By Paul F. Vang
It might not have been exactly what we wanted, but that week of cool, rainy weather in early August was a hint that our already short season of summer was on life support.
The autumnal equinox won’t happen until 12:50 a.m. (MDT), September 23, 2023, though autumn usually starts around the beginning of September. True, we can have hot, sunny weather in those first days of September, but the reality is that it often snows over Labor Day weekend, or we get freezing temperatures that put an early end to the gardening season.
I have vivid memories of one Labor Day weekend and catching trout on dry flies while snowflakes swirled around and coming home to a wilted garden that had succumbed to a 15-degree hard freeze while we were away, shivering in our old tent trailer that was our camping home back then.
Autumn has always been my favorite time of the year. Growing up on a Midwest farm, autumn meant harvesting the last crops of the year, and storing the harvest for winter when that corn and grain would be converted into beef and pork.
Autumn means hunting. Pheasants were plentiful on our farm and a memorable day was when, with my parents’ blessing, I walked our fields in search of pheasants, the first of what by now must be around a thousand or more such walks.
Hunting upland birds, such as grouse and pheasants, has long been one of my favorite things to do in autumn, but there are many ways to celebrate the season. Let’s look a few of the many things to do during a western Montana autumn.
For outdoors people, early autumn has many options. Hunting season may have started, but it’s also a great time to go fishing. For the most part, summer crowds are gone and autumn days on a lake or river means solitude, peace, and quiet on the water, surrounded by vivid fall colors. Better yet, make it a “blast and cast” outing, combining a morning hunt with afternoon fishing.
Fall colors are worth a drive in the countryside. Here in mountain country, we get most of our fall colors from quaking aspen, which start turning color in mid-September, and reach their peak around the first week of October. Aspens are mostly yellow when they turn color but watch for splotches of orange and red. We might not get the variety in fall colors that happen in New England or the Midwest, but an autumn day in the mountains, with varying shades of colors in the aspens, and a dusting of snow on mountain peaks, is gorgeous.
Fall colors aren’t just in the mountains. I like to head to prairie country in late September to catch the vivid fall colors on prairie hillsides, and, perhaps, a walk for sharptailed grouse. A favorite destination is the small town of Loma, between Great Falls and Havre. The Marias and Teton Rivers converge on the edge of town and flow into the Missouri just a mile downstream. The wooded river valleys offer one of the better fall color views in Montana. For a great view, stop at Decision Point, on the north side of the valley (see signage on the highway) where, on June 3, 1805, Captains Lewis and Clark looked out across the valleys and came to the decision that the river flowing from the south was Missouri. Lewis named the river flowing from the northwest Maria’s River, for his cousin, Maria Wood.
Autumn is the time to finish the gardening season, both for harvesting the season’s bounty, as well as preparing for next year’s gardens.
I love to grow tomatoes, though, in Butte’s short growing season, the trick is to get ripe tomatoes. We can extend the tomato season by covering the plants if frosty temperatures are in the forecast. Then there comes the time when a hard freeze threatens the end of the season. You don’t have to suffer the loss of all those green tomatoes. I pull the tomato vines and clip off the clusters of ripening tomatoes put them in a box and move them into the house or garage. Tomatoes will continue to ripen for an amazingly long time.
October is the time to dig up your tulip beds and get rid of those weeds and grasses that have invaded and then replant the tulip bulbs. Remember to give those tulips a good helping of compost or other organic matter.
October is also the time to plant garlic and shallots. Don’t do it too soon, however. One year I planted garlic in early October. We had warm weather that year and the garlic sent up shoots that emerged just in time for winter. They froze out and I had a rare crop failure the next summer.
I like to clean up the garden space and then spade it up, and then throw compost over the soil, perhaps working it in a bit. Years of composting have done wonders for my garden, converting our basic decomposed granite into rich, black soil.
I mentioned hunting earlier. Here are some basic dates to remember. Most upland bird seasons open on September 1. The sage grouse season closes on September 30. Pheasant and antelope seasons begin this year on October 7. Upland bird seasons close on January 1, 2024. Waterfowl seasons begin on October 1 and run into January 2024, with dates varying depending on flyways and species.
Deer and elk archery seasons open on September 2 and run through October 15. The youth deer season is October 19 and 20. The general deer and elk season opens on October 21 and ends on November 26, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Please note that these dates are a guideline. Please refer to the official regulations published by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and available at FWP offices, license vendors, or online at fwp.mt.gov.
Autumn is a wondrous season, filled with colors and crisp autumn days, accompanied by changing weather conditions as we make the transitions from summer to autumn to early winter. It’s a time to harvest the bounty of farmlands, gardens, and wild game.
Enjoy the beauty and magic of the season because it won’t be long before it’s winter.