Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Trip Report: Casting Lessons on the Big Horn River

I spent my junior high and high school years less than three hours from Fort Smith, Montana, yet never fished the Big Horn River.  Heck, I’d never fished the Tongue River up on top of the northern end of the Big Horn Mountains until a few summers ago.  Since then, I’ve felt drawn back to the lands of my youth to explore some of these waters, now that I chase trout instead of girls.

A playground for chasing trout.  Trout won't kick your shins.

I contacted Gary Thompson at the Fly Shop of the Big Horns in Sheridan, WY.  He put me in touch with Rock Creek Anglers for their professional guide services.  After discussing my goals for the trip, Gary’s suggestion was to spend my Friday on a float trip down the Big Horn River from Fort Smith.  With any luck, there’d be a decent trico hatch and plenty of opportunities for tossing dry flies.  His suggestion for Saturday was to wade Piney Creek downstream of Lake DeSmet between Sheridan and Buffalo in Wyoming.  This would be “private water,” since it’s located on private property.  Unlike Montana, Wyoming does not have stream access laws that allow angler access to moving water on private property without landowner permission.

I hastily packed my gear Thursday afternoon following a full day of work.  Actually, the word I should be using instead of “hastily” is “recklessly.”  You’ll understand shortly.  My wife shuttled me the 90 minutes (each way) to the MSP airport.  I soon settled in for a pre-flight double bourbon and relaxed for the trip into Billings, Montana.  I arrived 17 seconds too late to grab a steak at the restaurant I targeted near my Billings hotel.  The young lady literally locked the door in my face as I reached for the handle.  Montana hospitality ain’t what it used to be…

I spent a free night at a budget hotel near I-90, courtesy of some hotel points I’d earned in my travels for work.  After a 5 hour nap, I started tossing the day’s gear from the hardsided suitcase into a duffel bag.  Boots, dry bag, buff, folded waders in a stuff sack…  wait.  What the %@# was that?  When I tossed the waders across the bed, something lavender-colored fell out of the stuff sack.  Hmm.  That looks like the pair of my daughter’s socks that my wife borrowed when she tried on and purchased her waders.  (Insert long, painful pause here.)

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooooooooooooo…………  !

Oh yes.  I had accidentally packed my wife’s Orvis Convertible waders instead of my own.  My stomach completed its floor-tumbling routine, stuck the landing, then I contemplated my options.  (Yes, I did try donning her waders.  She’s smaller than me in every way except breast size, so I won’t complain.)  My guide had said there were a handful of fly shops in Fort Smith and I’d be meeting him at one of them.  Worst case, I’d purchase a new pair and have a spare set.  Then I mentally castigated myself for the duration of the 90 minute drive from Billings to Fort Smith.

I found the designated meeting spot and the vehicle that Clark had described.  Clark Smyth, proprietor of Rock Creek Anglers, met me at 7:15 AM, and had miraculously grabbed an extra set of waders that morning.  I think he let me use the ones he normally wears, because I’ve never seen a guide put on boot-footed waders before.  Very considerate, very professional.  Exceptionally so.  Clark was a friendly, chatty, and educational guide.  He answered all my questions about terrain, flows, and entomology.  He obligingly laughed, sometimes heartily, at my bad jokes.  Best of all, he made me a better angler. 

The plan for the day was one I’d never had the pleasure of pursuing from a driftboat before: Headhunting.  We expected a small-to-moderate trico hatch to begin later.  We hoped that fish would start feeding on the spent bugs that floated away after completing their circle of life in massive, white clouds that swirl and dance elegantly across the river.  The hatch began and a few fish started rising, though they didn’t seem to be necessarily targeting spent tricos.

