Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Swinging flies on the Clackamas

To the Unseeable Animal
I have come upon pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the wood's shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang still in the flow;
as I approached they seemed
particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
                         Wendell Berry 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Cassoulet with Pheasant Leg Confit

A pot of cassoulet and confit being browned for serving.
A bit more than two years ago, in a fit of obsessive frenzied desire for confit, I bought a gallon of duck fat.  The internet is an astounding resource for those of us not living anywhere near a major city.  The fat was ordered through Amazon came from Hudson Valley Foie Gras.  A gallon of duck fat cost less than forty dollars but the shipping accounts for 2/3 more again.  I've been keeping mine frozen, but even frozen, fats can go rancid. I'm just now using the last of that stash, it's almost two years later and it is still good.  At the time of my first confit attack I made batches of Canadian Goose, Blue Grouse and Jackrabbit confit.  I occasionally use the duck fat to brown meat for stews but until recently, I have not gone on another confit making binge.

Pheasant legs in duck fat ready for the oven.
Confit (pronounced in English as "con-fee") is a ancient method of preserving meats and goes back at least to the Romans. Traditionally, the meat is salted and rested for a day or more and then submerged in its own fat and simmered in a stoneware pot very slowly until tender.  When stored in a cool place, the fat congeals and forms a barrier against air.  To eat a confit, the pot is heated again until the fat softens and the meat is plucked out and the pot is returned to the cool storage.  Meats preserved in this way and stored in a cool place can be good for months. Most commonly confits are made of duck, goose and pork but rabbits, hares and game birds are excellent. Other fats and oils can be used to make confit and even olive oil.  Of course game birds are lean so do not have enough of their own fat for confit; but if you gave a gallon of duck fat it is an astoundingly rich way to prepare them.  A game bird leg and attached thigh, submerged in fat and slow cooked will not dry out, it just gets falling off the bone tender.

Cassoulet is a baked white bean dish originating in southwest France that often includes, among other things, pork belly, pork rind, pork sausages and duck or goose confit. The bible on confit and cassoulet is Paula Wolfert's book The Cooking of Southwest France.  The one linked to here is a new edition. The book was first published in 1983 and my own copy is an early one which is unfortunately still in a box in my basement waiting for me to build bookshelves.  Wolfert's book popularized these dishes and she acknowledges that there are as many "authentic" cassoulet recipes as there are cassoulet cooks.  Because of the difficulty of obtaining exotic ingredients in  locally I often have to improvise, but that is part of the tradition of the dish.

Other cook books that are on my shelf (and not in boxes) that have confit and cassoulet recipes are Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook,  Jane Grigson's Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, and Hugh Fearningley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Meat Book   Hank Shaw's wild food cookbook Hunt, Gather, Cook includes confit recipes for game.  Hank's recipe (also available online here) uses a kind of Sous Vide method which requires the meat be sealed in plastic with just a little of the fat and slow cooked in a water bath; I don't have one of those sealers. Hank uses Olive oil and specifically warns against using duck fat claiming it will overpower the flavor of the pheasant - obviously I don't agree with him.  I'm thinking that the commercial duck fat I'm using must be far milder than what he is used to because the pheasant certainly is not overpowered by ducky flavor it in my experience.

A plate of cassoulet and confit.

I make my cassoulet using the fattiest pork bits I can find. Bourdain uses two pounds of pork belly. This time the best I could find were some fatty loin chops.  Ribs can be good too.  I dusted the chops with flour salt and pepper and browned them in duck fat. Of course if you don't have duck fat, just use some bacon fat. Add the browned chops to the bottom of the pot you will cook the cassoulet in. I cook mine in a large cast iron pot. In the same frying pan, saute a chopped onion and a hand full of garlic cloves. When the onions are browning up nicely, add 1/4 bottle of white wine, a bunch of thyme, salt and fresh pepper.  Let the wine boil for a few minutes and then pour that into the pot over the meat.  Pour in the haricot beans (which have been soaked overnight) and top up with 1/2 trotter gear and 1/2 water - to just cover the beans. If you don't have trotter gear, just use chicken broth.  Put the whole thing in the oven (uncovered) and cook at about 230°F for six to eight hours.

For the confit.  Rub the legs well with salt (this is a salt cure) and sprinkle them with some finely chopped thyme and pepper. Put them into a baggie in the refrigerator overnight while the beans are soaking.  To prepare the leg-thighs for cooking, remove as much of the salt as possible, dab them dry and place them in a casserole dish and cover them with duck fat. Put them into the oven at 230°F for six to eight hours. If they are not completely covered by the fat you may need to turn them occasionally.

