Friday, December 7, 2018

Winter Waterfowl-Follow The Montana Dream

I spent a lot of time in the mountains doing the big game thing this year so I missed the first big wave of birds coming to the river. Since then, we just haven't had the snow and cold to bring more birds down. The other day, the weather changed and the birds came. It was pretty solid and I managed to get some cool videos of birds dropping and Cutter earning his keep. Check them out on The Montana Dream YouTube Channel. 

As for the hunting, it was kind of a mixed bag. There were a lot of mallards on the water and with guys floating and jump shooting, the birds were moving a little most of the afternoon. Big flocks of mallards passed over just after sunset but were on a mission. The reservoirs are still open so they'd rather be on the big water. As soon as those bodies freeze up, the game will change. The geese kind of came in waves. Had I had a few more decoys, I probably could have done a little better on them. There are also a few other ducks coming through. I shot a couple redheads, which I don't think I've ever shot, plus a ringneck along with a couple geese and a couple mallards. 

The weather is getting warmer again and no snow until probably late next week so unless I get the opportunity to hunt some fields, I'm not all that optimistic for what the river is going to offer. I might have to go try to fill my damage hunt tag. 

Keep 'em where they live...

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Prime Cuts

I spent the day, yesterday, cutting meat. The weather is still too nice for ducks so it's a good time to finish up lose ends from the big game season. I know, the season ended a week and a half ago but with temps not reaching above 45 degrees I say let 'em hang. 

My whitetail hung for 11 days before I broke it down. It gives it a chance to bleed out but more importantly, the enzymes have enough time to start breaking the meat down. Obviously, you don't want to wait too long and have the bad bacteria start growing but I'm a huge fan of aging and letting nature do it's thing. You'll have a better tasting and much more tender cuts. 

Above is this best part of the deer--back straps in the form of butterflied steaks and the tenderloins. The cubes are the trimmed parts that will be used for stew meat. Just to give you an idea, I took the hind quarters and cut out a couple roasts and steaks out of the sirloin and the rest is grind for venison sausages. When it's all said and done, I'll probably net about 40 lbs of meat. That doesn't seem like a lot, does it? It is 40 lbs of some of the best meat you can get though. 

I process my own wild game for a few reasons. 1) I have the time. I can spend a couple days if I want so that when I get a little tired of it, I can walk away and come back to it. 2) I don't like spending the money. Yeah, I'm kind of cheap. I helped a friend shoot a deer this year and she decided to have it cut up by a game processor in town. I think it was around $160 and that's just steaks and burger. That's like 4 bucks a pound not including license, shells, gas, etc. I like venison but that starts getting a little spendy for me.

The main reason I process my own game is because that way I know what I'm getting. Yeah. I don't always trust I'm either getting my own meat back or that I'm getting all of it. This way I know and if there's a problem, I am the one responsible for it. 

I didn't shoot an elk this year but that ship hasn't sailed yet. I still have a damage hunt tag and permission to hunt a ranch near town. As soon as we get enough snow in the high country, the elk will come down. That season ends February 15th so the odds are pretty good that I will fill the freezer with elk. 

Today the snow is falling and it's cold up on the river. Maybe the ducks will come to the river. Cutter and I are going to go find out.

Keep 'em where they live...

Friday, November 30, 2018

Patiently Waiting

Cutter has been cooped up all fall, waiting for his turn to do his job. I feel bad. I've been neglecting him as I chase elk and deer. I usually get out a few times for ducks and geese before Thanksgiving but this year's been a little different. I haven't shot and elk and it took me until the last weekend to punch the deer tag. So Cutter had to wait and unfortunately, we missed the first big wave of waterfowl to hit the Missouri because of it. Now he patiently waits again as the weather has gotten nice and the birds are gone. We need snow and cold! 

We did get out on the river a couple times this week and didn't fire a shot. The birds that are around are pretty decoy shy unless you find a grain field they want to be in. So I'm catching up on paperwork for the outfitting business and Cutter waits again. Poor guy.

Keep 'em where they live...

Friday, November 23, 2018

Black Friday: Buyer's Remorse

My buddy, John LaRue and I headed out for a little meat hunting this morning. The goal for this year's deer hunting was to go after a big mule deer. I did that. I missed. So at some point the goal changes and I just want some venison for the freezer. I have my little go-to spot on a former client's ranch who has been very generous in letting me out for some whitetail hunting. I'd much rather eat whitetails than mulies so if I'm just meat hunting, I look for these types of opportunities. The property doesn't get much pressure so although it's not always a slam dunk, it's pretty close. The thing is, you also have a chance of shooting a monster. 

