakes Trout

Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over, and across jagged granite perched me 11,300 feet above sea-level. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake about a mile and hundreds of feet below.

The journey to landing a California golden trout on the fly in the Sierra Nevada was by far my most thrilling bucket-list adventure yet. What you need to know to make it happen is contained within the pages of the May 2019 edition of California Game and Fish Magazine.

Read it here!

Propagating an Outdoor Heritage

Published July 26th, 2019 in the Milton-Freewater Valley Herald

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What do native habitat restoration, clay targets and the youth of our local communities have in common? Pheasants Forever. And the future of native habitat conservation and outdoor recreation at the hands of our future leaders advocating for all of these.

Habitat enhancement and youth involvement in the outdoors are the two primary focuses and programs for Walla Walla’s Pheasants Forever chapter, Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever (Chapter). The Chapter continues to maintain their staple projects to include an 88-acre grassland restoration site near Touchet, WA, and a shrub-steppe restoration site just north of Walla Walla on Highway 125, where native shrubs and wildlife watering stations referred to as “guzzlers” were installed.

Over the years, the Chapter has planted hundreds of acres in native grass and shrubs to the benefit of the wildlife and communities within and surrounding Walla Walla. Looking ahead, the Chapter continually seeks new habitat enhancement opportunities to include the Milton-Freewater area.

Presently, with the future of our hunting heritage and wildlife habitat riding largely on the shoulders of a demographic no younger than age 40, youth involvement in the outdoors has never been more critical. Therefore, Pheasants Forever’s No Child Left Indoors initiative was established to address the dwindling youth interest in and introduction to the outdoors.

Serving the No Child Left Indoors initiative, investing in and encouraging youth to embrace outdoor recreation and kindle a passion for our nation’s public lands, outdoor opportunities and habitat conservation is integral to the Chapter’s Youth Committee.

 The Chapter’s annual youth program consists of sponsoring four trap-shooting events, a youth pheasant hunt in September, and a family hunt in November after Thanksgiving. Chapter sponsorship includes a Pheasants Forever youth membership (for new members), hearing protection, firearms safety and handling guidance, clay targets, shotgun shells and coaching (if desired), all free of charge for youth participants, age 18 and under.

July is in the thick of the Chapter’s youth trap circuit, and East End Rod and Gun Club in Milton-Freewater hosted the second shoot of the season on Saturday, July 20th. Youth attendance was sparse this particular morning, but eleven-year-old Sarah Shutters of Dayton, WA, a first-time trap shooter, stepped up to the stand wielding a beautiful 20-gauge Winchester 1400 autoloader that her dad, Marvin, customized to fit.

A dark ponytail poked through the back of a black Remington cap as Sarah stood confident behind the clay launcher. Peering up through dark aviator sunglasses, she accepted rapid-fire coaching from Chapter member, Dean Wass.

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“Keep your head down. Keep the butt tight against your shoulder. Keep your face tight to the stock and sight straight down the barrel. Track the clay with the bead and squeeze the trigger.”

The Winchester reported while an unbroken clay sailed off into the field, busting as it touched down in the dry summer soil.

“Okay, you shot a little high. Again, keep your face tight against the stock. Lean into the gun. Shift your weight to your left [front] leg. Don’t shoot so fast. You have time. Your shot pattern is only about a foot wide where that clay was at the time you shot.”

Sarah nodded affirmative, shouldered her Winchester and called for her clay. “PULL!”

Seated behind her, I watched as Sarah mastered the challenge. The launcher clanked, sending the clay into motion, and with perfect posture, she quickly acquired the target. The Winchester barrel smoothly tracked the flight path. I could almost smell the clay dust before Sarah touched trigger. And to no surprise, the recoil of the gun resulted in full contact with a clay that burst like fireworks on Independence Day. Celebratory grunts erupted from the peanut gallery.

Sarah adjusted her sunglasses and reloaded. No sweat. Business as usual. Meanwhile, Marvin observed with pride as Sarah repeated the performance, busting more clays than her ol’ man on her pioneer attempt.

The Chapter is proud to welcome returning and new youth participants like Sarah, and is committed to providing positive experiences with shooting sports and conservation. No prior experience or opportunity required.

As outdoors enthusiasts and conservationists, it’s our responsibility to share our passions and recruit the next generation to carry the torch. Navigating environmental and political hurdles to perpetuate the integrity of our nation’s natural resources and rich outdoor heritage requires the kind of commitment that only passion can fuel, and getting youth outdoors is where it all begins.

Paddle-boarding the Snake: It’s for the Dogs

Published August 1st, 2019 in the The Times

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The first time I spied a stand-up paddle board (SUP) was cruising South on Highway 97 somewhere around Orondo, WA, on the Columbia River. A perplexing and comical sight, it appeared that folks were paddling surf boards and going nowhere for no reason and not getting there any time soon. I later realized these folks were paddling SUPs. The “going nowhere in no hurry” aspect was simply relaxation; a concept poorly grasped by many in our fast-paced society.

I swiftly dismissed the notion of ever owning such a silly contraption subsequent to my first encounter. (I also have a solid history of eating crow.) New gear like a paddle board needs to check several boxes on the hobby list and I simply could not fathom how a SUP would be useful or enjoyable. But as a hopeless fly fisherman and avid upland bird hunter with water-loving Llewellin setters, I am always pondering new tools to address both needs. So, it’s no surprise that several years after vowing I would never own one, my wheels started turning on SUP possibilities.

The Times readership suffers the good fortune of having the Snake River with its myriad public access opportunities in our backyards. And for many of us (myself included), these resources are underutilized. Watercraft can unlock doors to outdoor recreation, but a boat can be untenable or impractical, leaving one to assume there is little to be gained from the big water otherwise. This very logic led me to considering SUP capabilities for local summer fly fishing in lieu of the more expensive and time-consuming boat alternative. Then it hit me. The setters would love it.

A couple evenings of internet research turned up an inflatable model of modest color, capable of supporting 441 pounds; a weight limit providing enough free-board to handle my Neanderthal frame and all of my three setter girls. What’s more, I thought I might be able to coax my lovely wife, Ali, into playing a little more on the weekends.

Having secured our new watercraft, we made the maiden voyage at Little Goose Landing just upstream of Little Goose Dam on Snake’s south shore. Fortunately, there were few campers to be entertained at my expense. While completely stable when seated or kneeling, raising my center of gravity to full height presented an entirely different scenario. The key to stability was to control my rapid-fire muscle reaction to the unsteadiness to avoid worsening the situation.

Getting the hang of it, I decided it was time to onboard my setter, Finn. She eagerly jumped aboard, but her excited jostling doubled the difficulty, bringing me to my knees with alacrity. Eventually we kind of got the hang of it together; at least the paddling on my knees part.  Anyone with bird dog experience knows that they make sweeping casts in the field to cover ground and find birds. Finn bounces from side-to-side in the truck, which apparently transfers to watercraft as well.

With legs splayed, taking careful steps, Finn tottered with each dip of the SUP, then countered with an abrupt push to the other side. It was touch-and-go for a bit on remaining upright, but she finally relaxed a little and decided to take a seat. What she enjoyed most was jumping from the dock and swimming out to be picked up for a boat ride.

Switching off with Ali, we encouraged our little polliwog and youngest setter, Zeta, to give it a shot. Zeta loves swimming far more than bird hunting, so the paddle board was a natural fit. She seemed to enjoy the ride, peering down through the emerald water at the weeds and sunfish, but was most entertained by jumping from the dock onto the SUP, then off into the water once away from the dock. And, in classic Zeta fashion, she always made the attempt to swim to the opposite shore, far away from mom and dad.

Finally, our timid middle pup, Yuba, took a shot at it. She enjoys water the least among the three and was quite skeptical. I sat with her between my legs as we paddled, and I think she actually enjoyed herself a little. She was the most unstable and all but knocked herself off the board a few times. While wading over belly-deep is not high on her priority list, she was quite proud of her puppy life vest. Being a bird dog that wears an orange vest in the field, donning a vest of any kind equates to a good time.

Kicking the pups off, I decided to go for a quick paddle alone to test out the fishing potential. Kneeling, I slipped the SUP into the back of the inlet at the launch, gliding effortlessly into fly casting range of a large carp. My thoughts instantly drifted to a Tenkara rod with minimal gear, tossing small flies for sunfish and bass, or even a San Juan worm for the carp (a story for another time). If I wasn’t before, at this point I was sold on the SUP for fishing. Not to mention the inflatable SUPs weigh about 24 pounds and can be packed up with pump and paddle into a frame pack for remote opportunities.

Windy conditions on the main river channel can be unsafe, but there’s nothing stopping you from hitting the inlets at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boat launches and recreation areas. These off-channel waters are generally sheltered from wind and typically receive little boat activity aside from launching or taking out.

So, what are you waiting for? A SUP is something the entire family can get behind, and the inflatables are constructed of a durable polyvinylchloride shell like a whitewater raft, so they are tough. They are even big enough to serve as a floating couch, and if you are into fitness, standing and paddling is a full-body workout. Just remember to check Coast Guard and state regulations about personal watercraft before taking to the water. At minimum, a SUP requires a life jacket and whistle, which should be worn at all times.

If you think a SUP might be something you and your family would enjoy, check out the Stand Up Paddle Boarding Basics blog series from REI to get started (read here). Your dog (and maybe your significant other) will thank you!

Elk in the Abyss

Published as a series in the Milton-Freewater Valley Herald, August 9th and 16th, 2019.

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Friday, October 28th, 2016, at 10:00pm I was startled awake as my lovely wife, Ali, bailed out of bed in a mad dash for the phone. We are early-to-rise, early-to-bed folks, and our friends typically don’t call after about 7:30pm; therefore, we instinctively assume that late night phone calls are emergency related and most likely regard our families back in Virginia. As Ali’s tone of voice changed from nervous to confused, then relieved, I realized no one was dead or dying. When she handed over the phone, I was delighted to hear the voice of my friend, Larry Lamb, on the other end.

               “What are you doing tomorrow?” Larry asked.

“I was planning to take the setters out for a pheasant hunt in the morning.” I replied. “What are you doing?”

“You want to go on an adventure?”

Anyone living in elk country knows that when a friend with a pack string calls during elk season in what you regard as the middle of the night to ask if you want to go on “adventure” before dawn the next morning, there is likely to be a significant, and possibly unpleasant level of effort involved.

               “Sure, Larry. What’s the game plan?”

“Aaron has a bull down in the Wenaha and asked if I could help him pack it out. I won’t lie, it’s down in a hell hole and we could really use another back for packing. Still interested?”

“Sure, Larry. What’s the game plan?” I repeated, unflapped.

“Be at the house at 6:00am to help catch the animals and saddle and load ‘em up.”

“Yes sir. See you in the morning.”

Aaron Anderson is one of Larry’s longtime hunting buddies, and one heck of a good guy. I met him for the first time a month prior on our 2016 Wyoming pronghorn adventure. For the second time in four years he drew a Tucannon-Wenaha Wilderness branch-antler bull elk tag in southeast Washington, and luckily tagged out earlier that morning on a dandy old bull. The Wenahas are a rugged area of the Blue Mountain range between Oregon and Washington. It does not compare to the Rockies in regard to elevation and high mountain cragginess, but make no mistake, the few thousand feet elevation difference between creek bottom and ridgeline characterize the Wenaha with steep, exposed, rocky slopes, sheer cliff outcrops, and deep, dank, brushy draw bottoms fit only for the wild animals that inhabit them; hence, a 350-inch bull in this country is not uncommon. What’s more, an over-the-counter elk tag only allows spike bulls or cows in southeast Washington (depending on weapon choice), making the wilderness a prime trophy area for Aaron’s tag.

Having lived in Washington since 2011, I have only dabbled in elk hunting. I prefer early archery season for a cows in September, but generally failed to spot any elk among the approximately 53,142 other elk hunters in this small corner of the state. Unfortunately, friends like Larry have been hunting elk their entire lives, but never ask a portly Virginia boy to join the hunting party or assist with a pack-out. I love horses and have plenty of experience caring for horses, but little saddle time overall. I understand horses and am confident in the saddle, but my eastern upbringing must make me a liability in elk country. This logic justified my suspicion that I am the last-on-the-list, much needed back for a painful and likely frightening pack out.

Dropping the phone, I jumped out of bed and headed down to my “deer room” in the basement to gather my frame pack, head lamp, knives, and water bottles. I didn’t want to risk forgetting something in the morning, but once back in bed, I barely slept throughout the night. My stomach flipped and my mind raced with excitement and anxiety, running scenarios of pack string wrecks, cliff scaling, and wishing I was dead while scrambling up an 87-degree scree slope with 100 pounds of elk on my back. I never had a real elk hunting experience, but that was about to change. I suspected by this time the following night, if I survived, I would know 100% if I really had the grit to hunt elk; something I desperately needed to find out.

I awoke with a start twenty minutes before the alarm at 4:43am. Rolling out of bed, I hit the “on” button on the coffee pot, and slipped into my boots. I let the setters out for a quick morning pee, filled a travel mug full of freshly brewed Rey’s Roast from Dayton, WA, and headed to the truck. The Tundra roared to life and I flipped on the fog lights for the 40-minute drive to Larry’s through an annoying fog. Swinging into Larry’s driveway, I rolled down to the barn where Larry had the trailer hitched and was waiting for me to help catch the pack team.

With head-lamps ablaze, we strolled down to the paddock where Larry had erected a nice chute down to the run-in shed where he feeds. All the animals were finishing breakfast as we opened the top end gate for our initial approach. Most of the team is well seasoned as Maggie and Bubbles are about 30- and 40-year-old black mules, respectively. Larry buckled the halter and lead rope to Maggie, who is slow, steady, and mountain savvy. I led Maggie to the trailer to tie her off for saddling while Larry followed up with Katie, a squatty and portly blonde mule with a barrel twice the girth of her body length. I chuckled as she waddled up to the trailer with a disinterested look, ears laid back in disgust, although calm and gentle as could be.

On our second approach, Larry handed me the lead rope hooked to Freckles. Freckles is a large brown and white, dappled paint gelding who would serve as my trail coach this day. Freckles and I have a past ride together under our belts and I trust this horse with every hoof step. Freckles, similar to Maggie, is a seasoned packing and riding horse in his mid-twenties, and big enough to handle a behemoth like me. Larry followed with Riley, a medium sized chestnut gelding with a gorgeous white blaze down his nose. Riley is the squirrely bastard of the bunch, flinching and jerking with every move. I was glad Larry would be the one to steer him, but Larry has a long history with pack horses and is fit for the task. With the string all tied off to the trailer, we saddled them, loaded them, threw the saddle bags and panniers into the forward tack compartment, fired up the diesel and turned the heavy-duty Chevy toward the mountains.

