Veterans Discover the Magic of Montana at Freedom Ranch

By Christopher Harris

Day 1 – August 30th – Arrival Day

The group arrived in Bozeman airport ready for fishing adventure at Freedom Ranch in Wise River.  After gathering most of the group, Montana loaded us up and we had lunch at the Bar3 BBQ restaurant where we all enjoyed a very good lunch.  Jim was brave enough to get the “gut buster” sandwich and to everyone’s surprise, was able to finish the massive meal.  Since we had an hour before Brandon was scheduled to arrive, Montana suggested that we take a stroll down by the Gallatin River to kill some time.  We wandered about the famed river getting to know one another a bit better and getting the itch to start fishing.  It was a good way to start the trip since most had not been to Montana before. 

We retrieved Brandon at the airport at 1:30p as planned and began the 2-hour drive to the ranch.  As we departed the airport, I felt overwhelmingly privilege to be on the trip to be on the trip with those that served!  The drive to Wise River is scenic to say the least.  Benito was noting the rivers we crossed over on the drive – Gallatin, Madison, Jefferson and others.  It reminded me of my first time in Montana where I did the very same thing.  There is something magical about Montana and the whole group is excited to soak it in for the next several days.

We finally got off the interstate and found ourselves following the Big Hole River towards Wise River.  Our adventure had now officially begun.  We drove the length of the river and finally arrived at Freedom Ranch.  This place is truly beautiful, and our expectations were understated to say the least.  We pulled up to the bunk house and everyone was quick to enter the main lodge and get settled in the enormous queen-sized bunks that we would call home for the next few days.  After settling in, we went over to the fly shop and got the group outfitted for waders, boots, and wading socks.  It was going to be a hot week, so the waders weren’t going to get used, so made sure that everyone had wading socks for wet wading.  

Craig Fellin from the Big Hole Lodge was on hand to provide 1:1 casting instruction for each of the participants and give them some pointers on all things fly fishing on the Big Hole River.  Some had only been flyfishing a few times prior to the trip, so the instruction was incredibly beneficial and well received even from those with years of fishing experience.  Craig even took the time to talk about his time in the service and gave best wishes for the week.  

We finished the day with a light dinner provided by the Wise River Community Center.  One note, if this was considered a light meal – homemade chicken salad sandwiches, chips, fruit, and desert – we will all leave here a bit heavier than we arrived.  After our meal, we took a quick walk to the Big Hole on the property and starting to see some tricos coming off which would be the primary hatch during our trip.  The rest of the evening was spent settling in and telling stories in the rocking chairs in front of the lodge while Jim made sure that everyone had a handful of his flies that he had tied for the group. Regardless of the number of fish caught, this was going to be a great week with great people.

Day 2 – August 31st – Wade Fishing Day

Today was an early start!  The lodge began to stir at 4:30am when I discovered that Ed and Brandon are earlier risers.  Coffee was already brewing, so let the day begin.  The stars were notably bright outside the lodge and soon the sun began to show its light just behind the mountains in the distance.  By 6am everyone was awake and getting prepped for the day.  Breakfast was at 7am sharp, and served by Lynda from the Wise River Club.  Cheesy scrambled eggs, hash browns, fruit, and banana bread were just what we needed.  Did I mention that we are going to gain weight on this trip?

We collected rods and gear around 8am to get ready for a day of wade fishing on the Big Hole just a few miles down river from the lodge with our Guide Will, Montana, and myself.  After scouting a few of the more treacherous possibilities we found a nice stretch of water.  Rigo was the first to bring a nice rainbow to hand.  The morning proved successful for most bringing in several whitefish, a couple of rainbows and Jim catching this first brown of the trip.  Justin even managed to hook his first fish on a fly that wasn’t even in the water.  The early setups were hopper dropper until the tricos started coming off in earnest, then the dry fly fun began.  Larry had only been flyfishing a couple of time prior to the trip and was able to get him fishing dries successfully within a few minutes.  After a productive morning the trico hatch finally subsided and we made the hike back up to our van, we got out the chairs and ate lunch roadside.  Gyro sandwiches, salad, and baclava.  The day had gotten significantly warmer, and we decided to start scouting another spot for the group to fish for another hour before our day was ended by Hoot Owl restrictions.  We finally settled on a stretch upriver from the lodge just off a nice meadow.  There were some rising fish, but we didn’t have any success as the heat of the day continued to rise.  One special note for the day – Montana and I have nicknamed Ed “The Wanderer”.  In both locations, Ed went in search untouched water at the far end of our group each time.  He has been fishing awhile and that is what he is used to. 