When the cassoulet and confit is cooked, finish up the confit by browing the leg-thighs in a hot frying pan.  Serve a leg-thigh with a healthy serving of cassoulet and a bitter salad.  I have previously been publicly chastised for recommending a white wine with this meal but, barbarian that I am, I stand by my recommendation.  Most recommend a hardier red but perhaps because I do not have as much pork fat as some recipes call for (Bourdain wants two pounds of pork belly) my dish is lighter fare.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Trotter Gear Meez

I cook up a batch of Henderson's unctuous stock recipe a couple of times a year and freeze it up in jars for general use in the kitchen.  The recipe is in Henderson's book Beyond Nose to Tail: More omnivorous Recipes for the Adventurous Cook. It's what Bourdain might call my kitchen Meez (Mise en Place). He writes about this in his Les Halles Cookbook which has been my go to cookbook for the past couple of years. For me, having a few jars of this stock in the refrigerator is part of being prepared to cook.  When done right, it thickens up into a stock that is jelly at room temperature, you have to melt to use and it adds rich texture to dishes it's used in.  I end up using most of my stock of stock in game stews. I also sometimes use it to as a substitute for demi-glace in recipes that call for it; it has a different flavor from a reduced veal stock which I have not made in many years but which I am thinking I'd like to make sooner than later.  You can not beat the rich texture provided by trotter gear.  One favorite is elk medallions cooked following  Bourdain's Salade d' Onglet recipe using trotter gear instead of demi-glace.

From: Beyond Nose to Tail: More Omnivorous Recipes for the Adventurous Cook by Fergus Hendersona dn Justin Piers Gellatly. Bloomsbury 2007

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Technology in the Field

Elk kit.  But what's that plastic orange thingy on the pack?
I hunt with a 104 year old shotgun and a 50 year old rifle so I would hardly consider myself to be on the cutting edge of technology, but somehow modern technology has slowly but surely found its way into my kit.
*     *    * 

It started with a GPS.  I was hunting elk in the Sierra Madre above Encampment WY and had parked my truck in a pull off on a forest service road.  After a long hunt I navigated back to the road -- duh, just head east and you'll hit the road. Dead tired, I turned left and walked more than a half mile down the road in the wrong direction before I realized my mistake.  Once home I got on the internet and found the least expensive GPS I could. I have used one ever since.  My use is completely unsophisticated, but it's all I need.  When I park the truck I mark the location on the GPS and then turn the thing off and put it in my pack.  I used to park in places where I was more likely to find the truck without trouble, now I can comfortably park it in more hidden locations.  The GPS also turns out to be useful for packing out.  Once the location of the animal is marked, it often turns out that hte shortest route to pack the animal out is not the one you used to hunt it.  This has saved me some miles of hard walking with heavy packs.  Of course, now I have to carry some spare batteries too.

*     *    * 

Estimating distances across narrow canyons is a useful skill for mule deer and elk hunting. I turn out to be a fairly bad at it. Once I realized I really had no intuition for estimating distances a laser range-finder seemed like it a useful tool.  It turns out I'm not terrible at estimating on level ground but that I almost always overestimate the distance across a steep draw.  Two hundred yards just seems to be quite a bit farther when viewed across a chasm than it does on flat ground.  Aside from perhaps holding too high and missing a shot, the downside of overestimating distance is that I might pass on a shot that I thought was too long but which really wasn't.  Generally speaking, 250 yards has been a long shot for me, but with a rangefinder in hand, what might appear to be 300 or 350 yards turns out to be a much shorter distance. My original idea was that I'd carry it around with me before the season started to build my intuition and then to just leave it home.  Of course, now I always carry the rangefinder too. It takes different batteries than the GPS.

*     *    * 

The latest bit of technology I've acquired is a SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger. A friend has been carrying one for years but I wasn't much interested until recently.  I'd seen older versions of this type of device in stores and heard the urban legend about the guy who pushed the wrong button in the store and was charged tens of thousand of dollars for a helicopter rescue in the middle of NYC.  The SPOT communicates via satellite so a cell phone signal is not required - which is why it works.

SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger.

