Category Archives: Leisure

Believing that a life properly lived includes the deliberate pursuit of recreation and relaxation, here you’ll find a junk drawer mix of comments and thoughts on the things we enjoy in Montana’s Big Sky Country: eating, sightseeing, photography, hiking, backpacking, camping, hunting, fishing, and more.

If You Don’t, Who Will?

Copyright Mike L. Raether 2020

One of the things I really appreciate about Montana is that we don’t make laws to protect people from themselves. For example, if you want to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, it’s your business and perfectly legal. You’re free to spill your brains all over the highway if you like. After all, they’re YOUR brains. Where I live, as long as you have a sewer and electrical permit, your abode need be nothing more than a tarpaper shack.

The beauty of Montana is that you can do whatever you want. But that’s also the ugly thing about Montana: people do whatever they want. Which is fine, unless your neighbor has a dead car collection.

Here in Montana, you’re expected to police yourself which can have a huge negative impact on the environment if you’re a slob. For example, in Mineral County where I hang up my waders, there’s one game warden for all of the county. If I choose to hike into a mountain lake for some fishing, my odds of seeing that game warden are pretty slim. With nobody looking over my shoulder, the responsibility for being legal is mine. Should I decide to scoff the laws, I have to live with myself. As former basketball player and coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

I was reminded of this on a backpacking trip to an alpine lake. This lake offers a wonderful camping spot – or did, before it was trashed by some miscreants. The campfire ring contained some blackened tin cans. Someone had packed in a couple of cans of chili, then tried to burn the empty cans. Empty plastic water bottles defaced the place like pimples on a pretty girl’s face. Nearby I saw where a driftwood log had holes blasted in it by some firearm. I had to shake my head. Those empty cans of chili: Someone packed them in full; couldn’t they have packed them out empty? Same thing with those empty plastic water bottles: How much could they possibly weigh? A couple of grams each maybe? And then there was the piece of bullet-blasted driftwood. A gun range would have been a better choice for target practice, rather than explode the piece and quiet of this pristine place.

So it all comes down to the old adage: pack it in, pack it out, even if it means packing out someone else’s garbage. A little respect for the laws and environment doesn’t take away our pleasure; it adds to it. Let’s all do the right thing. Take home the garbage.

Ears to Hear

The story continues . . .

Copyright Mike Raether 2019

Last time I wrote about how to evaporate the gloom of winter. I suggested getting outside to be renewed inside. With January cold approaching, this may not be wise or even safe if you live in one of the northern tier states. Montana is no exception. If the weather here plays out as usual, 20 degrees below zero may usher in the Montana New Year.  With this in mind, but even if you live in sunny Florida, I suggest an indoor activity that will not only renews, but entertains and educates.

I’m speaking of exploring the diverse world of podcasts. Without too much effort, you can find podcasts on just about any subject that piques your interest. Just search online for “best podcasts about _______” (you fill in the blank). This is your ticket to some of the best entertainment and education available on the Web. Spend a few minutes poking about the Internet. Make a few notes to self, bookmark a few favs, and by the time the first birds of Spring raise  their voices you’ll be armed with an arsenal of tricks and tips. The Internet isn’t called, “The information superhighway” for nothing.

At the moment, I’m enjoying podcasts about fly fishing. In fact, I was interviewed recently for the Fly Fishing 97 Podcast. If you’re interested, here’s the link to my podcast interview. I’d be flattered if you listen, but please don’t stop there. There’s tons of righteous information on the Fly Fishing 97 podcast.

Now let’s share. Not about the good stuff we’ve learned, but about the podcast treasures we’ve discovered. Come back and share some of your fav URLs with us so we can jump on board!

Good Medicine

Montana’s Clark Fork River in  winter copyright Mike Raether 2019

What’s a fisher to do? The chill of another Montana winter is upon us. The shortest day of the year, winter solstice, is just around the corner. The mountain lakes lie buried under deep blankets of snow, so hiking to stillwater is out. The nearby river is floating ice, but the ice on the lowland lakes isn’t yet thick enough for safe ice fishing. But I’ve got an itch to get outdoors, and I have to scratch that itch, even if there just isn’t much to do out there at the moment.

