We’re Back And Enjoying The Memories

Two weeks on the road in pursuit of trout and gamebirds has come to an end, punctuated by a foolish 17 hour and 1,087 mile sprint home on the final day of driving.  This is the fourth straight year in which I’ve made the long trip to extreme northeastern Montana.  I remain convinced those who proclaim the state as “the last best place,” are right, although I have no desire to be there in the dead of winter.

We left San Diego at 6 a.m., October 4 and got back home just before midnight on the 16th, covering 4,022 miles in the process.  When I say “we,” I’m referring to Gus, Jack (our two English springer spaniels) and myself.  They make terrific traveling companions and I can only hope they feel the same about me.

Two key objectives were met on the first day of driving; to have lunch at Los Lupes in Mesquite Nevada and to get past Salt Lake City before stopping for the night.  Like Los Angeles, it is my preference to pass through Salt Lake City in the dark.  It conveniently left us with a relatively short drive to West Yellowstone and the comfort of accommodations provided by our friend Yellowstone Dave.

The region has been a favored fishing and sightseeing destination since my first visit there in the early 70’s and little has changed, save for the fact that the face of foreign tourism has switched from the Japanese to the Chinese.

One of Dave’s favorite waters in the area is the Firehole River.  He took me to an upstream location not far from Old Faithful that had been providing him with good dry fly action thanks to dependable hatches of caddis and blue wing olive mayflies, neither of which were present during our visit.  There was simply very little surface activity, but persistence and a very long dead drift with an emerger rewarded me with a nice brown trout I’d seen feeding intermittently.  It was a pleasant afternoon in a beautiful place with a good friend, but the only hint of dependability or faithfulness was the fact that the right leg of my waders continues to have a significant leak that I can’t find.

For the following day’s journey, I set my sights on Lewistown which is pretty much dead center in the crosshairs of Montana.  Eschewing interstates and other major highways, I stuck to the smaller state and county roads described as “blue highways” by William Least Heat Moon.  In his book by the same name, he extolls the virtues of things to be seen and the people to be met along the roads less traveled.

I purposely drove through Paradise Valley between Gardiner and Livingston which for many years was a haunt of some of my favorite writers, including Jim Harrison, Richard Brautigan, Tom McGuane and Russell Chatham.  Better known as an artist than a writer, but quite talented at both, I hoped to visit Chatham at his gallery, only to find it out of business.  Turns out that after too many Montana winters, Chatham has returned to northern California.

My dismay was softened by a stop at Zac’s Barbecue thanks to a tip from Yellowstone Dave a native Carolinian and fan of Carolina style barbecue and slaw.  Zac’s is located in a residential area of Livingston and the pulled pork sandwich with slaw and a side of beans was about as good as I’ve ever enjoyed.  The local amber beer that washed it all downs wasn’t bad either.

There was very little traffic on the route I took to Lewistown, which led us through White Sulfur Springs (not much there), and then through Harlowton where I paused to watch all 15 members of the Engineers (the high school’s football team) go through their drills.  Road signs provided direction to Mexican John Road, Two Dot and the Need More Land and Cattle Company.

Later in the afternoon, I arrived in Lewistown which is something of a hub for the region and clearly a destination of pheasant and deer hunters as well as construction workers engaged in nearby road and utility projects.  It was our fourth night on the road and the first I spent in a motel room.  Gus and Jack remained in the kennel where the latter sleeps on top of the former, and guarded the truck which was stuffed full of my most important hunting belongings.

Up early the next morning, my final destination of Plentywood was within easy enough reach to stop in Jordan at one of the offices for the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Area which has too much to see in a day, a week or even a month.  It sprawls over in excess of one million acres of land and water.  By evening I’d arrived at the Plentywood friend who is kind enough to share his home with me during my fall visits.  He also shares his 88 year old father who serves as my guide and chauffer, leading me from covert to covert in pursuit of pheasants, grouse and partridge.

I’d arrived before the start of the pheasant season for the purpose of trying to become better acquainted with the grouse and partridge and I plan worked out pretty well for the native sharptail grouse, less so for the Hungarian partridge.  In past seasons, I taken a few of each incidental to pheasant hunting and I found both species as interesting as they are excellent table fare.

