Spoiled by the Bighorn

Spoiled by the Bighorn

It's been the ruin of many a poor boy, and God I know I'm one

  • By: Jim Reilly

I've been crippled, ruined you might say, by the Bighorn River. The Bighorn-broad, flat, clear and cold-it's damn near the perfect tailwater trout river. But such perfection comes at a terrible cost: You'll never be the same after fishing it.

Before your trip, you used to fish just for the sake of fishing-being on the water was its own reward and a solitary 14-inch rainbow or brookie (a big fish where you live) caught on an Adams, well, that was just icing on the cake. But now, after climbing to the mountaintop and gazing upon Zion, you just don't have the same enthusiasm for chasing such pitifully small fish.

Frankly, you find it boring. Now all your fishing thoughts turn towards Custer Country in southeast Montana and the Bighorn River that rolls through it. At work, your screensaver flashes photos of big rainbows and fat browns you caught on your trip. The largest, you tell your friends in a breathless e-mail, "would have taped out at 24 inches, at least." Weeks after returning, you browse the Internet for up-to-date fishing reports on the 'Horn for no other reason than, well, you feel a certain connection to the place. And you have "plans" to head back there in the fall to hit the big browns that the guides told you about. You end all your correspondences and conversations about the trip with, "Dude, you've got to fish the Bighorn."

Reflecting upon your success on the Bighorn, you tell yourself that you are a pretty good angler. Not an expert of course, but only one level below that for sure. Granted, all you did during your trip was toss tiny nymphs and worm patterns on long leaders and keep a close eye on the strike indicator. But then again, the guides were impressed with your ability to toss the flies exactly where the big fish were laid up, and you had almost zero catastrophic miscasts or wind knots the entire time.

So it's not without some good reason that you blew a little air into your self-esteem balloon-c'mon, it was Montana after all and you did catch an obscene number of big fish, right? They didn't hook themselves, did they?

But the Bighorn is an anomaly, a fact that will become embarrassingly apparent during a subsequent trip to the Madison and Yellowstone, where the fish and the wind will hand your butt to you. But that's later, and right now your skills are just one level below Lefty and Gierach. It feels nice.

Outside the weather is good, you know you should go fishing. Not too far away is a wonderfully intimate trout stream that you love to fish. There are 14-inch brookies in there and you ought to be after them. The final day of fishing for the season is fast approaching, and you feel the pressure to get out while you can. On the Bighorn though, there's no pressure: You can fish year round, and with all the state-maintained access sites, you can cover a good bit of water on foot. Wouldn't that be nice, you think.

You remember standing in the bow of a drift boat, casting nymphs and floating down the clear water of the Bighorn. Jeremy Gilbertson, expertly guiding the boat down the river for Bighorn Fly&Tackle, tells you there's a trophy-class rainbow hanging in the green run up ahead at 11 o'clock. You cast your nymphs far upstream and mend your line when Jeremy tells you to mend. The pink balloon indicator stops and goes down fast. You see a flash as the fish comes off the river bottom and rockets clear into the air. You're holding the line tight, too tight, and the giant rainbow (you later figure it would go 25 inches) gives one, two, three head shakes before crashing down into the water and breaking your tippet.

"Was that him?" you ask Jeremy.

"Yeah, that was him," he says.

It's about a 40-minute drive to your brook trout stream, and a mile slog to the hole where the fish live. Not too bad as far as these things go, but on the Bighorn you meet your guide in Fort Smith and are on the water fishing below Afterbay Dam in about 30 minutes. The drive back from the take out at the Bighorn Access isn't much farther, and the only reason you even stop fishing and leave the river is to make it in time for dinner at the Bighorn River Resort, which you know you would be foolish to miss.

By now it's lunchtime and you're eating a coldcut-and-ketchup sandwich at your kitchen table. You've made a decision: You will go fishing this evening, but the brook trout will have to wait. Trout of that size just don't interest you. You want big fish. You tell yourself it's stupid to waste your time on such small trout, even if they are pretty, native and all that, because those brookies sure as heck aren't going to pull a six-weight out of your hand like that rainbow below the Drive In Hole on the Bighorn nearly did. It's hard to forget the feeling of something like that, even if it'd be for the best if you did.

Launching the canoe into the pond as evening descends, you see dimpled rises all across the surface. You paddle out to the middle and crack open a beer. You sit for a moment and think, if only this canoe were a drift boat and this pond the Bighorn. Yeah, that'd be great. You'd already have one on by now. Not necessarily a big one, but a fat rainbow with big shoulders. You wouldn't even take a photo of it because, well, you catch 'em like that all the time out there. The Bighorn is the best place in the world to catch big trout, you declare to yourself. But this pond isn't the Bighorn and you know it.

That thought doesn't rest too well on your mind, so you take a swig of beer to fight it off. By way of consoling yourself, you reason that one thing the Bighorn doesn't have is largemouth bass, and you are going to catch the hell out of them tonight. The fish are rising and you make a cast while cursing the Bighorn for driving you to bass fishing. You wonder, will I ever be the same?