It was a gorgeous October morning with a slight cloud cover, but early morning sun broke through with the promise of a perfect ride out the mountain top to our tie-off and descent “trail”. Unfortunately, the forecast was calling for rain by 2:00pm in the Walla Walla Valley, which we all knew would hit us in the higher elevations sooner as the moist air condensed against the western slope. We cruised the hour and forty minutes into the trailhead with ease and gawked in awe (at least I did) at the volume of campers and pickups that choked the parking areas and camp sites along the road in the Umatilla National Forest. It was opening day of the general elk firearms season, so the masses had descended to battle over the eleven spike bulls that can legally be killed in the immediate 600,000-acre area. (That’s likely a gross overestimate of the number of spike bulls in this unit of southeast WA.)

At the trailhead, we spun a u-turn, then pulled up next to a 24-foot travel trailer that Aaron called base camp for nine days prior. Although our goal was to fulfill a taxing chore, our “hellos” were heartfelt and Larry and I shared a moment of jealousy and congratulations while ogling the beautiful, heavy, chocolate rack with sweeping tines, ivory tips, and beams that could seemingly have stretch back to the bull’s tail. The top of the beam between the G5 and the split crown had a unique swoop to it where the antler arched down on both sides. I wanted my own set immediately. Then, just as quickly as we caught up, we climbed into the saddle and set out across the ridge spine for the hour and a half ride to the top of the draw where the bull lay a thousand feet below.

The ride out was amazing to say the least. The trail was easy with little elevation change, few windfalls, and no creek or cliff crossings, just beautiful views of deep canyons, rock outcrops, the fall greening of the open slopes, and the golden hue of larch scattered among the evergreens. I was reminded of a line I read in a book titled The Greatest Hunting Stories Ever Told. In his chapter, Spirit of the North, Thomas McIntyre wrote about larch while on a moose hunt in Canada.

“While the needles of the tamaracks died off in their own fiery-yellow manner, the always dark spruce stood reservedly back from it all, looking down on this spectacle of deciduousness and having none of it.”

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I enjoyed the ride immensely and relaxed in tune with Freckles’ rhythm, but nearing the end of the mountain, I looked down the canyons where the finger ridges and walls above the creeks dropped sharply into the thick, black bottoms, and my anxiety of what lay ahead jarred me back into an unfamiliar, but comprehensible reality. A quarter-mile from our tie-up, Aaron led Maggie over to the east side of the ridge in a large meadow. Larry and I followed. Arron then turned to us, pointing down into a wilderness abyss to the creek bottom at a cluster of glowing yellow larch. “There he is.” Aaron exclaimed. I could feel my thighs begin to burn.

While tying up, the wind picked up, so we wound the string into the trees where we could shelter them and stow some gear for a warm, dry ride out in the looming 34-degree rain. I shed my tee shirt and stowed it in a saddle bag, and stowed my heavy jacket in a pannier that we would later fill with the bounty won through God’s grace, the life the bull gave for Aaron’s perseverance, and the intense work that we were about to endure.  Wriggling back into my sweatshirt, I donned my frame pack with a bottle of water stashed on the shelf, took a GPS point of the pack string location, and dropped off the side of the mountain. Beginning our initial descent, Aaron looked back with a smile. “How do you guys feel about cliffs?” He asked.

Our descent was approximately an hour long down nearly vertical slopes, through numerous rock outcrops, along slick, muddy rims with loose granite shards, and through the dim, soupy draw bottoms thick with serviceberry. As for the cliffs, Aaron is afraid of heights, but not Larry or I. What I don’t like is trying to negotiate a sheer cliff face. Luckily, we managed to avoid all sheer cliffs by scrambling around and down the bony ridge spines. The real challenge lay within the final approximately 200 feet to the elk, which fell just above the creek bottom. Here, the terrain changed from painfully negotiable to seemingly impossible. We painstakingly placed each step to ensure that our footing would hold while using grass, evergreen roots, and serviceberry branches to maintain balance and distribute weight. Each step down increased my mental anguish, intensifying the anxiety of making the ascent with a loaded pack. If there was ever a time consciously swear off elk hunting for life, this was it.

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Finally, just after noon, we arrived at the elk. And as perfect as timing can be, the chill-to-the-bone rain set in on cue. Aaron spent the day prior quartering and skinning out the skull for a shoulder mount, so the work to be done this trip was simply grab the back-straps and other loose cuts, and bone out and pack as many quarters as we could manage to carry. Larry and I clambered a bit further downhill to grab a couple quarter bags and a hind quarter Aaron had hung, while Aaron began boning out a shoulder under the shelter of a massive Doug fir (one of the few places to stay dry and work on three square feet of flat ground). We made a couple trips up to where Aaron was working, ending with the cape.

Within an hour we had the shoulders, a hind quarter, and all the other loose meat split between the three of us, leaving only the cape and one hind quarter for the following day. None of us wanted to come back down here, but we decided it was better to leave a light load for a second day than take too heavy a load and risk injury. Besides, my thighs were burning by the time we arrived at the elk, and I silently wept inside, imagining the brutality of the ascent. Our packs averaged somewhere between 60 and 80 pounds, and I estimated our total load weight to ballpark between 180-220 pounds. That’s plenty for a desk biologist who hadn’t hunted as hard as he should have during the archery season.

As quickly as we dropped into the hell hole, we turned around to begin the ascent, praying (at least I did) along the way for strength and sure footing. Our steps were short and deliberate and our progress slow and unsteady for those menacing first couple hundred feet. I lead the team, clawing on hands and knees at times, using anything anchored to the ground for stability and leverage. We all agreed to take it easy getting out of there, but there was nothing easy about it.

In the draw bottoms, the downed serviceberry branches were slick and gummy from moss and years of grass decaying over them. On the ridge spine, bare soil was greasy from the rain. The soil was squishy and caked on our hands like pie crust dough with gritty, sandpaper-like granite shards.  My cadence carried me five to ten feet where I could locate the next object or flat piece of soil large enough for a foothold.

Elk in the Abyss (5)

Down-ridge about 20 yards were Larry and Aaron, carefully picking their way up behind me as I relied on my GPS track log to keep me on-trail. Ascending the bottom quarter of the climb felt like climbing Satan’s staircase in an attempt to escape the clutches of a hell frozen over. We clambered and clawed our way up one handhold or foothold at a time. Most footholds were the backsides of grass clumps where long, slender-bladed grass as dark as the shadowing evergreens held itself firmly to the mountain side, determined to keep the light soil layer and other vegetation intact.

The going was slow and I speculated it would take us about three hours to reach the pack string. Where the terrain was too steep to climb, I fell into the edge of the draw and used the serviceberry to my advantage where it was rooted deep enough to pull myself a little further up the mountain. Stopping for a break after another five feet of elevation gain, I heard Larry shriek below, followed by a few muffled obscenities. Aaron asked if Larry was ok, to which he replied yes, but he nearly lost his place on the mountainside and was afraid he may take out Aaron in the tumble.

We continued the struggle on hands and knees for another approximately 20 to 30 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Finally, I picked up an elk trail and broke out across the face of Satan’s staircase, which ended as we weaved our way up through a rocky outcrop and stood firmly, without fear of a slip, on a slope that was still absurdly steep, but manageable.  Breaking over the top of this vertical nightmare renewed our drive and we mounted the remaining mountain side with fresh confidence, and surprisingly strong legs.

The remainder of the climb was slow, but our progress was steady with better footing. We even managed some conversation along the way. I was enjoying the scenery again despite being soaked to the bone in sweat and rain. I always find it interesting how different a mountain looks while climbing up compared to shuffling down. Breaking down over the tops of the rocky outcrops pays a mountain little justice as looking over the top masks height and cragginess, but the outcrops and cliff faces loomed intimidatingly overhead on the ascent.

About half- to two-thirds of the way up, the reality of how long and steep this climb was began to work on our mental status, but we were still going strong and the terrain only became more forgiving as we neared the crest. Reaching the only small outcrop with a semi-flat top brought a sigh of relief. On the way down, we discussed walking the mules down to this spot which was about 300 yards from where the stock were tied. Without a word of dropping the packs and going for the stock, we boldly continued with renewed drive. The worst was over.

We could see the high mountain meadow on the ridgeline to the north and we bore north-northeast toward the light. Another blessing of the day was that an old burn that swept through this area left few windfalls, the majority of which were in this final stretch. Continuing on, we carefully stepped, hopped, crawled, and slipped across the decaying, charred, and spikey evergreen logs as we side-hilled around the finger ridge rim.  With a short push through elderberry saplings, we broke into the bottom edge of the meadow and my right thigh began to cramp just above the knee. Impeccable timing.

We quickly closed the gap to the stock and shed our packs, which made a solid thud as they connected with the soft ground. I made for Freckles and looked around to see that we all had one thing in mind. Pulling out rain gear, we shed our wet cloths, dried our heads and arms, and slipped into something more comfortable for the ride out. It was 3:30pm and we made haste in loading the bulging quarter bags into the panniers, hoisted and hooked the bags onto the packsaddle, and lashed down the empty pack frames on top. The stock were sheltered nicely among the trees and we didn’t even notice the wind as we finished our hike up the mountain. However, as we untied and led the string out of the timber, the cold wind settled on our wet fingers and faces, stinging with the near freezing needle pricks of late fall.

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Mounting up, I settled into the saddle, resting my hands across the horn, completely at peace and feeling at home. Taking in the dreary grays of a low ceiling, the bright greens of freshly growing grasses and forbes that feverishly sprout with fall rain, and the calming dark green of the evergreen forest, I can understand how my grandpa and uncle must have felt when they entered the wilderness of Idaho for the first time. My uncle has yet to leave it, and I assumed that by now, my grandpa had returned for eternity. The ride out was quiet, aside from a little encouragement for the stock.

The horses were eager to get back and Freckles knew the trail fairly well as he had hoofed it all week, not just this day. I let him lead, and although I have the utmost confidence in him, I took notice of his curiosity and lack of attention to the trail at times.  As we covered the mile back to the main trail, I gave Freckles a couple suggestions to either follow Aaron and Maggie, or choose another route to reduce the potential for eye impalement or being swept off the saddle by a large, low-hanging branch. Freckles accepted my direction with aplomb and kept me unharmed, even comfortable while weaving through the timber and over the windfalls.

Once back on the main trail I allowed Freckles his complete freedom to roam and was amused at his desire to check out meadows, grab a yarrow snack, and basically meander across the mountain. Sometimes he even stepped slightly off trail on less traveled soil if he anticipated a slip in the mud. We plodded along in silence until the trailhead appeared, and while we had all enjoyed the experience, we had long passed the twelve-hour mark of this adventure, and the cold rain had fizzled our spirits.

Approaching camp, we carefully rode up to the trailer and tied off the critters. We made quick work unloading the elk and packs, then removed the harnesses and bridles and trailered up, leaving the saddles attached for warmth. Aaron invited us into the travel trailer where we shared a beer, some of Larry’s venison jerky, and a couple laughs, reminiscing of the day and Aaron’s hunt overall.

It was an awesome experience with some great guys, and I dare say I plan to put in for this very elk tag, now knowing the brutal physical demands and risks. Luckily, Aaron’s bull went down where it could be reached, but there is potential in this country to have one hell of predicament on your hands if a bull runs or takes a nasty tumble. This was my test to see if I could hack it as an elk hunter. I passed.

Larry, Aaron, and I shared a congratulatory and thank you man-hug, then Larry and I hit the road. I wouldn’t return tomorrow as Aaron had a replacement back lined up, but Larry and the stock would make a repeat performance. As we bounced down the mountain road toward home, my mind drifted off to my own challenging, successful hunts for mule deer, and the fire that burns so deep sparked to life. I will see this trail again next summer.

Grouse of the September Uplands

Publish September 5th, 2019, The Waitsburg Times

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With the summer heat still baking the brown and brittle landscape, dog work would need to be restricted to the precious early morning hours of refuge. Fortunately, we were blessed with an overcast sky; one of the first to come of the early fall season. But the transition to autumn was in full swing, presenting a soothing canvas of large pines towering dark above the reddening of the Oregon grape and snowberry, and the fading yellow of elderberry leaves accented by their rich, black berry clusters.

The remains of an old road wound its way along a tributary of the Tucannon. The native shrubbery was speckled with the remnants of homesteads that once grew lush with apples and plums. The homes are gone, but the old fruit trees hung heavy with bright red apples and golf ball-sized orange and purple plums; their delicate offering a gift to the wildlife seeking to plump a bit for winter’s arrival.

Hiking the road, my mind wandered to days gone by. I pondered what the old homes may have looked like. Had they raised livestock? Did they grow vegetable gardens? I could almost taste the sweetness with a hint of pectin tang from the canned preserves that may have come from one of the old plum trees. Basking in fantasy, my muse was jolted back into reality. My innate setter sense triggered a subconscious reminder that my girls were missing, and dead silent above the ambient roar of the creek.

A couple whistle toots usually brings them back around for a check-in, but not a sole moved for a visible quarter mile. Adrenaline kicked in, and my leisurely stroll swiftly transformed into a calculated search for white, speckled bodies, little orange vests, and high setter tails flagging a pinned bird in the soft breeze.

Ruffed grouse or “ruffies” received namesake from the ruff of feathers around their necks. They are one of many miraculous upland bird species on the Columbia Plateau, and the first of the upland seasons to open in our little corner of Washington. But it’s a tough season, opening September 1st, concurrent with the early deer archery season. Temperature can soar into the 90s, wildfires can diminish air quality, and the thickets that these birds inhabit can challenge the most seasoned of hunters.

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Hunting ruffed grouse became an upland tradition in Appalachia and the Northwoods many moons ago before the early decline of the northern bobwhite quail. An icon of the northern deciduous and boreal forests, their chest-pounding “drumming” echoes throughout the timber like autumn’s noble ambassador. The literary world offers a wealth of praise to ruffies from a simple emotional mention of grouse drumming, to entire volumes dedicated to what some regard as the “king of upland birds”. And a tradition this strong is sure to span a continent and beyond.

But the plethora of upland bird species and the overlap with big game seasons in the west has made the ruffed grouse seemingly less sought-after quarry, at least here in the Walla Walla River watershed. While I commonly share my public land pheasant coverts with others, I have yet to meet another grouse hunter afield in Washington.