I spend a lot of time alone in the wilderness: I mostly hunt alone, I often fish alone, I cut firewood alone, etc.   So, even though I am mostly technology adverse,  I started to think it might not be a bad idea to get one of these gizmos.  Roger is an avid hunter who also spends a lot of time racing around on snow machines in the winter, he absolutely swears by the SPOT.  He used his last winter to avert a full on rescue when he and some friends got stuck out in the field overnight on their snowmobiles.  They found an old cabin so they had shelter for the night.  He sent an "OK" message so his wife and she knew not to call for a rescue which she might well have done otherwise.  He uses the tracking feature to keep an eye on his wife's progress when she's driving long distance across Wyoming in the winter to visit family.   His enthusiasm sold me on getting one.

You pay for the device itself and then pay a yearly service fee to activate it.  When you sign up for service, you can also pay a small additional fee for rescue insurance which covers up to $100K in search and rescue costs.  The device itself has six buttons: an on/off power button (top center), an "I'm OK." button (left center), a on/off tracking button (right center), a "message" button (bottom center), a "help" button on the (left side) and an "SOS" button on (right side).  The "help" and "SOS" buttons have covers over them so you can not accidentally push them.  When you activate the device you set up which messages get sent when you press a button and who receives those message.  You can choose to have messages texted to cell phones or sent to email addresses.  If it gets sent to an email address, the message arrives with the message and a link to a google map pinpointing the location where the button was pressed. Pushing the SOS button will initiate a rescue.

I have to say that toting this thing around this past fall gave me some peace of mind that I did not know I was missing. When I head out I rarely know exactly where I am going to end up and to be able to indicate to family and a few friends where I am is a useful thing and the messages record times and locations which provides a useful record of my season.

Of course the SPOT uses different batteries than the GPS or the range finder.
*     *    * 
Mostly I hate carrying these gizmos.  Bringing technology into the wilderness makes it less wild, but these things have all proven their use when I'm chasing big game.  Unfortunately, these things are all just more stuff for me to keep track of an to break or lose.  Absent minded professor that I am, I seem to be prone to loosing things. I'm a bit too self-conscious to enumerate my loses over the past five years.  I'm almost at the point where I need a larger pack but that's a topic for another day.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Nebraska III

Mike showed up at Super-8 In Ogallala around 9 PM with a bottle of Ardbeg and a copy of the Double Gun Journal.  Like his father and grandfather before him he hunts behind a setter (named Luna) and, on this day,  carried one of a pair of early Woodward under levers with sleeved barrels chambered for 2 1/2" 16 gauge shells.  

 Luna and Mike.
We spent the day hunting walkin areas in Perkins and Lincoln County.  After a days rest, Erdos seemed good, he was not limping and I was relieved that he could hunt.  He started off rather slow, but as soon as he got on some fresh scent he perked up and hunted hard. I apparently misread the walk-in map and we almost immediately wandered off onto private property. As we tried to get back to the approved walk-in, three roosters flushed wild out in the cut corn and we headed across to the shoulder high grass they'd landed in. I asked Mike if we should try to pinch them and he said to just head for where they'd landed as fast as we could, which was not easy in the heavy cover.  We pushed into the absurdly thick cover,  moving together, parallel to one another.  A rooster took off in front of Mike and then another and he missed them both. I did not have a shot.

Hunter and his dog on a country road.
We split apart, Mike heading back into the cover where we'd just jumped the roosters while I headed off into the reeds, ostensibly chasing the ones we'd already jumped.  The cover was so dense and the going was so tough that I abandoned my attempt to hunt and bushwhacked out the back edge of the CRP.  I walked the edge of the corn cut field hoping to hike back to the truck by making a loop. About a hundred yards ahead of me Erdos was clearly making game.  He was onto fresh spoor and headed back into the tangle of reeds; it was not long before I saw three pheasants fly and then land again, perhaps only fifty yards further into the heavy cover.

Following Mike's earlier advice I quickly waded in after them.  The reeds were over my head and I had to hold my shotgun up in front of me to make my way. I could hear Erdos somewhere near me but this was not cover for pointing.  One bird took off not far in front of me, and then another, and then more to my left and right, perhaps eight or more all together.  I finally pushed forward to a spot where the reeds transitioned to a reddish chest high grass that I could see over.  A rooster flew up in front of me, I took the shot and he tumbled as he went down - a solid hit.  I marked the spot as best I could and when a second bird went up in front of me and before I knew it I had two roosters down.  As I started towards the point where they'd fallen I lost the optimistic hope that I would ever find them at all.  Erdos was no help and the cover was so thick that at ground level I could only see a foot or tow in any direction. I started searching in a regular grid from the tall reed I'd hung my hat on where I'd marked the second bird down.  Eventually, I found a few feathers. It seemed like a small miracle. I worked my way out in a spiral until  I found more feathers, and then I found the dead bird a short distance away, along the line defined by the points where I'd I found the feathers.  This started to feel a bit more like tracking a wounded big game animal than bird hunting. I recalled Datus Proper's assertion that a pheasant rooster is a trophy game animal.

