The Big Horn River
"This is a good sized, but very muddy stream that provides
very little fishing at this time, except in the 'after bay'
for about 300 yards just below the Yellowtail dam. In this
area it is fair for rainbow and brown trout, plus some sauger
and catfish. As a result of the dam the next 10 or 15 miles
downstream are rapidly improving and should be good fishing
in the near future." That was the description given to the
Bighorn River in The Montanans' Fishing Guide
by Dick Konizeski, printed in 1970 by Mountain Press Publishing
Company, in Missoula, MT. Ernie Schwiebert's magnum opus Trout
, published in 1978 by Button, does not even mention
the Bighorn! In fact, no mention of the Bighorn River can be
found in any angling book until the mid-'80s.
By Neil M. Travis, Montana
When the first settlers arrived in Montana territory the Bighorn
River was a large prairie river, flowing in a generally northerly
fashion out of the Bighorn Mountains, until it entered the
Yellowstone River. Most Americans are familiar with a tributary
of the Bighorn, Greasy Grass Creek, the name given to the Little
Bighorn by the Native Americans.
The Bighorn River has its headwaters far to the South in Wyoming,
in the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains. It flows out
through the Wind River Indian Reservation and is aptly called
the Wind River. At Thermopolis, Wyoming the river receives a
new name, the Bighorn. The river continues its journey north
across Wyoming cutting its way through a canyon into Montana.
In the late '50s work began on a dam which would impound the
waters of the Bighorn River near the mouth of Bighorn Canyon
on the Montana/Wyoming border. Yellowtail dam was completed
in 1965 and transformed the downstream section of the Bighorn
River into a world class tailwater trout fishery. For many
years only a few fortunate anglers were able to fish the upper
area of the river due to a dispute between the Crow tribe and
the State of Montana over who owned the riverbed. In the
mid-'80s the United States Supreme Court ruled for the State
of Montana and the river became open to the general public.
Today, from a base at Fort Smith, the only town near the dam,
anglers can access the prime fishing water of the Bighorn River.
The Bighorn River in Montana is a typical low gradient prairie
stream. What has transformed the Bighorn River from a warm,
sluggish, muddy stream meandering across the plains into a
world class trout fishery is the Yellowtail Dam. Constructed
to generate hydroelectric power, the Yellowtail Dam is a bottom
spill-type. The Bighorn Canyon is deep and the resulting
impoundment captures the entire flow of the river forming a
lake that extends back into Wyoming. The colder water sinks
to the bottom of the reservoir and is released below the dam.
The resulting flow is not only cold, but rich in nutrients...
ideal for trout and the food that they require.
After the water leaves the dam it flows through a short section
of canyon and then into a small lake created by a low dam. This
area is called the Afterbay. The dam, reservoir and Afterbay
are controlled by the Federal Government, and managed as the
Bighorn Canyon National Recreational Area with headquarters
at Fort Smith, Montana. From the Afterbay downstream, the next
13 miles is some of the finest classic tailwater trout fishing
to be found in the world. Due to the consistency of the flow,
both in volume and temperature, the stream has a spring
creek-like quality. Nutrients released with the water from the
bottom of the reservoir create an ideal habitat for plant growth
and extensive beds of weed carpet the bottom. The weed beds offer
excellent habitat for the prolific hatches that characterize the
The Bighorn is a large river. Below Afterbay, where the fishery
begins, the river is over 100 feet wide and six to eight feet
deep. The river drops gradually so there are few riffles and
no white water. The river is characterized by long flats, deep
pools, and back channels behind islands. Many of the favorite
spots have descriptive names like Red Cliffs, Glory Hole,
Aquarium, and Rainbow Run.
The Bighorn River flows through a desolate part of south-central
Montana, with very few roads to afford access to the river.
Adding to the access problem is the fact that most of the upper
river runs through the Crow Indian Reservation, limiting access
to pieces of land owned by the state or individuals. The only
town near the upper river is Fort Smith which is located at the
end of Highway 313. The nearest large town is Hardin, Montana,
approximately 55 miles from Fort Smith. Billings, Montana, which
is about 90 miles from Fort Smith, is the nearest city with an
airport that handles jet planes. There is a small airstrip just
east of Fort Smith that can handle small private planes.
Fort Smith offers limited overnight accommodations, restaurant,
gas station and several tackle shops. Camping is available at
a campground run by the federal government at Afterbay, and a
private campground near 3 mile access. Some of the outfitting
services offer lodging, meals, and transportation.