Ruffies occupy a variety of habitats and elevations, but are quite fond of thick cover offering insect and tender vegetation food sources during the summer months, while fruits and berries serve as a winter food source. And a variety of food sources requires a mix of conifer and deciduous forest. In the Blue Mountains, this translates to creek bottoms and draws where elderberry, serviceberry, snowberry, hawthorn, and possibly some aspen occur, intermixed among or flanking fir and spruce species.

Given the tangled and sometimes prickly nature of grouse coverts, walking old forest roads presents the most efficient, and at times, the most pleasurable experience, particularly if working a dog with a GPS locator. Historically, a bell was hung from the dog’s collar, and some folks in the Northwoods still prefer the traditional gear. In any case, letting a dog do the brush-busting dirty work is my preference, although the most successful grouse hunters charge right into the thick of things.

Stepping from the road, I wound my way into a thicket of hawthorn and snowberry with a few pines poking up through for good measure. A darkly shaded mess of impossibility lay ahead as I dropped to a knee, ducked a few low branches, and began clawing my way in. Blackberry tendrils clung to the edges and my flannel shirt as if trying to sway me from entering the torture chamber.

Straining deeper in, I finally spied a speck of white about twenty feet ahead where snowberry met pine; my oldest Llewellin, Finn, on steadfast point. Crashing through the understory, I clambered as quickly as possible to reach her, cautiously optimistic that the bird would hold through the racket. A bit further into the snarl I spotted Yuba honoring Finn’s point, affirming the bird was indeed holding.

Anticipating the flush, planting my left foot forward triggered an explosion of wingbeats against the heavy vegetation. A blur of brown feathers and white setters ensued as my old 16-gauge side-by-side came to shoulder, reporting a clean miss. My split-second shot window vanished with the grouse, now sailing full tilt toward safer cover. Another performance typical of our little team.

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We regrouped on the far side of the jumble for a drink and some puppy praise, then resumed the mission, but grouse hunting does not have to be this difficult. Rain actually plays a major role in my success. Ruffies tend to slip out of the woodwork in the rain, spending time along mountain roads and other more open edges with good cover nearby. A quiet stroll under the pitter-patter of a shower has by far afforded me the most success, no pointing dog required. For this reason, and the likelihood of a spooked grouse sailing into a nearby tree within range of a small caliber rifle or arrow, ruffies in the west have also earned the nickname “fool hen”. But those who utter such blasphemy have never hunted grouse in the deciduous forests east of the Mississippi River.

If September archery hunting just isn’t your game, grab your favorite scattergun and hit the timber at sunrise. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife 10-year harvest trend, grouse numbers in our corner of the state are rebounding from a 2015 low, likely on their normal, cyclical pattern. The W.T. Wooten Wildlife Area and Umatilla National Forest surrounding the upper Tucannon River provide a variety of habitats and opportunities.

Prior timber harvest offers an easy hike for youngster to become immersed in the uplands along old harvest roads closed to vehicles. You stand a good chance at seeing moose, mule deer and bear. The tranquility of a soft, pink sunrise and songbirds welcoming the day is broken only by the energetic flush of a ruffie erupting from cover.

The Autumn Stream Palette

Published October 3rd, 2019, The Waitsburg Times

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Fall is undoubtedly the most anticipated and contested season of the year, and rightfully so in both regards. The fat days of summer are quickly drawing to a close at our latitude, even more dramatically in climates further north. Darkness cloaks our early waking hours and morning routines, not to mention the crispness on the air, leaving little motivation to escape the comfort of our beds, save for the increasingly satisfying steam and piquant aroma of coffee or tea tantalizing our nostrils and taste buds on such mornings.

The transition from a season of glut to a season of thrift. Hunting, gathering, fattening, reproduction, all to the tune of Mother Nature’s rhythm. The birds are heading south; their innate sense of the season to come urging them to seek warmer climates and more abundant food sources. The last of the humming birds are scarcely seen as they migrate from northerly portions of their summer range. Flocks of drab, olive-toned gold finches visit bird baths en route as curious nuthatches and black and tan towhees begin to appear. The vibrant, red berry clusters of the mountain ash begin brightening to brilliant orange in time for the arrival of masked cedar waxwings from higher elevations.

The long-awaited early upland and big game seasons are upon us as deer fawns lose their spots and wild turkeys build their winter flocks. Elk bugles pierce the wilderness canyons, echoing through the timber like an autumn canticle. And the bedraggled, teenage pheasant roosters are finally coming into their handsome adult ensemble. But what lurks below emboldens many, not to be second best among the terrestrial grandeur. There are coho, Chinook and steelhead to be caught, but the high mountain cutthroat, rainbows, and even the eastern transplant brook trout are calling those patiently waiting for the summer heat to ease and the October rains to replenish the headwaters.

Cutthroat trout

The paling of the upland aspen and streamside cottonwood and alder, the blushing of snowberry and the blackening of elderberry fruit paints a soft contrast against the russet, heat-baked hills and basalt. Water temperature is optimal and the trout feisty. Ominous skies draw out the long-awaited October caddis hatch, triggering trout to rise aggressively, snatching the burley, moth-sized flies as they dip to the water surface to deposit their eggs. Among the largest of the caddis species, the October caddis serves to quickly fatten trout for their upcoming months of sluggishness, feeding largely on nymphs.

The final hurrah of the big fly season, hulking stimulator patterns tied tawny with deer hair and eye-catching orange or red bodies fight the slightest of breeze as a floating fly line shoots for the edge of a backwater or pool tail-out. A cutthroat, now coming into its prime, rolls on the stimulator from the shelter of lazy waters. Boasting rich, buttery flanks, an olive-tinged dorsal region and faint flush of pink adorning the belly, the cutthroat is the natural 24-karat gold of many western streams.

Not to be outdone, the rainbow, so aptly named for its prismatic sheen, rockets airborne from the tumult between pools. Preferring faster water, rainbows are the pure muscle of montane waters. Their dazzling shades of blue, violet, olive and rose, decorated with an incredible varying of pepper flecks serves to entrance and addict anyone to ever marvel over such a finned spectacle. Splashing down into the froth, a sizeable rainbow hits top speed in an instant, leaving an unprepared angler fishing for a fresh stimulator in the fly box.

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And then there is the master of shadows. The one who seeks brush and boulder seclusion. Their fall routine being quite different from the other trout, possibly because they are not trout at all. Brook trout are actually a char, their scientific name, genus Salvelinus, sets them and their western bull trout cousin apart from the other trout of genus Oncorhynchus. A native of the eastern U.S., their widespread range hard won over ages of fighting steep, flashy torrents and heavy woody debris loads. Their aggressive attitude and insatiable appetite make them vulnerable to angling, particularly during fall as their tenacity and brilliance peaks for spawning.

Soft pink bellies blaze into fiery orange-red. Their dull, gray dorsal darkens to a deep ocean olive-blue streaked by worm-like striations. Their peculiar pink spotting with the sky-blue halo darkens to a stunning hue like decorative buttons on a jacket lapel. But their most unique identifying trait is the mark of the char; the stark-white leading fin spine on the pectoral, pelvic and anal fins, trimmed in pitch black, sets a marvelous contrast to the dominantly red fin. They may pose an invasive species threat to native trout in the west, but their splendor is inarguable.

Bulls, bucks, pheasant and ducks; the allure is potent and justified. But on those heaven-sent, bluebird October mornings when the mercury falls, the waters are calling. Sun-kissed creek bottoms flowing through a kaleidoscope of changing vegetation sets the backdrop for a well-placed fly and a radiant adipose fin. And for a brief moment, painted among the autumn stream palette, may we achieve true serenity, blessed to witness nature in its most vibrant glory of the wild trout.

Pinks on the Fly

Pinks on the Fly

Published at Angler Pros.

Every angler venturing to Alaska in search of salmon on the fly dreams vividly of aggressive coho or chum trouncing a streamer being ripped across the river. Day and night dreams of beautiful roll casts, colorful marabou and bunny streamers wafting brilliantly through prime holding water, and a shark-like wake split by a speckled dorsal fin as it approaches the respectively tiny streamer, haunt us in the days leading up to the trip. Many Alaska trips fit the script recited to us by those who have gone before, as well as those we conjure in our wildest fantasies. But what about the trips that don’t quite live up to our dreams?

Anyone seeking outdoor adventure knows that Mother Nature refuses to play favorites, particularly on far flung excursions into new territory. Given my experience with southeast Alaska, I have come to love and embrace overcast skies and rain. I rely on it, as do the salmon for entering their spawning streams. But salmon sometimes forget to flip the calendar, showing up fashionably late for their date with destiny. All but the pink salmon, anyhow.

So, what do you do when Mother Nature drops a colossal lemon in the punch bowl, such as a stark absence of coho amid a cornucopia of pink salmon after you have traveled so far to live the Alaska dream? Seize the lemon and squeeze the bloody life out of it to yield a sweet, sweet pink lemonade.

With every intention of filling a fish box to the brim with coho filets, I trekked to Ketchikan, Alaska, in late August, 2019, fly rod in hand. My August trips to other areas of southeast Alaska have been otherworldly in terms of coho abundance and action, but no two years or island streams are alike. Having spent the better part of two days in search of coho in freshwater and salt, the writing was on the wall. I was too early for the coho run. But August is the hot month for pink salmon, and with that in mind, one could argue I was right on time.

As an equal opportunity salmon fisherman, I believe that pink salmon get a bad rap. I must admit that I don’t travel to Alaska specifically to target pinks, but their dark olive, pepper-speckled dorsal region, nearly chartreuse fins, mottled gray and white belly margins, and that gorgeous pink tint down their lateral line comprise one finely painted and respectable salmon that suckers me in. Every time. Although pinks don’t exhibit the coho magnitude of aggression once in fresh water, there are challenges and benefits to fishing pink salmon that are just as inciting.

Fecundity

You’ve heard the old expression “salmon so thick you could walk across their backs.” You also know this expression to be true if you have ever experienced the peak of a pink salmon run. Pinks exhibit and distinct two-year lifecycle where fish spawned on even-numbered years do not returning to spawn in an odd year, and vice-versa.

Pinks are the most abundant Alaskan salmon and are secure in their conservation status, meaning populations are healthy and sustainable. While there is no stronger odd or even year return in much of Alaska, the far northwestern Alaska experiences a dominant even-year population, while the northwest U.S. states experience a stronger odd-year population.

There is something monumental to walking upon a stream literally black with salmon backs and watching those fish jockey for position, fight to conquer waterfalls and each other, and spawn in gravel pockets as nature intended them to. Awe inspiring, to say the least.

Tenacity

A pink salmon could not care less about the color or type of fly, the fact that you just slapped a streamer across the water surface, or the fact that you may be standing literally over top of hundreds of them. They simply have one thing in mind. Their fate is calling. Get out of the way!

Sinew

Like any large fish, pink salmon put up a fair fight. These fish are lean and mean; their average weight being in the 3 to 5-pound range and up to 24 inches in length. Larger pinks have been caught but are less common. Pinks can put the bend to an 8-weight fly rod in a second and dog it for up to 10 minutes in the right river conditions. If you’ve ever wanted to hear a fly reel sing, a big humpy would be happy to oblige, particularly on a 5-weight.

Challenge

While fly selection and presentation are of little consideration, fishing the fly through a thousand fish without snagging fins or body is most definitely a challenge. Pinks will strike at and even run down a streamer. You simply need to get the fly in front of the right fish without foul-hooking a dozen others.

Pinching the hook barb is a must. Making a solid hookset is not difficult. Its simply a good conservation practice to pinch your barbs when incidentally snagging fish is a given. This accomplishes two things: 1) In many cases, you can see that you have snagged a fish and avoid an unnecessary hookset by shaking the fly loose with slack line; and 2) If you accidentally foul-hook and break off on fish, that hook will likely drop out in short order once the tension is relieved from the line.

When fishing for pinks, I typically cast upstream and gently retrieve the fly parallel to the fish. Swimming flies across the water in front of them increases foul hooking, where fishing with the flow allows fish that want to strike the fly to grab it while minimizing the body surface area contact between the fly and other fish. Snagging can also be minimized by drifting a fly downstream into a pool and keeping it in front of the fish long enough to entice a strike.

Finally, feeling out and understanding the difference between a strike and a snag can be interesting and fun. You can never get it 100%, but this presents another nuance to the game that requires heightened awareness and attentiveness of the fly and the fish themselves. A truly engaging aspect of the pursuit.

Tenkara

If you really want to step up the challenge, try a tenkara fly rod.  Like using an old-fashioned cane pole, a fixed length of line with a tippet is attached to the end of the rod. Pinks can be caught using traditional tenkara lines and kebari (flies), or with non-traditional floating or sinking lines and streamers. Streamers can be fished the same as with any western-style fly rod, just with a limited cast and retrieve length.

I built a 13-foot tenkara rod specifically for big fish, rated 8/2, meaning the rod operates on a fast or medium-heavy action relative to typical fly or spinning rod actions, respectively. My intention for the rod was to dead-drift nymphs for steelhead in winter, but had only hooked up some decent cutthroat with it to date. My goal for Ketchikan was simple; hook and land a big pink salmon, even if it meant breaking the rod.

Using a 10-foot section of old floating fly line with a 4-foot section of 8-pound fluorocarbon as tippet, I rolled out a small, black, egg-sucking leech pattern with an orange bead head and free-floating trailer hook. I had already landed a few smaller pinks in the 3-pound class, but the giant I was about to hook was beyond any mad fantasy to ever cross my mind.

Casting to the edge of the current in the eddy, pinks darted in and out of the run leading up the pool below me. And like always, as my mind began to wander amid the scenery, a nuanced strike pulled me back into reality. As I noticed a big buck pink below me in the pool tail-out, I spotted the leech bouncing bottom under him and recast. Repeating an identical drift, the buck opened his mouth, snatching the leech with an apparent irritability that struck me with a bit of regret as I swiftly set the hook.

Trumbo - Pinks on the Fly (2)

Treating the tenkara rod as a switch rod, I stuck the butt into my hip and heaved the long cork grip into my gut with my right hand. The buck wasn’t making any blistering runs, but he certainly had me wishing for more line a good drag.

Busting out of the pool, headed back toward the ocean, I was left simply to follow with my net in one hand and the rod held high in the other. Vowing to keep him from hitting the final riffle into salt, I clasped the rod with both hands and turned the buck upriver one last time, all the while fearing the rod or tippet would give at any moment. Fortunately, the rod and tippet held their own and I was able to slip the net under him and bring him to shore.

