A Mixed Bag at Meriwether
The small town of Melrose is not one of southwest Montana’s burgeoning upscale tourist destinations; I could see that as soon as I pulled off of the exit ramp and turned onto Main Street. Although “a river runs through it”—in this case the braided, blue-ribbon trout waters of the Big Hole—downtown Melrose has the look and slow pace of the Montana as yet untouched by amenities for an urbane clientele. Not that there’s anything wrong with the cool old main drag of Bozeman, with its galleries and wired espresso bars, or the boomtown ski resort at Big Sky, or the touristy kitsch of West Yellowstone: Those places are all part of modern Montana. But Melrose is the real deal, with mountain vistas, a rail line through the center of town, a few old brick commercial buildings and six blocks of modest homes, cabins and churches giving way, upstream and down, to a few small pastures and then verdant ranchland. Drive a mile in either direction and you’re on your way to someplace else.
I was headed up to the unique sportsman’s community under construction on the 724-acre Meriwether Ranch, where I had been invited to stay in one of the new vacation homes. But I was not going to wade into the ranch’s stretch of the Big Hole, where cotton willows shade a healthy population of large brown trout. It was late September 2007, and low water and high temperatures had triggered a state-mandated closure to protect the stressed fishery, especially the last native population of arctic grayling in the Lower 48. I would fish a little elsewhere but use Meriwether as a base for several days of exploring as much gamebird cover as I could.
I was early for a planned rendezvous with my hunting companion, so I stopped in town at the Hitchin Post for a cup of coffee. There’s also a bar and two fly shops in town, but the Hitchin Post has breakfast, lunch and beer. And an official poker table for evening games. Mornings there saw a few locals for breakfast, and though I was the only stranger, I was made welcome. The cafe counter/bar came complete each morning with a taciturn, wiry cowboy who sat ramrod straight in his tall chair and stared straight ahead more than he looked into his coffee. He shared few pleasantries with his fellow patrons and offered none to me, though he made direct eye contact from under his broad-brimmed hat more than once without a twitch of expression. That is how I will remember Melrose.
I went outside and found my contact, Dillon-based fishing guide Brent Taylor. I’d never met him before, but I made a good guess based on the 10-year-old SUV that looked like it had crossed a couple hundred thousand miles of the Rocky Mountain West. Brent was fit-looking and deeply tanned, and he wore faded canvas Carhartt jeans, a blue denim shirt, good, well-worn boots and even better sunglasses, befitting his trade. I liked him immediately. We got acquainted on the 30-mile drive to his house in Dillon, where we picked up his pride and joy: a family of fine setters, including five-year-old Red, three-year-old Pearl and pup, Blue, who Brent had kept from Red’s and Pearl’s one litter together. All were svelte from ranging in open country and compact, without the big-boned frames or blocky heads that find favor with the gentlemen grouse hunters back East.
We loaded the gear and dogs, bought coffee and sandwiches (and some sliced roast beef as an evening treat for Red on his birthday), and headed out of town. I’d told Brent of my interest in sage grouse, and he enthusiastically accepted the mission of finding the area’s iconic gamebird. Sure, I wanted to shoot one and eat it if possible, but mostly I wanted to see how it was done; to follow a man and dogs of local experience and learn where the birds live and see the flush of grouse nearly the size of turkeys.
It’s true that some activists have advocated that specific populations of sage grouse be listed as endangered, but that knowledge did not forge some perverse “claim the last trophy” motivation for me. Populations of sage grouse have dwindled in Montana since about 1900, although there have been periodic rebounds. Still the birds’ numbers near Dillon are strong, and there is a two-bird daily bag limit east of the Continental Divide.
We pulled off into a blank-looking cirque that rose above the blacktop, loaded up with guns and light gear, and loosed the dogs. Then we started the steep climb up one shoulder of the bowl, apparently headed for a rise that topped out hundreds of feet above. The slope was a loose mix of sand, scree and sparse, bone-dry clumps of grasses interspersed with stones. Despite the dry air and pleasant temperatures, I was sweating in five minutes and breathing hard in 10. We continued upward.
We topped the rise and the dogs frolicked, ranging somewhat casually and randomly while I caught my breath. We had reached an expanse of nearly flat sagebrush that stretched toward a gentle rise of sagebrush, with low waves and undulations of sagebrush receding for untold miles.
“Nope, guess they’re not here today,” Brent said, summarily dismissing the entire landscape.
“What?” I said, a little surprised. How could he know that? Was he putting me on, or had he just tested my legs while letting the dogs stretch theirs?