I searched for the other downed bird for another half an hour before I finally gave up; I was already late for the appointed meeting with Mike at the truck.  And later, after Mike had a rooster in his game bag we could count the hunt as a success.

Woodward underlever sidelock and Jeffery boxlock and two roosters.

It is a deep disappointment to hunt and kill any animal and to not be able to retrieve it. I killed two pheasants on this trip that I was unable to retrieve.  First and foremost, such a failure is a waste of life that is hard to justify. It seems that uncertainty is the foundation of the compact between hunter and prey - the hunter will try his best for a clean kill and recovery and the birds will enlist all their instincts to thwart that objective.  Uncertainty is the essence and the very nature of the endeavour, to bring down a bird on the wing at a distance with a few pellets of lead. That birds are wounded or killed and never recovered is inevitable and serves as evidence of that uncertain footing.

 A lost bird is an abrupt interruption of the intimate relationship between hunter and prey that begins when the bird falls to the ground out of thin air.  Once to hand, the hunter must often kill an already dying bird with his own hands.  This usually accomplished by wringing its neck.  The attentive hunter inspects the miracle of the warm feathered form closely before depositing it in his game bag and may walk miles with that body pressing against his back in the game bag.  I hang pheasants undrawn for a week and then pluck them and gut them saving the liver and heart.  As individuals of the species, each pheasant is special and they present a challenge in the kitchen. Pheasant should never be overcooked, but nevertheless must be cooked. The intimacy of the relationship ends with the enjoyment and sharing of an honest meal of wild meat. A lost bird is a lost opportunity for a kind of perfection.

British game guns and long tailed rooster.

By the time I was home I'd driven over 750 miles in the course of three days -  and that number does not include the driving Carlos did Saturday and Sunday morning which was at least 160 miles more to be summed with my own total. I drove home leg tired, with a tired and satisfied dog and with three pheasants and two quail.

Sunset on the drive home.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Nebraska II

A man and his dog.
Our second day was overcast and cooler, better for the dogs but it turned out not to be as good for us with the birds.  We hunted walkin areas closer to where we were staying.  We saw birds but both of us were not shooting well.  Birds we'd have easily killed just the day before we could not connect with if our lives depended on it.  we jumped hens and more hens, and the roosters we saw mostly flushed wild.  Erdos' shoulder was so bad, I left him in the room while we hunted in the morning and then only hunted him very briefly in the afternoon after Carlos left.

An ocean of grass.
Walking pheasant cover is physically tiring.  It's a lot like walking in snow, the thick grasses force you to lift your feet high and offer substantial resistance to legs moving forward. A large walkin area in Nebraska can be a whole section (a square mile) though most are smaller.  Still, in a days hunting we end up walking miles and the dogs who quarter back and forth in front of us cover at least five times as much distance.

The rich colors are astounding.
In some ways, driving around Nebraska is a little like stepping back into the 1960's.  The following scene of an abandoned motel and an antique car was rather striking though not atypical.

I thought this might be an Edsel but now think it's a 1961 Chrysler New Yorker.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Nebraska I

Erdos pointing a pheasant the first morning.
I met Carlos in Sidney NE and drove on further east to small town where on weekends he regularly rents an apartment in an old brick hotel.  He prefers I not mention the location.  The next morning we headed south, almost to the Kansas border.  It was opening day of rifle season for deer and there were hunters roaming the countryside everywhere and in fact we saw a very nice whitetail buck on the edge of the walk-in area as we pulled up.

Oscar the nine month old Drathar is ready to go.