The river is predominately a brown trout fishery. Rainbows have
been completely protected since the river opened to the public
and their numbers are increasing, but brown trout still make up
the bulk of the population. Due to the cold water temperatures
in the late winter and early spring, rainbow spawning is delayed.
It is not uncommon to find rainbows spawning into May, long
after you would find them spawning on rivers like the Yellowstone
or the Madison.
Fishing the Bighorn
For the angler who has never fished in the West, or the angler
who has never fished the Bighorn before, a few words of advice
are appropriate at this juncture. Most visiting anglers come to
fish the Bighorn during the summer months. On the eastern plains
of Montana, the daytime temperatures during July and August
routinely exceed 90 degrees. While the river is very cold, the
sun will quickly turn any exposed skin into the color of a freshly
boiled lobster. Sun screen, hats with brims, Polaroid sun glasses,
and long sleeved shirts are the order of the day. For the angler
who comes in the spring and fall, warm and cold weather clothing
is a must. Weather changes quickly in this part of the world and
a warm sunny day in April or May can just as quickly turn into a
cold miserable one, with bone chilling rain or wet snow. The same
is true in September and October. Take it from one who has been
there. A few moments preparation and planning can mean the
difference between an enjoyable day and a miserable experience.
It's a long way between take-outs when you're sitting in a Mackenzie
boat with nothing but a cotton shirt between you and a cold rain
being driven upstream by a north wind! Much has been written about
the Bighorn and the resulting publicity has had its prescribed effect.
Do not come to the Bighorn if you are looking for solitude. Except
during the months of mid-winter, it is likely that you will be
sharing the river with many fellow anglers. While the river is
large and there are numerous places to fish, crowding in some
of the more popular areas is a reality and the visiting angler
should come prepared for that.
Fort Smith offers the angler several fly shops and outfitting
services that cater to all of the needs of the most demanding
fly fisher. Due to its size and lack of access, the most
rewarding way to fish the Bighorn is by floating. Those coming
to fish the Bighorn for the first time would be well advised
to hire one of the many excellent local guides. They will
supply the boat, lunch and, most importantly, the expertise
necessary to make your trip enjoyable.
The Bighorn is open to angling year-round, however, cold
water temperatures during the winter months and the
unpredictable weather make winter angling a risky proposition.
Many of the local businesses close during the winter or operate
on very reduced schedules, making angling during these periods
a more difficult proposition.
When to Come
As noted above, the Bighorn River is open to year-round angling,
and depending upon your angling preference you can catch fish on
the river anytime of the year.
During the months of November, December, January, and February,
weather is the limiting factor. Practically speaking, the upper
Bighorn is a long way from the nearest major town, and while
that is somewhat of a blessing, it makes the river difficult
to fish during times of uncertain weather. It's just a long
way to travel to find out that the weather has made the fishing
difficult, if not impossible. For the angler who wishes to fish
the Bighorn during these months, the following suggestions should
Water temperatures are usually quite cold, averaging in the
mid to upper 30s. The fishing will be slow, with nymphs and
streamers the order of the day. Weather may change frequently
and strong winds are very common. The days are short this far
north in the winter so the angler's time on the water will be
limited. Fort Smith does not offer much in the way of night
life, so visiting anglers should bring several good books.
Accommodations in Fort Smith are limited so anglers who intend
to stay near the river should check ahead before they come.
In March things begin to happen on the Bighorn. Weather continues
to be a factor, but there are usually more fishable days as
daylight increases with the coming of spring. Water temperatures
will still be in the 30s and fishing will continue to be mostly
with nymphs and streamers. Midges and blue-winged olives are
usually hatching, and occasionally in the late afternoon some
fish may be taken on dry flies during this period, however,
that is the exception rather than the rule.
April and May normally comprise the two best months of spring
fishing. Despite the fact that the river is controlled by a
dam, water levels do fluctuate depending upon the amount of
snowpack in the mountains. In April and May they are usually
filling the dam and water levels will be low, and any increase
in the flow will generally be gradual. During these two months
midges and blue-winged olives hatch in untold numbers, and along
the banks and below riffle tailouts, the trout will gather in
pods to feed on the emerging insects. For the angler who lives
for the thrill of fishing to large trout with small flies, this
is angler's Valhalla. However, even Eden had a serpent, and
with the increased hatches comes increased angler numbers,
and with the increased pressure the fish can become extremely
spooky. These months offer extremely rewarding but challenging
June is a transition month on the Bighorn. The prolific midge
and blue-winged olive hatches have begun to wane and no other
major hatch has replaced them. If the snow pack was heavy,
water levels may be high during June and early July. Nymphs,
fished deep, will be the most productive. For the angler who
prefers dry fly angling, the pickings are usually slim, but
terrestrials like beetles, ants, and attractor patterns will
produce a few fish for the persistent angler.
