Tag Archives: Montana

On the Fly: The Way We Were

The more I learn, the more I realize what I don’t know.

A Fat Clark Fork River Cutthroat © Mike L. Raether

A few months ago I was asked to write an article about the history of fly fishing for Distinctly Montana magazine. I accepted the challenge thinking, “No sweat. I got this.” Until I found myself deep in the midst of research for the project. I now know more about fly fishing than I ever thought existed. In fact, I struggled to contain all the information I unearthed within the magazine’s suggested word count of 1,200 to 1,500.

I wish I could publish the article here on my blog, but doing so would violate the copyright agreement – not to mention plagiarizing myself. However, I can do you one better: I can give you a link to the article. This is where the “one better” comes in. By clicking the link, you’ll get a peak at a very fine magazine that wonderfully explores all things Montana. Why, you might even consider subscribing to the magazine!

Anyway, here ya go.

 

Fair Chase? You Decide

This year I was blessed with the easiest buck I’ve ever killed. But was it fair chase? You decide.

2020 Buck, photo copyright Mike L. Raether 11/2020

Even though we have a five week general hunting season in Montana, I don’t usually start hunting deer until the whitetail rut, which around here is last two weeks of the season.

Early on the morning of November 18, just as first light was flirting with the sky, I was about to head out to my favorite hunting spot (about 10 minutes away), when in the dim dawn light I saw a herd of about 15 cow elk and calves bedded down in the pasture about 65 yards from my house.

As the light grew, they started getting up and heading out like they always do about first light. I didn’t have a cow permit, so all I could do was watch them. And as I watched them I remembered that deer like to hang around elk sometimes, so I bundled up, got a cushion from the house, parked my butt on the little bench we have on our front deck, and lay my rifle across my lap. As I watched the edge of the timber across the pasture about 100 yards away, two different pairs of does wander out of the timber about 75 yards apart, and began feeding at the edge of the pasture. I figured if those does weren’t already bred, a buck might show up to take care of business.

After an hour or so I came back in the house to get some work done in my home office, but I kept a close eye on the pasture all day. About 2:00 in the afternoon a fork horn showed up, but it wasn’t a good shot so I passed. I told my wife I was going to spend the last hour or so of the day out on the deck, and went back to my impromptu “hunting spot” about 4:30 P.M. A doe with a yearling appeared along the edge of the pasture, and I watched as mamma nursed her fawn. Afterword, they both wandered up into the trees, and I lost track of them.

Just a few minutes later a decent buck arrived, trailing the doe. I steadied my rifle on the deck railing and took him at 130 yards, broadside and just behind the shoulder. Bang-flop. He was a 3X4, but certainly not a monster; he was an older deer whose antlers were in decline. I shot him at 5:00 P.M. and by 7:00 P.M. he was gutted, hung, skinned, and I was sitting down to dinner! Not exactly fair chase, I suppose, but at 71 years of age I’m not getting any younger (I once tried grower younger instead of growing older, but it didn’t work).

This was one of the few deer I’ve brought home in one piece. Usually, it’s bone it out where it drops using the gutless method, and pack out the meat. Not this time. But was it fair chase? You decide, and leave a comment letting me know what you think.

Grover Revisited, Kinda

Quickly:

“Grover” – photo copyright by Mike L. Raether

You may remember a couple of months ago that Grover my packgoat hacked my blog with the intention of supposedly “getting even” with me for being such a “meanie.” Other than Grover’s very false accusation, the whole thing may have piqued your interest about using goats as pack animals. If so, I’ve got a treat for you. If not, I’ve still got a treat for you.

A couple of months ago I published an article in Distinctly Montana magazine called, “Don’t Let Them Get Your Goat” in which I discussed goat packing. If you’re interested, here’s the link.

By the way, Distinctly Montana is a very fine, full color glossy magazine which explores all things Montana, from wildlife and wild lands, to outdoor recreation, to people and places, to arts, culture, food, and fun (in my view, all food is fun except for carrots which I totally detest).

Anyway, check out the mag. I think you’ll like it. Mikey does.

Fall Fly Fishing on Montana’s Clark Fork River

I was chatting with another fly fisher in an area fly shop. He was visiting from another state in mid-summer and was looking for some local information. Our conversation turned to the best time of day to fish the nearby Clark Fork River.

I said with a smile, “Normally I’d say first light, but Clark Fork trout are respectable trout. You don’t have to be on the water at dawn. The trout here don’t get up early.”

