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Spring Pilgrimage: Fly Fishing the Shoshone and Bighorn Rivers

03/18/15 at 12:55 PM by David Leinweber

 

By Jack Hunter, Previous Angler’s Covey Guide

Re-posted from Spring 2007

 

It’s become a spring tradition to head north for a fly fishing trip in some of my favorite country in the west. My son, Chris, and I have fished the Bighorn near Fort Smith, Montana in late April for several years now. This trip usually includes some good friends but, on occasion, finds us sharing time alone together on what is truly one of North America’s best Trout streams. We’ve had our slow days, our “Should Have Been There” days and everything in between. Over the years, friends have been made, lessons learned, and big fish have been caught and released. As my good friend Leo White likes to say, “No one died, no one went to jail, and everyone caught a few fish.” This is Leo’s measure of a successful trip to which those of us in a small group have tended to subscribe to over the course of many trips together. In recent years, I’ve added a few days on the North Fork of the Shoshone River to the front end of this pilgrimage north. I discovered this river when I attended my first Orvis Guide Rendezvous in Cody, Wyoming. I’ve fished this river over the last few years with a different group of friends other than those with whom I spend time on the Bighorn. I made these friendships when I joined the Fly Fishing Guide Staff at Angler’s Covey. These are great people down to the last man and woman on the team.

 

The Shoshone

I headed to Cody for the Orvis Rendezvous on the 17th of April this year. The weather was looking dicey at best but I planned to fi sh with one of my fellow guides from Angler’s Covey, Steve Gossage, and like me, a little weather is what he prefers. We hit the road early in the morning on the 18th. The weather was warm and brought on the melt from Yellowstone

Park. However, in typical western fashion, that would change and we would have snow by our second day in the area. The river was “blown out but probably fishable” according to Chip at North Fork Anglers in Cody. The guys there are the best and I recommend that you stop in if you plan to make the journey to the area. We picked up some tips, spent a few bucks on flies and started to leave. Chip’s parting comment to us as we left the shop was “watch out for the Grizzlies”. Let me tell you, that will keep you looking over your shoulder all day!

 

On our way to the river we saw Pronghorn Antelope, Mule Deer, Golden Eagles, Bison, Bighorn Sheep, Coyotes and practically every water fowl species known to man. No Grizzlies, although some very large paw prints were seen later in the day. The guys at the fly shop were right; the water was off color to say the least. Not letting that deter us, we made our way to our favorite spot on the river. We were throwing, what in my book at least, are huge weighted fl ies: size 4 & 6 Halfbacks and size 6 & 8 North Fork Specials. As the reader knows, this is nothing at all like fishing the South Platte. Steve and I like to call this “Chuck & Duck”. We certainly don’t claim to have coined the phrase but it is fitting none the less.

 

Over the course of our first day we caught some nice Rainbows and native Cutthroats. These are lake run Trout out of Buffalo Bill Reservoir near Cody so they are strong fighters with big shoulders. On Day two we decided to venture out and move further further up the river. We picked a spot about 5 miles from the Yellowstone Park Entrance which at this time of year

is still closed. We stepped into the river in the middle of a pretty good gale and some light snow. Before long some nice fish were landed and released.

 

At lunch time a few other guys from the shop showed up and joined us. I took advantage of the opportunity to get a lesson in nymph fishing without an indicator from Neil Luehring and Mark Mahler and Paul Martinez. Neil, Mark and Paul teach nymphing techniques at Angler’s Covey. Their classes are great for beginners and advanced fly-fishers alike. Before long I’d hooked a few fish using this alternate method in spite of the constant heckling from the peanut gallery, the forty knot winds and blinding snow. I’ve found that like Mother Nature, fly-fishers have no mercy on other fly-fishers and this is intensified when they are guides. The day ended as it began, a few friends enjoying the outdoors, a few beers and sharing mostly true stories about past trips.

 

The Bighorn

On Friday, the 20th of April, I got up early in hopes of making my way to the Bighorn at Fort Smith, Montana. I met up with Neil, Mark and Paul for breakfast at Peter’s Deli. Peter has the best breakfast in town and great box lunches for your day of fishing. Neil and Mark planned to head over to the Bighorn to spend a few days floating with me and a few of the guys. After an uneventful trip we arrived in Fort Smith about noon. My son Chris and another friend of ours, Bob Bean, arrived shortly thereafter. For those not familiar with the Bighorn at Fort Smith, it is premier tail water created by the Yellowtail dam which holds back the waters of the Bighorn River. The section below the dam is broken into three sections. I’m sure the locals would argue my generalizations but this is my story and I’m sticking to it. We normally float the upper two sections from the After-bay to Bighorn Access, a full day’s float.

