As our flight began its descent in the Billings Montana airport John and I glanced at each other and the little boy grins spread across our faces because we had been waiting for this trip for years and the anticipation of finally fishing the Bighorn River had us feeling like two kids on Christmas morning.
John and I have been fly fishing together on and off for over 25 years and had made a lot of sojourns to a lot of rivers, but none quite like one with the reputation of the Bighorn. In our earlier days with Forest Service maps tucked under our arms we had hacked our way through a lot of unfamiliar territory in the search for that new adventure and secret creek that held the illusive undiscovered trophy trout. Somewhere along the way, based on some of the questionable excursions we found ourselves involved with, we began to refer to ourselves as Lewis and Clark although to this day we can never agree as to who was Lewis and who was Clark.
No need for Forest Service maps on this trip. We were headed to the Bighorn River Lodge in Fort Smith Montana and the legendary Bighorn River, a well controlled tail water fishery that produces 5,000 – 7,000 fish per mile, most of which are 15”-20” native rainbows and browns. If you talk to those who have fished this river for a number of years they will tell you this is probably the premier trout river in the lower 48. We were about to find out for ourselves and the anticipation was electric.
The Billings airport is relatively small and easily navigated which makes for a pleasant experience. Down the stairs to baggage claim where our shuttle driver was waiting and 15 minutes later we were on our way. Then a short stop at a grocery store to pick up some personal items and of course a good supply of beer and other liquid refreshment. The Lodge is in the midst of the Crow Reservation and as such no alcohol is available for purchase so each guest must bring whatever of those types of provisions he thinks he will need for the duration of the trip.
The trip to the Bighorn River Lodge from Billings takes about an hour and half through rolling hills of wheat and pasture land where it is not uncommon to see deer and pronghorn sheep. The time passed quickly as John and I reminisced about trips gone by and our excitement and anticipation of the new one we were beginning. Exiting from Interstate 90 at Hardin (last stop for alcohol) the terrain turns to smaller parcels of farmland as the highway follows the Bighorn River now bracketed on each side by low rolling ridge lines with scalloped hillsides casting off hues of gold, purple and reds in the late afternoon sun.
There at last is the sign for the lodge and our heart rate clicks up another notch as we turn down the gravel road that takes us to our destination. The first impression is really something else. As rabbit and pheasant scamper out of our way we pass the managers’ quarters on the left and gaze across one of the two bass ponds that are part of this beautiful 18 acre parcel and there in the late glow of the afternoon shadows sits the log cabin style lodge on a small knoll overlooking the bass pond, just a stone’s throw from the river. We speak not a word as we pass over the short causeway between the ponds and turn uphill to the lodge.
Waiting for us on the front porch are Rick and Cheryl Gehweiler the lodge managers, whose warm and genuine welcome make us know we are “home” and in good hands. Upon entering the lodge all we can think is “WOW” and once again John and I glance at each other and once again the little boy grins spread across our faces. The lodge is just like we dreamt and had hoped it would be. There is a genuine spacious open feeling adorned with all manner of mounted local game and original art to match. A quick but gracious and informative tour by Cheryl helps to familiarize us with the facility, its amenities and schedules. There is a beautiful modern open gallery kitchen overlooking the dining area which as we were to find out, allowed us to interact with the chef and staff during the evening meal event. We could tell immediately that the spacious great room with large river rock fireplace, poker table, flat screen TV and well appointed furniture was going to be our first stop to relax after a long day on the river. Cheryl then led us outside to the deck that overlooks the bass pond. This is the favorite early evening gathering spot for drinks and appetizers where guests can swap stories about their successes, trials and experiences that day on the river. We can’t wait to have our own stores to tell.
Our luggage is brought to our rooms, we quickly get our fishing licenses purchased and pick up a few last minute items from the well provisioned fly shop, although we are told that our guide will provide all the flies and basic necessities for the day.
Our room is very comfortable, and well appointed, looking out on the bass pond from ground level. We make a quick change of clothes and back upstairs to mingle with other guests at the lodge and hear of their day and try to imagine what our day will be like tomorrow. Sitting out on the deck with a beer and favorite cigar, John and I listened with great interest to their stories of the beauty of the river, the size and number of fish landed, the skill and knowledge of their guide, and of course the recounting of the 22” rainbow that broke someone off after a 15 minute battle….” He was right at the boat when he made one last leap and …..See Ya’!!! Another glance to John and more grins.
The evening meal was spectacular. The Chef at the lodge is fantastic and the grilled Caesar salad with shaved parmesan was a perfect prelude to the hazelnut crusted Walleye served with delicious roasted root hash and fresh asparagus seasoned with soy and basil. A dessert of homemade ice cream and fresh chocolate torte finished us off. We retired to the great room for a Cognac and some more talk of fishing while others enjoyed the TV to catch up on the current sporting events. We were soon to bed with the hope that the excitement and anticipation of tomorrow would not interfere with a good night’s sleep.
