Most outdoorsmen dream about that adventure of a lifetime, whether it’s stalking Cape buffalo in the veld of sub-Saharan Africa or going toe-to-toe with trophy tarpon on the Belize flats. But what about strapping on cross-country skis to search for coyotes? Or hiking for days along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, all the while casting to wild mountain trout? Numerous unique and challenging experiences are available throughout the West for anglers and hunters alike.
With the kids’ new video games from Santa blaring from the TV, it’s time for some quiet exercise outdoors to sweep out winter’s cobwebs. Most Montana hunting seasons are closed during winter, but one option for hunters is to strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis and head to the hills for coyotes.
At the onset of winter, coyotes congregate on the lower-elevation foothills, where deer spend the winter. Coyotes start preying on deer with winter’s first snow, particularly after a dry summer. Not only will the deer be in poor shape, but a dry summer will leave fewer mice and other small animals for coyotes to feed on.
A coyote hunter out for a day’s exercise requires little equipment. Cross-country skis are an easy way to roam the gentle foothill slopes, especially on the downhill glides. Snowshoes provide better traction in steeper country and are more maneuverable in the confines of brush and trees. I recently started using Tubbs Altitude snowshoes. The Altitudes’ crampons and the side-to-side flex of its bindings are an immense help when crossing sidehills. A white parka helps you blend into the background while stalking or calling. A hand call that simulates a rabbit in distress helps lure coyotes. Electronic calls keep wailing long after your lungs play out, but they’re cumbersome to tote.
Since avoiding detection is essential, some technique is required when skiing after coyotes. Stay off the ridgetops, move into the wind and pick a stand with a background that conceals your silhouette and any movement.
Here’s the wrong way to do it: One morning, steam from my breath rose in the frigid air as I chugged up the hills on my skis. At the crest of the first ridge I spotted a coyote at the far side of a mile-wide basin. I lay down on the ridge and squealed loud and long with my hand call. The coyote immediately started running my way. When the coyote was nearly in range I brought my rifle to bear. The coyote picked up the slight movement and changed its direction immediately.
Here’s the right way: Another morning at first light I snowshoed to the edge of a timbered draw. I took a seat against a fir tree to hide my silhouette, sitting with a good view of all sides of the draw. I called, then snuggled in behind my rifle propped on my knees. After a couple of minutes a coyote cautiously stuck its nose out of the trees. Hunger got the better of caution and it stepped into the clear. The coyote never saw my finger pull the trigger.
The day was looking up. A crack of sunlight shone over the southern ridge as I climbed out of the draw with the coyote. The winter sky dawned a brilliant blue and the mountains built up white across the valley below. –John Haviland
When to Go: Coyotes are fair game year-round in Montana, but a hunt in the snow is just the thing to get you out of the house during the interminable winter.
Contact: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 406-444-2535.
BROWNS OF A LIFETIME
There’s something about a big old hooknose brown trout chasing down a shallow diving plug that gets the juices flowing. They’d better be flowing if you’re fishing for hooknoses in central Oregon in the spring, when the really big browns are most active, and most accessible.
Temperatures can border on finger-numbing cold, but who cares when you’re targeting brown trout over 20 pounds. Think I’m joking? The Oregon state-record brown was caught more than a decade ago at Paulina Lake. It weighed 27 pounds 12 ounces.
Since then several other lakes within a 25-mile radius have emerged as premier brown trout fisheries. East Lake, Paulina’s next-door neighbor, has bruisers; so does Wickiup Reservoir. A short drive down Highway 97 lies Miller Lake, yet another hot spot for big browns. The season at Wickiup Reservoir and East and Paulina lakes runs from April 26 to October 31. The season doesn’t close at Miller.
Situated in the Newberry Crater, Paulina reigns supreme among central Oregon’s trout lakes. Scenery notwithstanding, the browns are reason enough to come. In the spring concentrate on the north end of the lake.
