Best Wild Places: Exploring the Yaak (Day 3)

On the sixth and last stop of our Best Wild Places tour, Tom Reed, of Trout Unlimited, spent a few days fishing and hunting in the Yaak, situated in Northwest Montana. Here is Reed's report from day three.

We wrapped up yesterday with a short drift down the Kootenai. After catching that bull trout, the float itself was almost anticlimactic for me, but I tore myself away from reliving the moment, to the river. The Kootenai harbors mostly rainbow trout, but westslope cutthroat also swim its waters. I caught a dozen of each while Linehan rowed, talking about the river that he loves, and the bill that would protect and improve its headwaters.

This morning, we woke to more rain but we decided to hunt, despite the damp. Kevin and Bridget and Tim and I piled into the pickup and drove through the Yaak canopy to a mountain that faded up into the fog. For a person used to big open skies--to the Big Sky Country of the rest of Montana--the Yaak seemed sullen and foreboding at times, but then I looked closer, to the lushness of the forest, to the stunning fall colors among the orange-barked larch. A tree that to the layman looks like a pine with bark that looks like a ponderosa pine and needles that are similar to those of a Douglas fir, the larch turns yellow each fall and sheds those needles. Among the green depth of a forest of conifer, such a landscape is stunning in its range of color.

We parked at a gate on an old logging road. Miles and miles of old closed road are a sportsman's dream in the Yaak. They make for easy walking, while the old clear-cuts promise shooting lanes and good grouse habitat. Higher on the mountain, in country that hasn't been logged, Tester's bill would protect nearly 30,000 acres of pristine country as wilderness. This is the very headwaters of the Yaak.

Ike and Echo, penned up from the previous day when I went fishing instead of hunting, were excited when they boiled out of the pickup and they spun donuts and panted happily while I turned on their e-collars and attached the bells. Using a bell to follow a dog is also foreign to an open country hunter like me, but I quickly learned to listen to the tinkle of each bell, and to discern one dog from another by bell-tone.

Ike and Echo romped into the mist, as we climbed up the big mountain on the old road. Huckleberry and currant and other grouse food grew thick and abundant while young stands of aspen promised cover. Tim ran his young setter, Maisy, and we walked while the dogs charged into fog. We climbed for an hour, lamenting the rain that likely kept the grouse up in the trees away from the dog pack. After an hour of climbing, we turned around and descended by another route. No grouse, but the dogs worked hard and worked well together. Maisy learned from watching my veterans, Ike, 9, and Echo, 4.

"The grouse have to get on the ground sometime to feed," quipped Tim and almost as soon as he said that, the dogs got "birdy." They slowed and the velocity of the tail-wagging increased and noses went to ground.

"Easy, easy," I warned. "Easy."

Kevin, his camera covered in plastic and shielded from the rain, worked into position for a picture and Tim and I walked with our shotguns past him. The dogs slowed.

Ike, the old campaigner, made the point and Echo backed.

"Hold, hoooold."

I saw the dim outline of Ike under a rain-soaked bush, with Echo at his left flank and my heart came up a bit and I became conscious of the gun in my hands and the safety at my fingertip.

I walked in then and a ruffed grouse burst from the cover and I swung up, but there was Maisy in the sight picture up the hill. I held fire and the grouse was gone.

In the afternoon, Rick Bass joined us with his young German short-haired pointer, Auna. We made a similar circle and with an expanded pack of dogs, found some birds. The first was a blue grouse that flushed wild before my gun that Ike was on after it fell. I admired its slate-gray warmth and put it in my game pouch. We plunged on through wet woods, following the dogs, listening to the chime of the bells and the patter of rain on damp forest. Everything seemed clean and washed. Then all of the dogs were frozen in point. I do not know which dog made the find, but the sight of three setters and one short-hair all in pose made the hair stand up on my neck and then a young ruffed grouse was up before the gun and this time Bass was the bird-bagger.

Three species of grouse live in the Yaak--ruffed, blue and spruce--a triad that is possible to achieve in only one day.

Mix in some fantastic big game hunting--elk and trophy whitetail and Shiras moose--and it is easy to see why the Yaak has such a reputation among the sportsmen of Montana. There's even been a caribou sighting or two way up here.

As we headed back to the truck, guns slung empty over our shoulders, talking about wild country and good dogs and wild fish swimming in pure stream, I thought about this magical little corner of Montana. It had taken me too long to get up here. But, I thought, I will be back. Sooner, not later.