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View of Big Horn country
Big Horn country

The Magic of the Bighorn
By William Walker
Executive Fly-Fishing Services

  The state of Montana is "Big Sky" country and with its many great rivers and streams, it boasts some of the finest wild trout habitat in the world. I have fished many of the larger rivers in Montana and the Bighorn always stands out as one of my favorite tail waters for big strong Rainbows and Browns. I have to admit, the trips I have made to the Bighorn have always produced a large number of fine catches. One of my clients referred to his experience on the Bighorn as a "catching trip" instead of a "fishing trip".

  The Bighorn River is fed by several rivers from Wyoming into Bighorn Lake. The Bighorn tail water fishery starts at Yellowtail Dam in Fort Smith, named after an old frontier fort by that name. Fort Smith is nestled in the center of the Crow Indian Reservation in southeast Montana. It is an easy drive from Billings, Montana by taking Interstate Highway 90 south about fifty-five miles to the town of Hardin then State Road 313 south to Forth Smith.

  An interesting side trip is to continue through Hardin, about eleven miles on I-90, to the historical site of the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The site is very well preserved and now has a fine museum and bookshop. On June 25, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Calvary made their famous "Custer’s Last Stand" against Chief Sitting Bull and his Sioux Indian warriors. Little Bighorn Battlefield
This battle was fought next to the Little Bighorn River, not to be confused with the Bighorn River, and was the site of a large Sioux Indian encampment. As you stand on top of the hill where Custer and his troopers fell, and overlook the panorama of grave markers ascending the hill, you get a real sense of what it might have been like on that fateful day. Most of the fallen troopers were buried where they fell as they retreated up the hill. This battlefield tour is well worth the short distance it takes to drive there.

  The Bighorn River is fed from the Bighorn Lake, a large body of water seventy-three miles long with a depth of five hundred feet at the dam. The water for the Bighorn River flows from a depth of two hundred feet providing a cold-water trout habitat year around. The Bighorn has all the good elements for healthy trout. It has a heavy bottom weed growth and especially a very heavy insect hatch per mile, providing the trout an abundance of food source. The water levels are controlled at constant levels, thanks to the main Yellowtail Dam and a smaller dam called the Afterbay Dam that controls the flow during additional power generation.

The Bighorn river
The Big Horn river

  The vast food source puts the average growth rate for trout at three to four inches per year. The river can boast from 7,000 to 8,000 trout per mile, which of course, explains the high catch rate. The average trout here will run from fifteen to eighteen inches in length. It is not uncommon to catch a Rainbow or Brown in the twenty-inch range and even bigger. The fact is, these fish are big and strong and they will give you a worthy fight.

  A few years ago, I had a fly-fishing group at the Bighorn and we were wading the banks and throwing nymphs into a riffle along the edge of the current. Suddenly, I had a big strike and a large Rainbow cleared the water shaking his head viciously. He immediately swam into the heavier current and headed downstream as fast as he could go. My reel starting zinging as the line played out fast. The guide took off downstream trying to get the net to him before he could empty my spool. I extended the rod tip toward the bank trying to put pressure on his mouth so he would turn toward shore. I was now into my backing and he was still running downstream at a breakneck pace. Finally, he yielded to the rod pressure and turned toward the bank. The Rainbow then came within reaching distance to the guide and he was able to get him into the net. This large Rainbow left me with only three feet of backing and in another three seconds, I could have lost the fish and all my line. I have always been amazed how a, 18-24 size nymph, or any small size fly for that matter, can hold a large trout fighting for his life in a strong current.

Rainbow trout from Big Horn river

  When we fish the Bighorn River, I always tell the guides to give us a combination wade and float trip that will provide us a chance to stretch our legs and a chance to wade and work the shallower water near the banks. We have always caught fish both ways but it is a fact you will always catch more fish from the drift boat simply because you pass over a lot more fish and have a greater chance to drop your flies over more fish. At the Bighorn, you will catch trout all over the river. In the spring and early summer, the river will have strong midge hatches as the river warms up. In July, new hatches begin with Pale Morning Duns and golden stone flies. By August, the caddis hatches are incredible. As September approaches, the tricos and caddis flies are plentiful and hoppers can be good.

  Another thing I enjoy about the Bighorn Country is the wildlife you see along the river. We have seen several types of wildlife including a few eagles along the way. In 1999, we were drifting the Bighorn and a large brown bear peered over the high ledge of the bank. He then worked his way down the steep bank to the river’s edge. We were casting close to the bank and certainly close enough that the bear could have climbed into the boat if he wanted to. Seeing the bear move toward us, the guide wisely put his back to the oars and moved the Mackenzie drift boat away from the bank and toward the far side of the river. Bear at Big Horn river
It was the smart thing to do because the bear followed us for a bit then lost interest. He might have thought we had fish in the boat. How did he know we always catch and release our fish?

  I had noticed we had not seen many deer or elk in the immediate area. The guide explained the Indians on the reservations hunt game for food and we would probably not see many of these larger type game animals around the river and in the lower country away from the mountains.

  The little town of Fort Smith has several good accommodations including a few lodges and motels. My favorite is an Orvis endorsed lodge called The Bighorn River Resort owned and operated by Nick Forrester. The lodge has several very comfortable cabins and I especially enjoy the great gourmet meals served in the lodge. It is great place for groups because the lodge has a very accommodating loft room that serves as a lounge and bar with outside balcony. It is a good place to relax at the end of the day and swap fish stories.

  When you go to the Bighorn River, you can always count on catching a good quantity of large Rainbows and Browns that lie in the many pools and riffles throughout the river. You will be able to test your fly-fishing skills with both long and short casts. The magic of the Bighorn River will give you an exciting fly-fishing experience that will demand a return trip.

Drift boat fishing at Big Horn river
A drift boat on the Bighorn


William Walker
Executive Fly-Fishing Services
State of Georgia, USA
© 2002




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