Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Winter Steelheading in Oregon

                                                     Ox Bow Park on Christmas eve.

The lushness of the western Oregon forests never fails to impress me.  It is a landscape colored in deep greens and blues, a topography of flowing water and dripping dark forests, the fecundity of the terroir is palpable.   I have images of thick green ferns under snow, moss covered firs and cedars and a river of fog flowing along the Sandy River on Christmas eve at dusk.  This is country where fishing for steelhead is still possible; not perhaps as it once was, but still possible. Though the native sea run rainbows have been pressured and have been nearly driven to extinction, thanks to significant conservation efforts there are fishable populations of hatchery fish and growing numbers of wild fish.  Steelhead migrate upriver at dusk, at night and at dawn they typically hold in deeper runs and pools.  A good rain or upstream melt will color the water and deepen the shallower rapids and will bring the fish up. They know this without knowing. They will hold downstream of their home tributaries, below the gravel bars at the mouth, in deeper water, waiting for the water to rise.

Winter steelhead fishing is cold hard work.  Wading deep into the icy flow, cold hands and cold damp feet, negotiating slippery rocky stream beds, iced guides and casting over and over again to cover the water,  concentrating on every cast and  focusing intently on every drift, watching and hoping for a sign of a take.  In winter the flies must get down into the run and inevitably hang up on grasses and waterlogged limbs invisible from the surface. You find the right depth by fishing deep enough to snag the bottom (and perhaps to loose a beautiful fly) and then try to back off a bit. 

Before this trip I (re)established my presence on the Spey pages forum.  I'd joined this internet discussion before leaving for Scotland in 2008 but did not, I do not believe, post any message.  This time I asked for advice in a thread I titled Christmas Steelhead in Oregon.  I asked what rivers to fish near Portland, what flies to tie, and any other advice.  The response from that community was extraordinarily generous.  I was told that the Sandy River and the Clackamas are very close to Portland and should fish well at that time, that the Trask, Wilson and Kilchis are coastal rivers that flow into Tillamook bay and will also hold late December winter run fish. I had generous invitations to fish the Deschutes near Maupin and the Rogue in southern Oregon.   Those rivers were much farther from Portland than we were able to justify traveling when there was so much unexplored (by us) fishing so close.

Local knowledge is precious. Ultimately, that's what people pay for when they hire a guide. Aside from the obligatory ghillie that assisted me on the Tweed in Scotland, I've never hired a guide.  Not for climbing in the Alps, not for fishing nor for hunting. I was advised by more than one correspondent on the Spey pages to "shell out", to hire a guide. It was not bad advice though for me it negates a significant part of the point of the endeavor; to figure it out. It may seem to be a petty point of pride to have never hired a guide, but I am a hopeless autodidact.

December 26th:  Garrett, Sarah and I fished the Sandy River at Ox Bow park. I had scouted it out on Christmas eve with Jasper and had some sense of the river there.   I was fishing, as I rarely do, my Scott 14' 9 weight ARC Spey rod. I was casting a Loop long-belly line (the only one I own) with a 14' fast sinking tip and three feet of 14 lb. flurocarbon tippet and with various flies attached. I am a passable, though never great, fly caster.  Spey casting is newer for me and although I believe I was fishing the water well, it was not particularly pretty.  I was having trouble turning over the sink tip and I shortend it up about 18" that night, the change made a significant difference in my casting the next day.  Garrett was fishing his new Beulah 10' 6" 7/8 switch rod with Elixir line and a 10' RIO sinking leader.  Sarah was fishing her traditional Temple Fork 9' 8 weight with split shot, and a Thingamabob strike indicator.

We got to Ox Bow park, paid our five dollars, and started  fishing at about 9AM.  It was a late start, but we'd been delayed buying licenses at Walmart since no one there could recall their passwords for the online system.   There were plenty of other fishermen on the river already but we only saw one steelhead landed, at around noon.  It was plucked out of the head of a long run by a guy using a baitcasting setup. He and his two partners had the same rig: a  bobber, some weight and  and a yarn "sandworm" for a lure which they drifted down the run. The fish itself was a nice hatchery fish and provided clear evidence that fish were in the river. We fished with increased focus and intensity after seeing it caught.  The baitcasters kept fishing the same drifts at the head of the pool. I moved below them casting and stepping down the run swinging flies. I was hopeful on every swing but I had no hookup. We fished until around 1PM when my feet felt like they were about to fall off from the cold.  We warmed ourselves in the truck and ate some lunch. In the afternoon we fished another long run further upstream.   Garrett had a solid tug at the tail of a pool but the fish was not hooked.  I had none.

That evening I received a call from a friend of my sister's who guides for winter steelhead in the Portland area.  Aaron spends his summers guiding for salmon and steelhead in Yakutat, Alaska. Hobo Fishing is the name of his winter guiding service.  He asked what we were looking for and I told him that we were swing flies on Spey rods. He said that the Sandy might well be the best place around for that kind of fishing; but he also said he'd done well on Eagle Creek that day. If we wanted to catch a steelhead he advised us to head there the next morning.  Eagle creek was too small for Spey rods  but we had traditional fly rods with us as well.

December 27th:  Eagle Creek is a tributary of the Clackamas.  It is a smaller stream that flows through a dense forest of cedar and fir.  You can wade across the stream in many places, it is not Spey casting water.  With good prospects for fish (and based on Garrett and Sarah's enthusiasm) we headed there the next day.  There were heavy low clouds and fog and I anticipated rain all morning though it never did.

