A few days ago on June 17th, I was on the river before dawn and witnessed the sunrise that silhouetted the mountains and hills surrounding the valley. It was early. The sunrise reminded me of events that took place 145 years ago just some 160 miles east. The Battle of Rosebud Creek in the Great Sioux War of 1876-77 took place on June 17th and became the catalyst for an epic fishing trip. In 1876, the eastern prairies and foothills of Montana were still hostile Indian lands occupied by Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Crow. Travel along the Yellowstone River east of Bozeman had proved treacherous for many explorers and prospectors for more than a decade. The end to the Indian troubles didn’t really come until 1877, but the summer of 1876 during the Great Sioux War ensured the decline of the Lakota and Cheyenne. Summer days in mid-June on the eastern Montana plains are long. Nights are short, even shorter when you consider lingering twilight and the haunting glimmer of an impending sunrise. US Cavalry soldiers and seasoned travelers on the plains knew to beware of these periods of low light. A man on a horse could easily be seen silhouetted against a dawn sky if they were traveling ridges along the hills in the prairie. Cavalry scouts and sentries were alert early well before sunrise to guard against dawn raids by hostile Indians. A long night’s sleep wasn’t in the cards for those soldiers in 1876.
On June 17th, General George Crook and his 3rd Cavalry had moved up from Wyoming Territory into the Rosebud Creek valley just west of the Tongue River in southeast Montana. There, Crook’s forces encountered Crazy Horse and some 1500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. The Battle of the Rosebud or Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother as it was called by the Lakota ensued. By all historic accounts, the six hour battle, which saw heavy losses on both sides, was considered a draw. Crook made the decision to withdraw his forces south into Wyoming and recover from the battle. He bivouacked his forces, which numbered approximately 1000, in the vicinity of Goose Creek in the Tongue River headwaters that flowed off the Bighorn Mountains. The location of Crook’s camp was near present day Sheridan, Wyoming. He remained there, out of the fray with the Sioux and Cheyenne for five weeks, completely unaware of the Battle of the Little Bighorn that saw George Custer’s demise on June 25th. One of the most amazing statistics of western trout fishing resulted from that encampment.
In 1876, the headwaters of the Tongue River, Goose Creek and other tributaries were home to Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout and Mountain Whitefish. However, at the time, the Yellowstone cutthroat had not been identified as such by scientists as it was lumped in with the westslope and commonly called the black-spotted trout. Of course soldiers in such an encampment fished and hunted game to help sustain themselves—living off the land so to speak. Captain John Gregory Bourke was a seasoned cavalry officer, a Civil War Medal of Honor recipient and at the time, General Crook’s Aide-de-camp. One of his duties was to record the activities in camp for eventual reporting to higher headquarters. One of the statistics he kept was the type and number of fish and game the troops brought into camp every day to feed the men. In his published diaries in a chapter called Hunting and Fishing on the Tongue Bourke praises the prowess of many of the officers and soldiers in catching 50-100 “toothy trout” per day. The preferred bait was grasshoppers although he also referred to “flies” without further explanation. It is probable that some well-healed officers carried fishing gear with them, so flies may have been some early trout flies from England. More likely he meant living insects like salmon flies which would have been prevalent in late June and early July. All told, Bourke documented over 15,000 trout taken during the five week encampment. That was epic fishing.
As the pale dawn sky spread out before this clear summer morning, my thoughts again went back 145 years. On June 25th, late in the afternoon, Lt Colonel George Armstrong Custer engaged an overwhelmingly superior Lakota and Cheyenne force of 2000-3000 warriors on the Little Big Horn River. The battle which has become known as “Custer’s Last Stand” was a decisive Lakota victory. 268 soldiers and scouts lost their lives. The Lakota and Cheyenne lost less than 150 warriors. Historians have dissected this battle in every way and criticized Custer for his strategy and over-aggressiveness along the Little Bighorn. Generals Terry and Crook were not without blame as well. Terry was in overall command of the campaign against the Lakota and had a superior force just a day’s ride north of the Little Big Horn. Crook’s column was responsible for the southern flank. Although the 3rd Cavalry fought a tough fight at the Rosebud, his decision to retreat into Wyoming and regroup made his force unavailable to the campaign. Crook did not even learn of the Custer defeat until the second week in July when Terry’s scouts found the Crook encampment and it was not until the first of August before Crook could get his column moving north. Five weeks out of the fray, but five weeks that were one fantastic fishing trip—15,000+ cutthroats.
Today, Goose Creek and the surrounding tributaries of the Tongue River headwaters hold no cutthroats with the exception of remnant pockets high in the Big Horn Mountains. In the 1890s, just 15 years after the Custer fight, brook, brown and rainbow trout were introduced into the west. It is unknown when they first made their way to Goose Creek and the Tongue River but they are the predominant trout there today. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, although a decisive tactical victory for Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse ultimately proved to be a strategic mistake for the Lakota and Cheyenne. Reminiscent of “Remember the Alamo”, General’s Terry, Crook and Colonel Nelson Miles waged a brutal winter campaign against the Lakota and Cheyenne that refused to return to the reservations in the Dakotas. By April 1877, most had surrendered with only Sitting Bull and a small band of family and followers escaping to Canada. Sitting Bull left Canada and surrendered to US authorities in July 1881. The defeat of the Lakota and Cheyenne in 1877 opened up the Yellowstone River valley for safe exploration, settlement and of course the railroad. It wasn’t until 1882 that Livingston, Montana was established where Northern Pacific Railroad surveyors chose to establish maintenance yards along the big bend on the Yellowstone, just six years after the Custer fight. The haunting dawns of late June on the Eastern Montana prairies still had me thinking about Custer and Crook just 145 years ago.
It wasn’t that long ago here in Montana where one of the most epic five week fishing trips was taking place just across the border in Wyoming while the US cavalry waged war against the Lakota and Cheyenne in the Great Sioux War of 1876. One of my routine destinations every summer is the Gardner River, flowing out of the Gallatin Range in Wyoming, it is not unlike Goose Creek and the Tongue River tributaries might have looked like when Crook’s men fished in June/July 145 years earlier. Unlike Goose Creek, Yellowstone cutthroat still strive in the Gardner and respond well to hopper and salmon fly imitations. It is never a 50-100 fish day but sometime in the past it might have been.
A version of this story was previously published in 2015 in the J. Stockard Fly Fishing Blog