June 23, 2021
By Barry Beck
Montana’s Bighorn River has for decades been considered one of the best tailwater fisheries in the American West. Named by fur trapper Francois Larocque after the bighorn sheep he encountered along its banks, the Bighorn is the largest tributary of the Yellowstone. In its 460 miles, it runs through both Wyoming and Montana. It starts as the Wind River at the outflow of Wind River Lake, but its geographic name changes to the Bighorn at a spot called “Wedding of the Waters” just south of Thermopolis, Wyoming. The ’Horn continues north into the Bighorn Basin and through two man-made impoundments to its eventual meeting with the Yellowstone River north of Hardin, Montana. In 1967, Yellowtail Dam was completed on the Crow Indian reservation at a cost of $110 million. The dam and its Afterbay changed the river from a mediocre, mostly warmwater fishery to a world-class coldwater trout destination. In 1981, the Bighorn opened to the angling public with three high-quality boat ramps in the first 13 miles below the dam.
The river since then has had some up and some down years. High water and excessive drifting weeds through much of 2018 was a problem, and 2019 was just a disaster for the ’Horn. The river flowed at 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) for a good part of the fishing season. It had a disastrous effect on the spring spawning fish, and in the summer the water from the dam flowed warm. The fish counts in the first 13 miles of river below the Afterbay that year were the lowest since the annual survey was first taken in 1992. Many anglers were frustrated—texting and posting that the best days of the Bighorn were over. Fishing blogs claimed that the trout fishery was literally being flushed away, and that fly fishers should stay home or go elsewhere. I also blogged about my favorite river in the American West, an honest attempt to convince Bighorn anglers to keep the faith, and to overlook a couple of poor seasons.
Fast forward to 2020, and what a difference a year can make. From too much to too little, tailwater fisheries are always at the mercy of water releases, and it often comes down to who gets the water. Ranchers, irrigators, cities, boaters in Wyoming, and power companies are always vying for this precious resource, and it seems like a tailwater trout fishery is almost always last on the list. The 2018 and 2019 seasons showed there are few exceptions to this rule.
However, hope springs eternal. The fish that we managed to catch in 2019 were mostly 14- to 16-inch rainbows and browns. But a dozen of those per day was a good day in the warm, dirty water, and no comparison to the 30 to 40 fish per day that many Bighorn regulars remembered. Two Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officers that I met at the Three Mile Access in 2019 were more optimistic. Although they were finding fewer fish in the river, they said that given a good winter, the growth rate and size of the fish next year would surprise us. We left the river with cautious optimism, looking forward to what 2020 might hold for the Bighorn.
Cathy and I have been fishing and hosting groups of anglers on the Bighorn for more than 30 years, and our history with the river goes back even further. In the early years, we’d pack up our Volkswagen Vanagon every August, leave Pennsylvania, and head west. The plan was always to stop in Montana’s Paradise Valley to fish DePuy, Armstrong, and Nelson’s spring creeks. We often also visited Yellowstone National Park, stopping at the Lamar River and Slough Creek, or we drove up the Gallatin to Belgrade and finished our trip on the spring creeks west of Bozeman.
It was on one of those trips that we crossed into Montana a day ahead of schedule. Stopping in Hardin for lunch, we listened to two men talking about the great fishing they had on the nearby Bighorn River. The river had only been open to the public for a few years, but we had already heard the stories. So, on a whim, we decided to take a look. Fort Smith was an eye opener, just a cluster of buildings, one restaurant, three fly shops, and lots of trailers. It was certainly no high-end tourist trap, but judging from the number of fly shops and drift boats, there had to be good fishing. A lucky stop at Bighorn Angler put us in touch with the shop owner at that time, Mike Craig, who immediately made us welcome and told us that Tricos were hatching and the trout were on the spinners.
Those were magic words. Tricos have always been one our favorite mayfly hatches, so Cathy and I set off with a map of the river. We did indeed find clouds of Tricos just above the Three Mile Access, but most impressive was the sheer number of spinners on the water. There were heads everywhere. We had a great morning and early afternoon of Trico fishing, and that evening we experienced a black caddis hatch like we had never seen before. In a knee-jerk reaction, we camped that night near the river and the next morning canceled all of our spring creek reservations. For the next two weeks we fell in love with the river, its trout, and its hatches. We met many great guides and anglers who felt the same affection for the ’Horn. This was the beginning of what would become a very long love affair with an incredible river.
A couple of seasons passed, and eventually we started hosting groups on the ’Horn and once again luck was on our side when we met legendary guide and outfitter, George Kelly. George and his wife Jo owned Kingfisher Lodge near the Three Mile Access, which became our headquarters for about 20 years. Our friendship with George spawned a book titled Seasons of the Bighorn. George’s affection for the river and its history came through loud and clear in his well-written prose, and our photographs helped show the beauty of the river.
