Beavercreek Brewing sign
Overview: Prior to 1968, a fishing guide
probably would not even mention the Bighorn River, but the building of
the Yellowtail Dam created an exceptional tail-water fishery. Today, outdoor
writers label it as possibly the best trophy trout fishery in the lower
forty-eight states. And the word is out. Even on an early spring day in
April, there might be over 100 boats on the upper 13 miles of river in
one day. The consistent good fishing provided by stable cool water flows
from the dam bring anglers in large numbers to the Bighorn year-round.
Key species: Brown trout, rainbow trout, mountain whitefish, golden eye, burbot, smallmouth bass, catfish.
Use: Heavy, with a concentration on the 13 miles below the dam. The upper section ranks 8th statewide for fishing pressure.
Key flies and lures: Flies-Sow Bugs (soft hackle), Scuds, CDCs, Pale Morning Duns, Midge Clusters, Adams, Light Cahill, Midge Pupa, Olive Woolly Bugger, Yellow Bighorn Special Lures-Mepps, gold brass, Rapala Bait-worms.
"It is unlawful to go upon tribal, trust, or allotted lands on the Crow Reservation for the purposes of hunting, fishing, or trapping." (18-USC 1165) Thus it is imperative that anglers wishing to fish the Bighorn from Hardin to Yellowtail Dam reach the river either through FWP's fishing access sites or National Park Service land.
The uppermost of these is just below the bridge across the river from Fort Smith and immediately downstream from the Afterbay Dam. Next, about 3 float miles down, is NPS Lind Ranch Access. Twelve more miles down is FWP's Bighorn Access. These three sites currently receive the brunt of visitation.
A very long day's float (about 19.5 miles) down from Bighorn puts the angler at Two Leggins Access. From there, an 11-mile float past Hardin to the edge of the Crow Reservation ends at Arapooish Fishing Access, just off I 90.
Below the Reservation, there are two more developed sites on the west side of the river. Grant Marsh Game Management Area is about 7 miles north of Hardin. And at the mouth of the Bighorn near the Interstate 94 bridge is the Manuel Lisa Fishing Access. Anglers can, of course, reach the river north of the Reservation by crossing private lands with permission. A map of the river and detailed information for floaters is available in Montana Afloat #14, the Bighorn River.
Power boats are currently prohibited on the Bighorn from the steel cable below Afterbay Dam downstream to Bighorn FAS. FWP has added two access sites, Mallard's Landing and General Custer, to disperse fishing pressure more evenly along the river.
The fishing: The building of Yellowtail Dam changed this silt-laden river into a clear, superb tailwater fishery. By flooding the 71-mile canyon, the dam not only trapped the silt, but also created a giant heat sink which moderates the temperature extremes of Montana weather. Trout grow in temperatures between 44 and 66 degrees Fahrenheit. The water in most trout streams comes between these two temperatures only about three months of the year, but in the Bighorn River where the water comes from 200 feet below the surface of Bighorn Lake, the growth period doubles from mid-June to mid-December.
The limestone watershed adds its rich minerals to the temperate water. Trout food, sow bugs, scuds, caddis larva, mayflies, midges, and baitfish, flourish in such salubrious conditions. The clarity of the water allows sunlight to reach the bottom, giving rise to a profusion of moss and long, stringy weeds. In short, the conditions are terrific for browns and rainbow.
Numbers normally make for boring reading, but the
Bighorn numbers are so impressive they cannot be ignored. The river has
not been planted with rainbows since 1983, but the Bighorn averages over
2,900 trout over 13 inches per mile. Consider John Navasio's Bighorn record
16-pound, 2-ounce rainbow. And note that the average fish captured measures
better than 15 inches long. The Beaverhead, itself a tailwater fishery,
has even better statistics. But, as anyone who has fished both rivers can
testify, an angler has a much tougher time coaxing trout from under the
willow jungle along the Beaverhead's banks than from the open riffles of
the Bighorn. George Anderson, who runs the Livingston fly shop and guide
service called Yellowstone Angler, writes that
". . .when the fishing is hot on the Bighorn, it is possible for a good fisherman to catch and release more than 50 trout in a day, most of which will be in the 15"-20" class. Rainbows and Browns up to 22" and 4 pounds."
The average angler catches one rainbow for about every four brown trout on the Bighorn, but FWP electrofishing surveys show that in some stretches browns outnumber rainbow by a whopping nine to one ratio. Browns started dropping out of the tributaries and populating the main river as soon as the dam made the Bighorn suitable. Now, thanks to the regulated temperature of water flows in November and December, the browns' spawning success is nothing short of phenomenal. Pat Marcuson, a fisheries biologist and author of Fishing the Beartooths, wondered if too much of a good thing might not end up being bad news. "If we have two successive years of strong recruitment, we might have lots of snaky browns chasing a limited amount of food."
Marcuson's words proved prophetic when, in 1986 and 1987, the brown trout population rocketed to a record high of 8,459 fish per mile. As more browns crowded into the river, mortality rates for the larger fish (four years and older) reached 99 percent. The reason for this was clear. A riverine ecosystem will only produce so many pounds of trout food, which in turn will feed only so many inches of trout. Intense competition for food by smaller browns seriously hurt the condition and numbers of the large brown trout.
Ironically, it took a drought to rescue the big
browns from their own kind. As flows in the Bighorn dwindled during the
dry years of 1988 and 1989, water temperatures also decreased, and the
number of brown trout per mile plummeted to 4,601-a reduction of nearly
46 percent from the 1987 population. In recent years, high water flows
have had an affect on both fishing and hatches. Flows of up to 15,000 cubic
feet per second (cfs) and higher result from trouble coordinating spring
runoff and irrigation needs between Wyoming and Montana. Despite this dramatic
decline, the number of big browns that are
18 inches or longer actually increased to about 400 fish per mile. Unfortunately, this boom and bust scenario may repeat when aquatic conditions once again favor brown trout reproduction.
The Bighorn's rainbow fishery was once supported almost entirely from state hatcheries. Anglers, and especially commercial guides, loved the hatchery fish because they could catch the showy trout more easily than the browns, and the bows put on weight faster than the browns, becoming what are known locally as "Bighorn swimming pigs," fish with small heads and big, deep bodies. These stocked fish grew up to 24 inches.
But the planted rainbow quickly became successful spawners, and the last of the hatchery fish were planted here in 1983. Today, the rainbow population is gaining on the browns, and these wild rainbow are a more durable, if slightly smaller, fish than their hand-fed ancestors. Currently, the average rainbow in the Bighorn measures a plump 18 inches long.
One fish that is usually conspicuous in the cast
of characters on other Montana trout streams rarely shows up in the Bighorn-the
whitefish. Perhaps the browns eat whitefish fry and the generally unpopular
fish has never established a good foothold in the Bighorn. FWP speculates
that nitrogen supersaturation from the operation of Yellowtail Dam may
help suppress any whitefish recruitment. Nevertheless, anglers now report
catching whitefish where they were previously unreported. Curt Collins
thinks this may be due to the increased nitrogen problem which has worsened
in recent years because of higher flows.
Another fish that has shown up recently in big numbers is the golden eye. These are primarily warm water fish, living in the lower reaches of the Bighorn, but as the summer water temperatures rise, schools of golden eye move into the upper stretches.
The Bighorn runs at an average of 3,000 cubic feet per second, which makes it considerably larger than the Big Hole or the Madison. Except in a few of the wider riffles, anglers find they cannot wade across the river. Fluctuations in water levels for power purposes do not pose a threat to safety as they do on the Flathead or Kootenai. Because the streambed is made up of small rocks and gravel, anglers have good footing. In fact, the bottom seems almost cemented in place because of the lack of a spring runoff which would loosen up the aggregate.
The river heads from the afterbay to the Yellowstone in relatively straight fashion. Bill Haviland, who worked for the Park Service's Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, estimates about 20 islands braid the course of the first 13 miles. The river has no whitewater to speak of, but moves at a moderate clip between its relatively stable banks. Here and there, cottonwoods have fallen in making a hazard for boaters. Also watch for the whirlpool about 1 mile downstream from Afterbay Dam and the short set of rapids below the gray bluffs, about 9 miles downstream from the afterbay.
Haviland calls attention to another hazard. Because of the reservoir-caused time lag in the spring, the water remains very cold even in mid-June. On hot June days, Haviland wears a T-shirt, while adding long underwear under his trousers and waders to protect against chilling. Neoprene waders with insulated boot feet can solve this problem.
