As promised in last week’s column, I took a streamer-fishing trip to the Big Horn River this week. My wife had Veterans Day off from work, so we decided the river might be less crowded on Monday versus the weekend. How right we turned out to be, you’ll see in a moment.
As I indicated last week, late fall is a great time to use streamer flies to entice vicious strikes from trout competing with each other prior to the brown trout spawning activities. We’d planned to leave Sheridan at 8:30 a.m., but the daunting forecast calling for high temperatures in the low 30s caused quite a delay as we dug through our ski gear looking for warmer coats and gloves. This put us in Fort Smith, Mont., at about 11 a.m., and on the water at about 11:30 a.m.
As we picked up a few drinks and sandwiches in Ft. Smith, I bumped into a young fellow from Sheridan who’d been out wade-fishing the river all morning. He said there was a heavy hatch of small mayflies, and that he’d already caught around 30 fish. It was cold enough to cause the line guides on his fly rod to ice up, so he’d come back to town looking for some vegetable oil to keep the water from freezing to his rod. Based upon the current temperature of 25 degrees, I believed him about the icing but I certainly took his comment with a big grain of salt about the number of fish he’d landed.
Our plan was to launch our river boat at the 3-mile access, spend most of the day boat fishing with streamers, and then do a little wade fishing with nymphs on the last mile of the float. We’d hoped to spend about six hours on the river, and get our boat out just before dark. When we arrived at the 3-mile boat ramp, I was shocked to see the parking lot to be entirely empty. Nobody was there! It was cold outside, but that cold?
Oddly enough, the guy from Sheridan we’d seen in town drove up, grabbed a couple of rods, and waded across the boat ramp to a small island in the river. There was a nice hatch of tiny olive mayflies coming off the water (called “pseudo’s” from their Latin name), and he hooked a fish almost immediately. In fact he landed four fish in the time it took us to gear up and get our boat launched (any light olive CDC or parachute pattern in #20 or #22 will work for this hatch). At the rate he was going, I’m surprised he hadn’t told me he’d already landed 50 fish before we bumped into him in town! If I could remember his name, I’d recite it here. He’s a congenial young man who I met in September when we’d both worked as guides in Joey’s Fly Fishing Tournament. He clearly knew what he was doing with a fly rod.
I felt bad about bringing my wife out in this weather, so I let her begin fishing from the boat while I tended to the rowing. As we headed down the main river, we both commented on the large number of fish feeding on the surface. After covering some normally very productive nymphing water, it took June awhile to land her first fish from the boat with her nymphing rod. The reason was very clear: It appeared that almost every trout in the river was hanging out in shallow water to feed on the mayflies floating on the surface. The bugs are so small (about size #22) that the fish don’t want to fight heavy currents to do their feeding. Laying in 12 inches of shallow water allows the trout to just rise up a little to sip the tiny bugs in as they float overhead. Furthermore, the trout were more comfortable in the shallow water, knowing they couldn’t be seen by predators on such an overcast, snowy day.
I knew these conditions would be tough for nymph fishing. As long as the hatch lasted, our only choice was between stopping right away to dry fly fish, or switch to streamers from the boat. I gave June her choice, and she quickly said “Neither one. Let me row while you fish the streamers. I’m about to freeze to death, and maybe pulling on the oars will warm me up a bit.” She also added that “You’re going to be netting your own fish too. I’m not getting my hands wet if I can help it!”
As we switched places in the boat, I reminded her about the fish hanging in such shallow water, and to just keep me in range with the boat. I had rigged my rod with my favorite streamer, a #8 jig-head Hornberg Special. I cast it to the shallows, and even into the middle of schools of rising trout, and then just held the line tight while adding little “jigging” motions to the fly by twitching the rod tip back and forth.
Normally I prefer to have the boat moving at the same speed as the water I’m casting to, but that wasn’t going to be the case on Monday. June was getting colder, and I noticed her methodically stroking the oars to increase our speed downriver. It was cold. I wasn’t going to say anything; I was feeling pretty frozen myself. I just adjusted how I fished to compensate for our increased boat speed.
At the current low flows on the Big Horn, it normally would take at least five hours to cover the nine miles we floated on Monday. My wife had us at the take-out boat ramp in exactly three hours. That may have been the quickest trip I’ve ever taken down the Big Horn. But guess what! I’d also have to say that was the single best day of streamer fishing I’ve ever had in over 30 years of fishing that river (and believe it or not, I’ve been down that river about 1,800 times). The fish were hungry, eager and aggressive. There were stretches where I’d hook a fish on three or four casts in a row! I didn’t count my fish landed but if I gave you my estimate, you’d never believe me. Replacing my Hornberg after snapping off the first one during a wild “bull-whip” cast, to clear some moss from the hook, was the only time I changed flies. I’ve become especially fond of my version of the Hornberg pattern, but Platte Rivers and Big Horn Specials would probably have worked just as well.
What a wonderful and unique day of fishing. When we got to the take-out ramp, I noticed that the ½ inch dusting of new snow was completely void of any vehicle tracks or footprints. The parking lot was empty, leaving me with the knowledge that we’d just had one of our best days on the river; and on a day where we literally had the entire river completely to ourselves. As we reminisced that evening at the Parkman Bar, over a pair of their wonderfully juicy best hamburgers, we joked about what each of us may have been thinking during the day. June asked why I never complained about how fast she was rowing. I said, “I’d thought about it all afternoon, and had to bite my lip to keep from asking if a strong downstream wind had come up to move us downstream at such a quick pace.”
June said with a wry smile, “That’s good, because it would’ve been your last thought before an oar blade struck you in the back of the head!”
We both laughed, and I promised that next time it would be warmer and I’d be doing all the rowing for her!
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.