Fishing a small run upstream from the park I was startled when a steelhead darted out of the depths of the pool into the shallows near my feet when the movement of my cast spooked it.  Steelhead are so large they appear out of place in such small water.  Whenever I have seen them move like that I am astounded by their speed and how snakelike their movement is. They swim with their entire bodies not their tails.  Once, on the Trinity, I watched a steelhead  from above, looking down from a high embankment at the head of a pool.  It was late afternoon and he was preparing to negotiate a shallow rapid.  He moved back and forth across the base of the white water, dropping back into the green pool below then coming  up again and zipping back and forth and back and forth like the shuttle on a weaving machine.  To steelhead, with their speed and grace of movement, the scale of the river is far different from my own perception of it, stumbling a step at a time downstream on slick rocks.

Upstream, Garrett had hooked a good fish on a cream colored egg pattern drifted below a log and through the tail of a nice pool.  The fish exploded out of the water and took him downstream a hundred yards and halfway back up to the pool where he'd started before Garrett managed to bring it to hand.  Its missing adipose fin marked it a hatchery fish and we kept it.   Through no want of trying Sarah and I did not hook up.

In the late afternoon we drove down to a parking area just upstream from the confluence of  Eagle Creek and the Clakamas.  Garrett and I rigged our Spey gear and hiked down to the river with Eagle creek flowing toward the sea on our right. As we studied a large pool near the mouth Garrett commented that his fish, the fish he'd caught that morning, had rested in that pool.  He said that catching a steelhead in a pool was like having caught one out of every pool downstream in the river.  A thought connecting the fish to a thread of water all the way back to the sea and back in time to its birth.

We waded out a gravel bar to an island and fished a long run down the far side on the mainstem of the river.  The water ran fast and deep on the far side of the run against a sheer cliff.   A house was perched on the top of the cliff. It had large windows facing west overlooking the river.  Every time my cast failed to unroll out into the run I flinched at the thought of being watched from above. The fast sinking tip did turn over better missing a foot and a half of its original length. We walked across the island and fished the channel on the west side.  Deer sign was everywhere.  At dusk, standing cold and waist deep in a near perfect long deep run, a large fish porpoised twenty yards below my fly.  Adrenaline surged and I fished intensely until it was too dark to see. By now Garrett was back at the truck with Sarah. Walking out alone, I lost the trial and stumbled upstream through a marsh along the creek.
That night, Garrett expertly baked two thirds of his fish in copious amounts of  butter, lemon salt and pepper.  It fed nine people at a dinner party at my daughter's house. Two nights later it fed another two people, non-strict vegetarians who nevertheless would not eat the elk stew I'd prepared.

December 28th: Garrett and Sarah could not fish and I was not able to get away until mid-afternoon.   Though I needed more time on the water with Spey rod in hand, I had concocted a theory that needed testing. My theory was pieced together from bits and fragments of information, some freely given and and some leaked along the edges of stories told.  Though perhaps misguided and certainly idiosyncratic, I applied a kind of personal hermeneutics of piscatorial narrative; an attempt to read a truer underlying meaning.  My theory as premised on a casual comment "... eleven miles upstream ...".   A comment that the story teller later seemed to want to retract.  Really, I believe he thought better of giving more details thinking I'd get lost. Though he declined to say more when I asked, he generously offered to take me there himself.  I was  unable to go with him so I tried to piece it together for myself. Eleven miles measured on a map. But which fork? Topography provided a probable answer.  From fragments of a half told story I'd constructed in my own mind a kind of steelhead Eden. A small creek flowing through a narrow canyon strewn with house-sized boulders guarding pristine deep green pools, each pool holding wild steelhead.

It was a cockamamy idea I know, to give up a perfectly good afternoon of steelhead fishing to confirm or refute a shaky theory formed of whole cloth.  To indicate my state of mind I'll simply mention that I almost did not make the trek, not because the idea was so far fetched or because I doubted I could find this place, but because it was going to be just too easy, something like shooting fish in a barrel. In the end I just wanted to see this imagined place, and besides Penelope wanted to hike and Erdos needed to get out in the woods for a good long run before the two day drive home.

We drove up high, far above the stream and into the snow on the mountain above the canyon. The road was marked as dirt on the map but was a sheet of ice. We found what I thought must be the old forest road I was looking for, one of many, and I parked the truck.  It would be no more than two miles, steep downhill all the way.  The narrow spacing of the lines on the topo map made me wonder if we could even find our way into the bottom of the canyon.  Were upstream above a waterfall?  We headed downhill through old clear cuts covered in heavy in snow. There were bobcat, fox, deer and elk tracks. We crossed man tracks too, impressions of large boots in the snow that seemed to confirm that someone else knew what I suspected.  Not far down, the man tracks disappeared.  The abandoned logging roads connecting clearcuts that we'd followed ended at a wall of dense forest. We stepped into the trees, dropping down a steep ridge into the tangled bottom of the canyon.  The rushing water we so clearly heard below us on our way down through the ferns and towering firs turned out to be a tiny brook.  No more than a foot wide, it  flowed down to merge with the main creek below.  We were almost there, but descending further we became hopelessly brush bound in thick alders.  By now there was less than an hour til sunset, certainly no time to fish should we even get there and the hike back up was going to be hard.  Reluctantly, we turned and climbed out of that deep narrow canyon, back up to the truck parked on the icy road high above.  My theory remains unrefuted.