As we waited for fish to start rising, we talked casting, mechanics, and timing.  We prospected by tossing a dry fly at the banks, and Clark started coaching.  He helped me finally start to FEEL my Sage Z-Axis.  Without making me feel like I was taking lessons, he’d let me flail for a few casts.  “Okay, now that you know how that feels, stop your back cast sooner.  UNCOMFORTABLY soon.  It’s no longer a back cast, it’s an UP cast.”  So I  stopped UNCOMFORTABLY short on my back cast.  It felt ridiculous.  The body (and the feeble mind to which it was connected) could not feel or conceive of any possible way this could provide benefit.  Yet, the result was some unexpected forward distance.  And I could feel the forward load on my rod after the line began it’s forward journey.  Hold the phone.  Forward load?  Could that mean…?  I stripped a small bundle of line off my reel and piled it at my feet.  Up cast, forward cast, up cast, forward cast… and let go of the line in my right hand.  The pile of line at my feel disappeared.  It was pulled briskly forward by the rest of the airborne line, “shooting out” a great distance…

I am a fisherman and a male, and therefore greatly impaired and prone to exaggeration when it comes to length and distance.  So, when I say “a great distance,” it’s completely relative.  It probably added 10 to 15 feet to the length of my cast.  In absolute terms, it would be hard to call such a distance, “great.”  Yet, when one considers that I was only able to reach about 30 feet when I started the day, I increased my  reach by up to 50 percent.  Relatively judged, this is a great distance and great victory for my abilities.  Old habits die hard, but this new feel and technique became more dominant as the day progressed.  Once I felt confident that the shooting-line event was not a fluke and could be replicated, I did a doubled-over fist-pump and hissed, “Yessssssssss….!”  One of my favorite moments of the day was when Clark quietly said, “Look at you, hitting 50 feet.”

So, we hunted heads (rising fish) for the better portion of the day, tossing dry flies at them.  I missed many, but missed fish were not regarded as failures.  They were affirmations of new skills and new opportunities.  A favorite fish was the 14 inch rainbow trout that went tailwalking for several feet atop the surface of the river.  Come in closer, Tiny Dancer, so we can release you.

A quick note for the fly angling gearheads, for whatever it’s worth from an rank amateur:  As I grow more and more familiar with my Sage Z-Axis (5 weight, 9 foot length), I could not be happier with a fly rod.  That  said, Clark also brought an Orvis Helios 2 in 6 weight.  Wow.  Just wow.  My new technique meshed with this tip-flex model, and I think the size 6 line helped me reach a little further on this larger river.  This is another high-priced rod, retailing for just under $800 these days.  A bonus feature was the textured Scientific Anglers line that offered a cool auditory reward for shooting out line: a high-pitched zipping noise as the line rapidly exited the guides.  No, I wouldn’t spend $800 for this rod (I didn’t pay anywhere near full price for my Z-Axis) but I certainly enjoyed fishing with it.  Perhaps if I win the Powerball on Wednesday...

I’ve already written elsewhere about the balance of the day.  And I do mean balance.  I was riding high with my new dry fly casting skills, but sank inward when I discovered that these skills did not automatically translate to casting with a nymph rig.  The heavier weight and multiple points-of-load in the line created a entirely new set of dynamics.  I tried many different things, but I could not find any combination of movements that would let me cast more than 15 or 20 feet.  When we made the switch to wet flies, it was late in the day and the fishing had slowed under the bright afternoon sun.  Salmonid siesta.  My arm was tired, I was frustrated, and I knew it wasn’t the right time to fight.  Another time will come for this lesson. 

Oh, yeah.  I almost forgot that all of this was accomplished with my non-dominant left hand.  In the span of five months, I have become a far better fly angler with my left arm than I ever was with my right, even before Parkinson’s Disease.

Did I mention I was tired?  I retreated to a hotel in Sheridan, showered, and collapsed.  Saturday would require even more effort than this day.  (Saturday's narrative has been posted, if you have any interest.)


This day, September 18, 2015, would have been my baby brother's 33rd birthday.  I visited his two daughters Saturday night, then stopped by to pay my respects Sunday morning before driving to Billings to fly back to reality.

The boy and the man lived fearlessly and intensely.  I vividly remember a day about 10 years ago when the tip of his Sage TXL fly rod got slammed in a car door in the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming.  I'd gladly trade any rod I own to be able to fish with that one...


  1. I'm looking forward to reading about Saturday.

    1. Me too, Eddie. It's about halfway written. Sadly, the last 20% will probably consume 80% of the required time.

      Nice to see you back again, sir.