Late July, August, and September are super-hatch months on
the Bighorn. Water temperatures will warm into the low 50s
and the fish are quite active. By this time of year the water
levels have usually stabilized.
Although the flows may be high, if they remain stable it
does not affect the fishing. By mid-July the pale morning
dun hatch begins and continues to build into the month of
August and September are truly dry fly months on the Bighorn.
Pale morning duns, tricos, and caddis are available in August.
In September the pale morning duns are replaced by fall baetis
and pseudocleons. These months also marks the peak of angler
numbers and anglers need to check their egos and tempers before
they get on the stream.
October is the transition month, both in the weather and
the fishing. Like the spring months, the angler can have
some great dry fly fishing. Trico fishing may continue
until mid-month and in some years continue into November.
Fall baetis, pseudocleons, tan caddis, and midges round
out the trout's diet. Scuds and San Juan Worms can keep
the nymph fishing angler busy.
What to Bring
The Bighorn is a big river flowing through a vast, high
plains environment. Due to the nature of the land, wind
is a common phenomenon, especially in the afternoon. Rods
capable of delivering a fly into the wind are a necessity,
as are the skills necessary to cast under such conditions.
Since most anglers will be floating the river it is easy
to carry more than one rod. This will allow the angler to
cover a variety of angling situations. Most of the angling
will be with relatively small flies or weighted nymphs,
therefore rods that can handle line weights in the 4 to 6
weight range are more than ample. For dry fly fishing when
the wind is not blowing or in sheltered areas, many anglers
prefer rods in the 2 to 3 weight line class. I have personally
had some excellent fishing using a 1 weight rod.
Neoprene waders are the best type of wader to use on the
Bighorn due to the cold water temperature. Unless the angler
only intends to fish from the boat, chest high waders are
the wader of choice. Even with Neoprene waders it is preferable
to wear some type of thermal underwear and heavy socks inside
the waders. Standing waist deep in 40 degree water for long
periods of time will chill all but the most hot blooded angler.
Rain gear is a must when fishing the Bighorn during the warmer
months of the year. Late afternoon thundershowers are common
and they usually occur just when the fishing is starting to get
exciting. Hats with long bills reduce the glare, and hats that
provide some form of protection for the neck and ears are
especially helpful. Polaroid glasses, sun screen and lip balm
round out the personal hygiene items.
Depending on the time of year and the type of fishing one
expects to encounter, the type of flies the angler will
need varies. Midges are available most of the year, and
scuds and sowbugs are always present. Beyond that the angler
should come with well stocked fly boxes containing a variety
of different patterns. The visiting angler should take advantage
of the information available from the local fly shops and be
prepared to purchase or tie up some of the "hot" patterns.
To quote Roderick Haig-Brown, "Sometimes the least important
thing about the fishing, is fishing." While the Bighorn is
truly a world class fishery, anyone who only comes to spend
their every waking moment fishing is missing much of what
the river has to offer. The setting of the river is truly
spectacular. Cutting its way across the plains it flows
through a vast open country. The river bottom is rich and
covered with groves of cottonwoods. The understory is a
mixture of shrubs, grasses, and various non-woody plants.
This makes a rich habitat for a myriad of birds and other
small wildlife. Much of the surrounding land is high plains
country, thus the river bottom provides a green oasis in
the middle of an otherwise semi-arid environment. Wildlife
is a mixture of Midwestern and Western species, both finding
suitable habitat for their needs along the river. Waterfowl
and assorted shorebirds flock to the river, especially in
spring and fall. It should be noted that this is rattlesnake
country, and anglers wandering around on the islands or along
the banks should be watchful.
Overall the country is big and truly personifies the idea of
"Big Sky Country," the name many people apply to Montana. A
float down the Bighorn is a marvelous sensory experience,
aside from the wonderful angling possibilities. So, while
you're there take a break from the fishing, and enjoy the
total experience of the place, its wildlife, its serenity,
and its grandeur. Your trip, and your person, will be richer
for the experience.
BIGHORN RIVER HATCH CHART
~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona
From A Journal Archives