Toggle Mobile

Bighorn in the Spring by Bob Bergquist

Late March normally heralds the change in seasons here in Montana, and the ‘banana belt’ Bighorn Valley is one of the first areas to come alive. As the sun gets higher in the sky and warmer on your back, the trout slip into the shallows and pod up in the runs feeding in clear view. Morels start popping up in the cottonwood groves and the river’s riparian zone becomes a highway for migrating song birds, ducks, geese and cranes. For those out fishing at dawn the song bird chorus along the river bank is deafening, and hormonal pheasant’s crow constantly throughout the day. Spring is as pleasurable as it gets on the Horn and we’d like for you to come experience it with us!

The Bighorn River  (located about 2.5 hours’ drive east of Livingston  and 1.3 hours from Billings) has always been one of our favorite spring tail water destinations, especially over the past few years since the dry fly fishing has returned in all its glory. During the 2000’s when we endured a seven year drought, the Yellowtail Dam released a constant, cold bottom drawn of1350 CFS.  The nutrient rich water entering the river caused thick weeds, silt and water temperatures that were well below the optimum level for aquatic insects such as mayflies, caddis and stone flies. The result was a very productive scud, sow bug, aquatic worm and midge based food source which kept the fish fat and happy, but the trout also tended to forgo surface feeding even when hatches of tiny pseudos, baetis and midges blanketed the water.

The last three wet years have resulted in July releases exceeding 15,000 cfs from the upper water column of the reservoir. The accompanying warmer water and clean gravel bottoms have re-created the conditions we enjoyed back in the 80’s and 90’s when the Horn first exploded onto the scene. As such the ‘good’ bugs have returned in numbers, with baetis, PMDs, yellow sallies, tricos and both black and tan caddis available to the fish, along with the ever present sub surface smorgasbord.  The trout population has responded by exploding back into the 6000 fish per mile range, and perhaps is even on the climb back to 9,000 plus as was the average through much of the nineties. Active spawning redds are now found up and down the river from November through June when the rainbows finally finish up. Higher flows mean more habitat and lots more fish.

This winter the water managers have maintained a minimum flow of just over 3100 cfs. We expect that they will start slowly releasing water in May and early June with max flows hitting in July once again. The unique nature of the Bighorn means that dry fly fishing often gets better at these high flows. Certainly one can go to the triple BB and wire worm dredging rig and whack fish all day, but we also have many dry fly options (in contrast to the Missouri tail water which will not fish dries well until late July or beyond.) Last spring I had several 25+ plus fish days all on dries even with the river cranked up to 12,000 cfs.  As always the sight nymphing was killer. One of my favorite early season dry fly tactics at proper flows is nose hunting while slowly wading up a brushing bank. It’s certainly the most classic and exhilarating way to pick out and stick a pig on the Horn.

The expected hatches this spring will start with midge clusters and baetis coming off from March through May and June. Around the beginning of June we will start seeing the yellow sallies and PMDs, peaking soon after and carrying on through July. The sallies were the star of the show last June, and we expect another epic hatch this season. Black and tan caddis should start in late June or early July and hatch through the summer.  Depending on the weather, hoppers become important as early as July 1st in the eastern part of Montana, almost a full month earlier than the upper Yellowstone. Anglers savvy or lucky enough to be there for the first week of hoppers always have a trip to remember.

Bighorn River Fishing Itinerary – 4 nights/3 days of guided fly- fishing on the Bighorn River.  Guide trips each day include all flies, riverside lunch and transportation each day.  Again we are not allowed to collect money for lodging but we will take care of all arrangements.  Some lodges include breakfast and dinner, others are just a room.  Either way, we will take care of all the planning for you. Guide fees for 2: $1350  

This spring The Yellowstone Angler will have guides pre-positioned on the Horn who will also be traveling back to Livingston to guide the Yellowstone River, spring creeks and private lakes as required.  As such we can arrange some really great combination trips that will get you onto the best spring trout fishing Montana has to offer.

Lodging can be somewhat limited in Fort Smith so booking early ensures prime rooms. We have a mixture of accommodations available from trailer homes to single and double lodge/motel style rooms. As for gear we recommend bringing a 5/6 weight floating rig for nymphing and a favorite 4/5 weight dry fly rod. A third streamer rod with a sink tip line can be very useful on cloudy and windy days. For most applications a 9ft 4X leader does the trick, and tippet down to 6X is required for small dry fly work. Wading the Horn is easy with the firm gravel bottom. Waders should be brought along and certainly will be needed in early season but by mid-May we start wet wading on the nice days. The spring weather out here can be variable to say the least, but we usually start fishing in mid-March with highs of 30-50, by April it can be 40 or it can be 80. Come prepared!

If you want to book a trip to the Bighorn contact James Anderson at 406 222 7130 or [email protected]