By CHRIS JORGENSEN

BILLINGS (AP) – Indian children have been fishing the Bighorn River for a long, long time. Eons, perhaps.

But, not so much lately. There has been plenty to distract Crow youngsters, whose economically struggling reservation straddles this world-famous blue-ribbon trout stream, which attracts anglers from around world.

It doesn’t help when the Crow children see visitors with expensive trucks pulling expensive boats, step into the river wearing expensive gear, and using fishing rods that can cost as much as a used car.

That’s part of the reason Ann Marie Emery organized a day of fly fishing on the Bighorn for a group of seven Crow Indian students on a stretch of the river about 10 miles south of St. Xavier, reported the Billings Gazette.

Emery is the executive director of the Bighorn River Alliance, a group devoted to protecting the river and its access.

She brought a famous friend with her to the river, who brought some of his own friends, to teach the children to fly fish using Tenkara rods. The point of the rods is that they are relatively inexpensive, portable and easy to use. They have no reel and people all over the world have been using devices similar to them to catch fish since the first person tied a line and hook to a willow stick.

“These kids see people fishing on the river, spending all this money, and we want them to know it’s their river too,” Emery said.  “We want them to know they can fish here and not for much money.”

Emery’s famous friend who came along to help teach the youngsters was 77-year-old Yvon Chouinard, a fly-fishing expert and lifelong advocate of the simple Tenkara rod.

The youngsters didn’t seem overly impressed that Chouinard helped pioneer rock climbing in the 1950s and `60s, and made some of the first assents in Yosemite National Park with other world-famous climbers like Royal Robbins.

And they didn’t seem to notice that half the puffy jackets and fleece vests and hip waders they see on the river were made by Patagonia, a global enterprise founded by Chouinard that has earned millions of dollars and supported many thousands of Earth-friendly projects.

To the Crow children Chouinard was more of a kindly grandfather, teaching them in a quiet, calm voice how to cast and gently tug the fly against the current, teasing a fish into taking a gulp.

“This is how I learned to fish, only it was with a willow rod,” Chouinard said. The Tenkara rod “is a real simple device. It’s easy to get hooked on this way of fishing because it’s so basic.”

And it worked, right away.

Within a few casts 12-year-old Marti Wilson had caught a brown trout. She kept it in a bucket of ice and planned to eat it later at home.

“It was kind of hard at first,” she said, after having three fish take the bait but slip off the line. “It’s the first fish I ever caught.”

Even Chouinard was impressed.

“That girl got hot in a hurry. She caught on quick,” he said.

He loves to see children get excited about fly fishing. He recalled years ago teaching a 9-year-old girl how to fly fish who was so eager to get going that the lesson lasted about five minutes.

“She walked right into the river and landed 17 fish, one after the other, and boy is she a fisherman now. You can’t keep her out of the river,” Chouinard said.

Wilson has come to the river with her father, Dana Wilson, vice chairman of the Crow Tribe. He tries his luck with a Tenkara rod upriver, casting and casting, but after many bites walked ashore empty-handed. He was met on the riverbank by a grinning Marti, who cheekily asked, “Did you catch any? Do you want to see my fish?”

If fact, all but one of the Crow youngsters caught a fish, even if they weren’t able to land them all.

“It was a little frustrating getting the fish in,” said 14-year-old Mildus Wilson. “But, we all got one, and it was our first time.”

Michellynn Iron had brought her son and a nephew to the river to learn to fly fish.

“They were so excited to come here they haven’t been able to talk about anything else but learning to fly fish. They couldn’t sleep last night,” she said.

“We live here and we love the river,” she added. “We teach our kids to hunt from the time they can walk. But this is something we don’t do, we don’t fly fish.”

Emery, of the Bighorn River Alliance, hopes the Crow children not only learn to love fly fishing on their river, but also that they build up enough affection for the river to encourage their leaders to take care of it.

She spends some time with the children showing them what fish eat. She and the youngsters splash around in the rocks close to shore with a large fish bowl, using tiny nets to catch and inspect the insects fish eat. The youngsters also use their nets to dip baby fish into the bowl before releasing them.

Later in the day, Emery gathers the children to show them how to tell the age of a fish by counting the rings on its ear bones. She twists the head off one of the bigger trout that had been caught and then digs around inside with a small knife to find the very tiny ear bones.

“You’re living in a special place, with a special river,” she told the children. “A clean river is a thing to be proud of. I hope you will go fishing lots on this river in the future.”

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