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!

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.

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.

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.

Trumbo - Swinging the Wallowa (2)

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.

Trumbo - Swinging the Wallowa (3)

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.

 

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.