At this time of year, it’s easy for me to get frustrated, discouraged, or even depressed. But I found an answer, an answer that might work for you, too.

My solution for evaporating the winter gloom is found next to flowing water, even if that water is floating ice. I find a comfortable perch next to the river, but without fishing rod in hand. I’m not here to take; I’m here to receive. I’m here to let the sound of flowing water cleanse my mind.

And I think. I remember. I meditate. As Herman Melville wrote in his novel Moby Dick,  “…meditation and water are wedded forever.” I let memories flow through my mind as the river water flows on. I remember fish fought, caught, and released. I feast on the memories of laughing wildflowers, the warmth of summer past, the turning leaves of fall, and the chill of that first morning frost.

As I remember, I am refreshed. I am restored. I am healed.  Cares fade away and are replaced by memories of seasons past and fine times. The river flows, bringing peace. Water is life.

What about you? Do you remember the time… Think back. Replay the film. Get outside and you’ll feel better inside. It’s the best medicine.

Life in Montana

Steve Shadley on Gold Peak – Copyright Mike Raether 2019

It’s not called The Last, Best Place for nothing. Fly fishing for trout in Montana is legendary, and with a population of just over a million people in the fourth largest state in the nation it’s not exactly crowded. In fact, some counties in Montana have so little population that the U.S. government classifies them as “frontier.” Sure, the blue ribbon trout streams of Montana such as the Madison, the Big Hole, and the Beaverhead attract quite a few folks, but visitors to Western Montana’s mountain lakes will often experience complete solitude combined with great fishing.

But compared to what it’s like to VISIT Montana, what’s it like to actually LIVE here? I’m glad you asked me that question –

  • First off, I live in Western Montana and—don’t tell anybody—the winters are not as bad here as some say. Rarely do we have snow on the ground all winter, although we might see -20 degrees Fahrenheit during a January cold snap.
  • Second, in many places the only building permits required for private residences are for sewer and electrical. If you want to live in a tarpaper shack, well, that’s your business. We don’t believe in making laws to protect people from themselves. For example, if you’re an adult helmets aren’t required for motor cyclists.
  • Third, one of the advantages of Montana is that you can pretty much do whatever you want—which is also one of the disadvantages of Montana: people here pretty much do whatever they want.
  • Fourth, concealed carry permits for firearms aren’t required except in incorporated cities, and deadly force is allowed if you feel your life is threatened—just make sure you’re right. Of course, like elsewhere, firearms are never allowed in places like banks, bars, and government buildings.
  • Fifth, if you like big reservoir lake fishing you might be interested in East Central Montana’s Fort Peck Lake, which has more shoreline than the state of California.

If this sounds like it might be your kind of place, first consider this story my wife told me recently—

A tourist stopped at the antique store where she works part time. The tourist needed a new fitting for his RV hose, and asked where he might find one in town. She answered, “You won’t.”

He asked, “Where would I need to go to get one?”

She told him, “The next town, which is 14 miles.”

“Round trip?” He asked.

”Nope. One way.”

 

 

A Montana Freebie You Don’t Want to Miss

I was  minding the store at Joe Cantrell’s Fly Shop one Friday afternoon when two fly fishers from out-of-state stopped in to purchase fishing licenses. I told them I couldn’t sell them licenses because they didn’t need them that weekend.

Kids Fishing” by Virginia State Parks Staff, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Every year Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks offers free fishing on Father’s Day weekend – no license required as long as you abide by the regs. And the great news is you don’t have to be a father to take advantage of the upcoming free fishing weekend June 15-16. You can be a single mom with kids that just need some exposure to the Great Outdoors (better than any video game in my opinion) or just someone from in-state or out-of-state who wants to wet a line. And what a great way to relieve the stress of the high octane world in which we live.

