By Brian Grossenbacher
A few years back I spent several days photographing a bird hunt in Montana’s Yaak Valley as a guest of Linehan Outfitting and owners Tim and Joanne Linehan, who have built a reputation guiding hunters and anglers across Montana. The Yaak is a storied place, celebrated best by writer Rick Bass, and its reputation as a forgotten corner of the Lower 48 is deserved. By virtue of its remoteness, the Yaak remains largely unpopulated, a home for ardent outdoorsmen and those who seek silence. The gamebirds of the Yaak are numerous and unpressured; the vast majority of the spruce, blue (dusky) and ruffed grouse—which we pursued along conifer ridges, in young timber cuts and in aspen bottoms—have been chased little by men. That innocence about our intentions does not make them any easier; grouse are grouse, after all.
The Yaak Valley is a low-lying crevice of northwest Montana, three hours by car from Spokane, Washington, and bounded on the north and west by the big woods of Idaho and British Columbia. It can be a foreboding place, and the people who live there have to be tough and resourceful. Tim Linehan is, by my estimation, a human Swiss Army knife: His competency as a hunter, angler, dogman, survivalist, camp cook and host are matched by his enthusiasm. He is the fellow you want to follow into the rough country. Tim and Joanne host guests through early fall, with lodging provided in three self-contained cabins below the Linehans’ hillside home. Guests provide for their own breakfasts and dinners at a tavern and mercantile in the town of Yaak proper, and these are supplemented by Joanne’s phenomenal packed lunches. Freshly baked bread, hot soups and homemade cookies are defining elements of the Linehan experience, as is the occasional visit to the Dirty Shame Saloon (located across from the mercantile, a few miles south of the Linehans’ cabins) for a burger and a beer.
With his operation nestled in the heart of endless bird cover, Tim says that the day’s most complex decision is whether to turn left or right at the bottom of the driveway. Whichever way he turns, the hunting promises to be remarkable and the landscape more remarkable still. On our final day we followed Tim’s setters up and down the mountainsides until our legs were like jelly. We’d shot some birds and a heap of photographs, and feathered feet were poking out the sides of Tim’s game bag. The afternoon shadows were getting long, but on a sidehill bench setter Maggie swung and stopped and looked up into the fir tops. There was a bird up there somewhere, but it had blended into the needles and broken light, and whatever flush was to happen would come unannounced. Tim wandered in and looked up, his gun open. He craned his neck and started to say something, and as he did the bird came out. The ruff stayed high and came over us, roughly upslope and framed against treetops and sky. How shooter and photographer managed to choreograph our sentiments I’ll never know, but as the gun came up and the bird came over, the shutter fell and the moment stood still. What I’ll remember of the Yaak is falling feathers, the thump of flesh on grass and a burnt-powder smell. But, of course, I’ll mostly remember the smiling man with the two white dogs who introduced me to this place.
For more information, contact Linehan Outfitting Co.