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By Al Campbell

When you do something every year at the same time and in the same way, it becomes a tradition. Such is the annual fly fishing vacation I take every June, on the Bighorn River in Montana. I time this vacation to coincide with the longest day of the year, reasoning that the increased activity of certain members of the trout's food chain will bring good fishing. The extra hours of daylight are merely a bonus.

Since I make this trip every year, it has become a tradition. Like most traditions, I've also come to expect that certain things will remain the same every year. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? I expect to see the same people running Cottonwood Camp, where I stay anytime I'm on the river. I expect to encounter the same cloud of saber-tooth skeeters that never seem to tire of the taste of my blood. It just would be the same if any part of the tradition changed. I've come to expect things to be that way.

That's where my problem comes to focus, things are changing on the big river. I'm not talking about minor changes like river channels or water temperatures either. The changes are big and threaten to change my whole experience in permanent ways. I'm afraid that this year will be much different than last year, and last year was much different than the one before.

The first change I noticed was that many of the old guides have left the river. I used to enjoy saying "good morning" to Kip Dean, a Rapid city native who made his living guiding fishermen on the Bighorn. Last year he gave up a major part of his life, a part I know he loved, to pursue other things in the Black Hills. It just wasn't the same without seeing his boat drift past me in the morning and hearing him ask if I was having any luck. Part of the tradition is gone.

The next change is in the only good eating establishment on the river. Polly's Place offers good food to hungry fishermen and their guides after a long day on the river. But, Polly has cancer, and she probably won't be with us this June. Another part of my treasured tradition is slipping away.

When I roll into Cottonwood Camp, I'm always greeted by Booney, their 'official' greeting dog. He's been there fourteen years, wagging his tail and welcoming visitors in a way only a good dog can. But last year was a little different. Booney is so crippled by arthritis and too many hard years, that he was real slow to greet me. He's lost a lot of weight, and his limping gait told me that another tradition is in it's autumn days. Once a proud bird hunder and one heck of a racoon chaser, he now spends the majority of his days soaking in sun.

Before I climbed into the pickup for the trip home, I followed tradition by slipping Booney half a cinnamon roll and giving him a pat on the head. I said the traditional works, "See ya next year, old buddy." I know the odds are against that prediction remaining true, but it's hard to break a tradition as strong as the annual parting of old friends.

If I'm able, I'll make my traditional trip to Cottonwood Camp and the Bighorn River this June. Some of the traditions will remain only as a memory of good times past. I'll think of friends, human and canine, that I've enjoyed time with while exchanging lies about the one that got away. I'll dedicate a fish to every friend who failed to keep the traditional meeting - though some of them will be there in spirit. I'll sit on the porch and sip coffee while I talk with old friends about times past and big fish waiting to be caught. I must do this, it's a tradition I don't want to break. I must do this because, if I failed to show up at the traditional time, I'd be missed and another part of the tradition of the river would end. And too much has already changed. ~ Al Campbell (April 27th, 1998)

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