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A Magnificent Seven Ranches

The dude operation was created by Doug Averill's father, Les, just after World War II. But Doug has since touched the ranch with second-generation embellishments-- the addition of a bison ranch to the north and, now, the purchase and restoration of two sailboats, one formerly owned by J. P. Morgan. In late afternoon, climb aboard and set your bearings for Wild Horse Island. With a tailwind, the skipper and his mate might raise the spinnaker. On your return you may execute a few stylish jibes to enter the lodge's harbor under full sail, hoping that someone at the lodge's Saddle Sore Bar is watching.

While other guest ranches rave about their variety of activities, the Complete Fly Fisher prides itself on just one. Fishing is at the heart of its powerful philosophy: a stay at the Complete Fly Fisher promises not just an exceedingly good time, but a change of perspective.

Brothers Stuart and David Decker apprenticed at the ranch under the previous owners, Phil and Joan Wright, who set the standard for fly-fishing across the entire northern Rockies. Theirs was an English chalk-stream sensibility whereby those who chose dry flies over wet were beatified, success was deemed secondary to casting elegance, and proper attire was mandatory. In those days, vintage wine accompanied every picnic.

Stuart and David have updated the tradition by investing it with spontaneous fun. They describe their river, the Big Hole, as a producer of genetically superior rainbow and brown trout, 3,000 fish to the mile. They also claim that their team of river guides can transform a novice into an independent angler in a week's stay. Rarely do guests graduate: 70 percent of Complete Fly Fisher's visitors return year after year, not merely for good fishing but for its revelations. A vacation here imbues you with an awe of waters and the disclosure of inner quiet.

The ranch accommodates 16 guests in private, modern cabins. Evening cocktails are taken in a contemporary lodge on the riverbank; the library contains first-edition Rudyard Kiplings and vintage volumes by O. Henry. Dinners (expect pumpkin, coconut, and curry soup followed by fresh arugula, venison or salmon, and a just-baked pie) are springboards for soul-stretching conversation.

As owners of 9,000 deeded acres and stewards over 11,000 more in what is perhaps the most beautiful valley in southern Montana, Maryanne Mott and Herman Warsh never had to open the B Bar Ranch to guests. Dudes were introduced here in the spirit of several other follies-- rare heirloom vegetables, Suffolk Punch draft horses, and even more precious White Park cattle. But they are loath to hoard their natural treasures, and besides, they love company.

A working cattle ranch, the B Bar offers guests a chance to participate in real cattle activities with real cattle folk. Its hikes are world-class: sharing the range with elk, grizzly bear, moose, and mule deer, visitors can enjoy mountain glades and little-known corners of Yellowstone Park in the company of naturalists. After fishing Tom Miner Creek for cutthroats, they might return to a game of tennis, a hot tub, and a cocktail on the porch.

Dining at the B Bar is a holistic experience, for the food is homegrown-- the beef is natural, the vegetables are staggering in their variety (45 kinds of lettuce, 18 types of tomato, 14 different potatoes). Guest quarters consist of six A-frames, each of which sleeps four. They have all been restored and decorated with bold quilts and log furniture. The main lodge houses Maryanne and Herman's extensive collection of Don Hindman and Molesworth furniture, some of it from the nearby OTO, the now- defunct fountainhead dude ranch. This classic Western room is yours to enjoy. After a while you will think that it and everything else at the B Bar is, in fact, yours. That's just the way Herman and Maryanne like it.

Lone Mountain Ranch is no secret. Hard by Big Sky, Montana's much-ballyhooed ski resort, it is known for exceptional cross-country skiing in winter and an Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing program the rest of the year.

Lone Mountain has all but made a science of giving families indelible vacation memories. In summer, for instance, it employs full-time naturalists to escort guests into the mountains. It has published its own checklists of trees, wildflowers, birds, and mammals, as well as a book of campfire songs. The fishing here is expansive, with outings to the Yellowstone, the Madison, and the Henry's Fork rivers.

Picnics? Three years ago, the owners of Lone Mountain invited the Timber Framers Guild of North America to craft an enormous pavilion just for picnics. The result: a stunning structure where Culinary Institute of America graduates add voodoo to traditional hamburgers and coleslaw.

Dining? In the high-beamed restaurant, decorated with Native American parfleches, one is daunted by a menu of starters that might include gravlax, carpaccio, fried calamari, buffalo mozzarella, and a sachet of asparagus and chèvre, followed by mixed grill, ravioli St. Jacques, or bison.

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