The magnitude of this fish didn’t hit home until I realized how small the net looked with him in it. I had landed many a solid coho with that net, but a pink had never taken up such real estate. Gently popping the barbless hook from his gnarly kype, I lifted the buck for closer inspection. He was simply magnificent. Measuring around 28 inches with a high hump, yellowing, speckled fins, glorious gray-olive dorsal coloring and a brilliant pinking around the tail, this buck enhanced my appreciation for an underrepresented species among the salmon angling community.

Hitting the Water

Stupid-good action is my plain and simple description of pink salmon fishing in fresh water, and unlike the other more popular species, you will generally find yourself amidst solitude in some of Alaska’s most beautiful and accessible public lands. Exquisite rental properties within a budget such as vacation-rental-by-owner and bed-and-breakfast options are available in most areas in August. Folks fortunate enough to live within a short flight or two of southeast Alaska can find good reason to make a quick trip. For those traveling further and investing a bit more cash in the endeavor, timing your trip to coincide with the peak of the Chinook or coho run would provide more bang for the buck, but make no mistake, hitting the pink run would be no disappointment.

Fixed on Pinks

Published in the Fall 2019 edition of Tenkara Angler.2019-09-21 12_50_24-Window

A rare high-pressure day, the sun shone beautifully across my shoulders into the turn pool where the river met the ocean. The tannin-stained river spilled over the cascade perpendicular to the boulder I stood against, then curled downstream alongside my perch. A large eddy occurred between me and the cascade where salmon were stacking up for the ascent. The rocks deposited on the ocean side of the channel pushed the flow against solid granite. Over time, that flow had carved out a large backwater where salmon, seals, bears, gulls, osprey and eagles all met for a limited time each year.

Having crept out along the edge of a large boulder outcrop at low tide, I stood watching intently as pinks battled their way up the downstream riffle to enter the pool, jab at their salmon brethren, and regain enough strength to traverse the coming cascade.

In my hand I held a 13-foot tenkara rod I built specifically for big fish, being rated 8/2, meaning the rod operates on a fast or medium-heavy action relative to typical fly or spinning rod actions, respectively. My intention for the rod was dead-drifting nymphs and kebari for steelhead in winter, but I had only hooked up some decent cutthroat with it to date. My goal was simple. Hook and land a big pink salmon. If it meant breaking the rod, I was willing to make it happen.

Using a 10-foot section of old floating fly line with a 4-foot section of 8-pound fluorocarbon attached as tippet, I rolled out a small, black, egg-sucking leech pattern I tied with an orange bead head and free-floating trailer hook. I had already landed a few smaller pinks in the 3-pound class, but the giant I was about to hook was beyond my wildest pink salmon fantasy.

Trumbo Fixed on Pinks (1)

Casting to the edge of the current in the eddy, pinks darted in and out of the downstream riffle leading into the pool. And like always, as my mind began to wander amid the scenery, a nuanced strike pulled me back into reality. I noticed a large buck pink in the pool tail-out and my leech bouncing bottom under him. Repeating an identical drift, the buck opened his mouth, snatching the leech with an apparent irritability that struck me with a bit of regret as I swiftly set the hook.

I often refer to sturgeon fishing as attempting to pull a school bus from the river bed. Fighting the big pink buck on my tenkara rod instilled a similar feeling of futility, but a feeling more like trying to overcome the fear of a dire task with some cognizance that the outcome may not be favorable. I can only liken it to stepping out onto the cabin porch in the middle of the blackest Appalachian night you can fathom in just my boxers to investigate what sounded like a human intruder. As my eyes adjusted, the large, round shape of a black bear peering back at me from the steps became apparent in the soft glow of the wood stove. One of us had to give, and I hesitantly stood my ground, knowing the outcome could be quite dramatic.

Fly fishermen know to let the fish fight the rod, particularly big fish. Tenkara anglers know to point the butt of the rod at the fish to accomplish this, but trust me when I say that’s much easier said than done on a fish that has been swimming the ocean for the past year.  Treating the tenkara rod as a switch rod, I stuck the butt into my waist and heaved the long cork grip into my gut with my right hand. The buck wasn’t making any blistering runs, but he certainly had me wishing for more line and a good drag.

Trumbo - Pinks on the Fly (2)

Busting out of the pool, headed back toward the ocean, I was left simply to follow with my net in one hand, the rod held high in the other. Suddenly, I felt like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It as he chased his monster rainbow down the Blackfoot River; an awkward dance of balance and trying to keep the right pressure on the fish among slick, loose rock. Vowing to keep him from hitting the final riffle into salt, I clasped the rod with both hands and turned the buck upriver one last time, all the while fearing the rod or tippet would fail at any moment. With a few more laps around a short run, I was fortunate to slip the net under him and bring him to shore.

The magnitude of this fish didn’t hit home until I realized how small the net looked with him in it. I had landed many a solid coho with that net, but a pink had never taken up such real estate. Gently popping the barbless hook from his gnarly kype, I lifted the buck for closer inspection. He was simply magnificent. Measuring around 28 inches with a high hump, yellowing, speckled fins, glorious gray-olive dorsal coloring and a brilliant pinking around the tail, this buck enhanced my appreciation for an underrepresented species among the salmon angling community. A trophy indeed, I ended my trip on this beautiful salmon, landed against the odds on a fixed line fly rod.

The Rios of Fall

Fall turkey hunting the Walla Walla Valley is as fine an experience as it gets!

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Published in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, September 22nd, 2019.

The grandeur of a wild turkey in full strut, spitting, drumming and gobbling their hormone-crazed heads off lures the masses of anxious hunters, wrought with spring fever. Spring is an amazing season to hit the woods with colorful tree and flower buds and the first green grasses of the warm season. The chill in the early morning air quickly vacates as golden sun rays breach the eastern horizon. Then there are hunters like myself, who don’t buy into the farce of calling spring turkeys. Autumn is our season of conviction and pursuit of all things upland. Fall may represent the annual cycle of senescence, but the season also holds rejuvenation, calm and terrific turkey hunting.

A heavy November fog hung in the pines, cloaking the forty-some birds in their evergreen roost, high above my brushy ground cover. Turkeys had flocked up for winter, and like clockwork, entered their routine of roosting in a small pine strip along the Touchet River. Soft yelps and clucks wafting from the canopy were barely audible above the babbling river, but soon evolved into a boisterous cacophony as the sun fought to tear through the fallen ceiling. Having never mastered the art of calling turkeys, I sat quietly, awaiting the birds’ vacation from roost.

As visibility increased to about thirty yards, the inharmonious ruckus from overhead fell silent. Had I moved? Had they heard me? My mind raced with the paranoid cogitations of a turkey hunter familiar with failure. And as abruptly as the birds had fallen silent, the pines erupted. Turkeys spewed from all angles in unison, hidden entirely by fog; their heavy wing beats showering the understory with the mist deposited among the trees. A short glide carried them to a nearby wheat field where tender green sprouts topped the breakfast menu. Time to move.

Eastern, Rio Grande and Merriam’s subspecies of wild turkey are found in Washington, none of which are native to the state. Efforts to introduce wild turkeys into Washington began in the early 1900s with present populations possibly containing descendant genetics of those transplanted since about 1960, but an aggressive transplant program from the mid-1980s dramatically increased the state’s wild turkey populations. Presently, the Eastern subspecies can be found in the lower Cascade region, Merriam’s in northeast and central Washington down through Yakima, and the Rio Grande occurs largely in the southeast counties along the Snake River.

The Rio Grande subspecies (Rio) was selected for southeast Washington to match the turkey to the habitat most closely associated with its south-central U.S. native range. Rios prefer to nest within a quarter mile of perennial water and select winter roost and forage areas in wooded streamside habitats. Grasses, forbs, fruits from shrubs like serviceberry and golden currant, and insects make up the Rio diet. Although not expressly stated in literature, turkeys often select conifers for roosting. While turkeys are notoriously difficult to call in spring, having a basic understanding of fall habitat and forage preferences is more than half the battle for fall hunting success.

Trumbo - Rios of Fall (2)

Many of the perennial stream corridors in the Walla Walla River watershed are characterized by narrow riparian strips with a mix of trees and shrubs, flanked by dry land crops. Fall flocks can generally be patterned to roosting and feeding in these areas. Spotting a large flock is relatively easy, and in my experience, they generally remain within an approximate one-mile radius of their preferred winter habitat.

Once a flock is located, spot-and-stalk tactics similar to deer hunting can prove tremendously successful for fall Rios. Using the terrain and other cover to conceal movement as you close the distance on a feeding flock, it seems safety in numbers allows these otherwise paranoid fowl to unwind.

Creeping toward the wheat field using brush and trees as cover, I managed to avoid visual detection as the Rios fed. Although acting in predator mode, I was captivated by the sweet sound of the resuming discordant orchestra of yelps, clucks and purrs. Cover grew thin as I gained elevation on the hillside below the wheat field, so I hit the deck, slithering through mud and grasses to reach a final ambush behind a fence-side rose thicket.

Peeping through the rose on the right flank of the thicket, I spied a small group of hens separating from the main flock and feeding toward me. With movements largely concealed by the rose, I eased my grandpa’s old Ithaca Model 37 pump across a fence wire and selected a large hen. But a turkey’s vision is incredibly keen. Busted.

Remaining stone still, my gut crawled into my throat as heads popped up, necks stretched high, and alarm “puts” began to wave through the handful of birds. With eyes closed, forcing shallow breaths, I awaited the disheartening sound of the flock vacating the county, but much to my surprise, the hen clique began to calm. Cracking an eyelid, I saw the distant turkeys paying no attention to the alarmed hens. Barring mass hysteria, the hens relaxed and began feeding again. Settling the Ithaca bead, I notched another fall turkey tag.

Although Rios appear drab gray from a distance, close inspection reveals marvelous plumage. When viewed from various angles, back and wing feathers boast rich hues of copper, emerald, and auburn. The tail fan is tipped with an elegant tawny band, and jakes and gobblers sport brilliant pinkish-orange blotches on the neck and head. While some turkey hunters are driven afield in search of beards and spurs, the overall spectacle that is a wild turkey, not to mention the table fare, is trophy enough for this upland hunter.

Thankful for the Opportunity

Fall sparks a time of reflection and thanks, and the Thanksgiving holiday is a perfect time to be thankful for our public lands and natural wonders.

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Published in the Waitsburg Times, November 7th, 2019.

The month of November is a special month. Not only because it’s like an extension of October in the Walla Walla Valley, or that the late season big game hunts are open. Rather, November offers a time of reflection as winter approaches and we gather with friends and family to give thanks. Given my love for fall, I spend many cool evenings reflecting on the outdoor opportunities I have been afforded over the years, and the magnificence of our nation’s natural resources.

One extraordinary September evening a decade ago, twelve hours to the southeast of Waitsburg, I stood amid the roar of the Maison River in Yellowstone National Park. The sun had settled peacefully behind the western peaks while the cool humidity of fall sank into the river bottom. A soft, white haze began to form about ten feet off the water as the cool air from above fought to smother the moderately warmer temperature and moisture rising from the river.

To my left was a pewter-colored, house-sized boulder with a massive log jam against the upstream side. The river had undercut the boulder and placed a couple logs on the downstream edge as well. The twilight cast a dense glare across the river surface, but climbing up and standing atop the boulder, I could peer down and see a few very large mountain whitefish in the eddy on the downstream side. They darted swiftly in and out of the flow beneath the shelter of the logs.

Time was wearing thin, so I dropped back into the river on the thalweg side. There was a glorious seam near a gravel bar across the current, and my size 18 Adams was destined to be picked up by a feisty rainbow or brown trout. Preparing to cast, I stripped out a fair piece of my floating line and began loading the rod with short casting motions. Glancing to my left, the sight of my beautiful little blonde girlfriend, Ali, waist deep in the current and laying out a dry fly with her golden locks trailing behind her brought a warm smile.

I stood momentarily entranced in the scene of my future bride fishing the Madison, but my revelry began to fade with the faint sound of a cow elk mewing, and then another, and yet another. Spotting movement behind Ali, I gawked awestruck for minutes as the dark evergreens under the fading light began to writhe with elk. Big, tawny bulls with rich, molasses manes, raghorns, cows and calves maneuvered among the trees on the opposite river bank. They slowly fed and drink directly opposite us as we remained stone still. I felt a fleeting sense belonging, as if welcomed into their world. We were just part of the woodwork.

Ail Fitzgerald fishing the Madison as a bison watches

Daylight vanished with my rod held at my side. I simply stood there and drank in every precious moment of that scene as the final shred of visibility faded around a couple fly fishermen engulfed by the ambient tumbling river and the screams of rutting bulls. We climbed from the chill of the river, stripped out of our waders, and fired up the heat in our rig as we returned to our West Yellowstone hotel. That trip was noteworthy for a number of reasons, all of which are owed their own story, but fishing the evening hatch on the Madison will remain one of my fondest memories of Yellowstone, and early dating with my wife.

Recalling that moment on the Madison conjures another elk story, only this one occurred an hour from town. It was modern firearm deer season and I had packed into the Wenaha, spiked a camp, and hunted the high ridges with my buddy, Marvin, in hopes of spotting a good mule deer buck and making a move on him.

It was frigid for October and spitting snow. The Eagle Caps appeared as two small, snow-covered hummocks to the distant southeast. The atmosphere lit up around the peaks, pink as cotton candy from the few straggling rays of sun clutching the horizon. I could feel darkness approaching; an impenetrable cloak meant to shield the world from its own inhabitants.

In years past, I had seen mule deer in this meadow, and packed a buddy’s elk on a pack string after clawing our way up from the jagged bowls of the canyon bottom. My only encounter this day was cutting the tracks of a lone cougar and wolf, both on the same meadow trail, and both the diameter of a softball. Worn out and cold, I headed for camp only to suffer the fitful sleep of fall wilderness tent camping.

Awaking the next morning, the sky was incredibly clear with a billion shimmering stars. Within an hour, the warmth of golden sun would breach the eastern tree line to end my frozen torment for eleven glorious, yet laborious hours of searching for backcountry bucks. Standing peacefully over the hiss of my pack stove, as the soothing aroma of hot coffee curled up, tickling my mustache, I stared wide-eyed at the first twinge of pink kissing the low horizon.

The black silhouettes of surrounding evergreens stood tall and firm like the sentinels of dawn. And unexpectedly, a bull elk let out a single bugle, not 100 yards from camp. His guttural squeal echoing around the edge of the meadow sent a chill down my spine, prickling me with goosebumps.

