Monday, November 8, 2010

Passing on the bird-hunting tradition

My son Dave has hunted with me since he was a little kid. I used to take his sisters and him with me on antelope trips. The girls outgrew their interest in those outings, but Dave continued to tag along until he turned 12 and could hunt himself.

His early hunts were for pheasant with a single-shot .410, which was replaced with a .20 gauge barrel the next year. A few years later, he received a .20 gauge pump shotgun with choke tubes for Christmas. That's the gun he still shoots.

We hunted pheasant together today. This is the first season he hasn't been eligible for Wyoming's youth hunts because he turned 18. But it's also the first season we can hunt together, rather than me just guiding him and handling the dog on the youth hunts.

Today wasn't a typical hunt with Dave, who is usually a deadeye shooter. He got the first bird that went up and by the time we broke for lunch, he had two pheasant in his game pouch. But then a streak of poor shooting and missed shots ensued. He was getting frustrated, but I tried to let him know that these streaks hit everybody.

At the last spot we parked, we heard a rooster cackle. I was eating a sandwich, so Dave and Xena took off in the direction of the cackler. They pushed him into some cattails where he soon launched himself. Dave knocked him down and Xena made a good retrieve of the wounded bird. It was a great ending to a nice November day. The only blemish on the outing was the rattlesnake I nearly stepped on.

I like hunting with Dave. My dad took me a few times when I was a teen, but I don't remember ever having any success.

But I still hunt with my father's Remington 1100. I also hunt with my grandfather's Winchester Model 12 and Browning semiautomatic. I like to think that someday these guns will be taken afield by Dave and his son.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Last chance for fall brown trout?

Our wonderful fall weather is running on borrowed time, so Sam and I headed for a local lake yesterday to cash in on some November brown trout. When I was there a couple mornings before, the lake had ice extending out about 50 yards in places. But this day was warm and sunny, with afternoon temperatures probably in the 50s. Not bad for Nov. 6 at nearly 8,000 feet.
The morning started promisingly. I landed two browns on egg patterns and had a few other hits. Sam nailed a few on wooly buggers from his favorite spot off a point of the lake.
Then it slowed down, and we decided to take a break. Back at the vehicles, we pitched lawn chairs between our rigs to get out of the wind that had picked up. The sun felt great, and beer and lunch felt great, too. We listened to Colorado blow a 45-17 lead to Kansas, watched other anglers through binoculars, and had a few laughs at other people's expense.
I was thinking about a nap, but Sam brewed up some coffee and, refortified with energy, we returned to the water around 3:30.
Our timing was perfect. The trout had moved closer to shore, and we enjoyed steady action on buggers. By 6 o'clock, it was getting dark, and the water was getting cold. We quit, glad for yet another fall day on the water.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

November surprise: Trout still looking up

Fishing is full of surprises, and this fall has brought probably the most unexpected surprise of all. Back in August, I accidentally discovered that large rainbow trout in a lake would hit grasshopper fly patterns even though there had been no visible surface-feeding activity. This dry-fly action continued through September and October with bows up to 24 inches inhaling the hoppers.
All along, I kept wondering how long this unusual behavior would last, figuring it would shut down any day. It's weird enough to catch fish that size on dry flies, but even stranger when they're still hitting hoppers after numerous freezes and even a snowstorm had killed all of the naturals.
So on Nov. 1, I decided to head to this lake once more to see if by chance the big bows were still looking up for hoppers. My first cast answered that question as a nice fish lazily rose to my fly, and I missed the hookset. A half hour later, I managed to hook another big bow, but after a couple powerful runs, he got into the weeds and broke me off.
I moved to the other side of the lake to take advantage of the wind and soon hooked up with the bow in the above photos, this time managing to bring him to net.
I never expected dry fly action at 7,000 feet in Wyoming in November. If the lake doesn't freeze by then, will December bring more of the same?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

High and dry: Big trout looking up

In flyfishing, a 20-inch trout often is considered trophy quality. I usually catch one a year, sometimes a few more, sometimes none. But whenever a trout stretches the tape measure to 20 inches or more, it's a special fish.
Usually, those fish are caught in deep water on nymphs or streamers. But in the last two weeks, large trout have been hitting the surface at a local lake for dry flies. Big, bushy flies such as size 10 parachute Adams and 10-12 grasshopper patterns are the ticket.
Seeing a big fish come out of the depths to inhale a dry fly is one of flyfishing's greatest thrills. The visual impact is so strong that I have to hold back on setting the hook until it's in the fish's mouth. Several times recently, I've gotten so excited at the sight of a 5 or 6-pound rainbow coming up to smash my hopper pattern that I've pulled it right out of their mouth.
But when I do hook up, hold on tight because these big 'bows are headed for the weeds, trying to tangle your line so they can escape. Sometimes it works for them, but often it has not. Today, for instance, I landed four fish, all over 20 and a couple around 2 feet long. The secret, I've found, is go with 1X tippet. Leave that weak stuff, 3X or 4X, at home.
I don't know how long this unusual top-water action for big fish will last. But I am savoring it like a 20-ounce porterhouse steak.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Backpacking in the Big Horn Mountains

