31 July 2009

Flyfishing Montana's Big Hole River

Some great angler once wrote, "A day spent fishing does not count against the length of a man's life." Or maybe it was, "Each day spent fishing adds a day...?" At any rate, had another great morning (with that new rod--THANKS, DON!) on the Big Hole River, a half-hour south of Butte America:

The morning was cool with a few light showers, and big brown trout were hitting stonefly nymphs hard: a perfect morning for Charlie Brook's short-line, "high stick" method of nymphing. From mid-morning to noon, the dry fly fishing was red hot for smallish (12") rainbow trout & browns. Meanwhile, Molly The Dog was hard at work fighting a strange, twisted willow stump and working over a deer leg (somehow, she consistently manages to find one):

Luckily, she is not a deer chaser. Still these mule deer fawns thought "Yikes!" when they saw us:

Luckily, the mother deer was there to save them (note her longish white tail -- maybe a mulie/whitetail hybrid -- they're fairly common):

Alas, though the fishing was still great, I had to leave the river at noon and go to work. Oh, right, that's why they call it work.

On the short hike back up a steep bank to the truck, I saw a beetle and was reminded of the infamous words of evolutionary biologist J.S. Haldane when asked by a creationist, "What has the study of biology taught you about the Creator?" "I'm not sure," the good professor replied, "But he seems to be inordinately fond of beetles." Since he "created" so many species of them. Like this beauty:

Oh well, back to work. At least it's Brewpub Friday.

29 July 2009

Skywatch Friday: Mountain Weather

We've had some hot daytime weather in the Northern Rockies, and the heat brings some tremendous afternoon storms.

The day begins clear and cool (view west to the Pintler Wilderness from Butte, Montana):

As the heat builds, moisture is drawn up from the valleys. As the air passes over a mountain chain, it cools and builds clouds, and then gets more heat and moisture from the next valley. On a good day, mammotocumulus clouds sweep over the upper valley (Butte sits at the base of the Continental Divide):

And hailstones pelt the earth:

The storm is brief and violent. The clouds pass, the sky clears, and to the east a rainbow appears:

Butte America, lovely weather!

28 July 2009

ER's Got a Brand New Rod: Flyfishing the Big Hole River

Received a nice new flyrod earlier this year and got a chance to try it out yesterday on the Big Hole River (a half-hour south of Butte, Montana). Nice dry fly action, the rod fits nicely with leaping 15-inch rainbow trout and big (#10) purple haze dry flies:

For those who know the Big Hole, I was at my favorite spot in the canyon, in the Devil Rock run:

As friend Don Kieffer sayz, "One good turn deserves another." He sent me this rod (which he won in a raffle) after I gifted him a few tickets for a custom-made bamboo rod made by Jerry Kustich and the other "Boo Boys" at Sweetgrass Rods in Twin Bridges, Montana. They donated the bamboo rod to Butte's George Grant Trout Unlimited Chapter.

Oh yeah, Don won the Sweetgrass bamboo rod--every serious fly angler's dream.

Anyway, I was thrilled by the new Winston from Don. It's my second new rod in over 20 years. The last one was a first-generation graphite Orvis that Mrs ER gave me after I accepted a position teaching with the little college in Butte America. The old Orvis "Henry's Fork" has served me well: it's gone on a lot of backpacking treks (the case doubles as a hiking staff); still cast pretty well after I broke off the top guide trying to retrieve a snagged nymph by poking it with the rod (dumb move; lucky I lost only an inch or so and could easily replace the top guide); and survived several rowdy dogs & a few careless fishing buddies/vicious power windows.

Still, compared with new graphite rods, it was "low modulus" graphite: slow to load meant relatively low line speed and short distance casting. I've briefly used a few newer rods over the years, but never enough to fully appreciate how the technology has changed. Yesterday, I was quite surprised at the ease and accuracy with which I could lay out 40 feet of double-taper line with long 5X tippet and dry fly--even into the moderate wind.