Unexpectedly, tears welled up and my throat went tight. Emotion and memories ran wild. Regrets of moving away from home and family; gratitude for the loved ones I have been blessed with; shame for the times that I failed my loved ones; and bewilderment over all of the undeserved blessings I have been afforded, to include the opportunity to hunt our nation’s wild, public lands. My love of the wilderness, fish and wildlife, and my thirst for these experiences are owed to my grandparents and the heritage they passed on.

Such emotion spurred by a single supremely placed and timed elk bugle. We never found our mule deer buck, but time in the wilderness, no matter how long or short, offers some form of profundity and reward otherwise.

Recollections of wilderness adventures arouse further memories of the most beautiful high mountain lakes I have ever had the good fortune to lay eyes on, just a day’s drive south in northeastern California’s Sierra Nevada range. The John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness areas provide astonishing scenery, hiking, and one of my bucket-list trout species, the golden trout.

Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over, and across jagged granite perched me 11,300 feet above sea-level. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake about a mile and hundreds of feet below. The gray walls of the high peaks reflected off the deep blue of the lake. The solemn green of the pines cast deep contrast against the light granite with a dappling of brilliant goldenrod from sparse quaking aspen and grasses changing with the season.

Turning around, I faced the Treasure Lakes. Thirteen-thousand-foot Mount Dade peak loomed overhead to the south. A permanently shadowed, remnant snow pack, dusted gray by the wind, was feeding the lakes. Below the shimmering surface of the crystal-clear depths lay pure California gold.

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Sizing up the lake, I tied up a size 14 hare’s ear wet-fly on my four-weight. Stepping down onto a boulder along the lake’s edge, I rolled the olive-green sinking line into the depths and began retrieving the fly with short strips. My breath, still labored from the climb, or maybe just the elevation, was sucked away completely as the line jerked tight between my fingertips; the fly engulfed as it slowly sank on the pause between strips.

A moment of panic overwhelmed me as I realized I was playing a trout I had obsessed over landing on the fly for decades. Kneeling on the flat boulder, rod tip held high overhead, I softly cradled my first golden trout in the frigid alpine waters. An awesome spectacle in a small package with a rich auburn belly, buttery yellow flanks, and olive-sized parr marks. A scene so perfect I will never forgive myself if I fail to relive it again in the near future.

We are incredibly fortunate for the opportunity afforded us by visionaries like Teddy Roosevelt, who realized the importance of setting aside public lands and parks for our enjoyment. The beauty of our public lands, our right to explore them, not to mention the most spectacular pieces of our nation being preserved for the public rather than privatized, is a true blessing.

Of equally good fortune, Waitsburg is a central hub to more than a dozen National Parks and Monuments within a day’s drive, not to mention the myriad state parks.

Think of Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks with peaks towering sharply above the Montana landscape. When was the last time you saw the turquoise depths of Crater Lake or traversed the prickly, jagged lava beds of the Newberry Monument in central Oregon? How about experiencing the tranquility of looming redwoods along the northern California coast, or the picturesque formations protruding from the Oregon beaches? Have you ventured over to Mt. Rainier National Park or Mount Hood to ogle the glaciers and marvel at the history and architecture of the historic lodges? All of this awaits at arms-length.

As we share in our Thanksgiving feasts, late fall turkey, deer and elk hunts, and make new memories with friends and family, take a moment to give thanks to those responsible for setting aside our public lands and parks. Thank our fellow taxpayers and sportsmen and women for contributing funds to the operation and maintenance of these lands. Thank our military brethren who serve to ensure our freedom and opportunity to enjoy our nations specular resources. And thank your friends and family who, alongside you and I, work to perpetuate this rich wilderness heritage.

Just Follow the Dog

Breaking into upland bird hunting can be intimidating, what with the spendy gear and quintessential image folks push on social media these days. But the bottom line, the only requirements are to grab your shotgun and just follow the dog.

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Published in the Waitsburg Times, December 5th, 2019.

A hint of the long shadows of evening began to cast across the rolling wheat stubble and amber bunchgrass. A solid cloud of gray dust billowed from behind my old green Ford rolling down the backroads, homebound from work. The navel orange sun dipping low along the horizon left little to be desired in an October sky.

About a half mile from home, a large, brilliantly plumed wild rooster pheasant with a tail stretching to Mexico levitated from the grass buffer above the gravel and sailed effortlessly into the deep draw of the adjacent field. The pheasant season was freshly open, and my Llewellin setter pup, Finn, waited impatiently at home.

A wild little one; her energy and personality were equally spun up to ear-rattling irritation, like a pressure cooker about to blow its regulating weight. We had worked since spring on basic obedience and finding and pointing caged pigeons with little success. But my gut said “What the heck, give her a shot!”.

Applying hard brake, the truck slid to a stop in the driveway of my humble, mustard-yellow, home with the mouse-dropping insulation. I knew Finn’s energy would be unmanageable for a hunt straight out of the gate, so I hurriedly gathered my vest and a few shells, retrieved my old 16-gauge double from the safe, and released the pup for the half-mile trek to the rooster sighting.

At the foot of the draw, we hunted up the roadside where pheasant roost and feed. Her interest piqued a time or two as she inhaled the deep odors from pheasant dust bowls, but not a bird was found. In my mind, we were acting out the script precisely.

finn in bunchgrass

Circling back and into the draw, Finn worked more intently. We cut the expanse of wheat stubble with alacrity, approaching downwind a small patch of dense grasses just large enough to harbor a bird or two. Brief moments passed as Finn halfheartedly worked the grasses; her thoroughness lacking from a short attention span and inexperience.

Calling her back, I directed her to the inside edge along the toe of a twenty-foot sheer slope. Breezing through with little interest, I was certain Finn had run past the bird, like I somehow knew where it was. Fixed on a small hummock of reed canary grass, I called Finn back once again to repeat her last thirty feet of cover. But this time, her head swiveled down as she trotted over the hummock, stuttering to a slow halt with clear inquisition.

Closing the distance, I stomped through the hummock, and was nearly tripped backward as the largest rooster I have seen to this day on the Palouse blew his cover on a near straightaway retreat. From the corner of my left eye, Finn’s head swiveled after the rooster, while my right eye glanced flush down the rib, the bead finding the stark white ring of the rooster’s neck. With a squeeze of the trigger, our fate was sealed. An upland hunter and his first pointing dog were etched permanently into the folds of time, oblivious to the obsession, passion, learning and journey that was to shape our future.

That rooster was my first taken over a pointing dog. I knew little about training a bird dog, just enough about pheasant habits and habitat to be dangerous and carry a shotgun just in case we tripped on a bird. Six seasons hence, I am well versed in upland birds and their habitat, I still carry my old heirloom double, and I run two fine Llewellins with a third up-and-comer in the wings. My greatest fall passion entails shotgun in hand, chasing the tail feathers of a brace of dainty setters across the prairie. I may pass for a legitimate bird hunter, yet I still regard myself as an everyday outdoorsman lucky enough to have reliable canine talent.

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And herein lies the simple foundation that every newcomer to the luxury of upland hunting behind a bird dog should glean. Just follow the dog. But can it possibly be that simple?

In the age of social media, we attempt to put our best foot forward, so to speak, with our highest quality photography, catchy captions, and stunning gear and guns on display, tapping the envy of every “wannabe” out there. In reality, however, none of that matters and should in no fashion intimidate someone from diving head-first into this classic and life-altering activity.

My deliberation on the essence of a bird hunter came as I listened to an interview with Ryan Busse of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Association. Ryan is an avid upland bird hunter with an intriguing story to tell that will leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling about folks in the political trenches, fighting to protect our nation’s public lands. But his message on recruiting upland hunters was simple and hit home. Just follow the dog.

A shotgun, bird dog (if you so desire), and habitat comprise the essentials of upland hunting. Few upland hunters are experts at any one of these facets when they enter the game, and most may never claim expertise. Even the most well studied and practiced bird hunter and dog will continue to learn together for a lifetime afield. The bird and dog can always present new tricks, and no training exercise can supplant the experience of field time.

Ryan was lucky enough to have pheasant out the back door of his childhood home where he spent countless hours with an old shotgun following a dog. His message speaks to the experience of many of us where time in the field lends itself to understanding habitat, bird and dog behavior, and wing-shooting prowess. My experience was much like Ryan’s, only I got started in my thirties.

And what exactly is Ryan’s message? In a nutshell, follow the dog until it finds a bird. When the bird gets up, if its legal to hunt, take a shot. Over time, the dog will find more birds, you will connect (at least some of us…) more often, and one day you will suddenly realize you are an upland hunter. No fancy shotgun, no professionally finished dog or other exorbitant paraphernalia required. Just pick up the gun and follow the dog, and enjoy and appreciate every single minute of it.

In time, you won’t recall how many birds hit your vest or how many misses were volleyed behind the escapees. Rather, the unforgettable facets are the way your favorite shotgun felt in your hand, how smooth and naturally it shouldered and the pride you felt at the sight of your dog flawlessly orchestrating a flush, point, or retrieve.

So, you want to be an upland hunter? The time is now. Just follow the dog.

A Christmas Songbird Tradition

Songbirds are an icon of our natural world, inhabiting nearly every landscape. These remarkable birds are worth noting and saving; just what the Christmas Bird Count through the Audubon Society promotes.

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Published in the East Oregonian, December 21st, 2019.

I talk a good game about hunting and fishing, and most of my fondest memories revolve directly around those two passions. This doesn’t detract from my holistic appreciation for the natural world, sans my double-gun and bird dog.

Among my favorite childhood memories is the barn-shaped bird feeder my grandparents hung in front of their Appalachian living room picture window. Cardinals, tit mouse, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees would chatter and fuss for space at that feeder and suet cakes all winter.

I vividly recall one particular lazy weekend afternoon kicked back in an old recliner, sipping hot cocoa; my grandparents reading the paper and working word-finds. Their wood furnace stood atop a beautiful river rock hearth my grandpa had built. The blower kicked on, filling the room with the irreplaceable warmth of wood heat as I gazed contently at the first snow of December falling around these flittering songbirds and settling thick atop the feeder.

The American robin in its modest appearance has always been one of my favorite birds; their glorious melody signaling spring as the dew settles cold on freshly greened lawns. And then there are the jays. Blue jays were a common bully in my hometown, but the first time I laid eyes on a Steller’s jay was the first time I moved to the Pacific Northwest, cruising Highway 12 along the Lochsa River in Idaho. I still marvel at Steller’s jays as I scramble across the ridge tops in the Blues pursuing grouse and mule deer.

The two masked western species that I enjoy the most are the sleek, olive-yellow cedar waxwing, and the Bullock’s oriole with its black-accented, pumpkin plumage. Each sporting a Lone Ranger eye patch and swapping seasonal appearances at my little homestead near Waitsburg, WA. The Bullock’s oriole drops by in the spring to enjoy fruit bits that I hang from the clothesline and raise a clutch in the massive white alders along my spring seep. The cedar waxwing drops in from the higher elevations about the time snow finally settles in our little canyon. They gorge alongside robins on our ornamental crabapples and mountain ash.

Other common winter visitors to the local drylands are the house finch, gold finch, house sparrow, Oregon junco, white-breasted nuthatch and spotted towhee.

My musing over common songbirds may seem curious, but songbirds are anything but common. Songbirds have the ability to bring nature’s beauty to virtually any landscape. Be it a city block or secluded ranch home, songbirds are ever present. They connecting us with our natural world, inspire artists, develop ornithologists and arouse wonder in young and old. What’s more, songbirds seasonally migrate thousands of miles across North America from Canada to Mexico and points south. Their extensive migration makes songbirds vulnerable to severe weather patterns, food shortages and predators.

Aside from the natural life challenges, songbirds have been imperiled by hunting since the 19th Century. Hunting for plumage caused the extinction of species like the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. Fortunately, our conservation ethics in North America improved, and the Lacey Act was passed in 1900, followed by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Both Acts still stand today, protecting songbirds from harm in the U.S.

Prior to our conservation legislation, early ornithologists sought to change a Christmas tradition known as “the side hunt” where folks would choose sides and descend upon the hills. The side returning with the most species of fur and feather claimed a win. One hundred nineteen years ago on Christmas Day, the bourgeoning Audubon Society and ornithologist, Frank Chapman, imposed the Christmas Bird Count in lieu of the traditional hunt. That first Christmas, 25 different counts tallied 90 species, and the tradition stuck.

One of the longest-running datasets in the history of wildlife science, the citizen-driven data collection effort provides critical input to long-term population trend monitoring, as well as helping to guide conservation efforts in North America.

“The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.” Explains the Audubon Society.

Understanding population trends is important for understanding the effects of environmental changes on migratory birds and natural resources. And, in some cases, population trends can serve as the proverbial canary in the mine shaft.

The beauty of the Christmas Bird Count is that anyone with the desire can participate. Bird counts are held within a 15-mile radius of a designated point. Participants may travel to a common location and disperse with an organized group or, if living within that 15-mile radius, folks can simply report the species that visit their feeder on the given count day.

Presently, Umatilla, Wallowa and Baker counties have a designated count center with point of contact information below. Union County has a count center but is not currently available for new participants. You can learn more about the Christmas Bird Count, participation in counts and review prior year and population status data by visiting https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count.

If you are looking for an exciting family activity over the holidays that gets you outdoors and contributes to a good cause, look no further. Even a hunter like myself is fascinated with the splendor of our native songbirds and bird-watching. And who doesn’t enjoy some friendly family competition over the holidays?

Hardwater

Ice fishing Washington State can be hit or miss, but not because of the fishing. When the weather is cold enough to pack on the ice, the yellow perch and trout fishing can be excellent, and with a few simple techniques, anyone can get in the game.

Published January 2, 2020 in the Waitsburg Times.  

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January is a tough month. Barely emerging from the shortest day of the year, we immediately embark on those dreaded New Year’s resolutions while looking across the arduous 348 days that lie between us and the next Christmas/New Year holiday season.

Even more frightening is the impending closure of the upland game and waterfowl seasons later in the month. February cabin fever looms on the horizon like a blizzard riding an El Niño jet stream. The doldrums are nearly upon us, and it seems that the only folks with something to look forward to are those who ski.

Back in my high school days, I would fire up my old Bronco, kick it into 4X4, and blaze a few snowy mountain trails on the National Forest. Sadly, I matured just enough over time to kick the joy-riding habit, yet fell victim to another vice of the winter months. Picture a wind-swept landscape with snow-covered, timbered ridges rising in every direction. A small jet sled rests at my side containing an ice auger, chisel, depth flasher, a couple 30-inch jigging rods and a thermos. My pocket contains a bathymetric map of the lake that lies cloaked in darkness beneath my feet.

