Hidden Lakes press

Hidden Lakes Press

Information for Recreation in Colorado and the Rockies

Browns Of The Bighorn By Al Marlowe

The Bighorn River is considered one of the finest trout streams in the United States and one of the most productive trout fisheries in the world. Its cool temperatures and steady flow, combined with prolific insect life, provide an ideal environment to grow trophy brown and rainbow trout. It's possible that the Bighorn holds a greater number of large trout – fish in the 15-20 inch range – than any other river in the United States. Anglers catch fish, which average 15-18 inches, with an occasional larger one being taken.

Prolific fly hatches enable the Bighorn to provide excellent fishing from April through November. With open water year-round the 'Horn also offers action on winter's balmier days. As a tailwater fishery heavy runoff is rarely a problem, making it one of the few streams where fishing is as good in April and May as it is during summer and fall. The river's gentle character and abundant insect hatches provide anglers with outstanding opportunities to test their skills against wild, trophy trout.

This fishery was created in 1967 with the completion of Yellowtail Dam. What was previously a silt-laden stream became a clear, cold tailwater fishery. The bottom release dam keeps water temperatures at the ideal range for aquatic life forms that grow large trout. A limestone stream, the Bighorn is host to sow bugs, scuds, caddisflies, mayflies, midges, and baitfish. Sunlight stimulates the growth or moss and weeds, making ideal conditions for the river's browns and rainbows.

Presently 2,900 trout over 13 inches populate each mile of the river that Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) has designated as Blue Ribbon. The fish caught average 15 inches but the record taken here was a 16-pound, two-ounce rainbow.

Electro-fishing surveys found varying populations over the years. Montana FWP biologists found nearly 8,500 fish in each mile of the Bighorn in the late 1980s. In some stretches brown trout outnumbered rainbows nine to one. Browns that had occupied tributary streams found the Bighorn to their liking and moved into the main river following completion of the dam.

The tailwater stretch begins at Yellowtail Dam at Fort Smith and the river can be fished all the way to the confluence with the Yellowstone. Because of its limestone geology, the river hosts huge populations of mayflies, midges, caddis, and fresh water crustaceans.

The best way to fish the river is from a drift boat. Floats as long as 19.5 miles can be done on the river. That doesn't mean that all fishing should be done from a boat, though. Shops and guides can suggest best places to stop to wade fish.

The Bighorn is a tailwater fishery that resembles a huge spring creek in character and insect life. Fishing conditions and hatches vary with the flows. Midge, mayfly, and caddis hatches can be intense, with multiple hatch situations being quite common.

The river is open and fishable year-round. The seasons do affect hatches and an angler's choice of patterns. In March and April midges start off the dry fly season, followed in May and early June by baetis mayflies. During mid-July and through August, Pale Morning Duns bring up pods of rising trout. August and September brings the emergence of black caddis and tricorythodes mayflies. Throughout early autumn a small pale-olive baetis mayfly and a species of tan caddis provide top water action.

Spring conditions and hatches can extend into June. Following the baetis hatch, summer brings out Pale Morning Duns and late-July will see Little Yellow Sallies on the water. By August and September the tricos show up, although it can be variable regarding timing and number of insects. Take along some hoppers and Woolly Buggers for this season. Winter fishing means using either midges or nymphs, although mild days can bring on other hatches for dry fly fishing.

Because of its size, even at lower flows, a 5-weight or heavier nine-foot rod is suggested. Dry fly anglers will want to use leaders of nine to 12 feet, tapered down to a 5x tippet. In the spring small dry patterns and fine tippets demand a reel with a smooth drag to reduce the chance of breaking off larger trout. The current is often fast, requiring a good bit of weight to get nymphs down deep enough.

Anglers have more than 70 miles of river to fish but the most heavily used stretch is below first launch site at Afterbay Dam. From here anglers can do a short float of three miles to the Lind Ranch Access. Twelve miles further is FWP's Bighorn Access. Although most anglers congregate on these sections, the entire river is worth a look.

Those wishing to check out one stretch – Bighorn Access to Two Leggins Access – will want to get on the river early as it's a 19.5-mile float. From Two Leggins downstream to Arapooish Access, at the edge of the Crow Reservation, another 11 miles of river beckons to anglers.

Below the Reservation, there are two more access sites. Grant Marsh Game Management Area is about 7 miles north of Hardin. At the mouth of the Bighorn near the Interstate 94 bridge is the Manuel Lisa Fishing Access. Anglers can also reach the river north of the Reservation by crossing private lands with permission.

It is unlawful to enter tribal, trust, or allotted lands on the Crow Reservation for the purposes of hunting, fishing, or trapping. The river flows through the Crow Indian Reservation and wade fishing is legal only to the high water mark. Boats provide the only access to a large portion of the best water. Anglers wishing to fish the Bighorn between Yellowtail Dam and Hardin must access the river either through FWP's fishing access sites or National Park Service land.

To find a guide or lodging for the Bighorn, Google "Bighorn River". For license information go to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website: http://fwp.mt.gov/fishing/guide/q_Bighorn_River__1074636461629_0_112.482002258301.aspx