Prior to arriving in August 2020, I called our old friend Mike Craig. He is now retired, but still lives near the river, and his reports can be taken as the gospel truth. I could sense his excitement as he gave me the news—big fish, good water levels and temperatures, caddis every day, PMDs, and over-the-top hopper fishing. Guide Bob Krumm wrote that he was seeing the best PMD hatches in 20 years, and pods of fish were feeding aggressively on them.
In August 2020 we watched as veteran guides Clint Krumm, Mike Kelly, Carl Newell, and others left the lodge parking lot pulling drift boats loaded with gear and fly fishers with great expectations for their first day of fishing. For a trip host, there are always anxious moments until the guests come back at the end of the first day. At about 5 P.M. the first guide Clint Krumm pulled into the parking lot with veteran travelers Larry Cooney and Jim Woods. Their huge smiles immediately told me all I needed to know. It soon became unanimous as the other boats returned. It was a great day all around with smiles, handshakes, and stories of large, hard-fighting fish. It would last for two weeks, and at the end of that time we toasted the river and its fish and made a promise to return next year.
Rivers need friends—men and women to hold stewardship over the well-being of the river and the watershed. On the Bighorn, those people include the staff, volunteers, and board members of the Bighorn River Alliance. Formed in 1995, its mission is to protect and preserve the Bighorn, which includes working with the Crow Nation, the Agricultural community, the Bureau of Reclamation, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
“After several years of sustained high-water flows, which negatively impacted the rainbow and brown trout spawning success, the fish population in 2017 and 2018 dropped considerably,” said Rick Gehweiler, board president of the Bighorn River Alliance and manager of Bighorn River Lodge. “The good news is that this reduced trout population also had less competition for food, and in 2020 the food supply was—thanks to Mother Nature—more plentiful than any other year we can remember. This combination of fewer fish, and more food, produced a record number of big fish being caught in the 18- to 22-inch range.
“While the number of fish being caught wasn’t 20 or 30 fish per day, every angler I talked to was absolutely thrilled to hook maybe 12 and land 6 of these monsters. And the flows were maintained below 5,000 cfs, which provided for excellent walk/wade opportunities, clear water, and abundant dry-fly hatches.”
“The Bighorn River Alliance recognizes that flow management is one of the most important components of a successful Bighorn tailwater fishery,” said Anne Marie Emery, executive director. “Since 2017 the BHRA has actively worked with the Bureau of Reclamation in revising water management policies that bring balance to the river. While high, sustained river releases during critical time periods in trout development have impacted the fisheries, we hope that, moving forward, changes in operations and improved forecasting will result in more sustainable flow releases.
“However, Mother Nature does play an important role in water management, and the Bighorn, like all rivers, will still experience high-water and low-water years. Our hope is that recommendations adopted by the Bureau of Reclamation will reduce the negative impacts these events have on the wild trout populations.”
To help improve spawning recruitment, BHRA has also identified 29 historic side channels in the wild trout section of the Bighorn River. Many of these channels only flow during high water because they have lost connectivity with the main channel. Decreased access to side channels, especially during low-flow years, affects Bighorn trout by limiting their access to diverse habitats necessary for various stages of their life development.
Unfortunately, on most tailwater fisheries, side channels are lost over time as controlled releases from the dams channelize the riverbed, decreasing the availability of complex habitat. Over the past year, BHRA has been analyzing and evaluating Bighorn side channels to reconnect to the main river.
Right now, BHRA is going through a permitting process to reconnect two of these channels to the main river, with similar projects planned for the future.
BHRA also hired contractor David Stagliano from Montana Biological Survey to develop a long-term data set on the river’s benthic macroinvertebrate populations. It’s the first time anyone has surveyed the insect population in the river since 2005. Stagliano collected data at eight sites in 2020 to identify historical macroinvertebrate data and compare that information to current communities. The goal is to relate these biological indicators to spatial and temporal trends in aquatic habitat health.
“The Bighorn is one of the least-monitored rivers in Montana due to its location within tribal jurisdiction boundaries, and we’re working to overcome that challenge,” said Emery. “Moving forward, we look forward to continuing and building upon these science-based efforts to preserve and protect the blue ribbon trout waters of our beloved Bighorn.”
People like Gehweiler, Emery, and countless other individuals with BHRA are working hard 365 days a year to ensure that this resource stays healthy. To support their efforts,
What we saw last August is the reassurance that the river now holds more and bigger trout than we could have hoped for. After the disastrous 2019 season, in 2020 the quality of the fish and the fishing on the Bighorn was truly a godsend. If you want 40 fish per day, you should look elsewhere. But if catching a dozen or more fat bruisers in the neighborhood of 20 inches sounds appealing, have a look at the new face of the Bighorn.
Barry and Cathy Beck have been Fly Fisherman contributors for more than 30 years and are also travel hosts for Frontiers Travel.