We got back to the lodge, and everyone is relaxing – as they should be!  We had a great first day of fishing and a couple hours before our next meal, which is Broasted Chicken.  There has been much debate as to what this is exactly.  Consensus up to this point is that it is broiled, roasted, and fried.  We shall see, either way, it sounds amazing.

Dinner time – consisted of the much debated broasted chicken, mashed taters, corn, and 3 types of pie.  Since we had debated the last couple of days about the broasted chicken, someone had to ask Lynda what it was exactly.  Lynda kindly informed us that it is just broasted chicken rather emphatically.  Merely fried chicken cooked under pressure.  It was amazing and one of the best chicken dinners we have ever had!  To-go orders for me and Brandon were required, and others were not happy that they had declined.

The rest of the evening was a quiet one.  Most retired early or lounged about the lodge with several hitting the early to prep for tomorrow’s adventure.  Hoping this crew, the best of luck in the AM.  Truly honored and humbled to be with a great bunch of deserving vets on this trip in this amazing place!

Day 3 – Guided Fishing Day 1

Another early start here at the ranch!  The good thing is that it wasn’t pre 5am like yesterday.  The group seems to be settling into the ranch nicely and sleeping a little later.  Our trip lead is very grateful.

Breakfast this morning with Lynda consisted of giant blueberry pancakes, eggs, bacon, and fruit.  Delicious as always!  I think tat we are all loosening our belts at this point.  At the conclusion of our belt loosening meal, the grouped starting getting ready for the small flotilla of bats that arrived with Jack, Tim, Mark, and Butch at the helm.  Montana and I quickly started pairing our anglers with guides.  Jim and Brandon (oldest and youngest vets), Ed and Justin, Rigo and David, and finally Benito and Larry.   These parings should lead to some interesting stories over the next couple of days.  All loaded up in their guides chariots and off to the Big Hole for a fun day on the river.  Good luck to all!

As I sit here in the lodge alone, I have had some time to reflect on this beautiful place that has been built to provide a place of healing and peace for our nation heroes.  The lodge, fly shop, and new barn are gorgeous. The lodge, much like a church are made up of the people that fill it.  The attention to detail in every aspect of the buildings is amazing and the surrounding landscape make this the perfect place for our vets to recharge and most worthy of the vets that come here for a short period of time.  I truly hope that their experience here in Montana inspires them as much as me.  Certainly, one of the most beautiful places in this great nation.

Benito and Larry are the first to arrive back from the day’s adventure.  Each caught several fish with Benito landing a couple of nice browns and Larry landing the first grayling (a unicorn according to the guides this low on the river) of the trip.  Larry is just missing a brook trout to complete the Big Hole Grand Slam.  Both had a great day on the water!

All the boats have safely returned with some happy fly fishermen.  Consistent action throughout the day kept everyone engaged and although no large fish were landed, all are pumped after today’s adventure.  A couple notable entries from today; Larry with a rare Grayling on the lower Big Hole and Brandon with a West Slope Cutthroat.  Always nice to get a couple of unicorns for these stretches of the Big Hole.

The evening began with pizza from the H Bar J Saloon and the group had its fill.  After dinner we had an impromptu fly-tying session with me, Jim, and Ed at the vice with an audience of Brandon, Benito, Justin, Rigo, and David intently watching us twist up some fur and feather.  Jim even got Brandon and Benito to tie a couple of flies with Jim’s fine instruction!  I believe the flies I tied ended up in David’s pocket.  A great evening of fun after a good day of fishing.

Day 4 – Guided Fishing 2 – “Where Your Seatbelts”

The started at 6am for most and everyone is getting with the morning program.  Another incredible breakfast with egg frittata, has browns, ham, and fruit served by chef Lynda.  She has been awesome with the group and has spent time with nearly everyone this week.  It is truly a blessing to have her serving these vets as well as those from each of the other trips to FRFH this year.

