Bald Eagle: The Bird Behind the Symbol

(c) Jack Ballard

Best known in our nation as a symbol of the United States, likenesses of the bald eagle appear on most official seals and have also appeared on the backs of many coins. The bald eagle is our national bird. However, it’s a species whose name doesn’t seem to fit the creature. After all, the head of an adult bald eagle is clad in feathers, not devoid of covering as the term “bald” implies.

However, when these eagles were first named, the word “bald” was commonly understood as a shorter version of “piebald” which referred to someone with a white head of hair rather than a head lacking hair. Thus, the bald eagle’s name perfectly fits it appearance when considered against the vocabulary of early America. For the pioneers who encountered them, bald eagles were considered “white-headed eagles,” based on the meaning of their name.

Although their striking hoary heads and matching tail feathers are the trademark features of these magnificent birds, not all bald eagles exhibit them. Young eagles do not attain this pale plumage on the head and tail until they reach reproductive maturity, usually at four or five years of age. Prior to this time, their appearance exhibits varying stages of development. For the first year or two, bald eagles are brown, showing little or no white on their heads and tail feathers and are easily confused with young golden eagles. Junior members of both species exhibit white mottling on their bodies and  undersides of their wings. Around three years of age, bald eagles begin to acquire their trademark white head and tail, although brown streaking is common on both.

Distinguishing immature bald eagles from all golden eagles is a challenge, but attention to a few unique markings will do the trick if you have time to study a bird through binoculars or at close range. Golden eagles have feathers on their legs extending all the way to their toes while the large, yellow legs of the bald eagle do not have feathers on the lower parts. Bald eagles also exhibit a blockier head and slightly shorter tail than golden eagles. In most habitats in the contiguous United States, golden eagles are also noticeably larger than their bald cousins.

Although immature birds can be very difficult to distinguish in the field, bald and golden eagles are unrelated, save for their name. In fact, the term “eagle” is somewhat confusing in itself. For eagles are no more than oversized raptors that could well be called “hawks.” Several species of “eagles” in Europe are smaller than the red-tailed hawks of North America. Taxonomically, bald eagles are aligned with the broader family of sea-eagles (haliaeetus) which include the white-tailed eagle of Greenland and Eurasia, and the mighty Stellar’s sea-eagle of northeastern Asia, a species occasionally see on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Golden eagles are part of the family of “true eagles” (aquila), distinguished by fully-feathered legs. The wedge-tailed eagle of Australia shares this family with the golden eagle, similar in size and color, but with noticeably longer necks and legs.

The differing families of the bald and golden eagles also originates in their feeding habits. Bald eagles are seldom found far from water, and are enthusiastic consumers of fish, whether taken on their own or usurped from ospreys. They’re also very prone to dine upon carrion, especially in the winter months when road-killed deer and other creatures are available. The diet of golden eagles, by contrast, consists of land animals. Rabbits, hares, ground squirrels and snakes comprise the bulk of their diet, although they’re capable of taking much larger when necessary. However, bald eagles are also capable of taking land animals for prey, and will do so in areas where fish are less available as a foundation for their nourishment.

Although slightly smaller than golden eagles, bald eagles are nonetheless large and imposing birds. Their size varies considerably depending on where they live. Males found in Florida, for example, are much smaller than those soaring the skies of Alaska. Florida males weigh slightly more than five pounds and achieve wingspans of around six feet. Large males in Alaska, by contrast, may weigh 13 pounds with wings spreading to nearly seven feet. No matter where they live, bald eagles are an example of sexual dimorphism, a term used to describe species where males and females differ in relation to some important trait. In bald eagles the variation is related to size. Female bald eagles are typically about 25% larger than the males. 

The impressive size of bald eagles corresponds to equally notable nests. These white-headed raptors construct the largest nests of any bird in North America, structures sometimes so bulky it scarcely seems a tree could hold them without collapsing. However, bald eagles tend to choose very large trees for their nests, an important habit considering their nurseries of branches and twigs often weigh a ton and may be over 12 feet high and eight feet wide. A pair of eagles usually returns to the same nest site year after year, adding additional material each spring. Considering bald eagles live about 20 years in the wild it’s no wonder their nests, with each yearly “addition,” attain such impressive sizes.

Currently, bald eagles nest can be found over most of the contiguous United States and Alaska, although their range was once much, much smaller, especially in the lower 48 states. Eagle numbers declined dramatically in the 19th and early 20th centuries due to habitat destruction and hunting. Protections enacted in 1940 as the Bald Eagle Protection Act helped the birds somewhat, but the 1950s brought another, exceedingly serious threat to these birds whose population had plummeted from an estimated 400,000 individuals in the 1700s to just over 400 breeding pairs. Like many other raptors, bald eagle numbers declined precipitously in the decades following the widespread application of DDT and other pesticides for agricultural use in the 1950s. DDT absorbed by eagles through their prey disrupted their metabolism of calcium, causing females to lay eggs with paper-thin, easily-broken shells. Pesticides also led to infertility among the birds, severely curtailing their reproduction. Bald eagles became the “poster bird” for the DDT ban in the United States in the 1970s, although their potential for extinction in absence of the ban was potentially as acute for ospreys, another fish-loving raptor.

Since their designation as an Endangered Species in 1967, the recovery of bald eagles in the contiguous United States is one of the most thrilling conservation stories of our time. Once DDT was banned, eagle numbers began to increase and their range expanded. Tens of thousands of bald eagles now glide above the seacoasts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and thousands of large lakes and rivers in between. In 2007, bald eagles were completely removed from Endangered Species protections and are now considered a species of “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), meaning their health and population currently face no significant obstacles.

Breathtaking in flight, beautiful to the eye, the bald eagle is not only the symbol of our nation on official documents and governmental paraphernalia. The majestic birds also symbolize the power and will of the America people to protect wildlife in jeopardy, a national trait still needed in relation to other species both now and in the future.

