If I get the opportunity to live out retirement somewhere it will on the banks of the Bighorn River. If I die before then, please sprinkle my ashes into the Oakley hole. So now you know how I feel.
I am a Colorado native and love this state more than you know, but I love the Bighorn more. Colorado is my wife, but the Bighorn is my high school sweetheart. We all have that place that calls to us and helps us through the winter when we are sitting in our proverbial or actual cubicle. In the depths of my winter depressions that come and go, I often drift away to the banks of the Bighorn near Ft. Smith, Montana. I have just returned from my annual spring trip north and I can’t help feeling a little empty without her near me. If the Bighorn River were a woman her name would be Laura after a beautiful girl that I let get away long ago. I am sorry to carry on so about a body of water but have you been there? If you have, many of you will simply smile and nod your heads in agreement. For those of you that have not made this great journey north, I will try to share with you why it simply must go on your bucket list.
There is a spiritual quality about the Bighorn River that I often find hard to put into words. All I can say is that when you are there, whether you fish alone or with a quiet friend, it comes to you in different forms. For me this year it was a herd of wild horses that made their way down the steep banks just upstream of me for a midday drink. These horses roam the Crow Indian reservation and this day brought with them down to the water the eerie feeling that they had the spirit of someone that had come to this place a long time ago. I sat and watched one in particular for a while. All of the other horses rushed back up the banks and disappeared as soon as they were done. This one did not. He stopped at the top of the bluff and fixed his eyes on me. We had a “moment” and then I watched him turn and disappear over the bluff.
It was time to re-focus on the 50 or so trout that were feeding in front of me. The water was rushing past my feet at a very fast clip and still I could see their “flashes” of white 3 feet down each time a big trout would move to feed. This day they were taking a size 4 two tone San Juan worm tied with an orange head. Sometimes, they would take the scud.
This spring, this big western river was even bigger with the flows topping out at a whopping 15,000 CFS. Believe it or not, the river is very, very fishable at those levels and I am told was on fire. When I was there she was moving at about 6500. I generally go there in the spring and fall when the flows are a little lower. When the flows are less than 3000 CFS, the dry fly activity is absolutely ridiculous. If you hire a guide, which I recommend that you do for at least the first time, they will take good care of your safety. We offer trips via the “Fish Bus” which are the best way by far to experience the Bighorn. It is pretty cool to travel in a huge RV and drink beers and learn from your guides while on a road trip together.
As far as hatches are concerned in the spring I go for the Blue winged olives and the midges. Sometimes the midge hatch will be so thick in the evening that you have to fish with your back facing upstream to avoid drowning in bugs. (I am not kidding here.) Of course when there are no visible hatches I always throw a standard nymph rig with LOTS of weight and fish Scuds, sow bugs, and then trail them with a midge larvae or BWO nymph. This will always catch fish. The real special times are those golden moments in the evenings when every fish on the river is looking up and a dry/dropper or two dry rig will absolutely murder trout until darkness sets in.
This year we had one magic evening at the Oakley hole. The guy that founded Oakley sunglasses has a house right there. My good friend Logan Johnson and I literally hooked or missed a fish on about 40 consecutive casts.
We were both screaming like school girls that have Beiber fever. Just then I looked across the river and saw an old friend that I had lost touch with for some time now. He had come to the Horn with another friend and shouted my name. He said that he recognized my cough across the river. It was a strange moment that we simply acknowledged one another in such a familiar place without any attempt to row across and say hello on the most hallowed place we ever fished together. Brett was the one that introduced me to the Bighorn almost 15 years ago. We had come here together for many years with his father Brad. We always caught fish. Many days we were catching as many fish together as Brett and I were drinking beers or shots. Those were wonderful and crazy times of youth. Brett’s father Brad later developed Lou Gehrig’s disease. I was lucky enough to fish the Horn with him on his last trip. It was an honor to lift him into the drift boat for the last time and prop him up for his final cast of life. Brett rowed away and I couldn’t help but feel a sadness that we no longer keep in touch like we should. Friendships emerge and fall just as mayflies do.
Later that night at camp, I went to rig my rod for the next and final day of fishing and realized that I had left my favorite rod at the Oakley hole. Of all the rods to leave on the bank why this one? This rod, of them all, is to me the most special. A Sage 6’9’ RPL that was the first “good” rod I ever owned. I spent $224.00 for it in 1991 on a pro deal from the fly shop I was working at in Denver at the time. This rod was the sole witness to all the great fishing of my past with Brett. We had slayed fish on the Miracle Mile, the San Juan, the Colorado, and Spinney Mtn Reservoirs during their hay days. This rod is a part of me. Logan talked me off the ledge that night and we made a plan to row at mach speed first thing in the morning the 7 miles to the hole.
In the fall I usually go around mid September to catch the incredible dry fly action. Hoppers, black caddis, BWO's and midges will all be available at certain times throughout the day. It’s pretty cool when you can throw two different dries and catch fish on both. I have on occasion hooked two fish at once although never landed more that one of them at a time.
There are 3 distinct stretches you can float although most anglers only float the first two. After bay to 3 mile is the first and has the greatest concentration of fish, and fisherman. It is an easy float with only one or two river features that you want to avoid for safety reasons. The second is 3 mile to Bighorn takeout. This is a ten mile float with a great deal of character and side channels present. I often get out and wade this stretch in the smaller channels and find very large fish in the most unlikely of places. Don’t be afraid to look right next to the bank to find the biggest fish. I often see anglers wading right over a huge fish to cast to smaller ones further out.
As far as accommodations are concerned the only place that I stay up there anymore is Cottonwood Camp. They have several clean and affordable cabins for rent and you can also park an RV or tent right on the property. Everywhere else seems to be too expensive or the food is awful. I would bring your own food and cook in the cabins. They also rent boats and sell flies at very reasonable prices.
The next morning we were the first to arrive on the bottom of the island where I had left my rod the night before. Logan jumped out and yelled, “Ya buddy!” My head dropped in relief and a smile crept over my face. A smile that says, “I am an idiot and this time God bailed me out.” We fished the Oakley hole for another 3 hours and she was very cooperative rewarding us with many rainbows 16-22”. The sun was shining and I think for now, Logan and I were satisfied. Maybe it was time to pack it in.
Years ago the Bighorn was a place to get crazy, drink, carouse, and “rail” fish all day. These days I take things a little easier and find myself more reflective on a place that has meant so much to me. I still miss those days with my friend Brett and his father but know that just as everything else in life, things come and go. Brad lost his battle with ALS a couple of years ago. At his funeral was a picture of him holding one of his last Bighorn trout, a beautiful 19’ Brown. I am certain that a part of him lingers on this river along with every living thing that ever came here. That horse certainly looked like he knew me.
Every time I leave these banks I think I leave a little bit of myself here. I am grateful I didn’t also leave my rod.