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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Montana Trifecta

It Just Goes to Show You: A Slow Day on the Bighorn is Still Better Than a Good Day at the Office
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At 9:00, the stillness of the secluded hunting arena is broken by a startling shout.


It's Phil, who, along with his black Lab and Kevin, is scrambling out of the other blind. Hunting is admittedly slow, but I'm wondering about pulling the plug this early until Phil explains, "It's a tradition at the lodge to get back there by 9:30 on duck hunting mornings. The cook shows up at eight and starts preparing a big breakfast, and she has a headcount on how many people are out. Neither you nor I want to suffer her wrath by being late, or worse, not showing up at all."

Ducks one, hunters zero. We pick up the blocks and head back to the lodge.

Sitting down to plow into our vittles-hot scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes, fresh fruit, English muffins, orange juice, the works-the lodge door opens as John DePalma, writer John Barsness, and lodge guide Brandon Costely step inside, all warm and smiley. It was their shooting we heard earlier in the morning. "Got a half dozen greenheads," says DePalma, Filson's representative on the hunt. "And we were picking our shots," adds Barsness, "passing up everything but drake mallards."

"Huumph! So what," I grumble. "Our group was so selective, we didn't shoot anything-even passed up drake mallards. And you call yourselves hunters?"

The three men knowingly smirk and sit down at the table with us. "We're going back out after breakfast," Brandon says, "and we're taking our fly rods with us. We could see brown trout rising just beyond our decoy spread this morning. Figure we'll get some more ducks and catch a few fish while we're at it this afternoon. Anybody want to join us?" By now, it's in the 40s again, the sun is painting a gold patina on the hills, and what little wind we had enjoyed in the morning has blown itself out. Besides, I tell them, a person can't do two things like fish and hunt at the same time and do either one well. I opt for an afternoon float trip, hoping to catch a few trout of my own.

I hook up with Shawn Smith, another of the lodge guides, in the early afternoon. Shawn, when he's not guiding for Phil, spends his time as a Marine Corps reservist. He's deeply tanned, lean but muscular-and has one of those no-nonsense, almost-bald military haircuts. The kind of guy you'd like to have on your side in a barroom brawl. Semper Fi! I toss my gear in Shawn's driftboat, and then hop into his aging Suburban. As we pull out of the lodge parking area, I make what turns out to be another of my fateful statements of the day: "You know, Shawn, I bet every Montana guide I know drives one of these rigs. It's amazing how these older Suburbans just keep chugging along."

As we pull onto the middle of the gravel road adjacent to the lodge, the same narrow artery that leads to the nearby public boat landing, the Chevy's engine gives up the ghost.

Shawn gives me a baleful stare before jumping out and lifting the hood.

Nice going, I say to myself. You read Tarot cards, too? Now look what's coming.

From up the road, three trucks pulling boats on trailers are headed our way. They can't go around us. The ground on either side of the gravel road is too soft to support them. Two more rigs are coming up behind us from the boat landing.

A half hour later, Shawn hitches Phil's pickup to his boat trailer after Phil tows the disabled Suburban back to the lodge. The drivers of the now many waiting rigs-some of them other guides with clients-offer us silent salutes as we clear the road and they file past us. Fishing time is a valuable commodity on the Bighorn.

At Old Fort Smith, we rig up my rod before launching the boat. I reach into my fishing vest and hand Shawn a leader to attach to my fly line, because that's the kind of thing guides like to do for their guests-and also because my nail knots usually end up the size of small marbles. I know, too, that Shawn's really being patient because he hasn't said a word to me on the 20-minute drive to our launch site.

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