A Tailless Whitetail

November 20, 2012 by Jack

(c) Jack Ballard

Near the edge of town during mid-summer, just at twilight, I spied two whitetail bucks feeding in a meadow. Intrigued by their large, fuzzy antlers, I pulled over at the side of the road to give my son in the back seat a better look. On closer examination, we noticed something very strange about one of the deer. He had no tail.

A few months later, while puttering about trying take photos of a jackrabbit, I noticed a buck deer bounding pell-mell in my direction. It was a sight I’ve seen a thousand times, but something didn’t seem right. Viewing the photos on my computer later in the day, I recognized the tailless whitetail. It was the same buck, absent the trademark white flag normally carried upright on the rump of a deer when running.

Initially amused, I soon found myself zooming in on the image of the unfortunate creature to examine its missing appendage. Within the tail of a whitetail deer is a series of thin bones, much smaller but similar to those in the spine. This buck wasn’t simply missing the hair on its tail. Its tail was completely gone, severed from its body precisely at the base as if it had been surgically removed by a mentally unstable veterinarian.

And so I pose some obvious questions. Has anyone else seen a deer without a tail? Does anyone know how a whitetail might lose its tail? Maybe all those kids trying to pin the tail on the poor donkey could help out this buck. But perhaps not. I think they’d have a hard time catching him.

When It’s Dry Go High

(c) Jack Ballard

On a recent hike in the Beartooth Mountains in October I found a herd of elk at 11,000 feet above sea level, up in the alpine zone. Haunts more commonly associated with bighorn sheep or mountain goats, the average hunter might ask, “what were they doing there.”

As it turns out, my corner of Montana has been in an extended drought with much higher than normal temperatures. Under such conditions, elk go high. And stay there. Not only is the cooler weather in the alpine zone more comfortable for creatures clad in a thick winter coat, the feed is better as well. Alpine grasses are very nutritious and in a drought year the high country generally produces more grass than the lowlands. Wapiti will remain at very high elevations in dry years until winter weather pushes them lower. You’ll find them in hanging valleys and on forested slopes at timberline, often feeding above the reaches of their traditional forested habitats.

Dry conditions make elk hunting tough anywhere. But if you point your boots up the mountain at least you’ll be hunting where they’re living.

Wind Drift

(c) Jack Ballard

Newcomers to Western big-game hunting are often advised to prepare themselves for longer shots than they’re accustomed to when hunting in other parts of the country. Excellent advice. However, the quest for accuracy in long-range shooting requires more than practicing at extended distances and calculating bullet drop. The wind, which blows often, blows hard and howls erratically across the Western landscape can confound shooting even more than bullet drop at long distances. When prepping for your hunt, find out how your particular cartridge/bullet combination fares in the wind. If you don’t, it’s easy to get blown off the mark.

The Isles of Forked Lake

(c) Jack Ballard

It’s the dream of many an American, from freckled grade-school girls with missing front teeth to smartly-attired executives who prowl Manhattan’s financial district in search of a deal like pickerel on a perch. Ah, to traipse the shoreline of one’s own, private island. For multiple millions, you just might swing the purchase of this piece of paradise in the Caribbean. In the Adirondacks, you can have one for less than a hundred bucks. At least for a night or two.

Four crafts loaded, prows pointed into a blustery wind pushing knee-high waves into the boat launch at Forked Lake, a crew of six sailors, er, paddlers, prepare to fulfill a fancy. Less than a mile away lies a private island we’ll call home for the next three nights, a shady islet we’ll share with nary another human. For now, the trick is getting there.

Lisa, my sweetheart, and her son, Parker, lead the flotilla in a pair of kayaks. My two sons, Micah and Dominic, paddle an aluminum canoe we rented at the lake, piled high in its center with a mound of gear in dry bags and firewood. Zoe, my nine year-old daughter sits in the front of my 17-foot Old Town Penobscot, a craft whose stability and efficient profile I’ll surely need on this trek. For it’s the youngest member of the crew and I who ferry the lion’s share of the gear to the island in the face of a pernicious wind.

Shortly after we shove from shore, Parker runs aground on a boulder disguised beneath the waves. The overbearing breeze sends waves splashing over the hull of her kayak and nearly into Lisa’s lap. True to brotherly form, Micah and Dominic squabble about who’s to blame for their canoe not running a straight course toward the island. But I’m in no position to manage the mishaps of others. It takes nearly all my strength and stamina to keep the canoe cutting into the waves.

A particularly boisterous swell breaks against the bow, sending spray into Zoe’s face. She laughs and turns to show me her splattered glasses.

“Hey dad, isn’t this fun?”

At least one person thinks so.

In what seems far more than an hour but is more probably around thirty minutes, we reach the leeward side of an island that looks like the back of some humongous sea creature protruding from the lake. But this monster is formed of stone and thin, sandy soil, prickled with stately evergreens and a few deciduous trees whose roots burrow into cracks in the rock for strength and sustenance, whose towering trunks thrust upward toward the infinite sky overhead. Our abode lies just beyond it on a smaller isle with a singular campsite. Rounding the point of the bigger island we’re again buffeted by the waves but only momentarily. Two dozen strokes of my paddle brings us blissfully into calmer water on the sheltered side of our island. We pull the kayaks ashore and moor the canoes to the dock. Lisa is anxious to unload, pitch the tents and arrange a camp. I’m more interested in a rest for my aching shoulders.

Watching the three boys set up the kids’ tent and organize their sleeping quarters in one of its two rooms (Zoe gets the other suite to herself), I’m grateful to share their company, boundless energy and growing competence with outdoor skills. After dinner we dip into the store of firewood that burdened the boys’ canoe. As they roast marshmallows in the dancing flames, I remember an adage from my boyhood on a Montana ranch. “He who cuts his own wood is twice warmed.” Carry much wood in a canoe and it applies as aptly to paddling as cutting.