My first experience with ice fishing was like baptism. It opened my soul to winter rejuvenation. A college buddy and I rolled up to southern Vermont to meet his uncle and a friend of his on the ice. We fished tip-ups, which are small, folding frames with a spool of line and a flag. You drop the line through the ice, bend the flag to a catch point that also holds the spool in place, and set the frame over the hole. When a fish takes the bait, the flag pops.

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Regulations allowed six lines per angler at the time, so we set 24 tip-ups baited with live minnows. The action was slow. At first. A flag would pop here and there with plenty of time for chewing the fat and sipping cayenne-laced hot chocolate. But as the day wore on and the temperature warmed a bit, the flags came quick and steady. I don’t recall how many fish we caught that day, but there were times when all four of us were running between tip-ups with as many as a dozen flags up at once and more coming.

That was the first time I caught northern pike or chain pickerel. I was instantly hooked and immediately invested. How I ever earn my bachelor’s degree is mystifying given I lived out the remainder of my New England winters racing toward a PhD in ice fishing.

The hardwater season generally runs January through early March, and is dictated by ice as much as fishing regulations. The season is a bit shorter in some areas of Washington as temperatures don’t stay cold enough to make safe ice or keep it safe very long, particularly in our little corner of the state. But if you are willing to put a few miles on the SUV, north-central Washington provides some fine opportunities beginning in January.

One of my favorite destinations is Patterson Lake in Twisp. Twisp is a quaint little mountain town, good for a visit any time of the year, and its cold enough to keep Patterson locked up safely for some good ice fishing. Rainbow trout and my first kokanee came on tip-ups at Patterson a few years ago.

Another solid choice, seeing more than its fair share of pressure, is Fish Lake by Lake Wenatchee State Park. The scenery is gorgeous and the yellow perch plentiful, but finding a fishing spot can be tough on the weekends with the wealth of fishermen, ice skaters and hockey players, when the ice is good.

Also, in the Chelan area are Roses, Wapato and Antilon Lakes. These lakes all offer warm- and cold-water species. Roses is one my favorites with chunky sunfish and black crappie, feisty rainbows, and the occasional largemouth bass, but it’s the trout and yellow perch that really draw me.

Have you ever eaten walleye? (Assuming you nodded “yes”). Closely related to walleye, yellow perch offer equal table fare; flakey, white and mild flavored. Lightly battered in the pan, yellow perch makes Baha fish tacos to die for. Trout are tasty too, but they have nothing on yellow perch when it comes to the dinner plate. On the other hand, trout fight well in cold water and get big in many Washington lakes. The yellow perch; not so much.

Given the two-pole limit in Washington (that is, if you are willing to fork over extra cash to use a second line), I set a tip-up and jig the time between flags, or explore other areas with the jig rod while still fishing the tip-up. I generally target the same areas for either technique.

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Bathymetric maps are critical to identifying productive areas. I look for humps with a base between 10 and 20 feet deep that rise up four to eight feet. Yellow perch spend time on top of and around these humps. I like to drop my bait or jig to the base of the hump, then work my way up the side to the top. This means punching a few holes around it to work it over properly. Another option is looking for saddles between two humps within that same 10 to 20-foot depth range. I punch a series of holes across that saddle to fish each depth and location.

Yellow perch tend to school up. Finding one generally means finding many. Conversely, trout tend to cruise around, requiring a bit more patience. One technique that has worked well for me on trout is finding a shallow point extending from the shore into deeper water. If I can locate a sharp drop on that point, I will set up and jig there for up to an hour before trying another spot or moving shallower along the same point. This has put some of my largest trout on ice.

Meal worms and nightcrawlers are my go-to baits for tip-ups. I prefer to jig with glow-in-the-dark jigs about 1/32nd to 1/64th ounce. I usually tip the jig with a small piece of nightcrawler as well. Drop the tip-up bait or the jig to about six-inches off the bottom. You may need to experiment with jigging speed to entice a strike.

Regardless of what species or technique you try, don’t be afraid to move around. Sometimes you have to probe the depths of a few different areas before you can locate feeding fish. And I don’t recall a trip where I didn’t catch trout when targeting yellow perch.

Best of all, ice fishing is family- and pet-friendly. Dogs, kids on skates, lawn chairs and grills are common among hardwater fisher folk of all nationalities stretching from here to Maine, in my experience. The only way to avoid fun is to take it seriously.

If you take to the ice this winter, remember to exercise caution. Six inches thick is my minimum safe-standard for weight-bearing ice as I am coming in at about 270-pounds these days. Clear, black ice is as pure and strong as it gets. White ice has impurities such as air bubbles and potentially debris that can cause weakness. Always carry a length of rope to toss to someone in the event they fall through. Never try to approach too closely and risk falling through yourself.

I personally wear a Coastguard-approved arctic survival suit with built in thermal and floatation layers. I look foolish, but stay comfortably warm. I also keep a pair if ice picks strapped to my body that I can used to pull myself up onto the ice if I fall through. A wealth of additional safety information is available online.

With that said, don’t let the safety talk deter you. In all my years of ice fishing I have yet to see anyone break through. And, to be clear, the only necessary gear is an ice auger and a fishing rod. No need to drop a paycheck on Amazon for a boat-load of gear that you may only use twice per decade.

If you are anything like me, you dread the months ahead and suffer an unfortunate ailment for northern latitude; a severe allergy to downhill skis. If so, round up the family, throw the dog in the back, and slip out on the ice for some care-free fishing. By the end of the day, you should have a few tasty fish for the pan and plum tuckered kids. And if all else fails, you will at least enjoy a renewed appreciation for the warm confines of home.

Late-Season Roosters

Published in the East Oregonian, January 18th, 2020. 

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Let’s face it. Whether satisfying a hard-charging, time-consuming passion or taking afield as a weekend warrior, hunting hard can wear you down. And, Heaven forbid, at some point you may even want to take a break. From my perspective, I don’t necessarily want a day off. But the pre-dawn wakeup calls get old in a hurry once the temperature dips below freezing. This is where pheasant and I have something in common.

A general theme among pheasant hunters is to bust thick roosting and refuge cover all season long. This is a solid, proven tactic. However, the terrain and expanse of wheat in our area can narrow covers and funnel the wind, setting up a repeated, ideal scenting approach, worn out by the hunter/canine duo.

Rooster pheasant are some of the sharpest game birds out there, sporting incredibly fleet feet. They wise up quickly, particularly to repetition. And by the end of the first month of the upland season, finding roosters willing to hold for a pointing dog is like telling your buddy with a straight face that his Griffon is “stylish” as it backs your setter. Not happening! (Relax, I am only kidding.)

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Understanding pheasant behavior provides insight to changing tactics throughout the day, as well as across the season. Pheasant spend a large part of their day working edge habitats such as the crop field/grassland interface common among our rolling ag-lands. It’s true that severe cold will force birds to seek heavy refuge cover and stay in it or near it much of the day. On average winter days, bird may sit longer in the morning before leaving cover, but they will lazily leave and move upslope to feed and loaf in the sun in often overlooked covers. And the bonus goes to the uplander who capitalizes on this behavior, enjoying a later, more relaxed morning before heading afield.

Late-season roosters are bound to flush further ahead and out of gun range relative to early-season. The majority of the birds will vacate public land when pushed, but a handful are likely to drop back into the refuge cover and sit tight or disperse to predictable pockets. If the roost cover is what you and your dog work best, go ahead and hit it early, but consider this: There may be another approach angle conducive to pushing fleeing birds into strategic locations for a second contact.

The experience of flushing a quail covey and hunting singles sprinkled across the prairie can translate to pheasant, particularly when flocked up at the tail end of the season. I have found this productive with flocks generally of more than a dozen birds.

Another strategy is to hunt with partners and additional dogs. I spend the majority of my season alone with one or two setters on the ground at once, which puts me at a disadvantage over those who hunt with friends or run flushing dogs in the thick stuff. First, identify any likely escape routes and try to cut them off. Also, narrow points that you can spread across and push birds into are likely to hold birds longer as some will be reluctant to flush into open areas like an expanse of planted wheat field.

Vary your path through cover. If I had a nickel for every rooster that ran around the dog and flushed behind me, I might have five bucks by now (you can do the math). Walking a predictable path allows a wily rooster an easy escape. By varying your path, you are more likely to encounter that escape artist trying to pull the end-around on you, forcing a flush out front, opposed to over the shoulder; a much higher-percentage opportunity. The only downside? There are no [legitimate] excuses for a miss out front.

Alright, we’ve covered the coverts. Let’s consider a few other points. How often do you hunt quietly? Pheasant will flush at the sound of a distant car door or voices when heavily pressured. Leave the whistles and beeper collars in the truck. Speak only when necessary and use soft voices. This sounds a little silly and extreme, but is a must if you hunt public land or public access.

I use a whistle and run my setters in vests. I have seen roosters flush hundreds of yards ahead at the blast of a whistle or the sound of brush against the vest as the dogs close in. I avoid all unnecessary auditory communication with my dogs by mid-November, relying heavily on visual cues to direct them, even when they want to run big.

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Now, what are you shooting? I have been a 16-guage fan for years, but finally broke down and bought a CZ Bobwhite G2, chambered 20-gauge. Loaded with 3-inch magnum Kent steel 4-shot, this little gem has secured more pheasant this year than I have ever touched in my upland career. While some claim that the 20-gauge is best swapped for a 12-gauge magnum load when hunting extreme cold, I have no intention of switching out for late season. With that said, I do agree that magnum loads are a must, as well as larger gauges if you consistently shoot lighter loads, as extreme cold can rob power from the powder charge.

Another consideration is choke, and I do recommend choking up with colder weather and the potential for pheasant to flush further out. Remember that steel patterns tighter than lead. This means that when changing out choke tubes (if you have this luxury), swap to “improved cylinder” if you want to shoot a “modified” pattern, for example. For a double gun, I recommend “improved cylinder” and “modified” chokes for steel shot and “modified” and “full” for lead shot.

As the season progresses, get creative. Try new territory. Don’t be afraid to get a late start. Play on pheasant feeding behaviors considering upland food sources over lowland coverts. The pheasant season ends December 31st in eastern Oregon, but the eastern Washington season runs through January 20th this year (two days left). You can pick up a 3-day non-resident small game license for $68 and there is plenty of “Feel-Free-to-Hunt” land within an hour of Walla Walla.

Regardless of how you play the game, bask in the moment of every hunt. Our passion is stoked by the time afield, the work of the dog, the feel of that coveted scatter gun, cold in our hands, and the distant cackle of a rooster making a fool of all who pursue him. Tail feathers protruding from the vest, while hard earned and respected, is mere icing on the cake.

Swinging the Runs for Wallowa Steelies

Published in the East Oregonian, February 15th, 2020.

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The majority of my winter trips to the Wallowa River are characterized by slippery travel across Toll Gate under an active snow or ice storm. The five-foot walls of packed snow confining the highway are intimidating, yet comforting in the fact that I might simply bounce off the wall rather than ditch my rig in the creek draining the Elgin side of the mountain. Needless to say, as I stepped out of my rig at Minam State Park one glorious March morning, the bluebird sky offered immediate victory. The day was shaping up beautifully; my confidence high.

Flow conditions were about perfect. I typically fish steelhead on the descending limb of the hydrograph after a slug of water has coaxed fish to move upriver. I got a few nods from folks headed for the State Park honey hole as I donned my waders and strung up my fly rod. I am stubborn, like most fly fisherman, identifying almost exclusively as a swinger. By that, I mean I “swing” flies. It’s an artform that, when executed properly, is reason enough to fish. Steelhead be damned.

Once fully rigged up, I strolled down to the nearby run that was entirely vacant, save for the peculiar little American dipper that bobbed along the rocks at water’s edge. Across the run was a series of boulders that had dislodged from the railroad grade where the river pushed along the toe. The depth was right and I expected steelhead were holding in the current breaks behind the boulders.

Wading out to about mid-thigh depth, I rolled a short cast to the far side, threw an upstream mend, and waited as the line swept down and sank a few feet. I could envision my purple, egg-sucking leech wafting temptingly in the current. The cast resulted in a beautiful presentation and clean drift, but no grab. Typical.

Repeating the cast, I methodically worked downstream to cover the entire run. And to my surprise, half way through the run, a solid thump transferred through the line. Steelhead typically hook themselves when smashing a fly on the swing. Without a hookup, I moved on, dismissing the whack as a resident rainbow or bull trout not large or serious enough to bury the hook in the corner of their jaw.

Crossing over to the tracks, I headed toward the confluence with the Grande Ronde. The sun-warmed canyon hit a balmy 50 degrees. Fat, steely mule deer fed on greening grasses across the open south- and western-facing slopes. Steller’s jays and magpies screeched and flittered, among other songbirds, fleeing from the “swishing” of my waders.

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The railroad winding through the canyon cuts through a variety of large rock outcrops that typically hide critters on their shaded side. Passing through the cold shadows of a towering pillar, the hair on the back of my neck bristled. Instinct suggested a lurking cat, yet I’ve never laid eyes on a cunning cougar along that stretch of track.

The river was superb, boasting a vibrant emerald tint through the deeper pools and runs. Shockingly, I was one of very few to venture down the track this day. Just as surprising, my casting was on fire. Everything played out spectacularly, save for the conspicuous lack of steelhead.

Over the course of about five hours I fished a number of runs, each promising enough to stimulate overwhelming anticipation. Butterflies danced in my gut with every swing, yet ended uneventfully, stripping the leech back in, taking a couple steps downstream and repeating the gig. The motions and results were always the same while my expectations remained of something different. The very definition of insanity.

Upon my logical brain regaining control, I turned upstream for the truck. Along the way, I came across a gentleman with a bobber and jig working a tight, deep cut at the base of a rock outcrop. He had a steelhead on a stringer and was fighting another. Admittedly, I was jealous, but simply admired his catch and moved along, not to spoil his revelry or sully my pride. I shot him a nod which provoked a satisfied smirk.

Not quite ready to quit, I waded into the run where I began the day and worked it just as I had that morning. The only difference this time was the steelhead that nearly ripped the rod from my weary hands on the fourth swing. My mind had already drifted to hot coffee and kicking my feet up when the characteristic tight-line slam of an eight-pound freight train trouncing my little leech jarred my brain into utter panic.

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Hanging on and feathering the spool, I was prepared for a long and strategic run, but something was amiss. Realizing the horror that my line had wrapped under a boulder distinguished that I was about to lose my only steelhead of the season.