In the first area we hunted the dogs were on scent almost right away.  Erdos was ecstatic.  Carlos and Oscar flushed some birds about 150 yards diagonally to my right and then they bumped two more. Erdos and I kept hunting parallel to a fence line next to a corn field that had recently been harvested.  I heard shots ahead and Carlos had killed a rooster. Erdos was on a trail of scent and I followed him as he carefully followed the birds for  a good distance, more than a 100 yards. And then he went on point and would not move.  I stepped forward and a pheasant flushed just behind me.  I turned, raised my shotgun and pulled the trigger and nothing happened.  Much of the fall I've been hunting my single trigger 20 gauge  O/U and, like a fool, I did think to pull the other trigger on the Jeffery.  As I struggled to reload (an unfired shell will not cock the ejectors and hence will not eject) I realized I'd had a misfire. And then, another cock went up right in front of me.  I got off a late shot, a feather flew, but the bird did not seem phased and disappeared over the next ridge.  Typical.  And then, in a few more minutes, Erdos was on fresh scent again.  This time I was ready and when the pheasant flushed I fired once and again.  On the second shot the bird tumbled into the tall grass. I marked it down and ran to the spot but did not see it. I looked and looked and looked some more -- with no help from Erdos who was off on more scent.  Carlos came by with Oscar, and we all hunted for the downed bird, but still we did not find it. A bitter disappointment.  I regret not having worked with Erdos on retrieving.

The dogs get a drink and cool off.
Carlos and Oscar with the first pheasant of the trip.
Erdos' right shoulder has been injured for some time - the vet says - and a long energetic hunt in tall grass had him hurting.  At the next walk-in I left him in the truck and Carlos hunted Lola, a six year old Pointing Griffon. Lola hunted hard quartering back and forth in front of us until she went on point.  We moved in quickly and a cock pheasant went up. Carlos shot and I shot and then he shot and the bird tumbled down. We marked it down and ran to the spot and there was no bird to be seen.  We dropped a hat to mark the spot and circled.  We found no bird until Lola found it, more than fifty yards from where we'd both seen it fall.  Carlos had two now and I had none.

Oscar, Lola and Carlos.
Within the next half hour I was carrying two pheasants in my own game bag. Expertly pointed by Lola.

Sitting in the shade eating lunch.
After lunch, we looked around for Erdos and Oscar.  They'd just been sitting with us as we ate in the shade of the truck.  We called them and then saw they were both on point on the far side a hedgerow.  A covey of quail took off like a rocket.  I grabbed and loaded my gun and moved to the other side of the fence where  Erdos was still on point.  I kicked the brush and Oscar and Erdos charged in -- but no bird came out.  Erdos moved further down and went on point again.  This time the quail went up out the other side by the truck.  I mounted and took something of a hail-mary shot as the bird flew just above my line of sight over the hedge.  Carlos heard the shot and saw the quail drop.  We would not have found it without Oscar.  We followed up on the singles and Carlos killed one more quail.   We separated, with Carlos dropping into a ravine and Erdos and I hunting the top.  Erdos  had been following fresh scent for more than a hundred yards, intent on birds every few feet. As I was starting to loose faith in his absolute conviction that the birds were near Carlos and Oscar came up from the ravine below where they'd filled out Carlos' limit on pheasants. Oscar went on point and when the quail flushed I instinctively mounted the shotgun and cleanly dropped one of the fast fliers.
A brace of quail from my game bag.

It turned out we were in the Republican (river) region that Nebraska Game and Parks had reported as having good Northern Bobwhite Quail populations this year.  Quail populations are estimated by whistle counts and by interviews with rural mail carriers.

A great day in the field.

A day like this one makes it almost seem easy.  Good dogs, good guns, good company, lots of birds.  Our next day was to prove that good days like this do not come for free.

The bag from an exceptional day.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

A limit of grouse

It doesn't happen all that often that I shoot a limit of grouse.  I did this afternoon.  Erdos was birdy from the moment we got out of the truck -- but he knows the spot and he's been cooped up in the house most of October while I was chasing deer and elk.  We got to this favored covert after a somewhat dicey ride through heavy snow.  As I loaded my shotgun my mind was partially occupied by prospect of getting stuck on the way back out.

We left the truck and hunted into a replanted clear-cut.  Six or eight years ago these trees were waist high, now they're about three times the height of a man.  The stand of pines was thinned a couple of  years ago and the loggers left the cut trees lying every where and every which way -- this makes for hard walking and almost impossible shooting.  I usually just pass through this mess to hunt the edges.  But, still in the cut, Erdos  went on point.  I followed his lead, him acting like we were going to jump a covey of grouse at any second.  He would stop on point, and, after moving ahead of him, expecting a shot at any second, on signal he would move ahead another 20 or 40 feet before going on point again. I saw grouse tracks in the snow, lots of them.

Erdos' nose found them first, but there's no confirmation like grouse tracks in the snow.

