Forty-two miles from Billings, Montana, the Bighorn River glides through the Crow Indian Reservation to the town of Hardin and then onwards to the Yellowstone River. From the Interstate 90 exit at Hardin to Fort Smith the two-lane country road winds another 48 miles through dry rolling hills and fertile ranch land to the Yellowtail Dam boat ramp. The breathtaking scenery of buttes and coulees compete with the jagged overthrust of snow-capped mountains, both in Wyoming and Montana. The tall prairie cottonwood trees line the river bottom, and the cold, pristine waters provide an aquatic underworld rich in plant life and insect life.
Completed in 1965, the Yellowtail Dam transformed a slow prairie river into one of the finest trout streams in the United States; however, from 1975 to 1981 the Crow Indian government closed the river to non-tribal members.
In 1981 the United States Supreme Court affirmed both state and federal access rights to the waters of the Bighorn River up to the high water mark, which is defined as the "continuous area where vegetation ceases". The Bighorn River's reputation grew quickly. Splashed across the covers of outdoor magazines, the Bighorn River's fame inspired fly fishers from around the country to test its fabled waters. Renowned as one of the best tailwater fisheries in the world, legions of fly fishers arrive yearly to fish the 13-mile stretch of tailwater, and few go away disappointed.
However, during the past eight years, back-to-back drought years have damaged the rivers prolific hatches, particularly impacting PMD's and tricos. Whereas in the past dry fly anglers hurried to the river in the months of July and August, now the best dry fly fishing is in April and May for the baetis hatch. Adding insult to injury in this classic dam controlled river, the 2008 and 2009 years impacted the river even further, which again detracted from the Big Horn's reputation. Currently an on-going investigation is looking into the charges that the flows out of the dam have been mismanaged. Anticipating heavy pools and spring run-off, the engineers failed to release water until it was too late. Extremely high discharges in the spring blew out the river, and the second punch came when the river flows were dramatically reduced during the summer. All of this has impacted the rich populations of aquatic insects. So, should you pass up this legendary river just because it does not merit the reputation that it had ten years ago? Why, hell no!
Trout, having lost the historic high concentrations of PMD's and tricos, now gorge themselves on scuds and sow bugs. If populations of trout have fallen, the river has made up for its reputation in the average size of its browns and rainbows. In the past as many as fifty boats would be on the same 13-mile stretch so angling pressure was quite high. At least that is something of an improvement. The river has been rebounding in its numbers of fish per mile; however, the much-touted statistic of 5,000 to 6,000 fish per mile may take a while to return. Factor in browns that average 14 to-16 inches and rainbows averaging 16 to 18-inches, and it is no wonder so many visitors are still willing to experience a circus-like atmosphere of multi-colored rafts and drift boats.
Another preeminent factor for the Bighorn River's reputation is the extended fishing season. The Yellowtail Dam, impounding almost 70 miles of canyon water, releases water from the bottom of Bighorn Lake. Although fluctuations may adversely impact fishing, water temperatures from the mid-40s to the mid-60s foster trout growth for most of the year, unlike some rivers where trout have a short growing season due to chilly water conditions throughout most of the year.
The river is open year-round, but practically speaking, the winter months of December through February can be grim, when one considers below-zero readings and the wind chill factor. Nonetheless, hearty locals and adventuresome out-of- towners ply the waters throughout these winter months fishing with tiny midge patterns tossed to lethargic fish in the more quiet pools. March and April welcome temperatures in the low to mid 50s and water temperatures in the low 40s. March anglers still predominately fish the midge hatches, but by late April Baetis begin to show up, which provides for some excellent nymphing opportunities. Standard patterns such as the Gold-ribbed, Hare's Ear and Pheasant Tail nymphs prevail, but be sure to stock up on specialty patterns from one of the local fly shops, especially for shrimp patterns, scuds and sow bugs. (I had great success with a San Juan Worm with a brass bead in the center.) May and June are less crowded as local fishermen and visitors alike measure the impact of spring run-off.
May temperatures range from the mid 60s to the low 70s with water temperatures slowly climbing above the mid 40s mark. The Baetis hatch comes into fruition, which offers both dry and nymph fishing possibilities. River flows increase from a low of 2,000 cfs to above 6,000 cfs. Ideal floating conditions diminish above 6,000 cfs. As the river grows in both volume and size, the fish become dispersed. Even when other Montana rivers are blown out, good fishing may still be experienced from the dam down to the three-mile access point. By late June some of the fishing pressure is reduced with the appearance of the Salmon Fly hatch on many other famous rivers in the region. Bead-head nymphs and San Juan worms are especially popular at this time.
