Sleeping restlessly through the night, I woke minutes before the 3:45 AM alarm was set to ring. It was our last morning on the Big Horn River in Fort Smith, Montana, and I knew exactly where I wanted to spend it. This late July had presented some unusual challenges on the Big Horn, specifically, high water and warmer than normal water temperatures. These conditions had accelerated the insect hatches over the summer. In past years, this would black caddis time, a hatch that adheres to banker’s hours, starting in late morning, and holding the trout attention well into the evening. This year, however, the black caddis hatch was already waning, and even the trico hatch, which usually lasts well into September, was beyond its peak. According to all reports, except for an occasional resurgence of the black caddis on cool evenings (rare in Montana during the month of July), the trico hatch was the only game left in town. And since the tricos adhere to more of a blue-collar schedule, as the guides put it so eloquently, “It’s either go early, or go home.”
Every serious fly fisherman needs to experience a trico hatch on a fertile river like the Big Horn at least once in a lifetime. Hatching by the millions at first light, the diminutive mayfly mating swarms can be so prolific that they appear as a fog over the river in the early morning sunlight. When the spent spinners fall back to the water by mid-morning, it can seemingly bring every trout in the river to the surface to feed on an easy meal, and on the Big Horn River, that’s a lot of trout. In some locations, pods that include dozens of trout take up feeding lies in very small and defined areas. The fish feed ravenously, sometimes gulping multiple insects on one rise.
Competition for the best trout lies during the height of the trico hatch is fierce, with guides and their sports on the river at 4:30 AM. From that point, it is literally a drift boat raced to the most desirable fishing water. One thing is for sure, you are not going to out-row a Montana guide, who’s wages for the day depend heavily on the number trout brought to net. Since out-rowing the local guides was not an option, our plan was to simply arrive at the river long before them; we would sacrifice sleep in the interest of securing good fishing water.
My body wasn’t quite ready to accept any sustenance at 3:45 AM, so I had to force down a quick continental breakfast to stayed fueled through the trico hatch and spinner fall, which typically begins around 6:30 AM and ends late morning. We quickly loaded our gear and headed for the boat ramp, where our drift boat was waiting onshore since being offloaded by the outfitter the previous night.
Although we were first to arrive at the boat launch, it was only a few minutes before a truck carrying a drift boat came screaming into the parking lot. I’ve never seen a fisherman move that fast. Within seconds he had his boat offloaded, and had his sport for the day (apparently his 10-year old son) in the boat and was rowing frantically down the river. I had met the same guide the day before where he had taken up residency on a beautiful riffle, a spot he had occupied for several days in a row. He obviously thought we were there early to “steal” his spot, and he wasn’t going to have any part of it.
We had other plans, however. Three days previous, we had lucked upon a channel that was full of rising trout. The channel was very wadable, which we prefer, and the guide wasn’t wearing waders. I figured he was heading to his usual haunt and our chosen spot was still safe, a least from the first contestant in what we hoped wouldn’t quickly develope into a drift boat rowing contest. That would be race we would not win.
We quickly loaded our rented boat, parked the rental van, and pushed off shore into the darkness of the Montana morning. For those who have never handled a drift boat before, it really isn’t as challenging as you might think, especially on rivers like the Big Horn, which has very little structure (rocks) that one might have to negotiate. Our main problem on this morning was finding our way to the channel in the pitch black with only a small maglite as our beacon.
About halfway to our destination, Terry asked Bruce if he had his cell phone with the GPS locater program with him. Bruce opened the program and quickly produced a screen with a high-resolution image of the river, and a blue dot indicating our exact location. Bruce showed me the cellphone image, which quickly blinded my night vision, so I instantly diverted my eyes. With Bruce, who possesses a pilot’s license, now playing the role as our navigator, we continued down the river under the cover of darkness. Only now, we knew our precise location.
As we approached our destination, which was river right, I saw a flashlight appear in the distance on the left bank, in the same area where I figured the guide was heading. I was relieved that our spot was still available, but I kept looking back up river to make sure no other guide boats were in hot pursuit.
Bruce announced that our channel was 150 feet ahead on the right, so I positioned the drift boat closer to shore and stared anxiously into the darkness, looking for the island destination. Once I could make out the channel, I rowed the vessel straight for the tip of the island and told my fishing companions to brace for impact, “We’re coming in hot, gentlemen!” After a less than graceful crash landing, I quickly released the anchor and jumped out of the boat to pull it into the shoreline brush to secure its location.
Not satisfied that we had successfully staked our claim on the pool by parking our boat at the top of it, I quickly rigged my bamboo rod, and, using a maglite in the darkness, tied on a small brown soft hackle wet fly I had tied the afternoon beforehand, and waded out into the darkness to my desired casting position. My partners decided to wait out the darkness in the boat. It was now 5:00 AM and the sun was just beginning to appear on the horizon.
It wasn’t long before a local guide with two clients came drifting through pool. Obviously put off by my presence, the guide begrudgingly acknowledged I was the first fisherman on the river that morning. He continued to drift down to the next run, the same run one of my companions had intended to fish, but lost out on because he failed to claim the spot.
The next half hour of casting the soft hackle into the darkness produced no results, but in my mind, I was only killing time until the real show started. Suddenly, concurrent with the first real show of light at 5:30 AM, I had my first solid take to on the classically swung soft hackle. A few minutes later I landed and released my first fish of the day, a beautiful 15” brown trout. The next half hour produced a succession of soft hackle takes from a mixture of 14-18” brown and rainbow trout. Some of the trout took the fly on the swing; some of the fish took the fly after it completed its swing and was being slowly stripped back. It was now only 6:00 AM and I had already hooked 10 impressive trout. By most standards, this would be considered an excellent day of fishing, not just ½ hour. But in my mind, if things continued to roll out the way I hoped, this quick start was just the appetizer.
Shortly after 6:00 AM, trico duns became apparent in the air and soon after, trout heads started to pop up in the pool. I switched to a trico dry, but the low light conditions caused glare on the water and following a small fly was exceedingly frustrating. I decided to switch to a dark colored CDC caddis, which worked well the evening before and would show up well in the surface glare. The trout, however, were fixated on trico duns and totally ignored my caddis imitation. I switched to an Improved Sparkle Dun tied in trico colors, a pattern I had adapted from the Craig Mathews now ubiquitous Sparkle Dun series during a tying session the previous afternoon. Six or seven rises but no takes finally prompted me to check my leader, and I found my 5X tippet in a tangled mess. With daylight now building, I corrected the snarled leader and added a 5.5X tippet and a fresh Trico Comparadun, tied with a white zelon upright wing, instead of the conventional deerhair. Part 2