Dashing into the current up to my waist, the rush of the river eroded the rock from beneath my feet. Being swept downstream and dancing to stay upright, I somehow freed the line. The fish responded immediately, turning tail and heading for the 150-yard-long riffle below the run. With few options, I gripped the reel tightly, stuck the butt of the rod into my hip and began backing toward the shore. If my aggressive effort didn’t break the fish from my eight-pound fluorocarbon tippet, the long riffle certainly would.

Surprise, relief and excruciating optimism collided as the rod rebounded, the fish turning upstream. Reeling wildly to keep the pressure on was all I could do. Tense moments of give and take finally ended as a massive tail sliced the water surface in the shallows downstream. The fish was spent.

Gliding the steelhead into my feet, I noticed the adipose fin was clipped. I beached her immediately, gazing graciously upon the brilliant, rosy stripe spanning the length of a healthy, speckled hen measuring somewhere around 26 inches. She was outright magnificent. And destined for my dining room table. I’ve never felt more accomplished or blessed upon landing any other steelhead in my fly-fishing career.

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WDFW Revising Game Management Regulations

Published in The Waitsburg Times, February 20th, 2020

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February 6th, The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) opened the public comment period on proposals to update regulations for a variety of game hunting opportunities, as well as the proposed 2020 hunting seasons. Among the proposals, two changes in particular have potential to influence hunting opportunity in southeast Washington.

The proposed elimination of several elk areas due to the success of depredation hunts and overall population declines include what the proposal lists as area 1011 for Columbia County (present regulations show this area as 1010). Additionally, area 1082 in Asotin County is proposed for elimination.

Proposed changes to cougar management and harvest are the most significant. Presently, WDFW uses the mean (average) cougar density across five years and five research projects throughout the state to set Population Management Unit (PMU) maximum harvest or “harvest guidelines”. The WDFW developed four options (rewritten here for clarity as alternatives) for adjusting cougar harvest guidelines and propose extending hunting seasons in areas with high cougar/human conflict.

1) Alternative 1 – Status Quo. No change with the exception of changing the harvest guideline from being based on a mean density to being based on a median density for studied populations. The rational for this proposal is that the mean density includes outliers (abnormal extremes) in the data that may drive the mean and harvest guidelines higher or lower than what is appropriate for a given population. The median is simply the middle number in the range of density estimates, which is influenced less by outliers than the mean.

2) Alternative 2 – Similar to status quo, but proposes to use the median density calculated only for adult cougars that are 24 months or older. This option reduces the harvest guideline slightly, but sub-adult cougars harvested under this option would not count toward reaching the guideline and informing season closure for a given PMU.

3) Alternative 3 – The harvest guideline would increase for units that exceeded the harvest guideline by December 31 at least once in the past five years. This alternative assumes that cougar density is higher in units where this occurs because hunters are encountering many animals and quickly reaching the harvest guideline. The new harvest guideline would be based on the highest harvest in the past five years.

For example, in two PMUs, harvest guidelines would be adjusted so they do not exceed an assumed density of 4.15 cougars per 100 square kilometers (62.1 square miles). This would keep the density within an acceptable range based on research conducted in the western United States. This harvest guideline would include adults and sub-adults.

4) Alternative 4 – Same as Alternative 3, but considers only adult cougars that are 24 months or older in meeting the harvest guidelines in a given season.

The “non-status quo” Alternatives 3 and 4 are intended to extend hunting seasons where higher harvest is warranted and where human/cougar conflicts are higher.

The complete set of proposals and 2020 season dates are available for review at https://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/regulations/season-setting, as well as an online comment form. The public comment period closes February 26th. As a steward of the public’s wildlife, don’t miss your opportunity to participate in this important review process.

 

 

LETTER TO THE EDITOR ON PROPOSED COUGAR MANAGEMENT REGULATIONS

Upon reviewing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) presently proposed cougar management regulations, there are considerations I believe the general public should have more clarity on regarding the science behind the proposed alternatives.

Scientifically, there are cautions with every alternative, all for the same reason; setting and managing “harvest guidelines” appropriately to maintain healthy cougar populations. The example given in Alternative 3 that relies on a target population density to inform harvest guidelines is the most scientifically defensible method and should be the standard across cougar Population Management Units (PMU). The harvest guidelines may be set with the intention of maintaining a healthy population density (e.g. 4.15 cougars per 62.1 square miles) in all PMUs. This is implied, but not necessarily clear in the proposal.

Alternative 3 may also result in higher harvest in PMUs where harvest exceeded the guideline by December 31st at least once in the prior five years. Our local PMU 10 includes Game Management Units 149 (Prescott), 154 (Blue Creek), 162 (Dayton) and 163 (Marengo). The 2019 harvest guideline for PMU 10 was 4-5 cougars. Total harvest in 2016 was 11, 15 in 2017 and 18 in 2018; as high as three times the harvest guideline. It appears that higher harvest may be warranted in southeast Washington.

The PMU 10 harvest numbers likely offer a clear example of why WDFW is proposing to set the harvest guidelines on the median population density rather than the mean. There may be a low population outlier that is keeping the PMU 10 harvest guideline lower than it should be.

The “non-status quo” Alternatives 3 and 4 are intended to extend hunting seasons where higher harvest is warranted and where human/cougar conflicts are higher. A perfectly acceptable proposal. Extending the hunting seasons will shift the removal of a proportion of problem cougars from WDFW responsibility to the general hunting public. As a hunter and steward of public resources, my first instinct is to ask how the hunting public can help manage wildlife when animal removal is necessary.

Extending the cougar hunting season is solid logic for a couple reasons. 1) Per law, wildlife is under the ownership of the state and general public, regardless of where that wildlife occurs. Transferring agency removal of problem cougars to hunters through enhanced opportunity offers the public greater ability to participate in the management of OUR wildlife; 2) Sportsmen and women buy licenses to have hunting opportunities. Allowing the hunting public to participate in population management increases hunter opportunity and reduces expenditure of WDFW tax- and sportsman-paid dollars that could be better used on conservation programs, for example; and 3) More liberal seasons and additional opportunities may entice additional license sales. This is important because license sales support habitat management that benefits all wildlife, not simply game species, as well as hunter access programs. Over 70% of hunters in the western U.S. rely on public land and public access for their hunting opportunity.

From a biologist’s perspective, WDFW has developed an appropriate array of alternatives to improve cougar management in Washington. Alternatives 3 and 4 appear to be scientifically sound and offer additional benefit to sportsmen and women. Review the proposals yourself and represent your responsibility to the management of public resources by submitting comments on the proposals.

 

Dreams, Misery and Steelhead

Published in the Waitsburg Times March 21, 2020

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The unusually warm 34 degrees greeted us under bluebird skies as we turned up Highway 153 toward Twisp. My last trip up this highway was five years prior in 2015; the last steelhead season open to the public on the Methow River as fish returns to the Columbia Basin continued to drop precipitously.

Memories of that last trip flooded my mind as I rode shotgun with my buddy Chas Kyger, a fish biologist with Douglas County Public Utility District in Wenatchee. If ever a man was anointed with supernatural powers through a fly rod, it was him. He taught me the ways of swinging flies for steelhead, the Methow River my training grounds.

Swinging flies is one of fly-fishing’s most artistic acts employing “spey” casting techniques and heavy sinking lines. A streamer is cast on across currents where steelhead hold during the long winter days. Placing a mend in the line to encourage the fly and line to sink, the angler then holds the line tight and lets the river push through it, creating an arching belly in the line. The fly swings across the river, following the arched path as the current pushes the line downstream, traversing steelhead holding waters at their eye level. At the end of the swing, the fly swiftly rises directly downstream of the angler. If a fish doesn’t take the fly mid-swing, the rising fly almost always entices the strike from a fish willing to play ball.

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A particular day of my February 2015 trip dawned just as serene, identically emerging from weeks of single-digit temperatures and chill-to-the-bone wind shear. Our first stop of the day, I found myself casting across conflicted currents, the sun glinting at retina-burning intensity from the river surface. Chas offered a bit of guidance. “Send the fly across that run and swing through the downstream trough. At the belly of the swing, hang on.”

Chas’s words echoed in the back of my mind as I set up a swing on our first run of the day, five years hence. I have never been great at the technique. But swinging flies is like riding a bike in the sense that you never forget how it feels to do it properly. Pulling tight on the line as it bowed, sending the streamer into the heart of the run, the feeling of perfection flushed over me. My body erupted in goose bumps. “This is the cast.” I said to myself, as if somehow mentally or spiritually connected to the fish that lay 60 feet off shore. The swing was perfect.

My feet were nearly numb in the 33-degree water, but I scarcely noticed at that moment. Entranced in the artform as if painted on a winter canvas amid a naked granite-strewn canyon, the world faded into the background. I had nearly forgotten that I was fishing roadside among a few of Chas’s colleagues. I could have been deep in the heart of Kamchatka sharing a river bank with brown bears and felt no further separated from the world around me. It was just the river and I, and a few weary steelhead, soaking in the warmth of the golden sun to the soothing roar of the crystal-clear lifeblood of our planet and all that inhabit it. Precisely the moment when fate and timing collide with luck and instinct.

Serenity shattered among the riverside boulders as my 11-foot fly rod nearly left my hands at Mach speed. A sizeable fish swiped the fly and turned downstream, hooking itself deeply in the corner of the jaw. Frantically, I grappled the reel to retrieve the slack line and put the fish on the drag. With the butt of the rod buried into my hip, I read the fish’s movements, giving line when pressured, and taking quickly when relieved.

The hum of the drag and the feel of line gliding through the guides sends a chill down my spine simply recalling it, much less living it real-time. Witnessing the elegance of such a stunning critter utilizing its power and heft to stymy an opponent is an intense experience. Each terrifying downstream charge could be the last, leaving the steelhead triumphant. Yet, my handcrafted rod has landed dozens of salmon, steelhead and big Lahontan cutthroat over the years. Barring a faulty hookset, my connection with the rod leads me stealthily between aggression and compromise.

Trumbo - Dreams Misery and Steelhead (1)

Suddenly entering the scene, stage left, Chas extended a large landing net onto the submerged rocks before me. I carefully guided the fish toward shore, wincing with every barrel-roll as the fish fought feverishly to shake the fly. But alas, Chas lifted the net up around the fish, and I marveled at the 28-inch beauty that lay before me.

A wild hen, no doubt, brilliant with an olive dorsal, stark white underbelly, pepper-black speckles, and a rosy-pink lateral line. She was magnificent. A true phenomenon of nature’s grandeur.

The Methow fishery remains closed to the public; our opportunity to fish it being tied to our professions as biologists cooperating on a broodstock collection program with the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery. Assisting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, we quickly tagged the fish and moved her to a transport truck. She was destined to be spawned at the Winthrop hatchery and later released back into the river.

Landing a steelhead on the fly is a life-changing experience. It makes idiots and addicts of grounded folks, cultivating a sudden willingness to brave the most frigid, icy conditions and swollen rivers. The act itself, while an artform, is born of strict insanity. Cast, swing, move, repeat. No steelhead. Sometimes for days. Even weeks. No inkling of fish presence. No amount of technical savvy can change the outcome at times. Conducted in utter glacial misery. All while anticipating the unlikely bone-jarring grab of a weighty ocean-run missile that continually haunts our dreams, yet rarely our (my) flies. A single grab can carry an angler through a full season.

The sun glistened from the flanks of the hen as we lowered her into the hatchery truck. The high of having landed a steelhead on the swing was quickly replaced with despair. When would this happen again? It had already been five years since my last steelhead encounter. The Wallowa River in March lies ahead. The prospects are maddening.

Spring Trout on the Fly

EO published

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My Tundra bounced up onto the old wood plank bridge. The dark planks rocked and popped beneath the weight. I was pushing the width limit. My hands, white-knuckled on the wheel, managed to avoid shredding a quarter panel against the steel rails while the Selway River boiled a bit off color below.

Upon a safe dismount, I started the climb to a trailhead where I would embark on a journey into trout country. I knew nothing of the destination but suspected either cutthroat or rainbow. After all, it was Idaho.

Rounding a bend in the old Forest Service road revealed a breathtaking meadow reach. The stream meandered its way to the Selway through a lush carpet of brilliant green grass and forbs. Native Trillium was blooming cotton candy pink in the company of a snoozing whitetail deer. A tantalizing plunge-pool appeared dark and fishy below a cascade of boulders and log jams. My foot mashed the brake pedal. I never saw the destination trailhead.

Large caddis were hatching as I donned my waders. Ogling them lustily lulled me into a giddy, unfounded anticipation.

Early spring fishing can be a straight up crap-shoot. Steady water temperature and relatively stable flow through the winter can offer equally stable action (albeit slow at times), but as days lengthen and air temperature increases, snow melt-swollen streams begin to change the game a bit. Nevertheless, I selected a classic high mountain pairing, a size 12 caddis dropping a size 16 pheasant tail nymph. And the dice rolled.

Trumbo - Wild Spring Trout (4)

Selecting the finest habitat set my confidence high, but the water temperature was glacial. I found the runs moving a bit too fast to present the fly well, even with a flawless dead-drift. I turned to the pocket waters and failed, then moved to the fringes where water velocity is slower with warmer temperature.

Young trout will often seek the fringes during spring high flows where holding water meets cover and food sources. With hopes high, I placed the caddis on the outside edge of a flow seam and just downstream of a boulder. At once the caddis vanished beneath the surface, the nymph taken by a young rainbow parr.

The parr life stage is physically characterized by a size range of approximately two to five inches and large “parr marks”, which are dark, oval-shaped marks along the lateral line. Parr marks serve as camouflage and are generally lost as the fish matures. In some cases, trout older than a year may retain lighter, yet obvious parr marks.

Modern fishing emphasizes the trophy fish, but the brilliance of a young wild trout returns the angler to a universal experience. A wild trout parr is a spectacle to behold, rich and vibrant with various mottling. The white anal fin tip, the fine black speckles among an olive dorsal, and the rosy pink lateral stripe of a rainbow express perfection as only a wild fish can. With a gentle pop of the barbless hook, I sent the parr on its way. Shuffling up to another hole, I was met with an encore performance, my three-weight rod dancing under the inconspicuous weight of the tiny gem.

Trumbo - Wild Spring Trout (3)

Mountain streams can run strong and cold in spring but can turn on in June if the flow is fishable. The best choice in spring and early summer may be desert water, and desert streams are not to be overlooked. These little blue lines flourish in May and June with aggressive trout and abundant food. Flows are typically fishable and many of these streams lend themselves to a number of fly-fishing techniques including traditional tenkara.