After the fellow left the shop, owner and fishing guide Joe Cantrell said with a sigh of resignation, “The fish around here always get up early. It’s the fishermen who don’t get up early.”

Joe likes to get out early, and I don’t blame him. Although Montana’s Clark Fork River can put out fish any time of day, first light almost always yields the best fishing. Almost. But not always. Let us consider.

One of the best times for fly fishing the gentle waters of the Clark Fork River is right now. The cool morning temperatures of Indian Summer mean lethargic bugs, but as the chill of the mornings yield to the special warmth of Montana Fall afternoons the table is set, entomologically speaking. Bug activity blooms. There’s lot more busyness in the bug world.

This is a magical time, sandwiched between the nip of winter and the sizzle of summer. And if the bugs don’t get up early, why should a fly fisher? Now is the time of year for a little extra shut-eye and a leisurely brunch before bending a rod. A warm afternoon also means a little warmer water, which in turn means a hardy fly fisher can forgo waders.

And, ah, the scenery. The cottonwoods bordering the river’s banks stand tall and proud wearing suits of yellow-green in anticipation of winter. The needle-like leaves of Western Larch, that oddity among conifers, stand on Northern slopes like guardians of the mountains wearing burnished gold armor as their needles fade to gold.

There is yet another bonus to fall fly fishing on the Clark Fork: The crowds are gone. As a friend once commented, “This is when the real fly fishers go fishing.” I, for one, enjoy the solitude. It’s not that I don’t like people; I like ‘em just fine. I just like ‘em in smaller batches.

Before writing this article, I checked in with my friend Joe Cantrell to pick his brain a bit regarding the hot items bug-wise right now on the Clark Fork. As a fishing guide, Joe spends much more time on the river that I do, and consequently he’s got a superior feel for the daily whims and fancies of the trout that swim here. Old standbys to run down the conveyer belt include #8-12 Chernobyl Ants, #12-18 Purple Haze, and blood-red San Juan Worms in sizes #10-14, with or without the bead.

However, Joe’s favorites right now are #20 Tricos, tiny BWOs, and little #16-20 Adams. Don’t fear using a double-fly rig; a tiny Trico trailing a tiny Adams about 16” behind the Trico will help determine the location of these minuscule trout snacks. Just off the bottom, try a #10 or #12 Pat’s Rubber Legs in brown or black with a caboose of a #14-16 Prince about 16” back from the Pat’s.   

Now, then: How about a little fish story?

A few days ago Joe was guiding a fellow on the river, and the water was so clear Joe was able to easily see any fish that approached his fisherman’s dry fly. Joe watched as a typical Clark Fork trout of about 15” examined the fisherman’s offering. But this fish was acting really strange. It would approach the fly but instead of taking it, the fish would turn its’ head as if to take a more intimate look. It would then drift back just a bit. The fish repeated this 2-3 times then finally committed. When the fish was cradled in the net and just as Joe was getting ready to send it back home, he noticed that the trout only had one eye.  It was totally blind on one side, so as it approached the fly it would turn its’ head to its’ good side get a better look!

How about  you? Got any good stories about fall fishing?

Grover Gets Even

By Grover the Pack Goat

I’m beginning to think my owner is just plain mean. To get even with him, I hacked his blog and wrote this post for all the world to see what a jerk he is.

Grover the Hacker

A few days ago my owner took me and that goofy poodle on a hike. I’m not supposed to eat on the trail, but the variety of all those bushes look so tasty that it’s hard to resist grabbing a quick snack along the way. For some reason, my tiny pauses for quick bites of this and that drives my owner mad. What a fun sucker. I’m not to blame, I’m just a victim of my appetite which I often pay for by getting a whack on the nose with a trekking pole. See what I mean about my owner? Mean, just plain mean.

It just isn’t fair. After all, my owner keeps snacks in his backpack. All I want to do is grab a snack for later. It’s not like I’m going to eat it right now; I’m simply stuffing it into my rumen for later when I have time to chew it up properly. I am an eating machine, and the sooner my owner realizes this the better. For me, life consists of eating, sleeping, and hangin’ with the herd. And making goat raisins. I forgot about that part. What goes in one end, must come out the other.

You may have guessed by now that I’m a vegetarian. And I’m proud of it. I can make an enormous amount brush and weeds go away. I especially like blackberry bushes. Gotta love those spines! But I’m not one of those vegetarians who thinks they’re somehow superior to meat-eaters. I understand there’s different strokes for different folks. We don’t all have the same tastes. However, I do have this to say: if you eat meat, you suck.

