Fall In Montana
It's 3 a.m. here in eastern Montana as I type this article. A light rain is hitting the window, and I'm hoping it stops before daylight so I can ease down the road in my pickup and try to locate some coyotes that seem to have taken up residence over the hill behind our home. After six years of living on the highest hill for miles around, my wife, Nicole, informed me she has heard coyotes "right from the house", for the very first time.

I'd been gone for two days to the Utah Convention and then had spent a day coyote calling with a friend in Wyoming. I hadn't been home long when she mentioned, "Oh, by the way, I heard some coyotes the other night."

I fired off the usual questions before she could even respond to the first one. "How many? How far? When? Only the one night?"

Being the daughter of a sheep man, and having been married to a coyote trapper for 15 years, she had the answers all thought out.

Two small bunches, kind of close, over this way, on Saturday night."

A little more interrogation and we got it refined down to the scenario that it was probably pups answering old coyotes, possibly in a draw over in the sheep pasture across the fence. And when she added, "By the way, the dog's been barking," that meant they've probably been there a few days. The distance was gauged by her remark, "Remember how far away those ones we heard on the rim were? Well, these were way closer."

I hadn't even got unloaded yet, so I had transferred my guns and other equipment to the spare pickup for a little calling expedition this morning. It's the time of year when coyote families will relocate, and in this case they had evidently moved into a favorite uncle's sheep pasture.

Our son Tristan had just taken the 4-wheeler out through that same pasture, "to see what's around." He caught most of his last year's fox in that area, and he was itching to check for tracks. I think the local Sharp-tailed Grouse population was on his mind too, as Dad has been putting off hunting a bit too long in his opinion. I could put partial blame on football practice taking up time, I guess. When he wakes up I'll ask him if he saw any coyote tracks over there. He doesn't miss much, and he sees sign that I don't at times.

Frequent trips to local prairie dog towns and shooting clay birds helps Tristan keep his shooting eye keen, but what kid ever gets to shoot enough? His years of shooting in 4-H, and some good coaching through Hunter Safety, has given him a solid foundation of proper safety and shooting techniques, and he's a better shot than I was at his age. Even though he got a .22-250 for Christmas when he was 11, when he told me he wanted a .22 Magnum for shooting prairie dogs "because it was cheaper and quieter", I knew he'd been using his head. I didn't have much trouble writing the check for a new Marlin when he turned 13 this summer, especially when I thought about how it could have been for some new electronic game of the variety I have came to despise.

I have to put the 4-wheeler in the shop for a few days to get an overdue fall tune-up and oil change. I got a new seat cover, and Tristan will appreciate that. He has kind of 'claimed' the 4-wheeler as 'his', but until I get a new one for myself, we share it. Still, I know that the 4-wheeler, and the unlimited pastures to trap, are, for him, his bit of freedom from everyday life. When out there on his own he gets to make his own decisions, and be responsible for getting home, and being safe. He's his own man, so to speak, and I have to admire him for that. And it's amazing the amount of fur he comes home with at times. I don't mind buying some gas as long as I know there's some shoe leather being burned too.

I don't know if I have ever properly thanked my Dad for letting me roam the family farm as a kid. I'm sure my work duties got put on the back burner numerous times. Fox tracks, scat, and even a den or two were big business to a 12-year-old kid. Whistling up woodchucks, hunting and calling crows, shooting blackbirds out of the garden, and sitting in a blind waiting for deer were what my life revolved around. I know a lot of you were the same way. I'd like to know how many times I peddled the 3½ miles to catch some chubs to sell as bait to pike fishermen. I'm sure I knew there was grass to cut or a fence to paint when I got home, but those $1 bills were a great reward. And in those days, a box of Wildcat .22 shells cost 88¢.
Fast forward to 2010, and my own kids have been bitten by the outdoors bug pretty hard too. Late summer is pretty much regarded as the time we spend getting ready to fur trap, and there never seems to be enough time or daylight. Sports and school have their place too, of course, but any time spent doing "our thing" is valued. When I first watched the movie A River Runs through It, I really understood what one character meant when he mentioned "the Montana of my youth", and all it had to offer. I know my home in Michigan was also a great place to grow up, and I hope my kids someday remember that Dad wasn't always about working, and he liked to 'play' as much as they did. Of course a Dad has to think about other things, like cutting firewood, cleaning the skinning shed, and paying the bills.

Nicole knows what the fall fur season brings too. Muddy boots, a never-ending supply of dirty clothes, the kids' chores being put on the back burner at times, and, in her opinion, the worst thing ever, fleas. The poor girl seems to be a flea magnet. She doesn't even have to get out of the pickup to get a flea from a fox in a trap 20 yards away. I buy flea spray by the case, and every animal gets sprayed down good, as I'm more than a little apprehensive about the plague and other things that can come with flea bites. Fleas don't like me for some reason, and their usual life expectancy around me isn't very long. I can't remember ever having a bite from one, but Nicole gets red welts just thinking about them.

Still, a few times every fall she forwards the business phone to her cell phone and makes some trips out to the country with me, if we know we have cell coverage. Many times she has taken a phone order from a customer while we drove down a bumpy ranch road, or while I set a trap. She likes to get out and wander a bit if I'm going to be there a few minutes, and lately she's been doing the skunk dispatching with the .22 while I get my gear out of the pickup bed.

It's the time of year when there's always something to skin, jerky to make, and traps to check. Sleep, for me at least, comes hard as I get older. I find myself doing lots of productive things in the middle of the night, because I can work at my own pace. And there's always that thought in the back of my mind, "This will give me a jump on tomorrow" if I use that extra hour wisely. Sometimes it works out that way, and others, well, we all know that story.

Coffee becomes my constant companion (maybe that's why I don't sleep?), but orange juice and vitamins are also close by. A thermos of tea or coffee seems to always be riding beside me, and my honey and bee pollen intake triples. A water jug is always in the pickup, and it has saved the day on more than one occasion. I just tolerate granola bars most of the year, but I love them come fall. Jerky is good too, and I can't seem to have enough of it around. I haven't met a person yet that can keep their hands out of the jerky bag very long. Our youngest son, Riley, can smell jerky like a coyote finds a mouse nest. Even hidden in the 'jockey box' he seems to be able to find it before too long. Still, a little jerky for a snack, and a drink or two keep him happy and his little legs going. A new .22 Cricket has been a big deal for him to shoot, and the prairie dog he shot at 170 yards was probably as surprised as I was. The ones he missed were soon forgotten, and of course now he has gained status as a hunter. He is ready to set his first 1½s for fox too, and already he has his places picked out. The $20 he got for one that was caught at a spot he picked out on his own last year lasted him a long time, and he's hungry for more than just one this year.

Collette and Julianne are more into sports at times, but they love to go along. Everybody gets their chance to go with Dad alone at least once or twice before the weather turns cold, and dangerous. When it's minus 30 degrees and long snowmobile trips to get places, I have to pick and choose where I take the kids. Maybe that's why we love this time of year so much.

It makes me happy and content to have my family anticipate and appreciate the beginning of fur trapping as much as I do. I know it slows me down some days by having them along, but I make up for it on the days when I run solo. I'm all about the numbers, and I run the risk of burning them all out by pushing too hard at times. I've seen it happen a hundred times. I don't want that to happen, so we try to keep it interesting.

I know some day, when they're off on their own adventures, they will remember some of the times they spent with me, experiencing Montana in the fall.