Vets get some ‘fly fishing therapy’

Last week I took a couple of military vets on an early-spring fishing trip to the Big Horn River. One vet is currently a patient at the Sheridan VA Medical Center and the other vet is a graduate of last year’s Project Healing Waters program which I run here in Sheridan.
When I got up at 7 a.m., the temperature at home was only 12 degrees.

That made me a little nervous, so I double checked to see the forecast was for a high approaching 50 degrees; just above what I like to have for a minimum temperature for a day’s fly fishing.

We arrived in Fort Smith around 10:30 a.m. and after arranging for a vehicle shuttle and stuffing the boat cooler with some cheap junk-food for lunch, we shoved off from the boat ramp around 11:30 a.m.

From my years of guiding the ‘Horn, I was expecting the fish to be concentrated in the slow, deep pools. I reminded my fishermen to only fish from the boat in the stretches I described, but to otherwise keep their flies clean of moss and to just hold their lines out of the water through the faster stretches of river. This way they could maximize their fishing time in the most productive water. Even though we were fishing only about 100 yards of water per every one-half mile of river, this approach paid off dramatically as they pretty much “doubled-up” (both guys with a fish at the same time) every time we drift-fished the most productive looking stretches.

We only made four stops to wade fish. The first was pretty much a bust with only one fish briefly hooked between my two guys. The next was a little better, with three fish landed and three others lost. I was not, however, at all satisfied with our wade-fishing success after the first two stops. I knew our relatively light nymph fishing rigs of a No. 14 sow bug, trailed by a No. 18 midge pupae, should be working just as well wading as it was from the boat.

At the first stop we’d notice a couple dozen trout rising to the surface for tiny midges in an adjacent side channel. The channel was only about 20 inches deep and moving very, very slowly. We gave it a quick try, but of course spooked all the fish after just a few casts.
As I thought back on it, I decided that most of the feeding trout had moved out of our nymphing water to feed on dries.
Once we spooked the rising fish, that place was done-in for us. On the second stop, it was very likely that the fish may have gone on a feeding binge the prior day and were just snoozing and digesting their food the day we visited.

As I’ve pointed out in a previous column, the trout in ultra-cold springtime water temps will generally feed heavily only once every three days. You just have to locate the right fish at the right time.

Undaunted, I told my guys “I’ve got two more perfect spots to stop in before we need to get ourselves off the river before dark.” The next stop was at a nice little deep, slow inside corner of a side channel; just as it flowed back into the main river channel.
“You guys need to fish in close, just where the water gets deep, but before it starts flowing much past dead still,” I said. “When you get a strike, it’ll just make your strike indicator wobble only the slightest bit, so be ready to strike on anything suspicious.”­

Sure enough, on the very first cast, one of the vets landed a nice 14-inch brown. The other caught a beautiful 17-inch rainbow on only his third cast.

They landed another six fish between them before we headed on downstream.It was getting late (7:30 p.m.), so I rowed downstream as fast as I could in order to make a 15-minute stop in one more pool where they were able to hook four more fish before we called it quits just before dark.

What a great day helping two of our military vets with a little “fly fishing therapy;” a relatively warm day, no wind, lots of fish hooked and even more joking and camaraderie! We got back to Sheridan just before 10 p.m., tired, sunburned and very, very happy!

GORDON ROSE works as a commercial fly tier and operates Sheridan WYO Healing Waters, part of a national nonprofit organization which teaches disabled military veterans fly fishing, fly tying and fly rod-building as part of their therapy.

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