Thursday through Saturday, April 6-8, 2006 – Bighorn River, Montana
Cold afternoon about 40 degrees, cloudy and later with driving rains. Water was clear, flows about 2,500 cfs. Floated Afterbay to 3-Mile Access from 2pm to 7:30pm.
I left the house around 3:30 am to be at Chad’s around 4 am. I was right on time and Chad was waiting. We piled the stuff in and off we went – hitting the gas station right before jumping on rt 70. It was still pitch black and we made conversation for about 30 minutes and I told Chad to take a nap while it was still dark. I was doing ok driving – but around Cheyenne I started getting tired. I struggled a bit, but kept going until about Casper (3 hours+ in) and we swapped out. The day was dry, but we could see the storm clouds rolling in from the NW. As we got closer and closer to the MT border it was obvious that there was some rain/snow close by, but we had juts missed it. We arrived in Ft. Smith at around 11am – we checked into the Cottonwood Camp, got our cabin, got our licenses, a parking pass for the day, bought a few white streamers and decided to dress and hit the 3 Mile access. The cabin was really nice – not huge, but well set up. Two bunk beds, a small bathroom with shower, a small kitchen and a nice sitting area with rap around seating around a small table – perfect for 3 guys.
We hit 3 Mile access right away – with about 2 hours to spare before Paul arrived. I shot up the left side of the island and made my way to the upper reaches – the water swings around the edge and runs shallow. A slight drop off closer to shore on the left is where I hooked my first two fish. A pair of nice 18 inch browns that were very colorful.
I dropped down to around the boat ramp – right where the water swiftens. Chad was already working this stretch and I waded over next to him to fish a shallow shelf that dropped into a huge pool next to some dead trees that were hung up in the middle. I immediately hooked a huge fish. I called Chad over to help me land the pig. The fish measured out at about 26 inches and about 10.5 lbs – what a fish. Chad didn’t have his camera – he left the batteries in the cabin to charge. I hooked another huge fish in the same spot – a 21 inch rainbow – not quite as impressive.
Paul showed up moments later and we were pulled off the water and ready to be escorted to the Afterbay section to launch our first day of floating.
We dropped the boat in the water around 1 pm and off we went. Paul rowed (as he did the remainder of the weekend) and kept us near the banks to try our hand at fishing the shore. We didn’t have much luck – although we could see quite a few fleeing under the boat. The weather was starting to turn – you could feel the moisture in the air and then it started raining. We hit Meat Hole right off – all the other boats had already hit it and we had the river somewhat to ourselves. Meat Hole was good to us – just as we remembered. I think we all caught 3 fish in the hole. Chad caught the largest on streamers and black mercury midges.
We moved down once again, hitting various holes as the wind blew rain sideways and into our faces. Although I had my new wading jacket on and was protected from the wetness, I was severely underdressed underneath and started getting cold about half way through. I stopped fishing with about a mile to go on the 3 mile leg – content to shiver instead of cast.
Chad caught quite a few, and Paul and I caught a few that day – it was a good day and time to call it a day. We pulled the drift out around 7pm, packed her up and headed back to the cabin. We decided to hit Paulie’s restaurant and have a nice dinner – chicken fried steak hit the spot. The conversation was great and we got a lot of the business stuff out of the way – the rest of the weekend was free to verbally abuse each other. Of course I got the worst beating. We got back to the cabin, tied up some flies that had worked that day and hit the hay.
Cold in the morning 40 degrees, cloudy all day, afternoon warmed up to about 52 degrees. Water was clear, flows about 2,500 cfs. Floated Afterbay to 3-Mile Access from 9am to 5:30pm.
Seven AM came and the guys were stirring. I wasn’t thinking that Paul and Chad were ready, but I guess they were. I was still tired, but was ready to go. There wasn’t much sense of urgency so I hung out in bed. After getting some abuse I realized the guys were waiting on me. Hell, last year we didn’t hit the river until 8:30 or so – and these guys wanted to be half way down to Meat Hole by 8 AM! I dressed quick, threw on extra clothes and we were off. We dropped into the river amongst a slightly larger crowd than the previous day. We might have been the 4th boat out or so. The weather was cloudy, but it was obvious there wouldn’t be any rain in the next few hours. We were thinking about hitting the 3 Mile stretch twice today. We had met up with another board member that morning named George. He had his own pontoon boat and was rearing to go. We were going to leap frog each other down the river and give him a ride back to Afterbay at the half way point of the day. This ended up being our best day of fishing – although Paul nor I would even come close to the day Chad was about to have.
Chad covers a lot of water on foot, making an average of 6 casts a minute – rarely two in the same spot. He hooks and lands fish very quickly, and moves on. The first stretch of river produced a couple of fish – nothing huge. We stopped on the right side of the river to fish a popular stretch, but nothing came out of it. I hooked and landed a small 11 inch whitefish which won me the prestigious whitefish award for the weekend. Meat Hole was booked so we kept on rowing. We jumped down to Suck Hole and fished it. I fished the lower section while Paul and Chad fished the upper sections. My favorite spot that produced 100 fish the year before was hitting, but not nearly as well. I landed 4 nice fish – 2 bows and 2 browns. The browns were feisty while the rainbows were logs without much fight. The rainbows were big and fat – measuring probably 18 or 19 inches. This was easily 2 or 3 inches larger than the previous year. The browns were good sized too – 18 inches each – that too was about 3 or 4 inches larger than last years average. Chad and Paul also had some luck in the upper Suck Hole.
