Bighorn best

Posted 5/31/23

Every fisherman, experienced or green, has a favorite fishing story. For the young guys, it might be their only fishing story, but if you spend any time at all getting out on the water, it …

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Bighorn best


Every fisherman, experienced or green, has a favorite fishing story. For the young guys, it might be their only fishing story, but if you spend any time at all getting out on the water, it doesn’t take long to begin accumulating fish tales of your own.

True, they may not all be on par with “The Old Man and the Sea,” but more important than works of fiction are those of non-fiction, with the occasional fermentation of a little moderate creativity.

I’ve been considering over the last few months which story of mine I would rate as my favorite, in anticipation of this piece.

Although I’ve been blessed with several great fishing trips and experiences, there’s one that stands apart on the fringe of what I might have considered possible.

If you’re like me, there are some stories you read with wonder, considering if the fish swimming in the narrative really existed, or if the teller simply exaggerated a lesser tale.

Sometimes I fear the fish and even wild game in our country have dwindled in numbers and in scale compared to what you read about in bygone decades. I still unfold the Sporting Classics article every now and again to immerse myself in the record-setting marlins hauled into the boat by Ernest Hemingway on his trusty vessel, the Pilar. It’s amazing how the world can change in just a few short decades.

This is why I will forever regard my trip out west with my family as one of the greatest fishing excursions of my life.  When you begin driving west across America, you begin to see the change in the topography. You see the change in the weather, even in a summer month such as early June, which is when we went.

I had just graduated high school, and my dad, sister, stepmother and I packed into the truck with fishing gear loaded to go see the national parks and stay at a friend’s house that actually overlooked the Bighorn River.

The top of the Bighorn River flowed out of a hydroelectric dam, holding back the vast canyon-like reservoir known as the Yellowtail.

During our first few days there, we rented a pontoon boat to fish the deep stretch of water above the dam. It was impressively massive; the stone walls stretched nearly straight up around us, allowing the water to rise higher even than it was when we were there.

As it happened, we had arrived at a time when the snow had still been melting, and there had been an unusual amount of rain. The water level was deeper in both the reservoir and the river below, causing the current in the river to rush faster, bordering on dangerous. Much more, and the boat launches would have been closed to prevent fatalities.

But up high on the reservoir, the water was as still as a lake, and the species we were after were different from those susceptible to the conditions below.

This part of the trip was rather typical for us, as we were used to lake fishing back home. It was a nice casual day, with a warm sun tempting the afternoon with thoughts of napping, as we waited for a bite. Before too long, however, I had caught a nice walleye, and my sister had caught a trout, if memory serves me.

This, however, was but a precursor to the tale I have in mind.

The following day, my dad and I had been trying to fly fish along the banks of the rushing Bighorn, with little to no success. I randomly hooked into a medium-sized whitefish, which was exciting in the midst of catching nothing else, and my dad made several trips back and forth to the truck, changing his gear and trying to figure out what we were doing wrong.

We decided to go into town just a mile away and check the local pro shop for recommended flies and tips. When we went in, we were directed to a couple of simple worm rigs, just a piece of yarn on a hook really, and some other dry flies that seemed to be working for others recently.

My dad got caught up talking to one of the shop staff, and I left to go next door and check out the laundromat—which interestingly had its own selection of tackle.

While I was perusing the fishing gear, an older gentleman walked up beside me with a basket of laundered shirts under his arm, and began a conversation about fishing. He explained that he was one of the few folks that actually lived in town year-round, and how he was a river float guide, taking clients on his drift boat to catch the coveted Bighorn River trout. He spared a moment to scribble down a rig layout on a napkin to show me how we should be tying our flies to improve our chances with the river water being so high.

The conversation continued as we left the laundromat and reconvened with my dad outside. The old man tucked his basket of laundry in the back of the truck, where little spare room remained among the collection of fly-fishing gear and boat equipment.

As the three of us kept chatting he offered his availability as a guide the following day. There weren’t too many extra clients in town at the time, due to the high water. Happy to take advantage of his expertise, we agreed to meet him the following morning.

As we rolled up to the launch, the old man had already pushed his boat off into the edge of the river, and was securing his gear. A friend of his was preparing to take his truck and trailer down to the bottom of the 13-mile stretch of river, where we would be fishing over the next while.

We hopped in and got positioned at the front and rear of the boat, as he gave us instructions on how to flop our lines from one side to the other and follow the flow of the current, watching for a change in direction at the tips of our line.

In less than minutes after getting underway, my line ripped up from the tip of my rod to the swirling water to my right. Pulling in the extra line, I began reeling and using the arch of my pole to fight my very first Bighorn River trout.

Our guide made the most casual swoop of the net and quickly landed it in the boat.

Not sure how many opportunities like this lay ahead, we took our pictures as we drifted along before returning the trout to the water. Not a moment later, my dad excitedly snapped his pole to the heavens with an expression of thrill as he brought in another, not too dissimilar.

Not five minutes into our trip, and it had already been made worth it to me. I really had no idea how much more we would catch, and I’m not one to be greedy. As we continued on, however, the fish came fast and frenzied, putting on a show as they jumped into the air on the end of our tippets, sending sparkling water into the glinting western sunlight.

As we continued our drift, we would stop and anchor along the bank now and again to retie our lines and listen to our guide regale us with stories of his colorful past.

Apparently, he used to be a helicopter pilot, and had successfully crash-landed no less than 10 aircraft during fire rescue missions and the like. As a result, his nerves were highly damaged, and he couldn’t feel anything below his shoulders, although he still had use of everything. You wouldn’t know it, though, to see him tie flies without looking faster than I could even blink. He joined leaders to tippets with ease, and kept his stories coming just as constant as the fish we were landing.

At one of these riverside stops, we still had a trout on board and he asked if he could show us how he whispers to them. We happily handed him the fish, and he held it up on the palm of his hand, claiming to hypnotize the trout as it lay without any resistance across his hand.

By the time we got to the end of our stretch, we had ultimately lost count of the amount of trout we caught. The count was somewhere in the 30s for both my dad and myself, and the sizes ranged in length from 8 to 10 inches, to upwards of 20.

Honestly, the quality was in the quantity, and the nonstop action of the trip left me feeling like I was about to wake from a perfect dream. Even as we drove back in the bench seat of the old man’s single-cab Chevy, I began to daydream back to the tens of fish I had held that day and the thrill I feared I would never again experience in such a pure and unadulterated way.

We finished our trip by driving through Yellowstone Park and stopping at a number of natural wonders and other awesome places on the way home. But if I will remember anything to the day I breathe my last, it will be the float on the Bighorn, catching the best trout of my life.

fishing, Bighorn River, trout


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  • barnhllo

    Fishinf success is all a matter of perspective:


    When I come upon them,

    They were celebrating…

    I later learned that the boy was four;

    His Grandpa was pushing 74.

    When I say celebrating, I mean all out

    Jumping up and down…

    Hooting and hollering…

    Backslapping celebrating…!!!

    They were overjoyed at the boy’s latest catch,

    His fourth sunfish for the day.

    “He’ll go nearly 5 inches!” said the old man.

    “He’s a real fatty!” said the boy.

    Yep…They, for sure…

    Had a WHOPPER…!!!

    Lloyd Barnhart

    Wednesday, June 7, 2023 Report this