Sunday, April 18, 2010, was a beautiful day...65 degrees and sunny with waifish wisps of rain moving in from the mountains. After taking Gus and Tut, my two Weimaraners, for a walk, I decided to drive the 25 minutes to Buffalo and fish my favorite stretch of water. This creek looks like any other river from the road, but if I had to choose, I would call it my home water. Although I live 60 miles from the fantastic Bighorn River and fish it often, I know this little stream better than any angler alive. I have fished it hundreds of times over the past 12 years and have learned many of its secrets. Sometimes I go after work or when I have only a few hours to fish.
The section I fish is on a private ranch. The owner lets me fish the mile and a half of river that runs on his property any time I want. I’ve explored every inch of it. He has been great to me and we often sit and chat riverside before I get impatient and start making excuses so I can get on the water. He is in his 80’s and his wife is very sick so every day I’m on this stream, I figure it might be my last. The ranch is just out of the foothills where the prairie still has some relief making it a great combination of classic riffled runs and long elegant slicks. Very few people get to fish it...it's just me, a few of our clients and a couple old timers from Gillette who throw Mepp’s spinners in the pools every now and then. It can be a tough river and it has a limited season. You can get in a few good days in April after ice-out and before run-off, a few days in June and July after run-off and before the irrigators suck it down and a few days after irrigation and before the water gets too cold again in the fall. It seems to be either really good or not so good. I either hit it right or go home consoled by the fact that this little slice of heaven was all mine for the day. A few of our clients have hit it right and had spectacular days. The majority have turned only a couple fish and never wanted to fish it again. I guess I can’t blame them, but what they don’t know is what I do know...and that is what lurks below.
What makes this stream so unique is there is always the possibility of a big fish. On most streams this size in our area, an 18” trout would be a trophy. Not on this stream. Most fish will be at least 18 inches and go up from there. I’ve caught many 20” fish and a few in the 21, 22, 23” inch range. Twelve years ago, I caught a 25 inch rainbow and ten years ago a 26 inch brown. I’ve thought those times were over, but last summer, I caught a few 23” fish so maybe the fish are getting bigger again. In any case, I think any fish over 20” makes your day. On this stream, you’ll never rack up big numbers, but if you can manage to hook some fish, they will be quality specimens. All you need is the patience to risk getting skunked and the drive to fish hard until the point you hook one of these monsters.
This last week, spring decided to poke her head out in Wyoming and see if the coast was clear. Now, the willow shoots have turned yellow, pasque flowers are popping up amongst the yucca and sage and most trees have buds. As I pulled on my decrepit waist high waders and noted a new pair was in order, I listened to a dozen sandhill cranes that were reintroducing themselves after their long migration. They chatted noisily in the middle of a horse pasture formed by an ox bow in the river. Soon, I was walking down the lane towards the hay mow, now just a collection of bailing twine and loose hay remnants matted down by winter. As I got to the irrigation ditch, I stepped over a snapping turtle. I snapped a few photos as it lumbered through the cow patties making its way from the main stream to a cattail slough. I could hear meadowlarks, red winged blackbirds and pheasants. This was the kind of day where if you were still, you could hear the thrum of an earth coming back to life.
It wasn’t long before I was at the river’s edge. I slid down the bank and walked through the honey-colored winter grass spooking one of last year’s white tail fawns. I stepped into the stream. The water was cold. I wondered if too cold for the fish to feed today. Sitting on the bank with my feet in the water, I rigged a big foam spider on 9’ of leader then dropped a size 16 prince nymph on 5X two feet below my spider/strike indicator. I often start here where the stream splits around a little island forming a fast run on the right and a slow deeper pool on the left. I nipped off the tag ends of my leader, and waded to the bottom of the island positioning myself to fish the right riffle. From this vantage point, I could literally touch with my rod tip a half dozen spots where 20+” fish had been caught in previous years. Behind me, in a deeper trough below some willows, I had gotten two 22” browns on hoppers on two separate days last summer. There would be no fish there now; they would be in the runs waiting for nymphs to come to them and not in the still water under the willows hunting for hoppers. To my left and up the other channel, I had caught a 21” rainbow on a blue dun under a Russian olive tree that reached far out over the channel. Below me in the confluence of the two channels, I had caught a 22” brown in the heat of summer three years ago that had been tailing on a crayfish. He had delicately eaten my beetle like someone eats an exotic hors d’oeuvre they think its food, but they’re not quite sure. So many good memories so close and the whole river was like this for me. Every bend, every pool, every riffle held a memory. This is home water...a place to fish and a place to remember.
