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"God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble." James 4:6
May 21, 2013. My nephew Tom and I are up and away from our Livingston, Montana home before the sun touches the tops of the eastern foothills of the Absaroka Mountains. The sunrise is delayed by a thick deck of clouds which gives way to broken sunshine as we head East on Interstate 90. We slide passed Billings turning towards Hardin and the valley of the Little Bighorn. We fill the gas tank at Hardin before we turn southwest toward the town of Fort Smith, Montana at the base of the Yellowtail Dam on the Bighorn River. Our annual spring fly fishing trip is underway.
The high plains of Eastern Montana are a riot of greens after a long Montana winter. The farm fields that were brown and barren just a few weeks ago are a lush green that is so vivid that it assaults your eyes. Male ring-necked pheasants scurry out of the roadside ditches and western meadowlarks sing from every fencepost along the black strip of asphalt that snakes across the gently rolling landscape. In the distance the last remnants of the previous winter's snows cling to the tops of the distant mountains.
This is the land with a rich history, from the annals of the early fur trappers to pioneers that crossed this land in covered wagons. It was the home of several groups of Native Americans and it supported vast herds of American Bison that swept across the land like a rolling brown cloud. The Native People made several valiant attempts to retain possession of these vast grassy valleys and snow-capped peaks from the increasing tide of settlers. In the Valley of the Little Bighorn they showed their resolve when the defeated General George Armstrong Custer.
The rich history and the beauty of the land all enhance each trip that I make to the Bighorn River. What was previously a warm, sluggish prairie river flowing across the Bighorn Valley on its way to merge with the Yellowstone River was transformed by the Yellowtail Dam. Then it was the home to various warm water species of fish and not likely a destination location. The dam was completed in 1967, and after it filled started transforming the Bighorn for a warm prairie river to a world-class trout stream, especially in the upper reaches. Brown trout, which were never stocked in the Bighorn but were present in several feeder streams, quickly moved into this new habitat, and the rest, as they say, is history. Rainbow and cutthroat trout were planted in the river from 1966 until 1973, and have continued to thrive.
The Bighorn River is incredibly rich and the hatches of various aquatic insects are some of the most prolific I have every witnessed. It's the hatches and the promised dry fly action that brings me to the Bighorn River in the month of May. Rafts of midges, the continuous feast for Bighorn trout, and the flotillas of Spring Baetis that carpet the surface from March to June are the reason that I come each year.
The weather in late spring and early summer on the prairies of Eastern Montana is a study in contrast. There are days of cold winds that sweep down from the mountains accompanied by driving rain or spitting snow. They are often followed by days of shirt-sleeve weather where the order of the day is sun screen and wide-brimmed hats. The warm spring mornings may give way to violent thunderstorms that charge across the landscape causing anglers to crouch in their drift boats or send them dashing for their cars.
Our 2013 trip to the Bighorn was marked by two days of contrary winds that made fishing to the rising trout a considerable challenge. However, one day was crystal clear with no appreciable wind. While one might wish for a few clouds to encourage the overcast loving Baetis to produce a great hatch, on this day the Baetis cooperated and the trout responded.
For nearly five hours I worked my way along the edge of a deep run fishing to resident brown trout that were feeding on a steady stream of Baetis. Fat Bighorn browns twelve to 16 inches lined up along the drift lines and occasionally one of them was willing to take my offering.
At the end of each day we retired to our comfy room at the Bunk House B& B at Fort Smith. Rocky and Mary Zaic are great hosts and they prepare a breakfast to die for. We hit the river each morning well-fortified after one of Mary's breakfasts.
We shared the river with various forms of wildlife like a family of Common Mergansers.
Several horses decided that the grass was greener on the other side of the river and forded the river right below our boat.
I even had the privilege of playing with a few of the residence.
After three days of fishing we loaded the drift boat and started the trip back home. As the prairie landscape faded in the rearview mirror I reminded how blessed I have been to once again experience all that is a trip to Montana's Bighorn River. I was able to experience God's creation for another year with my favorite fly fishing companion. I had caught a few fish, missed a few more, and been humbled by even more. I don't think it gets much better than that this side of heaven.
For information about accommodations at The Bunk House B&B
You can check out their website at www.bnbonthebighorn.com