The plan was to head northwest from the truck, up a side-hill and then drop down into a shallow coulee close to where Jill shot her big buck last year. On the way, we would glass some coulees to the southeast and try to catch something bedded down. The wind was howling so we figured the bucks would bed down in the low spots and we'd have plenty of noise cover to make a good sneak. We got a hundred yards from the truck and that plan changed. 

John spotted a buck sky lined to the west and as we watched it drop down over the ridge and into that coulee, we made the move. 

We knew it wasn't a huge buck but it's that time. I just needed to get something down. So you ask yourself, "What's the criteria for shooting something?" 
A couple weeks ago, it was size first and then once you determined it was a good buck, things like distance and ability to take a good shot came into play. Now we only have a couple days left in the season so time comes into play. The wind definitely has to be taken into account and whether or not you can get a good rest and fight that wind. On this day, the whether conditions were not good with wind blowing at least a steady 25 mph with gusts probably around 30. It was cool enough to not worry about wasting meat if I shot one and another huge factor on whether to pull the trigger or not is how far from the truck you are. There's always that question of, "Do I really want to work that hard for that deer?"

So we crest the hill where the buck had dropped down and looked into the coulee. It was a pretty shallow coulee that fed down to the deeper coulee which in turn, fed down to the main drainage where we parked the truck. Nothing. I edged up, closer to an outcropping of rocks, further out to a better vantage point into that side coulee and still nothing so I started glassing the main coulee and there he was bedded down 267 yards away on the edge of some buck brush. 

So here's the deal; the buck is bedded down, 267 yards away, wind howling but I'm protected by an outcropping of rocks that's giving some relief from the wind. Why is that important? At that distance, holding steady on the target is key and that's tough in the wind. I was able to get into the prone position and using a back pack for support, I had the perfect rest. I put the cross hairs on the buck and it felt good. I looked down the coulee as it fed towards the main drainage and could see my truck only about a quarter mile away. We only have two more days left in the season. This buck isn't that big and one of the antlers is busted off but it is meat and although we only had been hunting for about 30 minutes, we drove two hours to get to this place and I'm not going home empty handed. 

Another factor that weighed on my mind is that I was up in this spot just two days ago and did see a really good buck but he was on the wrong side of the fence. Other than him, it was just spikes and a bunch of does. I'm definitely not driving up here twice and going home empty. I think this is really an important factor that all hunters deal with. It's desperation. It's the idea of eating that tag and how much you really just want to be successful at harvesting something. 

I look back at John as he's glassing the deer and tell him I'm going to shoot. 

I put the cross hairs back on the buck and at that distance, hold a little high, just behind the front should and squeeze. It sounds good. The buck snaps his head around but doesn't move. I rack another shell, hold dead center behind the front shoulder and again, squeeze. 

This time the smack of the bullet hittimg the deer was unmistakable and the deer just flops over and doesn't move. I look at him through the scope and the deed is done; meat in the freezer and it's going to be an easy drag down to the truck. 

John says his congrats and I'm justifying taking an average deer for this place and seconds later, the buyer's remorse slaps me in the face as one of the crazier things that could happen, happens to us. I glance back, up the shallow side coulee and here comes two more bucks chasing a doe right past us, only 75 yards away. 

The one buck was about the size of the deer I just shot. The other...holy crap! This f^#%'n this was huge. It ran down the coulee, across the other side of the main coulee and just about had to jump over the deer I just shot. On the way, and again; only about 75 yards, he stopped and turned back to look at us. His antlers spread way outside his ears, which for a whitetail, means he was probably a good 20 inches wide. He had 5 points on each side as well that were long and tall and heavy. He sat there for about 5 seconds as to kind of gloat, I think. My tag, although still in my pocket, was already spoken for. John had shot his deer a couple weeks ago. We were tagged out and this fricken monster buck was standing 75 yards away tempting fate. Urg. 

With a flick of his ears and wag of the tail, he turned and went back to running the smaller buck off and chasing after the doe. Meanwhile, another average buck jumped into the mix and then a couple does came up out of the brush and we watched the show as they bounded up and over the skyline and out of sight. 

As the buck went out of sight all we could do is shake our heads and say, "H-o-l-y CRAP!" And then laugh...a little. I mean, what else are you going to do, right? It's hunting. We all make choices and well all have to decide at some point, to pull the trigger based on all those things I talked about--how bad do you want it and how much are you willing to work for it and are you in a position to gamble on passing another deer knowing you might not get another chance...or you might...The one thing you can't do is take it back once the gun goes off. There are no Mulligans in deer hunting.

Keep 'em where they live...

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Saprolegnia In The Missouri River

This isn't the first time I've seen browns like this on the Missouri. It won't be the last. It's also not unique to Missouri River browns. Saprolengnia fungus is a naturally occurring fungus found in nearly every stream in Montana and kills a number of these big spawning browns almost annually. It's sad but it's also a way that Mother Nature controls populations of fish. You can read about it here as the Big Hole saw an outbreak of this fungus back in 2014:

This particular trout was spotted with another smaller brown with the same infection last week in a back eddy near Mountain Palace on the Missouri River. The first time I had seen this was about 10 years ago. People were kind of freaking out because there were a lot of these infected browns observed. I think the presumption was that it was this horrible disease that was going to kill off every brown in the river. The shops and some of the outfitters were trying to keep it hush, hush because they didn't want it to get out that these fish--fish that people were traveling from literally all over the world to target--were all dead. The reality is that a good number of fish did die but like what happened on the Big Hole, a substantial population of brown trout survived. In fact, surveys have shown that the brown trout population on the Missouri River has remained strong even with multiple outbreaks of this fungus over the years. 

In the article on the Big Hole, it was suggested by FWP biologists that outbreaks of the disease follow high density spikes in brown trout populations. It makes sense and if true, it does support the idea that there can be too much of a good thing. People typically don't keep browns on the Missouri because they are a more coveted fish than the rainbows. Clients generally don't keep rainbows either but if someone does want to take a couple to try, I usually don't have a big problem with it. In fact, I think there is something to be said for killing a few off just to preserve the grater health of the fishery. I know that's not a popular stance for a fly fishman and an outfitter but overpopulation can lead to significant die-offs in many species of animals and apparently, those fish that we work so hard to protect as well. 

Keep 'em where they live...

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Another Epic Hike and a Miss

When I moved out to Montana in 2001, I was surprised to see moose. Coming from Minnesota and traveling quite a bit in Alaska and Canada, I just thought of moose as being from wet, lowland type country. This guy is a pretty good specimen of what we have out here in Montana. It's a Shiras moose. They aren't as big as what I would see in Minnesota or what you'd find in Alaska but big animals, none-the-less.

I spotted him yesterday on my way back into the mountains to finish what had become an epic hunt/hike. The hunt started at around 4:30 am with the alarm going off, making coffee, driving about 50 minutes, and hiking for another 50 minutes or so to the rim of bowl I'd been hunting the past couple days. I'm after a mule deer--a good mule deer that I can hang on the wall. I just want one to add to a collection of animals I've hunted out here and then I'll go back to strictly meat hunting and shooting whitetails. I've seen some really good bucks up in the bowl so I pushed myself to make the 2 mile hike before shooting light. 

I cross a park to get to a treeline above the bowl. I'm sweating, which isn't good. The temps are around 15 degrees and a little moisture on the skin, a little wind and those temps can make sitting for more than a few minutes kind of miserable. As I get to the treeline, I see another hunter...kind of bums me out but that's the way public hunting goes. He's set up on the park so I pass him and head to the rim.

As I get to my perch to have a seat and look down into the bowl, I notice a few elk up above me in the park as is stretches up to the top of a big bald mountain. I scan the heard and there are no bulls. I don't have a cow tag so I don't pay much more attention to them--cool to see but not what I'm after. I look down and there are a few mulie does wandering around and then steps out a big buck.

He literally gives me about 2 seconds to see how big he is and then disappears. I'm looking hard through my binos but can't pick him up. The does are milling around but he's gone. The same thing has happened now in this spot two days in a row. A great buck steps out and disappears and that's all she wrote. 

As I keep looking I hear what sounds like a plastic clave behind me. I turn and look and it's the hunter I had passed about a hundred yards back. He got up and moved in right behind me and he's wearing something to clacks every time he moves. 

"What the..." I think and actually mouth the words as I look back at him.

He's just standing there watching but every time he moves, "clack, clack." 

I bring my attention back to the bowl and then up and through the park to the next treeline. Another big mule deer is coming. 

As the deer gets into the bowl I get ready and again, "clack, clack..."

I managed to take a shot and missed. At the distance these deer were and the typography, they had no idea where the shot was coming from. They spun and looked around but went right back to going about their business so I racked another shell and shot again...and again. 

Hunts don't always go the way you want and this year has been about close calls and failures. I hit the buck and watched it run off the park on the opposite side of the bowl and into the trees. I kept thinking, the way it was running, it has to topple over. It never did.

I got up and "addressed" the hunter standing 20 yards behind me.

Trying to be civil, I actually wound up talking to the gentleman for about 20 minutes before going after the buck. He was looking for a cow-elk and did see the same elk I did but couldn't get on them before they fed into the trees so he decided to hang out and watch the action. 

"What the heck is on your belt that's making that cow-bell sound," I asked.

It was his loose buckle on his pack swinging and clanking against his binos. He couldn't hear it. He was in his mid-seventies and maybe a little hard of hearing so I give him credit for even being up in this spot but holy crap, how could you not hear that? 

I thought the deer was hit pretty hard so I figured it's time to go after him. We say our "good-lucks" and I take off. 

I get across the bowl and hear, "Russ!! Russ!!"

I turn back and the gentleman on the other side of the bowl is yelling at me. I wave and he yell's, "Your bi-pod! Bi-pod! Bi-pod!"

"For f!@#'s sake!" I say to myself. I guess I'm down a set of shooting sticks because I'm not walking back for them. I wave and continue on to find the blood trail.

I tracked that deer for about 3 1/2 miles. He led me to the opposite side of the mountain and then doubled back. When I decided to let him lay down and hopefully expire, I was about four miles from the truck. The plan was to drive back to where I left the trail and get permission to park there and go after him again. I grabbed some lunch and water and headed back and tracked him another 3/4 of a mile. He stopped bleeding and got in with a group of deer so I couldn't make his tracks out from the others. I had to quit. 

These kinds of things bum me out just like any other hunter. In the moment, you ask yourself, "Should I keep tracking or let him sit?" 

I kept tracking because I jumped him twice and thought I could get a shot on him. At some point I changed my approach and was pretty confident that he'd lay down and die. He did lay down. He laid down three times after I left him and the final time, he got up and moved on and the bleeding had stopped. So now, you rationalize. 

I just didn't hit him very well. There was enough snow on the ground to make the tracking easier and to make it look like a lot of blood but the reality is, he wasn't hit in the vitals. Pushing him was my only chance. I had one opportunity to shoot him as he got up out of his bed but I couldn't get him through trees. Letting him sit let the wound clot. It bums me out to miss the opportunity and it definitely bums me out that I wounded a deer and couldn't recover him but I believe he'll probably be chasing does before you know it. 

I feel guilty but I also know I worked my butt off to try to recover that deer. I had my tracker going on my OnX Hunt App and after it was all said and done, I had hiked over ten miles yesterday. Almost half of that was tracking that deer. A good portion was hiking back to my truck after tracking him. The terrain was not easy. I'm wore out and feel beat down. 

I'm also a little embarrassed to have not put a good shot on him. So here's the deal. I've taken a few diggers this year, hiking around with my rifle and there is a chance I knocked my scope off a bit. So today, I'm going to go to the range and find out for sure. If nothing else, it will confirm that it's not the gun...

Keep 'em where they live...

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Mountain Palace

We float by these places nearly everyday in the summer. They are landmarks that were first noted by European Americans with the Lewis and Clark Expedition but know by Native Americans for thousands of years. They create wonderment and questions of what it was like 'back then'. Sometimes, we as guides, take these landmarks for granted until an angler we are guiding looks up from his or her bobber and says, "Wow! Look at that!"

Hiking around the hills, exploring and looking for mule deer, definitely lends a different kind of perspective for these places and again, brings up the questions of what it was like hundreds of years ago out here. It's what gets me through a fair bit of doubt that comes from a long season of not being successful at killing stuff, knowing I'm into another long and potentially unfruitful hike. But that comes down to perspective really. I mean, how could you look at this site and think it's anything but inspiring even if, unfruitful? 

Yes, we took the boat to some BLM land yesterday as we did last year for the first time. Along the way, we did take time to admire Mountain Palace from a vantage high above it. I don't like giving away secrets but this was too cool of a view to not share. I hope you enjoy and I hope you respect what goes into bringing this to you. 

The hunt wasn't quite as productive as last year's Meat Wagon run but we did see a few deer with one good buck that John LaRue decided to take out of the gene pool. This was a nice heavy 3-point that wasn't going to get to the level I am looking for. It's a good buck to shoot. 

Check this out. This is why I say mule deer are dumb. We were looking at this deer as it was chasing a doe. It was a smaller 3-point we spotted before the one above. Both the doe and the buck spotted us from the bottom of this little drainage as we were totally exposed and in the open. They spooked a little but then just went on with their business. His was to get a little sumthin-sumthin. Her's was to not give it up to just any little buck. 

They literally walked right up to us. You can see in the photo below that the buck is only 50 yards away and just kept coming. 

It was just after watching these deer walk away that the bigger buck made his way over the ridge. John spotted him as he was cresting the opposite side of the drainage. He did hold up behind a few trees but again, we were totally exposed and actually had just started making our way down the draw when John spotted him. After spending some time hidden behind a tree at about 100 yards, he stepped out and gave Johnny LaRue a shot. Johnny passed so his dad smoked it. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again. A trophy to one is not necessarily a trophy to someone else. Some of us are meat eaters. Some of us look for horns. Some require both. John passed on the first 3-point because it wasn't big enough. Two minutes later, he had made the decision to shoot this one if his son didn't want to. It's a nice deer. It's going to make some great sausage and John can be proud to have shot a good buck. Perfect. 

Keep 'em where they live...