Normally my blog posts are a little longer than this, but I thought you might be interested in listening to a recent podcast featuring yours truly speaking about using goats to pack into the backcountry. You can check it out at https://fishuntamed.com/episode-22/.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
I’m enthusiastic about many outdoor pursuits, but my first passion is fly fishing. For some reason I feel closer to God while working out a fly line and floating down a bit of fluff and feather to kiss the surface of sparkling waters. Of course, I realize that just because I feel closer to God at those special times doesn’t mean He isn’t just as close at other times.
When God sent Moses to Egypt to lead his people out of Egyptian slavery thousands of years ago, Moses asked God, “Who shall I say is sending me?” God replied, “Tell them I AM WHO I AM has sent you.” This prompted me to do a little Bible study —
I found that “I AM WHO I AM” translates a word in the original text, actually a name, which basically means “I am He who exists, is, and will be.”
In my words God told Moses, “Tell them the eternal, self existent One has sent you.”
If you know the story of Moses in the Biblical book of Exodus, you remember that Moses went to Egypt and led his people out of slavery, but he certainly didn’t have a very easy time of it.
I got to thinking about that phrase, “I AM.” I remembered that God is not just present in the outdoors, but in all the experiences in life.
- I AM.
- I am present.
- I am present in your sickness, and I am present in your health.
- I am present in your weakness, and I am present in your strength.
- I am present in your grief, and I am present in your joy.
- I am present in your groaning, and I am present in your salvation.
- I am present in your poverty, and I am present in your prosperity.
- I am present in your defeats, and I am present in your victories.
- I am present in your tears, and I am present in your laughter.
- I am present in your fears, and I am present in your faith.
- I am present in your doubts, and I am present in your confidence.
- I am present in your play, and I am present in your work.
- I am present when you sleep, and I am present when you awake.
- I am present in your past, I am present in your present, and I am present in your future.
- I am present.
- I AM.
Care to share your thoughts? If you like, you can leave your views by clicking the “Leave a Comment” button under the title of this blog.
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.
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)
How about taking your fly rod on a hike into Montana’s backcountry and catching wild mountain trout? Or maybe you’d prefer reading about it while relaxing in your recliner? Maybe you want to both read up and plan that self-guided fly fishing trip into the remote mountainous areas of the Last, Best Place?
If you find yourself in one of the above groups, (or somewhere between) you might enjoy my new book, The Flyfisher’s Guide to Northwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes soon to be released in print by Wilderness Adventures Press. The first 40 or so pages contain valuable information for fly fishers from beginners to experts, including tackle info, backcountry navigation, guidance on how to rig up for backpacking, tips for camping in bear country, information about using goats as pack stock, and much more. The remainder of the book is dedicated to individual reports on some of the best mountain lakes of Northwest Montana, including driving directions, trail info, GPS coordinates, and best-in-class maps by Wilderness Adventures Press. You can sample it as an e-book online at Amazon and Google Play, and purchase it there if you like. Or you can buy a signed print copy here.
The online samples will give you a peek at the first 40 or so pages, but I thought you also might want to see a sample lake report from the book. So with permission from the publisher, here ya go –
Trailhead: 47.00634, -115.01147
Lake: 47.00603, -115.04137
Summary: Probably the best eastern brook mountain lake in Mineral County, Trail Lake covers about 12 fishy acres.
Location: 17 miles south-southwest of the town of Superior
Maps: USGS 7.5-minute quadrangle Illinois Peak (for reference only—trail to Trail Lake not shown on topo map). USDA Forest Service map Lolo National Forest, Superior Ranger District; DeLorme Montana Atlas and Gazetteer, page 52; Benchmark Montana Road and Recreation Atlas, page 61
Trailhead: 4,723 feet
Lake: 5,740 feet
Round-Trip Hike: 4.4 miles
Hike Difficulty: Moderate
Sometimes you just hit the jackpot, and the jackpot in this case was fat, feisty, eastern brook averaging 10 to 12 inches.
Knowing that mountain trout don’t usually get up early, I didn’t arrive at the trailhead and start my hike on a bright and lovely July morning until 11 a.m. The forecast was for light and variable winds and a sunny afternoon in the low 80s. Nice.
I took my time hiking in, enjoying my time on the trail just as much as the prospect of sampling a new lake. It was two p.m. by the time I arrived at Trail Lake, unpacked, and inflated my little boat. My hiking partner for the day had arrived at the lake before me and was already out on the lake fishing and catching fish. He kept hollering, “Got another one, Mike! Got another one! Hurry up and get out here!”