Troll a jointed or floating Rapala. Choose black-and-silver in size 9, 11 or 13. Attach it to your main line using a snap swivel or a HotShot snap. Paulina browns are skittish so keep your lures 125 feet behind the boat. Rig up with 15-pound-test monofilament and troll slowly. Any speed faster than 3 miles per hour is too fast. That should have the plugs diving at about 15 feet, which is the zone you want to be in. Lodging is available at Paulina Lake Resort.
Situated next to Paulina, East Lake has all the makings of a great trout lake. The browns may not be as big here, but they’re here in huge numbers.
East Lake’s eastern shoreline is the most productive. Trolling a No. 9 silver-and-black Rapala is a good method to rely on. If that doesn’t work, situate your boat 100 feet from the shore. Cast your lure, preferably a crankbait that dives to 15 feet, toward the shoreline and reel it back to the boat. An erratic retrieve works best. If you want to headquarter at East Lake, consider East Lake Resort.
A 10,000-acre reservoir made up of three arms, Wickiup Reservoir sees its biggest fish caught early in the season and late in the fall just before the reservoir closes to fishing. The browns move into the shallows to feed on smaller fish. Start fishing on the Davis Arm, where the browns are on the prowl looking for an easy meal. If that doesn’t produce, move up into the willows on the northernmost arm on the lake. Trolling a shallow-diving plug like a No. 11 gold-black deep-diving Rapala is the way to go. Black-and-silver is another good color combination for this time of year. Experiment with jointed plugs here, too. It helps to have your lure 100 feet behind your boat when you’re trolling. Twin Lakes Resort is located near Wickiup.
Located in Klamath County, Miller Lake is interrupted by a point on the west side of the lake. To the north of that, Tipsoo Creek dumps into the lake. That’s a good place to fish in the spring. In fact, trolling along the entire western shoreline, from the boat ramp to the point, is a good early strategy.
Flatline either a 7- or 9-inch AC plug in black-and-silver color combinations or a No. 7 Rapala Husky Jerk. Miller Lake is typically socked in with snow early in the season. For more info about Miller Lake, call the U.S. Forest Service in Chemult (541-365-7001). –Pat Hoglund
When to Go: The fishing picks up the last week in April and lasts through May, though the roads to Miller, Paulina and East lakes usually don’t open until Memorial Day weekend.
Where to Stay: Paulina Lake Resort, 541-536-2240; East Lake Resort, 541-536-2230; Twin Lakes Resort, 541-593-6526.
Southwestern Montana is the only place in America where drawing a bighorn sheep permit is the easy part of the hunt. The difficult part–the bone-creaking, muscle-numbing, adrenaline-pumping part–is actually hunting in this land of cruel beauty.
This is the crown of the continent, the mountains that frame the north slopes of Yellowstone National Park, where for the past 40 years, anyone with grit, stamina and mountaineering skills has had the chance to kill a ram. The country is so hostile that the elation of tagging a sheep can veer into anxiety about getting off the mountain alive.
Fickle weather, vertical exposure and remote terrain in the four Montana hunting districts that offer unlimited tags weed out casual hunters and put back-country savvy to the test. For Ralph Saunders of Billings, Mont., that test was nearly fatal.
Saunders and his party were packing a ram off Pitchstone Plateau when an equinox storm slammed into the mountains and pinned them above the tree line. With no shelter and little food, they spent a wretched night with little expectation that they could find their way to their base camp through the whipping wind of the blizzard.
“We had to stop walking and make a shelter after our flashlights died,” says Saunders. “There are so many cliffs up there with no lips that we were afraid we’d walk right off the edge of one in the dark.”
Bighorn sheep crave rocky scarps no matter where they live. Southwestern Montana has so much rough, treacherous country that finding the sheep is a hunter’s first challenge.
“Early in the fall, when the unlimited season begins, you’ll find isolated groups of rams running together,” says Glenn Erickson of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department.
“Those rams hole up in areas with timber and small outcrops of rocks– typically on steep, windswept, north-facing slopes,” he says. “They can be difficult to find, and it can be challenging to get within range once you do.” Once you have an animal down, postcard-gorgeous vistas turn ugly with the realization that you have to get your ram across them in order to return to level ground at the trailhead.
Hunting districts that offer unlimited sheep tags have been reduced in the last decade as populations have declined. Four districts remain open, stretching westward from the Beartooth Plateau’s districts 500 and 501 in the east to the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges in districts 300 and 303. All hunters who apply for the unlimited permit by the May 1 deadline receive one. That guaranteed permit is as precious as a birthright to a dedicated group of hard-core sheep hunters, many of whom will spend fruitless years applying for permits in the nation’s most popular sheep units.
“For most hunters, the challenging part of the sheep-hunting experience is drawing the tag,” says FWP’s Erickson. “We have districts in Montana where your odds of drawing a permit are less than one percent, but the success rate for hunters is nearly a hundred percent. In the unlimited areas, everybody gets a permit, but harvest rates average around seven percent.”
The challenge is finding a legal ram before harvest quotas are met and the seasons close, often within the first week of the September opener. You’ll face competition from other hunters. You’ll test your own physical limits. And you may have to pass up several sheep before you find a legal, three-quarter-curl ram.
Saunders’ advice is always to hunt with a partner, to have proper clothing for any weather, from shirtsleeves to Gore-Tex, and to take the best clothing you can afford. He urges hunters to turn back at the first taste of trouble.
“We only made it off that plateau because of God’s gift,” he says. “We walked into trouble and almost weren’t able to walk out of it. But that sheep hunt is something everyone should do if they’re able.” –Andrew McKean
When to Go: Most of Montana’s bighorn seasons open September 15 and close either October 31 or November 30. District 300 holds a 9-day season that opens September 2. Applications are due May 1.
Contact: For maps and regulations, call the Middle Fork Ranger District at 208-879-4101.
The late Jack O’Connor hunted everything from aardwolf to zebra. Yet he proclaimed the Coues whitetail the most difficult game of all. The elfin deer–no more than 36 inches at the shoulder, 100 pounds on the hoof, the color of shadow and wildcat wily–inhabits some of the roughest, most inhospitable country of the Southwest. It’s a denizen of dry, rocky desert ranges of cactus and stunted cedar; just as often it’s found on manzanita and buckbrush foothills. It thrives in waterless country often too dry to support good numbers of elk or mule deer or black bears.
You hunt Coues by your wits, and by employing powerful optics. Its home’s too rough, and the species’ density is too low, to depend on blundering and luck. A typical day in search of Coues begins by arriving on a commanding vantage before good light arrives and putting glass to work on hillsides known to hold sign. Sign can take the form of tiny cloven hoofprints, ball-bearing droppings or impressive shed antlers. An antler score of 110 inches earns a permanent place in the Boone and Crockett record book, so impressive sheds in this case are a different matter from those that wow hunters farther east.
Coues maintain strict territories, and seldom stray outside a square-mile range. Serious Coues hunters own the best high-objective binoculars available. Only the best suffice when probing for hours on end, ferreting tiny deer from vast and broken terrain. Consistently successful Coues hunters are patient, resisting the urge to wander and trusting scouting and time to bring prey into focus.
Once a Coues is found, you must stalk it, noting landmarks, slipping over treacherous, noisy terrain, breaking through vegetation and using topography to keep out of sight. If you’re able to locate it again within range, you’ve won. Shots are typically longer than average: 300 to 350 yards if you tote a rifle, maybe 60 if you’re tenacious enough to hunt with a bow. I’ve used both, never failing to discover ultimate challenge.
If you have the means, you can travel to Mexico and collect your Coues effortlessly, but this is no more representative of Coues hunting than hunting elk on an exclusive Indian reservation. Hunting southwestern New Mexico or southern Arizona public lands is the way most people know Coues hunting.
Backpacking is the best way to beat the competition, find the very best bucks and experience true adventure. There are many options to consider. Places that are well off the beaten track feel less hunting pressure and see bucks grow old. Places like New Mexico’s southern Black Range and the southern Gila Wilderness. Places like Arizona’s Blue Range, Sierra Ancha, Galiuro, Patagonia or Chiricahua mountains, to name just a few. Wild places, void of roads and civilization. A weekend allows you to get three miles away from the masses–more time allows even more extensive trekking. All these places harbor good numbers of Coues.
Purchase appropriate maps and seek terrain with water. A small creek or permanent spring will both meet your daily needs and anchor deer to an area. Invest in long-weekend scouting trips ahead of the season to confirm your hunches and strengthen your legs and lungs. Plan every detail as precisely as a military invasion. Backpacking is not for the weak of heart. Hunting out of a pack requires experience roughing it. There’s no better way to get away from it all and enjoy real hunting adventure. There’s no better route to the best Coues hunting available. –Patrick Meitin
When to Go: New Mexico’s season typically runs the middle two weeks of November. Arizona’s seasons vary greatly throughout the fall and winter.
Contact: Arizona Game and Fish Department, 602-942-3000; New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, 800-862-9310.
TREKKING THE MIDDLE FORK
The middle fork of the Salmon River tumbles more than 100 miles through the massive Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho, our largest classified wilderness outside of Alaska. Each summer dozens of rafting parties enjoy the premier wilderness float in the Lower 48, but a few ambitious hikers also tackle this route. I’ve made well over 100 backpack and flyfishing trips throughout the Rockies, and a 140-mile, 11-day solo trek down the Middle Fork ranks near the top for fine fishing in dramatic country. That hike began on the forested headwaters above Dagger Falls and ran downstream for 90 miles into arid canyon country. Once past the mouth of Big Creek, the lower 25 miles of the fork’s canyon can only be floated. So I hiked up Big Creek for a bit, then exited through rugged mountains to Stoddard pack bridge on the main Salmon, some 250 miles by road from my entry point. My exit route paralleled the river, treating me to lofty views of the Middle Fork canyon from seemingly endless waves of timbered peaks.
Hikers looking for a shorter, though nonetheless spectacular, 40-mile round trip into the heart of the canyon can enter from the Bighorn Crags east of the river. My first trip into the Middle Fork was from the crags. On a July morning I knocked fresh snow from my pack and topped a 9,000-foot pass above Heart Lake. From there it was all downhill via the Waterfall Creek trail, which plummets 5,000 feet in a dozen miles to strike the lower Middle Fork at the mouth of Big Creek. The transition was as swift as any I’ve seen in the Rockies. In hours I descended from snowy alpine peaks to searing 95-degree heat and slithering rattlesnakes on the canyon floor.
The Middle Fork is one of the last great strongholds for native west-slope cutthroat trout and bull trout. Angling on the Middle Fork and Big Creek, its major tributary, is catch-and-release with artificial lures and a single barbless hook. I’ve parked at the Big Creek trailhead, accessible from the small town of Yellow Pine, and fished the entire 35 miles down to the Middle Fork and back. Big Creek is too rough to float, so it sees few anglers; the action for 14-inch-plus westslope cutts is even better here than on the Middle Fork. Top flies for the entire drainage are Muddlers, hoppers, stonefly nymphs and Elk Hair Caddis. Prime fishing begins after runoff in late June and runs into early September.
Several dirt landing strips were grandfathered in under the Wilderness Act. It’s possible to park at the Big Creek trailhead and fly to strips on the Middle Fork or Big Creek, then hike back to your vehicle.
However you access it, this is special country. Soak in hot springs. Explore abandoned homesteads. Nap on airy, parklike slopes under virgin ponderosa pine. Watch eagles, elk, bighorns and chinook salmon that still migrate some 700 miles inland from the Pacific. –Rich Osthoff
When to Go: Summer is prime time for a several-days-long Middle Fork trek.
Contact: Idaho Fish and Game, Salmon Region, 208-756-2271.
For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/regional