We arose early to the smell of brewing coffee and began to assemble our gear and clothing for the day’s adventure. I ran upstairs and said good morning to Cheryl and Rick who were already in the lodge making sure all preparations were in order for the day, grabbed a couple of cups of coffee and descended back down to our room to make our own preparations. John and I have always agreed that just getting ready is half the fun of the trip and we were excited as we went through our gear and talked about what we had brought and how we were going to use this and that.
Once ready we transferred our gear upstairs where our 7:30 breakfast was about to be served. I don’t know what we were most impressed with by the end of our trip, but the food was certainly near the top of the list. There was juice, fresh fruit, yogurt and cereal for the lighter fare and sausage, sautéed baby red potatoes, and a scrambled egg combination of nothing but good flavors for the more hearty appetite. Not to mention the never ending flow of good coffee.
At 8:00 our guides arrived and introductions were made as we settled in with the plan for the day. Our guide, as it turned out was Matt Clausen the outfitter for the lodge. A soft spoken man, with a very pleasant manner, Matt inquired as to our skill level and what gear we had brought with us. He was quick to set us at ease as to any apprehension we may have about what to expect. While guides must always be ready for any skill level from their clients, and it was evident Matt could handle anything that came his way, it was also great to see that we were all going to get along famously. You get two or three people together that live and breathe fly fishing and get them talking about it and you could run a nuclear power plant on that energy. As Matt talked about the river, the ecosystem and how well it was fishing, I thought I was going to have to tie John down before Matt could get our rods set for the day. After 30 minutes, which seemed like 30 hours we were off.
There are two entry points to the upper 13 mile stretch of the Bighorn and deciding which to use depends on a number of factors including how certain sections are fishing, water flows and crowds. The Bighorn is a very popular and well known river and certainly it can get a bit crowded during certain times of the year. But given the fact that 10-20 fish days are very, very common, and given the fact that most of these fish are big strong fish, I cannot now see how the number of boats on the river really matters so much. Matt has decided to enter at the 3 mile ramp which will give John and me more time to do some wade fishing in addition to the boat fishing which we will be doing throughout the 10 mile float to the lodge.
Matt pops the boat in the river, we load up and off we go. Now I really do have to tie John down. Matt has explained that we will begin nymphing as this section is best suited for this at this time of year and it will give us a chance to get any rust off our techniques and also give Matt a chance to gauge our skill level. Works for me. I graciously have granted that John can fish from the front of the boat to begin with. It is indeed a bit easier from the front and usually a bit more productive, but I figure I will use this gambit as leverage later when it really will make a difference. Of course we are friends!! But now we are fishing and by God it is “GAME ON”! After 25 years of fishing together you would think we had talked about everything we could. Nothing is farther from the truth and any fisherman worth his salt will tell you so. The banter and good nature kidding is non-stop as usual. The only injury that I can remember that John or I ever suffered was pulled stomach muscles form laughing. Today would prove no different.
Yep, just a couple of kids having the time of their lives.
Matt has set John up with a reddish San Juan worm and a #18 Skinny Nelson which is usually pretty productive from May right through to November. I am fishing with a #18 pink sow bug and a #14 Copper John. We are both using 9’ 3x leaders, because the fish on the Bighorn are not very leader shy when nymphing and I can tell you from experience, you will need the strength of 3x to hold these fish especially if they get into fast water. There are a lot of ways to set up for nymphing, but today Matt decides to use 8’ of 3x to a blood knot, above which he secures 2 bb weights. Then 16” of more leader to the first fly and maybe 14” more to the bottom fly.
Matt rows across the river to the north side and we begin to cast into the current towards the middle of the river. Well it is no surprise that Matt’s fly choices are the right ones, when John’s indicator takes a quick move under and upriver. Rod tip up and listen to the reel sing. Man there is no other sound like it or the adrenalin surge that follows. We are forever in pursuit of this electric and addictive moment. A few minutes later Matt is netting a beautiful 18” brown and life is good. We take a moment to appreciate nature’s beauty painted in the gold belly and iridescent spots on this beautiful fish. High fives and get those lines back in the water. John has another strike almost immediately. I am beginning to question my generosity of seating. Another beautiful brown that takes a real run out to the middle of the river, shows off three cart wheeling jumps and requires a bit more time to land. Before we float another fifty yards, my indicator takes a small dip under. Not sure if I have just snagged some moss, I give the rod tip a bit of a lift and WHAM! Some freight train must have taken my fly. The line shoots to the center of the river in a split second. My reel knob almost takes my finger off, and all I can think is “DO NOT SCREW UP”! Not too much pressure, don’t let him get too far out, put the rod on its side, try to tire him, all those thoughts cramming together. Then he jumps and we can see it is a beautiful maybe 18” Rainbow. Man this fish is strong and he makes 4 more runs from the boat after each attempt to get him close. Finally he tires a bit and Matt positions the boat just right and he is in the net. Truly there is no better feeling to the avid fly fisherman than to have this exchange and dance with one of nature’s most beautiful creations. The silver body painted with a slash of red and blue down the side is really something to see.
