Bighorn River Montana
Monday morning I decided it was time for me to checkout the Bighorn at Fort Smith. As I had never fished the river below Yellowtail Dam, I thought it would be prudent to book a guide for a couple of days to get a good introduction to the river and its ways so I called Bighorn Angler and booked a 3-night package. I left Longmont Tuesday morning, drove north on I-25 to Sheridan and picked up I-90. I got off at Lodge Grass and drove across to Montana 313 and into Fort Smith, arriving about 3 pm.
If you've never been to Fort Smith, it's a bit of a shock. