It's only early January and I'm already chafing at the bit to get out and do some fishing.
Sure, I'll sneak away two or three times to Tongue River Reservoir and fish for crappies
through the ice with bait and enjoy every minute of it especially the meal of crappie fillets
that I cook up after each trip.
Yes, I love to fish and if the water is in a solid state, I'll drill a hole in it and go after those
finny rascals, but my heart yearns for fly-fishing.
Fortunately for me, I have two wonderful tail water fisheries that are fairly close to my home
of Sheridan, Wyoming. The Bighorn River is but ninety miles to the north and the North Platte
River is 170 miles to the south. Both are open to fishing year around and don't ice up.
I have guided on the Bighorn River since 1985 so I am more apt to journey north and fish
more familiar waters, although in many aspects the Bighorn and North Platte are remarkably
similar for they have many of the same aquatic invertebrate species. Many of the flies that
work on the North Platte are effective on the Bighorn and vice versa.
The Bighorn downstream from Yellowtail Dam is at relatively low altitude, 3,000 feet, while
the North Platte is around 6,000 feet. What this means is the air temperature will tend to be
warmer along the Bighorn River even though it is farther north. Then, too, the Bighorn River
near Ft. Smith is prone to Chinook winds so the roads are usually snow free.
Ostensibly this article is about early spring fishing but my definition might differ from yours.
Just as our winter usually starts in early November, spring starts earlier than March 21st.
Early spring might come on Valentines Day (I have seen 55-60 degree highs on that day), or
it might come on February 20, but sometime in mid to late February the days are long enough
and sunny enough for the air to warm up. It's on such a day that I venture forth for my first outing.
Though the water temperature is only 38 degrees, the trout will be actively feeding in the
backwaters and on the edges of the slower currents. The fish will seek out water that is
one, two, or three degree warmer than the flow in midstream.
The perpetual midge hatch will be going, midges of one species or another hatch practically
every day of the year on the Bighorn. I will try to guess what the pupae look like and come
up with an appropriate pattern. If I see emerger type rises, I might fish a size 18 Adams
parachute on 5X tippet, tie on an eight-inch length of 6X tippet to the bend of the hook
and tie on the midge pupa pattern so I can fish it suspended.
I can picture it now. I am wading along a flat that is punctuated with occasional rises or
slight boils. I angle my cast upstream to about four feet above the last rise. The parachute
Adams floats down over the rise area with no results. I make repeated casts to the spot and
finally the Adams disappears suddenly. I set the hook and find that I'm into a spunky rainbow.
Though the water is cold, the trout makes two or three pretty impressive jumps and a decent
30 foot run before I am able to net it. The sixteen-inch rainbow is fat and in darned good shape.
It has been eating well all winter.
I release the bow and continue to fish. I'll probably pick up a half dozen more fish, even a
couple on the Adams before the hatch peters out.
I head downstream to a slow run and rig up for nymph fishing. I know the run is about five
feet deep so I'll set my strike indicator about a foot below the fly line/leader junction. I'll tie
on a 15-inch segment of 4X tippet to my 9 foot, 3X leader. To the tippet, I'll tie a sowbug
pattern most likely a soft hackle sowbug in size 16. I will attach an 18-inch segment of 5X
tippet to eye of the sowbug and tie on a size 18 brown or black midge pupa. Then I'll crimp
on a BB shot just above the surgeons knot that joins the leader to the 4X so that the shot
won't slide down to the fly.
I'll ease into the water and start my cast. I have to remember not to hurry my forecast because
if I don't wait for the backcast to start to straighten out, I'll have a heck of a mess. I quarter the
cast upstream about thirty feet and the fun begins.
Whenever I am fishing nymphs I have a feeling I am going to catch a trout on every cast,
admittedly reality and my fantasy don't agree, but nymph fishing is so darned effective, that
on good days reality and fantasy aren't far apart.
I read in Paul Quinnets book, Pavlov's Trout, that an angler who doesn't
hope that he or she will catch a fish on each cast, might as well quit, because hope is essential
to fishing and, living, for that matter. Maybe it's because nymph fishing normally produces
a lot of trout for me, that I hope more on each cast I make I do believe I will catch a fish.
Maybe it's because its my first trip of the year and I'm so cock sure of myself I smugly
watch the strike indicator floating downstream toward me. I know it is going to go under
at any second. I mend the line as it starts to bow. The indicator floats by me about twelve
feet away. I make another mend and start feeding line out.
Just before the float ends, the strike indicator dips. I set the hook into bottom, oh well, if I'm
not hitting bottom after a long float, I don't have enough weight.
I make another cast and watch the strike indicator closely. Before it moves three feet, I notice
the leader twitch, a trout has intercepted the sinking fly before it reached the bottom.
I set the hook into a brown trout this time. It sashays around the run for twenty seconds
or so and then I net it. The sixteen-inch brown is still golden hued from last falls spawning.
Unlike the rainbow, the brown is on the thin side and hasn't recovered fully.
I release it and go on methodically working the run, I try to cover every square foot of it.
The run will probably reward my perseverance with a dozen or so browns and rainbows
all in the 14 to 17 inch range.
For my first outing of the spring, I don't make too many foul ups. Oh, I will have to undo
a couple of messes in my leader. (I always get a kick out of it when I do a demo for my anglers
and screw up, they invariably say, "You get messes, too!"
Still, if I balance the mistakes against the fishing action and beauty of the day, my first
trip of the year is a keeper. The temperature climbed up to fifty, the wind was mercifully
light, and the fishing was great. The wildlife put on a great show for me; the rafts of
goldeneyes, buffleheads, and mallards never cease to amaze me. The former two duck
species fly by with whistling wings that bespeak of wildness and utmost freedom.
Unlike summer days on the Bighorn there was scarcely another angler to bother me.
The ones I do encounter are content to fish their waters and not encroach on mine,
another obvious advantage of fishing the river early in the year.
Well, the temperature is supposed to go to minus ten tonight. I think I'll tie up some
midge pupae and dream about fishing the Bighorn some more. I know when I venture
forth this early spring; I will have already caught a bounteous number of trout in my dreams.
If You Go
Early spring fishing requires you have good warm clothing, though you may encounter
warm air temperatures, the water will be frigid. This is the time for good quality long
underwear, polar fleece pants, a heavy wool shirt, a wind proof jacket, neoprene boot-foot
waders and a ski hat.
Don't bother to get out on the water early wait for the sun to warm things up, ten a.m. is
You can fish almost to sundown before the cold will catch up to you and the fish. In February
you can probably fish from ten to four. In March, nine to five or six is probably doable most days.
For nymph fishing a five or six-weight, nine foot, medium action graphite rod is probably best.
If you are going to fish dries, the five-weight is a good compromise. ~ Bob Krumm
Bob Krumm is a first-class guide who specializes on fishing the Big Horn River in Montana,
(and if there terrific fishing somewhere else he'll know about that too.) Bob has
written several other fine articles for this Eye Of The Guides series. He is also
a commericial fly tier who owns the Blue Quill Fly
Company which will even do your custom tying! You can reach him at:
1-307-673-1505 or by email at: