For me, there is no off season. I am always and at once reflecting on the season-past, focusing on the season still open, and planning the next season’s adventure. At first glance, this could seem exhausting, but I have found the opposite to be true. I rarely have the “end of season blues” associated with a closing day and instead know that a new adventure is about to begin. I live in each season as though it was the only one to exist, but I give an eye to preparing for the next as possible. There is no competition here, either between myself and others or the seasons themselves. Instead, there is only the enjoyment of the hunt, each offering its own distinction.
Winter has traditionally been reserved for quiet times by a warm fire with an even warmer whiskey. These sits were earned from enduring the previous portion of winter afield and afoot. I have spent them pursuing predators: lions and wolves. The fresh snow puts a fresh track within reach. Blurry eyes are remedied with hot coffee and early mornings are spent half out a window in the cold-sharp air looking for evidence that someone else passed by recently. If the track is feline, the dogs are released and the hunt begins. It ends with unceasing bays at the base of a tree and the presence of a cat. Every houndsman I’ve hunted with has told me it isn’t about the shot, but the chase had before. If the track is canine, a race to the top of the mountain before the day breaks ensues. Wolves will soon after find a morning nap and be difficult to spot, but if the advantage can be gained a hunter stands a chance of success.
This is when much of my planning for the following year happens. It is a time filled with hope that the odds will finally be in my favor and reward me with the license needed to make a dream into a reality. Previous years’ drawings are searched to find trends and maybe an overlooked opportunity. My budget is weighed against what are guaranteed draws or over the counter licenses with the glorious “what if” scenarios. My wife asks what I will do if I draw everything for which I apply. My response is simple, quick, and unconsidered: “Go.” The reality is that in ten years I’ve only drawn one tag that might be considered once-in-a-lifetime, and with her blessing I made it work.
"It is simply awesome to watch unceasing waves of birds make the migration."
My birthday also falls in the middle of March. Ever since a spring class in college bored me and the warmth of sunshine enticed me, I have spent my birthday fishing. When I’ve been down south, the fishing has been good; when up north it is a bit more challenging. But it's a tradition, and one I am keen to keep.
Then there is the first sign that spring is coming with the shrill call of snow geese. For over twenty years the Light Goose Conservation Order has attempted to decrease the population of these central-continental birds as they fly north back to the tundra to breed. This gives hunters a rare, and to my knowledge, singular hunt for waterfowl in this season. It is simply awesome to watch unceasing waves of birds make the migration. Electronic calls are allowed and beckon birds to make a stop on their journey in your spread of 2,000 windsocks. A few days of this and you will swear you can still hear them two weeks later.
April is all about the gobble. Toms in the spring will send shocks through otherwise serene settings as they alert the hens to their presence and willingness to procreate. Hunters will in turn offer a few clucks and purr as they lure the toms closer. This is the game that is deceptively simple. Learning to speak to the birds and romance one enough that he is within range of your shotgun is at the same time frustrating and exhilarating. Those who hunt elk in the rut experience the same emotions and maybe that is why so many good turkey hunters are also good elk hunters. After a cold winter it is nice to be outside and feel the sun once again. Many of my turkey hunts have turned into naps when the birds have not worked as expected.
Spring also awakens bears and they leave their dens, hungry after six months of hibernation. The two, classic forms of hunting are spot and stalk or baiting. Following the greenup where lower elevation grasses experience growth first, black bears are found in transition areas where they feed. My pack is usually still ready from my last big game hunt, but the waist belt might need a bit of loosening. Days are spent hiking to vantage points and glassing opposite hillsides. Many black spots that are designated as bears turn into stumps, and stumps that had been dismissed an hour ago grow legs and move down the mountain. The reward of a successful hunt is a hide, sleek and glistening, if it hasn’t been rubbed, and bear sausage that finds its way into biscuits and gravy.
While I have fished some through the various sudden warmups in the spring, my attention to fishing has been fleeting. It has been said that fishing is the simplest form of hunting and I think that’s true. I dust off the gear and head to the lakes that are freed from ice. Stillwater fishing is something I do only occasionally, and usually at the invitation of another angler. I enjoy it, but I don’t maintain the gear, and more importantly the boat, that’s needed to be effective.
"Before the other seasons open, I start my 'hard reset'."
But I do have the fly gear required to find fish in the moving waters of the west. I am unashamedly a dry fly snob. I would rather catch one fish on a well presented mayfly than ten at the other end of a bobber. Yet, I can still be persuaded during the slowest and hottest times of the year to drag a nymph through a pool and wade through the whitefish until I find a trout. So maybe I am an equal opportunity fly fisherman after all.
I usually spend a week or two pursuing the dream of being a trout bum. I load the truck with my rods and a cooler of sandwiches and set off to destinations across the west where I have not yet landed a trout. Many western states offer challenges they call “slams” for catching all of the species of trout statewide. These make for great adventures that explore unknown waters. Each has a challenge to unlock to be successful and in settings that make you pause midstream.
