Driving from the Billings airport to the world famous Bighorn River near Fort Smith Montana is not a beautiful drive by any stretch. In fact, in Montana terms it’s pretty much the ugliest…in Montana terms….which isn’t that ugly. But, it is flat and “deserty”. You pass Custers Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn on the way. As my buddy Mike and I got close a seemingly giant bird swooped down and made a sudden u-turn right into the hood of my car with a thump. I have learned through the years that you do not swerve for animals; it’s too dangerous. As I looked out my rear view windows as I shouted to mike, “Was that a hawk?” Mike said, “No, that was a pheasant.” I could see an explosion of feathers as I pulled away and the carcass careening end over end as it rolled off the road. I hoped that was not a bad omen of the fishing to come.
The splatter of blood from the Pheasant I hit with my rental car on the way to the Bighorn
Well, we settled in our stuff at Cottonwood campground, talked to Kyle in the fly shop and got the intel and some flies and headed for the 3 mile takeout which is just a ½ mile drive. It was mid-day after all the hatches so we rigged up with the bobber. Kyle recommended a trailer that was a midge emerger pattern in size 20 tied with CDC; a pattern I had not seen before. But, kyle said we’d do well.
We started fishing. Mike went downstream and I went upstream. Within minutes we lost sight of each other and I was alone in the wilderness; standing in a river waving a stick. Just like I like it. I was wet wading and the river was not too cold and the sun was hot. The bighorn in this stretch was weedy like hot creek and just about the same depth in a non-drought year. Within minutes a drift boat pulled up. I waved and the guide said “how ya doin?” I said, “3rd cast; just got here from California.” “California?” the guide said, “My boat is full of Californians.” Then the angler in front squinted, looked at me and it went something like this: “Tim Huckaby?” I shot back, “No way!” And we all shook our heads smiling. It was my buddy “Fred Gregory” from the San Diego Fly fisherman club. A great fly fisherman, but more importantly a great guy. Total coincidence that we were both on the same river at the same time. I knew that would change the karma of killing that pheasant. And it did. Within minutes I hooked up with a good fish. It ran towards the trees in the bank before I yanked it clear. Then it ran mid river and ducked under the weeds where I had to coax it out. At this point I yelled for Mike because I felt it was big enough that I needed help to land it. But he was long gone. I was all alone with a big fish and without a net. Two anglers walked by laughing at me struggling. It took me some time; probably too much time (5x). but, I wrestled the 17” brown to a grassy patch on shore where I could take a quick picture and release. “ahhh…” I said to myself. “this is going to be a good trip.
And this was all before the fun began. Before 3 days of fishing from a drift boat. What I had to look forward to the next day was the world famous trico hatch on the Bighorn.
The rest of the gang arrived late that night: Mike dad, mike’s brother Mark who is a very good fly fisherman and his lifelong buddy Eric Schmidt, a professional photographer from Bozeman and whom I was later to find out is just a great guy.
We tried to get out as early as possible because the tricos start at sunrise and the spinners follow, but you know how it goes that first day: there’s lots to do and it takes time. We did get to the river in time to see a number of noses. What I noticed first was that the boat was scaring the pods of rising fish. We’d row to a pod and anchor and the fish would immediately go down and rise somewhere else. It was obvious to me, but I didn’t have the authority in that boat to be listened to. So I was targeting the fish >40 feet away with my size 18 trico imitations and having a blast. I was getting strikes and from that distance you can imagine my hookup rate was a bit low. I even broke one off. Totally fun.
Mike fishing the risers with the dam at Fort Smith in the background
It was time for me at the oars and I was excited and a bit worried at the same time. Excited because the oars are in my destiny. Worried because it was only my 3rd time doing it and I didn’t know what was in front of me and didn’t want to crash. And, of course, worried because that 78 year old decided he needed to take the back of the boat so he could “help” by yelling at me when I made rowing mistakes. Well I thought I was doing pretty well. I was spotting risers and keeping at least 30 feet away because I knew the boat was spooking the fish, but he likes to fish right on top of them to make the under 20 foot cast. And he let me know it. After yelling at me to use my right arm instead of my left and tapping me on my right arm, I could help but think, “This is my 3rd time doing this. You are yelling at me and hitting me for the 2nd time. And you are the one that boat crashed us last year almost killing us and me losing $2500 of fly rods, gear, a camera and my phone”. But, it didn’t come out of my mouth. And I’m glad. It’s his boat and at 78 he has earned the right to be cranky. He is who he is. Ultimately he got frustrated with my rowing “skills” and demanded to row again himself. Quietly I moved to the back and armed myself with my Winston 6wt again. Guess who won that battle?
