I still can remember the taste of mulberries. They were a little bit sweet, a little bit tart, and very messy. The carefree days of my Ohio childhood were spent in the branches of the mulberry tree by the back fence line. My best friend David and I would spend hours up in that tree, eating the fruit and playing make-believe.
That beautiful tree was a rocket ship that took us to outer space, a time machine that visited the dinosaurs, and a fort that kept us safe from Indians. David had a particular way of playing cowboys and Indians. He would always die in a dramatic blaze of glory. I would be left staring at him until he got up, and we would climb up into the mulberry tree again. He evidently was a huge fan of the Seventh Cavalry.
The Greatest Treasures of My Youth
The mulberry tree had no need for ladders; we just climbed the fence and step over to the lowest branches. The long horizontal limbs made forts pointless. Our only improvements were a tire swing and an ammo box to protect our greatest treasures. It always held a couple of cap guns, magnifying glasses, and the latest issue of Field and Stream, dog eared and stained purple with mulberry juice.
My favorite pieces from Field and Stream featured men clad in waders fishing a crystal clear mountain stream. They were the epitome of a skilled fisherman, reading the river for holes and ripples. Then they would select the perfect fly that was currently in season and send it flowing through the air in a graceful cast. All the while not spooking trout or letting it off the hook once caught. My adolescent research proved that trout were the smartest fish on the planet, and I wanted to catch one! Unfortunately, there were no mountains or trout streams anywhere near that old tree in central Ohio.
Unearthing Fossils of Memories
The years went by, and I got too caught up in work and family to play make-believe, even though that’s what I needed the most. I rarely thought about the mulberry tree until my dreams came alive again in Southeast Montana. While touring through Montana, I had my first taste of the majestic huckleberry. The sweet and tart flavor opened the door to my childhood, purple fingers, and all. Hearing the stories of fossil beds in the badlands and Custer’s battle at Little Bighorn brought the memories back in waves. I could imagine, clear as day, David’s dramatic reenactment of the Last Stand.
My deepest dreams lived a little further up the Bighorn River as it cascaded down the Bighorn Mountains. These waters create some of the best trout fishing in the world with recent fish counts of 5000 – 6000 brown and rainbow trout per river mile. I knew I had to go. Even though September was near the end of the season and the forecast called for rain, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to finally square off against those elusive trout with the Bighorn River Lodge.
To Catch a Dream
We started the day with casting lessons at the lodge. My first cast looked nothing like the photos from Field and Stream. It cracked like a whip, then the line fell haplessly at my feet. Dell, our guide for the day, correctly me gently. It’s just like hammering a nail. Don’t bend your wrist. Let the rod work for you and move your arm from 10-2 and back. Most of all, pause on the backstroke.
I was never one for pausing on the backstroke, especially if there was a chance that a monster trout could be lurking in the next hole. Dell has been guiding this river for twenty years, so I figured I should listen to him. I wouldn’t say I was casting like a pro, but I was starting to get a feel for it. He also instructed me to shorten my casts. Not only was this technically easier, but it also gave the fish fewer opportunities to throw the hook before you get him back to the boat.
Putting in at Fort Smith
We put our little three-person fishing boat in just below the dam at Bighorn Canyon Recreation Area. I had the front casting stand, and a new friend of mine, Lara, had the back. Dell was in the middle manning a pair of oars. It was a simple boat but very effective. Dell could place us anywhere on the river and even paddle upstream with relative ease. My rod was loaded with two flies, a Ray Charles and another unnamed fly that also resembled a sowbug.
Casting this setup was slightly more complicated than the practice runs on land. The two flies, a small bobber, and some split shot weights created multiple hinge points on the leader. Dell explained how to tend the line to keep the flies floating naturally and clean the grass off the hooks with a few well-orchestrated flips of the line. Above all else, he said to keep the rod pointing at the flies until a fish hit. Then, you lift the rod and keep tension on the line at all times. Simple right?
Catching My First Trout
Dell had us fishing off the right side of the boat. We would cast out, mend the line, and let the flies float alongside us. We worked a stretch of river before a small set of rapids at about the one-mile mark. We’d fish down to the rapids, and then Dell would paddle back up-stream for another run. Lara and I received lots of hits, but we weren’t hooking any fish.
