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I have a love-hate flyfishing relationship with the Bighorn. I’ve been fishing the river (the tailwater stretch that flows from the Yellowtail Dam by Ft. Smith, Mont.) every few years since 1989.

It’s an old friend. But the type of friend that can get on your nerves, sometimes make you feel uneasy, and maybe even embarrass you. But just when you’re about to tell that friend to take a hike, they do something incredibly kind to lift your spirits, and, in the end, you can always count on their loyalty.

Sometimes I equate the Bighorn to an ice-cold bottle of Orange Crush. There’s absolutely nothing natural in there, but on a hot day, there are few other soda pops that taste quite like it, and it’s good to indulge now and then.

Tim Romano and I spent most of this past week there with our drift boats, along with friends Tom Reed, Chris Wood, Jon Christiansen, and Geoff Mueller. We had a ball, but I have to tell you, on the last day, as I was preparing to float with Geoff and his father-in-law Don from Afterbay downstream, we got to the put-in, and the scene was an absolute carnival. On a Wednesday. In the middle of May. Dozens of drift boats (like, 60) zig-zagging from the launch—it was enough to make me feel sorry for the fish. It made my stomach turn (after all, I make part of my living by urging people to get out and badger trout).

We opted to float well downstream instead, from the Bighorn launch to Mallards, and though we caught fewer fish than we would have otherwise, we never saw another boat all day. That was fine with me, as I’d had enough of the rodeo scene floating from “3 to B” the two days prior. The Bighorn gives you options.

The thing is, even when you fish with the crowds, you can often find some subtle little seam in the river, or a pod of rising fish against the bank, and that’s enough to make your day. It’s a big river, with brands and channels, and enough water to let you choose how you want to fish. Geoff told me that he thought the Bighorn is the perfect river to learn on, whether you want to match hatches with dry flies, or throw nymphs, or rip streamers off of the banks. I wholeheartedly agreed. The river was one of my first “Western” fishing experiences, and now, more than 25 years later, I still learn on the Bighorn.

And those fish are resilient. They can take the pressure. They’re all wild fish now, and there are tons of them in every river mile. I do think they seem a bit smaller on average than they were as I remember long ago. But maybe my standards for calling trout “big” have changed since I was in my early 20s, and it might also have been a coincidence. We did land some nice browns and a few rainbows that pushed the 20-inch mark, but nothing above that.

No matter. The Bighorn is a beautiful river in many places, and there’s something to be said about standing in the shade of a ghostly cottonwood tree and throwing a baetis cripple pattern at a sipping trout, as you listen to the roosters (pheasants) cackle from the bluffs above. It’s even better when you can share that with close pals.

I’ve had my fill for now. Maybe for a few years. But I’ll plan to be back to visit my old friend, hopefully with others, to take another swing, learn a few more tricks, and watch this fishery grow even more mature.