Between the afterbay and Hardin, the river flows through the Crow Indian Reservation. While the Crows have historically shown little interest in fishing, they have contested the right of non-Indians to float and fish the Bighorn. The state diplomatically closed the river until the Supreme Court ruled the water belonged to Montana and not exclusively to the tribe.
When the state reopened the river to fishing in 1981, there was some initial tension between Crows and non-Native Americans. While the bad feelings have since calmed down, anglers should be aware of the sensitivity of the situation. In particular, anglers must stay within the high water marks unless they have permission from the landowner. FWP defines the high water mark as "the continuous area where vegetation ceases."
With all the publicity of the Supreme Court case and enthusiastic reviews of the subsequent fishing, anglers have predictably flocked to the river, and angling pressure has become a problem. FWP figures show that use peaks in mid April through May and then again in mid August through September. Weekends and holidays bring by far the largest crowds.
Angling pressure has certain predictable results. First, trout become more educated and selective. On the Bighorn, FWP studies show that only one of twenty fish caught on average will be kept. The returned fish reassume their feeding stations with an increased skepticism of feathered and metallic offerings.
Outfitters George Anderson and Curt Collins both acknowledge that the fishing is far more difficult now than immediately after the river was reopened.
Second, social problems develop. Anglers put their boats in and float down the river only to find their favorite holes already occupied. Anglers who have already staked out a spot get miffed at other anglers floating through their fishing water. On the Bighorn, FWP has tried to alleviate this problem by purchasing additional access sites. It would also help the situation if more anglers utilized the lower half of the river. This section holds somewhat fewer fish and the water is often too cloudy for fly fishing, but those fish see far fewer hooks than their upstream brethren.
Third, some anglers become concerned about how many fish are being taken out of the river. Those anglers push for more restrictive limits or "catch and release only." Other anglers who like trout on their tables protest. FWP biologists sit in the middle, listening to both sides and working to determine what would be best for the resource.
Shortly after the Bighorn River re-opened to fishing in 1981, a meeting was held by FWP to air such differences of opinion. Don Tennant strongly supported a return to a more liberal limit, or no limit at all. He argued that a river can only support so many pounds of trout. Trying to "stockpile" extra fish by tightly limiting the creel limit only results in more but smaller fish. As a corollary, Tennant rejected regulations which discriminate against anglers who wish to use bait. Tennant suggests such regulations unfairly treat older anglers and kids, who are most likely to depend on bait to catch their trout.
Anderson and several others countered that the limits should be imposed to protect the larger fish. "What we're seeing is a real reduction in trophy class fishing. It's a shame that such a great fishery is being pounded down." Anderson added that "the rainbow in the 4- to 6-pound category are really getting wiped out." Almost a decade later, Anderson notes that, "the big rainbows did get nearly wiped out in just a few years. Even a one fish limit on rainbows didn't help." As for Tennant's suggestion on bait, the fly and spin sponsors point out that a trout usually swallows bait deeply and will die whether or not the angler puts it back in the river or in the cooler.
In 1988, FWP reached a compromise between the two points of view by establishing a relaxed limit on browns, which seem able to hold their own under intense fishing pressure, while protecting rainbow, particularly larger ones. Current regulations split the Bighorn into three sections. In the uppermost 12 miles of river, from the steel cable below Afterbay Dam to Bighorn Fishing Access Site (FAS), there is a five trout limit, only one of which can measure over 18 inches. Rainbows are catch-and-release only, and no bait-fishing or motor boats are allowed. From Bighorn FAS downstream to the Interstate-90 bridge at Hardin, bait-fishing and motors are permitted, and anglers may keep one rainbow. The five-trout limit, of which only one can be over 18 inches, also applies to this reach of river. Downstream from I 90, motors and bait-fishing are allowed, and the limit is ten trout with no restrictions on species or length.
Other than the difficulties with access and fishing pressure, anglers may have one other, less immediate, problem to worry about. The Bighorn's proximity to Montana's coal fields may make it tempting to extract water for a slurry pipeline. While not currently a threat, this possibility would prove a nightmare for the fishery if it became a reality.
Until such a disaster befalls the Bighorn, anglers will continue to try for the trophy fish. Success does not come easily, but many anglers feel the fun is mostly in the chase and not the catch. Haviland remembers one haunting day with great enjoyment. On this particular day, he was having little success until he tied on a shrimp imitation and cast up in a riffle. "All of a sudden the line stopped and wouldn't budge. I was just starting to think I'd hooked a log when it took off. In one run, it took out my 40 yards of line and 70 yards of backing. I ran after it, but it straightened the hook and got off."