Just before sunrise, in the first, bashful light of the new day, I awaken to the wavering call of a loon somewhere down the lake. At 1,248 acres, Forked Lake isn’t one of the larger lakes in the Adirondacks, but it certainly claims its share of the wildlife. Loons and ducks are common neighbors to campers, along with ospreys and a host of other birds. Rousing ourselves from the tent, knowing the kids will be unconscious for another two hours, Lisa and I decide to go on a loon hunt. I’ll paddle the canoe and help her spot the game. She’ll shoot the birds from the front seat — with her camera.

Cruising back toward the boat launch, we discover a single bird who allows us to approach within easy photo range. Lisa composes a few nice images, but the water is just rough enough to rock the canoe, making it hard for her to stabilize her long telephoto lens. Looping back toward our island, we spy another loon in a sheltered bay. It, too, seems quite tolerant of our approach. Peering through her camera, Lisa focuses on the beautiful bird, its red orb of an eye intently scrutinizing our now-motionless craft.

“Look!” she exclaims. “There are two chicks on its back.”

Sure enough, two fuzzy youngsters are huddled happily on their mother’s back, seemingly enjoying the first warm rays of sunlight as much as the two humans observing them. Then one decides it’s time for a swim. It plops from mom’s feathered ribcage into the water, immediately followed by its sibling. Within minutes, Lisa has dozens of lovely photos.

Arriving back at camp, we find the kids stirring. Camping on Forked Lake is a delightful exercise in doing without the conveniences of modern life to encounter a world that is big, wild and more soothing to the soul than the lulling whispers of a hypnotist. Breakfast is simple fare: oatmeal with dried blueberries, milk and yogurt. Afterwards, the kids disperse to throw rocks into the water, fish and explore every nook and cranny of the island. At lunch, we’re greeted by a mother mallard and her ducklings, bold little waterfowl who surge forward in frantic competition for any crumb that drops from the half-dozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches being consumed by a brood of hungry humans. Afterwards, Zoe and the boys coax the adults into the water for a swim from our island to the larger one, an activity that morphs into a daily routine.

In a 1955 article for Sports Illustrated, author George Tichenor penned words which remarkably capture our experience on Forked Lake, 55 years later. “Forked Lake’s greatest charm lies in its wilderness look,” he wrote. “It is an area of great old trees and cool vistas…The ground is springy to the step, the air laced with the fragrance of spruce. Camp life quickly becomes orderly and easy…Hurry back to work? Not on your life!”

For the next two days, there is no work, save the modest chores of dishwashing and food preparation. We do find time for exercise, though, mainly in the form of swimming and evening paddling excursions to explore ever-greater portions of our surroundings. Forked Lake offers fine fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass, along with smaller, spiny pumpkinseeds, fish Zoe quickly likens to the bluegills she loves to catch at home. On our last evening, Micah and I paddle away from the dock, determined to make a fine showing of our final opportunity to fish for bass. We catch a couple modestly-sized smallmouths. Intent on stretching as much distance as possible from my fly cast, I hear a shriek from the island. Standing on the large, rounded rock jutting into the lake near the picnic table, Zoe is cranking on her spinning reel and yelling.

“I got one, I got one.”

Ceasing our own fishing to enjoy the show, expecting to see yet another pumpkinseed yanked from the water, our mouths drop in amazement when she grapples the largest bass of the trip from its underwater lair.

Paddling back toward the boat launch on the final morning of our adventure in island living, it seems everyone is a little happier, a little stronger and more confident for the experience. Owning a tropical island might make one feel like royalty, but it’s hard to believe it tops being the sovereign, if only for days, of an isle on Forked Lake.


Time for a Change?

On two occasions, the pleasure and safety of our evening paddles was marred by individuals on jet-skis and a boat towing a water-skier who roared by hand-powered crafts with reckless abandon. For solitude seekers, one of the greatest attractions of this lake is its lack of the amenities that draw folks who favor motorized forms of recreation. Most adventurers take to the water in a craft that is as Adirondack as the maple tree, the canoe. There are many places to enjoy jet-skis and powerboats in the Forked Lake area. Given the number of hand-powered crafts on Forked Lake, it seems reasonable (in this visitor’s opinion) to limit the horsepower and speed of motorized crafts or eliminate them altogether. Doing so would inconvenience only a very small percentage of recreationists and greatly enhance the safety of others.

The Buzz on Bees

(c) Jack Ballard

In our culture, people hold two primary associations with bees: stings and honey. In fact, neither are so closely related to bees as most people imagine. While nearly every species of bee is capable of delivering a sting, under normal circumstances bees are highly docile. Only when squeezed or directly harmed will the average bee thrust its stinger into the hide of a human. Threaten the hive, and a whole swarm of bees may sting you. Other than those two instances, bees would much rather go about their business than prick people. Many stings attributed to bees actually come from wasps which are much more aggressive and far more likely to sting with minimal provocation.

Honey comes from bees. However, most people fail to realize that very few species actually produce it. The European honey bee has been widely domesticated and accounts for most of our nation’s honey production. Of all the other species of bees inhabiting the world, just a handful of them make honey.

How many kinds of bee are there? The number and variety are astounding. Some 20,000 different species of bees buzz the planet, existing on every continent except for Antarctica. From coastal lowlands to barren mountaintops, bees make their home in every type of habitat that nurtures plants requiring insects for pollination. In size, bees range from tiny workers of the trigona minima species who barely exceed 1/16 of an inch to females of the megachile pluto species who can reach lengths slightly exceeding 1.5 inches. Bees range in color from muted blacks and grays, to red, yellow, orange and metallic hues of green and blue. Not all bees rely on pollen and nectar for sustenance. Some glean floral oils from plants. Vulture bees, a species of stingless bees, feed on dead animals.

