The cold snap in Cody was so severe that a nick in my windshield cracked all the way through in the night and it hurt to breathe. We toyed with the idea of taking the boat out, but by noon it had only warmed to nine degrees. We went instead to the nearest access point and arrived to find an otherworldly landscape, with all the trees draped in icy frost and wreaths of steam rising off water that was significantly warmer than the air.
More otherworldly still, the Shoshone River was fairly boiling with fish rising to midges. This was initially quite exciting but it wasn’t long until my heart fell at the prospect of threading size twenty four hooks with sluggish fingers. I had several goes at this while trying to find a fly that the fish would eat and that I could see. Catching fish was the goal to this game, but after the first few I found myself hoping they would shake themselves off before I had to get my hands wet. I began to experiment with bad habits to try and get the fish off sooner, but that only seemed to work against me.
We were slated to spend another day in the Cody area, but I vetoed that plan. This place was in the midst of a deep freeze, and two out of three of us at least had no illusions whatsoever about fishing the next day. We were Montana and Bighorn bound.
Fort Smith is at the end of the road, nothing more than a fishing outpost on the Crow Indian reservation and the banks of the Bighorn River. This is where old cars and mobile homes go to die. The only fly shop that seemed open in early March was a large wooden building, dark inside and none too clean but stuffed to the gills with a very comprehensive collection of Simms gear and other goodies. A harried looking young woman with a baby took our credit card and gave us keys to rooms across the street.
In all my travels in third world nations I don’t believe I have ever witnessed such a dump. It was a double wide that had been converted to six rooms. It had a grey porch sagging off it that seemed not quite stable, and that was the best part. The rooms were little cubicles with stained carpets, swaybacked twin beds and bathrooms that would be hard to squeeze into if you dared. Mine smelled like a combination of cat shit and vomit, and as I pulled on the tab to raise the blinds and open the window, the whole thing came crashing down in a brittle plastic cascade.
The back of the Four Runner was looking better and better as I made my dazed way outside to the now beckoning patio. Wenert was already there and not saying much. The need for a strong anesthetic was clear, and we set to the task of Vodka tonics with zeal. Thus bolstered, we began looking for an alternative. The place was snowbound and dead. Polly’s, the restaurant kitty corner to us and the only other open establishment, was scary enough. Its patrons and employees were indistinguishable; all seemed to be stringy haired and stained tobacco yellow.
Our plight was apparently the only source of entertainment they’d had in weeks, and they stared at us through the greasy windows in the mindless manner of cows chewing cud. Across the way, at the Yellowtail market, we found a conglomeration of products well past their expiration date, watched over by a young man. He was staggeringly apathetic and responded to all of our queries with helpless shrugs. I suspected drugs of some sort, or inbreeding, or both. Our only recourse was to go back to the fly shop, and it took a while to roust Madonna and child from a back room, but once done, I made it clear that staying in the double wide was not an option.
She was completely unfazed and quite understanding really, and said she would call her husband. I noticed a ‘luxury home’ in their brochure and asked about that. She pounced like a starving dog, offered to give it to us for $400 a night (a $50 discount) and said we would have to wait while they got it ready. Wait we did, in the idling Four Runner for lack of a more inviting spot, while the promised hour lapsed into two and dark fell. I finally went into Polly’s, where all knew every inch of our affairs, and asked if someone could take us to the ‘Bluff House,’ ready or not.
No problem. Once there, we found a whirlwind of preparations. It appeared that some stoner snowboard types had been staying there during the offseason and they were trying to undue five months of damage in two hours. Everywhere was dust and dander. The fridge and pantry were full of molded and unsavory goods. I went up the stairs to find a man flinging sheets off the master bed with one hand and cradling the infant from earlier in the other.
In the end it was far from clean, but we were grateful to be anywhere other than our previous digs, the sheets were clean, the views were nice, and we didn’t have to fear being abducted in our sleep, by aliens or otherwise.
The next day Devin and I floated the famed Bighorn. This was the first day in our entire trip where ice did not form on the guides. It is a busy place anytime of year, and we shared the three mile stretch of river with at least six other boats and a dozen or more wade fishermen. We caught plenty of fish, feisty browns and bows and all of good size and color on pretty much every fly we threw, but the whole experience still left something to be desired.
The Bighorn game seems to entail parking on riffles and fishing them out for as long as you can stand, then heading on downriver to look for the next unoccupied spot. Boats will anchor above wading fishermen to wait their turn. Lines will form. I have even heard that in peak season, guide services send men out in the early hours to stake out riffles. This is not my cup of tea, and even though the fish were worthy and plentiful, I found myself thinking that I would not come here again until all the truly wild places have been ravaged and reduced to shadows of their former selves.