Instead of getting depressed about losing a lunker, Haviland relishes the experience. His parting words: "Ain't fishin' great!"
Strategies: As with almost all trout streams
and rivers, a small percentage of anglers catch most of the fish on the
Bighorn. What do these successful anglers know or do that other anglers
don't? A number of factors figure into the answer, but several experts
suggest that adaptability makes the biggest difference.
Successful Bighorn anglers are willing to change their strategies, methods, and offerings if their first try of the day doesn't produce fish. If trout don't take dry flies, try a nymph down deep. If a brass spoon hasn't produced a strike in half an hour, put on a lure with a different color or action. Six great-looking riffles and not a strike? Try the banks and the deep pools.
Vince Ames fishes the Bighorn frequently. While he would modestly argue that he is not an expert, other anglers note that Ames catches many more fish than the average angler. Ames tries to arrive at the riverbank without preconceptions. "Be open-minded and keep loose" until observations show the angler what to try first. Is there any surface activity? If so, are the fish actually feeding on the surface, or are they nymphing just below the surface film? If Ames sees no surface activity, he then decides either to fish a nymph deep or to try a streamer. If he decides on nymphs, he tries to figure out by observation whether to use a mayfly nymph, which swims, or a caddis larvae imitation, which should be presented on a dead drift.
Anderson suggests that his clients bring along two outfits, one a 8.5-9 foot number 3 or 4 line rod for fishing dry flies and the other a number 5 or 6 line rod with a floating line for fishing nymphs. In the fall a number 7 line rod with sink tip line is a useful tool for fishing Woolly Buggers and streamers. For fishing dries, 5x and 6x tippets on 9 to 12 feet of leader is the norm while 4x and 5x will work fine for fishing nymphs.
Collins points out that from November to the first of May, the fly fishers use mostly nymphs and streamers, while from May to November the angler can add dry flies to the arsenal. Midge hatches that begin in February do provide some good early season dry fly fishing, especially on cloudy windless days. Small Adams, midge clusters, and many other midge patterns in size 22 to 16 work well. Towards summer, Collins also recommends CDC patterns, pale morning dun parachutes and in 1996 he noted that there was a good golden stone hatch.
For mayfly imitation, Collins likes patterns such as Adams, Blue Duns, and Blue Quills in size 14 to 18; Blue Wing Olives and Light Cahills 16 to 20; Mosquitoes; and CDCs are a good choice throughout summer and fall. Collins ties his own version of the CDC and notes that the oil gland feather off a duck keeps it dry and you can tie it to be very visible. For caddis, Collins rates the Elk Hair Caddis as a "great fly" and adds that both tan and black can be successful, with black being the better choice. Collins adds some terrestrial patterns for hoppers, ants, and spiders. Anderson does not pin any hopes on hoppers. Only occasionally does the hopper fishing on the Bighorn become important on years when there is an infestation of grasshoppers.
In the nymph department, Scud and Sow Bug patterns get high marks for effectiveness any time of the year. Collins notes that the best pattern has become the Sow Bug. High flows in the 1990s made the Sow Bug the rivers number one food source. Scuds still work year-round and a San Juan Worm may also take fish. Anderson's "hot nymph patterns" include Soft Hackle Sow Bug patterns, Gray Sparkle Scuds, Flashback P.T.'s and a variety of Midge Pupa.
When fishing nymphs deep, Anderson often uses a buoyant indicator placed 7-to 9-feet up on a 12 foot leader. One or more BB size split shots are placed on the leader above the tippet knot 18 inches from the nymph. Anderson often uses two or more nymphs tied in tandem fashion, from the bend of the first fly to the second with about 12 inches separating the nymphs.
The Bighorn has some outstanding streamer and spin fishing waters. Some of the streamers mentioned by Anderson and Collins are Olive Woolly Buggers, light and dark Spruce Flies, brown Matukas, Zonkers, black Nose Dace, and white Marabou Muddlers. However, a yellow streamer called the Bighorn Special might be the most popular fly of all on the river. Streamers for the Bighorn should be of the larger variety such as a size 2.