On June 6 in the context of proposed access for sportsmen to more wildlife refuges and national fish hatcheries for fishing and hunting, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said, “Hunting and fishing are more than just traditional pastimes . . . [the additional access will] provide incredible opportunities for sportsmen and women and their families across the country to pass on a fishing and hunting heritage to future generations and connect with wildlife.” Like I said, better than any video game.

Recently I had a routine doctor’s appointment. Before seeing the doc, I was chatting with the receptionist. Though the office was air conditioned, she had a small fan feeding fresh air to her. I asked her about it, and she told me the flow of air helped with her anxiety issues. I joked, “There’s a pill for that,”  but she told me she found something better. She said that a few days ago when she was feeling like the walls were closing in, she went and sat beside the river for a while. Her anxiety evaporated like morning mist on the mountains. Taking a outdoor breather won’t cure everything, but it can help.

Oh, and by the way, Montana can’t lay claim to being the only state that offers a free fishing promotion. If you don’t live in Montana, check with your state’s fish and wildlife commision, and see what they offer.

So go fish.

 

No Whining

Photo courtesy Todd Barnard, licensed under CC BY 4.0

Spring has finally sprung in the Rockies, and it happened all of a sudden: Within two weeks much of the snow melted, and the tree swallows, robins, and bluebirds returned. What a change from February and early March, when I was buried in snowstorm after snowstorm. One morning I got up and it was three degrees Fahrenheit. At least it was above zero. But then it got cold. Until recently I plowed snow off my 100 yard driveway an average of three times a week, sometimes every day. Not that I’m complaining about the weather. No way.

But I do have a complaint.

My complaint is that in winter and early spring there just isn’t much happening on the outdoor scene in my remote corner of Montana (except for plowing snow). So I was busy whining to myself, until I got to thinking of all the things available to me this time of year that get ignored at other times of year because I’m too busy fishing, camping, hiking, and hunting to make time for them. But what was once pushed aside, this season now brings to the front of the line. Here’s my list of things I can do right now. All I have to do is get off my butt. 

  • Study animal tracks,
  • Go snowshoeing,
  • Hunt rabbits (open year ‘round here, and no bag limit),
  • Hunt coyotes (also open year ‘round, no bag limit),
  • Practice photography skills,
  • Take inventory of my outdoor stuff, 
  • Study outdoor catalogs (following inventory of outdoor stuff),
  • Practice fly casting,
  • Apply for tags and permits for the upcoming year,
  • Feed the birds. Maybe. That old phrase, “Eat like a bird” is bilge water. Those little suckers can really chow. They once got into me for 25 pounds of seed per month. And once you start winter feeding, you have to keep it up. The little suckers come to depend on you. Too bad there’s no meat on tweeties. 

One more: Now is also the time to study my state’s fish and game regulations. Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (MFWP) has an abundance of resources on its Website, and I’d bet your state does, too, and a lot more than just rules and regs. On the MFWP website I can find information about Hunter Education programs, Montana’s WILD educational program, Montana State Park’s Visitor Centers,  a Montana wildlife field guide, things related to recreational activities such as outdoor ethics and safety, even links to free downloadable resources such as posters featuring Montana wildlife.  

But what about you? Let’s share. What do you do along outdoor lines to redeem this time of year? Just don’t tell me about fishing in your shirt sleeves for reds in the tidal creeks of Florida’s Gulf Coast. I might have to WHINE!

Get Out There

The fruits: cancer, cirrhosis, heart disease, and suicide just to name a few. But these are just symptoms. The root is chronic stress.

Ward Creek Trail, copyright Mike L. Raether

As Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley noted in her article in the Miami Herald regarding chronic stress, “According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. And more than 75 percent of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.” (Bold face mine).

Scary, huh? Especially if you’re one of those who’re chronically stressed out. Somebody says, “That’s not me. I’m not stressed.” Really? How do you do in heavy traffic, especially if you’re late for an important meeting? Or perhaps you’ve lost a loved one recently, been divorced, or maybe had to relocate? WebMD has an informative article on the symptoms of stress. Check it out. See yourself there?

Assuming I’ve rang your bell, let’s talk about dealing with chronic stress. Dealing with chronic stress just might help you avoid cancer, cirrhosis, heart disease, suicide, and more. How? The solution is simpler than some might think.

