Brett Roper column mug

Brett Roper

Having spent several days over the last few weeks traversing the mountains surrounding Cache Valley in search of grouse, I have been reminded of an important aspect of our endeavor we often overlook. Most times when we discuss hunting and fishing, the questions revolve around how big and how many?

If we get past these topics, we shift to what fishing lure was successful or what caliber of rifle is best. When we do talk about the atheistic of an outing, it is often a discussion of the view. At this time of the year the changing colors of the mountain maple and aspen that cover the hillsides makes this a common topic. But while the time of year can get us to focus on the beauty of the vegetation, we often forget the important role vegetation plays in determining the location and numbers of fish and game.

When hunters focus on vegetation they most often think about it as background; camouflage. Even when considering this subject, we often don’t spend enough time thinking about what colors are best in different situations. As a result most people’s choice of camouflage is too dark, especially when hunting waterfowl. That is because when you are hiding behind cover, the sun cast shadows making whatever you are wearing appear darker. You can wear slighty darker camouflage when pursuing turkey or deer as in these situations you are often in front of cover where fewer shadow are cast. It doesn’t really matter what specific camouflage pattern you choose as game will detect your movement far more often than the brand of clothing you are wearing.

Hunters can get a good idea of how wet the soil is because the color of the vegetation changes. Finding vegetation at this time of year that is brighter green is important as it suggests there is more water in the area. This year these types of areas are important because it looks like many of the berry crops such as chokecherries started the growing season out well but the lack of precipitation during July and August caused many of these fruits to whither. Where the soil moisture is a bit higher, however, there seems to be a few more ripe berries. For grouse hunting, finding areas with ripe berries has been the key to finding birds in higher numbers. Patches of berries near aspen stands is also where I have been seeing most the deer and elk this fall.

A lack of understanding the role of vegetation is also a problem as many places are being invaded by non-native plant species. Phragmites, the 10 to 15 foot tall plant overtaking many of the waterfowl hunting areas around the Great Salt Lake, is such a plant. Although this plant does make it easier to build a blind or hide a boat, it does not provide as much food or nesting habitat for waterfowl as the native rushes. Utah’s Division of Natural Resources has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to reduce the abundance and spread of this species in our marshes.

In contrast, shifts from native bunchgrass and sagebrush to corn and wheat have fostered population of gamebirds such as pheasant and geese. At the same time these changes reduced the number of sage and sharp-tailed grouse. So while the effect of altering vegetation in an area can be positive or negative, it will almost always affect what species you find there.

The presence of vegetation is also important when fishing in lakes. Both lie-and-wait predators (e.g. bass and pike) and visual feeders (trout) alter their behaviors around underwater vegetation. Bass will often take up locations in the vegetation and wait until baitfish come by and then burst out and feed. In contrast trout often rove along the edge of vegetation searching for dislodged or emerging insects. These behaviors suggest that casting lures or flies along the edge of vegetation will be a successful fishing strategy.

One last thing of importance is the Bear River Refuge has opened up approximately 13,000 more acres where the hunting waterfowl and pheasant will be allowed this fall. Depending on water availability, this could greatly increase opportunities for hunters. Finding maps that show these changes are still difficult to come by as this decision was only put in place last Monday. With a little patience, however, all these issues should be cleared up by opening day.

Brett Roper is a fisheries biologist for the Forest Service. When not working or with his family you are likely to run into him anywhere — as long as it is outdoors. He can be contacted at roperguth@gmail.com.

Brett Roper is a fisheries biologist for the Forest Service. When not working or with his family you are likely to run into him anywhere — as long as it is outdoors. He can be contacted at roperguth@gmail.com.