The Bighorn is beautiful in its own way: check out the weed lines
I caught some good fish that first full day; we all did. We floated the entire 13 miles. But, the next day was going to be really fun. It was going to be just me and my buddy Mike.
We got out a bit earlier the next day and Mike and I were ready so he suggested we just take off. I said, “Sure.” We didn’t know it would be a point of contention leaving the three of them behind. They forgot to tell us they wanted to stay together. Mike and I alternated fishing and were doing pretty well. We both caught a good amount of fish above 16”, mostly browns. But, we finished the 3 mile stretch way ahead of the other 3 and waited. I got the Chargers on the radio who made a miraculous comeback over Detroit so it was kind of fun waiting. But, by the time the other guys finished they were done. They fished an entire day slowly and methodically on the first 3 miles. Well mike and I were rested up so we went for a 2nd session and drove the boat back to the dam at 5pm to put in. On the way I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to take the oars for the majority of the float and guide Mike. Mike is not so possessed by fly fishing like his dad, his brother mark and me. So, many times he ends up fishing the least without the practice and instruction. And I wanted the practice on the oars on an empty river where I wasn’t apt to screw up to badly. I told my plan to Mike and he liked it. There’s no evening hatch on the bighorn at this time of year so I knew we were going to fish the bobber. And I noticed a ton of great runs on the opposite side of the river in prior runs that we were going to concentrate on. I rigged Mike up and we took off. I navigated through the fast water to the other side of the river and we started killing. I swear Mike was hooking up every 2 minutes.
We got to a deep hole where a creek flows in that just looks fishy. I told mike where to cast, he did and whack! But, he lost them. I don’t know what got into me at that point. But, I suddenly had a new found confidence in rowing and I said, “We are doing that again!” And I started to back row. And it was working. I back-rowed to the head of the run and we did it again. This time I said something like, “throw it farther and drag it by that rock.” He did. Whack! I screamed the infamous Huckaby “Woo!” louder than I had in years. And the fight was on. Then I realized I had to chase it. The fish ran down river and Mike held on. Well Mike finally tired the little monster enough that I could net it and we high fived and I “Woo!”d again. It was at this point I thought to myself, “I have not been more excited about hooking, fighting and landing a fish like that in years. And I didn’t even catch it! And we pressed on. And Mike continued to kill.
This was hands down my favorite part of the trip. Rowing that drift boat, guiding and not fishing and not catching fish was the absolute favorite part of this trip for me.
I was looking forward to day 3 too because I would get to float with Eric and Mark, lifelong buddies. And I was confident behind the oars and insisted I take them to start the float. I think they liked that. They were trash talking each other pretty good and I dug that. And we got out earlier. But, the trico hatch just wasn’t prolific. We fished the first couple hours just hunting rises and anchoring close enough to them. Soon the spinners were blanketing the water and with so many on the water getting your fly to be chosen was a crap shoot.
When Eric told me to back-row the water coming out of the dam and I knew I didn’t have the skill nor the strength, but I tried…. I failed meagerly huffing and puffing, but at least I tried. By the time it was my turn to fish I was doing the 40 foot casts and having a blast. I caught really nice 19” rainbow. In a river with mostly browns that was a special fish. And he took that midge emerger dropped behind my trico that Kyle recommend. And he took it in a sea of spinners. When I got back to Cottonwood Ranch I tracked down Kyle, gave him a $20 and said, “I so owe you young man.” I could tell he loved that.
I love the Bighorn. It was my 3rd go at it. Overall the river was a bit slow and at times it fished like the Henry’s fork. I’d say I averaged 10 quality fish a day. The dry fly hunt was really fun. But, I gotta’ tell ya’ the guiding from the oars was the best. I will treasure that first 2 hours at the oars with Mike whacking them for long time.