We followed the tracks to the end of the trial they formed. They ended under a small tree surrounded by fresh dropping  with nearby brush marks left in the snow from them taking wing.  There were no birds in sight and no telling which way they'd gone.

Lots of tracks and fresh droppings.
It's usually best to let a hunt unfold on its own, guided by the dog's nose and interest. This is true even if the flow of the hunt veers from the preconceived map in the hunters head.  Even if that preconception was formed based on a previously successful hunt in the same place.  Grouse are creatures of habit and if you've found them in a particular area you're quite likely to find them in the same area again.  That said, you rarely find them in exactly the same spot you did before. You need to trust the dogs nose.

Dogs prefer to hunt into the wind though of course it's generally impossible to leave your truck and hunt into the wind and end up back at the same place.  From our deadend at the grouse droppings  Erdos wanted to hunt into the wind back toward the truck.  My own mental map of the hunt had us walk out of the opposite side of the cut. Today, this meant the wind would be quartering into our backs from our right.  We hunted less than a half a mile down a gentle ridge away from the cut.  On this diversion from Erdos' plan I saw deer, elk, moose, bobcat (I think), coyote, rabbit, squirrel, chipmunk and mouse tracks in the snow.  No sign of grouse. I came to my senses and circled back to the point where the grouse tracks had ended and followed Erdos' plan.  It lead us out of the cut into the older timber -- and onto more tracks. Lots of them.

On point.  There's birds ahead. 
As we hunted forward, Erdos went on point, not the intense one signaling birds right here, but the casual point saying to me, there are birds ahead.  Another 40 yards and he stopped, crouching on point and would not budge.  I knew the birds were very close.  I spotted on in a tree not ten feet from me.    And then one took off and then another and maybe a dozen all together.  Standing ready, the explosion of beating wings is still startling.  Before they were gone, I got off three shots dropping two birds.

I haven't often had good luck trying to follow up on blue grouse in this kind of thick cover (woodcock are a completely different story.) But, since three is a limit and we had two, we walked into the timber in the direction they'd flown.  Not fifty yards in, Erdos went on point -- and wouldn't budge.  I walked forward to find a bleeding grouse lying dead in the snow. The second time this year Erdos found a dead bird I was sure I'd missed.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Jump Shooting

"We spent a fine day driving south from Lemmon all the way to Nebraska with a specific kind of grandeur to the landscape, truly the Great Plains, a subtlety to rolling hills and rocky escarpments that doesn't suit people like Marybelle who want snowcapped postcard mountains."  Jim Harrison, The English Major.
There are few landscapes as unexpectedly beautiful as a sunrise or sunset on a prairie river or a pothole lake. Mostly, people rush by these places on their way to someplace more interesting. Water lies low in the landscape so these places are often hidden from view of the highway, concealed by tangles of willows that glow red in the last light of the day. I am not a morning person by nature; I have witnessed such views at sunset far more often than I have at sunrise.
Jump shooting is the peripatetic hunters preferred method to obtain wild ducks for the oven. You hike the riverbank trying to spot ducks before they spot you.  Once ducks are spotted, you must move into shooting range, using the landscape to conceal yourself. Once you have revealed yourself, the ducks fly and you take your shot or not, depending on how well you have calculated your approach. On a flowing river, the calculation as to where the ducks will be by the time you have moved into shooting range is always a gamble.  Running a hundred yards, bent low to the ground is hard work.  Sometimes you stand up, sure that they will be right in front of you only to find no duck in sight.   

Meager results from a satisfying afternoon of jump shooting.
I manged to kill what I at first though was a mallard hen.  But the bird was smaller than a mallard and the beak was yellow -- leading me to think it must have been a Gadwall hen.  After retrieving my duck from the meandering current, I jumped three mallards -- but they saw me more than 100 yards off so I had no shot.  A half a mile downriver I spotted a duck floating downstream.  I ran downstream, bent to as low as possible to prevent my long shadow from falling on the water, to the point where I thought I'd have a good shot. After stalking through the willows to the riverbank, there was no duck in sight.  I hurried downstream again to the point where a long oxbow returned the flow to near where I was standing.  The duck was hidden under the bank I stood on, not four feet from me. It swam out.  I don't shoot ducks on the water. I hollered to get it to fly and instead of taking off, it dove underwater.  I was dumbfounded. I thought, if I was a duck I'd swim downstream with the current to get away.  So I quickly headed downstream wondering how long a duck can stay underwater.  I waited.  No duck. I watched three muskrats swimming in the current along the bank.  I took a few pictures. Finally, I walked back upstream and at the apex of the oxbow bend I watched the mallard drake flush wild a further fifty yards upstream -- giving me no shot.  Smart duck.