Diverse in size and feeding habits, bees also exhibit a wide range of social structures. Most people have some elementary understanding of the complex relationships of bees in a honey-producing hive. A hive of honey bees may contain up to 40,000 bees, with the queen producing 1,000 to 2,000 eggs per day to replace worker bees lost to predators while foraging and those dying of old age. However, there are many forms of bees that exist in colonies containing a few dozen to a few hundred individuals. Bumblebee colonies typically contain around 50 to 200 bees in August or early September when their population is at its highest. Still other species of bees are loners, not forming colonies at all. The females of these types of bees, known as solitary bees, make nests in holes in the ground, decaying wood or the hollows of reeds. They often specialize in collecting the pollen of a particular plant or a single type of plant, such as sunflowers. Some species of bees are parasitic, laying their eggs in the colonies of others or even killing the resident queen and forcing the workers of the deposed matriarch to rear their young.

Whether solitary or living in a colony with thousands of members, bees perform a critical role in maintaining life on earth for a bewildering array of plants and the creatures (including humans) who consume them. Bees are the most important pollinator of flowering plants on the earth. When foraging for pollen or nectar, bees transfer pollen from flower to flower, facilitating reproduction. Scientists estimate that over 30% of the food consumed by humans is garnered from plants requiring insects for pollination, most of which is accomplished by bees.

However, worldwide populations of bees are declining dramatically. In the 35 year period from 1970 to 2005, most of the wild honey bee colonies in the United States were wiped out due to pesticides, urbanization, parasites and disease. Very few wild honey bee colonies now exist in our country. In 2006 and 2007, a dramatic drop in bee numbers, both domestic and untamed, sparked a great deal of alarm among biologists in the United States. Labeled “colony collapse disorder,” this unprecedented decline in bee numbers caused a great deal of warranted concern among crop and vegetable growers, regarding the ability of their crops to be effectively pollinated without bees. Some researchers now believe a fatal combination of a fungus and a virus was responsible for this colossal collapse in the bee population. Bee numbers continue to decline. Pesticides applied for the control of other harmful insects often exterminate bees as well, including bumblebees and other solitary species that play an important role in pollinating many flowering plants. Increasingly, domestic honey bee colonies are moved about the country, not so much for their own good, but for the pollination of crops and flowers.

Of the solitary bees, many species are stingless or only willing to sting in extreme cases of self-defense. Communal bees, such as honey bees, are also reluctant to sting, but may become quite aggressive when defending their hive. When they sting, these bees release a pheromone, a chemical substance detected by others bees which causes them to join the attack on the aggressor, either stinging it to death or driving it from the hive.

Stinging a human is generally fatal to the bee. Bees’ stingers are more suited for battle with other bees than humans or other skinned mammals. When a bee stings a human, barbs on the stinger cause it to become so firmly embedded in the skin that the bee cannot pull it free. Instead, a sizeable chunk of the bee’s hide is left behind with the stinger when it retreats after imparting the sting, a wound which is almost inevitably fatal.

Thus, the idea that bees can sting only once applies quite accurately to their painful interactions with humans and other mammals, but isn’t true of aggressive interactions between bees or between bees and other insects.

One of the bulkiest bees in America is the bumblebee. An important pollinator, bumblebees are often seen buzzing around suburban vegetable and flower gardens. Their flight has been characterized in song, and also described as defying the laws of flight. While bumblebees’ aerial antics are certainly worthy of a melody, the supposed theoretical prohibitions on their flight are in error. The idea that bumblebees are theoretically incapable of flight probably stems from a book by French scientists published in the 1930s where the authors applied principles of fixed-wing flight to the bees. More recent analysis shows that bumblebees use exceedingly fast, irregular and rotational wing movements which generate sufficient lift and propulsion for their buzzing, erratic patterns of flight.

Often misunderstood, bees are an integral strand in the complex web of biological interactions that maintain life on earth. Encountering a bee in the garden or camp isn’t a cause for alarm, but an opportunity to consider their critical connection to human life and our need to maintain a planet hospitable to our buzzing benefactors.

Montana’s Wilderness Whitetails

(c)  Jack Ballard

The country was ripe with distractions and I fell victim to them all. Stationed on a wide creek bottom deep in a federally designated wilderness area, I was some eight miles from the trailhead and a half-mile from heaven. Lulled by the purr of the brook and intrigued by a nosy ruby-crowned kinglet, the realization seeped over me that this was one of those intimate moments with nature that explains why sporting folks can hunt happily for days without ever pulling the trigger.

A fresh gash in an alder’s bark refocused my attention on hunting. Deer sign was everywhere. Trails, tracks, rubs and fresh scrapes littered the meadows and timber. Although I knew I was in the heart of whitetail country and had spied a dozen does, I’d yet to find a buck.

A confirmed mule deer hunter by upbringing, this trek into the backcountry was motivated by a single goal — to down my first whitetail. On the foothills ranch of my youth, gray-faced mule deer nibbled tender browse from mountain mahogany and bedded in the sage. The only time I saw deer of the odocoileous virginianus variety was along the Jefferson River bottom as I made the daily commute in a lumbering yellow school-bus that transported my siblings and I to town in the name of education. But now I was hunting that deer of casual acquaintance. The previous autumn my older brother had discovered this wilderness haven that was home to both whitetail and mule deer. Although he’d killed a tremendous non-typical mule deer with a gnarled rack and gargantuan body that dwarfed any deer I’d ever seen (living or dead), my heart was set on a whitetail.

Struggling from my armchair which years before were living roots of a Douglas fir, I stretched, cracked my chapped lips with an uncivilized yawn and began still-hunting. My boots tracked less than 200 yards when gray-tan movement in the scattered timber ahead caught my attention. Now visible, now obscured, a whitetail doe browsed lazily about 60 yards ahead.

