Solitude on the Bighorn

There came, for a brief time in the afternoon, an impression of being completely alone on the Bighorn. Beneath a breaking sky, just the two of us, and the grey vein of the river, pushing northward toward the horizon. Upstream and down, not another boat or person in sight, a rare occurrence on a river this renowned to anglers.

Picture Channel, Bighorn River

Constant wind coursed downstream, leaving its choppy imprint on the river’s surface. Upstream a few miles from us, the lake above Yellowtail Dam was turning over as surface water temperatures cooled, leading to discolored water issuing from the bottom of the dam. Perhaps this combination of elements and natural phenomena helped explain the lack of other anglers that day. Whatever the reason, the solitude adds to the memory.

Below Yellowtail Dam, the Bighorn exits its eponymous mountain range and continues its course across the open plains of southeast Montana toward its confluence with the Yellowstone. Some say this countryside lacks the elemental beauty through which other Montana rivers flow.

This is Crow Indian country, and it was near here that Custer met his demise. The events of that day, and its consequences, are yet tangible, a presence that hangs in the air. At the last it must certainly have seemed to Custer and his men a remote, inhospitable place, as distant from civilization and comfort as the moon, but to my eye the river’s steady course through cottonwood-studded plains, alive with the calls of ospreys and ringneck pheasants, is one of still wild and largely uncompromised beauty.

I pinched a third split shot onto my leader to help the nymphs sink more rapidly to the bottom of the river, and cast again into the wind. Letting the line drift below me and straighten in the current, I used the tension of the water tugging at the line to load the rod and flicked the rig upstream. In this way I worked my way steadily up the side channel – tension cast, mend, let it drift downstream, tension cast again, settling in to a metronomic contemplation of the current seams, riverbed topography and indicator, pausing only occasionally to wait out an extra-strong burst of wind. After fifteen minutes the indicator dove, and I set into a lovely brown trout that stripped line from the reel, heading downstream, me in hot pursuit.

After releasing the fish, I sat on the bank amongst a cluster of small Russian olives, situated too close to the river’s edge to have survived the record high water of earlier in the year. Stripped of their color and foliage, their skeletal remains were plastered with detritus from the river – dried-out weeds, moss, mud and grasses – hanging off them in such fashion they resembled the tattered masts and rigging of some strange fleet of ghost ships, sails torn in disarray.

Montana sunset

We floated into a deserted take out early evening, as the low sun found a sliver between earth and overcast to draw forth from the landscape a rich golden hue. Faded cottonwood leaves rattled drily in the dying breeze, the clouds above a swirl of orange and purple. We loaded the boat onto the truck then sat by the river, sipping beer while the sun dipped beyond the horizon, and the lingering twilight that is part of this corner of Montana began.

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Accidental Angler: Speed dating vs courtship

There is a stretch of the Madison River in Montana below the town of Ennis that is only open to walk / wade anglers. A boat can be used to access the many braided channels, but any fishing must be done while standing on terra firma.

The Madison River below Ennis

We parked at one of the several access points, then began to hike downstream until we hadn’t seen another angler for a while and judged we were clear of the eighty percent who seldom stray more than a quarter mile from their vehicle. I elected to enter the river at a place where a couple of small islands created deep side channels against the bank on their near side, with wider, shallower riffles on the far.

The day was blue and mild, stark contrast to the previous when we’d floated a portion of the river upstream of Ennis – leaden skies and a cold wind, squinting hard in the flat light to detect the subtle takes of fish that rose occasionally to the small dry flies we cast.

I stepped off the bank and into the flow, wading out to the tail of one of the islands where I stood in the shallows, deciding what flies to start out with. While the promise of a warm fall day was in the air, a trace of the previous night’s cold still lingered. If there was to be any dry fly action, it likely wouldn’t be until later in the afternoon. I selected a large indicator dry then two feet below it tied a weighted nymph to bounce along the bottom of the shallower riffles and hang suspended in the deeper runs.

Standing quietly in the water, the gentle push of the river against my boots, carried downstream with the flow any desire to hasten in to action. The snow capped Ruby Range defined the western horizon, while closer a few cottonwoods along the shore bank still clung stubbornly to the last of their foliage.

I took my time working up the first run, savoring several feelings: being grounded in the river, the flex and load of the rod, the arc of the line out and across the water, the settling of the flies as the current carried them back to me. The first riffle yielded two small browns followed by a larger rainbow. Hooked against a tangle of shore roots, it leaped and dove and broke me off before I had time to get in synch with its movements.

I retreated to shore and sat on the grassy bank, feet dangling over the edge just shy of the water, laid the rod in the grass next to me and began repairing my leader. At that moment, float fishing seemed like the angling version of speed dating – always on the move, a quick cast, a twitch and jiggle of the fly to see if there is a reaction, then on to the next encounter, and the next. There is constant communication and interplay, not to mention the physical presence, between oarsman and angler.

Wade fishing, on the other hand, seemed more akin to a gradual courtship, reminiscent of older times, when the pace of life was slower, our culture less hung up on the drug of instant gratification. More time was taken in ritual and observation. There is just the angler and the river, and sometimes, if enough attention is paid and time invested, there is a meeting of the minds.