Go fishing. Or hiking. Or hunting. Or camping. Or whatever. Just get out there.

Think about it: When you get out into nature, how do you feel?

  • The pressures of everyday life evaporate.
  • Your appreciation for the beauty of creation is renewed.
  • You have time to think and plan without all the normal distractions.
  • You’re more aware of the value of relationships as you enjoy time with friends.
  • The fog clears from your perspective. Things fall into place. Life makes more sense.

So for the sake of your health, stop making excuses. Get out there. Yeah, I know, you’re busy. So am I. Business is the curse of our age. Make time for some outdoor recreation. Especially if you don’t have time for a heart attack.

Just Launch It

It’s called a boat launch, which might give you an idea of what it’s there for. But rather than talk about what it is, it might be better to talk about what it isn’t.

First off, it’s not a place to park your boat while you rig up your rod. Second, it’s not a place to park your boat while eating a sandwich. Third, it’s not a place to park while you scratch your backside. In short, the launch isn’t your personal parking spot. It’s called a “boat launch” because it’s supposed to be used to launch your boat, not rig your rod, eat your lunch, or scratch your butt.

To avoid the ire of the guy behind you who’s waiting his turn to launch (that cranky guy who just invited you to have a drink of water even though you’re not thirsty), check these tips to get you out of the way of crabby dudes –  

  1. Remove your tie downs, but do have a safety bow line attached.
  2. Have your fenders in place if using.
  3. If your boat uses them, place your oars in their locks.
  4. Have your ice chests, boat bags, rods, anchors, electronics and such on board and already situated on your boat.
  5. Oh, yeah, did you put the plug in?

Now that you know all this (or in case you already knew), you’ve earned the right to pass along this valuable knowledge to the guy in front of you who’s hogging the ramp. Unless, of course, he’s the cranky type who might invite you to have a drink of water even if you’re not thirsty. In which case, just get ready to launch. 

Okay, so I’m a crabby curmudgeon. Got anything to add? Just click “Leave a Comment” under the title of this blog article.

Montana’s Boulder Lake Yields Fat Cutts

Great fishing prospects sometimes overshadow great fishing prospects. For example, to experience the exceptional fishing for westslope cutthroat trout in northwest Montana’s Upper Boulder Lake (aka Boulder Lake #1), you first have to ignore the Kootenai River’s tempting rainbows as you drive north from Libby, then refrain from rubbernecking the many enticing bays and inlets of Lake Koocanusa. But your rewards for staying the course are Boulder Lake’s high-mountains solitude and cooperative cutthroat that come at the modest price of an easy 2-mile backcountry hike.

Jeff Talbert nets a good one from Boulder Lake #1

I backpacked into Boulder Lake last September with my friend Jeff Talbert, right after a hard frost had made flying trout food scarce. After launching my backpack boat, I hooked, netted, and released fish after fish up to 16 inches long, using a size 12 Royal Wulff, my mountain lake dry fly of choice unless I catch a hatch. Talbert, new to the sport, had packed his new fly rod, and the fast fishing provided the perfect opportunity to get him hooked on fly fishing. I encouraged him to take a turn in the boat and fling a dry fly. He soon found himself attached to trout after trout. Another convert to fly fishing. For variety, we also tried subsurface fishing and enjoyed excellent results using Bigg’s Sheep Creek Specials and brown Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymphs, both in size 12.

I encouraged Talbert to fish to his heart’s content. But I actually started feeling a little guilty about all the trout I’d caught, even though I’d released them. How many fish does a guy need to catch? With a mortality rate of close to 5 percent for trout caught and released, I figured I’d killed two trout. I once met a fly fisher at a mountain lake and asked him about the fishing. He said it was pretty good and smiled as he told me how many trout he’d caught. I asked if he’d kept any to eat. “No,” he said. “I made my peace with trout a long time ago.” So have I, I thought. I’m at peace with eating a couple from a lake so richly populated, and they are a treat, especially cooked over a campground grill.