Time and the wind were on my side, so I eased against the slender trunk of a leafless aspen and waited. My suspicion that the doe had company was soon confirmed. First I spotted her dainty fawn, then a smaller doe. Some moments later another deer approached. Immediately the junior female snorted and shied away. Sure enough, the final member of the party was a buck.

He was mature, but no eye-popper. As I watched, he lowered his head and approached the doe I’d first spotted. When she, too, fled his advances, he raised his head and looked my direction. Four matching tines sprouted from each side of the rusty-brown hair above his ears. Trophy or not, I instantly decided this would be my first whitetail.

When the buck looked away, I raised the .444 Marlin to my shoulder and centered the bead just behind his shoulder. My left thumb slowly eased the hammer into the cocked position, securing the firing mechanism against the trigger with the faintest of clicks. A standing animal and a 50-yard shot give any marksman a winning hand. After the shot, a short walk through the frosty grass took me to the fallen buck. As I admired his thick hair and ran my fingers over the knobby antler bases brightened with reddish-gold stains from the inner bark of alders, I couldn’t help but think it would be a long time before I matched the magic of this hunt.

Although some might question the logic of hunting designated wilderness areas and other backcountry locations for whitetails, serious deer hunters and lovers of wild lands have taken notice. Whitetails are on the rise in many wilderness environments in Montana and other Rocky Mountain states, showing up in areas that a decade ago held only mule deer or no deer at all. Here in the Treasure State, the waving white tails of the country’s most widespread and populous big-game animal are found on the eastern side in remote habitat that smacks of antelope and sage grouse. In the mountains of the central and western portions of the state, whitetails have browsed their way up drainages that take them into the traditional haunts of ivory-antlered elk, mule deer and blue grouse. While hiking above timberline on the Montana/Idaho divide near Superior, a startled deer burst from a tiny copse of stunted evergreens as I approached on a trail. To my surprise it wasn’t a mule deer at all, but a sleek whitetail doe. Two years ago, while photographing elk in Yellowstone National Park I heard the faint, but familiar hoof-stomp of a curious deer. Turning my gaze in the direction of the sound, my eyes locked on those of a young whitetail buck, an animal clearly at home in the hanging basin whose elevation topped 8,000 feet and whose most common resident mammal was the brown-maned elk.

Although theories abound, no one can adequately explain the expansion of the whitetail’s range. Some biologists believe the migration to new haunts stems from an overpopulation of the prolific deer’s traditional range. Others believe the whitetail, an incredibly adaptive animal, is simply moving into niches under-utilized by other creatures. Theories aside, one fact remains undisputed: the whitetail’s wanderlust has opened a new world of possibilities to the intrepid hunter.

Some of the best places to experience the unique attraction of stalking this short-eared deer are in the backcountry. Although designated wilderness areas boast excellent hunting in certain portions of Montana, any roadless area that lies a couple of miles beyond the reach of motorized vehicles has backcountry appeal. Although one can certainly kill whitetails with less effort (just ask farmers who don an orange vest after a day’s work and topple winter meat from the front porch), solitude and big-buck potential give wilderness areas an aura of challenge that’s tough to find while hunting deer nourished by agriculture. Impossible as it may seem, while hunting my favorite wilderness for whitetails, I’ve yet to encounter another human except my own hunting partners.

Locating a backcountry destination for whitetails of the adrenaline-inducing kind involves three basic factors: habitat, access and elk. Habitat generally includes the presence of deciduous trees and shrubs, along with migratory corridors or areas where deer can escape the deep snow and extreme winters of the wilderness. Although whitetails dominate much of the deer hunting scene west of an imaginary line from Missoula to Glacier National Park, certain other backcountry locations also provide suitable habitat. I’ve hunted them in several drainages in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and felt their curious eyes upon me in proposed wilderness in the Snowcrest Mountains, neither area of which is commonly viewed as whitetail country.

The second factor, access, is what insulates growing (and sometimes witless) bucks from hunting pressure. In the mind of many hunters, whitetails are seen as superior in intellect and naturally more wary than their mule deer cousins. However, I’m prepared to argue that such a perception is primarily a result of hunting pressure, not nature. Hunting in a little-known drainage with a small whitetail population that sees few fall hunters but a number of summer hikers, I’ve encountered mature bucks that seem positively naive compared to their hotly-hunted counterparts closer to civilization. One of these, a wide-racked four-point whose beetle-cleaned skull and antlers grace my dwelling, paused to offer me a second shot after botching an easy broadside poke that stretched scarcely further than a third baseman’s throw to the first bag. I’d like to think my slug was deflected by a branch, but whatever the reason, the startled buck bounded away at the shot. In the meantime, I broke the action of the New England Firearms single-shot .243 and reloaded. After a frantic dash, the buck stopped, stomped and turned his curious eyes in my direction. One strike and you’re out, at least for trophy bucks that offer a chastened marksman an opportunity for redemption. Had that deer been a member of the harried whitetail clan on the Madison River bottom, his flight after the first shot might well have taken him into Broadwater County.

Besides suitable habitat and difficult access, an absence of elk also ups the odds of a wilderness location harboring memorable whitetails. It’s not that whitetails and elk don’t coexist. These two very different species of the deer family often occupy the same habitat. However, where there are elk, there are elk hunters. Wapiti whackers also carry deer tags in the pockets of their sweaty wool shirts as well as an elk license. Guess what happens when a frustrated elk chaser blunders upon a whitetail buck with as many inches of antler as a raghorn bull? Good wilderness hunting for whitetails is seldom a combo deal. Find a remote patch of deer habitat devoid of elk and you can hunt in solitude for the next decade.

