One man's scheme for a not-quite commonwealth of uncommonly good fishing
A week from now the creek at our boots will be too thin to float. Fueled by the dregs of a heavy winter snowpack atop Wyoming’s Bighorn Range, its window is on the verge of being shuttered. “Hard to say how it’ll fish,” Clark Smyth says from under the brim of an oversized straw hat. Instead of a handful of flies, the Sheridan-based guide casually places rusty wire-cutters in my open palm. “Hang onto these.”
High water sets a brisk pace, and we fish at hard downstream angles to avoid a whole morning of trolling. Just beyond the willows at our backcasts, wrinkled foothills of the Bighorn Range are carpeted in head-high grass. Where the meadow stops, red clay escarpments poke into the blue yonder. Smyth points out hilltops potholed with ancient tee-pee rings, remnants of the nomadic plains tribes that beat us all to the party. We float past an ornate post-and-beam spread that Tommy Lee Jones is said to use as a semi-frequent escape. Hawks blitz past. Yellow Sallies bounce upstream. And stretched bank-to-bank—like an undulating meat grinder—we encounter our barbed-wire crucible about midway through the float.
The ambiguous cutters Smyth handed me earlier suddenly have a purpose. We put them to work. Snip goes the barricade. On goes freedom.
The key to an effective wire fence is getting it bowstring tight. This tenacity gives the contents within a certain degree of security, as well as spatial context. In the American West, by the 1930s, the theoretical fences that formed state borders had mostly been drawn snug. The way-outliers were Alaska and Hawaii; one a former Russian colony snatched up for $7 million, the other a one-time kingdom ruled by surf-worshipping nobility. Those unattached appendages would become the 49th and 50th states, respectively, in 1959. But 20 years earlier, a secession movement instigated in Sheridan, Wyoming, threatened to interrupt history with the insertion of Absaroka (pronounced Ab-zor-kuh) into the No. 49 slot—a proposed state cut from the guts of northern Wyoming, southern Montana, and western South Dakota.
Unity was the dream. As one newspaperman described it, “…a vision of orphans bent on cutting the heart out of the watermelon.” The so-called fatherless included counties far enough removed from state capitals in Cheyenne, Helena, and Pierre to feel geographically, politically, and economically alienated. In 1932, A. R. (Art) Swickard, a shit-stirrer by nature and a Sheridan-based street and water commissioner by trade, spearheaded the effort to split. Historians say he was miffed about Sheridan County not receiving a fair share of Republican-patronage committee appointments. According to the press, Sheridan had “…gone Republican in a big way, but the jobs hadn’t been passed out in a like manner.”
Following the roaring ’20s, the dusty ’30s marked the onset of a jarring hangover—particularly in the West, where the prairie landscape was about to endure extended periods of drought, coupled with seasons of Hitchcock-esque grasshopper plagues. While FDR’s New Deal spurred localized economies in parts of the country, indignant ranchers in Wyoming were mostly cut off from federal cash pouring toward railroad development and large-scale irrigation projects—aka dams.
Beneath the hooves of its grazing herds, Wyoming did, however, have coal, which would have been a potential boon for Montana’s peripheral micro-towns had they pledged allegiance to Absaroka. Western South Dakotans, on the other hand, were busy aiming pitchforks at politicians from the eastern side of their state, who dominated the legislature and used their advantage to hammer the western half’s ore- extraction industry with heavy taxes.
Absaroka offered an alternative to these economic melodramas. So much so that when Swickard began shopping around some compelling what-ifs, people began listening. What if Sheridan County dumped Wyoming and romanced all those disgruntled Montanans and peeved South Dakotans? And what if that tryst resulted in a birth? One thing’s for certain, Absaroka would have been one trouty bastard.
Absaroka’s southern border consisted of a loosely defined straight line. According to one plan, its counties would have included Teton, Park, Hot Springs, Washakie, Big Horn, Sheridan, Johnson, Campbell, Weston, Crook, and part of Fremont. Dipping as far south as the town of Kaycee in Johnson County, the eastern perimeter brought the main stem and forks of the Powder River into play. And bookended by South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest farther east, and the Wyoming-Idaho line in the western fringe, lower Absaroka would have swallowed the headwaters of the Snake and Yellowstone rivers, plus all of Yellowstone National Park and its beloved trout drainages. Additionally, Absaroka would have included the South Fork of the Shoshone; the Wind River on its way to becoming the Bighorn, downstream of Thermopolis; and, stretching toward the right side of the map, the Tongue River and myriad small streams spilling off the Bighorn Mountains. Keyhole Reservoir and the Belle Fourche River in northeastern Wyoming, between the towns of Gillette and Sundance, would have also entered the fold.