Interrupting my reverie, I made my first cast and caught a beautiful 18” brown hen. She was deep and strong and had obviously wintered well. What was a plague for the ranchers was a bounty for the trout, and last summer’s hoppers had no doubt put her in good shape. She had emerged from winter fat and healthy. As the sunlight started to be muted thru the first of the light rain clouds, I took a few photos of her then slid her back into the cool stream. I checked my fly and waded back to fish the run again. This time I cast across the run and probed an eddy line on the far side. The line came taut. I hauled an 8” fish up into the Wyoming sky. What a ride that must have been! On this river I’m always thinking big fish and when you tag a minor, it can involve adrenaline for you and air time for them. I unhooked the little brown and went right back to the run. The rust-colored spider slowly spun its way downriver thru the eddy. I squinted, trying to keep contact with my fly in the diffused sunlight. Then the spider disappeared. I struck and knew immediately I had a good fish. It was that pleasing thunk that occurs when a big jaw is pierced. The fish didn’t move much, but I knew it was not a snag because I could feel a slight pulse. Then, all hell broke loose. The fish jumped 2 feet out of the water not a rod length away at eye level. He smacked the water, then raced downstream.
Now, there is that moment when a particular fish is hooked that your day goes from run-of-the-mill normal to rare once-in-a-lifetime spectacular. When these moments happen you know you will always remember them. You can tell when these events occur because you suddenly really care if you land the fish, not so much because you want to be successful, but because you want to see the fish and see how big it is and to feel it in your hands. You want the unknown to be known. This was one of those moments. This fish was huge...huge for a stream with big fish. After this fact was reconfirmed by yet another spectacular jump, the fish raced downstream. I knew with 5X tippet on a size 16 fly, it wouldn’t take much line drag to pop the fly or break the tippet. I needed to stop him from getting too far downstream. I needed to chase him...now!
I couldn’t control him from where I was, He was starting around a bend and if I stayed in this spot, his trajectory would pull him into some willows and debris. I had to wade across the river and get a better angle. Once on the other side, I thought I could move downstream after him. He was a handful and I knew he was a he from his huge kyped jaw so elegantly displayed during his last jump. I waded into the main channel. It was deeper than I thought. I spilled water over the top of my waist highs, but didn’t care. I’m not sure I even felt it. On tippy-toes, I made my way through the deepest portion then relaxed as it got shallower. I reached the far bank and crawled up the slippery bank. Luckily, this new angle prompted my fish to move back upstream towards me. I madly retrieved line concentrating on keeping my rod tip bent and still. Soon he stopped to sulk in the middle of the stream. Now, I was having a hard time moving him at all. I knew I needed to put pressure on him and decided it was now or never. I pushed the 5X to the limit and he rose up off the bottom. Eventually, I was able to move him more easily towards my side of the river. I waded downstream to reach a small beach where I thought I could land him. I swung him in, reached a hand under his belly and slid him up onto the sand of the beach.
“Holy shit” I said aloud to myself.
I watched him for a moment then pulled out a tape. I got his length at 24” and his girth at 16.5”. I frenetically took photos most of the time keeping him in the water to do so. I wanted to keep him, to take him home, introduce him to my friends, put him on a leash and take him for a walk...anything but let him go again. Soon reason prevailed and I pulled the tiny prince nymph out of his upper jaw and held him in the current. His massive hooked jaw pulsed as he sucked in water. Soon, his tail moved and his body started to twist in my hand. I let him slide out of my grip into deeper water. He finned out of sight quickly. I was wet to the elbows with sand and mud and could barely see out of my fish splashed sunglasses. I could feel the water in my waders, but thought it a fair trade.
It took awhile to get cleaned up. Then I walked slowly up to the next run...one of my favorites. I caught a 20” fish from the top of the run last week...only fish I landed all day. On this day, I could have cared less if I caught another fish.
Written by Scott Heywood