We were focused on our streamers when the wind kicked up. In a few seconds the rain stung our faces like fire ants, blowing in sideways across the river. The spring thunderstorm exploded in the clouds above us and the lightning smashed into cottonwoods all around our small boat. The battering wind slammed us helplessly into the bank choked with trees and shrubs, threatening to puncture her air bladders drowning us in the deep cold water. From the back of the boat Brandon yelled a curse through the torrent. As we looked back, all we could see was fifty feet of neon colored fly line getting ripped off the reels secured in Home Depot rod tubes I had built the week before. Day one on the Bighorn River, Montana.
It must have been Chugwater. All three of us had drank enough coffee and Dr. Pepper that morning to turn our insides black. “My back teeth are floating,” said Cory from the passenger seat. We pulled over along the highway in our first taste of the incredible Wyoming wind and relieved our aching bladders noting the vast scenery. We imagined Indians with their feathered lances silhouetted against the sky riding along the caprocks we had been winding through at 80 miles per hour. I looked down to see the wind had splattered piss all over my shoes.
The road from Denver was long with eight hours of Robert Earl Keen and a little Lucero and James McMurtry mixed in for balance. Old stories of past adventures were recounted as the anticipation of destination grew. We drove from one end of Wyoming to the other that day under a clear blue sky. When we hit Lodgegrass, we gassed up and floated along rough roads through rolling farmland and into Cottonwood Camp. Why we choose to fish for a week in Montana and not a little closer to home has been discussed over steaks when the fishing is off, but traditions are sometimes hard to break. Some of the group has been coming here annually for ten years now. 2019 was my third tour.
When we finally pulled up to the cabin, we were two beers in and looking for relief. After hellos and hugs with those who were already there, we unpacked and aired up the two man raft that would carry three men, gear, coolers, and useless items we thought we’d need every day for the next several days.
There were four boats in our group and it was the maiden voyage for my little raft. A guy at the put-in that morning saw us all three pile into the boat and said, “I hope you boys know each other pretty well, because you are going to be tight!” Little did he know we’d been sharing living room floors, cramped tents, and cheap hotel rooms for over 20 years. Tight really doesn’t do our friendship justice.
The next day after breakfast we hauled our vessel to the put-in under the dam and disembarked under a bluebird Montana sky. By early afternoon after slow fishing, we rested for a snack lunch on the river bank as dark clouds gathered over the Bighorn mountains to the west. Cory was on the oars when the rain began. In minutes the lighting was raising our arm hair and the wind was taking the boat wherever the hell it wanted. Suddenly we were swept up against the bank as Cory tried to row us back into the middle of the river away from branches and sharp thickets.
I pictured the raft deflating in the large pool, our Yeti cooler and tackle floating down the river as our waders took on frigid water and sent us to a watery grave. I was comforted that I had a life insurance policy my family would benefit from should I sleep with the fishes. I’ve known for a while that I am worth more dead than alive, monetarily.
When Brandon yelled I looked back and felt my stomach drop. A branch on the bank had grabbed all of the fly line on the rods stored in the rod tubes. There was no rowing back against the swift current and the hurricane force wind. Brandon attended the same high school as I and the faculty there does’t have a track record of producing quick thinkers. We are known more commonly for using brute force when confronted with adversity. In that fashion he quickly yanked all the lines at once, luckily breaking the limb, and dragging it into the river with all our lines.
Our luck was changing! He slowly untangled everything while Cory rowed us center stream and I poled with the extra oar from the front. We were freezing and drenched to the bone, just glad to be alive. We made it back to the take-out a little shaken up without fishing at all since we were focused on getting the hell out of the water while the lightning continued to blast all along the river. We dried out at the cabin and did a little more fishing that evening from the safety of the bank. It was maybe the stickiest situation we’d been through together, and we have seen a few.
The weather decided not to kill us over the next few days, with only a light sprinkle and lots of sunshine. We rowed and fished more focused and alert, watching the sky. Fishing improved and we decidedly stayed nearer to the other boats in the group. The fighter pilots in the group played down their badassness while the rest of us wondered if we could even ride in an F16 without throwing up or passing out. During the storm, they had pulled over and sheltered in place while we were losing our minds and our tackle.
Back at the cabin there were nightly rounds of cribbage, ugly fly tying, whiskey, scotch, and excellent grub. The most dedicated fishermen in the group continually tried to figure out how to fish nonstop for 24 hours straight, yet we all found our beds nightly like grown ass men.
On the last day it was decided to fish fast during the day from “A” to “B” and then after an early dinner haul the boats back to “A” below the dam and take our time back to “3-mile”. Typical of a Bighorn morning, we had put in with the usual crowd of boats, but that evening we had the whole river to ourselves. We were on fish immediately as the roar of the dam faded away.
That evening we came upon a two hundred yard stretch of river where fish were rising so we anchored and hopped out to do our best. In the fading light we each caught over twenty good sized fish, in one spot. They were eating everything. I couldn’t see my dries anymore so I tied on big streamers and started swinging meat through the current with more luck than one should ever have attempting anything, ever. At one point I hooked a big fish, probably in the butthole, and it took off down river. I was in my backing within seconds. I assumed it was a paddlefish and I’m sticking to it. The immediate pull of this monster felt like I had hooked a subway train in motion. There was no winning this fight.
Luckily it threw the hook eighty yards down stream and I sighed with relief. I assumed my gaudy streamer was gone so I started the long process of reeling in backing and line while watching everyone else catch fish as the light began to fade. Suddenly my line went tight and I realized the streamer was still on and now another fish was too. It was one of those moments when it was literally impossible not to catch something.
It really grinds my gears when I hear unbelievable stories like this, and I always roll my eyes in pure yawning boredom. What kind of blowhard tells a story like that in the first place? It’s bad enough to read about a ridiculous fishing experience about people who may or may not even exist, but worse when it borders on fishing fantasy. Fishermen do have a reputation of embellishing actual events, but when Brandon is steadily netting fish all evening after catching a total of two fish in the prior two days, it’s worth recollecting. Whether you believe it or not.
The bite never really slowed down but the darkness consumed the river and I didn’t fancy rowing at night since we had cheated death once already. Back at the cabin we talked about what we would do next year now that we had “figured it out”. We were completely amped up with fish slime and good scotch. Here we were in the middle of nowhere Montana, with work in the furthest reaches of our minds and new stories to add to our long list. We were so on top of the world, we got up the next morning, marched to the office, and booked the same cabin for the next year on the same weekend. Because it must be like this every year on that date.
The next year was upon us quicker than we could have imagined, and we checked the weather and flows every day for months before leaving our disgruntled wives for the long drive up I-25. The flows minded their manners, but the weather was a whole other story. Snow blew in sideways and ice had to be baled out of the boat and chipped out of our guides with frozen fingers. This was not on The Bighorn Angler‘s fishing report but it didn’t matter. We had fished in worse conditions. An obscene number of riverside fires were lit as we tried to avoid frostbite, but they were short lived reprieves from the nasty Montana cold front.
The fishing was so poor that I began watching the birds as we floated down the wide freezing water. While anchored on a bank not catching any fish, we watched an Osprey hunting the hole we were thinking about fishing, but she never made a dive, probably thinking it was just too damn cold. The river was off for us predators. Someone in the group collected Morel Mushrooms that were fried that night with burgers. That’s how desperate the fishing was.
I lost a monster rainbow in Split Island and an even larger carp somewhere else. On the last day we ran into the bank breaking the rod tubes but no rods and a few people caught and released cliff swallows that were caught in back casts. A river has the ability to chew you up and spit you out, and we all drove home with tails between our legs that year. Thankfully the Bighorn River Alliance keeps up the good fight on this tailwater, but the gods can be less forgiving it seems.