Preparing for a wilderness whitetail hunt requires much more planning and physical training than casually pursuing the same quarry within minutes of Main Street. Essentially, the wilderness hunter has two options: tackle the backcountry with day-hunts or pitch a camp in the hinterlands.

To day-hunt successfully, it’s best to reach your hunting area early, preferably by first light when deer are most active. Then you must have a hunting strategy that allows you to return to your point of departure the same day, often after dark. Such a regimen can be very taxing, even to the most physically fit hunter. However, the rewards significantly outweigh the expenditure of energy. One season, I had no venison in the freezer and but two days left on the big-game calendar. The first day, I hunted hard, but unsuccessfully. On day two, as light melted murk from the timber, I was moving steadily up a wilderness trail, nearly five miles from the trailhead. With my hunting area just a few minutes up the path, I was feeling good about my timing and physical conditioning. Just then, movement hobbled my haste. A white-tailed buck, larger than any I’d killed, was tiptoeing through a maze of gray alder trunks to the left of the trail.

Chambering a shell and dropping to a prone position, I readied myself for a shot as the buck sauntered through a narrow opening in the brush. Unfortunately, good timing and conditioning don’t always translate into good shooting. Not wanting to miss the opportunity I aimed too quickly, ending my last buck encounter of the season with nothing to show for it but a handful of hair trimmed from the animal’s brisket by the fat, 265-grain slug of my .444. Nonetheless, the experience vividly underscored the advantage of being in deer country at daylight instead of dawdling around the trailhead.

When time allows, I actually prefer camping in the heart of the backcountry versus hiking in each day on foot. Although it requires much effort, wilderness camping is a special, almost sacred, experience. Backcountry camping puts you within minutes of your quarry. It allows you to wring every minute from autumn’s sun-short days without reducing your endurance to rubble. While wilderness camping for whitetails I’ve felt my neck hairs prickle at the scream of a mountain lion and poked my head from the tent at midnight to behold the night sky brilliant with stars, with the glowing blaze of the Milky Way so vivid and bright it seemed to flow just over the jagged watchtower of a peak above my humble camp.

Sharing a camp with my brother in mid-November, I once killed a fine, fat buck late in the afternoon. The next morning, we ate breakfast, fed the mule, then leisurely sauntered from camp to cape, butcher and backpack the buck. A windless and sunny dawn, the night’s frost had faded from the sunlit meadows, but clung cold and stubborn to the weathered grass in the shade of the pines.

As I watched him peel hide from antler bases with a surgeon’s precision, I couldn’t help but think every hunter needs a taxidermist in the family. I was mulling the prospects of recruiting another brother into the outfitting business when movement beyond Leroy’s hunkered back zapped me back to reality. A whitetail, considerably larger than the one we were dismantling, was sauntering through the timber scarcely a stone’s throw away. Wrapped in the fog of the rut, the buck was sniffing and peering ahead, dutifully seeking an opportunity to fulfill his ordained role as propagator of the species.

“Buck,” I hissed.

The skinning knife froze and dropped silently onto the green cape. In a single, fluid motion Leroy’s ungloved hand reached for the .30/30 resting against the trunk of a lodgepole. He twisted and straightened. I let out a low bleat. The buck stopped, the rifle fired. Then the woods rang with the noise of celebration — music to the ears of the hunters but ill-tidings for Molly, the mule who would ferry the fruits of our shooting back to the stock-truck.

Montana big-game hunters are blessed with numerous species and diverse habitats in which to hunt them. Throughout the year, my mind often recalls pleasant times afield with family and friends. There are many ways to create memories. When it comes to whitetails, I’ll make mine the wilderness way.

Smith River, MT

(c) Jack Ballard


It’s Monday. July 13 finds my protesting gluteus maximus on the hard, molded seat of a canoe, paddling down an enchantingly scenic river in central Montana. For the moment, though, the whimpers of the muscles connected to my tailbone are momentarily muted by more pertinent concerns. Lisa, my paddling partner, and I, are approaching a minefield of underwater boulders through which a single channel assures safe passage. But we have a problem. A driftboat, held in place by an anchor allowing the guide’s client to launch flies toward a promising stretch of water, has suddenly become unmoored. With a deft stroke of his left oar, the pilot swings the boat to the starboard side, its upturned prow pointed neatly into the channel. On collision course with a craft whose weight, length and girth greatly exceed every dimension of our canoe, we’ve no choice but to abandon the channel and thread a perilous passage through the stones.

Three-fourths of the way through the maze, I sincerely believe we’ll safely and successfully descend this heart-raising course of canoe slalom. Then I over-steer to avoid the serrated crest of an underwater boulder. Floating sideways in the current for just a moment, the bottom of the canoe catches on a rounded protrusion from the river’s bowels, a boulder the size of a submerged golf cart. The canoe tips dangerously downstream, water pouring into its bottom. With a concerted heave we free the craft before we’re swamped. Filled with six inches of water, the boat handles sluggishly as we encounter a final trio of grasping boulders, but we evade their clutches to gain the streambank. As we begin bailing, the sheepish captain glides by in his driftboat.

“Sorry about that. Guess I forgot to look upstream.”

It’s Monday. On July 15, 1805, another captain gazes upstream upon this river. Marking a grueling passage up the Missouri River, Captain Meriwether Lewis chafes under the burden of overfilled canoes, though not with water. His men, like children who return from a camping trip with pockets and luggage filled with stones, driftwood and decaying animal bones, have accumulated far too many mementos from their intended journey to the Pacific Ocean. We find it extreemly difficult to keep the baggage of many of our men within reasonable bounds; they will be adding bulky articles of but little use or value to them. But despite the aggravations of administration that plague this fine summer morning, Lewis is infatuated with the pretty tributary of the Missouri River near which his party camped the previous night. In his journal he writes, “this stream meanders through a most lovely valley to the S. E. for about 25 miles when it enters the Rocky mountains and is concealed from our view.” Conferring with his co-captain, William Clark, the duo dubs this “beautiful river 80 yards wide” the “Smith River” in honor of Robert Smith, the Secretary of the Navy.

