Last Call

Grasshoppers whirl at my feet like playing cards snapped into a stiff wind, a sound that is enough like a rattlesnake to skip my heart a couple of beats. This is snake country, and they are still active, even now with mornings frosted and the aspens stripped naked. I tell the white setter to watch out and stay close to my side.

We have only a few hours of light left in the afternoon and one thousand feet to descend. The air seems frenetic, everything sun-baked, hot, late in the day and year. Even the hoppers seem hurried. Or maybe it’s just me.
Most people are hunting elk and deer, but the river calls. I can’t hear it from way up here, but it sings to me. I know the flow is low enough now to wade and the water clear enough to fish. The last hoppers are on, defying autumn. Go. Headlamp in the pack, hair-and-feather hoppers tied the past winter in the box, cold dinner of elk salami and Havarti in the bag. Go.
So we drop off the rim, and I can feel the pain of it in my quads almost immediately, half jogging, power hiking down into the canyon. There is a faint game trail that someone, damn them, has flagged with plastic tape. My secret place discovered. I’ve been scrabbling down into this canyon every year for ten years. This is my one trip for the year, and this one only a few hours squeezed between walls of sheer limestone. Not many make the effort. There are easier fish and gentler places.
I stop long enough to yank the flagging down and call the dog off a family of grouse he’s pointing. The trail fades and then disappears, and I’m in the thick north-side Doug fir with gravity as my only guide. I ignore the feel of my toes hammering into the boots. Is that a hot spot developing? To heck with it.
Finally, the river. It is squashed down here, flowing season’s-end-low through limestone boulders shed from the top. The river pools, then rushes, twisting. Both banks are too steep and tangled to hike. The river is the only path and only if you are willing to get wet. I rig the fly rod and tie on a hopper, wading into the first pool, heading upstream. The dog stays at my side, pointing fish now instead of birds, happy to be trembling in cold water, watching the trout rise.
The first is a brown, ten inches, sides sprinkled like he’s been rolled in black pepper and cayenne. The fight on the two-weight is brief, fun, then over. The next is a rainbow, complete with rainbow acrobatics. The next is a brookie. And so it goes, good fishing in clear water with big flies. Reward for sweat. Made sweeter by the effort of the hike, the urgency of the late hour and season. We wade upstream in the shade of the canyon walls, in the fading light of an October day.
By the time I fish back downstream to my stowed pack, I can no longer see the hopper riding the waves. The hike out, up, will be in moonlight and headlamp. We will take our time on the climb, however, for now there is only sleep ahead.

Fall comes with a quickening in the heart. You smell it early, maybe. Even in the hot years, perhaps as early as August. It happens suddenly. One morning you are standing on your front porch sipping your coffee and it dawns on you how cool it is. There’s a smell in the air, too, a smell of grass cured by the sun, of leaves, of sap, of faint thin wood smoke. Now your attention turns to the aspens on the hill above town and to the alder along the creek, watching, waiting for them to signal the beginning of it.


One morning, you notice a thin line of ice on the horse trough, like salt rimming a margarita glass. It won’t be long. Not long now. You start to dream when you are awake, just as you did back in April. They were vivid conscious dreams of salmonflies and caddis and trout rising above willow-blanketed islands. Dreams of summer coming. But now your dreams are laced with the smell of wet, happy dog, of elk bugling, of leaves changing and falling, of grouse warm and sun-dappled in your hand, of gunpowder and dog bell.
Autumn is a season that sings of harvest and bounty. Yet, on some days, it is still hot and sweat streams down the center of your back and you worry about hanging meat and fret about blowflies and rattlesnakes and loud leaves crunching under your boots. But it is time to harvest and there is not much time. Most days leave you happy, harvesting, collecting, breathing those great smells.
And yet with fall comes a sadness that washes over you for no apparent reason until you realize you are mourning the good things of summer lost. Still, you remind yourself of the peril of this melancholy path, of the fact that summers, like loves, are remembered only for the good things. Summer may be gone, but gone, too, are the blistering long, hot days, the parched landscapes, the mosquitoes, the horseflies, and the rivers with water too warm and low for healthy trout.
Early on, you look at your calendar and cross out days. You’ve hoarded your vacation time for this season and the Xs made by your pen take up days, then weekends and finally, whole weeks. Bird hunting. Antelope hunting. Berry picking. Wood gathering. Bird hunting. Harvesting the garden. Canning. Elk hunting. Deer hunting. More bird hunting. Listening to the Denver Broncos and the Wyoming Cowboys on AM radio. Hauling hay. More wood. You are awash in a frantic river of activity and then it hits you.
Fishing. You almost forgot fishing.
Autumn fly fishing is for the dedicated. The rivers have cooled and the action, at least the action of humans, has chilled a bit as well. Most have gone home and are settling into a season of football and cheese dip. So here, at long last, you have the rivers to yourself. If you are lucky, the hoppers will still be going, sometimes as late as mid-October. And if you are really lucky, the big browns will be on the move.
In late October, from the Miracle Mile to the Big Horn to the Green, the fish that we have credited with legendary intelligence, a trout worthy of kings—King Brown himself—will be on the move.
They run into the rivers from the reservoirs and up the rivers into the streams, and up the streams to the cricks. In October, it is entirely possible to catch a brown trout as long as the crick is wide. Big spawners, with sides as yellowed as the meat of a ponderosa pine. If you tie into one of them on your new four-weight, you’ll pray for its spine, its soul, and thank gawd that the manufacturer has a breakage guarantee, and you thought to bring a back-up rod.
The big brown boys of autumn react quickly to well-presented flies, as if enjoying the cooling of the water. They’ll slash and slam into grasshoppers and other big dries, while beneath the surface, they hammer Montana nymphs, girdle bugs, and wooly buggers. There’s nothing subtle about a fall-run brown trout. They have sex on the brain, and like bull elk, thinking about sex can get them into trouble. No longer are they delicately sipping those size 22 midges on 7x tippet. Instead, they’ll knock the snot out of a size 6 muddler fished on 4x and leave a hole in the water that seems to take forever to fill back up.
Rainbows and cutthroats, too, seem to frolic in the cooling waters, taking some of the smaller stuff on top, perhaps following the spawn of their brown cousins, perhaps just feeling the urgency of the shortened days. Brook trout run now as well, wearing colors almost too gaudy for nature, reds and blues and greens. They are hungry, and they act quickly and seemingly without premeditation.
The beauty of fall fly fishing is you can wait for the sun to come up over the rimrock before you leave the truck. You can wait for the waters to warm a bit and for the scattered hatches to come on, for the frost to metamorphose into dew, before you rig up and pull on the waders.


You’ll fish well, for the whole summer of fishing is behind you and your moves are practiced and honed by solstice-length days.
This short fall day finds you moving carefully among spooky trout, false casting just enough to get the job done, easing over boulders slick with the dying algae of summer. In the cool water, the fish you land fight vigorously and swim off defiantly, still full of spark. Each one you land has you wondering, Is this the last one? Is this the last trout I’m going to land this year?
If you have planned your day well and have had enough smarts to leave the shotgun and bird dogs at home on this rare fall day, you will perhaps—midday and six trout landed—have enough time and the good sense to sit on the bank for a while. Here you can contemplate the vicissitudes of the sporting life in this urgent, too-short, best-of-all-seasons season. You’ll watch golden aspen leaves spinning boat-like in the water and once in a while, you’ll rise to your feet and cast again. You may even have planned well enough to have packed a lunch into your fly vest. Perhaps, you’ll take a break from this quickening of season, from that hurried feel in your heart.
But more likely, you’ll fish hard and return many trout to the water and then you’ll start to think about that dog. It sure would be nice to put him on some ruffed grouse today.
–TR

This essay is excerpted from Blue Lines, A Fishing Life, published September 2010 by Riverbend Publishing, Helena, Montana. For more information, check out http://www.tomreedbooks.com

Land of the lost

Troy and Samantha are perfectly fine people. He works hard, fishes a bit and uses his small college baseball skills as a Little League coach. She also works (not as hard), looks a little more than good in a sundress and unloads a torrent of dirty jokes after a couple of cosmos.

But the sonsabitches destroyed a bird cover of mine. Sometimes I can’t get past that. Sometimes I want to pull into their yard on a Saturday morning, uncrate the dogs and let ’em shit on the lawn as I stand on their beautiful back deck and fire both barrels at their clothesline.

I won’t do that of course. I took at a verbal poke at them one buzzed night for being flatlanders – chiseling down the price of 20 acres from a nearly broke dairy farmer and then building a tidy $400,000 home in an overgrown apple orchard and taking away a sweet little spot I had to hunt just minutes from my house. It didn’t go over so well – maybe it was my delivery. Maybe it was a little too close to the truth.

It happens a lot around here. A lot, a lot. A new house goes up in the middle of a perfectly good bird cover – an overgrown assemblage of old apple trees, a few awkward aspens, a clumping or two of softwoods and maybe some dogwoods. I’ve stood in Troy and Samantha’s back yard, long before it was a backyard, of course, and killed a big mature grouse as it flushed directly over my head. Where I was standing – I folded the bird with the first barrel, by the way – is now the spot they keep their kayaks in the winter.

Troy told me it wasn’t his fault, you know, that we build new houses on old land. We’ve got plenty of trees and forests around here (which is true), so it’s not like he assembled a strip mall in the middle of a wildlife refuge.

He reminded me I’m not without sin, either. My house stands in an old farm field. It’s not like I live in a old house in the middle of town and walk to work. I should have come up with the money the farmer needed and bought the bird cover if it meant so goddamn much to me. He told me this as I sipped his Crown Royal. As a response I took a big, deep drink.

He’s right. He’s not entirely to blame. I’m not, either. While I’ve gained friends and damn fine neighbors and all that hunky dory stuff, I’ve lost a few bird covers over the years. All in the name of progress and growth, I guess.

I’m waiting for the day they tell me – they’ll be laughing of course – that those birds I always hunt, what are they? Partridge? Grouse? Are they the same thing? Yeah, well, anyway one of them flew into the sliding glass door on their back deck and must have broken its neck. They found the poor thing dead, “Tits up” she’ll say, right there on the Trex deck. She’ll tell me it kind of made her sad.

Yeah, kind of sad. That’s about right.

– Matt Crawford

Charged

I worried about the heat; 80 and rising and four dogs in fur coats out in it. I worried about the back end of the old man, breaking down now after nine hard years of sweeping before my guns. I thought of a girl who has my eye these days and I thought about work. Anything but the activity before me, anything but the hunt. That’s not an easy admission. But I was distracted, off my feed.

At the toe of the mountain, up against the wilderness boundary, we followed, my thoughts and I, and we climbed through hip-deep grass and pushed through alder and chokecherry and aspen.

Then it happened. He was there. Five hundred pounds, I’m guessing. I’ve been close to grizzlies before, but never this close. Twenty yards. He burst from a chokecherry patch and bounded down the hill, stotting like a flushed mule deer in fresh alfalfa. But this was a bear. And there was no doubt: the hump, the roll of silver on his shoulders, the head, the small ears, and the claws. They looked like they were eight inches long, but probably were half that.

The dogs were out in front, beyond the bear, sniffing out grouse, and the grizz ran a perpendicular path faster than I can write this sentence and you can read it. I had enough time to yell: “Hey bear!!” and I had enough time to think about firing off a shot into the air, those meager seven and a halfs. And I had enough time to think: “No, if I fire a shot, the dogs will get excited, see the bear and then it will be on. Or over.” So I yelled. I may have hit a high note. And then he was gone.

All four dogs at heel now and heading to the truck. I thought about wild country and animals that can snap you out of your mundane bag of thoughts and re-energize, invigorate, and excite. May there always be a wild place of the hunt where something is bigger and meaner and has better judgment than I. Now, at last, I was back to being a hunter; next time would be a time of alertness and stepping light, of open eyes and focused energy. I would be fired up and ready. Charged.

–TR

Bag o’ birds

It’s nearly midnight and I’m too tired for a glass of scotch.
I’m kneeling over a pile of dead grouse in the garage and in the tight space, the stench of wet feathers and bird shit is overpowering.
I flash back to a moment earlier in the day when my buddy tried to spare me this late-night foray into the garage.
“Should we clean these birds,” he asked, standing in the tall grass near the truck.
I barely stopped to consider.
My mind was engulfed by miles of golden grass filled with the promise of a flush.
“Nah, let’s get them later,” I said.
It’s later.
I wish I had done this earlier.

– GM

He say “I know you, you know me”

It’s one thing to meet another bird hunter in October at a gas station, motel or greasy spoon diner. The frayed field pants, the whistle around the neck, the pick up with the Vari Kennel in the back, a blaze orange Purina hat – you don’t have to be The Amazing Friggin’ Kreskin to figure out you share a good deal of common ground.

But in the summer, whether it’s at the boat ramp, a wedding reception or just an evening stroll around the local rec fiHigh fiveeld, crossing paths with another heretofore unknown bird hunter sends little jolts of contentment deep into the remaining Sulci of your brain.

The first step in the conversation begins when the other dude somehow establishes he’s a hunter or that he, too, owns a springer/setter/shorthair/pointer. From there, the discussion unfolds along a fairly predictable, but altogether pleasant, path. You talk dogs, birds, guns, favorite writers, trainers, a wicked cool little blog called Mouthful of Feathers, even local covers if he happens to be local.

Almost always, when the conversation closes, there’s the sense that you made – if not a friend – at least a new ally. Somebody who thrives on that smell that emanates from a just-fired shotgun, who enjoys those long hikes back to the truck, who’s made hero shots and missed the gimmes.

Somebody a lot like you.

– Matt Crawford

Patiently or Otherwise

We wait, patiently or otherwise. We try not to think about it. We occupy the time with other things – fishing, yard work, sports, clays. We frontload – getting things done that purportedly need getting done so that we will have more time when the time comes. It may even be the only thing that motivates us to be pro-active about anything in our lives, truth be told. But it’s always there, in the back of the cerebral dustbin, ready to run your intentions of productivity afoul at the slightest hint of summer waning.

It’s there every time you look at your dog – an uncomfortable reminder that for too much of the year, they aren’t allowed to perform to their fullest; that you owe it to them to get them out every chance you can during the season and watch them do what generations of breeding have finely honed. To watch them do most of the work. To hold up your end of the bargain. To have them teach you things, in spite of your pre-formed opinions and all the books you may have read on the subject. To watch them be so entirely focused and in the moment that it inspires deep envy.

And then suddenly, despite having thought that you put everything away in good style at the end of last season, it’s opening tomorrow and there are boots to excavate from underneath the better part of a year’s worth of closet detritus. Guns that have been tucked away for far too long, and you pull them out with more than a little trepidation that signs of rust haven’t developed in your neglect. Snack wrappers and spent shells and the remnants of a dog treat from last season, all to finally be removed from vest pockets in typical last minute preparation for the next.

It’s here, and we better suck the marrow out of every single friggin’ moment spent afield, for the all too rare thing that it is. Git busy living or git busy dying, as they say. Anything less would be unconscionable.

– Smithhammer

 

 

 

 

 

 

– Smithhammer

Appearances

I always thought of it simply as a hat.
In the days of my youth ‘cap’ meant a ball cap, preferably with Texas A&M embroidered on the front.
‘Hat’ meant stetson.
If worn, stained felt it meant shelter from the sun on hot days and protection from the sleet and rain of winter.
Clean, with sharp corners on the brim was for dances, dominoes and Shiner beers on Saturday nights.
Now, my hats are mostly worn and stained and reserved specifically for days afield. They are still just hats. At least until Chad Love rechristened them in a blog over at Mallard of Discontent.
Now, they are dork hats.
So, to defend how cool I am, I dove into my photos archives looking for proof.
I did find this cool old photo of my dad on a pheasant hunt wearing his dork hat.

Unfortunately, I personally was not vindicated. I found stacks and stack of photos of me looking like a complete and utter tool.
Dork hat indeed.
On a positive note, I did not find any photos of myself looking sunburned, cold, wet or otherwise more than mildly miserable.
So, I declare a hat victory for all dorks, not for coolness, but for utility.
I embrace my inner and outer dork.

– GM

Quickening

It has been shoved aside for months. Roughly. Put in a closet. Oiled perhaps, but discarded out of sight. And out of mind.
Then this morning you wake and there is snow up there. Last night–a Sunday–you were up at the best bar in America listening to live bluegrass and haunting lyric strained through the vocal cords of the prettiest undiscovered twenty year old talent in Montana. It rained while she sang and then this morning. Snow. Up there. High country snow in late August.
So long, you say, to the shortest summer on record. So long, you fickle minx. So long.
So to the closet, where it is pulled out, fondled, oiled again. And the dogs twirl and two-step and jitterbug. It is here. It is here. Now. Upon us. The spring has been wet, the summer reluctant. No matter. The best of all seasons is on us like the warmth of a September sun at the beginning of a day out with shotgun and bird dog. The sun looks sharper. The day brighter. The sky bluer, crisper.
Hello. Where have you been?

– TR

Things that crack us up.

1) “Pointing” Labs.

2)  That tired old line about your eyes being side by side so your barrels should be too.

3) Woodcock.

4) Breeks.

5) Chat board debates between ruffed grouse and pheasant hunters.

6) Peta

7) Ted Nugent

*Disclaimer: This post is not intended to be taken seriously. We have friends who swear by their “pointing” labs and even some who git all giddy over the notion of chasing what look to me like landlocked sandpipers. Please feel free to post things that crack you up as well, as long as they don’t include making fun of real pointers or good over/unders, ‘cuz that shit ain’t funny…

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