“They like to roost at the tops of slopes like this one where they can catch the first warmth from the sun,” he said. Then he showed me scattered droppings: curled, mottled brown and white, the thickness of a pencil. “See, they use this spot a lot.
“That’s OK, though,” he said. “I know a place where we can find them later in the day… maybe.”
We clambered off down the other shoulder of the bowl and back toward the vehicle. It struck me that Brent had not really whistled up, called or otherwise directed his dogs. They followed us each time we changed direction and then got out ahead again to hunt. I couldn’t tell if this was a strategy particularly suited to the game or the terrain or of it simply suited Brent’s temperament or his dogs’. The setters wore no corrective collars or bells, and I don’t believe Brent wanted to hear beepers in this place any more than I did. The open cover doesn’t really warrant their use anyway.
Brent told me that he had come to this corner of Montana about six years before, for the fishing, and wound up working in a Dillon fly shop. He’d stayed, spending most of each year there, and bought a neat bungalow in town. The managers at Meriwether had arranged for him to guide me for fishing the next day, and although he takes out some bird hunters under the auspices of an outfitter in a different area, we simply were hunting his local haunts this day. (Meriwether can line up guides for both hunting and fishing; see sidebar.)
Back in the vehicle, we headed to a vast patchwork of green, irrigated alfalfa and yellowed stubblefields. Brent checked in at the ranch house, and we parked a half-mile beyond at a metal tractor barn. Here the game was Huns, and within a few hundred yards of the barn Red went on point where long rolls of baled alfalfa gave way to some brushy ditches and small sloughs. Pearl honored at a respectful distance, and Blue simply stopped to watch before bounding too close. The wide-open spaces and rapid flight of eight to 10 little rockets gave me the yips, and by the time I’d picked out a bird, the partridge was well out and beating fast for the stubble. I believe I shot high with the right barrel and merely saluted with the left. Brent, not surprisingly, picked a single on his side and dropped it with one shot from his Beretta Silver Hawk.
Thus we continued happily for hours, with Brent and me talking and following the dogs, generally sticking to the edges between fields and fallow ground and between growing and cut sections of fields. Pearl proved more methodical, while Red rambled farther—perhaps 200 yards or more to a swing; he found more birds but also bumped a few. We chased after the larger groups, and I bagged several when they held where I thought they should. I chased off many more with my typical zeal, and we watched them sail away until they dissolved into the background on irregular wingbeats.
We ate lunch in the shade of the barn, watered the dogs and had a good break. Then we puttered a bit in some good-looking cover in the other direction, but the diversion produced only a few deer racing from a creek bed.
Brent offered that we could hike up into the aspen-dotted slopes in pursuit of mountain grouse—perhaps ruffs but more likely blues—for the remainder of the afternoon, but it would mean deferring the sage grouse mission. High tree-lined draws sounded cool and breezy after so many hours of unrelenting sun, and as I’d never shot a blue grouse either, I was game for the change in scenery. And what scenery: From the farmland we headed toward the base of the nearest mountains, where in 20 minutes we were climbing into an ever-narrowing gap. A trouty-looking creek rose before us, flowing through wild meadows, and steeper slopes and bluffs climbed both sides of the valley perhaps two miles apart.
We circled upward on foot, through meadows and open forest. It was public land open to grazing, and I could see cattle from every vantage point. It quickly became more important to keep my eyes turned down, however, as we climbed a draw littered with deadfalls, muddy seeps and small streams. Despite the brilliant colors of the aspens and the dramatic scenery—and despite nearly an hour’s hike—we found neither ruffed grouse nor blues that day. Be that as it may, I liked it just fine, and I was under no pressure to produce birds for the effort.
Brent was surprised when we were side-skirting the open upper slope back toward the vehicle and a nice covey of Huns busted wild in front of the dogs. The birds didn’t seem to know it was grouse country, and the game was on! We followed their flight and came upon the dogs locked up, tails high in the breeze, where a rounded slope fell away out in front. When we came alongside the dogs, the covey flushed at 20 yards and one bird rose to just level with my gun as I brought it to my shoulder. Dropping that bird cleanly at distance forms my lasting mental image of the afternoon.
The next day we fished the Beaverhead River in a chilly overcast with Brent at the oars of his drift boat. I caught upward of 20 brown trout—several of them quite large—and had a great time doing it. A guided day in a drift boat is one of life’s great luxuries, and this day was enjoyed all the more for the fact that in September the trout are carnivorous and eschew dainty dry-fly sipping for chasing the protein they need to survive. Chucking heavy conehead streamers suits my fishing skills better anyway, and it was a hoot to plop one near the bank and hear Brent call, “Strip! Strip! Strip! Strip!” until a toothy trutta came charging. But fishing is not wingshooting, so . . . .