However, eating a lot of veggies generates in a lot of burps. Too much information, you say? Hah! I found a way to get even with my owner for being such a big meanie. When he comes out in the evening to give me my nightly treat, I point my nose up toward his face which he interprets as an affectionate, “Howdy.” Then I let out a big burp right in his face – the sour odor of have-digested vegetation backs him up about 10 feet, choking and coughing all the way.

Take THAT you big meanie! Remember this the next time you whack me for grabbing a quick snack.

How about you? Got any advice for my mean master?

When the Time Comes

“Time is Running Out” by zamboni.andrea is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

It was a slow day in the fly shop, so I was glad to see a visitor. With deliberate care, he opened the door of the fly shop and softly closed it behind him. He was slightly stooped, and lines of many years etched his face. I guessed his age as the early 80s. After closing the door, he looked toward me and his face radiated a kind smile as his eyes caught mine. He walked slowly to where I stood behind the counter.

“I’ve never been able to drive by a fly shop without stopping,” he said. A visitor from out of state, he asked, “Fishing any good around here?”

“Fishing’s almost always good,” I said, “But the catching varies. However, the catching has been pretty good lately.” I motioned towards a couple of nearby padded chairs reserved for visitors. “Have a seat,” I said, “And we can chat. Unless you have to be some place. I don’t want to keep you off the river. There’s some pretty good wade fishing spots close by.”

He eased himself into a seat. A deep sigh of contentment followed. “Thanks,” he said. “No, I don’t have to be anywhere in particular. But I’m afraid I won’t be going fishing. My balance isn’t what it used to be, and I get tired in a hurry. I’ve had to give up fly fishing. But as I said, I just can’t drive by a fly shop without stopping.”

We burned an hour or so trading fish stories, and then my visitor rose to leave. “Thanks,” he said, “I appreciated your time. You’re a good listener.”

I held the door open for the man, and after closing it behind him I returned to my seat. I had much to think about. What would happen to me if I couldn’t fish any more? How would that be? Would I still hang around fly shops and explore the local rivers and still waters? Or will there come a day when I, too, will be slowed or even benched by physical limitations?

I smiled smugly. Well, that’s never gonna happen to me, I thought. As long as I can string a fly rod, I’ll keep fishing. I’ll never let anything stop me.

Then my thoughts took a sobering turn. When did I stop climbing stairs two at a time? When was the last time I was on my mountain bike? When did I start using a magnifier to tie on a fly? Not too long ago I could tie on a #22 trico without thinking about it. Now I can’t even see a #22 trico. I pride myself on being pretty healthy and in pretty good physical condition for a geezer. But the last time I went backpacking with a friend, a man 35 years my junior, I noticed that I had to stop and rest a lot more than he did. I once was strong, tough, and feared no man. Now I carry a concealed equalizer on my right hip.

No doubt about it, age catches up with all of us. We eventually slow down, no matter how much we strive against it.

How about you? Think about it. Share with us. If you’re an old fart like me (that’s Mr. Old Fart, if you please) how are you adapting? If you’re a young buck, what advice can you offer us old-timers?

In the Good Ol’ Summertime!

Copyright Mike L Raether, 7/2020

Suddenly the season is upon me. So what’s a guy to do? So many choices, so many options. Fly fishing, hiking, backpacking, camping, huckleberry picking, shooting, reloading, cooling off in the Clark Fork River, or – forbid the thought – getting stuff down around the house so I can go fly fishing, hiking, backpacking, camping, huckleberry picking, shooting, reloading, or cooling off in the river. Or I could do some work around the house – or not. I must first consider my Montana options one at a time –

