Last year some women friends and I took a trip to the Bighorn River in southeast Montana for dry fly fishing. It’s a tail-water river known for a trifecta: Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout and White Fish. They tend to be large and wily, even the ‘whities.’ While my friend, Terry and I fished our arms off last year for trout, my friends took another approach; a more leisurely approach. Their guide, they announced, was taking them for a day of Carp fishing with Martinis. A picnic they said. All we could say was WHAT? They returned from the outing with smiles as wide as Wyoming; their 80-year-old spirits uplifted.
This year Terry and I returned in mid-August, checked into the Kingfisher Lodge near Fort Smith, Montana and connected with our guide. We fished for the usual suspects the first two days on the Bighorn River, under blistering heat, with mixed results. Water temps were up, water levels down, fish seemingly only interested in sub-surface nymphs. After a while one says blah. There must be something else going on.
Then we remembered the Martini girls.
“Sure,” said Nate. Not to Martinis, but to angling for Carp. “You wanna go there? We need a windless day. Hot weather is ok, but we need clear so we can spot them. Big surface flies for big fish.”
We smiled. Sounded like targeting Redfish. “Big fun,” said Nate. “And Bass too.”
The drive up to Bighorn Lake is a winding one, about three miles worth, up into the hills above the burg of Fort Smith, an hour and a half out of Billings. The 71 mile-long lake sits behind the Yellowtail Dam, although it appears much smaller than that when you launch. Stone cliffs with colorful striations flank the canyon. It’s quiet, except for the occasional motorboat passing by. We were the only drift boat on the lake that day; the only flyfishers visible. The serenity alone was a brilliant change from the hoards on the Bighorn River, where fishers in waders carve out their turf in nearly combat-fishing style.
That is only fun for so long in my book.
Along the drive we see flocks of wild turkey, deer, antelope, cattle, big crows and a buffalo. The first time we drove up in mid-September of 2014, a dusting of snow covered the hills, making the road seem precipitous. This time the view from above was stunning, the valley floor golden and shimmering in August’s heat.
This lake is clearly a favorite with locals; folks who drive up from Billings for the day with their coolers, beach umbrellas and fishing rods. There is a roped off area for swimming and the lake temperatures invite a dip. Families gather in the afternoon near the concession store.
But we are here to hunt Carp. And so we do.
Nate tells us to look for their heads up, usually near the rocks, in the quiet coves. He rows quietly. We are on-point now, not sure whether to look for pushing V’s in the water or wakes. And then we see them in small groups, noses touching the warm stone cliffs, appearing to feed on something at the surface. They move around a bit, backs arching out of the water sometimes, tailing.
We cast a large, (size 10 perhaps) purple Chernobyl. It’s all about technique; the fly must land in front of the targeted fish, in the pathway of the moving fish or nothing happens. We hold our breath as Carp move toward the fly, then despite our whispers of encouragement turn away at the last second, seeming oblivious to our efforts.
There is drama! There is concentrated effort! We see the fish!
Even when we are refused, the game is on in a different way from nymphing. Watching a pink balloon/strike indicator doesn’t measure up to the muscles-tensed, on-your-toes, total-concentration needed here.
When Carp move for the fly time stops. The approach is comical. You watch their open mouths chug the water, glug, glug, glug, advancing in slow motion. When the fly vanishes, you calmly count a couple beats, and lift. And then hang on. Tight.
These Carp are 6-8 pounds, feel like a small Salmon and take the line right down and out. I was fishing a 6wt and it felt like I had a Tuna. The rod was bent, tip to the waterline, fish now on-the-reel. By the time I landed the first one I had total respect for Carp. Powerful. Determined. Heavy.
“And that’s the way you do it boys,” I wanted to shout.
Pride, bursting pride. A girl needs that now and then. I knew why the Martini girls glowed the year before.
The other fish we caught, absolutely without targeting, were Bass. Little three to seven inch Bass, pesky little things that went for the same big fly. Terry was catching them like crazy all around the Carp, instead of Carp. I couldn’t catch a Bass for hours. I teased her that she had Bass stink on her fly and the Carp were boycotting her line. We thought the reverse for me.
As the afternoon passed comfortably we hunted and found more Carp in different coves. Clear, calm water was key. A good fish-spotter in the front of the boat and a sharp-eyed guide are most helpful. There is time to enjoy the rock formations that tower above. We looked for petroglyphs. A sunny day makes one think of swimming along the shore as a cool reward.
As any good fishing partner knows, it is no good if one person out-fishes the other. Resentment is not the goal. Friendships matter. As we headed in for the day I worried about dinner conversation that night.
We’ve both been known to pout after a bad day of fishing.
Terry needed to land a Carp, which to that point had eluded her best efforts. In the last 50 yards from shore Nate stopped rowing. He said, “cast over there,” and pointed left. Terry stared hard.
“To what? That piece of log?”
“Yes, it’s a fish,” he said.
She stared in disbelief. Then it moved and she cast beautifully 10 feet ahead of the log-looking Carp whose back was out of the water now. It charged that fly, took it down and she landed it.
We talked about it all the way home: the way it charged unlike any Carp we had seen all day, about its greenish color, about its fight, about redemption. We all breathed in relief.
Martinis tonight now that the work is done.