The Last Good Country – Part 2 of 2

Part 1 of this post covered the first four days of my Bighorn River fly fishing trip in mid-September. My brother-in-law and I fished those days on our own, and did pretty well. With some initial successes under our belts, we couldn’t wait to spend some time with guides provided by Eastslope Outfitters.

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The Old Hookers Guesthouse – a true fly fisher’s home away from home…

We checked in to the Old Hookers Guesthouse on Tuesday afternoon. We each had our own well-appointed bedroom and bathroom and the run of the house. The house is a very roomy split level – the basement floor had a convenient walk-in to a rod/wader room and utility room, perfect for stringing and storing your fly rod, donning your wading gear, and grabbing a few for the road from the “beer fridge”. Adjacent to the utility room were two of the five bedrooms in the house and a very comfy family room. The conveniences provided at the guesthouse impressed me – cleaning supplies of all types, a stack of cloth patches for line cleaning, and even spare waders and boots, if needed. Upstairs was another family room with fireplace, large kitchen, and dining room, as well as 3 more bedrooms with private baths.

Kent, Jeff’s co-worker and part of the original “10 year group”, had joined us on Sunday afternoon and fished with us on Monday. Kent arrived minus a prized fly rod, lost somewhere in the luggage on the flight to Billings. He was able to replace it with a brand new Sage, on sale at the Billings Cabelas. On Tuesday, the rest of the group trickled in – this included Dave, another of Jeff’s coworkers, and Jace and his daughter. The group represented a diverse mix of angling experience, from beginner to advanced angler. Fortunately, Jim and Joyce’s team of guides handled the mix of experience exceptionally well.

After everyone settled in, our cook prepared hors d’oeuvres and the beer and wine began to flow. This was a nightly ritual. Jeff and I had considered fishing that first evening, but we knew we’d be up early, so we decided to relax with the rest of the group, enjoy dinner, clean our lines, and get to bed early. It was customary for Jim and Joyce to stop by every evening around “happy hour” and check in with guests – a very nice touch. Besides getting to know their guests, they also used that time to make arrangements for the next day, including pairing anglers with guides.

Wednesday started early with coffee and a light breakfast and it wasn’t long before the guides pulled up, drift boats in tow. For my first day, Jeff encouraged me to fish with Jim, aka “Stretch”, while Jeff went with guide Jason and fellow angler Dave. Kent accompanied me for the day. Jace and his daughter went with Tyson. The two wanted to fish together and Tyson ended up being a perfect match for the mix of their fly fishing abilities.

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Looking downriver at daybreak from Jim’s drift boat.

Jim does double-duty as Eastslope co-owner and guide. I was eager to fish with him: Jeff had nothing but raving reviews from previous years and claimed Jim could see fish where none seemed to exist. We launched that first morning from the 3 mile access and were soon drifting downriver while Jim talked about the plan for the morning.

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Jim, left, rigs Kent up with a tandem trico dry fly set-up.

Jim talked about the trico hatch and the area of the river we’d fish. He rowed us downriver past cattle, grazing on the aquatic grass, and white pelicans getting set for their own fishing. After a 30 minute drift, we anchored along the river bank and got out to wade and sight fish. Jim set Kent and I up with tandem trico dry flies. He preferred to fish the dropper on 6X tippet. In his opinion, this removed doubt as to whether 5X was too much and putting the fish off. He also used desiccant on the flies pretty regularly so they would float well. He started me fishing and then walked with Kent upriver to get him situated.

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Looking upriver on the Bighorn, with Kent fishing along the weed edges. Big pods of browns cruised upriver feeding in much the same way Jeff and I had observed on our first days on the river.

Eventually, Jim waded back down to me. He scanned the river for fish, his height and slightly stooped posture making him look like a big blue heron on the stalk. It wasn’t long before he sighted some browns slurping the steady downstream drift of trico spinners. He had me quietly move into position below them, then instructed me to put the flies just 6″ ahead of the fish at the tail of the pod. It was maddening seeing these fish feed with reckless abandon and at times almost bump my fly as they took the real thing. But both the odds and fishing Gods were in our favor: I watched my point fly disappear in a rise. “Set” was the word Jim loved to use to tell you when to set the hook on a take. And following his timing cue was a sure way to stick a brown.

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Kent points to a mat of spent trico spinners pooled up in the river edge weeds.

I landed two nice browns under Jim’s guidance and though I was pleased as punch at the early success, he wasn’t satisfied with the number of shots I was getting. The pods were very sporadic in his opinion, popping up, going for a few minutes and then vanishing, reappearing elsewhere. He told me to continue to look for rising fish while he headed downriver to scout out another area. I managed another hook-up before he called me from the high river bank to tell me to follow him downriver. He led me to a nice run below the broad tail-out where we’d previously fished. As we waded back upriver, I could see a large pod of fish – at least a dozen or two – gulping tricos along the weed edges. Jim had me work the lower fish first. The tandem rig did its job and we picked away at the pod, yielding many quality browns in the 16″ – 18″+ range. Partway through the morning, Jim had me change to a glass bead sunken spinner. This fly would sink and the lead trico emerger would act as an indicator when a trout picked up the sunken fly. It worked like a charm and I enjoyed a little dry fly indicator fishing.

