By Chuck Petrie
Montana's Bighorn River is a duck hunter's fantasy come true when conditions are right: huge flocks of mallards and smaller groups of Canada geese elbowing each other to get into your decoy spreads. When conditions are right. When conditions are right, the temperatures are in the teens and every pothole and reservoir in the country freezes over, as does the dam-free Yellowstone River, so all the birds gravitate to the Bighorn, which-it being a tailwater below the Yellowtail Dam- remains warmer and stays open year round.
As I unpack my gear at Bighorn River Lodge, however, the outdoor thermometer registers in the low 40s. Not exactly bonefishing weather, but not real ducky, either.
Before dawn the next morning, I'm ensconced in a brush-covered blind that lodge owner Phil Gonzalez has built on a river backwater island. Phil is in another blind off to my right with Kevin Thompson. Kevin is an emissary for Sage, the fly rod and reel manufacturing company, a cohost on this trip along with the C.C. Filson Company. Between us, we have a great crossfire set up over the decoys. In this back channel of the river, there is little current, but enough water is moving through to make the decoys bob and wiggle enticingly on their anchor cords.
Enticing or not, few birds are moving along our stretch of river, but I hear an enviable amount of shooting coming from about a mile upstream, where three more of our group are set up, also off the main channel. My only bit of excitement comes well after sunup when a lone greenwing drake rockets past the blind and plops down in the decoys before I can get off a shot. I don't have the heart to flush the little bird and shoot it, so I let him swim around with his plastic brethren until he figures out the ruse and heads for parts unknown. Lucky duck.
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.
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.
The lone drake arrows upstream and begins to cup up over the decoys. My partner rises to take the shot as the bird sees him and starts into a steep climb. Too late. The shot string centers the drake, and he takes a death glide into a patch of Russian olive brush on the far bank-an easy retrieve for Phil's Lab.
The morning drags on before the next opportunity presents itself in the form of a single mallard that flies upriver, and then toward us and passes over our blind. The bird is barely visible through the branches of an overhanging cottonwood. I let loose with a shot from the bottom barrel of my old Winchester 101, then fire the second as the bird disappears from view. I wait a second, and then hear a satisfying thump as the bird nosedives into the brush behind us. It's a full half hour until the next targets appear, a pair of mallards that decoy without hesitation and are dumped into the river by a short barrage from Chris and Kevin.
As the Lab makes the retrieves, Chris comments, "Gee, that was nice, but the hunting is really slow. Can't count on the ducks, can't count on the weather."
"Yup," I answer, "but there is one thing you can bet your hat on." I look toward Phil's blind, then at my watch, and start the countdown, "Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . ."
A Touch of Class
Bighorn River Lodge overlooks the Bighorn River and has a commanding view of the Bighorn Mountains. The facility is 12 miles downstream from Yellowtail Dam and is one of the premier lodges on the river, catering to waterfowl and upland bird hunters and fishermen. For more information, contact Phil Gonzalez at 800-235-5450. The lodge's Web site is www.bighornriverlodge.com
You Get a Line and I'll Get a Pole
Participants in the Bighorn River writers' hunt were introduced to the new SLT series fly rods by Sage. The all-new graphite SLT features a medium-fast taper that offers anglers a lightweight rod with an ultrasmooth action, resulting in a more relaxed casting rhythm. Available in 2-, 4-, and 5-piece models. The rods were equipped with Sage's new large arbor 3300D reels, which are machined from aircraft-grade aluminum and custom anodized for corrosion resistance. The reel's multigraphite drag system is completely sealed, and has a numbered, positive-click drag adjustment that allows anglers to pre-select drag tension according to fish size and fishing conditions. For more information on these and other fine Sage products, visit your local Sage dealer or see the company's Web site: www.sageflyfish.com