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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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My indomitable guide rows me downriver a quarter mile, and then beaches the boat on the far bank. I wade out to a designated run and start fishing, drifting a double-nymph rig across and downstream. I'm into a fish almost immediately, which is no surprise-the Bighorn has one of the largest trout populations per mile of any stream in Montana. A nice one, too, judging by the power of the downstream run it's making. The reel's drag spools line smoothly through the guides, and I catch a quick glimpse of an 18-inch brown trout as it makes a single leap, my leader trailing from its mouth. The fish splashes back into the river and continues downstream. Shawn is behind me now, whispering encouragement. "It's really a nice one," he says. "Just keep steady pressure on it."

I do. The fish has 80 feet of line out when the leader parts. I didn't do anything wrong. Honest, Shawn. The beleaguered guide/Marine ties on another pair of flies for me, a size 18 caddis nymph with a size 22 midge dropper. Over the next hour, and at two more takeout spots, I break off four more fish. Finally, Shawn grabs my leader and starts snapping it apart, piece by piece. "No wonder," he says, ruefully. "You handed me a rotten leader. How old is this monofilament?"

I can't conjure a guess. He takes a new leader out of his gear bag and starts retying my whole rig. "This new model Sage is a dandy," he says as he finishes. "Mind if I take a few casts?"

I'd already put a hex on his truck and wounded his fishing-guide pride, both on the boat launch road and with the bad leader I'd originally given him, so I wasn't about to say no.

"Go ahead," I say, "and, ah, good luck fishing." He vectors an impressively long cast that seems to fly half way across the river. "Great rod," he mumbles. Thank goodness. For a second, I thought the powerful cast meant he was venting or something. I take a couple of photos of him while he fishes, telling him how great his picture will look in the magazine when the story is published.

Shawn fishes for 20 minutes and misses a couple of hits. Maybe he isn't holding his mouth right, and I consider making some suggestions about his technique, but figure I'll just keep my yap shut. 
Later near our takeout point, Shawn rows over a deep hole, telling me to fish over the port side of the boat. I cast in that direction and let my line drift with the current. My mind drifts, too, to the comment I made at breakfast about not being able to do two things at the same time, like hunt and fish, and do either one well. Here I am, fishless, I think to myself, proving that I can't even do one thing at a time and do it well.

A moment later, my indicator goes down and I arc the rod tip up, hooking a dandy fish. In a few minutes, the 19-inch rainbow (it just looks smaller in the picture) is released back into the river. Ah, sweet redemption.

The temperatures drop into the low 20s the following day, when we have an upland bird hunt scheduled. Phil takes our group to a sprawling 15,000-acre cattle and bison spread filled with brushy draws laced with hawthorn, wild plum, black ash, a few cottonwoods, and loads of wild pheasants and sharptails. I shoot well, dropping a rooster and a sharptail on one drive and taking a double on sharpies on another. I also have the opportunity to make a recommendation to DePalma regarding the Filson brush pants I'm wearing: On a cold day, when anyone's fingers can get a little numb, a man-especially one in his 50s who has had three cups of coffee at breakfast-needs a style of trousers that features a zipper instead of a five-button fly. (This is the kind of expert opinion that manufacturers really appreciate.) The next day is our last on the Bighorn, and we devote it to duck hunting. With a 20- to 30-mile-per-hour wind blowing, fly-fishing is out of the question anyway. We make a quick boat trip downriver from the lodge to the hot spot our friends hunted a couple of days ago. Phil's jet-drive outboard has us on location within minutes of leaving the lodge. We set out our decoy spread on the edge of the current.

Flocks of goldeneyes whistle over the river as Sports Afield editor in chief Chris Dorsey and I crawl into one brush blind on the bank, Phil and Kevin into another. By sunrise, the four of us pass up shots on several compact flocks of the black and white birds, spending our energies instead watching-and futilely trying to call-flocks of Canada geese working some fields on the far side of the river. Overhead, bald eagles soar and circle one another, occasionally grasping talons in their acrobatic courtship flights.

"Great morning for bird watching, isn't it," someone remarks.

"Actually, it is, but I do believe I see a mallard headed our way," I answer.

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