BROWN AND RAINBOW TROUT
ON THE BIGHORN RIVER
RECOMMENDED BY Barry Beck
Barry Beck still remembers the time he fell in love. "Back in the seventies, my wife Cathy
and I used to do a Montana fishing loop each year in our VW van. We'd start in Parad is()
Valley, go around Yellowstone, then head over to Henry's Fork, then up the Gallatin,
spend the last night in Bozeman, and then head home to Pennsylvania. Early on duni
one of these trips, we happened to spend a night in Hardin. We overheard these guys iii
a burger joint talking about the fish they were catching on a river called the Bighorn. W(' decided to check it out.
decided to check it out.
"We met up with Mike Craig down there and got out on the 'Horn. Next thing wp
knew, we were calling ahead and canceling all of our other reservations. For the next few
weeks, we slept anywhere we could find room to sleep so we could fish the river. Onc ()I
our first days on the 'Horn, we came upon the greatest Trico hatch we'd ever seen. '111(.
hatch was so prolific, you could smell the dead flies in the air. The fish were mov
upriver through the insects, like a formation of geese. It sounded like they were ea
salad." Needless to say, Barry and Cathy have been visiting the Bighorn ever since.
The Bighorn River as we know it today was created in 1967 with the completiot I )1
Yellowtail Dam. The cool, clean water released from the dam nurtures fecund w( .c(1
growth, which in turn fosters abundant insect life and a climate where fish can prop,i
gate and grow quickly. Bighorn rainbows average 16 inches and brown trout averagc 1,,
inches, with many larger specimens regularly encountered. In the first few miles of
Bighorn below the dam, populations can approach up to ten thousand fish per milt. III
Those who equate Montana trout fishing with snowcapped mountains will be a hit
taken aback at the Bighorn's environs. Along the western edge of the Great Plains, t ii
urroundings are largely devoid of trees, except for cottonwoods along the banks of the
iver. Look closer, and you'll appreciate the subtle shadings of the rock escarpments and
he not-so-subtle hatches that have made the Bighorn a destination fishery.
Visitors can expect constant hatches throughout the year. Blue-Winged Olives come
ff in the spring and can be imitated effectively in nymphal stages with Pheasant Tails
nd in adult stages with Parachute Adams. Come July, little yellow stoneflies appear and
rovide slightly easier fishing, as fish seek the insects in the faster water. With August,P
ale Morning Duns arrive. Anglers can find success with Hare's Ears below the surface
nd Sparkle Duns on top. A profusion of caddis come later in August and continue into
eptember, and are followed in the fall by the Tricos. For those willing to brave the
agaries of a Great Plains winter, midges are the order of the day.
If nothing is happening in the way of a hatch, small scuds and San Juan worms can
e fished near the bottom with an indicator at almost any time of year and are consistent
For Barry Beck, the Trico hatch continues to captivate. Take the occasion when the
rico-gulping fish wouldn't let him off the river. "Cathy and I were out with Bob Krum, a
ell-known guide on the river. We were supposed to float down below the Mallard's
anding. We came to the first island and an amazing Trico hatch was coming off. We
ished there until two P.M. — we could still see the launch area and realized we had bet-
er put some miles on. We started downriver and came to an even larger pod of slurping
ish. I'd never seen Tricos on the river past noon, but there they were. Next thing we
new, it was starting to get dark. Somehow, we made it to the take-out where Bob's rig
as waiting. It was after eleven. We had Cornish game hens for dinner around two A. M."
The Bighorn has cast a spell on many anglers over the years, luring them away from
ther lives to set up house near its banks. "There's only one reason in the world that
eople come to live in Fort Smith, Montana, and that's to be on the 'Horn," Barry said.
I know more than a few guys who've given up marriages and personal possessions to be
n the river."
Most visiting anglers focus on the first thirteen miles of the river below the YellowtailD
am. The crowds, especially in the first three miles below the dam, can be thick, espe-
ially in the summertime. The river below Bighorn Access Site slows significantly and
he fish populations diminish, drawing far fewer anglers. While the fish are fewer and
redominantly browns, they are also bigger. This is a boon for Barry.
"There's some very productive water on the lower section, and the fishing is very chal-
enging. The 'Horn is a gentle river at this point, reminiscent of Henry's Fork in places.
like fishing small flies and fine tippets. I can find this kind of angling on the lower
ighorn, and I generally have little competition for the water." Large streamer patterns
ast against the banks and stripped quickly to the boat will also generate hard strikes
rom big brownies in this stretch.
Due to low water conditions in the last few years, fish populations and catch rates on
he Bighorn have suffered. But Barry's passion for the river has not dampened. "We
aven't seen sensational fishing as of late, but when you fall in love with a river, you stayw
ith it. The river's had some tough times but it's getting better."
ARRY BECK and his wife, Cathy, conduct fly-fishing schools, clinics, and presentations
nd lead fly-fishing trips to fresh- and saltwater destinations around the world. Their
hotographs appear regularly in sporting calendars and magazines, including Fly
isherman and Field k Stream (see www.barryandcathybeck.com). The Becks' books
nclude Cathy Beck's Fly Fishing Hand-book, Seasons of the Bighorn (written with George
elly), Fly Fishing the Flats, and Favorite Pennsylvania Fly Water.
IF YOU GO
0' Prime Time: Late July through mid-August is when the Bighorn has its most prolific
atches — and accompanying crowds. The river fishes well from early July through Sep-
ember and is also open to fishing in the winter, when despite fiendishly fickle weather
t can still fish quite well.
, Getting There: Fort Smith generally serves as home base for anglers focusing on the
ighorn. The town — a collection of a few fly shops, lodges, and assorted trailers — is
bout ninety miles southeast of Billings, which is served by a number of commercial car-
iers. Note that Fort Smith is located on the Crow Indian Reservation. No alcohol is sold
here. If you enjoy a drink after fishing you should plan on bringing your own.
D. Accommodations: Fort Smith exists to serve anglers, and a variety of accommodations
re available Kingfisher Lodge (800-835-25,29; www.bighornkingfisher.com) offers excel-
ent guides, accommodations, and meals. Simpler accommodations, including rental
omes for larger parties, are available from Bighorn Trout Shop (406-666-2375; www.big
orntroutshop.com) and Bighorn Fly and Tackle (888-665-1321; www.bighornfly.com);
hese simpler rooms average $1oo per night for two. The fly shops and lodges can
rrange guide services (on average, $350 per day for two anglers). It's worthwhile to hire
guide the first day you're out on the river, as he or she can give you a sense of the river'sr
ich entomology. If you have some rowing experience, you can rent a boat the second day
nd do it yourself.
P- Equipment: As much of the fishing is done from a drift boat, most anglers suit up
ith with two rods: a 9-foot 4- or 5-weight rig for fishing dries and a 9-foot 6- or 7-weight
od for nymphs and streamers. A floating line will work for all situations except fishing
treamers, when you might prefer a sink-tip; reels should carry ioo yards of backing.
ring along 9-foot leaders tapered to 4x or 5x, and tippet from 3x to 7x. Depending on the
ime of year, the following flies will cover most situations: Parachute Adams, Pheasant
ail, Hare's Ear, Elk Hair Caddis, Stimulators, Sparkle Duns, PMD Cripples, X-Caddis,
arachute Trico, Griffiths Gnat, San Juan Worm, and Scud (check in the local fly shops
o see what colors are working). Smaller tends to work better on the Bighorn, so stock up
n sizes from #I4 to #20 ... and even smaller for the Trico hatch.
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