One duck is not a meal, I will head back.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Grouse Hunting

Even though we had record snow pack winter last winter, it didn't seem to hurt the local grouse numbers. In fact, I've seen more grouse this year than ever. Erdos and I found grouse every time we went out. That's not unusual for my friend Andy -- the grouse killer -- but he has long legs and is willing to walk as far as it takes to find them. I usually hunt a loop less than a mile from the truck. As time passes my own inventory of places I've seen grouse has grown. And they tend to live in the same places year to year so this leads to more easily obtained successes.

I took my Dad out with me and he waited in the truck while Erdos and I hunted. Before I could get my shotgun out and loaded he was onto birds. They had walked through some time before. We followed the scent, with Erdos continually locking onto point and then looking ahead, ovbiously expecting to see a bird right in front of him at any moment. We followed them for about 200 yards, and then Erdos went on point and would not move. I walked forward and birds went up everywhere. I shot, and shot again, and two birds were down with at least five more flushed. We tried to follow-up on them, but they'd flown the coop.

We moved up the mountain to another spot. Erdos was scenting birds but we did not find them as we moved into the breeze.  I knew there was a bird there and so we circled back and we bumped two birds in a tangle of scrubby aspens.  I had no shot.  Heading back toward the truck where my Dad was waiting, Erdos went on point again.  I stepped forward, flicking the safety on and off on my 20 gauge. A bird flushed and angled across an opening in the trees, a perfect shot.  I mounted the gun to a perfect sight picture, I flicked the safety, and pulled the trigger.  And nothing happened.  As bird flew off into the taller timber Erdos turned and looked at me like I was hopeless.  I'd had the safety on when I mounted the gun and flicked it off instead of on.  Some practice with the shotgun before the season starts would not hurt me at all, not one bit.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

To Gray Reef, to Gray Reef, to catch a fat pig.

To Gray Reef, to Gray Reef, to catch a fat pig;
   Home again, home again, dancing a jig.
To Gray Reef, to Gray Reef, to catch a fat hog;
   Home again, home again, jiggety-jog
                                                   Apologies to Mother Goose
                                                             -- where ever she may be.

It's about a four hour drive from Cody WY where we'd spent the night to the Gray Reef dam on the North Platte River -- that's if you do get sidetracked onto a 150 mile goose chase over the Big Horns on the way.   Long story short, an extremely enthusiastic guide at the fly shop in Cody insisted that we really really needed to go to his favorite spot, the North Fork of the Tongue River in the Big Horns.  Gray Reef is ugly and would be crowded he claimed.  I was dubious though curious, I have never fished the Tongue but have certainly heard of it.  We were finally convinced that we really would regret not checking it out by the guides absolutely unbounded confidence and the pictures he showed us of some very very large cutthroat trout.  What he didn't make clear was that the Tongue "River" in the Bighorns is  a creek that is about two feet wide and meanders through a willow choked meadow.  The only way to fish it is to wade up the middle of the stream -- which would be fine if you were the only people there -- we weren't. Every parking area had two or three cars in it and there were fishermen everywhere. We tried to access the river halfway on its flow out of the mountains.  This  required some careful map and compass navigation, negotiating some rough four wheel drive two tracks and a fair amount of backtracking. Eventually it was clear that we were as close to the river as we were going get and still had a big hike with serious elevation loss (and gain).  We left without wetting a line having wasted most of the day.

We got to Gray Reef at about 6PM after a scenic tour of northern and central Wyoming.  There was no one else there.  The flows over the dam were 4600 cfs. High enough that the island was inaccessible (for me anyway) but once we were rigged up we fished the outlet and Gerry landed his first fish of the trip. Ah, sweet relief! ... sweet joy!  A red rock-worm with a midge trailer was just the ticket.
Gerry is clearly happy about that fish.

We fished until dusk and together we hooked and landed a satisfying number of fish, perhaps six or eight more between us. We celebrated with drinks and burgers at the Sunset Grill in Alcova. We ended up spending the evening drinking with a hunting guide from Riverton WY, a self described "full-blooded Northern Arapaho".  We ended up closing the place down and  spent the night in one of their motel rooms.

The next day we fished until around 4PM and caught many more nice fish.  The size 16 rock worm patterns seems to be the pattern of the day.  The fish just couldn't get enough of them.