  *                   *                   *

Once correspondent on the Spey pages wrote: Catching a winter steelhead during any three-day window is a daunting challenge even for resident veterans.  Even though I did not land a steelhead or even hook one brielfy,  by my reckoning the trip was by no means unsuccessful.  I'll call it a good try for winter steelhead in northeastern Oregon.  I expect to build on the knowledge gained from these experiences fishing these waters many more times over the years.  Thanks go to Aaron and to too many of the members of the Spey pages to mention, all freely provided specific and useful information that made the trip a success.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Malheur Chukar

Driving out of Oregon this past summer we passed through Bend, to Burns and then down the Malheur River drainage and into Caldwell Idaho. There is a bit of the Central Oregon Highway that follows the Malheur River out onto the plains that is stunningly magnificent.  It makes me think of Hemingway's description of the landscape in The Green Hills of Africa; not because the landscape is the the same, though perhaps there are similarities, but because Hemingway talks about loving a landscape and being connected to it in the same deep way a man can love a woman. Malheur means misfortune or tragedy. Somehow, I am connected to this place.

When I started thinking about and researching chukar hunting in Eastern Oregon I ran across a recommendation for hunting exactly this area. I have to say I was surprised to find that a lot of the land along the Malheur is publicly accessible.  Aside from national forests and in the few places where the state has obtained public fishing access rights there is virtually no public land access to rivers in Wyoming.  River bottoms are too valuable for the public, they are private and tightly held.  Down the Malheur drainage there are many miles of beautiful river with BLM access.

There was snow on the ground and the dense clouds were low enough that we could not see the ridge tops above. The valley floor is about 2800 feet in elevation, the tops of the ridges are another 1500 feet higher with the highest rising to 5200 feet.  Penelope and I dressed for the trek up one of the ridges into the mist. It was around 34°F and there was about four or five inches of snow on the ground in the valley, we wore our hiking boots with gaiters.  I carried the 20 GA Citori and wore  my shooting vest, one pocket loaded with #5 shells and the other with #6 shells.    Penelope carried her walking poles and a pack with some water and rain gear should the heavy clouds really open up.   She loves walking uphill, interest earned from climbing Munroes in Scotland, and so we were off.

I've never hunted chukar before.  Approaching a sea of grass and vast open country it is daunting and it is something of an act of faith to believe you will find the birds you are looking for. There's not much I have faith in, but this I do. After being couped up in the car for a day an a half Erdos was anxious to go and we headed up a long ridge with him in the lead. Of course, he'd never hunted chukar before  but he knew just what were were looking for. When he started to make game about five hundred feet above the river I ran up the ridge trying to keep up with him. 

We were headed up a long ridge when Erdos started getting interested in the slope off the west edge. There was a pull to go higher, but when the dog starts telling you which way to go you really need to listen. Erdos, a Vizsla, is a pointer and when he knows he's found birds, he locks on point. My gaiter strap had come undone and I stopped to rehitch it, watching him maybe 200 yards downhill working hard the way he does when he's on birds. And then I heard one clucking, a warning to the others. Penelope heard it too and so I started down and across the slope as quickly as I could, but Erdos bumped the birds. It happens sometimes. A covey of about eight Chukar lifted up, clucking, and flew down into the deep draw below us.

Chukar fly downhill and run uphill. I carefully watched the birds drop into the draw to try to mark them down so we could hunt them up as singles. No such luck. I hunted up and down the draw in the thick brush there with Erdos in a tizzy, desperate to find the birds he'd jumped. Finally, I hunted up the far slope and once over the top of the ridge just above a small saddle which was 200 feet higher than the draw below Erdos was clearly on birds again and he locked on point. I started to drop down the steep slope and then he moved down the locked up again. Now I started to run downhill (top photo) but then a covey of about thirty birds exploded off the slope about 40 yards below me. Chukar can fly about 45 miles per hour and in the instant it took me to mount the shotgun and fire, I knew it was too late, they were out of range and flew off to the far slope across the next draw at least 800 yards away and probably close to a mile hike.

The sun was down and it was getting dark quickly and we still needed to hike up and over two ridges and back down to the truck. On the walk out, a deep form of tired contentment built. This feeling has happened before, though rarely:  a hike out in the dark through a heavy snow fall after ice climbing on Frankenstein Cliffs with  Phil and Don; a hunt for Mule deer down a long ridge at last light, high over the Platte River and the hike back in the gloaming through lightly falling snow with Gerry; a freezing late November ride  in the back of a pickup at dusk after waiting for hours on back roads hitchhiking to the Gunks from Cortland with Bill Ravitch.  These moments are far too rare, elusive and, as far as I can tell, they can not be constructed, if you are lucky they come to you.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Skykomish Variation

This is a variant on the Syd Glasso's Skykomish Sunrise tied with a quill wing instead of the hackle wing.

Skykomish Sunrise Variant
Hook: TMC 7999 #2
Body: Silver tinsel with a silver wire rib, orange angora dubbing
Hackle:  Dyed yellow rooster tied Spey style, Fiery Brown Schlappen
Collar: Red Golden Pheasant
Wing: Orange turkey quill.

