Montana - Madison and Bighorn Rivers

5th - 13th September 2012

On our way to the Bighorn, we couldn't resist one more night at the Raynolds Pass Fishing Access on the Madison River, where Phil had enjoyed the fishing so much with Dan and where we could camp in a very scenic spot for free. There is no such thing as a free lunch, of course, (well perhaps unless you are a stowaway mouse!), so we took further mouse-proofing actions, i.e. renewing the gnawed duct tape blocking various holes.

As we worked, hanging uncomfortably over the toilet blocking up pipe holes there was a sudden loud hissing noise. Panic set in. Had we dislodged a pipe? Were we losing all our fresh water somewhere inside Harvey? However, we could find no trace of water and suddenly noticed the wardrobe door was ajar, straining against the shock cord which normally keeps it closed. It turned out, on further investigation, that one of our automatic life jackets stored there had decided to self-inflate for some reason. Perhaps it was the ghosts of the previous murdered rodent stowaways!

Butterfly on the Madison River

Beautiful Madison River

That evening Christine enjoyed walking the river bank again, nature spotting, while Phil fished without success. Next morning he was out again with determination but again catching nothing with all his favourite, previously successful methods and flies. Just before giving up to have lunch, he switched to a fly imitating an ant and quickly hooked four rainbows and another big trout which managed to get off the hook by zooming upstream, taking him by surprise as he believed he'd hooked a log. It turned out that this fish had also sabotaged the hook, resulting in the loss of 4 more good fish before the fisherman noticed! In the evening he was on the river again this time fishing with streamers and hooking a huge rainbow trout which by some astounding acrobatics leapt out of the water, snapping the line.

The following night we broke the long trip east to the Bighorn River by camping at Walmart in Billings. Walmart camping varied, sometimes peaceful, sometimes expensive when we made too many trips into the store and on this occasion noisy as the local boy racers seemed to use our motor home as a landmark on their race laps. Next morning, tired and grumpy, we headed into the Crow Reservation to Fort Smith, where Dan had recommended us to fish on the Bighorn River.

Phil's first fish on the Bighorn.

Here, we rolled up at the wonderful Cottonwood Camp, conveniently located close to one of the public fishing access points to which we could cycle. Cottonwood had hot showers, electricity and very friendly, knowledgeable camp hosts. The electricity would have been more useful if Walmart Billings had had any heaters in stock, as the nights and early morning were freezing cold!

As the river was heavily fished, we decided to wait until the weekend was over before heading out to float downstream from the Afterbay dam to the camp ground in our canoe. Despite it being a Monday morning, the parking lot was full of boat trailers and boats waiting to set off down the river. Next morning we left a little later, avoiding the main 8 am rush, meaning that not only did we get long stretches of river to ourselves, we also didn't have to endure the early morning chill.

Afterbay dam at 8 am on Monday morning.

If you don't catch any, look what's for dinner! Bit tough maybe!

Bighorn Riverbank.

After our first float, where Phil landed and released six brown trout using nymphs, we made a further two floats down the river to Three Mile Access. With the excitement and apprehension of the first float over, we took our time, left a little later and spent the whole day on the river in the canoe. The camp ground arranged a convenient vehicle shuttle service for us, so that by the time we arrived at Three Mile in the canoe, Harvey-the-RV was there in the parking lot waiting for us, his radio tuned to the heavy metal radio station each time!

Brown Trout landed in the canoe.

Stop the boat, I'm getting out!

At the beginning of our second trip Phil was struggling to interest the fish but once a friendly local advised him to use smaller nymphs, in a size 18 or 20 hook, he hauled in 17 brown trout, all over 14". It seemed the smaller the fly, the bigger the fish! It also seemed that the fish liked to bite just before the rapids, causing chaos in the canoe! Taking our time paid off and we made long stops at good fishing spots, the Meat Hole, Third Island and Red Cliffs. Our third float was even more productive, netting 20 fish, 16 brown and 4 rainbow trout. Fish number 18 was the largest, a brown trout, landed at the Red Cliffs, measuring 18". At the end of the trip, we brought home a nice rainbow trout for dinner.

Fish Number 18, 18", on day three's float

We broke up the three floats with a day of walk-in fishing, to give the paddler's arms a break. First we headed to the pool below the dam, which was alleged to contain Walleye. Phil used all his wiles learned in Minnesota, determined to catch one of the tasty fish but only came up with trout.

Having given up on the Walleye, we hiked to the Meat Hole, a spot which proved productive during our previous floats. Access was tricky as most of the riverbank above the high water line, belonged to the Crow tribe, who had been in dispute with the Federal Government for years claiming the river should belong to the tribe, not be general public access, as it lay within their reservation. Under the circumstances, we were keen not to stray above the legal mean high water level, inadvertently entering reservation land.

Whilst carefully paddling bare-foot out to an island where Phil was fishing, cautiously checking for snakes lurking in the water, Christine spotted a few large brown trout feeding in a small shallow stream inside the island. Once Phil heard about these, he was determined to land one, a tricky feat in the shallow clear water, where the fish had a good view of everything going on around them. He persevered and tricked the second largest into taking his fly. Quite an achievement. The water was so shallow in the pools that when the fish were spooked and headed quickly downstream back to the main river, their dorsal fins were sticking out above the water!

Got him!

Wild flowers Montana style

Our stealthy approach on foot, also took a foraging Muskrat by surprise.

After six wonderful days on the Bighorn, definitely a spot to be visited again, it was time to drag ourselves away from our beloved Montana. We were headed south, roaming through Wyoming. We broke the journey to Colorado at Walmart in Casper, where we finally located an electric heater but now had no electricity supply!

By lunchtime the following day we were in Colorado and tracking down more fishing!

Muskrat Lunch Break

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