A four-day, 20-mile trip into the Cloud Peak Wilderness of Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains was my first backpacking in about 20 years. I was worried about my knees holding up, but with the help of trekking poles, Ibuprofen and knee braces, it was OK.
We got a late start on the first day, and walked about 4.5 miles to our first camp on Lake Helen. The mosquitoes were out in force by the lake, so we opted to camp on a rocky ridge above the lake where it might be windier. By the time we set up camp and ate, there wasn't much time to fish so I didn't even break out my flyrod.
The next morning, we hiked to Mistymoon Lake and caught some small brook trout. We pushed on to Solitude Lake for night two's camp, passing some beautiful waterfalls about a half-mile from the lake. Jan and I caught a bunch of brookies at the lake, including a couple decent 12-inchers.
Day three started with a long uphill trek. Luckily, the day was cool and overcast - a harbinger of what the weather held in store for us. We set up camp at Lake Marion around 1 p.m., giving us ample time to fish that water and to hike to Fortress Lake. A ranger hinted that Fortress held golden trout, and it wasn't long before Jan hooked up with one about a foot long. Even from across the lake, I could see the fish's bright orange belly. Goldens are gaudy, special trout that live in special places.
We awoke to snow on our last morning and hurriedly ate and packed up. We all wore the warmest clothes we had, and walked briskly to get the body temperature heating up.
Once we reached the trailhead, we headed for beer and burgers in Tensleep, Wyo.
Thanks to Marty for packing cognac and wine. It was a great trip.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Flyfishing is for the birds

Two of my favorite outdoor activities are flyfishing and birdhunting. Yesterday, I found a new way to combine them.
While floating the North Platte River, I was casting a peacock woolly bugger toward the shore, hoping to move a trout.
After one cast, I saw a small bird fluttering around the water and figured it was catching insects. When I raised my rod for the next case, I noticed I had caught the bird, which I think was some kind of swallow.
He must have mistaken my fly for a tasty bug meal and grabbed it out of the air on the cast.
The leader was wrapped around his wing, and, fortunately, the No. 8 fly hook didn't get him. I untangled him and released the bird unharmed. He flew away just fine, hopefully a bit wiser.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Summer skiing becomes risky business

I decided to take a day off from fishing and do a ski mountaineer trip with Marty, the Ph.D. of Ski, earlier this week. The thought of escaping 80 degree temps in town for a refreshing mountainside of snow was appealing.

We had to take our skis off for three rock fields on our climb to the ridge (or in Marty's case, walk across with skis on). On the way down, we had to again de-ski to cross the rocks. But the snow was surprisingly firm for June 26, and we tried to make every turn count since summer skiing is a fleeting pastime.

Marty was nearly to the bottom of one run when he stopped. "How many more turns do you plan to make before those rocks?" I asked. He predicted two and skied off. Two turns later, he kept going, getting closer to the rocks. On the fourth turn, he suddenly tipped over and crashed head-first into the rocks.

"Son of a biscuit," I thought and hurried downhill to see if he was OK. The Ph.D. took a while to get up and already had a big bump sprouting on his head. On his last turn, he had hit a rock and crashed. When I took off my skis to walk down to where he fell, I sunk knee-deep into some rotten snow that probably also contributed to his fall.

To make matters worse, Marty broke a ski pole and had to descend the rest of the mountain with one pole.

We skipped the post-ski beer in case he had suffered a concussion. When we got back to town, his wife called the doctor. Luckily, the Ph.D. didn't have any of the concussion symptoms that his doctor listed. The next day, he said he felt fine.

A close call that nearly ruined an otherwise great summer ski day.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Let's get small

Every guy wants some strange now and then. It's no different with fishermen. I catch hundreds of trout every year. That's not because I'm some super-flycaster. It's just that trout fishing is really good around here, and I fish a lot. Brook trout in mountain lakes are particularly easy to catch in vast quantities (my best day was 77.)

I don't like eating trout that much, so rarely keep any. But trout are the only game in town so I fish for them almost exclusively.

Last year, I heard about a lake about an hour away that contained smallmouth bass. In addition, I heard you could catch them on flies.

So I hit it this spring in a float tube. Bass bugs on the surface didn't work so I switched to woolly buggers and a sinking line. That worked and I caught six smallies that probably thought the brown bugger was a crayfish.

They fight harder than most fish and gave the six-weight rod a workout. Smallmouth also are beautiful fish. Every one has different markings, but they all have red eyes. I kept a couple for dinner, and they were fine table fare compared to trout.
Some strange is good now and then.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day shred - a mountain tradition

A Memorial Day tradition around Laramie is the opening of the highway over the top of the Snowy Range. Another tradition has been to ski Medicine Bow Peak once Highway 130 is plowed and open to the public.
On Monday, Marty, aka The Ph.D. of Ski, and I did just that again in what has become an annual event. Marty is an accomplished ski mountaineer and has the Haute Route in the Alps under his belt. According to his uncalibrated altimeter, we climbed between 1,200 and 1,500 vertical feet and reached the 11,500-foot mark on the mountain.
The weather was windy once we topped the first part of the ascent and wind chills dropped steadily as we moved farther up the mountain. At the top, we huddled behind some rocks to eat candy bars and rest. (I enjoyed my first dark chocolate Snickers.)
The snow was rather hard and crunchy for this time of year, so we stayed at the summit for about a half an hour, hoping the snow would soften for our descent.
As usual on Memorial Day, I silently dedicated my run to my grandfather Earl and uncle Bob, both WWII veterans who have passed on to that big, untracked powderfield.
Our run was better than expected and improved the farther we got down the mountain as the snow warmed up and softened. It was only my second telemark day of the year, and my first few turns were tentative as I got a feel for the conditions. Marty was on AT gear and linked near-perfect PSIA carved turns all the way down the mountain.
We celebrated the climb and descent with another tradition - burgers and beer at the Beartree Cafe in Centennial.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wind, weather make for tough fishing

Flyfishing has been a challenge so far this spring thanks to Mother Nature. She must be angry at fishermen, for some reason.
Weekends generally were crummy. Weekdays weren't much nicer.
Wind is the major culprit. We experienced many days of sustained winds in the 30mph range with gusts into the 40 mph velocity. Lately, several days produced gusts of more than 60 mph.
Along with the wind comes the wind chill, which drops tolerable spring temperatures into the chilly range. When you're around water, or wading in it, the wind chill feels even colder.
Trying to cast in those conditions is practically impossible, even if you can get the wind at your back. Fortunately, at one local lake, you don't have to cast far to get into fish.
Earlier in the spring at this lake, I was wearing chest waders to get farther out into the water with my casts. I caught a few fish, but not many. When I told Sam about it, he said that I was wading right where the fish were cruising close to the dam. He never wades at this lake and always does well fishing from shore.
So I changed tactics and became a landlubber. It worked a lot better than wading. My best outing there was nine chunky rainbows in several hours of afternoon fishing. Many fish hit just slightly more than a rod-length from shore.
Another benefit of shore fishing is that you can sit down and relax while waiting for the next strike. It's also a lot easier to drink beer when you're not wading chestdeep in cold water.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

E Dub enjoys a fishin' hullabaloo of a day

The last two weeks were frustrating for E Dub. He finished grading his classes immediately after they ended on April 30. Then he hurriedly prepped his summer classes that begin May 17. He planned to spend the two weeks in between spring and summer semesters fishing every day.
It was not to be, thanks to the wildly windy Wyoming weather in the first half of May. Snow, rain, cold temperatures and, mostly, high winds in the 30-50 mph range marked nearly each day of the month so far.

So it was with great relief that E Dub woke up early Sunday to sunshine, rolled out of bed, patched a leak in his pontoon boat, tied a couple flies and headed to a nearby lake. No rain, no snow, temps in the low 60s and a manageable breeze made this the nicest day in a long time.
And the trout cooperated, as well. On his first cast, E Dub landed a rainbow in the 19-inch range, and the action continued hot and heavy for the first hour. It slowed afterwards as the wind picked up. But by the end of four hours, E Dub had landed about 17 trout, caught his first cutthroat of the year, and found he had successfully patched the hole in his pontoon.
Of course, now that he will be teaching seven hours a day for the next three weeks, the weather forecast calls for sun and warmth into the foreseeable future.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring: A season of many possibilities

I was driving along the Gallatin River in Montana 10 days ago, on my way to ski and snowboard at Big Sky, and saw people fishing the river. The weather was beautiful, and I wished I had my flyrod so I could stop and make a few casts.