Time to stop tying and start packing for the trip!



Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Dee Improvisation

I improvised this fly based on collected impressions from my first day with John Shewey's book Spey Flies and Dee Flies: their history and Construction.  It is a synthesis of Miss Grant (pp. 98), Dave McNeese's  Un-Named Circa 1977 (pp.120) and in some odd way, the Dessaigne LaPatriote and La Touque patterns (pp. 131).  Of course my tying skills are meager in comparison to the cited examples, I simply claim they are inspiration.

Dee Improvisation
Hook: TMC 7999 #2
Body: Gold tinsel with a brown copper rib, Claret and Fiery Brown Angora
Hackle:  Golden Pheasant flanks, Red and brown and Fiery Brown Schlappen
Collar: Red Golden Pheasant
Wing: Golden Pheasant (Dee Style)

The Golden Pheasant wing fiber would not stay married and I dabbed some flexament in the middle or each wing to hold them together - heresy! Aside from the tying, there's plenty that I think is not right with the pattern, but this fly contains some core or essence that appeals to me. I imagine that it might prove itself in low water.

Blue Grouse - Dee Style

This fly is inspired by Syd Glasso's Black Heron Spey and in particular a tie done by FlyTyer on the Speypages.  The wings here are tied in a Dee style using Blue Grouse tail.  Since there is no Heron in it at all it seems wrong to call it a Black Heron variant. 

Blue Grouse Spey:
Hook: TMC 7999 #2
Thread: Black
Body: Gold tinsel ribbed with  Copper Brown ultra-wire (small) and a dubbed front body of black angora stonefly mix.
Hackle: One wrap of dun hen, black Schlappen.
Collar: Guinea Fowl
Wing: Blue Grouse

I killed the grouse with the 20 GA two weeks ago after Erdos scented it and pointed it in a thick stand of firs. I cooked the grouse for dinner last weekend, and now it's tail is in these flies. If only Erdos hadn't eaten most of the left half of the tail on the "retrieve" I'd be able pair up more left and right feathers for matched wings.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Courtesan Spey variants

These are variants on Syd Glasso's Courtesan Spey pattern.

Courtesan Spey Variant I
hook: TMC 7999 size 2.
rib: silver tinsel with silver wire counterwound
hackle : brown schlappen, Spey style
collar: orange dyed Guinea Fowl flanks
wing: orange Whiting Streamer hackle, orange
body: orange floss and angora

Courtesan Spey Variant II
hook: TMC 7999 size 2.
rib: gold tinsel with gold wire counterwound
hackle : brown schlappen, Spey style
wing: orange Whiting Streamer hackle, orange
collar: orange angora
body: orange floss and orange angora

Friday, 4 December 2009

Books: Spey Rods, Spey Casting and Spey Flies.

In recent weeks, when I have a free moment, I have been planning for Steelhead fishing. Christmas in Oregon will give plenty of opportunity to swing flies for these beautiful big sea run rainbow trout. Before my trip to Scotland in 2008 I purchased a modern salmon rod; a Scott ARC 14' 9 weight for casting in the style developed on the Spey River in Scotland. The term "Spey casting" is toponymous like the distinctive Telemark turn in skiing which was also named after the place where it was developed, the Telemark valley in Norway. Spey casting is equally distinctive, as are the flies originally tied for fishing the river Spey.
My way of planning a trip to Oregon includes pouring over 130 year old British fly fishing books. I started looking for copies of Arthur Edward Knox's book Autumns on the Spey. This book is the first that gives explicit tying instructions for a selection of original Spey patterns. Low and behold, the future is here, I discovered that Google Books has scanned a rather astounding collection of rare and important titles from the Fly Fishing literature. The link above points to the online copy of Knox's book online. The scanned copies are available to read on the internet and for free download as pdf or epub files. To read the epub files you can download a free reader from Adobe which does not appear to include any print capabilities. Unfortunately, the google pdf files do not include figures, you have to look at them online or you can clip them from the online text individually using the clipping tool on the Google site.

Another title relevant to Spey casting and Spey flies is an 1895 edition of George M. Kelson's book The Salmon Fly: How to dress it and how ot fish it. Also, there are numerous editions Francis Francis's book titled A book on Angling: being a complete treatise on the art of Angling in every branch. The link it to the fourth edition of 1876. The images above of the Spey and Loop cast are from Frederick George Shaw's The Science of Dry Fly Fishing and Salmon Fly Fishing. Although the Knox, Kelson, and Francis titles are of significant historical interest to Spey casters and steelhead and salmon fishers who tie and fish classic flies, many titles, even old ones, by better know authors do not seem to be available for full download e.g. for trout fishing, no title by G.E.M. Skues is freely available.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Shotgun Notes

From James Howe's (of Griffin and Howe) book "The Modern Gunsmith"
The first gun I ever bought was a Browning Citori Superlight. It's a light weight 20 gauge over/under shotgun with a straight grip and 26" barrels. I just installed a recoil pad on it. Previously it carried a plastic butt plate with the Browning name on it. I've installed butt pads before but always on stocks I was already planning to refinish. There is something nerve wracking about putting the stock of a perfectly good shotgun on the chop saw. The butt of the stock was slightly curved for the black plastic plate that was on it before so I needed to straighten it for the flat back of this pad.