The following morning I enjoyed a grand tour of Meriwether Ranch and then hustled down to Dillon, as Brent had offered to take me out in search of sage grouse one more time. We were on a mission. We loaded up my rental car and headed past the edge of town, past the last big ranches and onto BLM land; then we kept going for a half-hour more, making choices between diverging two-tracks that only someone who’s scouted would know.
We passed through several cattle gates before reaching one near an old windmill and stock-watering tank. There the two of us and the three dogs headed up the gentle slope beside the tank. We hadn’t walked more than 10 minutes when a flock of the great birds got up more than 100 yards away. These grouse were not holding, to say the least. We watched in the late afternoon light as they formed a rough phalanx quartering away downslope—going, going . . . .
“Watch ’em! Keep watching ’em!” Brent said, as if I could look away. “Mark ’em down!”
It seemed like the flock flew for 20 or 30 seconds before it dropped into a point in the sagebrush that immediately was camouflaged by, well, a sea of sagebrush. We both had a fixed mark based on the flight path and features on the horizon, and we set off toward it at a brisk walk. Brent urged the dogs to stick a little closer, and we covered the ground with the full belief that we’d find the birds. After about five minutes the dogs started on scent, and we slowed our pace to match theirs. Fifty yards farther Red and Pearl each took several tentative steps before locking up 10 yards apart. Blue wandered in past them, but no matter; I was right behind the pup, my vision focused on the ground where the birds should have been.
The grouse—at least six of them—flushed in a raucous wave of wingbeats 20 yards out front. Sage grouse are large, and they are not all that quick. I picked one sailing straight away, raised the muzzles of my gun and fired. And missed. I paused, shocked. My shot had been perfect! I hesitated, decided that the bird was now out of range, chose a closer bird quartering right to left, swung past it and fired again. Nary a feather disturbed that I could see. I stared after the flock’s departure, unbelieving. There went my sage grouse toward distant hills. I didn’t lower the gun for the longest time.
For this unfortunate series of events, I have better than my mental image as memory: On my way up to the dogs I had put my camera on rapid-fire and handed it to Brent. “Hold the button down as long as there’s something happening,” I’d told him. And there it is: North America’s largest grouse—frozen in midair with its wings fully spread, hanging out in front of me like a hovering kite, my gun pointing right at it.
Ha! I love that picture!
Ed Carroll is Shooting Sportsman’s Associate Editor.
Homes on the Ranch
After three days of hunting, fishing and exploring the grounds at Meriwether Ranch and three nights as the first guest in one of the ranch’s newly completed Sportsman’s Residences, I can say without a doubt that if I could, I would. On an editor’s salary, though . . . let’s just say that I was lucky to get the invitation to Meriwether.
Launched in late 2006, the ranch is the brainchild of Managing Member David Ellingson, who grew up around a construction company run by his father and is a senior partner in Nebraska’s largest CPA firm. Ellingson bought the ranch in 2001, becoming just the fourth owner since the land was homesteaded in 1854.
The project lays gently on its site, with about 90 percent of the land slated for a conservation easement and minimal impact along the Big Hole River. The plan calls for development on just 10 percent of the ranch’s 724 deeded acres, with 34 home sites split equally between one-acre custom-home parcels and fractional ownership Riverfront Residences and smaller Sportsman’s Residences. Customers buying a lot for their private residence will build homes for their personal use, while Meriwether’s Private Residence Club bestows partial ownership of one of the Residences, at least three weeks’ stay each year and full use of the ranch facilities. The accommodations I stayed in were equipped, furnished and finished with great thought as a truly maintenance-free vacation getaway for a family or group of shooting or fishing friends.
Among the many amenities planned or ready for owner-members at Meriwether are: the use of 8,000 acres of private upland bird habitat nearby, sporting clays and shooting facilities, an equestrian center, a 4,000-square-foot main lodge, access to nearly endless adjoining public lands, and a sportsman’s concierge to help book local guides like Brent Taylor or plan other adventures, including excellent waterfowling and big-game hunting. Of course the fishing within a reasonable drive—or walk—is among the best in the country.
For more information, contact Meriwether Ranch, 877-835-2207; www.meriwetherranch.com. —E.C.
- By: Ed Carroll