The sharptail are a hardy native of the prairies and boast feathers on their feet that serve as snowshoes during the winter.  The Huns were long ago introduced from Europe and like the Chinese ringneck pheasant have adapted well to agricultural areas and their edges.  As a result, any of the three can burst from the same general cover, which in this area included grassy or weedy fence lines between wheat or pea fields, overgrown areas around old homesteads or the cattail edges of potholes and ponds.
Hunting on the day before the pheasant opener, we came across a covey of about ten Huns that all flushed at the same time, and I managed to drop one that became invisible in a swale of deep grass, but was no match for Jack’s keen nose.  I’d barely collected the bird when grouse emerged from the grass like popping corn.  I turned on two that were headed east and managed a double, dropping them high on a hill.  Before they hit the ground, another bird flushed and was headed east.  I turned and miraculously (for me) dropped it with the third shot that was in my 20 gauge semi-auto, turning a double into a triple!

I realize that is bragging, and I apologize for it, but the real essence of my point is one of amazement, because the double, and certainly the triple – are simply not typical of my skill with a shotgun.  For some reason – and it is not practice – I’ve been shooting pretty well of late, much better in fact than I have shot in years, and the guns themselves are worth noting, along with their evolution.

As a youngster, I began with a second-hand single shot 12 gauge Noble shotgun, before graduating to a Remington Model 870 pump when I was about 15, and shot exclusively for the next 30 or so years when I was lured to the simplicity and beauty of nicely grained over/under shotguns like the Browning Citori in both 12 and 20 gauge and shot for the next 2 or so years.  I eschewed and had never even shot a semi-auto.  I was uncomfortable with their mechanical nature and further turned off by the increasing shift toward composite stocks of the new “plastic guns.”

As someone who does a fair amount of turkey and duck hunting in which concealment and camouflage is an important element, I began to regard the shininess of my over/under shotguns as conspicuous.  As someone capable of missing the first two shots at a target, I began to wish there were times to have another chance with a better considered third shot.

For reasons I can’t fully explain, I began to pine for something I’d never wanted – a semi-automatic shotgun with a dull camo finish on the stock as well as the barrel.  In short, I was hurtling in the direction of a “modern” shotgun, a world dominated by expensive Berettas and Benellis.  Not wanting to spend more than necessary, I discovered the Franchi Affinity, which was fairly new on the market and considerably less expensive but receiving rave reviews.  Like Benelli, Franchi had been purchased by behemoth Beretta and its guns were now built in the Benelli factory.

I was fond of a Franchi 28 gauge over/under that seemed to fit me well and decided to splurge on a 12 gauge Affinity after finding a discounted floor model.  The first day I used it was the opening day of the 2014 season at our duck club where I managed a triple on white-front geese, and I have been sold on the gun ever since.  I even purchased a 20 gauge model discounted by a dealer that was going out of business.  For reasons that remain befuddling, other than the fact these guns must fit me well and have almost no recoil kick, I’m shooting them both better than I could have imagined.  Two hunting friends have followed suit, and a third is giving strong consideration to switching as well.  They must figure that if I can do as well as I have with these guns, they will never miss another shot.

And after that digression for an unsolicited gun testimonial…we return to our normal Montana programming.

The pheasant opener  arrived October 10 along with strong dry winds that blew across the prairies and temperatures that reached a high of 84.  We found and shot birds, but the conditions were poor for man and beast alike, as Gus and Jack will readily attest.  Even worse, it was while tracking a wing-tipped sharptail through cattails and weeds that Gus ran into a barbwire fence that left a bleeding two inch slash in his left elbow.  I cleaned it as well as I could, sprayed it with Vetricine antiseptic, smothered it with EMT gel and wrapped it.  The two inch gash grew into a half-dollar sized circle that revealed muscle.  For the second year in a row, Gus the barbwire magnet would require the services of a Veterinarian for stitches and antibiotics.

Unfortunately, the local Vet had closed at noon and gone hunting and every other Vet that I tried to reach in northeastern Montana was working cattle.  Finally, I found a clinic that provided after hours emergency services in Williston, North Dakota, 90 miles away on a road that was under construction with numerous detours and delays.  Eventually, Gus was patched up and we returned to Plentywood with one dog down and one to go.  Fortunately, Jack who is still pretty much a gangly teen at two and a half years of age was more than up to the task of taking over for the next few days.

Gus is a workhorse, a generally steady performer who handles the job of finding, flushing and retrieving birds like a day laborer.  Neither flashy or fancy, he simply gets the job done.  Both dogs are the same breed, English Springer Spaniels.