The pad I put on it is an imitation of the classic British Silvers pad sold by the Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Company called the "correct period pad". High end British shotguns and rifles sported orange rubber pads made my a company called Silvers, having one gives a shotgun a rather classic look. They were also used as the base for leather wrapped pads which were often done in goatskin.

Since you do not aim a shotgun but instead point it, the stock measurements determine where the gun points when it's mounted. The image above is from volume I of James V. Howe's encyclopedic The Modern Gunsmith first published in 1934. The 1930's may well be the pinnacle of gunsmithing art. Very little has really happened since then in the gun world; off the top of my head I can't think of a thing. Drop at comb, drop at heel, length of pull, pitch and cast (on or off) are the measurements that determine where it will point when mounted. These measurements are shown in the accompanying illustration.

I increased the length of pull on the shotgun by 1/2" to 14 1/2" to have it match another that I own. I kept the original pitch; pitch is the angle of the finished butt to the top of the barrels. At 1" thickness for the pad and another 1/8" for the black spacer the Galazan pad seemed a bit too thick for the lightweight shotgun I was putting it on. I screwed it to a board and ran it across the table saw to slice the orange part down to a bit less than 1/2". I glued it back up with contact cement and shaped it. I rough shaped it with the disc/belt sander that Gerry gave me for my birthday and then did most of the final shaping with sandpaper wrapped around a file. Slow work, but far safer for the stock. The photo below makes the pad appear to be a slightly brighter orange than it seems in person, but just a bit. Out of the box the Galazan pad is a bit of chalky reddish color and although they claim the pad its color is an exact replica, it does not seem as orange as ones I've seen. I dabbed some thinned down cadmium orange oil paint on it to orange it up a bit and then, as per instructions from Galazan, shellacked it. First time I put it on my shellac was too thick and sort of gummed up and I had to clean it off and then try again with it significantly thinned down with alcohol.

The new pad personalizes the shotgun in a way that I'm very pleased with. I hope to get out after some birds with it soon, some pheasants in eastern Wyoming after Thanksgiving. Grouse locally here at home and I hope to hunt chukar in eastern Oregon on our drive west in mid-December. Bird season around here end December 31st.

Shotgun loads

Looking at various shotgun pages I see that the Fiocchi Golden Pheasant load with one ounce of sixes or fives are top rated for chukar and pheasant. Everyone raves about them. The 20 gauge 2 3/4" shells carry 1 oz. of nickle coated lead shot and so are not legal for ducks or on Wyoming state game farm lands. Oregon still allows lead shot for upland game birds as does Wyoming on non-game farm lands. Non-tox shot prices are astronomical. My Citori is an old one with fixed chokes and steel shot is not recommended for older guns. Steel is the inexpensive approved shot for waterfowl hunting. I was surprised to learn that the Bismuth Cartridge Company went out of business a couple of years ago and there was a gap in availability of bismuth shot. For a time, bismuth was the only lead free shot option for classic shotguns. It is a bit denser than steel shot (but softer) and so is more effective than steel. It is more expensive. If you want to shoot ducks with an older shotgun for a time it was the only option. Now a new company called Bis-Maxx is selling bismuth shotgun shells. The kicker is that they cost just a bit less than three dollars a shell. Kent Tungsten Matrix shot is also approved as non-toxic shot for waterfowl and is safe for older barrels. It is even heavier than lead and so has even better ballistics than old fashioned lead shot. A single 2 3/4" shell loaded with 1oz of #6 shot costs three dollars and a quarter. Based on these numbers, I thought, OK, I should start reloading my own shotgun shells. It turns out that Tungsten Matrix shot can not be purchased and bismuth shot runs about $24/pound. With 16 oz per pound that makes the shot cost alone around $1.50 per 20 ga. shell; and you still need primers, hulls, powder, wads and a MEC reloading press. I just ordered eight boxes of the Fiochii shells in sixes and fives which come out to cost about sixty cents a piece. The sad thing is that I have frequently jumped ducks when hunting pheasant or grouse and you can not legally shoot one if you are carrying any lead shot shells on your person.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Elk Hunting

Native hunters believe an animal gives himself to the hunter, an idea that is hard to reject once you have experienced a seemingly magical appearance of the very animal you have been seeking for a long time. After many miles of hunting with an intensely focused attention when, on foot and with rifle in hand, you see an elk it seems like a minor miracle has occurred. To hunt well you must anticipate seeing your quarry at every moment and when the expectation is realized it simply feels like the unfolding of the natural order, everything is as it should be; and yet at the same time it is a surprise.

This year an old friend from Ithaca N.Y. drew an out of state elk tag and he came out to hunt with me. The area we hunted opened on October first which is two weeks before the general elk seasons open in any nearby area in Southeast WY. the area I hunt is essentially where I live which makes things a little easier, and yet it is a grueling schedule that wears you down; up at 5:30 or earlier, out of the door before 6:15 to be on the mountain by sunup or as near sunup as possible. We would typically hunt until around noon or a bit later and then drive back to the house for lunch and perhaps a short nap before heading out again around two for an afternoon/evening hunt which ends, by law, 1/2 hour after sunset. This would get us back to the house around 7:30 or 8:00. There is a huge advantage in living only a few miles from where you hunt but the schedule is still hard.

Because the elk tags opened our hunting season at the beginning of October (at the same time the general deer season opens) we had the luxury of hunting both elk and mule deer at the same time. It harkened back to the early part of the last century when one could buy a kind of general game license and take off into the wilderness and just hunt what you found. Before he was a Colonel, Townsend Whelen took off into the Canadian wilderness with such a license in the 1901 and lived off the land for an extended period.

On the other hand, there are three downsides to this open season on both deer and elk. Firstly, although they are often adjacent to one another, mule deer and elk tend to prefer different habitat. We had good habitat of both kinds available to us and a single hunt often covered both. And besides, this objection is not entirely true. One morning we jumped a doe and a cow elk within 50 yards of one another in a mixed stand of aspens and lodgepole pines. Secondly, a potential disadvantage is that deer and elk really are quite different animals; you look for different things when hunting one or the other. When still hunting, you tend to try to key in to deer or to elk. Just a splotch of reddish brown in the timber is a key for elk, a flat gray patch is a key for mule deer. Any horizontal in a vertical world of lodgepole pines is a key for both, as is an ear or the tip of an antler. Thirdly, a rifle specialist may prefer to hunt different rifles for mule deer and elk. Shots at mule deer are typically longer than shots at elk which are usually found in the dense timber. In general, mule deer are not as tough to kill as elk are and so do not require the larger calibers one might prefer for elk. This too is not entirely true. Most of the deer and three elk I've previously killed have been shot with a Winchester 270 caliber rifle. I know one elk hunter who has killed more than 15 elk with a 270. This year I was planning to use a 35 Whelen for elk; it shoots a .358" diameter bullet weighing 250 grains traveling at 2600 fps instead of the 270 Winchesters .277" diameter bullet weighing 140 grains going 3100 fps. Regarding using larger calibers for deer sized game Elmer Keith once famously remarked "You mean you can kill them too dead?" Certainly not, but a longer shot is easier if the bullet drop is less. At 300 yards, which is a long but not unreasonable shot for a 270, the 35 Whelen bullet drops 14 inches compared to only 6 inches for the 270.

There are two large parcels of public land that hold elk in our allotted hunt area. Most of the land in the area is private and therefore off limits to us. Initially we primarily focused our efforts on one of the two public lands in the hunt area. It has a good mix of mule deer and elk habitat. On my first day out I'd had an easy shot at a nice 3x3 mule deer buck but passed on the shot hoping the larger 4x4 I'd seen with him would show himself. When they first jumped off their mid-morning beds my mind cried "Elk!" and then instantly I realized they were deer. They were a group of four bucks that stood up; one stotted a few yards further into the aspen stand, others just took a few steps deeper into the cover, and then they stopped. I stopped dead still and watched them as they nervously looked in my direction, trying to identify the danger they'd sensed. It was a stand off, they knew something was not right but they could not wind me and they weren't sure what had startled them. I had the 3x3 in my sights but waited because I was hoping to see the larger 4x4 that I'd mistaken for an elk, and also, there was a spike horn buck standing right behind the deer I had my sights on. A 140 grain Barnes bullet from a 270 at 70 yards is quite likely to go all the way through the animal in front and into the one behind. So I waited, and after what seemed like an eternity, but what may have only been 5 minutes, the deer decided something was no good and they quietly turned and started walking off deeper into the thicket. They did not run but walked away with with the kind of intention I might have when walking alone down an empty street late at night in lower Manhattan. I'd decided to take the 3x3 if I got a shot and I set my sights on a small opening in the trees I thought they'd have to pass through but he never showed himself. I never saw either buck again though I looked long and hard for them that day and the next.

That first weekend Garrett saw a very large bull elk at less than 50 yards in heavy timber but he was not able to get a shot off before he was gone; ghost of the timber.

By the second week of hunting we'd convinced ourselves that we and others had pushed the elk off the public land or into the extremely steep dark timbered draws that are virtually impossible to move through quietly because of the steepness, the density of trees and the tangle of deadfalls. We switched our efforts to the other portion of public land in the area.

We had really good elk hunting weather in early October this year with some light snow falling on September 30 leaving a few inches in the higher elevations and then a good eight inches fell on October 9. Snow makes tracking possible though it certainly complicates getting the truck up the steep dirt track roads into the best country. We don't always have such good weather for hunting. In some recent years we've had entire general elk seasons with no snow at all, or we only ever got a light dusting that was good for tracking in the morning and gone by early afternoon.

On our Sunday hunt on the eleventh we had blowing snow and high winds. Gerry and I hunted together. Traversing a steep timbered hillside I spotted an elk ahead of us and froze in my tracks and Gerry did too. The wind was roaring toward us from the direction of the elk and so they did not hear us or scent us. I mounted my rifle and put the crosshairs on the animal's chest, an easy offhand 60 yard heart shot. There was no question it was an elk, and I thought it was a cow but was not sure. I have never shot at an animal that I could not fully identify and also, since it was still early in the season I was willing to wait for a bull and only shoot a cow later in the season. After a minute or two watching it, and it clearly sensed something was amiss, the animal turned and I saw that it was a 5x5 bull. I had not been able to see the antlers through the timber until it turned. They were two bachelor bulls together. When they sensed us, they turned uphill and ran. I started running too. My strategy was to stay above them so it involved heated uphill running. Gerry, who celebrated his 71st birthday the week before was not able to run up the steep slope and he traversed below in case they dropped down. I chased the two bulls into the wind up and across a very steep hillside, staying above them, for about 1/2 mile.

My theory is that startled elk will at first run what ever direction takes them away from the perceived danger and that once they believe they are clear, they will turn into the wind. By the time I reached my high point I knew they were still below me and I did not believe they'd ever seen me. I suspected they would now relax and so I stopped to catch my breath, to clean my scope and binoculars which were wet and fogged with snow and my own hot breath and cool down.

I ended up shooting the animal about 35 minutes after I started the chase. I shot him at 50 yards or so, he and his smaller partner, who never suspected I was chasing them, were quartering back toward me into the wind. At the shot his right leg buckled and he slid about 10 yards down the steep slope dead. The bullet went in through the right side of the chest just in front of the shoulder and I found a 129 gr. remnant of the 250 grain bullet under the hide on the left side behind the left shoulder. With the animal down and dead after one shot I was very disappointed to discover I did not have my camera. His antlers were rather striking with reddish and orange streaks.

Since I've been in WY I've killed four elk and on two occasions have been hunting with partners who killed elk. This is the second bull elk that I have killed. He was estimated to be 4 1/2 years old by an expert at the Wyoming Vet Lab. Elk can live 14 to 16 years.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Medicine Bow Peak

Gerry, Penelope and I climbed Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy range one final time before the snow came. At 12,013 ft. it was too high for Gerry who'd just arrived from the east coast two days before. The day we climbed there were exceptionally high winds and I didn't expect that we would make it. Penelope and I pushed on after Gerry turned back and were both blown down more than once (I would guess we had gusts to 60 mph or so.) Once we gained the upper third of the climb we were protected from the wind by the mountain itself and it was much easier. All around the summit there were maybe fifty ravens that were diving and playing in the high winds.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Hiking on the Oregon Coast

Penelope and I hiked the Pacific Crest trail north out of Cannon Beach OR. The trail winds up from Ecola State Park over Tillamook Head and then over a high point of 1130 ft. and then down into Seaside OR. We hiked a bit more than four miles, a bit past the high point; rather than loosing all that elevation only to have to regain it again on the way back, we turned around and walked back to Ecola State Park the way we'd come. We'd hoped to find a camping spot with a view of the Pacific, or even a path down to the beach. We carried a small tent, sleeping bags, some food, water and a stove; but the approved camping area was in dark dank forest far from the open views. We'd hoped to find a more suitable (if illegal) site further north but did not. Somehow I relished the thought of a night of illegal camping; subversive activity.

Coming from the arid Rocky Mountain west, the dripping dense forests of the Oregon coast seem more foreign than they might have fifteen years ago when we lived in Ithaca. The trail follows the crest of the cliff face which drops off 800 ft and more to the ocean below but the thickness of the growth only very rarely affords even a partial glimpse of the ocean beyond. It felt odd to us to be so close to the edge of such a precipice and to never have a view beyond. Climbing to the rim, only yards from the trail for much of its length here, the drop off was staggering in that it is near vertical and yet is thick with lush overgrowth; ferns, alders and other plants I do not know, and there were even huge Sitka spruce clinging to that absurdly vegetated cliff.

Beyond Tillamook Head we heard a colony of seals frantically barking far below, we never saw them. I could not help but think that one of the great white sharks recently sighted just a mile north in Seaside had stirred the seals into such frenzy.

Monday, 10 August 2009

City of Rocks II

Before we left the next day Jasper, Penelope and I hiked up a rocky hill east of the Twin Sisters and Jasper and I climbed up to the rocky summit. The photos below are of Jasper on the summit of that hill.

Penelope in the sagebrush near camp.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

City of Rocks

On our way to Portland OR we stopped in City of Rocks, ID for a day. We pulled in late at night and had some trouble finding a camp site. In the light of the full moon we found one and set up camp. We woke up the next morning to discover we were camped under the Twin Sisters formations. The photo above shows the tents nestled behind a rock in the sagebrush.

Tom climbed up to the base of the formation to check out the routes. We later discovered this formation is closed to climbing to preserve the view for tourists exploring the California Trial who might be offended by climbers. Outrageous as far as I am concerned.

We did some climbs on Bath Rock. We started with a few lines easier lines on the front to get warmed up. The photo below shows Jasper climbing the Cowgirl Route (5.5).

We moved around to the back in the afternoon and Tom started off by leading Colossus (5.10C) [picture below]. I tried leading a bolted face route (5.8/5.9) to the left of Private Idaho (5.9) which I backed off of a bit more than half way up. Tom completed it so we could all try it on a top-rope. He then put a rope on the corner/crack route Private Idaho. Clea did all three routes, Jasper and I did the face and Private Idaho which was a bear.

It turned out out be a fun day of climbing in an area I first climbed in 17 years ago with David Pearson.

Thursday, 6 August 2009


Taken with a hand held Canon G9 through a Swarovski CTC-30X75.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Flying in the Front Range

Garrett took my Dad and I flying. We flew out of Fort Collins/Loveland airport. We headed north over Fort Collins and then West toward Red Feather Lakes and Halligan Reservoir. We turned back south over Gray Rock and the Poudre River Canyon. We got some nice aerial views of Gray Rock. The video shows our landing back at Fort Collins/Loveland.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

I don't want a pickle ...

