Father’s Day Fly Fishing Trip on Montana’s Bighorn River
By Brad Billingsley, Intro by Chris Faulkner, Live Water Properties Broker
As a kid who grew up in Colorado, I get asked quite a bit about my favorite place to fish or what I would consider my “home waters.” Many people are surprised when I tell them I have probably fished more days on the Bighorn River in Fort Smith, Montana than any other place in the Rocky Mountain West. I started floating the Bighorn River about 25 years ago as a destination fly fishing trip, which, after a few years, turned into multiple annual trips and roughly 12 to 15 float days each year. My boys, now 15 and 17, started joining me when they were about four and six years old, and both learned to row and fly fish on the Bighorn River. As a family-friendly river with incredible trout populations, the Bighorn River has turned into a place our family looks forward to making the short drive to in the early spring and mid-summer each year. So when I had the opportunity to share what I would consider my “home water” and the best fly fishing in Montana with a group of fathers and their young sons at the Riverbend Angler on an annual float trip two years ago, I couldn’t have been more excited for them to see what the Bighorn is all about.
My great friend Brad Billingsley incredibly captured our Father’s Day adventure in the following journal entry…
FATHER’S DAY FLY FISHING TRIP 2019
Every so often, a plan absolutely falls apart, only to piece itself back together to make something remarkable. That’s what happened on our Dad/Kid/Father’s Day fly fishing trip to the Bighorn River for three days in mid-June 2019. The plan was simple – get a bunch of fishy dudes (if they had a boat, all the better) and their kids and head to the Gunnison Gorge for the annual salmon fly hatch. We’d all been tying rogue foam stones, pool toys, and chubbys for months, created a custom “Gunnison Gorge Stonefly Palooza 2019” logo, placed it on Buffs for everyone, and picked June 13 to 16 as our assault. Then, Colorado experienced one of the great runoffs of the past 20 years. That week the Gunny flows crested at over 13,000 CFS. Ouch! It doesn’t matter how many life jackets and water wings we put on the children; it was not safe. So, we looked for a Plan B.
PLAN B – FLY FISHING IN MONTANA
That’s when my buddy Chris Faulkner casually suggested that he might be able to secure a cabin near the Bighorn River that could work for our group. Fears of some dumpy little rickety cabin filled my I’ve-got-to-control-everything mind. Chris assured me it would all work out. Boy – did it.
Our goal was to create a space for these busy Dads to unplug for a long weekend, deeply connect with their kids, make some new friends, and rip some big fish. And so five Dads and five kids headed north on I-25.
Upon arriving at the Riverbend Angler sitting high above the Bighorn, we settled in and spread out. There was tons of space for all our gear, two dogs, maybe 30 flyrods, and enough food for a month. The dining room table became ground zero for our fly tying efforts. Jack and Austin proceeded to tie up scuds, Ray Charles, carpet bugs, and a few streamers into the wee hours of the first night. Austin tied his first fly that night. Six months later, he’s dang near production tying quality and learning from Greg Senyo back in Michigan. Without a doubt, one of the great aspects of a fishing trip is the camaraderie that builds over a whisky (or an orange soda for the kids) around the tying table.
Day one found us getting a feel for the river, doing two laps of the “Afterbay-3 Mile” section. Water temps were cool, and levels were in the mid-6000s. Not bad. Those that drove up late the night before hit the water late morning, and as more of our band of hooligans arrived, they hit the water and started figuring out the “Horn.”
Learning from Mishaps
Jack and I fished out of our new Alpacka Forager packraft. It’s a nimble craft, and it floated well on the mellow waters of the Bighorn except for two factors: The first was when Jack and I attempted to get in it to launch on our first trip. Jack got in the bow, sat up high on the inflatable seat, and I loaded my boat bag and proceeded to hop in. I sat on the rear tube and immediately began wobbling. The more we wobbled, the more I tried to overcompensate. Finally, after several backs and forth attempts to steady the boat, we flipped. Yep…face down in less than a foot of water. Soaking wet. Worst part? The entire gang from the pic above witnessed this and was merciless. I searched for excuses or at least a witty response to their quips. I had nothing. I tucked my tail and pushed off. Lesson learned: sit lower in the boat…at least until you have your bearings. And launch the packraft in obscurity on your maiden voyage.