As usual the group gathered by 8am and were ready to tackle the Big Hole on their final day of fishing.  After the group loaded up and headed out with their guides, I rushed down to the lower river where we had fished on our wading day to get some pics of the group in the boats with their guides.  I won’t lie, was hoping to get a little fishing in myself on the Big Hole and was hoping that the Trico hatch would be as good as it had been just a few days earlier.  I brought a couple of small rainbows and several whitefish to hand just before the flotilla of 8 boats started cruising through my hole like I was a gate agent on the Panama Canal.  I think everyone on the river floated this section today.  Well, all but Jack with Jim and Brandon…. more on that later.  Before long I was able to get a few good pics of Rigo and David and shortly thereafter pics of Justin and Ed.  When I started to fish again the Trico hatch had begun to fade and then shutdown completely.  Time for the trip lead and chief photographer to get some lunch.

The group started returning to the lodge around 4pm and the fish counts started coming in.  Each returning group had good numbers.  All in all, this group of fine anglers landed nearly 80 fish today.  Several nice trout were landed, including few grayling and the largest fish of the trip landed by Benito with a 16” Rainbow and Brandon with a 16.5” Rainbow.  Nice way to squeak out he win for largest fish of the trip Brandon and landed a total of 30 fish for the day, not bad day by any standard!

The day had some interesting stories aside from those that involved catching large numbers of fish.  Rigo has been given the honorary nickname “The Triple Lindy” for his sudden exit from his sturdy raft and going down the rapids belly first.  Unfortunately, he was not the only one, Justin also decided to take the plunge into the mighty Big Hole.  On a good note, no injuries were incurred aside from the lifejackets being deployed.  (Montana gave me the obligatory “are you kidding” when I notified him).   On a side note, I did notify Rigo and Justin that I have updated their profiles in the CRM to note that seatbelts are now required when fishing from rafts or boats in the future.  As Paul McLean would say, “It was quite a day.”

Tonight, is the farewell dinner and everyone got cleaned up and put on their Sunday best for the trip to the Wise River Club where our hosts Lynda and Joy had a Prime Rib dinner waiting for us.  Desert was a special treat from Livingston, Pistachio ice cream. Following dinner our MC for the evening, Montana introduced Rachel who sang the National Anthem. It was very cool to see all the Wise River residents join in to honor our country and our vets that had been at FRFH this week.  Montana started the awards ceremonies by honoring Jim and Larry for their service in Vietnam and wanted to make sure that they received the thanks for their service that was so deserved!  Now to the awards and bragging rights with the distribution of the awards.  First round was those that caught 4 of the 5 species of the Big Hole Grand Slam which nearly al of anglers received.  Next, we were on to the most fish and largest fish, our youngest angler and if not mistaken our newest angler Brandon received both.  He barely beat Benito’s 16’ rainbow with a 16.5” rainbow.  The rest of the evening was spent telling stories from the week, strengthening relationships and a fair number of group pics.  It has been an awesome week and I hope that we can all stay in touch and continue to build long term relationships. 

Early night tonight.  Everyone came back to the ranch and packed their gear and hit the rack early.  It has been an unbelievable week and will be tough to leave the ranch.  It has felt like home being here, hope the vets feel the same way.

Day 5 – Travel Day

This morning was beautiful and a little nippy.  The group was up at 6a and ready to hit the road at 7:30a as planned.  Montana arrived with Fievel, and we loaded the van and headed to Bozeman for our final leg of the trip.  As we drove down the length of the Big Hole for the last time the sun was starting to come over the mountains and it was indeed a gorgeous sight.  

We arrived at the airport right at our designated time and said our goodbyes to Montana, checked in, go through security and made our way to the restaurant for a final meal together before heading back to Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Montana, and Georgia.  It was great to get to spend a few more minutes with a great group that I am proud to call friends.  It was an honor and privilege to get to serve these men that so faithfully served our country.  I look forward to staying in touch with of each of them and hopefully being able to fish with them again soon.

 “One great thing about fly fishing is that after a while nothing exists of the world but thoughts about fly fishing.”

Norman Maclean

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