 

Before I talk about our fl oat trip, it is important to say that Montana has very progressive water access laws. The Bighorn is an excellent river to spend a day wading and the access is generally easy and well marked. In Montana you can wade the rivers even through private property assuming that you gained access legally and that you stay within the high water point on the banks. If you prefer a guided float you can contact one of the many guide services or lodges in the area. I recommend the Big Horn Trout Shop or the Orvis Endorsed Lodge at Fort Smith. You can also contact Greg Blessing through Angler’s Covey for a great trip on the Horn. For bird hunters, the Pheasant are thick in this area and both the Bighorn Trout Shop and the Orvis Lodge offer “Cast & Blast” trips in the fall.

 

Our float on the first day was from the After-bay to Three-mile take out. For me, the fi rst day back on a familiar river is like getting reacquainted with an old friend that you haven’t seen in a while. We used the standard Bighorn fly selection for this time of year: Ray Charles, Scuds, Midge and Baetis nymphs, emergers and dries Sow Bugs and other assorted local favorites. Of course we all have our secret flies and techniques and those will remain just that. We finished this day with fi sh caught and released, some dry fl y action and a few beers. It was a successful day by any fisherman’s measure.

 

Saturday began at the After-bay. Mark and Neil joined Chris, Bob and me for the days float This day had its challenges but as is almost always the case on the Bighorn some nice fish were caught and released. We were even lucky enough to have a little dry action mostly because we horned in on a nice little spot that Neil and Mark had anchored in. What are friends for after all? A small Parachute Baetis emerger pattern we’d discovered the day before was the right fly again today. Neil and I tied up a dozen to share amongst the guys on Friday night. Chris caught the fi sh of the trip on Saturday, a 23" Rainbow. Larger fish may or may not have been caught, who’s to say either way and what does it really matter? We finished the day saying good bye to Neil and Mark and heading home for an evening of Bob and Chris talking Baseball late into the evening while I tied flies for the next day’s adventure.

 

Sunday found us settling into our normal routine built up over so many years of fishing together. The Bighorn is a river that has become like a second home to me in many respects. This comes from knowing this river well, having survived some harrowing experiences there and genuinely being made to feel like one of the boys by the locals when you’re there.

 

It was bright most of the day but that didn’t hamper the fishing. Some late clouds even allowed for some dry fly fishing and you can’t argue with that, ever. We ran into a few other guys we know from Anglers Covey as we had on the previous days. Jack Duerson and Mark Puterbaugh are two of the nicest guys you’ll ever run into on a Trout stream anywhere in the world and they’ll show you a thing or two about fly fishing as well. A few words were exchanged and we moved on.

 

Monday will forever be known as the day of “The Hatch”. The day started out wet and stayed that way with few breaks in the constant drizzle. We all know that this means a potential Blue Winged Olive hatch here at home in Colorado. On the Bighorn, if everything is just right, it can mean one of those BWO hatches you only read about. Monday it all came together but you’d not have guessed it for the first 4 hours on the river. About 1:00 we pulled into this little flat across from a corral. It was raining, cold and miserable, with little or no wind, perfect for a BWO hatch. There were no bugs on the water when we pulled in but it wasn’t long before they showed themselves and when they finally did, they did so in force. It was one of those days when there are almost too many bugs on the water. We caught a few here and there struggling to pick out our flies from all of the naturals on the water, looking for the one pattern that would be really turn the fi sh. That pattern turned out to be a Lawson’s Thorax Dunn on this day. 18-20" browns we’re the norm and several were hooked, most landed and all released.

 

At the risk of being too philosophical, this spring trip north has become an important time to revitalize my connection with the natural world, to gain some perspective on what is truly important in life: family, friends, the things you love and the people that love you.

 

And so it goes, another year in the books, another trip

to tell mostly true stories about in the years to come, new friendships cemented and old friendships renewed. And all of that with; “no one dying, no one going to jail and everyone catching a few fish”. 

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