Shredding at Big Sky and Bridger Bowl was a lot of fun (see photos below). When I returned to Laramie, my son and I headed right to Snowy Range Ski Area the next day because its Web site said 20-24 inches of new snow had fallen overnight. The report was true, and we had a banner day in deep snow, some of the best of the year.

Then last Saturday, Snowy Range reported 6 inches overnight, on top of the 28 reported Wednesday. Again, it was a legit report. In the trees, I found powder that was thigh deep and still light. Another banner day.

Yesterday, I cross-country skied with the dog in the morning in bitter wind chills. The wind was still blowing in the afternoon, but the temperature was around 50 degrees. A reliable source told me that a local lake had some open water, so I headed there about 3 p.m.

When I arrived, three guys were icefishing but there was plenty of ice-free water for flyfishing. Casting was tough with the wind, frequently knotting my leader. After an hour of fruitless effort, I switched to a flashback pheasant tail nymph and moved the strike indicator up a foot.

A couple casts later, the indicator dove, I set the hook and the first trout of the year was on. Wading in the cold water and chilled by the wind, I was more sluggish than the trout but eventually got my act together, brought the fish to net and released him. The rainbow was about 14 inches long, fat and healthy. A nice way to begin fishing season.

My thoughts are again wandering away from snow sports and toward time spent on the streams and lakes of Wyoming. It is officially spring now.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sage grouse: To hunt or not to hunt?

In Wyoming, sage grouse are one of the few upland birds to hunt, and even so, it's hardly worth the bother. Wyoming graciously allows a nine-day season for the big birds, with a two-bird daily limit.

I could argue that the state is ridiculously conservative with sage grouse seasons, but, hey, it's Wyoming! Of course, it's ridiculously conservative!

I haven't shot a sage hen in the Cowboy State for probably 10 years, and I'm having second thoughts about ever shooting them again.

Let me say that I love hunting the large, native grouse. I like the country they live in, the goofy way they fly, and how many of them you can see in good sagebrush habitat. Plus, my dog really likes to hunt them. They must put out terrific scent for a dog.

That said, they have a gamey taste, which isn't always a good thing. At worst, they taste like sagebrush. At best, venison. Adding to the questionable flavor, the sage grouse is threatened in much of its former range. The feds are considering endangered species status for it.

You wouldn't suspect that if you hunted with me in Montana last fall. I found sage grouse everywhere, including in places you would expect to find pheasant or sharptails, but not sage hen. I shot five sage grouse last fall in Montana, but could have harvested more if I focused on their habitat.

But in the back of my mind, whenever I pull the trigger on a big bomber, I think, "Wonder how this one will taste?"

The last one I cooked was chopped up into small pieces and turned into chili. It came out fine, no different from deer meat. But I have a huge male waiting in the freezer and am apprehensive about disguising its sagey taste in any manner - chili, spaghetti, curry, whatever.

So when I read a column in Wyofile about a guy who has quit hunting sage grouse, it struck a chord with me. He decided to quit because of the table quality and their threatened future.

I had mentioned to a buddy last fall that I might quit shooting them. So it's been on my mind for a while, too. I'm not too worried about them going extinct. In Wyoming and Montana, there seems to be plenty of sage grouse.

But I kind of feel sorry for the big dummies. They're not crafty like pheasants. They don't explode into the air like Hungarian partridge. And they're so big, you would have to be blind to miss them.

It's easy to say now, in mid-February, that I won't shoot sage grouse again. But when a flock of 20 of them takes off in September, each one offering a target as big as Sputnik, will I have the willpower to take my finger off the trigger?

Monday, January 4, 2010

End of another season

Wyoming's upland bird season officially ended Dec. 31, but my season was done two weeks earlier. Several snowstorms, icy roads and bone-numbing wind chill temperatures put a stop to my season around mid-month.

It was a great fall for me. I made several trips to Montana, where I hunted with friends and their dogs. I had better-than-usual hunting in Wyoming, particularly on blue grouse in the mountains back in September. It had been years since I had even seen any of the dusky grouse in my usual stomping grounds.

I met some new people, found some new places to hunt and watched my German shorthair pointer, Xena the Warrior Princess, pull some new tricks.

It wasn't all fun and games, though. On my last trip back from Montana, my car was high-centered in a rest area parking lot in Chugwater. It was dark, below zero, snowing and the wind was screaming. After more than an hour of digging, I finally got the Toyota out and back on the road. A seven-hour trip turned into an 11-hour ordeal.

All in all, it was a season that I will remember for a long time. Now it's time to ski and snowboard.