Desert streams provide prime opportunity to get creative. If you have been curious about a crack in the middle of nowhere spewing cold water through a sagebrush canyon, go for it. Seek pockets and plunge pools. Although the local game and fish office may not post anything about it, if it’s legal to fish, you may just find a new favorite stream. The Owyhee can be dynamite. What about its tributaries?

Desert lakes are ablaze in spring as well. For Lahontan cutthroat, I generally fish shorelines with scuds or buggers. If the fish are not up and cruising the shallows, they can be found deeper along shoreline boulders. A full-sinking fly line is about the only way to reach them, counting down to 20 feet or more before beginning a varied strip retrieve. Lahontans either hammer the fly or simply engulf it and just sit there, creating awkward tension. A sixth sense tells you when to set the hook. Heavy head shakes and deep runs are left to the drag.

Desert lake rainbows are cruising shallow weed beds at the edge of deep water, providing the appropriate mix of food and depth through the June time-frame. Dry flies are working now and traditional tenkara flies and methods can be effective as well. When the water is cold but a hatch is on, a dry fly with a dropper nymph is a fine option as midges dominate desert lakes, but matching the hatch can be crucial. When all else fails, sink a small streamer. Never will a 15-inch trout work the drag on a five-weight fly rod like a desert lake rainbow.

Trumbo - Wild Spring Trout (1)

Now, more than ever, you are itching to wet a fly. As a sunny day blooms, you need no excuse to shuck responsibility and undue stress for the symphonic chorus of the flush of courting songbirds, the mesmerizing roar of a stream or serenity of floating a lake as the water surface dimples from feeding trout. It’s time. Drop everything. Go fishing. And cherish the wild trout, big or small.

Wilderness Hues

July 2nd, 2020

Climbing the mountainside, the temperature began to drop with the elevation gain. A welcomed change from the 90-plus degree heat in the Walla Walla Valley. In the truck bed lay my frame pack, stuffed to the gills with my pack tent, sleeping bag, spotting scope and scant provisions for an overnight in the wilderness. Glassing elk and locating a suitable fall campsite were the main drivers for the trip, yet these were ancillary opportunities.

A July wilderness pack trip provides an incredible sense of solitude with postcard-worthy scenery. Many of the beautiful blooms of spring and early summer in the lowlands are spent, making way for the future fruit. But higher elevations see a later flush of wildflower color.

Evergreen needles crunched lightly under foot as I softly padded from the trailhead. Exposed tree roots formed a natural staircase entrance into the Tucannon-Wenaha Wilderness. The weathered wilderness sign to my left provoked a satisfied grin. The trail winds its way through a series of dark timber and mountain meadows, each boasting its own variety of color and pattern; the wildflowers clinging to the sunlit trail corridor and open spaces.

The first to grab my attention was the subalpine fleabane of the aster family. Its long stem extended a concave lavender flower head with a canary-yellow stamen into the middle of the trail, brushing my legs as I passed. A second purple beauty holding strong as a favorite of mine is the lupine family, to which belongs a variety of species found in the Wenaha. Their palmate, milky-green leaves and popsicle-stick stem of brilliant clustered blooms hummed steadily with the wing action of native pollinators.

The patchwork of meadows offered uniquely-colored ensconcing. Timber opened to a buttery rich blanket of yellow biscuitroot on the drier western slopes. The ground covered with the ornately arranged flowers clustered like a bowl of lollipops with all stems inserted toward the center.

A blanket of biscuitroot paints a vibrant floor in a mountain meadow

Yet another deep violet marvel that appears to be Venus penstemon is dashed among other species. Deeply developed flower heads remind me of catchflies, yet bees and flies are common pollinators of these flowers arranged like a series of tipped vases.  

Spurs of clearing extended into the timber displaying a sea of fiery Indian paintbrush in one meadow and a complimentary mix of fleabane, penstemon and Indian paintbrush in another.  Accents of snowy yarrow clusters poked through with the minor undertones of phlox and spring beauty. Chipmunks and songbirds chirped and scurried through the forest and ruffed grouse flushed from the recovering burns, thick with elderberry.

Stopping to glass the shaded slopes below, an alarmed elk barked its warning yet remained concealed somewhere in the dark timber. Soils softened by pocket gophers compacted underfoot, the already dried early grasses crunching with each step. Coal-black ravens and Oreo magpies drifted on the thermals, high above the deep draws, as hawks scoured the mountaintop, casting a suspicious eye upon the intruding human below.

As the sun stooped to the western horizon, I found a spot to rest on the edge of a meadow, tucked into the shelter of evergreens. With the tent erect and the air again cooling, I took a stroll out the spine of a ridge to see the sun off for another day and welcome the night.

Indian paintbrush sets the small forest alcoves ablaze

The absence of moon ushered in darkness that settled like a heavy quilt, masking all visual recognition from the human eye, save for the magnificent starlight. The atmosphere was thick and stagnant with not a breath of air. The pops and cracks of charred and sunbaked pine skeletons echoed deafeningly through the forest. I lay awake listening for the lonesome howl of a wolf and snickering softly as mule deer skirted my tent, bounding and blowing their distress as they circled downwind. The sleep that finally came was deep and restful.   

Dawn arrived as serenely as night and the cotton candy pink hints of the morning set the horizon ablaze. My pack stove hissed amid peak humidity for the day. Taking my cup to go, I sat and sipped, entranced in the aroma of a steaming cup of go-juice on the edge of an eastern-aspect meadow. The critters of night settled as the critters of day awakened and bustled. The red squirrel being one of the first and more obnoxious inhabitants to greet the day. 

With the sun climbing and coffee mug void of the succulent sunrise nectar, I collapsed my spotting scope and headed for camp. The elk had again evaded detection. With camp on my back, I followed faint deer and elk tracks back to the trailhead, marshaled out by the “good riddance” chatter of the furred and feathered occupants of the forest. The sun now high overhead, blazing atop the kaleidoscope of wildflowers and wildlife, I dropped the truck windows and left the forest to resume its routine, uninterrupted.

Luck, Gravy and Bucks in the Breaks

The digital dashboard clock read 6:10am on November 2nd, day three of a four-day mule deer hunt in the river breaks of Idaho. Time was wearing thin. It was the first morning of daylight savings time. There was plenty of shooting light, yet my eyes strained to evaluate the whitetails striding across the grassy field to the north. Shouldering my rifle, I reached for my shooting stick and passed a glance across the tailgate at my hunting partner, Larry Holecek. Larry has lived in the Idaho panhandle nearly all of his life and has access to some spectacular hunting ground.

We silently advanced across the road into the ponderosas, traversing an old, broken-down barbed wire fence. In about three miles we will have dropped approximately 2,500 feet in elevation and trekked over a rugged piece of river canyon rarely seen by others.  

 Softly entering the timbered ridge, we instantly spooked a small group of whitetails that bounded off nearly unnoticed. Although this was my “big buck” hunt, I was along for the ride. I had no expectations, and killing a good buck was low on the list. I didn’t care either way, but my wife made it clear. If I ate my tag, I faced a severe flogging, murder, divorce, and possibly all of the above. The only guarantee; I would not pull the trigger on an average buck.

The air was crisp and clouds on the run, being herded out of the country by a strong high-pressure zone approaching from the west. With a gorgeous sunrise upon us, the overall scene and day bloomed into prime conditions for a still hunt. Carefully, we hunted down through a grassy ridge spine, relying on a sparse tree line for concealment. Our steps were well placed, like a prowling cougar softly padding behind its prey.

A beautiful November morning in the Clearwater River Canyon

We stalked our way through the first large meadow, stepped up on a rocky bluff and glassed the surrounding ridges. It became clear that hunting through the adjacent draws would be most challenging. Steep, deep, rocky, and thorny were the only discernable conditions and I was unwilling to tackle such a formidable combination. We spotted a small grassy knob about a mile below us, glassed it for a while, then descended for it.

Approaching the middle elevation of the mountain, the browse petered out, like a mountain stream at the height of a drought as it flows into the valley floor. There was little deer sign, but fresh elk tracks and scat, possibly from animals we bumped unknowingly.

“We should move a little quicker down into better deer habitat. We need to get down closer to the river where the browse thickens up again.” Larry explained.

About a half mile further we emerged from the ponderosas and found ourselves on the up-ridge side of the grassy knob we had glassed previously. taking up the remnants of an old road, we dropped over the west side of the knob and wrapped around the down-ridge slope into a draw. A few sparse rose bushes provided minimal cover.

Suddenly, the unmistakable “blow” of a deer shattered the silence, startling us out of tranquility. Snapping attention forward, a spike mule deer bounced out front of us about twenty yards ahead. Larry looked back with a smile and said “You wanna take him?” Returning the joke, I declined the proposal. While perfectly legal, the effort required to get a deer off the mountain made taking the spike inconceivable, never mind the quality table fare. After moments of silently interrogating one another, the spike bounced down into the draw and out of sight.

Immediately, we advanced a few steps, peered down into the draw, finding ourselves suddenly neck deep in mule deer. Through a small opening in the rose bushes I spotted what appeared to be a buck about eighty yards below. Thinking nothing of it, I propped my stick against my stomach and raised my binoculars. As my vision focused on the dozen or so mule deer, one buck in particular grabbed my attention, slamming me into the reality of two dark, sweeping beams spanning well past the buck’s ear width.

The author and Larry Holecek celebrate a successful hunt

My binoculars bounced against my chest as they fell from my grip. In a panic, I groped for the shoulder strap of my old Remington .243, glanced at Larry and said “That’s no spike…!” Larry’s eyes enlarge as he ducked out from the rose bush to get a look.

The safety clicked hard forward as my face settled on the stock. With the butt wedged between my shoulder and pack strap, the crosshairs settled firmly behind the buck’s shoulder.

Breath. Steady trigger pressure. Recoil.

The draw exploded with mule deer scattering in all directions, yet I focused with laser precision on one buck as he loped out of sight, never to reappear. Turning to Larry I exclaimed “That should have been a perfect shot!That’s a damn good buck!” We never saw exactly how big it was, but I had passed on several other bucks the prior days and trusted my gut instinct that he was why came to Idaho.

A raucous erupted from the brush directly below and the buck briefly appeared before vanishing again into timber. A few blurry seconds passed and the mountain fell silent.    

Larry, appearing more excited than I, started down into the draw. I called after him, reminding him that we should wait a moment and start tracking methodically from the point of impact, regardless of the fact that we knew about where the buck should be.

I was cautious, examining everything. There was an unnerving lack of sign. My full confidence in the shot and the fact that my rest was solid provided comfort, yet mistakes when we least expect them. The .243 is fast and accurate, but an eyelash can knock it off course.

The author with his Clearwater canyon muley buck

With no obvious evidence of a hit, we walked his approximate track to our last visual. The location was unmistakable, marked by a small greenbrier bush nearly chartreuse in color. Quite the contrast against the dark orange and black of the fallen ponderosa boughs.

As I scoured the brush for sign, Larry pointed down ridge to a spot where the pine boughs were piled up exposing fresh soil. Guardedly, I move down, noticing a large patch of gray hair on a nearby pine trunk. To our left was a house-sized boulder outcrop, and as Larry and I worked our way around the face of the boulder, something caught my eye.

Stopping Larry in his tracks, I picked up the binoculars and focused in. Concerned over the lack of sign, I wanted to be sure we didn’t make a novice mistake like jumping a wounded buck from his bed. After heavy scrutiny, I breathed a sigh of relief. The large, gray object was in fact a sizeable mule deer buck lying on his belly at the base of a ponderosa. Approaching to about fifteen feet, I made a final examination.

Emptying our rifles, we eagerly approached the large four-point beam rising from the pine boughs. Lying before us was about a 200-pound, ghost-gray mule deer buck with a broad nose and white face. His neck was swollen to about thirty-six inches in circumference from the raging hormones of rut. His chest was nearly three feet deep and his dark chocolate, 4X5 rack rose impressively above his thick, roughly furred brow.

The orange pine boughs complimented by the green of the pines and the gray granite boulders covered in brilliant jade moss made for an awe-inspiring scene. One that will forever remain seared into memory as Larry nor I packed our cameras or cell phones. Unbelievable. And that’s not the worst of it. I must have forgotten my brain this morning as well, for I found I was without a knife and only had my day pack and snacks. Luckily, Larry was smart enough to remember a knife at least.

With the buck dressed, Larry suggested we drag him down the mountain as far as possible. If we could get him close enough to the river, we may have been able to go for the camera and get photos before packing him out, but it was not meant to be. The riverside bluffs were too treacherous.

Leaving the buck, we snaked our way along the canyon wall, Larry ingeniously flagging our trail out with survey tape until we found a way around the cliff faces to the river and derelict rails below. Forty minutes of uncertainty passed as we stepped over crevasses and skirted rimrock sufficient to make a mountain goat pucker. Following a final thirty-foot side down a flat rock face to the tracks, the endeavor was nearly complete.

Scaling the face and returning to the buck, I worked to get him quartered, while Larry headed for the ATV that was about three miles east on the tracks. Once at the ATV, He would go for his son, Dean, and some frame packs. My final gaze upon the buck was lost to my urgency at quartering and packing to the top of the bluff above the river, but I shall never forget the moment I first laid hands on him.

DSC_0961

With the quarters, backstraps and tenderloin laid out, I donned my day-pack and agreed with myself a foolish buffoon for leaving my frame pack and necessary items at home. Upon completing three trips for the rack and quarters, I stashed them at the top of the bluff above the railroad and savored a brief water break before the unmistakable hum of distant ATV bled through the roar of the river. As Dean and Larry arrived, I heaved up my pack, snagged a hind quarter and rack, and started down the precipitous incline that led me to flat ground.

Dean offered gracious congratulations and a fresh bottle of water, while Larry hurriedly took my .243 and ran back up the tracks after spotting a decent muley buck while returning for me (at least I didn’t leave my rifle at home). Dean and I grabbed the packs and clawed our way up the 100 vertical yards, grabbed the remaining quarters, and skidded back down to the tracks.

Trophy hunting has never been my thing, but big muley bucks have captivated me since I moved to the northwest in 2011. I set my sights high and was lucky enough to punch a tag on a muley buck that I am still proud of. The entire event was built around tremendous luck, but you can’t get lucky without effort.

Basking in the memories, I am reminded that engaging in the hunt is far more rewarding than securing antlers and venison. The experience welds a permanent patch in our minds and souls. A minute flicker in time where the world around us fades into the background. The only beings in existence are the hunter and prey. The rest is gravy.