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Jim gives my new Orvis Helios 2 6 weight fly rod a test cast. He loved it…

The hatch began to dwindle as morning faded. The pods of voracious browns were gone except for an occasional and sporadic riser. Jim suggested we move on down the river.

We strung up our streamer rods and began casting. Jim pointed out one area where a fellow guide had a client hook into an 8 pound brown – the biggest of the year it turned out – that they fought quite a ways down the river. But this big fish went to a “hacker” – a client with little fly fishing skill. Jim’s guide friend had wished it on someone like Kent or I. Beginner’s luck is apparently alive and well even on the Bighorn River!

Kent and I didn’t move a fish with streamers. We stopped bankside for lunch and enjoyed a delicious venison meatloaf sandwich, salad, chips – a gourmet river meal if there ever was one (word was Jim makes the lunches). After stuffing ourselves, we pushed off and drifted downriver, ready to give nymphing a shot.

Jim anchored his boat tight to a high bank and along a fast and deep run. He rigged Kent and I up for nymphing with an interesting sliding weight, similar to a steelhead slinky but much smaller and made with lead putty. The nymph rig was “tractor trailer” under an indicator. Initially Jim had planned on using scud patterns, but Kent wanted to try the split case PMD that had performed so well for me when I was fishing on my own.

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The split case PMD – a very effective Bighorn pattern…

I wondered whether the split case PMD would work wonders like it had originally for me. It didn’t take long before Kent was hooked up, validating the nymph’s effectiveness.  I started hooking up as well, including a really nice rainbow lost at the net.

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Kent, seen here, is nymphing the deep and fast run just downstream from where we anchored for lunch.

We ended the day fishing streamers to the takeout. Once again, the streamer bite was not there, but after a lot of fish in the net, it was nice to just cast away and enjoy a beautiful river. Jim proved to be a great guide – knowledgeable, wise in the ways of trout, patient, and fun. His forte is dry fly fishing, so if the hatches are on, he’s the guide you want for at least one day on the Bighorn.

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An abandoned farmhouse on the Bighorn River…

Jeff had fished with Jason that first day. Relatively new to the Eastslope stable of guides, Jason was also knowledgeable, professional, and very capable. Jeff had good fishing with Jason and my second day of guided fishing would certainly validate that.

Jason picked us up bright and early on Thursday and discussed his plan of attack as we drove to the river. We would fish the same red bluff area that he’d taken Jeff to the previous morning. The hatch had been good there and the fish were willing. After that we’d fish streamers.

We reached the red bluffs and anchored up. Jason sent Jeff upriver to a spot that had some fish already working. He then climbed the steep bank with me in tow. We walked a trail downriver to a spot where the feeding was on. We descended below these fish and carefully waded up river towards them.

Jason rigged me up a little differently than Jim had. In Jason’s world of dry fly fishing the Bighorn, there was no need to use less than 5X tippet and in some cases he preferred 4X or even 3X. An interesting aspect of fishing with multiple guides is that one gets exposure to a variety of fly fishing methods, techniques, and tactics. Some differ significantly in their approach and views, but all of that is good for the angler who will listen.

Jason used his own flies and I could immediately tell he was a skilled fly tier. We fished a tandem rig of trico spinners and emergers. He had me work the pod from the tail but once again, the fish I hooked did not seem to spook the other risers. Jeff and I fished the hatch well, netting numerous good fish, losing some as well. Jason taught me to pick up the slack after every cast and to stay relatively tight to the fly to ensure a good and quick hook-set. It turned out to be a stellar morning.

As the morning hatch petered out, we set out downriver and switched over to streamer fishing.

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Jeff hangs out in our drift boat while we break for a shoreside lunch.

Jason set me up with a sparkle minnow streamer (his own tie) as the lead fly.

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The Sparkle Minnow had amazing movement and flash.

He then tied off the first streamer an 18″ section of tippet to which he tied a smaller streamer called, of all things, “the grinch”…

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The Grinch – a streamer that might not steal Christmas but certainly will steal some trout…

Together, these two flies seemed like a perfect one-two punch; the sparkle minnow moving the fish and the grinch giving any hot trout a second chance if they missed the lead fly. Most fish were caught on the grinch but a few couldn’t resist the sparkle minnow streamer.

Jason was an excellent streamer guide, calling out where and how we should fish the river as we drifted. He’d say, “I want you to fish left here, give it a 5 second count”, “be ready to cast to the bank”, or “pick your flies up while we drift through this shallow riffle.” We fished the deep parts of the river using a sink-tip line, letting the flies sink up to a 10 second count depending on river depths. Jason also had us pounding the banks on a relatively short and fast cast. The visual of watching a nice brown peel off the bank to chase down a streamer made the repeated casting well worth it, even if they didn’t always take. Jason explained that when fishing the bank, you want to cast slightly behind the boat (upstream) so the fish has time to intercept the fly naturally and turn with the current rather than making the fish chase upstream. He also corrected my long strips, instructing me to work the fly in very very short staccato strips that better imitated baitfish movement. He explained the rationale very simply: how many baitfish can out-swim a big brown? By the end of our float, Jeff and I had done reasonably well but Jason felt the bite was off.