In the northern sphere, the Absaroka border left Billings in Montana, but it ensnared Hardin to the east, pulling in sections of the Yellowstone, the tailwater stretch of the Bighorn River below Yellowtail Dam, a latticework of trout-filled tributary streams, and the lake-potholed grasslands near ghost towns like Albion. Sealing the deal, the South Dakota side of the proposed state would have collected Rapid City and all 1.2 million acres of rivers and streams within the Black Hills zone.
As “governor” of this swath, Swickard brought some John Wayne swagger to his self-appointed role. “We’ll make our own laws, just like the Wyoming legislators do in the big hotel at Cheyenne,” he said to local reporters during the height of the movement. He later met with Wyoming’s real-deal Governor Nels H. Smith for a closed-door session at the capitol. Their discussion was reportedly friendly. “I told the governor of our sister state to the south of Buffalo that we had no warlike designs and that rumors we might secede by force were erroneous.” He added, “We Absarodans [sic] are a peace loving lot and while we think that we really need the state of Absaroka, we are not inclined to a revolution.”
Swickard likewise never rallied an army. Instead, he did the next best thing: threw a beauty pageant. Old black and whites show a sultry Dorothy Fellows wrapped shoulder to hip in a “Miss Absaroka” sash. With Fellows in tow, Swickard led a noisy procession to Billings in the spring of ’39 that included the Sheridan High School band and the local American Legion drum and bugle corps. Upon arrival, they hooked up with Prince Olav and Princess Martha of Norway, in town for the Viking League of America reception. Swickard showed off his newly minted license plates that proclaimed “Absaroka, Playground of the Nation.” And what’s a new state without a flag? Absaroka’s was unmistakably red and white with a “49” sewn into the triangle.
Politics may have kindled Gov. Swick’s plan. But his playground proclamation hinted at another marketing scheme.”Within the boundaries of Absaroka we’ll have the Big Horn Mountains, the Big Horn Basin, Cody and Yellowstone parks, as well as the Black Hills. Absaroka is the vacationists’ paradise,” he told the press.
“It has everything from hot spots to lonely peaks, rolling prairies, beautiful upland mountain valleys. The rest of the world will come to Absaroka for fun, for fishing, hunting… rodeos and relaxing.”
Today, in a primitive bar on the banks of Wyoming’s Rock Creek, a heavily stickered refrigerator rests on 100-year-old planks. Deep inside an unofficial Absaroka, the place is an oasis. Its fridge is loaded with beer. And we crack a few as sage-spiced air pours through open windows. The room is loosely populated, this being Wyoming after all—one of the last American holdouts where humans remain refreshingly sparse. Those who stumble in include beautiful women on corporate hiatus, as well as youthful guides on a mission to catch trout and get laid. It’s a mishmash of characters that could have been plucked directly from Dirty Dancing. And it’s here at the HF Bar Ranch, where Clark Smyth holds court.Smyth began traveling from Colorado to guide during his college summers. After working at HF for four seasons, his boss Paul Robertson approached him with a business proposition. Smyth took the bait and purchased the outfitting license for Rock Creek Anglers. “Here I am now,” he says, “forty years old and I’m still doing my college job.”
When Smyth started, he worked alongside three other guides. Together they catered to blueblood clients visiting the second oldest “dude” ranch in America, which is also one of the largest, with 9,000 acres bordering Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest. On their days off, Smyth and friends ventured beyond the property to scout new water across drainages such as the Powder River, Crazy Woman Creek, and the Tongue. They knocked on the doors of generational ranchers with roots dating back to the late 1800s. When the doors swung open, they struck up conversations. Sometimes they were told to beat it. Other times they were asked to stay—introducing ranchers bent on irrigation issues to the possibilities presented by healthy backyard fisheries.
Those outreach investments are now paying dividends. In addition to guided trips on Montana’s Bighorn and the complex of North Platte tailwaters around Alcova, Wyoming, Smyth and his guides target smaller streams that flow through large ranch tracts located between Sheridan and Kaycee. Their relationships with landowners go two ways: The guides gain entry to some great fishing (for a fee), while the ranchers lean on the guides to watchdog their properties from trespassers or, as in our case earlier that morning, to remove a menacing barbed-wire fence that was already slated to be rerouted.
These days a high percentage of Wyoming’s population still works in traditional ranching and agriculture trades. If you’re looking for beef, you’re in the right place. But energy and tourism sectors have stepped up to become the state’s primary economic drivers. When it comes to the former, Wyoming is more dependent on mining and drilling than any other state in the nation. So you wouldn’t be shocked to learn that the state hasn’t voted Democrat since 1964.