Before the other seasons open, I start my “hard reset.” All of my gear is dragged out of the truck and dumped out of the bags. Everything gets a close look and cleaned. Batteries are replaced on everything and fresh consumables are replenished. The zeroes on my weapons are checked and maintenance completed. By now I know the results of my draws and have my final plans in place. I feel confident and comfortable with all of my gear, awaiting only an opening day that I can once again begin the pursuit.
Once these preparations are done, a trip to the west coast for a little salmon and bottom fishing is in order. Salmon numbers have been precarious for sometime now and catches have been severely limited. But breathing the salt air and braving the waves is refreshing before the rigors of hunting season. Bottom fish, like rockfish and lingcod, are eager to bite and fight hard. Their firm, white filets are the real prize for me. The coastal wildlife is always novel to a Northern Rockies boy and I feel as though I am discovering a new species when I see them.
This is the show. Months of preparation and anticipation have built waiting for this moment. Bow in hand, reed in mouth, I pursue elk in the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Warm days are cooled when entering dark timber where the shade provides comfort to rutting elk. Wallows are found and inspected for use by bulls. And when the morning action slows into the afternoon and the sun has warmed the mountainside, a stump becomes a pillow. If the grouse are plentiful, I will take a few and add them to my traditional end of archery dinner, grouse and dumplings.
Archery elk hunting requires significant investment in finding them. Miles are hiked to have brief and infrequent encounters with bulls as they gather and defend harems. Persistence is perhaps the largest part of successfully calling a bull during the rut. Sometimes you are able to just glimpse the bull before he winds you and others a spike comes in on a string to answer your staring contest challenge. These experiences are what drive you to find the next with the hope that shot is eventually presented and you are able to cleanly execute it.
If I were forced to choose just one big game animal to hunt for the rest of my hunting days, it would undoubtedly be antelope. This iconic, western animal is master of the prairie with its speed and eyesight. They make excellent table fare when properly cared for in the field. Antelope hunts are not especially difficult and blown stalks are quickly replaced with new ones. Populations have recently seen declines and coupled with increased interest, it is becoming more difficult to draw a license. The hunt I look forward to the most each year is my trip in eastern Wyoming to visit Joe on his ranch and have him escort me around in his 1954 Dodge pickup as we survey this year’s antelope crop. Joe is an old-timer who simply enjoys being along for the hunt.
October is also usually the beginning of other seasons. Early season waterfowl hunters creep into blinds well before dawn. Upland bird hunters have their dogs at heel ready to “hunt ‘em up.” And other big game seasons, mainly rifle and muzzleloader, open and seas of orange cascade against the landscape. I sometimes find a slight lull in my fall season at the end of the month, almost as if me and everything are catching our breath before the next foray.
My November has generally seen me hunting Mule Deer, mainly in Montana. This hunt is very sociable, with my hunting buddies joining me. The pressure to fill a tag is low, especially if the previous seasons have been generous. The drought in western states has been severe and prolonged and this has been detrimental to deer herds. An outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease this past summer greatly compounded their plight. It has caused me to rethink where I hunt mule deer. The places I have visited for so many years have become familiar and parting with them seems to be like finishing a book you didn’t want to end.
A ranch that I help with population management allows me to bring new hunters and introduce them to hunting with a high chance of success. Whitetailed does are plentiful and if they can calm their nerves enough there is a very reasonable chance they will leave the ranch with their first deer. I also like to bring my parents and share this place with them. I am grateful to the landowners who are generous with this place and a bottle of their choice whiskey is a very fair price for admission and thanks.
Winter brings cold fronts that bring birds. Ducks and geese arrive to rest and feed. Then they move with the next front and make room for other flocks. The two jewels of waterfowling are diversity and the dogs. There are currently forty-two species of birds found in varied habitats across the continent, each requiring a specialized approach. These birds range from the drab gadwall (or gray duck) to the very ornate and colorful woodies. The tundra swan is nearly twenty times the size of a green wing teal. Then there is the occasional vagrant that blows in from far winds, just to keep hunters guessing.
“It should be a crime to hunt ducks without a dog.”
But the stars of waterfowling are the dogs. Watching a well trained dog perform the duty it was designed for is worth joining a hunt on its own. Year round discipline and development is required to see a dog take a mark, ignore decoys, pursue a crippled bird long past earshot and return it to its master’s waiting hand. As one aged duck hunter once said, “It should be a crime to hunt ducks without a dog.”
About the Author: Everett Headley is an outdoor writer and educator. He was raised hunting and fishing in Montana. He lives in the Bitterroot with his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Cane, and his peregrine falcon, Freyja. You can find more of his work at www.406.life and on Instagram @everettheadley.