Had the captains sent a party to reconnoiter the river where it disappeared from their view into the mountains, the chroniclers of the expedition would have doubtlessly blotted more ink in praise of the watercourse. For although “Smith” is as plain and common a name as any in the American vocabulary, the Smith River is anything but ordinary. Originating from a myriad of springs and melting snowdrifts in the Little Belt and Castle Mountains, the mainstem of the Smith River forms near the humble ranching community of White Sulphur Springs with the wedding of the river’s north and south forks. Not many miles downstream on its northward course to the Missouri, the river darts into some 50 miles of canyon. Towering abutments of limestone, some drab, others tinted in shades of red and orange as dazzling as the first and last rays of sunlight that kiss their stony faces, line the riverbanks. Stately evergreens stand stoically and tall on vertiginous slopes whose inclines thwarts all but the most determined hikers. The river finds a shady respite from midsummer heat in this deep arroyo. Its bends, boulders and riffles create an ever-variable, but enviable habitat for fish who love its cool waters, most commonly trout of the brown and rainbow strains.


Recognized locally as a treasure of rare beauty, the canyon portion of the Smith River began to attract an onslaught of recreationists in the latter decades of the twentieth century. To manage the throng, Montana’s stream managers enacted a ban on motorized boating in the portion from the river’s entrance to the canyon at Camp Baker to the first public access below the canyon at Eden Bridge in 1972. However, this move only heightened the river’s popularity, increasing user-impacts and conflicts between private landowners and various segments of the public: anglers, outfitters, paddlers and those who primarily viewed the float through the canyon as a scenic excuse for an extended party. In 1988 the state’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission approved a plan which limited the number of launches and group size, as well as requiring a fee to float the river. Subsequent management evolution has resulted in permit-only access to the canyon portion of the river from Camp Baker to the Eden Bridge.

Applicants who opt for permits very early in the season find them easier to come by, and also frequently find their tents covered with snow and bitter winds whipping the canyon, even in early June. Permits for the season after Independence Day are easier to obtain, but normal years find the water level low in mid-July, marginally navigable in a canoe, with rafters spending many minutes and calories tugging their inflatable barges over exposed rocks. Apply to float in the prime weeks of late June and a decade may pass before you’re fortunate enough to pull a permit.


Launching at Camp Baker on July 10, a lucky star shines unseen in the blue sky over my party’s departure. Though “late” in the normal floating season, there’s ample water to buoy our three rafts and trio of canoes. The weather report predicts four days of heaven: daytime temperatures in the low-80s with a scant chance of afternoon thundershowers. An lavish larder, clad in insulated plastic is lashed onto the rafts, wine, beer and elk sausage promising sinfully decadent hors d’oeuvres to a dozen outdoor folks more accustomed to freeze-dried dinners at a backpack camp. Spirits soar as we finish divvying the gear and grub.

Lisa and I rig our fly rods before pushing from the launch. Though midmorning, it seems we might successfully entice the river’s lazy trout to mouth a nymph from the bottom of a deep pool in one of the many bends of the stream. But the river has its own song of the Siren, a melody not always favorable to fishing. Cares drift away like powdery pollen blown from a streamside pine as we idle downstream. Casting a fly rod seems to demand much more concentration than the environment inspires. We picnic on a wide, sandstone ledge at river’s edge, intending to fish afterwards. But a yawn digresses to a doze, a doze to a full-blown nap. Awakening, it’s time to ply the paddles to make it to our campsite by the appointed dinner hour. We arrive, the black beadhead Hare’s Ear on the end of my line not yet dampened by the hypnotic waters of the Smith.

After dinner, as the sunlight marks an ascending retreat from the forested slope behind our camp, I notice a swarm of mayflies above the river. Retrieving my rod from the canoe, I tie on a small Parachute Adams and wade into the stream at the lower end of a docile run bounded on the far side by a tall wall of crumbling, khaki sandstone. Flitting overhead and swooping in determined arcs over the current is a small flock of swallows, their acrobatics aimed at snatching mayflies from midair. Whoever surmised that humans ought not eat and exercise at the same time evidently forgot to inform the swallows.


The telltale rings of several rising trout appear and fade on the surface of the river some thirty feet upstream. Casting to the outer edge of the feeding trout pod, my fly scarcely settles upon the water before it’s snatched by a foot-long, ravenous rainbow. Evidently the river’s underwater residents are as enthusiastic about the mayfly buffet as the airborne contingent above. In the next forty minutes another half-dozen trout clamp their speckled snouts upon my fly, an eclectic assortment of modestly sized browns and rainbows. Seeking larger game, I cease my casting to study the water. At the base of the cliff on the opposite side of the river, from between two current-buffering buttresses in the stone not a rod-length apart, the bulky body and yawning maw of a considerable trout emerge to engulf morsels from the current, then grumble back into its lair. Studying the angles and current-flow, I conclude that a well-aimed cast might yield several heartbeats of drag-free drift before competing currents sweep the line in an accelerating arc. A short wade upstream places me in position for the cast. When the fly lands just short of the target, I strip another two feet of line from the reel, pause pregnantly on the back cast, then drive the rod forward. The loop flattens in a satisfying line above the water. The fly and tippet first feel the tug of gravity, settling gently at the current’s edge a handbreadth above the last rise of my quarry. Congratulating myself on an exemplary cast, I’m unprepared for the trout’s instantaneous take and muff the set. The hooks catches in its mouth momentarily, then pulls free.