But don’t be mislead, Smyth says, the region breeds a different kind of political reckoning. Conservative values are rooted in preserving a pioneering way that allowed early homesteaders to survive in places as desolate as Kaycee (pop. 263) and Ten Sleep (pop. 250). In the state’s northeastern quadrant, on the other hand, Sheridan is known as a progressive hotbed. (The county’s share of liberal votes doubled the state average when President Obama was first elected in 2009. President Trump, however, won soundly in 2016.) Culturally, that translates to a thriving music and arts scene. And politically, when the populous has been pushed into a corner, Sheridan has never been afraid to nudge back.
“That same kind of secession movement we’re talking about… you’ll find inklings of that sentiment in the county commission, in the city council, even in the state government,” Smyth says.
“Maybe that’s why Wyoming only has 500,000 people—because there’s a general resistance to outsiders here. You never know, we may have to reintroduce a movement like Absaroka,” he laughs. “I’m all for it.”
If citizens of Sheridan felt alienated through the 1930s, their home turf today, at least as far as its trout waters are concerned, remains disconnected from the main current. East of the Bighorn National Forest, a checkerboard of private lands make accessing much of northeastern Wyoming’s best fishing a challenge. But it’s one that can be overcome with a little legwork. Streams are typically small, perfect 4-weight territory. Fish are larger than average, making you wish you’d brought the 5-weight. And access is hard-earned; procured by studying maps and asking the right questions of the right people.
That said, Sheridan is not exactly trout fishing Holy Land when it comes to bringing in angler traffic. Nor are the waters of its neighboring towns in South Dakota. (Although the Black Hills area is home to some unheralded small streams—Rapid, Spearfish, and Sand creeks to name a handful.) But other parts of Swickard’s proposed Absaroka State did and still do fit the recipe for Mecca-making.
In 1978, following a string of armed standoffs between government agencies and tribal members, a 50-mile section of the Bighorn near Fort Smith, Montana, was closed to non-Indian hunters and anglers when a Federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Crow Nation’s claim to the streambed.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling in 1981, returning river ownership to the state. Four years later, Hale Harris and Steve Hilbers, who were both hunkered in West Yellowstone at the time, pooled their guide tips and purchased the Bighorn Trout Shop. It was a well-timed move. Flyfishing big cheeses such as George Anderson, in Livingston, touted the reopened Bighorn as one of the greatest trout fisheries in America. Traveling anglers from across the nation flocked to its waters, and it was “sorta off to the races after that, with steady growth each consecutive season for the next 10 to 15 years,” Harris says. “The Bighorn today would have been a marquee fishery within an Absaroka state, especially on the eastern side of the map.”
Meanwhile on the other side of Absaroka, just over the Bighorn Mountains, across its namesake basin, past the Absaroka Wilderness, the Wind River Mountains, and then up and down the Gros Ventre and Wyoming ranges, you’ll eventually wind up surrounded by fairytale trout arteries near a little place called Jackson.
“When you settle in and really figure out where you are, what stands out is the vastness,” says Mike Dawes of WorldCast Anglers, a fly shop that caters to angling opportunists visiting the Jackson area, as well as Idaho’s Teton Valley. The tributary streams that comprise the Snake River system for instance are a mix of diamonds. “You look at the fisheries coming in—the Lewis, Pacific Creek, Buffalo Fork, Hoback, Greys, Henry’s Fork… it goes on,” Dawes adds. “And they all start in what would have been Absaroka State. Its hypothetical boundary lines encompassed the epicenter of many of the well-known trout fisheries in the West.”
Dawes’ current home is Victor, Idaho. His guiding career, however, began alongside Smyth, honing his skills in Sheridan County at HF Bar Ranch. And having now surveyed both sides of the coin, Dawes sees good fishing as the common, unifying theme—albeit a lopsided one. He notes that the west side of the Absaroka equation wins out due to a grandiose vibe brought to you by Yellowstone National Park and the Tetons.
“Today, you’ve got the money that follows that. You’ve got a little bit of an ‘Aspen Hole-esque’ scene here,” he says. “We always joke that when we drive out of Jackson—with our county ‘22′ plates—we need to watch our backs, because it’s not real Wyoming.”
Jackson’s reputation for being a town where ski and fish bums have been unseated by millionaires and billionaires is accurate. The Economic Policy Institute in 2016 released a report calling it America’s most “economically unequal” city. Some staggering numbers back that conclusion. In Jackson and its adjacent counties, the top 1 percent of earners net more than 68 percent of the income. The bottom 90 percenters, comparatively, take home about 17 percent of the crumbs. According to Fortune, Jackson is also well ahead of its closest economically unequal rival: the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk area in Connecticut.
