Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Seventy-seven

Bighorn River's Hot Fishing in Low Water Conditions, Montana

By Al Campbell

Lower water - slower current

Low water years on the Bighorn River usually result in a lot of cancellations from fishermen who think low water will hurt their chances for a good time. In many cases, this is a realistic fear. But, if you can cast relatively well, and you can fish a dry fly or a nymph with very little added weight, your chances for a great time are excellent. In fact, the odds for a great trip might be better than normal.

When the water is low like it is this year (1800cfs vs. the normal June flow of 6000 to 7000cfs), fish are concentrated in fewer places and the calmer water results in better shallow water dry fly fishing. My annual trip to the big river this year resulted in pods of dozens of fish feeding on dries in water that was inches (not feet) deep. With careful planning and stalking, a capable dry fly fisherman could catch dozens, maybe scores of feeding trout in a day. However, if you can't fish a dry fly, you're going to have a rough time because these fish don't tolerate sloppy casts or flies being drug around by your line swinging in the current.

Midges in boat

Midge and baetis patterns were the hot tickets to match the hatch this June. Especially effective was a fly called a "bunny baetis" which is merely a body with a dun colored snowshoe hare wing tied post style (size 16 to 22). Also very effective was a small baetis nymph (or pheasant tail) or midge pupa pattern (size 18 to 24) tied off the bend of the bunny baetis and allowed to drift under the dry fly. Some fish ate the dry fly; some ate the nymph. The midge hatches were exceptional with flies crawling all over us, in our ears, nose, on our sunglasses and stacking up on the bottom of the boat.

Guides use driftboats A common tactic the guides employ to get novice fishermen into fishing action is to place a gob of weight about 18 inches above the nymph and suspend it about 6 feet below a big fuzzy yarn type strike indicator. Casting this mess is miserable, but it doesn't take much skill or finesse to catch fish from a boat this way and you don't have to cast much or far when fishing from a boat. At least, it works well most of the time during normal years.

In low water years, nymph draggers are either limited to the middle of the river, the deepest runs or are cursed with foot long strings of moss on nearly every cast. However, if you know how to cast more than 20 feet and you know how to mend your line, you can have a great time with the same nymphs that work other years.

Can't miss this midge hatch

To effectively fish nymphs in low water, you need to reduce the weight you have attached to your leader. During years with normal water flows, I use one to three #6 split shot to keep my nymph running near the bottom. When the water is high like it was three years ago (13000 to 18000cfs in June), two or three BB sized split shot are required to keep the fly near the bottom. This year I used a single #8 shot and un-weighted nymphs to catch bottom feeding fish. Adaptation is the key to success, and lightly weighted setups require casting rather than flogging. Again, fishermen with fairly adequate skills can do well during low water years, but people who can't cast will have trouble.

Finding where the fish are feeding isn't hard in low water. Fish feeding on the surface are easier to see when the water is low and flat. Fish feeding on nymphs will be concentrated in areas where a seam in the current allows them to feed without exerting a lot of effort. Riffles and runs with visible seams are usually good bets. Since fish are more concentrated when the water is low, you might be casting to twice as many fish as you would find in the same place during normal water flows. However, since the water is slower, the fish can see better, so a stealthy approach is required.

Erik Swanson caught fish

This year a number of fishermen have canceled their reservations on the Bighorn River because they feel the low water will hurt their chances for good fishing. If they don't know how to fish or aren't willing to learn, they made a good choice. However, any fisherman who can fish a dry fly or cast a lightly weighted nymph will do well this year on the big river. The fish haven't left, just some of the competition for the good fishing spots is missing.

You don't necessarily need a guide to fish the Bighorn. However, first time visitors to the Bighorn will find the river easier to learn by hiring a guide for at least one day. Good guides know where the fish are and how to catch them. Alert fishermen will learn more in a day with a good guide than they can learn in a week on their own. After that first day, renting a boat or walking and wading from one of the access points is an option if you feel you have learned enough to do it on your own.

Bighorn Trout Shop There are a lot of good guides on the Bighorn. Bob Krumm who writes an occasional column for Fly Anglers On Line is one of the best. Hale Harris and the guys at the Bighorn Trout Shop are also excellent choices. Kip Dean who guides from the Bighorn Trout Shop is a personal friend and one of the best fly fishermen I know. There are other shops and guides in the area who will do an excellent job too, but the ones I just mentioned have impressed me with their friendliness and knowledge. At least one shop and a couple of guides in the area (who will remain unnamed) have impressed me with their unfriendly and/or haughty attitudes. They don't get any of my business or time.

For more information, or to book a guided trip, you can contact Bob Krumm or the Bighorn Trout Shop at the following addresses. A visit to their web sites will provide info on guide rates and an insight into their operations.

Sometimes you get an unexpected surprise while fishing the Bighorn. This year I was treated to a rattlesnake swimming within five feet of me while I was fishing. The water was so cold (about 40 degrees) that the snake was moving very slow. Being basically chicken when it concerns snakes with fangs, I let him swim peacefully to shore and go about his business.

Adopted duckling

A duckling adopted my fishing partner (Erik Swanson) too. That little duck swam after the drift boat for a distance of about a mile trying to hop into the boat. It even endured a dunking in the rapids and being sucked down in a swirl for about half a minute while trying to get into the boat. When it finally did hop into the boat, it settled down in a net and took a nap. We took it back to the area it started following us from, but it wouldn't leave Erik's side. Erik doesn't look like much of a mommy to me, but that duckling seems to think he's the real thing. Baby duck is now swimming in the pond at one of Eric's relative's farms. ~ Al Campbell

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