Thirty one years ago I jumped into a drift boat and started to fish one of the biggest rivers I had ever seen. I was completely intimidated. At the end of the day, having caught more fish than I could remember, I was hooked. After the second day, I fell in love.
The Bighorn River, originating at Yellowtail dam in Ft. Smith, Montana, is a wide, super diverse, approachable fishery, for experts and beginners alike. With 3,000 to 5,000 fish per mile, and an abundance of crustaceans, the fish grow fast and strong. It’s a river that makes everyone feel good because everyone can catch trout.
3x leaders are the norm.
Two things that make it even more fun – the fish are not tippet shy so 3x leaders are the norm, and sowbugs and scuds are reliable flies every day of the year. Montana stream access laws enable anglers to fish every inch of the river’s 20 miles, without regard to knowing if a river bank is private or not – that’s right, the streambed and water’s surface are public. One need only wade below the high water mark and it’s wide open to the angler.
It can be navigated by anyone with even the most elementary rowing skills.
But even more approachable is that the river can literally be navigated by anyone with even the most elementary rowing skills. A class one fishery for the first 13 miles, the novice rower can learn without the challenges posed by most western waters.
Fish who are present to eat versus being picky.
The hatches are signature and prolific. Dry flies range from midges, to mayflies, to tan and black caddis to blizzard like swarms of Tricos. In August, big hopper dropper rigs make presentations fun. If you are an expert, you can fish the river in a nuance-centric way. If you are a beginner, you can slap hoppers and caddis on the water and be forgiven by fish who are present and almost always ready to eat.
The Bighorn’s secret is its biomass.
Can the Bighorn be tough to fish? You bet! It’s fishing after all, and high water years present challenges from the very things that make the river so prolific. The Bighorn’s secret is its biomass (quantity and quality of bug life). It has an incredibly rich habitat for producing crustaceans like scud and sowbugs. In high water years, with water coming over the spillway, Shiner Minnows flood into the river and into the mouths of hungry trout.
November river traffic is down 80% versus the peak of the summer.
It’s hard to contain the excitement of fishing in 45 degree fall weather while standing in water that’s in the mid-fifties. Yellowtail Dam holds back water that is hundreds of feet deep and slow to cool off in winter, so the result is a very comfortable wade through the month of November. Best of all, river traffic is down 80% versus the peak of the summer. It’s a great time to throw big, ugly streamers at a rainbow and brown trout gearing up to spawn.
A secret worth knowing about.
Now you know something (that most don’t) about a river that’s about as approachable as any in the west. The Bighorn River in Montana is a secret worth knowing about.
Want to try fishing the Bighorn?
In addition to being the Program Lead to the Denver chapter of Project Healing Waters, which serves disabled vets by taking them fly fishing, Eddy Wittry is the owner of the “Trouthouse” just minutes away from the Bighorn River in Fort Smith Montana. You can learn more about fishing the Bighorn and book lodging at the Trouthouse at:
Interested in joining our Fly of the Month Club? Click here for more information.
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