I decided against tying on another fly, at least for the present, instead choosing to sit and listen. I remembered the beer I had stuffed in my pack, the cozy still keeping it cool in the warming day, and popped the top.

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Struggle and survival on the Big Hole

Even from a distance of one hundred and fifty yards, it was evident the bird was large. Off on a shallow side channel away from the main flow, it appeared to be struggling with something unwieldy, lying half-concealed in the water. Several times the bird attempted to lift off, grasping whatever it was between its talons, with no success. From the far bank, concealed by a stand of cottonwoods along the river, came the cry of a second bird.
“That sounds like a bald eagle,” said Caveman. “The one downriver looks like a golden.”

October sunset on the Big Hole River, Montana.

We floated closer, silently hoping to get a better view of what it was the golden was struggling with. Upon our approach, the bird lifted off the water in a flurry of enormous wings, retreating to the outstretched limb of a bare cottonwood, where it alighted next to a second golden, stark against a flawless Montana sky.

From upstream came another cry, and we looked to see a bald eagle perched on the branch of another cottonwood fifty yards distant, facing the two goldens. More trash talking ensued between the two adversaries, squaring off like a couple of Wild West gunslingers at the opposite ends of Main Street, high noon.

The stand off continued for another thirty seconds before the bald, followed a second later by the golden, swooped down off their respective branches, the distance between them closing in a matter of seconds. It seemed the extra time the bald eagle had to prepare gave it the advantage of height and position in the initial contact. Suddenly, all was a whirl of extended talons, contorting bodies and flapping wings as they engaged in aerial combat. As quickly as it began, they disengaged, the golden swooping low then turning and retreating to its branch while the bald uttered a cry of apparent victory and flew off toward the spoils of war. A lone magpie, having taken advantage of the larger birds’ distraction, and pecking at whatever it was in the water, beat a hasty retreat as the bald settled on its prize.

“Do you want eddy out and go see what it was they were fighting over?”

I shook my head. “No, let them be.”

For the rest of the afternoon, as we cast dry flies to grassy banks and languid bubble lines, drifting toward a take out where my truck awaited with coolers of food and beer and warm sleeping bags, I thought of the struggle for survival we had just been privileged to witness, one of thousands of such dramas playing out daily in the natural world around us, and of the ties that bind us all, wings, fins, two legs or four.

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The Rainbow, the Grasshopper and the Moose

Brian scratched his chin. “Well, we’ve got a couple of options. We could go down river, float below town. There’s probably some big browns moving up from the Yellowstone. Or, we could go up above the bridge. There’s a ranch up there, supposedly owned by Nationally Famous Person. If he’s there, he won’t be happy. I know a couple of guys who did it once. Had some guys waving shotguns, yelling at them.”

The Rainbow, the Grasshopper, and the Moose from Hayden Mellsop on Vimeo.

Cave and I looked at each other. On the one hand, confrontation defeats the purpose. On the other, the rich and famous should never be allowed to intimidate the proletariat from pursuing their state sanctioned pleasures. We nodded. “Let’s go up river.”

“OK,” said Brian, “but I gotta warn you. The take out is a bitch. We’ll have to dismantle and drag our stuff up a cliff then haul it out on a game cart.”

The road upriver turned from blacktop to gravel, the meadows through which it ran festooned with barbed wire and No Trespassing signs. We turned down a narrow two track, the only side road without a gate across it, and bounced slowly down to the river. We slid the boat off the trailer into beautiful water, gin clear, its banks festooned with foliage in the throes of fall.

The fish lay invisible against the cobbles, or where they held in deeper water, it was the shadows they cast on the river bed that gave away their position, rather than the fish themselves. Long casts were the order of the day, and it felt right that, so late in October, we dressed in shirt sleeves and the rainbows rose to hoppers.

I was pleased to see that there was no sign of Nationally Famous Person attempting to impose his ego on the river itself – no feeders, no artificial structure designed to corral the fish, no oversized couch potatoes conditioned to rise mindlessly to anything landing on the surface, just wild fish in their element. And best of all, no shotguns, or cuss words, save those we served up ourselves during the normal course of a day spent angling.

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What Happened To Summer?

It comes as a shock to realize that in a few short weeks, the mountainsides will be speckled with orange and gold. A subtle shift will have taken place in the tilt of the earth and in the tint of blue in the sky, and we will suddenly realize that summer, once again, has snuck by while we were busy making plans about how to spend it.

What Happened to Summer from Hayden Mellsop on Vimeo.

To date it has been a great summer for the river and those who make their living from it, be they rafters, ranchers or fishing guides. For the latter, the season has not been without its challenges, particularly playing dodge ball with the pockets of discoloration that are the by-product of the frequent, intense rainfall we’ve been experiencing. Fortunately, with a hundred miles of river and multiple launch and take out options available, finding water sufficiently clear to fish has been relatively easy.

My take on murky water has always been that if you can see the rocks below the surface along the edges, then the fish too can see your fly if you place it there. A bit of murk means the luxury of fishing with heavier tippet, and being able to get away with less- than-textbook presentation. And the higher flows, while a challenge for shore based anglers, have been a blessing for those of us on the oars, with few rocks to dodge and lots of shore bank to fish to.

So even though summer seems to be rapidly vanishing over the horizon toward fall, there is still plenty of time, and good reason, to get out on the river and enjoy while the fun lasts.

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