In a state known for its aversion to limelight, Jackson may be the ostentatious anomaly. Natural decadence is the noneconomic part of the equation. “Geographically, the western side of the state is much richer in terms of overall water volume,” Dawes says.
There’s also something to be gained from being a focal point on the map. Having two immense, iconic national parks—Grand Teton and Yellowstone—plus tens of thousands of acres of Forest Service and BLM lands has been a boon for access. “It also means we’re way more protected,” Dawes adds. “There’s much less in the way of public lands on the Sheridan side, where it’s maybe some cash, a bottle of whiskey, and a handshake.”
It’s impossible to know what access would have looked like under an Absaroka banner. In an ideal “trout state” the hypothetical sphere would have adopted something similar to Montana law, whereby anglers have full use of natural waterways between the high-water marks for fishing and floating. Absaroka’s border would have surely encircled what is today a healthy native fish population, so conservation principles would have had to follow suit, too. Both Montana and Wyoming claim the cutthroat as their state fish. And despite South Dakota being a (forgivable, delicious) walleye state, Absaroka would have been a cutthroat stronghold home to various strains: Westslope, Yellowstone, Snake River, Bonneville, and Colorado. Those who appreciate the no-hurry rise of a curious cutty would fit right in. Hopefully its leaders would have also felt an affinity for those moments.
Since Swickard’s legacy is now confined to yellowed newspaper clippings, Dawes’s prime candidate for a modern-day Absaroka champion goes by a different name. “Paul Bruun,” he says. “Because he knows so much about the trout fishing and what’s taken place here over the years. It would have to be someone like him, someone who’s not afraid to speak his mind.”
In 1976, Bruun, a western Wyoming fishing guide and career newspaperman, made the curious choice to run for town councilman in Jackson. He promised to work hard for his constituents and to fight relentlessly for their right to clean water, a battle that resulted in a new sanitation system for the growing municipality. Bruun went on to win a total of three council terms, serving a dozen years in office. He became known to his constituents as the Fishin’ Politician.
But he wasn’t the only fly-rod wielding politico of the era. Bruun recalls longtime ski instructor and fishing guide Robbie Garrett running for and winning a seat on the Pinedale city council. In West Yellowstone, fly-shop owner Bob Jacklin joined local retailer and flyfishing legend Cal Dunbar on that council. Before they came into office, “you could literally drown in a pothole up there, the roads were that bad,” Bruun says. Meanwhile, veteran outfitter Tim Wade, in Cody, was a multi-term Park County commissioner. And Bruun got help in Teton County, when Fort Jackson Fishing and Float Trip owner Dick Allen joined him on its council for several terms.
Bruun has long since retired from politics, but that hasn’t stopped him from airing unfiltered views on public affairs in the West. As for A. R. Swickard’s wild dream of an Absaroka State, he says, “They would have fallen flat on their faces if they’d done it. It would have been a travesty of a mistake. But it goes to show how independent—and either silly or visionary—people can be.”
“Swickard had a great concept,” he adds. “The problem he would’ve had, though, is that everyone who lives in these recreational communities is a chief. Handling a bunch of chiefs with no Indians would be tough.”
Earlier this year, Jackson grabbed mainstream media attention when Mayor Pete Muldoon dumped Town Hall portraits of President Trump and VP Mike Pence and threw up a framed photo of Chief Washakie, a fierce Shoshone warrior and one of the most influential leaders in Native American history. Muldoon told the Jackson Hole News & Guide, “Our town government takes a lot of pride in the details, in getting it right, in working together, in respecting all members of the community, in service to the public and in competence.”
He continued, “Our current president shows no interest in any of these things, and I think it sends the wrong message when we honor him.”
On the other side of the state, in blue-collar towns like Casper, Muldoon got blasted. One flip-side argument was, “if you can’t have a picture of the president on the wall, then you shouldn’t take coal money to support your school systems.” The Fishin’ Politician of course had an opinion, too: “It was a positive step for Jackson, getting everyone pissed off with the picture of Washakie as our patriarch,” he says. “And if I had to choose a leader for Absaroka, however absurd that is, I’d have to go with Washakie over anyone today. We could use the horsepower.”
Horsepower is something Swickard’s Absaroka State ran out of long before finishing the race. With the onset of World War II, the secessionist momentum sputtered. Today Absaroka lives on in memory—a few surviving shots of a pageant queen, some words to an unsung state song. And a bunch of great trout fishing.
Geoff Mueller is senior editor at The Drake. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. Follow him: @thedrakemagazine, @geoffmonline.