For my second mishap, I had my Winston 5-weight strapped to the side of the raft. All was right in the world until the boat got a little soft by the afternoon. I thought about pumping it back up but got pulled into helping a buddy to rig up. Thus, Jack and I set off for our second lap of the first three-mile section, squishy boat and all. First set of small rapids we bumped our way down, only to hear a loud *SNAP*. I worried we’d popped the tube of the raft when I looked down and saw the butt section of my beloved green stick in two pieces. Hard to get angry when you make such a stupid move.
Hitting our Stride
On day two, we began to hit our stride. Jeff and Jon Jensen did a guided trip and absolutely crushed it. It was a 50 fish day, including a great Father/Son double on nice browns. There were times we’d see them on the river – both hooked up – and we’d be scratching out a fish here and there. We resisted the temptation to holler, “What are you catching them on?” and opted to keep soldiering on (and then ask, “What were you catching them on?” once we all reconvened at the cabin).
We all hit a few fish then endured a nasty windstorm in the afternoon. Fortunately, Jack and I had met up with the Faulkner boys to fish a run they’d scoped out through their 20+ years of fly fishing the Bighorn. Mason was hooked up to a nice fish when out of nowhere, a downburst of wind hit us. It flipped the packraft and dumped all our gear into the river. We frantically loaded all our stuff into the drift boat then towed it downstream. Chris was front rowing to get us off the river as lightning began crashing on the mesas to the west. Our little raft (which Jack dubbed “the Juicebox” – because it’s little, red, and sweet) was pirouetting in circles behind us as the 60mph gusts blasted it. I was glad the little man and I weren’t on the river in that boat by ourselves.
Montana Fly Fishing Tales
The highlight of each day was meeting back at the cabin and sitting on the porch to relive the day’s stories. The only rules for the trip were one, no jerks (we had no problems with that), and two, each family had to bring their favorite appetizer to share after a day of fishing. We got back to the cabin around 7:30, pulled off our waders, and cracked open ice-cold Modelos and Banquets. The Jensen boys had already made it home and cooked up their world-famous chicken tacos.
So we sat on the benches and Yeti coolers and told stories. Austin told us about the 22” brown he landed not long after pushing off from Afterbay. It ended up being the big fish for the trip. We cracked open another round of Modelos, the Faulkners brought out platters of enchiladas, and Justin, “the Good Times Man” Suddath, regaled us with a story about having emus as pets as a kid. Something about “never look an emu in the eye” and then how one day they escaped, terrorized the neighboring farm, and he had to hunt them down. If you ever run across Justin and have a few hours to kill, ask him about the man-eating emus of Missouri. Entertaining, if nothing else.
Saturday, June 15, 2019
Place: Afterbay to Bighorn Access; Bighorn River; Ft. Smith, MT
Game: Trout (and a huge carp too!)
Anglers: Brad Billingsley, Jack Billingsley, Chris Faulkner, Mason Faulkner, Riley Faulkner, Dave Shaw, Austin Shaw, Jeff Pemberton, Jeff Jensen, Jon Jensen
Water Temp: 53 degrees all-day
Flow: 7800 CFS. Ugh.
