COLUMN: Fire situation might affect fall hunting

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Normally at this time of the year, many of us will start storing our fishing gear and boats and dust off our hunting equipment.

It is only five days until grouse season opens on Sept. 1. Archery hunting for deer and elk opens five days later on Sept. 5.† †

But this year is shaping up to be different because of the critical fire situation. Most of our forested mountain land is or will likely be closed to recreation uses, including hunting, because of the fire danger. So before you venture out, be sure to check with state, federal and timber company officials. †

Local archery shops have told me that their annual profit is made from mid-July to early September. The rest of the year they barely make enough to keep the lights on.

Today, like the last several weeks, hundreds of Flathead bow hunters will be practicing in their back yards, honing their shooting skills. My archery magazines are full of brand-new, must-have kinds of new equipment. New bows are easier to shoot, arrows are lighter and fly straighter, bow sights are more user-friendly, arrow releases are smoother, arrow tips are more deadly and the list goes on and on.

I havenít added the numbers, but I bet it is more costly to get into archery hunting than rifle hunting.

Many Montana bow hunters have joined archery organizations and those organizations have done a great job of procuring special antelope archery opportunities for bow hunters. If you are a rifle hunter, this year your odds of drawing a rifle-hunting antelope license generally range from 10 to 50 percent. Rifle season for antelope lasts about a month. Rifle hunters must also apply for antelope licenses for specific hunting districts.

But archery hunters can apply for a special multi-region antelope license that is good in all hunting districts in Regions 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. That is virtually all of Montanaís antelope hunting districts.

That special season starts on Aug. 15 and runs through Nov. 8.

Last year 3,456 archery hunters applied for this special antelope hunting permit and 100 percent of the applicants received licenses. Archery hunters are well organized and have a full-time lobbyist in Helena during every legislative session. That effort pays off with expanded archery hunting opportunities. Just think the political clout gun hunters could have if 100,000 rifle hunters were organized! †

Even though archery hunting for elk opens on Sept. 5, the best hunting usually is from mid-September to Oct. 1 when bulls are normally in the rut. If the weather stays warm and dry, it will be interesting to see if the normal elk rut slides a little later into the fall.

Back to grouse hunting.

Western Montana has three grouse species that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks classify as mountain grouse. The largest mountain grouse is the dusky grouse, formerly known as the blue grouse. Blues tend to live at higher elevations, especially ridge tops. The ruffed and Franklin grouse tend to live in forested valleys and mid-elevation habitat. The ruffed grouse is probably the best eating grouse.

Franklin grouse tend to be the least wary of those three grouse. They are sometimes called fool hens. Sometimes those grouse can be taken by a well-thrown rock, although rock throwing is not a legal way of harvesting grouse.

Hiking through park-like forest cover on ridge tops, hunting for blue grouse, is a great way to spend an autumn afternoon. Ruffed grouse and Franklin grouse hunters like to walk closed roads or hiking trails, especially if the road or trail borders a creek. Creek-side habitat tends to be sub-irrigated to some extent, which can produce green forbs and bugs into late fall. Forbs and bugs are preferred fall grouse food. Grouse also like to frequent roads and trails to pick gravel for their gizzards.†††††††††††† †

One of my favorite grouse-hunting experiences occurred when I was helping my friend Wayne fill a mountain goat tag in the Bitterroot Mountains. We were hiking trails and glassing for goats. We were not successful in filling his goat tag, but I harvested a limit of grouse on two successive days with my .22 pistol. That was fun!

But with the fire-caused closures, my boat may have to stay in the water for a few more weeks. Oh well, fishing is not a bad substitute for hunting.

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