Most years, I flyfish about 50 days--though thanks to faculty union bargaining and a research project, I'm WAY behind that this year. It felt SOOOO good to be on the water yesterday. Cool weather, enough mayflies around to keep the trout looking up, and -- thanks to good advice from Al Lefor at Great Divide Outfitters, I was armed with some large (#10s) of his favorite attractor mayfly--Purple Haze. Like the venerable Royal Wulff, it often seems to work in a size larger than the bugs on the water.

There is something deeply soothing in listening to the sound of a tumbling river, focusing on a spot of fur 40 feet away, and taking the occasional break to watch the dog play with a half-rotted deer leg...

23 July 2009

Skywatch Friday: Peakbagging the Pintler in Montana

Summer in the Northern Rockies, a time for "peakbagging" (climbing to summits) in the mountains of the Pintler Wilderness seen from our house in Walkerville, Montana (near Butte America). My soul lives in these mountains:

Last week, Mt Haggin near Anaconda:

View from Mt Haggin looking west:

This week, a "twofer," with East Goat Peak:

And its nearby, taller partner (connected by Saddle Mountain), West Goat Peak:

View from W Goat:

The Montana high country: it might not be heaven, but you can see it from there...

West Goat Peak, Pintler Wilderness, Montana Peak Bagging

At 10,793 feet elevation, West Goat Peak is the highest point in the Pintler Wilderness of southwest Montana. Connected to East Goat Peak by Saddle Mountain, it's a landmark throughout the Big Hole Valley and you can see it from Walkerville and Butte (first peak on the left in photo below):

This is not high as the Rocky Mountains go, but it's about as high as they get in Montana. Combined with our latitude, it's enough elevation to make for a very brief alpine summer.

Dave Carter picked me up in the cool dawn. Driving to the trailhead, large herds of elk grazed the Paddock Ranch meadows (click on this & other pics to enlarge):

Sage hens (aka sagegrouse) scattered from the road:

And a young bull moose greeted us at the National Forest boundary:

At the "trailhead," the day was beginning to warm and we loaded the packs on Jack & Molly The Dogs then strapped our own on:

Trail? Who needs a trail? I say "trailhead" because we begin at the end of an obscure Forest road to shave off a little elevation & mileage, even though it means bushwhacking a mile or so along a dry ridge until we cut into the trail (Dave's GPS is helpful in finding the rig upon return):

It's summer, at least at lower elevations, with daytime temperatures in the 80s F. The Whitebark Pines are producing lots of cones; this portends well for hungry black & grizzly bears come late August when the pinenuts ripen. A Fringed Pinesap (Hypopitys monotropa, a plant without chlorphyll that parasitizes pine tree roots) was conjured forth by the summer heat:

The Pintler Mountain Range, like the Rockies in general, were formed by intense geological forces as tectonic plates pressed together and folded the plastic rock. You can see the synclines and anticlines at different scales, as in this cat-sized rock:

And in the mile-long sheer face of East Goat Peak (as seen from the meadow below W Goat):

This land was also shaped by more recent forces--the Pleistoscence glaciers that ground down mountains and scooped out tarns such as upper and lower Lost Lake (as seen from W Goat Peak):

Look closely at the rocks, and you can find glacial striations formed by debris caught like a layer of sandpaper on the underside of the great, flowing ice sheets (note horizontal lines at a right angle to the bedding plane):

There is still one small glacier left along the far shore of upper Lost Lake (elevation 9,562 feet). Note that "break-up" or ice-out was just occuring this week:

Climate scientists sometimes use insects trapped in glacial ice to characterize past environments. Though this butterfly was trapped merely in an old snowfield, you can imagine how it might provide such information:

Small snowdrifts lingered in the meadows around our camp, at treeline (c. 9,100 feet) below Lost Lakes, but mostly it was lush & green (and skeetery):

"Spring" wildflowers were blooming, such as Marsh Marigolds (Caltha leptosepala):