After watching the boat ahead of us land a beautiful trout, Dell shouted out, “what are you fishing with?” The burly guide shouted back, “wooly buggers.” Dell pulled us into a grass bed to tie on a couple of wooly buggers, a wet fly that resembles nymphs, baitfish, or leaches. I took that time to put about a half dozen hand warmers down my waders because it was getting more than a tad bit wet and chilly out there. I landed my first fish on the next pass. No matter how small it was, it counts, and it will always be my first trout.
A Fine and Pleasant Misery on the Beautiful Bighorn River
Field and Stream introduced me to Patrick McManus, a brilliant outdoor humorist who loved exploring the streams and mountains of the Northwest. The first book I read of his was A Fine and Pleasant Misery, a collection of cautionary tales of the outdoors. The title story described a young Patrick and his pal, Crazy Eddie Muldoon, building and attempting to launch a glider on the barn roof. It seemed like the sort of trouble David and I would get into, and the plane just might have worked, if it was launched from the right mulberry tree.
The title applied very well to fly fishing during a late fall storm that would close the high passes of the Bighorn Mountains later that evening with the first snow of the season. We floated down to the 3-Mile Access. Lara caught a couple of fish, but my line stayed empty, and those hand warmers were starting to give out.
Typically, the Bighorn River Lodge trips would float another seven miles down to the Lodge itself. It’s one of the few lodges on the river, and I can only imagine the monster fish that hide in this underfished river section. However, on this cold and rainy September day, I was happy enough to be pulling out. Unfortunately, there was already a boat and trailer on the takeout, so Dell figured we might as well make one more run.
Look for more Montana trip ideas? Read our article on the Best Things to do in Whitefish Montana for any Season.
Landing My Dream Fish
Four small islands sit in the Bighorn River just above the 3-Mile Access. Dell paddled upstream to the start of the islands, and we made our final run of the day. Cold hands and all, I made a beautiful cast. The wooly bugger flipped over perfectly and presented itself right at the edge of the current.
No sooner had the fly sunk than my rod bent into a crescent. At Dell’s and Lara’s excited urging, I kept the tension on the line as I pulled in the lead. Soon, I had a beautiful trout on the boat that would have been a keeper, if the Bighorn River wasn’t all catch and release.
By the time we got the fish to the boat, we had floated back down to the takeout. Dell expertly backed the trailer down the ramp, and soon we were in the (heated) truck heading back to the lodge. I said thank you out loud to the boater ahead of us that motivated us to make one more run. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have landed the fish I always dreamed of.
Bighorn River Lodge
Bighorn River Lodge bills itself as a five-star restaurant disguised as a fishing lodge. From the wonderful smells floating through the cozy log cabin building, I could believe it. We returned our gear and toured the property before lunch. We checked out the five guest bedrooms inside the lodge, each with its own unique western theme and the bass pond in front of the building. You can fly fish for trout and spin-cast for bass on the same trip.
Lunch lived up to its billing and then some. Locally sourced beef salad with a delicious balsamic dressing paired perfectly with the warm and hearty barley soup. The beauty, warmth, and hospitality of the Bighorn Lodge completed a chilly but glorious day on the river.
Dreams of Returning to Southeast Montana
When I returned to our hotel in Billings, Jenn told me about her day on the Bighorn River. She took a scenic boat tour aboard a pontoon boat on Bighorn Lake, just upstream of where I was fishing. Jenn described the paddling opportunities and the 17+ miles of hiking trails in the area.
The best part of her day came as they were leaving the Ok-A-Beh Marina. With the majestic walls of Bighorn Canyon rising thousands of feet above the water, she saw a young bear scampering along the shore. After hearing about her day, Jenn easily convinced me that we should come back and try paddle-in camping at Bighorn National Recreation Area.
The little boy in me will have to see the Little Bighorn Battlefield and explore the fossil beds. There’s just too much to do in Montana to fit into a single trip. I have come to believe it really is the land where dreams come true.
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