Peninsula Fly Fishers

A Montana Culinary Experience

by George Conway

December 2006


Fort Smith Montana lies at the end of the road geographically, philosophically, and socially. It was started as the staging point for the Yellowtail dam, a water storage facility for the local farming interests. Now it’s home for four motels, three fly shops, one grocery store that burned down last summer, and not much else. The industries are trout fishing on the Big Horn river, farming, and government checks to the local Crow Indian tribe. I was there for the fishing.

But this story is not about the world-class fly-fishing on the river, it’s about the food. For most of the fishers, breakfast consists of rolls and coffee at the outfitter’s staging area. The guides provide lunch. Lunch is ample and is a welcome stop along the river as we float. The float trip takes all day. Dinner is another thing.

None of the lodges/motels provide dinner. That by itself is not a problem. The only problem comes to available choices. There are three restaurants in Fort Smith. By the way, the nearest town is forty miles away. The problem is the three restaurants. Mary’s diner has just closed for the season. We went in late September. The diner associated with the shop we are staying with, Big Horn Trout Shop, has just burned down along with the grocery store. That leaves Judy’s.

Judy’s is piece of work. Judy, herself, is also a piece of work. The building is old, drafty, and completely at home with itself. It makes no pretenses to fine dining. It serves basic food. The problem is timing. With all of the fishers funneling into one restaurant food sometimes gets scarce. The first night the delivery truck hadn’t made it from Harden, the closest town. Let’s say choices were limited. About the only thing left was Indian taco. I expect that Judy’s is world known for it’s Indian taco but it was new to me. It looks like an open-faced taco; lettuce, tomatoes, beans. But, it was on fry bread. I had heard about fry bread on PBS. It was something about how un-nutritious it was and how it was one of the causes of native-American obesity. That didn’t sound good but I was hungry.

Fry bread has enough fat to choke an elephant. It is this round, flat bread about six inches in diameter and one inch thick. It will leave grease stains on everything it touches. The first bite generated a greasy ooze down my chin. It comes with plenty of napkins. I can also say that fat does taste good. Its health risks are rampant but as I said, I was hungry. One was enough.

Because Fort Smith is on the Crow reservation, you have to bring your own alcohol. We brought wine. Not good wine mind you, but drinkable. Needless to say, enough wine makes almost any meal bearable. We walked back to the rooms enjoying the stars, good company, crisp night air, and the sound of nature at it’s finest.

Judy herself is a product of her environment. She’s tough as nails. You do not talk back to her or complain about her cooking. She does most of the cooking and baking herself. She’ll throw you out just as look at you if you start sassing her. And being a monopoly, she has power. But, she enjoys a good joke and aims to please. I bet there was a time a while ago when she was something special. She’s the kind of woman that personifies the West, hard working, no nonsense, and willing to help all that she can.

The second night was fried chicken. I swear; it was a whole chicken per plate. This time, quantity and quality were both good. It sure beat Indian taco. The waitress was a local gal. She was made in the same mold as Judy just without the redeeming qualities. I still cannot figure whether she was lazy, rude, incompetent, or a combination of all three. We were lucky to get out of there with our lives.

The third, and last, night was steak. We are not talking about tender, well-aged beef here. We are talking about a part of something that probably had a saddle on it in one stage of its life. Again, the wine made the meal not only bearable but rather pleasant, considering.

I am generally an omnivore. My tastes range from great meals to things that are at the fine line between edible and throwaway. Judy’s place fits the location. She provided food that fills you up and doesn’t make you sick. Hopefully, the next time I reach Fort Smith the lodge restaurant has been rebuilt, Mary’s is still open, and Judy’s food and service has benefited from the competition. But, I will go back. You can bank on that. The fishing is worth it.

Peninsula Fly Fishers 1976-2016
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