Given the ease of the hike into Boulder Lake, I expected company. However, only one other fisher made the trek, and he didn’t stay long. It’s a good thing I didn’t run into him later, though, or he might have gotten a snootful of bear spray. Accidentally, of course. While poking along the shoreline, I saw where he’d cleaned his catch and left the guts lying on a fallen log. There are few better ways to attract bears to your camp than leaving fish guts lying around. Northwest Montana is grizzly country, so Talbert and I bagged our food and hung it at night. Maybe I’m just cranky, but I’d rather not have a furry midnight visitor in my camp.

Fly fishing from shore is challenging at Boulder Lake. The shoreline is brushy, which makes anything but a roll cast difficult. In addition, the lake is mesotrophic, which translates to a soft bottom and substantial weed growth far out into the lake. A two-handed 5-weight rod would be an asset here. A better option is to pack in some type of floating device. Once out on the lake in my backpack boat, I found my 3-weight to be ideal.

To reach Boulder Lake #1, follow State Route 37 north from Libby. Continue 54 miles, and cross the bridge spanning Lake Koocanusa. After crossing the bridge, turn north onto Yaak Valley–Libby Dam Road (named Forest Service Road 228 on the USDA Rexford and Fortine Ranger District map) and continue about 3 miles. Turn south on Forest Service Road 337 and drive about 11 miles, then continue about a mile on Forest Service Road 7183 to the trailhead on the right. Forest Service Road 7229 is gated at the trailhead, and is actually part of the trail.

Now: Go do it with a fly!

(This article appeared in the May/June, 2018 issue of Northwest Fly Fishing magazine. If you’re interested in learning more about mountain lake fishing in Montana, you might consider my new book, Flyfisher’s Guide to Northwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes. The book is also available from Wilderness Adventures Press, Amazon, and Google Play)

Do the Clark

The Big Hole. The Madison. The Gallatin. The Jefferson. The lower Clark Fork. Their names fall from a trout fisherman’s lips with awe and reverence. But wait – the lower Clark Fork? What’s THAT name doing in the company of this short list of the exalted “blue ribbon” trout streams of Montana? I’m glad you asked me that question!

Oh, yeah!

At first glance, the section of the lower Clark Fork from the about the town of Superior to the Ferry Landing boat launch about 12 miles downstream from St. Regis on MT 135 can be intimidating. The river is big and broad, draining as it does most of Western Montana. But when you take a closer look, you’ll notice the typical back eddies, seams, riffles, and pocket water that make trout fishermen drool. Combine these with trout that will stretch a tape from 12- to 18-inches on the average, and you have the stuff that legendary trout rivers are made of. 

But the trout here aren’t pushovers. A seam that looks promising may not host any fish, but the next seam might be alive with rises. This is what makes this section of the Clark Fork not only challenging, but downright fun. It’s more like hunting than fishing, as the fish tend to hang out in pods rather than swim more or less evenly distributed throughout the river. 

This portion of the Lower Clark Fork is a drift-boater’s dream, as there are no rapids to speak of. A little faster water, but no rapids. Shore access is good from about Mile Post 3 on Montana’s scenic Highway 135 most of the way to the Ferry Landing boat launch and even beyond. 

Best of all (I think) the lower Clark Fork is a river where flies out-fish hardware and bait many times over (see my post Do it on the Fly). Recommendation dries start with March Browns early in the season, Green Drakes, Blue Wing Olives, caddis, Adams, then hoppers (!), and finishing off the season with Mahogany Duns. If nothing’s happening on top, hang on an indicator and go below with nymphs such as the Prince and Pheasent Tail.

If you decide to give the lower Clark Fork a chance, you might want to stop by Joe Cantrell Outfitting for the latest fishing info or to schedule a guided float trip or shuttle. From the town of Superior on down, boat launches with concrete ramps include Big Eddy, Dry Creek, St. Regis, and Ferry Landing. For detailed info regarding these launches, log onto Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. If you’d rather try the area’s mountain lakes, you might be interested in my book, The Flyfisher’s Guide to Northwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes.

Now go do the fly thing.