Clarity: Pretty good until the Bighorn Club, then a mess
Weather: 70s most of day, some clouds
“W”: Gusty late in the day…otherwise good
Bighorn River Fishing Report: Today, it finally came together…for a little while, at least. We headed into Bighorn Angler at 8am with Jeff and Jon Jensen to get some intel. Size 16 Carpet Bugs are the ticket. Tan in color, dubbed with a dubbing loop. Black flashback ribbed with wire. Gray Sow Bugs (aka Ray Charles) with ostrich in back and hackle in front. Maybe some Baetis nymphs if they pop in the afternoon. And the Pregnant Scud, tan dubbed body with pink dubbing in the middle. This was the money fly today and what Austin caught most of his fish on. We went back to basecamp and tied a bunch of Carpet Bugs to load the boxes for the day. Tough to tie enough for ten people just an hour before launch, but Austin and I did our best. Austin got a beautiful fly tying bench for graduation from college, so he was a quick study and eager to learn the finer points of tying a scud. He banged out a couple dozen. We hit the water around 10:30am and floated tight to the left bank, fishing to our right in the deeper current. Not all fish sit along the bank in the ‘Horn. We fished “Right Down Broadway,” as Faulkner calls it.
Jack led off with a bull whitey, followed by a nice brown. One of the youngest on the trip, he was on the board quickly and pleased with his progress. There were several noteworthy parts to our float:
Just above 3 Mile, Jack stuck a big brown and fought it like a champ. It pulled hard, and I had to spin the boat down rapids to help him fight it without wrapping under the boat or an oar. As we approached some braided channels and a bunch of boat traffic, we were able to anchor and net the fish. As several boats watched, Jack released a beautiful 18” brown to fight another day.
We then slid the boat down to the tip of the far island across from the launch ramp. Walking back upstream, we found a stack of fish below a drop-off. I heard there were still some rainbows spawning due to the cold-water temps and big runoff this spring, so we made sure to fish to feeding trout off the redds. We explained to the kids why we were walking away from these big spawning fish and focused our efforts elsewhere. We hit a few fish, including a beauty of a whitefish that Justin landed.
Behind our anchor spot was a big backwater pond from the high water. And there were big carp swimming in it. Chris tied on an articulated white streamer with heavy eyes. He cast out in front of a 20# carp and bounced it in the mud across its face. The carp went to eat, and Chris strip-set, sticking it in the dorsal. Thus, began the rodeo! His six weight was bent double and was going great until some seaweed junked up in the reel and *POW* – the fish snapped off.
The Faulkner Hole
We pushed on to one of Chris’ favorite spots for what became the best action of the trip. We pulled over river right and looked across the channel to see everyone hooked up. So Jack and I walked upstream, and on Jack’s first cast to the seam, a stud of a trout ate and jumped onto the highway heading south. Jack was quickly into his backing, and we started chasing it downstream. The boat was in the way, and as he reached to clear the line around the oars, it snagged, and the fish broke off. Just like that, it was over. He looked at me as if to say, “WTHD?” (What the heck, Dad?) All I could muster was, “some fish you just can’t land…”
We rowed across the channel and joined the party with everyone still hooked up and having a blast. Austin and his dad Dave were both hooked up for quite a while – these Bighorn fish pull hard – and eventually landed a great Father’s Day double. Mason Suddath and I ran from fish to fish with the net, trying to get fish landed and pictures taken (and a few detangles along the way). For about two hours, it was pure pandemonium! Then I looked over to see Chris crack open an icy Modelo, take a sip, pull his anchor and quietly glide off. He’s fished the ‘Horn over 150 days and has plenty of secret spots, so after landing a few more fish, we kept the Faulkner crew in sight and headed downriver.
The remainder of the float as we headed toward the lower reaches was uneventful. Still, we kept the Modelos rolling and listened to Cody Jinks, Lucero, and Colter Wall as we enjoyed a beautiful Montana summer evening boat ride to the takeout
Back at the Riverbend Angler
The Big Finale was back at Riverbend Cabins, where we told stories, ate insanely good Shaw Family Buffalo Chicken Dip and boiled shrimp. Hanging out in the cabin that night was one of the most special evenings I can remember. By now, all the kids were buddies, and great new friendships formed. We sat around the dining room table, reliving stories and making plans for next summer to eastern Montana. A little before midnight, most of us had called it quits, and we slept with the windows open and the sound of rooster pheasants cackling. I can’t wait to do it again.