We moved down a bunch of times, we all hooked fish. Chad especially, hooking huge fish after huge fish. One stretch that looked very whitefishie we jumped out in. We fished this for a while and did very well. I hooked two enormous browns in the 20 inch range. Chad worked his way down river and every time I looked over he had rod bent or a net full of fish. He too was catching very large browns. Every hole that day produced fish. One hole that was new for Paul and us was a stretch where a long island ran on the left hand side and there was a great fast run that cut the island in half. This run had a shelf that ran to the left and it dropped off to about 3 feet of water. Paul was hooking fish at the bottom of the island left and right and couldn’t be stopped. Chad fished the whole 300 yard stretch – with a cast here and a cast there. I worked the fast riffle. On my second cast I hooked a pig – he was definitely longer than 26 inches. Unfortunately he got off. I lost a lot of fish on this trip – maybe about 50% - they seemed to fight harder this year but with a lot less run in them than last year.
The day seemed to be flying by – what we thought would be a two trip day was looking like a one trip day. We stretched the day out at the end – staying in some holes a little longer and shooting the crap with each other. I took some video and some photos, but not nearly enough. The weather held up nicely, overcast yet warm with minimal wind. We pulled in around 6 pm again and saw George – he basically blew down the river and fished that stretch by the boat ramp for 5 hours (sorry George). We moved cars and I met Chad back at 3 Mile Access to continue fishing. No such luck though as the extra traffic and lowering sun seemed to put down the fish. Chad as usual caught a bunch.
That night I threw a bunch of food on the grill for everyone and we just chatted for the night. We tried to tie some flies, but no one seemed overly interested. George stayed at the cabin that night.
Cool morning about 40 degrees, sunny inn the morning, some clouds later in the afternoon, warmed up to about 65 degrees. Water was clear, flows about 2,500 cfs. Floated Afterbay to 3-Mile Access from 9am to 3:30pm.
Our last day on the Horn was going to be beautiful weather, which meant bad things for the fish! We had decided to do the 3 Mile stretch again and maybe head out around 2 or 3 pm for home. Being home all of Sunday would definitely score bonus points with the wives. We were on the river before 8 am again. This time it was pretty heavy traffic though. Boats were all pulled over between Afterbay and Meat Hole, so we kept going. We moved down to Suck Hole and were the first ones to pull over. I was working my way down to my favorite section when a boat swung in maybe 25 yards from me and anchored on shore – 4 guys jumped out and proceeded to fish very close to me. This pissed me off – especially since they didn’t even look like they cared. A guide and his compadres were hooking large fish across the way with regularity. I hooked a fish on my first cast, but didn’t land it. It was a slow start for all of us.
We moved down again and started getting into some fish – well, at least Paul and I were. We hit the island stretch again and Paul went right back to catching his browns. He hooked and landed 10 fish or so. I worked my way back to the drop off next to the riffle and worked down further into the deeper water. I hooked a huge snaky looking rainbow that was so skinny it was scary. Next I hooked a huge rainbow, he was 24 inches long, but as I got him closer I could see that his lower mouth was all deformed and a mess. I played him and tried to get the hook out of his mouth without touching him – luckily it popped out. I worked the deeper sections and hooked and landed 5 or so nice fish – Paul also continued his magic. Chad however was still being shut out. We moved directly across the river to the other bank in an area that looked nice, but we were never able to reach before – this time we made it – a beautiful bank that held about a foot of water – it had some redds and a huge tree that had fallen over and touched the water. Chad was working a streamer in the shallows and hooked an enormous rainbow – big red bellied and about 26 inches easy. The fish was a pig and we had to land this “skunk-off” fish for Chad. I grabbed the net and just as I was ready to get into position the fish popped off. To say the least Chad was disappointed.
We moved down to a stretch not far that ran off a shelf and around a corner, as we floated over we could see some huge fish. I worked the stretch and hooked and landed two nice huge browns in the 18 inch range. Chad finally hooked and landed a nice 19 inch brown – he was finally skunk off.
The next stretch we moved to was the whitefish looking area, and again we all did well – I hooked and landed another two huge browns and lost a couple. Chad worked his way down and around. We decided it was time to head out and we worked the rest of the river from the boat. We were off the water by 2:30 pm. We grabbed our gear, unloaded, packed, stopped to get gas and we were on our way home. Chad was back by 10:30pm and I was home by 11pm. It was a very good trip. It was great meeting Paul and fishing with him.
The entire trip fish were consistently hitting on small black midges and pink midges. Most were black beauties or mercury midges. Scuds would produce fish, but not nearly as many. We didn't see any dry fly action, and only Chad had luck with streamers - although I think he caught about half on the streamer and half on the midge on his two fly setup.