The motorcycle is a 1978 Yamaha SR500. I've had it for two years. In 1978, Yamaha was competing with the British bikes like the BSA, Norton and Triumph's and they came out with this 500cc road bike in the British style. I've always liked the classic Brit bikes and the Yamaha is a close cousin supposedly without the electrical problems. Ha! It's been an epic to get it running right; and the problems turned out to be mostly electrical. I gave up trying to do the work myself and hired Barry Messenger from Ft Collins as my mechanic. Barry specializes in restoring older BMW's but owned an SR500 himself back in the day. I had the stator rewound from an outfit in Quebec. First time it came back it had a pinched wire; sent it back and they redid it again. In the mean time winter came and I went off to Scotland on sabbatical for the Spring. When I came back, Barry was moving his shop and could not take the bike for six months or so. The bike still had problems and after some extensive carburetor tuning we decided it must be the CDI (electronic ignition) Parts for this bike are hard to find and I ended up ordering a new unit from New Zealand where they are very popular. Installed that and, among other problems, the bike would not turn off. Sent that unit back across the Pacific, and in the meantime the guy who owns the company went in the hospital and was out of commission for six weeks. He recovered and an new unit was sent. This one worked! There still is a minor hesitation problem on a long pull in top gear, but we think we can fix that by rejetting the carburetor.

Took it out for a real ride yesterday. From Woods Landing where I live down Fox Creek Rd. (dirt) to Hwy 11 and then 130 to Centennial WY. From Centennial I headed up and over the Snowy Range and down the west slope into the Platte River Valley. South on WY 230 to Encampment/Riverside and then dipping down into Colorado to come back north to Woods Landing from the three-way.

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Monday, 13 July 2009

Wild Browns

Good fishing access is tightly held. And really, all good fishing and hunting spots should remain secret; or so I was told by the riflemaker in town when, a few years ago, I pointed out a number of grouse coverts on the map for him and his British visitor (Paul Roberts the well known rifle and shotgun fitter). Well mostly, grouse are where you find them and I didn't give much away hoping for a free fitting. But fishing access is far more limited and unless the spot is already world famous it is best to be discreet. I won't mention location or even the name of the river.

There often is a story (which may or may not be true) that goes with a good spot and which is designed to keep people away. In my experience, the stories are often mostly true: rattlesnakes; dangerous roads; long walks and difficult access; Grizzly bears; mosquitoes; elusive fish and even stories of the crowds of fishermen are all told. For this spot it is the mosquitoes. This is a particularly bad mosquito year all over the northern Rockies because of all the rain we've had. One old timer told me that the mosquitoes haven't been this bad since the 60s. On this river the mosquitoes are always bad, and in a bad year the swarms are just plain absurd. You have to be hardcore to fish with the swarms we encountered. I wore a mosquito headnet most of the time and liberal and frequent applications of deet at least kept them from biting much.

This river has wild brown trout (Salmo Trutta) A fish is wild if they are naturally spawned in the lake or river where they live. A fish is native if they're indigenous; they've always lived in the watershed and were introduced by some natural mechanism. The brown trout was introduced into North America in 1883 from Germany; von Behr Browns. Apparently the introduction was a controversy then and the introduced fish can still controversial be controversial. They displace native fish and there is something that is, well, not quite natural about them. But regarding the introduction of German browns to North America, in 1913 Theodore Gordon wrote that "Many of us can remember how poor our sport was before the first of the brown trout came in." A wild fish may not necessarily be native, but in a river where the environment and bug life is right they provide fantastic sport.

The two most distinctive things about wild fish is their fight and their colors. Trout in heavily fished tailwaters like the the North Platte, the San Juan and the Bighorn may grow to gargantuan sizes but they have all been caught many times before and tend to "learn" to just give in. Wild fish are outraged by the hook. And the colors are spectacular. These particular fish had a distinctive blue spot on the side of the head which you can see in the photos if you click to enlarge them.

I fished with Garrett and Matt. Hoping for some top water action on dryflies I rigged my Winston 9' 4wt rod. You can wade across this stream at the head and tail of most runs and the Winston is a nice size and weight rod to fish it. The rod carries an old Orvis Battenkill Mark III reel made by Hardy in England. It has the spring and pawl drag system so it sings when a fish runs. I'd forgotten what a pleasure it is to cast this rod and to control a running fish by palming the rim of the spool.

The fish were not feeding on the top though there was variously, a caddis hatch, some blue winged olives sporadically coming off, an occasional hefty yellow bodied yellow winged mayfly (size 14) and a spinner fall. We all three ended up fishing nymphs and I had my best luck with a cased caddis pattern of my own design. The center feathers of a golden pheasant tail are spotted and when wrapped on a hook are a perfect imitation of caddis cases from this particular stream. A small green head and this fly is an expressive but virtually exact imitation of the naturals clinging to every rock.

A rather violent thunderstorm blew in and we huddled under willows beside the stream in the downpour while the lighting crashed around us. We were on the edge of the storm. the main body passed upstream from us. After the storm blew over a rainbow appeared in the east we continued to fish, each of us catching a few more. But the runoff from the violent storm quickly colored the stream a deep muddy red until you could not see the bottom in four inches of water. We decided to head home. Sadly this happened just as a rather prolific spinner fall was getting underway. All-in-all I caught a dozen wild brown trout. They were all at least 14" with the largest just under 20", a very good afternoon of fishing.