Category Archives: Outdoor Recreation

To Tell the Truth

“Fingers Crossed” copyright 2020 Mike L. Raether

It’s called the game of One-Upmanship:

“I caught more fish than you.”

“So what? I caught the biggest fish.”

When I was writing The Flyfisher’s Guide to Northwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes the pressure was on to catch fish. I even prayed to catch fish. After all, I was supposed to be the expert: what if I didn’t catch any fish?

I was asked this question by a campground host at a drive-in campground while researching the book. I’d chosen this campground as it was central to a few lakes in the area that I wanted to investigate, lakes with short day hikes. The idea was to car-camp while doing a few day hikes to check things out. While chatting with the campground host, I shared why I was there. That’s when the question came: “What if you don’t catch anything?Of course, the question comes in different forms depending on the outdoor activity – 

“Did you get your buck?”

“How was your turkey hunt last season?”

“How many geocaches did you find over the weekend?”

So when I was asked by the campground host what I’d do if I didn’t catch any fish, I paused for a moment, looked at my shoes, and said, “I’ll tell the truth.” Not that I’m bragging. I’ve succumbed to the game of One-Upmanship more often than I like to admit. Maybe I should join a support group where everyone sits in a circle and bares their soul: “Hello, my name is Mike and I’m a One-Upmanship-Aholic. My confession is I didn’t get my buck last season.”

Related to the game of One-Upmanship is the game of Making Excuses such as –

“I woulda got that monster wall hanger if my hunting partner hadn’t bumped my arm just as I shot.”

“I woulda got my gobbler but the hens kept getting in the way.”

“I woulda found a ton of ’caches but my GPS broke.”

What makes us throw in our chips to play the games of One-Upmanship and Making Excuses? Why are we tempted to exaggerate, lie, or justify? Why can’t we just enjoy the experience of _________? (You fill in the blanks).

So I’ve made a decision. I’m gonna tell the truth. Even if it hurts. By the way, speaking of truth, I didn’t get my buck last season. Or my elk. Or my bear. Or my gobbler. Of course, I have good excuses . . .

Fly Fishing and Life

Fly Fishing Fun on the Clark Fork. Copyright 2020 Mike L. Raether

You can tell a lot about a person by watching them fly fish. Are they patient or easily frustrated? Are they observant or heedless? Do they check their knots after changing flies, or do they recklessly hope for the best? Taking a look at our fly fishing habits will help us know ourselves better, and in the balance we’ll become better fly fishers.  Let me illustrate.

A while ago I was fly fishing the mainstem of the St. Joe River in Idaho, one of the best artificial-lures-only, catch-and-release  waters flowing there. I was fishing with a friend. This friend is not the most patient person in the world and is never really satisfied with the way things are: he is centered on change, and the more change the better.

As I concentrated on the pocket water in front of me, I lost track of my friend. After a few minutes I turned and looked downstream to see how he was doing. The last I saw of him, he was fishing about 50 yards below me.  I was surprised to see that my friend was now 100 yards downstream. I stopped fishing and watched him for a couple of minutes. He would make a couple of fruitless casts, then move a few yards downstream and try again. Soon he was another 30 yards downstream, and the only time his rod bent over was under the strain of a forward cast.

So we have to ask ourselves: Do I thoroughly work a piece of water or do I hurriedly move on if there’s no apparent fishy interest? Patience will put more fish in the net than hopscotching down the river.

How about this one: Do I carefully observe what’s happening in, on, and above the water or do I just fish my favorite fly and hope the fish corporate? Careful observers learn a bit about the local bugs, and consequently hook more fish.

One more: Are my knots snug and tested, or am I not really expecting to wet the net anyway? I’ve noticed that the size and strength of a hooked fish is directly related to how well my tackle is maintained. Big fish just seem to instinctively know if a knot is weak or a drag is set too tight. If I’m good to my stuff, my stuff will be good to me. Paying attention to the details will boost my confidence, confident fishers work harder, and–you guessed it–catch more fish.

Best of all, if I learn patience, practice observance, and form good good habits, I’ll not only be better served on the water, but these qualities will translate to other areas of my life where patience, observation, and good habits are called for.

Don’t you just love win-win scenarios?

 

 

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.

Behold the Lowly Fly

Callibaetis Spinner copyright Mike L. Raether, 2019

As a fly fisher, I have a confession. I don’t tie my own flies. To some fly fishers this may seem blasphemous, but, there, I’ve said it. I’ve come out of the closet.

It’s not that I don’t want to learn to tie my own flies. It’s just that I have fumbly fingers. I have enough trouble managing an improved clinch knot, let alone even a humble San Juan Worm. Besides, I’m convinced that the fish aren’t as impressed with my $400 reel spooled with $100 line and attached to my $700 rod as they are with a well-tied munchie. Which brings up something I fail to understand: why do some fly fishers boast about having a $1,000 outfit, but kick about a $2 fly? When is comes right down to it, the fly is The Word. The Connection. The Doer of Business.

As a fly fisher, I have hundreds of flies even though I fall back on about the same dozen patterns. But like most fly fishers, I just can’t help adding to my collection. I rarely drive past a fly shop without stopping and checking the fly selection. I enjoy examining them, dreaming, supposing, hoping. If I don’t have a fly that fools fish, I might as well take up water polo.

So what makes a good fly? First off, it doesn’t need to be a dead ringer for the natural. There are flies such as the Royal Wulff that don’t imitate anything in the wild; they’re know as “attracter patterns” and sometimes outfish everything else. Then there are general patterns like the Hare’s Ear that imitate a broad range of nymphs and midge pupa. So again, what makes a good fly? Here we go –

  • Price. We all know the old saying, “You get what you pay for,” meaning that if you buy cheap, you’re gonna get cheap. Not always true when it comes to flies. It’s possible to pay $5 or more for incredibly perfect flies that are dead ringers for the naturals, but such flies are often better for framing than fly fishing. Flies don’t have to be pretty to work. Even the ugliest tie job can fool fish. Decently-tied flies are available on the Internet for less that $1 each. Price can be an indicator of quality, but not always.
  • Durability. Although they don’t have to be pretty, they do have to be tied well enough to withstand being whipped through the air, drug through water, and catch a few fish before they become bedraggled. If that little bit of fluff, fur, and feathers falls apart after a few casts and a fish or two, the money you paid for it would have been better living in your pocket.
  • Craftsmanship. Is the hook eye free of head cement? Sure, a fisher can use the pokie on the nipper to open the eye, but should you have to? Care in the application of head cement so it doesn’t clog the hook eye can be an indicator of quality and care on the part of the fly tier.  Is the dubbing tight and secure around the hook shank? If the fly features eyes, are they tied on straight and  well secured to the hook?

Well, there you have them: my three primary criteria for fly selection. What are yours? Do you have any tips for us? Leave us a comment to help us out!

 

The Best Hunt Ever

My opening day hunt lasted only two hours but not because I scored. And yet, it was probably the best hunt I ever had.

Learning to Hunt – protege Jeremy Tjensfold about to “Git-R-Done!” Copyright Mike Raether 2019

A week or so before the opening of the Montana general hunting season on October 26, I got a phone call from Clint, my friend and good hunting buddy. He asked if I wanted to tag along as he introduced his 10-year-old grandson Braylin to hunting. It would be his first season, and thanks to Montana’s Apprentice Hunter Program, Braylin was eligible to hunt even though he’d not yet completed a hunter education event – as long as Clint kept the kid at his elbow.

So why did the hunt last only two hours? Was it because Braylin scored? Nope. Nobody scored. The kid got wet and cold so out of consideration for our novice hunter we called it quits. Still, I considered it a very special day because I got to go along on a kid’s first hunt.

Do you remember your first hunt? I don’t, but I do remember when I got bit by the hunting bug. As the hunting season approached, a fishing buddy asked me if I wanted to go hunting with him. I admitted I’d never been hunting before but I was sure willing to give it a try. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. He taught me how to walk in the woods and avoid snapping twigs and therefore alerting game. He taught me how to squeeze, not snap, the trigger on my rifle so I could make steady shots. He taught me how to hunt into the wind to avoid spooking game with my scent. Two season’s later I harvested my first buck.

Yep, I got bit by the hunting bug, but I also got bit by the mentoring bug. Over the  years I’ve introduced a number of people not only to hunting, but to many of the outdoor activities I enjoy. Recently I was blessed with the privilege of speaking at a meeting of the Wenatchee Valley Fly Fishers of Washington State about fly fishing Montana’s mountain lakes. I also spoke about the importance of mentoring. I was pleased when I discovered that the Wenatchee Valley Fly Fishers were way ahead of me in this area. I was impressed when I learned about the number of programs and mentoring activities they were planning or involved in.

..and Jeremy got-r-done! Copyright Mike Raether 2019

So it all comes down to this: I’d bet there’s someone in your area of influence who would be interested in sharing the outdoor things you enjoy. They might not know how to cast a rod, build a campfire, or shoot a firearm but you can teach them. If we don’t pass it on, who will?

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!