July through August have been particularly slow the past few years, but in the past it drews hordes of anglers, and for good reason. Daytime temperatures range from the high 70s to the high 80s, with the water temperatures gradually increasing from the low 50s to the high 60s. But the real draw is the fantastic dry fly fishing brought on by the small, yellow stonefly, the Pale Morning Dun hatch, the Baetis hatch and the ubiquitous arrival of the Grannom (black) Caddis.
Adding to the enchantment of these hatches is the spinner fall in the evening and the beginning Trico hatch. It is no wonder that the river is so crowded. Surprisingly, the trout display great tolerance for this daily flotilla. Perhaps the trout, hidden in the undulating waves of plant life, are impervious to the blending shadows from passing boats. Given the size of the water, the available numbers of fish and the plethora of insect life, most people are pleasantly surprised with their success rate during these popular months.
September and October cool the hot days of summer with temperatures again in the mid 70s and water temperatures correspondingly settling back to the mid 50s. By October the Tricos are on the wane, but the Baetis hatch is still an important one, as is the evening caddis hatch. By November the waters are downright chilly again, dipping down to the mid-40s. Streamers such as Wooly Buggers, Zonkers, leech patterns and Matukas should be readily at hand.
I finally fished the fabled waters of the Bighorn River, and I am saddened when I reflect that it took me 19 years to finally fish it (testimony to the multitude of competing waters in this wonderful state). Getting off the river at 8 pm, on my first day on the river, I headed down the road for a nine-hour drive home. I had not gone 10 miles before planning my next trip. The next day I posted the following trip report on my web site.
Saga: October 25, 2000 - The Bighorn River
I slept in the back of my truck near the launch site at the BLM campground near the dam. Pulling up to the launch site below the dam at 7:30 am, I discovered that I was not the early bird. Within the next 20 minutes, guides and fishermen flew into the area. Gentlemen, start your engines! It was incredible how many boats arrived in waves, like convoys crossing the Atlantic during World War II. No one seemed to have the time to be neighborly. Few hellos were exchanged. It was a race to the water with the guides projecting a no-nonsense demeanor reminiscent of Ward Bond in the old television series "Wagon Train".
Ten boats launched while I was still climbing into my waders and rigging up. I could feel the excitement and anticipation. Three hours after launching, I was frustrated and irritated that I had not one strike. Although the fishing was slow due to water manipulation, I could see others fighting fish as they drifted past me.
I played leapfrog with some of the boats as we drifted down the river. Regretfully, I have to admit that I found solace in the fact that they too had not caught a thing.
The number of boats in the 13-mile stretch that I floated easily numbered close to 50. We traveled in packs, breaking up and then re-assembling like mallards over a grain field. I resented the jubilant loudmouths who whooped and hollered when they hooked a fish. Their triumphant voices seemed to echo for miles, and there was no joy in this man's Mudville. Hearing their whoops of delight, I got out of the boat to fish a promising spot, only to have some party glide down and let out a holler directly in front of me. During the first three hours, I couldn't buy a fish. I had spent 50 bucks on flies and incidental supplies in a nearby shop. The proprietor drew a diagram on how to precisely set up the strike indicator, the split shot and the two flies.
I followed his directions to the letter. When the water surface was broken by the morning's first rises, I strained to see if the fish were actually feeding on the surface for sporadic Baetis duns or whether they were just under the surface film capturing nymphs. I agonized over whether I should break out a small Parachute Adams or Blue-Wing Olive.
While I drifted in solitude, I searched for every possible reason why I wasn't catching anything. I finally concluded that I was conceivably casting too far out. Seated in my low profile boat, a combination duck boat and riverboat, I was unable to see the subtle takes of those browns hiding in the heavy weed cover as I manned the oars. My theory proved to be correct. I was not really staring intently at my strike indicator as I drifted my flies and navigated the river. Indeed, the takes were very subtle! I started flipping my rig right along side of the boat and stuck my first brown.
Alas, I lost five weighty fish in a row. Two of them I had to break off when I had to grab the oars to maneuver around an anchored boat. It was heart-breaking because they were really close to the boat. I tried holding the rod between my knees while I rowed, but it didn't work. I anchored the boat too soon on one large fish and couldn't pull up the anchor in time when he made a run downstream. The fifth fish I lost when I jumped out of the boat and forgot my net. These are all actions that are taken for granted by clients.
When a client or a partner hooks a fish, the rower takes on a number of responsible actions. I reflected on the night before when I had squeezed in two hours of fishing before dark and had caught only one 15-inch brown on a dry - not much to brag about. I was feeling defeated until I landed a 17-inch brown at mid-day.
After that fish was landed and safely released, I could do no wrong. I went on to land at least 10 more browns, only one of which was under 14 inches.
With that lone exception, all of the trout were in the 14- to 16-inch range. I savored every moment of the 13-mile float from the dam down to the Bighorn access. As the sun began to sink, the evening caddis hatch triggered action on the top, but I didn't stop to change my rig. I was quite satisfied with the action I was having casting into small pods of rising trout with a bead-head nymph and a trailing scud. I even ended the day with a great "one-that-got-away" story. I humbly submit that I have not had a Montana or a Wyoming or an Idaho fish ever take me down to my backing. I have always been amazed at this expression so freely added for dramatic effect.
Through the years I have caught a number of trout in the 20-inch range, but I have never had this experience until that day. I won't bore you with the details. Suffice to say that this hog took me down to my backing two times. Jumping out of my boat, I moved down through a crotch-high riffle, working him in for my moment of triumph. I lost him in 12 inches of rocky, weed-infested water when my line caught on a rock. My mother's Irish creed of "Hope for the best, but expect the worse" bubbled up to my consciousness as I reeled in the slack line and advanced toward the fish. On my approach, the resting rainbow snapped the 5X tippet and escaped. I saw his tail and back. He was huge, but I had no regrets over losing him.
An hour and a half from Billings, fishing the Bighorn takes a lot of planning, as it is really out of the way. Hardin has a number of hotels. For those that can afford to stay at a nice lodge on the river, I recommend the Bighorn River Resort (800) 665-3799 or the Bighorn River Lodge (800) 235-5450. Public campsites are located at Mallard's Landing and the Bighorn access. Operated by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, each site offers a couple of campsites, an outhouse and a boat ramp. The next public campground is just outside of Fort Smith and is a Bureau of Land Management campground.
It is the nicest of the public campgrounds. The first campground out of Hardin is at Mallard's Landing. The Bighorn access, which is 13 miles from the launch site at Yellowtail Dam, offers two separate ramps, a bit of shade and a seven-day camping limit. During the summer of 2000 the fee schedule was $10 per night, per camper if no one in the party held a Montana fishing license. With a Montana fishing license from at least one member in the group, the fee was $5 dollars per camper. The only private campground is a half-mile from the Three-Mile Access.
Cottonwood Camp is a complete and full-service camp-ground and lodging facility for sportsmen and families. The camp is located less than a mile off Highway 31, just off the Three-Mile access road at the second left and only three miles from Fort Smith. (Cottonwood Camp, P.O. Box 7667, Fort Smith, Montana 59035 (406) 666-2391) Fort Smith offers a number of fly shops, a cafe, a motel, a market, shuttle services and boat rentals, but BYOB as Fort Smith is a dry town.
Don't expect solitude, and keep your expectations from getting the better of you as you race to get on the water, which is, of course, easier said than done. I can still hear my Hardy Princess reel screaming and the sound of the deep wallop that only a big rainbow can make. At the take out a number of men were regaling in the story of a guide, fishing on his day off with a friend on this same day and same stretch of water. He landed a 27 incher. Oh, Montana...
Update: Published in the, 4-7-2013, Billings Gazette by Brett French
Title: "Brown trout population soaring in Bighorn River"
The impact of whirling disease on the rainbow trout populations across Montana has resulted in increased numbers of brown trout, but as with all species, the critical factor for survival and good offspring production is the availability of water. During drought years the side channels dry up. This impacts both insect production and deprives smaller fry from moving into smaller water to escape predators. The good news is that the Bighorn River continues to see a rise in fish population. If you live in a city and fight traffic all year, you won't have any problem joining the other 130,000 anglers per year on the Bighorn River. Brett cites 2012 statistics of 8,000 fish per mile on the upper river. This figure breaks down to 2,900 brown trout nine inches or larger and 1,300 rainbows nine inches are larger per mile. The remaining number comprises of trout under nine inches. Brett states that the FWP estimate for fish counts around Mallard's Rest drop to 1,950 brown trout nine inches or larger and only 134 rainbow trout nine inches or larger per mile. 2011 was a good water year and trout production was high. "FWP likes to see the river running at 2,500 cubic feet per second with a minimum of 1,750 cfs."
River description by David Archer