Thursday evening was windy with big gusts firing off the mountains and roaring across the river valley. Dust was blowing everywhere – a sure sign a front was coming through. Sure enough, as forecast, Friday dawned very cold and rainy – highs dropped from the 90’s to the low 40’s in just 2 days! Jim and Joyce’s advice to pack and be ready for almost any kind of weather was spot on.

Jason picked Jeff and I up early Friday morning at the lodge. As we drove out of Fort Smith he discussed his plan. He was concerned that the heavy overnight rains might begin to cloud up the water and that it would only get worse the farther downriver we fished, so rather than start at the 3 mile launch, he wanted to launch at the Yellowtail dam access, drift and strip streamers, then pull out at 3 mile and do another loop.

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The after-dam access. This is the highest up the river you can launch on the Bighorn.

We were fine with the plan. Once we launched we were immediately hit head-on with a stiff cold wind that came right up the river. Though Jeff and I had foul weather gear on and had layered up under our waders and rain gear, the rain wet any exposed skin and the cold winds soon numbed fingers and faces. Neck gaiters and wool hats helped, as did the heavier work of casting and stripping tandem streamer rigs on sink tip lines.

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Jeff cinches down while guide Jason re-ties a streamer. Jeff, from Northern Cal, was not so used to this type of fishing weather. For me, a north-easterner, it was not so bad. As the saying goes, “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing“…

Despite the weather, I enjoyed the streamer fishing. Jason set me up once again with the sparkle minnow streamer as the lead fly and the grinch riding tail gun.

We picked up some fish, mainly browns in the deep pools, and then came to a river braid that Jason felt might hold some good fish. This braid was often overlooked apparently. We anchored at the end of the island and wade-fished the braid. I could see some fish periodically rising to something very small but nymphing this stretch was not moving any fish. After a while I asked Jason if I could try throwing a streamer. He was all for it so I pulled out my Helios2 6 weight and gave it a shot.

I walked up to the top of the braid and made casts across and up, letting my streamer sink and swing down. Occasionally I short-stripped across, and sometimes I did this on the swing. Just below the head of the braid was a large log-jam and perfect cover for trout. I worked my streamer through this area and had a solid splashy take.

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The first of 6 trout from Jason’s river braid…

Repeated swings down the length of the braid and below where the water cut into a red clay bank brought many strikes – some short and some solid – for a total of 5 browns and 1 rainbow.

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This rainbow smashed the sparkle minnow on the swing.

We continued our drift, throwing streamers, and hit the 3 mile pull-out at noon. We were pretty wet and cold and per Jason’s suggestion, drove back to the lodge to eat our lunch in the comfort of the dry and heated rod and wader room.

Jeff was done with fishing at that point. His rain jacket had been not much more than a wearable sieve to keep the big raindrops out; he was soaked through from the driving rain. I was pretty dry and wanted to give the fishing another round.

And so we went – just Jason and I – back out into the gray cold rainy afternoon. It was the same drill; casting, stripping, casting again, but oh how good it was to get out one more time. I caught some nice browns and lost a really good rainbow that I considered a final “thanks” offering to the river.

We all left the lodge the next day for home. I was the only one heading eastbound – the rest traveled westbound by plane or car. By 2 o’clock that afternoon, I was wing-borne and climbing high over Montana. From my window seat I got one last look at the khaki high desert landscape marked by little veins of green and gold. Then we were in the clouds and the last good country was gone. But, like Hemingway’s own northern Michigan woods, I now realized that one never really loses such a place.

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Ernest Hemingway posing with a nice trout caught from the East Branch of the Fox River. This river was the river portrayed in his classic short story, “Big Two-Hearted River.”  And it was the very definition of Hemingway’s “last good country.”

My thoughts turned to fly fishing the Bighorn: the pods of rising browns, the trico hatches so thick they looked like rising smoke over the river, the sight of an indicator plunging down in fast water, the savage strike of a big trout intercepting a streamer on the swing, the company of friends, good food, a cigar and bourbon on the deck, the sun setting ablaze on high desert mountains, the good tired feeling after fishing hard all day, a worn-out casting arm, and the unfailing work of great guides. And I decided then, I’d return as long as I could to refresh my fly fishing soul in my last good country.

 

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2 Responses to “The Last Good Country – Part 2 of 2”

  1. Bob Stanton Says:

    An epic trip and an epic recounting, Robert! I felt as though I was with you, your vivid descriptions of the action playing out in my mind’s eye like I was watching it all on screen. Thanks for sharing the tale and hail The Last Good Country, wherever we find it!

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