The Bighorn's moss can hamper spin fishing from April to mid-October. Otherwise, spin fishing can be dynamite. Haviland recommends Mepps, sometimes with feathered hooks. He thinks the smaller sizes are best. Brass is most effective; gold can be good, while silver, in Haviland's experience, does not do as well. However, the lure that tops most recommendation lists is the gold number 5, 7, or 9 Rapala. "It's just awesome what they can do," says Collins.
Bait anglers plying the lower river almost always use worms. Navasio's record rainbow was taken in by the standard nightcrawler. As mentioned before, bait anglers should be aware of special regulations.
Haviland has two strategies for anglers to consider. The first is a dropper rig. At the end of his leader Haviland ties on a Muddler Minnow or a Bighorn Special. 2 or 3 feet up the leader, he ties on a separate 6-inch strand of leader with a black hair fly dangling at the end of it.
This dropper rig does not just present the trout with a choice of flies. The real intention is to make the hair fly look like an egg-laying caddis fly as it dips to the water's surface. The large streamer acts as an anchor. With a little practice, the angler can play the tension in the line so that the dropper fly will bounce, skitter, and tease any trout that is keying in on one of the Bighorn's prolific caddis hatches. The dropper rig has become the preferred way to nymph fish. Using two flies allows you to prospect with two different patterns to see what the fish are biting.
The dropper rig method may sound complicated and
too tricky to skeptical anglers, but it is a proven producer. In 1935,
Charlie Cook caught an
11-pound-plus brown on the Big Hole in western Montana employing this same tactic. When anglers see caddis flies fluttering just above the river surface, they might do well to try the dropper fly.
Haviland's other unconventional method will not appeal to the weak of heart nor to those who like to catch a suntan while they fish. Mature trout, especially browns, are notoriously nocturnal in the summer. Almost all anglers have witnessed the voracious feeding which so often takes place as the light dims after sunset. While most anglers head home at this time, Haviland finds nightfall a good time to start his fishing.
Haviland explains that as the light level drops, the big browns feel safe enough to come out of their deep pools and into the shallow riffles. With the help of a full moon, he has seen big fish practically on the rocks, fins out of the water, looking like a pack of hungry sharks. Haviland feeds them something substantial like a Muddler Minnow on the end of stout, 10-pound test leader. He stresses that the night is a smaller world where you can catch fish right up to your feet. There is no need for 90-foot casts at night, provided a stealthy approach is made.
Obviously, it helps to know the section of the river very well from past experience. Falling into a river over the top of the waders at night could be scary, even dangerous. And there can be little surprises, such as one night when a startled beaver slapped his tail right next to Haviland. But the fishing can be prime; in a two-hour stand in one pool, Haviland once caught eleven fish between 18 and 22 inches long.
What kinds of water do the experts fish on the Bighorn? Guide Mike Mouat likes the inside corners and the deeper banks. Anderson looks for tailouts for sight fishing nymphs. Deep flowing water along banks or weeds are prime dry fly spots. Collins fishes just off the heavier water or where the heavy water hits the slack. He notes that trout are very opportunistic and follow the hatches feeding in different areas of the river depending upon the food source. This sometimes means fishing with nymphs in the riffles or below the riffles with sow bugs. Collins also keys in on the rare spots with gravel because the fish really seem to like it there. Haviland notes the drift lanes between the moss beds.
The Bighorn remains ice-free and open for fishing year-round. January and February rate as the slowest months, but even they can be good. Summer and fall are the most popular times, but warmer winter days also bring local anglers to the river to cure their cabin fevers. Water releases are more constant now in comparison to earlier years, and water levels remain at a given level for several weeks. Some higher releases may occur in spring in anticipation of heavy snow melt.
Rivers with giant reputations sometimes have a way of disappointing anglers, especially neophytes. Collins sees lots of beginners with these "delusions of grandeur." Even though the Bighorn is an open river full of trout, it is not easy pickings for those who will not take the time to study its subtleties and learn the water. The fishing here especially favors the adaptable angler who, if he fails in his first try, goes on to try a different fly or lure or a different way of fishing them. While other anglers continue to flail away at the water uselessly in the same ineffective way, for the adaptable angler, good things can happen at any time.
The Montana section of the Bighorn has one tributary of note to anglers, the Little Bighorn River. This river carries a heavy silt load at times, but the upper reaches in particular have some good fishing. However, the Little Bighorn runs entirely within the boundaries of the Crow Reservation and access to it is next to nil.