Tag Archives: outdoor recreation

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?

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?

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.

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.

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!

 

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.

 

It Just Ain’t Natural

Poor wee man” by Froots is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I was descending a mountain after an unsuccessful elk hunt and on my way back to camp when I came upon another hunter’s camp. I stopped in to say hello to a young man who was hanging around the camp. We chatted about the hunting for a bit, and he confessed that no one in his group had yet been successful. He then looked around suspiciously as if someone might be hiding in the bushes and plotting against us. He lowered his voice to a hush, looked at me sideways under lowered lids and said, “It just ain’t natural. Three days in camp and no game! It just ain’t right.”

Yeah, well, life isn’t fair.

It’s just not fair that that trout snubbed the wonderful fly I just drifted down the conveyer belt, drag free and a brother to the other bugs it’d been eating. It just ain’t right! And so it goes in  many areas of life.

It’s not fair that someone just took the prime parking spot I’d spied right in front of the store. I’d just been aced out of rockstar parking! It just wasn’t right.

It’s not fair that traffic is slow and go, threatening to make me late for an appointment. It just ain’t right.

Recently I was reading the writings of the prophet Isaiah in the Bible. In chapter 40 and verse 27 the Hebrews were complaining about the unfairness of life: “‘. . . [Why is] my way hidden from the Lord, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God?’” (NASU).

Life isn’t fair. And even for those of us linked up with Jesus, sometimes it seems like even God is unfair! I guess the Hebrews forgot what the Lord had said earlier in chapter 40 and verse 10, that in the end it’ll all be worked out: “Behold, the Lord will come with might, with His arm ruling for Him. Behold, His reward is with Him and His recompense before Him.” (NASU). No more will be heard the words, “It’s not right! It isn’t fair!”

However, until the return of Christ, things probably won’t go my way. The longer I live, the more I understand that we’re really not in control of our lives, regardless of what we may think. Most of the time, all we do is react to what happens to us. But how we react is completely under our control. I was reminded of this recently when a personal project turned sour.

I live in the country, so I have a well. My well water is great, but as my well is a slow producer I recently installed a water storage tank in the mechanical room of my basement. Basically, the installation involved plumbing in the storage tank between the well and the pressure tank. Simple enough, even for a “mechanically challenged” person like me. The idea was that the water would be pumped into the storage tank until full, then shut off via the use of a float valve. But . . . the float valve malfunctioned (my fault) and the water ran over the top of the storage tank. Luckily, I caught the problem before no more than a couple of gallons spilled over. The problem was that the water partially flooded a guest room, forcing me to remove the carpet and dry it out. But it could have been much worse.

I thanked God that the problem was discovered before the water flooded my whole basement! It didn’t seem fair, and I didn’t much like it, but it turned out for the best. What if I’d been away for the weekend and returned home to find a lake in my basement? There’s not even enough room down there for a decent backcast.

What are your thoughts about dealing with life when it just ain’t fair? Share your thoughts and be an encouragement!

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!