A FLY FISHERMAN LIVING IN THE BIG HORN MOUNTAINS SHARES AN ACCOUNT OF THE FISH, LANDSCAPE AND UNEXPECTED WILDLIFE HE ENCOUNTERED IN THE RIVER
When I dropped a sugar cube into my morning coffee, my sleep-dazed brain picked up on the splash, making a sound similar to a fish rising to catch a fly. She would need caffeine, not to mention the incentive of catching a trout, to make the big decision; Where should I fly fish today?
Finding a place would not be the problem. My childhood home sits half a mile from the edge of a national forest in the foothills of northern Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains, a range teeming with alpine lakes, small streams, and wide, blue-ribbon rivers. In less than five minutes, I could get my fly in front of any number of unsuspecting fish.
But it would be a warm, clear day, a good incentive to travel further up the mountain to the North Fork of the Tongue River, which offers some of the best fishing in the state. Convinced that the 90-minute drive up the mountain would be worth it, I packed a lunch, tossed my gear in the truck, and was off.
From the road, he could clearly see where the sprawling Great Plains met the jutting face of the Big Horn Mountains. Within the shadow of the mountain, his sudden presence seemed a mystery. Beginning the climb up the mountain, I was able to see its history (I was able to see the results of ancient glacial deposits and volcanic eruptions), clearly displayed in the rock formations whose seemingly endless variations in shape, texture, and color make the imposing evergreens look young by comparison.
Just as the steep incline was beginning to level off, I scouted the side of the pavement for the dirt road that led up one of the more secluded stretches of the North Fork. Poorly maintained, the road is rough, treacherous, full of deep holes and protruding rocks with the intent to rip a vehicle out of its undercarriage. Even in my rugged SUV, which is no stranger to off-road driving, I had to drag the last few miles. After what seemed like forever, I finally made it to the trailhead, alone except for a single US Forest Service truck whose occupant was nowhere to be seen. It was time to go fishing.
When I got to the water’s edge, I crouched down to examine what might be hatching. Experts frequently do this to match their flies to the types of insects that the fish are already looking for. As for me, not an expert but a keen amateur, I look even though I rarely know what I’m looking at. I nod knowingly, as many times before, even though no one was looking, and proceeded to lace up my best guess: an elk-haired caddis with a blue-winged, olive-green nymph dropper.
The basic trick to fly fishing is to outsmart the fish. This is more difficult than it seems. While we can benefit from certain advantages, such as opposable thumbs and a prefrontal cortex, knowledge from experience, in this case on behalf of the fish, should not be discounted. If a fish’s previous attempt to catch a fly resulted in it being speared through its mouth, pulled out of the water into a dimension they were not well equipped to understand, squeezed, photographed without consent, and tossed towards back unceremoniously, you can bet he’ll be careful not to do it again. Therefore, some strategy is needed on the part of the one who handles the fishing rod.
Selecting a long, slow stretch of water, I cast my first cast, aiming for the opposite shore where fish might be hiding in some of the deeper pools, positioning myself so my shadow wouldn’t betray my presence. As the fly floated across the smooth surface, I mended the line to prevent unnatural drag, keeping my eye on the caddis for any sign of movement. The river gets its source from runoff from the glacier, resulting in icy but crystal clear water, but I couldn’t see any fish.
After four plaster casts and a little hiccup, I hadn’t felt a strain, so I went to the next corner. It was time to trade the caddis for another fly. I selected a woolly bug from my fly box, partly because it was the next best thing and partly because the name sounds funny to me, and moved on to the next spot.
Here, long, slow stretches gave way to shorter, faster pockets. Points that many anglers skip. Accustomed to fishing small mountain streams, I learned long ago that fish can inhabit ponds no larger than a bathtub. I made a short cast with my Wild Water ⅚ weight rod, let the fly settle in the water and instantly saw the flash.
The Big Horns are teeming with brown, brook, rainbow trout and, in the higher elevation lakes, even golden trout. I could tell right away, before I even looked, that I had hooked a newbie. While rarely the biggest trout in the stream, brook trout are my favorite to catch: fierce fighters whose teeth have cut my line countless times.
This was not one of those times, and I had him on the bench in no time. Just as quickly, and after a brief apology, I returned it to the river (most of the North Fork is catch and release). Upstream, I found more takers, including a beautiful rainbow nearly 20 inches long.
Several trout later, and drunk on my lucky streak, I didn’t realize I wasn’t alone anymore. My eyes followed my flies as they floated down the river, where I noticed a large bull elk standing less than 30 feet away. People fear bears and cougars, but they are highly intelligent and possess a sense of self-preservation. Moose, by contrast, are evil and stupid, a combination that makes them exceptionally dangerous.
Fortunately for the moose (and probably me), I recognized that I was in its territory and slowly backed away. Occupied by a nearby patch of grass, he made no objection. The spell cast by the river had been broken, and a wave of fatigue suddenly washed over me. It had been a good day, and it was time to go home.
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