Our float down the river is a beautiful trip alternating between classic runs and riffles, slower moving flats water bordered by cliff and bank. After an hour and a half and about 10 fish boated, Matt decides to pull over at a well known spot called Duck Blind. It is about 10:30 and we take out our dry rods and walk about ¼ mile up this side channel to see if we can find some dry fly action. Sure enough in the first little riffle we can see fish feeding in the riffle and the seams below. There are score of them! Good thing Matt is tying on the flies, because my hands are shaking too much. Front seat guy now gets to wait for back seat guy to have the first go. It has been awhile since I have had much practice with casting a dry fly and I just hope I can perform under pressure. Matt has tied on #18 PMD and a #20 Trico as a trailer. I try a couple of casts off to the side to measure my distance and get the kinks out. I start back down behind the feeding fish in the slower water so that we can work our way up through the rest. Two cast not on target and I just hope I don’t spook them. Next cast is right in the seam, and we can see this big dark shape rise to the fly. He takes it…wait…wait…now raise the rod tip. OH BABY! He is off like a shot. First right up river then a fast turn and down again. Two huge jumps. It’s a rainbow and is he pissed! I try to keep him down below the other fish and finally with a bit of skill that seems to have returned he is in the net. The river is shimmering in the sunlight, and as I kneel in the river to release this beauty back to its home I can think of no place I would rather be and no other thing I would rather be doing.
We spent almost an hour there. Catching……I can’t remember how many gorgeous fish. They were certainly on the feed, because we never really seemed to spook them enough for them to quit until the hatch was over. Every once in awhile, John and I would look at each other, laugh and just shake our heads. The grins stayed on our faces all day.
We fished our way down a bit further and pulled over to one of Matt’s favorite spots for lunch. Our boat lunch for the day was on par with all of our other meals at the lodge. Matt served us up a delicious pulled pork sandwich on a fresh onion roll with cold slaw, some sliced apple, and peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. Washed down with a cold beer and we were two very happy campers.
The second half of our day was as good as the first. We had some spectacular stops and lost more than a few fish to fast water and fast riffles. Who cares? The thrill of rod bending take and a reel singing run is worth the loss of any fish. Well almost. John had what must have been a 22” brown almost to shore, before the monster took one last head shake, turned back to the river, and was gone. We stood there with our mouths open, looked at each other and just laughed. Fishing is a lot about memories and that one will go in the book.
As our float began to come to its end we just sat and watched the river go buy and reflected on our day. The weather had been perfect and the fishing had been spectacular. But it was the overall experience of the scenery, the companionship, what we learned from Matt, and the dance with the fish of the Bighorn that we will always remember. And you know what…..WE GET TO DO IT AGAIN TOMORROW!
One of the great advantages to staying at the Bighorn River Lodge is that they have their own boat ramp, so at the end of the day there is no issue trying to jockey with other boats all getting off the river at the same time at the public ramps. Add that to the fact that all we had to do was walk about a hundred yards to the lodge rather than drive anywhere to return to our accommodations was a real treat.
We walked slowly from the boat ramp up to the lodge, a bit tired, but totally fulfilled. We entered the lodge to the smells of the evening meal being prepared, and made our way to our rooms for a welcomed hot shower and a change of clothes. Once refreshed we made our way back upstairs for a drink and cigar out on the deck. The late evening sun had transformed the surface of the bass pond into palette of pinks and blues sprinkled with ringlets from rising bass. John and I were still talking of our day as other guests returned to tell their stories of the day. Yesterday we had been observing and listening to their stories, but today we had our own experiences to share. One of the really nice things about the Bighorn River Lodge is its size. With only 5 rooms and a capacity of 10 in the main lodge, it makes for a very comfortable number of guests and a chance to really interact with each of them if one wishes to do so.
Our evening meal was again superb and the conversation among the guests enjoyable and stimulating. A great end to a great day.
John and I spent a total of 4 nights and 3 days at the Bighorn River Lodge and I cannot think of how our experience could have been better. The management and the staff were very accommodating and made every effort to make us feel at home and to ensure that all of our needs were met. The food was simply fantastic. Our meals were creative, full of flavor, and beautifully presented. Our guide, Matt was the best. Very professional, extremely knowledgeable and a great guy to spend the day with and really learn about the river. The lodge itself is the perfect venue for the Bighorn. Its location on the river, its staff and its ambience cannot be matched. John and I are already planning our next visit. We truly hope we see you at the lodge.