And thus ended our road trip.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Madison

We drove north from Island Park ID along the east side of Henry's Lake and up and over Raynolds Pass to the Madison.  We fished upstream from the bridge on the North side of the river.  The south bank is dotted with trophy homes, most with large picture windows looking out onto the river -- kind of makes you feel like you're the entertainment.  I've fished this place maybe a half a dozen times over the years.  Gerry had not been there since the houses were built.  There were other fishermen on the river but it was less crowded than the Fork.   The water was high and off-color and the wind was gusting pretty hard.  Not good conditions. We did not hook up working that north bank (I figured it had already been fished pretty hard that morning) so we decided too drive up along Quake lake to see if we could find where Gerry and his family had camped so often.  As best as we could tell, the old campsite which had been near the confluence of Beaver Creek and the Madison was now part of the lake.

After some lunch we stopped in Kelly Galloup's flyshop at Slide Inn.  I recall fishing at Slide Inn one spring many years ago -- before there was any shop there --  but the grade is still steep there and the river was roaring and it did not appeal.  A enthusiastic college kid was working the shop.  He was brimming over with a summer's worth of new found knowledge and he told us that we need to wait until dusk for the caddis hatch. Until the hatch he recommended fishing a small pheasant tail nymphs.  He liked our chances at $3 bridge.   We drove downstream and parked at the bridge, paying our fee in the metal box.  It was maybe 2PM, still far too early for the evening hatch at 8PM.  We rigged up and started fishing upstream. Almost immediately Gerry and I got separated.

Four golden pheasant-tail caddis larva.

As occasionally happens in flyfishing, I had an epiphany. I thought: "If there was to be an astounding caddis hatch at 8PM, wasn't the river filled caddis larva right now?"  I tied on a pattern representing a cased larva which tied with golden pheasant-tail (a pattern of my own design) and within two casts I had hooked up with a fiesty brown trout.  At one point he ran upstream through a deep opening between two large rocks and then ran back downstream on the far side.  My line was stuck, deeply wrapped around the base of a refrigerator sized boulder.  I was sure I'd lost the fish and was vaguely concerned about retrieving my line.  When I managed to free the line, the fight was back on.  I finally landed him fifty yards downstream from where I'd first hooked him. Based on the fight he'd put up I was surprised to find a buttery yellow brown trout about 15" in length attached to the other end of my line. 

Fiesty brown taken on a caddis larva pattern.

Although I was anxious to share my insight with Gerry, there was a promising unfished bit of run just above where I'd hooked the first fish.   After a few more casts I was firmly attached to another fish, this one was a rainbow and now I knew I had cracked the puzzle. 

I went downstream to find Gerry to share my  insight.  The last time I'd seen him he was below me. He'd apparently leapfrogged past me without me (or him) noticing. When I'd made the 1/2 mile walk back to the truck I realized what had happened.  I walked to the bridge and started fishing up the north bank.  Again, almost immediately, I hooked up with a feisty fish.  As I reached for my net to land another brown trout I heard something plunk into the fast current I was standing in.  I was sure it was my camera, and I frantically tried to move downstream with he current, peering down into the water to try to see what had fallen. Whatever it was, it was lost.  I turned my attention back to the fish still on my line.  I landed the fish found my camera just where I'd put it and took a photograph. It turned out that the half of the the magnetic net holder that was attached to my vest had dropped in the current.  Unable to reattach my landing net, I went back to the truck.

Gerry came walking in rather soon after that.  He had hooked one good fish that took off upstream like a steelhead, but it broke him off.  My nymph rig included a tiny tin shot (size 4) pinched on the line about 2 feet above two of my golden pheasant caddis larvae which were tied about a foot and a half apart on 5X tippet. Gerry was fishing deep with a heavier rig and did not get as many hookups.  It's surprising how seemingly small differences can have such an effect on outcomes.

Madison river brown.
It was a bit after 4PM. We were both tired and hungry so we decided to move on. We debated driving to Ennis and fishing the Madison again the next day.  I love Ennis. But at some point on every road trip, driving further away from home, even only 30 miles, seems too far.  After a brief discussion, we decided to head east and south on to our last destination, the North Platte River at Gray Reef, my home water.  Our path took us to West Yellowstone where we ate dinner.  With at most a couple of hours of light left in the day, we drove in through the West Entrance of Yellowstone. We drove through the park to the East Entrance and on to Cody WY where we spent the night.