Gus is liver and white, a bit over seven years old and a field trial washout who came to me as a started dog of 18 months because he did not have the style and flash in the field to win blue ribbons.  Jack is black and white, a bit under three, an adoptee of unknown background from Springer Rescue of America (ESRA) and has the style and flash in the field that Gus simply lacks.  Where Gus runs and plows through a field, Jack appears to dance and soar through the same field.  They are the same breed and both love to hunt, but very different dogs with different styles in producing pretty much the same results.

Thanks to my hosts and their access to private property, I rarely saw other hunters or walked in their tracks which made every day like an opening day.

Aside from the weather which was unseasonably warm and dry, everything on the trip had gone pretty much as I’d hoped and expected.  Gus, Jack and I got plenty of work and I had a great time with my Montana friends who treat me better than I deserve.  I truly love the thrill of hunting with the dogs and for the most part we form a pretty good team.  We shot, cooked and ate plenty of birds and still managed to leave some for our hosts, but there was no need and nothing to prove by shooting any more.  After five memorable days, it was simply time to say our goodbyes and hit the road for home, but not before making a few brief stops.

In the back of my mind, I remembered that my long deceased Aunt Ruby had told me one of our relatives had been a cook who died with Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  After stopping for gas in Hardin, Montana I saw that the National Park Service’s Little Bighorn National Monument was nearby.  Upon entering the Visitor’s Center, a Ranger asked if she could help me and I explained that I was trying to follow-up regarding a distant relative who I’d been told had died there.

When she asked the name, I was a little embarrassed because I didn’t know.  “It was on my mother’s side of our family, so I’m thinking the last name could be Haines, Anderson, Sager or Scott, and it is my understanding he was a cook.”

The Ranger pulled out a reference book, flipped through a few pages and smiled.  “This must be him she said, “George Scott…

She copied the page and handed it to me, “You can share this with your family.”

Back on the highway and headed south, I ruminated about some of the pioneer members of our family.  At times, the highway had followed or crossed the historic Oregon Trail.  John Sager, a 16 year old boy became in charge of his younger six siblings and their wagon after both parents died en route and the remainder of the wagon train voted to follow the California Trail instead.  He got them safely to the Whitman Mission which was then part of the Oregon Territory, but is now in Walla Walla, Washington.  He along with his brothers and the Whitmans were later killed in what is described as an ‘Indian Uprising.”  A school there was named after him.

They six children to look after, including an infant, they were lucky to make a few miles in harsh conditions that included deep snow in the mountain passes and the constant threat of being attacked by Indians.

By comparison, I was covering an average of 75 miles an hour in a comfortable Ford F-150 King Ranch with leather bucket seats equipped with heating as well as air conditioning, and my only concern about Indians was being scalped by the price of regular at a reservation gas station.  While whining to Gus and Jack about the inconvenience of a few slowdowns for road construction I came to a sobering revelation based on comparing myself to John Sager.  I’d have never made it.

At the end of the day I stopped for the night in Buffalo, Wyoming which seemed like a pretty nice town.  Up early, my next stop was the ranch of a friend in Walden, Colorado – another nice little town.  My young friend is a genuine cowboy who oversees a large ranch and a matching herd of cattle.  Much of his workday is spent in the saddle of his horse.  He ropes and brands and does things the way cowboys in this country have always done them.

After a good night’s sleep, I was up early in the morning and stopped in Walden for coffee and a quick breakfast.  The restaurant was filled with ranchers and hunters arriving for the start of the elk season.  At 7, I found myself back on the road and headed in the general direction of home which was still a long ways to go.  The most sensible thing to do, the only reasonable thing, would be to stop along the way for one more night.  For reasons I can’t explain, I’m wired like that old nag who is rented at a public riding stable – once I turn for home and the thought of the comfort of my stall and a fresh flake of hay mind – I just keep going.

After 17 hours and 1,087 miles of driving in that final leg of the trip – we arrived home just before midnight.

According to the truck’s trip log, my 13 day 2015 excursion to Montana involved 93 hours and 45 minutes of driving, consumed 237 gallons of gas and covered 4,223.9 miles.

It was another great trip and best of all a safe one, save for the brush Gus had with some old barbwire hidden under a tangle of cattails and weeds.  It was also a memorable trip thanks to good friends visited in West Yellowstone and Plentywood.

Trips like this are never fully over because they consist of three stages.  First is the planning phase which is enjoyable in its own right and eventually gives way to the trip itself.  The third and final stage involves the good memories that can be recounted, retold and enjoyed over and over again without end.


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