White Mountain Heather (Cassiope mertensiana):

Long-brachted Orchis (Habenaria viridis):

And of course the ubiquitous but ever beautiful Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum):

On the slopes of West Goat Peak, alpine flowers took over--species such as Arctic Sandwort (Arenaria obtusiloba):

Alpine Forget-me-nots (Eritrichium nanum):

A mystery species of Stonecrop (Sedum sp):

And Lanceleaf Stonecrop (Sedum lanceolatum):

The butterflies were very happy about this:

The mountain goats probably were, too, although they cleared out ahead of us leaving only tracks & a few tufts of shedding fur. I was happy that the morning, which had started off cloudy (EcoRover with M- & JTD):

But gradually cleared (great mares' tails; view from several hundred feet below W Goat Peak):

After a lunch and writing a note in the peak journal (the family of Big Hole ranchers Wallace Christianson and Anne Paddock Christiansen had left a nice note commemorating W & A's visit there in 1931), we decided on an easy scramble across the Saddle Mountain ridge to East Goat Peak (10,399 feet):

By the time we reached the lower peak, the sky was cloudless (view from E toward W Goat Peak):

Dogs. What makes dogs happy? Being with people. Eating lunch on a peak. Watching Rock Rabbits (aka Pika). Eating. Oh, and swimming in a cold lake after a mountain scramble:

Back at the lower elevations of camp, did I mention mosquitoes? (Dave's sleeve--wear long sleeves & pants, or lather on the DEET):

Next morning we got an early start down the trail, but the day warmed as we racked up the miles and dropped lower. Glad there was something cool waiting in the creek!

18 July 2009

Life in Recovery: Wildflowers & Mine Dumps, Butte America

With Montana just 15 minutes away from Butte, along with all the cultural festivities, it's easy to forget that we are America's largest Superfund site. The tenacity of life is amazing, however, and year-by-year more vegetable and animal life colonizes the Butte hill. Much of it occurs because toxic mine waste has been removed or capped, but even a "control area" like the hill behind my home in Walkerville shows signs of recovery, as MollyTheDog & I discovered on our morning walk today.

At first glance, it's a wasteland littered with mine dumps:

Some of the mine tailings are highly phytotoxic and would pose a human health threat if residents were to build homes or allow their children to play on them:

Yet even in these most toxic of environments, plants are staking their claim (Wild Rose, Rosa sp):

On the south side of the hill, most of the Bitterroots (Lewisia rediviva) are spent, having spread their seed for generations to come:

But on the north side, which held snowdrifts into early June, some are still blooming:

Much of the land is dominated by a common introduced species, the nectar-rich but "noxious" Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea maculosa):

Folklore has it that Knapweed makes a toxin that discourages other plants, but this "wisdom" is not based on scientific fact. Many other species, like the non-native Butter
& Eggs (Linaria vulgaris) do just fine alongside Knapweed:

The same is true for many of our native species that are colonizing the hill, including several of the most common, such as Lupines (Lupinus sp):

Narrow Goldenrod (Solidago spathulata):

And Scotch Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia):

Somewhat less common colonizers include Sweetvetch (Hedysarum sp):

Small-flowered Penstemon (Penstemon procerus):

Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale):

And Yarrow (Achillea millefolium):

Also present, in somewhat lesser abundance, are species such as Dusty Maiden (Chaenactis sp):

And False Dandelion (Agoseris glauca):

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on a research project (directed by Richard Douglass at Montana Tech; funded by Montana's Natural Resource Damage Program) to develop "knapweed tolerant" species of flowering plants. While I respecte Douglass's work as a mouse biologist (no significant experience with plants), I believe this is a boondoggle! That money could be much better spent on removing the most toxic mine waste, or doing a better job of capping mine waste that is left in place. Over time, native wildflowers will do just fine in establishing themselves on sites seeded with a basic revegetation mix.

As a "conclusion," if you're hiking around Walkerville, you might want to take notice of signs: