I knew from the beginning that those early autumn days hunting sharp-tailed grouse in southwestern North Dakota were special. And now, after more than five decades, I realize they were some of the very best days of my life. It is difficult for me to convey the indescribable excitement those weekends held for me. I'd load my shell vest, usually No. 6s in 1-1/8 oz. 16 gauge. This was at the time when plastic shells were coming into being, and it was getting difficult to find paper shells.
In the last issue of BUGLE magazine, published by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, I noticed that Colorado has made the same mistake that Montana and a number of other western states have made.
The late Charley Waterman included a chapter on wild sheep hunting in his wonderful little book, "The Part I Remember", and in it he wrote, "There is only a little sheep hunting for most of us." Waterman shot a big Stone ram somewhere off the Alaska Highway in northern British Columbia sometime in the 1960s, and I don't think he ever hunted wild sheep again. In a different book entitled, "The Hunter's World" he claimed that forty was the finest age of the sheep hunter.
It is no big secret that hunter numbers are declining. In fact, hunter participation in the U.S. dropped 16 percent between 2011 and 2016. That's according to the latest survey taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The decline translates into less license money taken in by state wildlife agencies, and higher hunting and fishing license costs for those of us who still hunt and fish.
For the last fifty years I have been wearing western felt hats but I assure you that I am no cowboy. As one who regards horses as necessary evils on full blown packtrips, I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a little bit afraid of them too. As an acquaintance has said, "A horse will kill you and never shed a tear."
One of a number of rewarding aspects of writing a weekly column for 44+ years, is that people out of one's past come back to life through a phone call, letter, postcard or e-mail. For example, last week a 61-year-old woman from San Francisco named Dana sent me several e-mails, asking about an article I had written many years ago about her late grandfather, Jack Anderson of Dubois, Wyo.
It has been my good fortune to fly-fish for trout in dozens of creeks and rivers in the West, and to fish for salmon and steelhead in British Columbia and Alaska, but the truth is I never have had more fun fishing than I did with a quill bobber and a No. 6 or No. 8 hook baited with an earthworm dug from a garden and placed in coffee grounds in a tin can. And unlike fly-fishing, bait-fishing is the perfect way to teach a youngster to fish and enjoy it.
On my first Stone sheep hunt in northern British Columbia in 1980 I had a pokey horse that periodically had to trot to keep up with the other riders in the string. During one of these trotting episodes the snap opened on my knife sheath containing a handmade Ruana sticker, the knife popped out of the sheath, never to be seen again. It was an original Ruana made by the pioneer Finnish maker from Bonner, Montana—Rudolph H. Ruana. I paid only $16 for the knife but today it would be worth hundreds to collectors.
As one who grew up on the northern plains, I never have liked the North Woods, the gloomy temperate rain forests of the Northwest Coast, or the jungles of Southeast Asia. But I loved the high country of the West from the first time I set foot in that part of the continent when I was still a teenager. For the next 40-plus years I hiked, backpacked and hunted in mountain ranges from Arizona and Nevada to Wyoming, Idaho, Montana all the way north to Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
"We could just drive around in my pickup if you are up to it," John said on the phone. "Shoot out of the cab. The grass it too high to see gophers in the fields but we could shoot them in the two-tracks." "Yeah, I am feeling better and would love to get out of the house for half a day and do some shooting. I'll be ready at 1 p.m." Laurie retrieved my L. L. Bean fanny pack from beneath my reloading bench. The pack is filled with .22 rimfire ammo and magazines for my 10-22 Ruger. An hour later John and I are driving a two-track road on a ranch 20 miles west of Bozeman.