But I’m never in a hurry when I’m in the mountains. I want to savor every moment. So with my friend still hollering, “Got another one!” I found a comfortable perch on a log, shared a PBJ with my poodle, and had a cool drink.
After lunch, I rigged up double flies on my 3-weight with a size 16 green foam beetle and a size 14 Royal Wulff as the caboose. I walked my boat down to the lake shore and eased it into the lake. Just then a mayfly hatch exploded.
Suddenly there were mayflies everywhere: in the air, on the water, landing on my boat, my shirt, and my dog. I pulled out a fly box and searched for something to imitate the hatch. I found a size 16 Callibaetis (mayfly) spinner with a green thorax. The color wasn’t a match to the hatch, but the size was right on. Remembering that size is more important than color, I hurriedly clipped off the Royal Wulff, replaced it with the mayfly spinner, and shoved off.
My first two casts didn’t produce, but after that it was cheesecake. I had two takes in a row on the mayfly spinner, but I foul-hooked both fish. Thus began a lesson in flyfishing adaptability.
I removed the beetle, replaced it with the spinner for a one-fly setup, and settled my offering a few feet from shore. Trout were rising all around the fly, but they ignored the spinner. Try something different, I thought. I gave the fly line a little tug to sink the fly and started a slow, stripping retrieve. Fish on.
I landed and released the fish and figuring the fly was too slimed up to float, I decided to send it back to work. But after I double-hauled the line back out, the darn bug dried out and floated. No takers. Once again I tugged the line to sink the fly and repeated the slow retrieve. Bam. Fish on.
Okay, you idiots, I thought, you want it wet, I’ll give it to you wet. I retrieved the fly and clipped off the white spinner wings which were drying out and causing the fly to float. I sealed the deal by dousing the fly in sinkum.
I sent the fly back on the job with a smug smile. This time it sank. I repeated the retrieve. This time no fish. Another cast. No fish. Hmmm. I retrieved the line.
I sat in the boat thinking for a moment as a gentle breeze nudged me along the shore. What had I learned so far?
1. They want it wet.
2. They want the white.
I had one of those “light-bulb-over-the-head” moments.
I clipped off the mutilated fly and tied on another identical to the first. After a good soak in sinkum, I sent the fly on mission. Bam. Fish. Bam. Fish. Bam. Fish. And so it went as long as the mayfly hatch lasted. Ahh…. Sometimes you just hit the jackpot.
From Interstate 90 at the town of Superior, take Exit 47, travel east on FR 250, which is also named Diamond Match Road and later becomes Trout Creek Road. Continue about 17 miles from Superior to FR 7813 and turn right (north). At 1.9 miles, turn south (left) on FR 388. Follow FR 388 about 1 mile to the trailhead for Trail 256. The trailhead is not signed, but it starts just before you cross the bridge over the North Fork of Trout Creek.
Caution: That last mile on FR 388 is kind of nasty. You won’t need four-wheel drive, but forget it if you’re driving a Corvette.
For the most part, the trail follows the course of an old mining road. In fact, as I started the hike I asked myself, What’s a nice trail like you doing in a place like this? The trail ascended gradually until it crossed the North Fork of Trout Creek and then the switchbacks began. When I came to the switchbacks I asked myself, What’s a nice fisherman like you doing on a trail like this? However, the switchbacks marked the final ascent and only climbed about 0.25 mile to the lake.
There are a few very nice but primitive campsites at the lake.
How could this be happening? I was usually the one with all the luck, but today my fishing rod had about as much life as a stand of last year’s cattails in the dead of winter. However, my friend Ben’s rod continued to dance as fish after fish climbed aboard as eagerly as kids offered free candy.
I rehearsed the events that had led to this situation.
It was a frigid winter’s morning, and Ben and me had elected to do some ice fishing on Montana’s Clark Fork River. The target was rocky mountain whitefish. Sleek, silvery, and averaging perhaps a foot in length, they’re scrappy on the line and hard to beat on the table, especially when smoked. The Montana catch limit is liberal, and if lady luck smiles on a guy he can take home a bucketful of good eating. However, lady luck wasn’t smiling on this particular guy.
Silvery whitefish flopped all about Ben like water droplets on a hot griddle. One after another Ben pulled them up through the whole he’d chopped in the ice, and he hooked up again almost as quickly as he could freshen his bait and lower his offering to the river bottom.
What was I doing wrong? I was using the same bait as Ben. I was rigged up the way same as Ben. I was fishing six inches off the bottom, just like Ben. My ice fishing hole was only a dozen feet away from Ben’s. I should have been catching fish right along with him. But the fish seemed as excited about my bait as a kid faced with a pile of spinach.
At first I got getting frustrated, but then the thought struck me: this was Ben’s day. I snapped out of my grumbling and started rejoicing with Ben. It was this verse from Scripture that turned me around— “Rejoice always.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
To “rejoice always” is to make a decision to rejoice regardless of the circumstances. Two brief words, four short syllables, but how hard it is to put them to work sometimes! And yet, as we do we are refreshed with joy as with a cool summer rain after a hot spell. To refuse to rejoice is to admit that our pride is only exceeded by our selfishness.
As I pondered these things on that cold winter’s day, it didn’t matter anymore that Ben was catching all the fish. I began to rejoice with him, and congratulated him on his luck. After a while the fish stopped biting even for Ben, and we decided to call it a day. However, just before we left I finally managed to put one whitefish on the ice. In the end, Ben had out-fished me 22 to one. But it didn’t faze me a bit. Not only was I happy for Ben, but I was happy that I didn’t have to clean all those fish.
But wait, there’s more! I’m being facetious of course, but there really is more. You can comment, send me an e-mail, or even subscribe.
The news from the doc wasn’t encouraging.
“You’re done carrying 50 pound packs, splitting wood, and packing out game on your back. You’re wearing out your spine. Keep it up and you’re looking at another back surgery. I don’t want you lifting over 25 pounds.”
Yeah, right. I’m an outdoorsman, okay? Carrying a heavy pack, splitting wood, and packing out game on my back is what I do. But that first surgery hurt much more than carrying a heavy pack, splitting firewood, and carrying out game on my back. I sure didn’t want another back surgery. So…
Enter the pack goat.
For some time I’d been intrigued with the idea of goat packing. Goats have many advantages over other types of pack stock. True, you can’t ride them and they can’t carry as much weight at llamas, mules, and horses but as far as I’m concerned, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
How do I love thee, my pack goat? Let me count the ways –
- I don’t need a big stock trailer. Goats can be transported in the back of a pickup, but personally I use a little half ton trailer with extended sides.
- Goats can carry up to 25% of their weight. My pack goat weighs about 165 and carries about 40 pounds. That’s 40 pounds on his back instead of mine. I like this idea. A lot. As some pack goats can go over 200 pounds, this means 50 pounds or more on their backs instead of yours.
- I don’t have to shoe my goat or even trim his hooves, as long as we hike enough. A goat’s hooves wear down pretty fast on a hard trail.
- I don’t have to pack feed. Goats eat just about anything (except tin cans), although they do like a handful of grain as a treat.
- Goats usually don’t buck or bite, but they might nibble on your shirttail to see if it’s edible.
- They’re affectionate, but they have bad breath. Goat burps are stinky. Then again, so are human burps.
- They’re easy to keep. Currently my pack goat lives in a 16X48’ enclosure using 50 inch tall cattle panels. In addition, he has a little house where he can get out of the weather. I could easily add a couple more goats to this set up.
- They don’t eat much and their feed doesn’t have to be top quality. Last summer I bought a ton of grass hay for my pack goat and he’s just now getting to the last bale.
- They don’t drink much water. In fact, they can go for a few days without drinking. Dry camps don’t bother them.
- Pack goats are usually cheap to buy, but you may have to raise them from kids as trained and experienced pack goats are pretty spendy – if you can even find one for sale.
- They’re incredibly sure footed; they can go everywhere you go and places you can’t (or won’t) go.
- They’re recycling machines. Goat raisins make great compost.
There are a number of different breeds of goats, and some are better for packing than others. Alpines, Toggenburgs, and Saanans are all larger breeds that make good pack goats. You’ll want a goat that will weigh a minimum of 160 pounds when mature. Most pack goats are wethers (castrated males). But if you like goat’s milk get a doe for packing and you can have fresh milk in camp.
So – are you ready to do it with a goat?
But wait, there’s more! (I’m being facetious of course, but there really is more). I’m interested in your thoughts. You can reply, send me an email, and/or help design the new monthly newsletter –