Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What do elk, trout and hay bales have in common?

Posted By on Tue, Oct 18, 2011 at 8:07 PM

They're all in-season in central Montana right now.

A lot of folks have the perception that central Montana is flat and boring. They are only partially right. Central Montana is flat and fabulous — and the fall is prime time to enjoy some of the area's best wonders.

To start our weekend of father-daughter hardy Montana activities, my Dad and I drove out to the Slippery Ann Elk Flats outside Lewistown, Mont. Every year hundreds of elk gather here to sort their social posses for the winter ahead. Bulls bugle themselves hoarse trying to lure more females to their harems. They run themselves ragged trying to fend off other bulls from stealing what cows they already do have. It's actually a pretty fantastic display of the mighty animal kingdom. Bulls will lock antlers and spar with each other when things get really heated. The biggest harems we saw had close to thirty cows.

Bull elk bugle to their cows on the Slippery Ann Elk Flats.  The elk will sort their harems here and stock up on grass for the long winter ahead.
  • Bull elk bugle to their cows on the Slippery Ann Elk Flats. The elk will sort their harems here and stock up on grass for the long winter ahead.

There were probably only about 200 head of elk when we visited the elk flats. My dad had been the week before and said there were close to twice as many. One of the patrolling park rangers said there had been some mid-week "activity" that scared off a number of the elk. We eventually deduced that he was talking about "rifle activity". The Slippery Ann Elk Flats lie in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, so shooting at the quadrupeds is a bit of a no-no in the area.

Anyway, the elk flats here are positively spectacular. Being on the Missouri River flood plain makes them a small oasis of green in a landscape of dominated by yellows and browns. The Missouri flooded exceptionally high this year, and our same park ranger said the grass wasn't nearly as lush as it usually is. He said they'd try and restore it the following year to prevent the now-dried ground from developing a habit of being fallow.

The Missouri River flows eastbound to the Mississippi.  Its flood plains make for the open grassy areas where the elk come every fall to do their elk business.
  • The Missouri River flows eastbound to the Mississippi. Its flood plains make for the open grassy areas where the elk come every fall to do their elk business.

Next up on our to-do list was to try and evolve my hopeless self into a lean, mean fly fishing machine. Daunting, I know. I told my dad that I wanted to learn how to fly fish after seeing so many of my peers in Missoula enjoy the hobby, so we drove out to Ackley Lake to have a go. I can remember fishing at Ackley Lake when I was little, so having another go some 20-odd years later seemed entirely appropriate.

The trout were biting and we each caught a couple on our fly rods. I was happy to see that the elusive world of fly fishing was something reasonably in my grasp. It's kind of addicting.... you cast out... nothing... BITE!!... YES.... still there??? .....—-..... lost that one....start over.... cast... nothing.... cast....(repeat 10x).... ready to go home... cast... cast again....then... BITE!!!... ahh!!.... it's big.... oh my god I got one!.... MY FIRST FISH!! eeee!..... revel in glory.....cast.... cast again...

You get the idea, it's kind of fun.

Here are the before and after pictures of some fish we caught, plus what I think is a small brachiopod fossil... Montanas bounty never disappoints.
  • Here are the before and after pictures of some fish we caught, plus what I think is a small brachiopod fossil... Montana's bounty never disappoints.

This is going to sound so horribly cliche, but I can't decide if it's more exciting to catch the fish or more exciting to eat them. Cooked fish are BEAUTIFUL. Lemon slices and rosemary sprigs stick out of their bellies... plus a strip of bacon to help absorb some 'fishy' flavor. Our trout were about a pound each — two was more than enough for both of us. Trout, potatoes and green beans — possibly as enjoyable as the elk, hay bale and trout troika.

In driving out to Ackley Lake from our house in Hobson, we saw the Montana Bale Trail in full swing. As the pictures might imply, ranchers channel their artistic sides to try and make the best hay-bale display. Below you can see Wild Bale Hickok and Hay-O-Jima. They're pretty clever and always seem to provide a good chuckle during our highway time.

Typical line of suspects on the Montana Bale Trail.  We have Wild Bale Hickok on the left, Hay-o-Jima on the top-right, and a run-away haymobile on the bottom right.
  • Typical line of suspects on the Montana Bale Trail. We have Wild Bale Hickok on the left, Hay-o-Jima on the top-right, and a run-away haymobile on the bottom right.

To the naked eye central Montana is flat and boring.... but a closer look at the landscape reveals a richness of exciting things to experience. The elk come out to bask in the last remaining days of fall, enjoyed by young couples, families, and other father-daughter teams like my Dad and me. The whole fly fishing thing, another skill I've somehow failed to learn over the years, this weekend became attainable and immensely fun. And lastly... when it got too hot for the elk and too windy to fish... central Montana's hay bales keep our eyes piqued for what lies around the corner.

Th'th'th'th'the'that's alllll, folks.

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