Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Seventy-one

Early Spring Fishing

By Bob Krumm, Guide and Fly Tier

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.

Still Winter


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.

Trout Still Take a Fly

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.

She's Happy! 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.

Nice 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.

Sunshine on the River

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.

Well, I'm not exactly alone

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 early enough.

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

About Bob

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: rkrumm@fiberpipe.net

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