  • Fly Fishing. This is probably my first choice, especially with the nearby Clark Fork River right at hand and producing lots of cooperative trout. Grasshopper season is just about to get into full swing (better known as “hopper/dropper” time). A big, fat, tan Chernobyl Ant might be hard for a fish to resist. If I need up-to-the-minute fishing info, I can call on my friends at Joe Cantrell Outfitting.  A float trip on the Clark Fork is the best way to fish this big river which drains most of Western Montana, but sometimes I prefer wade fishing. A while ago I composed a list of wade fishing areas for some of the local rivers and creeks, and if you shoot me an email I’ll send you a free copy (no spam, and your email address will never, ever be shared. Promise).
  • Hiking, Backpacking, and Camping. When I first relocated to this part of Montana, I was amazed at the myriad of alpine lakes in Northwest Montana that could be reached without wearing off too much boot leather. I even wrote a fly fishing guide book about the mountain lakes which was published in 2018 through Wilderness Adventures Press of Belgrade, Montana. I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the lakes I wrote about, and shooting some video this time around. Should you be interested in my book, you can find it here.
  • Huckleberry Picking. What we call huckleberries here are actually wild blueberries and they’re ripening as I write. Huckleberries are a thing in Western Montana. Huckleberry fiends can get huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry lattes, huckleberry candy, and of course, fresh-picked huckleberries. I see a huckleberry pie in my future.
  • Shooting and Reloading. I think I’ll save this for a rainy day project in my shop. If it ever rains again this summer. Been in the upper 90s the past few days. My wife Katherine asked me recently, “Which do you like more: shooting or reloading?” I thought for a minute and replied, “Reloading. I shoot so I can reload.”

    Copyright Mike L Raether 7/2020
  • Speaking of temps in the upper 90s, I can go cool off in the river. The flow of the lower Clark Fork is gentle for the most part, making it ideal for folks in drift boats, canoes, kayaks and paddle boards (float at your own risk, of course. And ALWAYS wear a life jacket!).

So what am I gonna do? Hmmm . . . What would YOU do?

Over the Mountains and Through the Woods

Some time ago I was watching some elk as they scampered up a 45 degree slope. They climbed that mountain as easy as I walk across my living room. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have 4WD like those elk?” Well, we can, or at least we can come close if we pick up a pair of trekking poles and learn to use them.

Copyright Mike L. Raether 2020

Trekking poles, for the uninitiated, are cousins to ski poles. Like ski poles, they’re used in tandem. And again like ski poles, they take strain off essential body parts like knees. I’ve used trekking poles for about 10 years, although I suppose I looked pretty silly in the beginning; back in the day very few people used them. A few of the other hikers I encountered at the time even smiled and asked about my use of “ski poles.” They can laugh if they want, but at 70 years of age I’m still tramping around the outback. And my knees are still holding up. Many are the problems that can afflict aging knees, but some of the relief I’ve experienced, I believe, can be attributed to my use of trekking poles.

I started using trekking poles when I reach The Big 6-0, and my knees were starting to complain. They stopped whining so much when I started using trekking poles. Although my primary purpose was to take some pressure off my aging knees, I’ve found lots of other benefits – 

  • They give me better balance.  I don’t have watch my feet all the time, which allows me to look around and enjoy the scenery (or spot more game if I am hunting).
  • They make ascending and descending slippery steep slopes safer and easier, especially when trekking off-trail. I look at trekking poles as preventative medicine.
  • If the brush is wet, a trekking pole makes a good bush whacker to knock off excess moisture before pressing through (another trick in this regard is to avoid being the first person in line when hiking with others. Let the other nimrod be the first to push through the brush and get soaked).
  • Trekking poles come in handy when crossing streams. When wade fishing, I remove the baskets and attach one of my trekking poles to a retractable tether and clip the tether to my wading belt. Bingo: a wading staff.
  • I’ve used mine on occasion as tent or tarp poles. Why pack extra weight? Comes back to the backpacker’s rallying cry: “Everything must have more than one use.”
  • My pair of carbon fiber trekking poles weighs in at less than 15 ounces. Accessories include rubber feet, mud, and snow baskets. I use the attached carbide tips for extra grip on the trail, but slip on the rubber feet for stealth when hunting. The mud baskets are good for, well, mud, and the snow baskets allow the use of trekking poles for snowshoeing.

At first the use of trekking poles might seem a little strange to some folks, but think about it: Hikers and backpackers have a long tradition of picking up a walking stick at a trailhead. In fact, I’ve often seen walking sticks stacked at trailheads as if to say, “Use me then return me here for someone else when you’re done.” Trekking poles are just the next step in the evolution of hiking, backpacking, and hunting aids. The final step is pack goats, but that’s another subject.

Interested? A good pair of carbon fiber trekking poles can be had for under $150. You can find trekking poles for sale online and at many outdoor recreation brick-and-mortar outlets. You can actually get into them pretty inexpensively, but like anything else you get what you pay for. Check out the standbys such as Amazon, Wally World, and REI. In my opinion you don’t need the kind with shock-absorbing springs that are designed to offer cushioning on downhill slopes. I think this feature is a nice touch, but in my view it just adds weight and another mechanical device that can fail.

Trekking poles? Try ‘em. You’ll might like ‘em. Mikey does.

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 . . .