If you’ve ever had the pleasure of floating the renowned Bighorn River and noticed an unmistakable boat painted like a brown trout drifting down the seams and riffles, you’ve witnessed a guide who knows this water better than anybody. Full-blooded Montanan, Merritt Harris grew up in Wyola, a small town positioned approximately 60 miles southeast of Fort Smith. For a bit of scope, the 2010 census reported Wyola as having only 215 residents. With a population this size, options for things to do were limited but with the banks of the Little Bighorn River only a few hundred yards from his back door, Merritt kept plenty occupied learning a skill that would one day become his trade.
Like most kids, Merritt began catching trout using worms and spinners but at age 12, he received a fly rod and from there, it was all over. As a child, Merritt wanted nothing more than to be outside and while much of his time was consumed working on his family’s ranch, he spent nearly all of his free time on the water. By the time, he was in his teens, Merritt was more than a proficient angler but had no idea that guiding was an actual career option.
Always seeking the next adventure, Merritt jumped at the opportunity to work aboard his uncle’s commercial fishing boat docked in Homer, Alaska. “I thought fishing in Alaska sounded pretty cool so I made the trip around ’77 and did that until about ’81. We seined for salmon, long-lined for halibut and even did a bit of crab fishing.” says Merritt. After getting his fill of Alaska, Merritt moved to Arizona and became a fence contractor doing both residential and commercial jobs. Meanwhile, Merritt’s brother, Hale Harris, was in the process of purchasing the Bighorn Trout Shop. When the deal was done, Hale asked Merritt what he thought about guiding on the Bighorn. “I think it was around ’87 when Hale asked me to start guiding. And to me, spending my days fishing sounded like a lot more fun than jackhammering and digging post holes in Arizona so needless to say, I was pretty eager to get back to Montana.” says Merritt.
Despite growing up with the Bighorn in close proximity, up until this point, Merritt had only fished it a handful of times but he does recall his first time floating the river. “I floated the Bighorn for the first time with Hale. I remember thinking, big river, big fly, big fish. So, I rigged this giant golden stonefly and didn’t catch anything. My brother on the other hand was catching really nice fish on a No. 14 scud. That’s when I first realized that even though the river is loaded with fish, you really have to present the right fly at the right time. Once we got dialed in, I was amazed at how many fish there were in the river. That was so long ago and I’m still blown away that the fishery has remained solid even with a dramatic increase of anglers.” says Merritt.
Merritt’s first guide season came in ‘87 and ever since, he’s continued to uncover the often-overlooked nuances of the Bighorn. “You know, the Bighorn is a very user friendly river. What I mean is that on most days, you can fish just about any way your client wants whether it’s drifting nymphs under an indicator, throwing streamers at shorelines or super technical dry fly fishing.” he says. While Merritt can consistently keep his client’s rods bent no matter what tactic they choose, his specialty (and favorite type of fishing) is sight fishing. In June of 2014, I spent three days with Merritt on the Bighorn for a G4 Pro™ Jacket photo shoot. For this trip, instead of oars, Merritt held a rod and I got to watch a true master at work. Every place we dropped anchor, Merritt hopped out and slowly waded out to a specific spot. He would just stare until finally, he’d say, “There’s one” and begin casting. Nine times out of 10, I wouldn’t see anything except river bottom but 10 times out of 10, his fly would drift and disappear inside the mouth of a fish would have never seen.
Most guides like having options — if one river hasn’t been fishing well, the water is dirty or simply want a change of scenery, they load up their boat and drop in on a different river. Merritt however spends nearly every day of his long season taking advantage of the consistent water clarity and fishing his favorite tailwater provides — which explains why he truly knows the Bighorn like the back of his hand.
Watch Merritt in action on his home water and check out the gear he uses to embrace the elements when the weather of Southern Montana turns. Shop Merritt’s Kit.