Doubting I’ll get a second chance, I nonetheless aim a third cast toward the target. This time, the fly is engulfed before it fully settles upon the water, not by the pinkish-white mouth of a four-pound trout, but the dark beak of a four-ounce swallow. Dumbfounded, I watch the bird flutter awkwardly above the water, firmly hooked on the end of my tippet. Losing strength to the weight of the line, it careens into the water and is unable to take wing. Reeling frantically, I bring the bedraggled bird splashing across the water like a would-be water-skier, unable to stand, neural apparatus momentarily thwarted by the fingers’ death-grip on the handle. The swallow flaps a soggy circuit to my outstretched hand. Observing the bird, I’m relieved to see that the point of the hook is perfectly embedded at the outer edge of its lower mandible, not impaled in its mouth or tongue. Once subdued, the fly is easily removed. I carry the swallow back to camp, primarily to procure a bandana to dry its feathers, partly to show the others my unusual catch. After a gentle toweling, I spread my fingers. For several seconds the bewildered bird perches on my palm, then manages a belabored flight to a nearby chokecherry bush where it fluffs its feathers and preens. Within minutes it launches again, this time on a grateful course between the trees and away toward the river. Not wanting to exceed my swallow limit, I stash my rod and head toward our tent.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we launch to a carefree itinerary that replicates the previous day’s agenda, but offers even greater delights. From the Rock Creek to the Sunset Cliffs campsites, the canyon grows ever deeper, wilder and more flush with wildlife. We glide past several broods of common mergansers, surprise an adolescent black bear cooling itself in the river like an overheated grade-schooler of the human species and spy a duo of tawny, delicate whitetail does mincing along a hedge of pale, gray-green willows whose narrow leaves wave languidly in the air currents swirling up the canyon.


Just before noon, we round a broad bend in the river that terminates where the current pounds ineffectually against a wall of stone jutting from a steep hillside into the stream. Seemingly frustrated by the limestone, the angry river has sublimated its energy into gouging a cavernous indentation in the substrate, an idyllic, cool abode for a trout on a warm summer day. I steer onto the gravelly bank, disrupting the reverie of my sunbathing boat-mate sprawled across her seat and a mound of gear conveniently topped with a pair of sleeping pads in the front of the canoe.

“What are we stopping for?” inquires a sleepy voice from inside a ball cap and sunglasses.

“You’re going to fish.”

Pulling a pair of shorts over the bottom of her swimsuit, Lisa wades into the river. Her rod already rigged with a strike indicator, I slide it up the line to achieve more depth on the drift, then tie a hefty black beadhead onto her tippet, a fly created by Tim Wade of Cody, Wyoming. Unless I’ve badly missed my guess, I’m sure the Smith’s trout will favor his deep-running North Fork Special as much as those on its namesake branch of the Shoshone River.

As I tie the stern of the canoe to a clump of willows for an added measure of security, I hear an excited squeal from the river. Standing in water over her knees, as untamed and lovely as her surroundings, Lisa is locked in a contest of wills with a determined trout. When it tires, she hefts two handfuls of dripping brown trout from the river for my inspection.


“Did I do okay?”

I smile and nod. My luck as a fellow goes far beyond successfully procuring a permit to float the Smith River. Lisa is all smiles as I free the hook from the cartilaginous lip of her darkly spotted trout. As I squat on bare heels on a spit of coarse blonde sand, she lobs the indicator and fly back upstream for another drift through the hole. The orange orb of rigid foam bobs along like headless rubber duck in the world’s smallest regatta. Suddenly it disappears under the surface and zips upstream as if instantly possessed of a jet-propulsed demon. Lisa’s lifts her rod tip, slowly and elevating the trajectory of the indicator gone mad. Unable to reach the bottom of the hole, the indignant trout comes leaping from the water, its body contorting like that of a freshly decapitated rattlesnake. Another breach confirms my suspicions that this trout belongs to the oncorhynchus genus, not the salmo clan of her previous catch. Sure enough, when the fish attempts to zip between her bare legs, it clearly displays the spotting and coloration of a rainbow.

Arriving at our campsite several hours later, I’m somewhat puzzled by its name. Sunset Cliffs is a fine place to pitch a camp, a grassy bench on the riverbank shaded by a grove of towering, elegant evergreens. Opposite the campsite is a soaring rampart of stone, interesting to the eye for its mass and texture, betraying nothing in appearance or location related to the sun that sags in the western sky behind its bulwark.

The next morning, the trill of a robin, melodious but very loud outside our humble abode of nylon and tubular aluminum banishes any hope of early morning slumber. I slither my way outside, shove my feet in unlaced hiking boots and shamble down to the river in hopes that a face full of cold river water will bring me fully to consciousness. Clearing the trees, my stupefied gaze ascends from my shoelaces to a tapestry of light and color as glowing and magical as the most lavishly arrayed curtain on Broadway. Whoever named the Sunset Cliffs obviously hadn’t viewed them at sunrise. The canyon wall blazes in color, from the brassy red highlights of a brunette with locks long exposed to the summer sun to golden hues the color a brook trout’s flank to bold blondes similar in shade to the buff shoulders of a bull elk in September. Forgetting the face wash I turn for the tent on the gallop, nearly bludgeoning my ribcage on a protruding tree root when I trip on my own shoelaces. Grabbing the camera and my sleepy sweetheart, we hustle back to the river, frantically composing photos before the light loses its early lustre.


It’s Monday. Idling down the river, free of the Smith’s enchanting canyon, my mind wanders back to the splendor of the Sunset Cliffs. I contemplate what I’ve experienced in these few short days on the river. Away in the Pacific time zone, at this very hour, persons are scuttling to their jobs at banks, brokerage offices and accounting firms. No matter your station in life, the weekend’s demise is inevitable. I’d take a month of Mondays in a row, I conclude, if I could face them all from the Smith River.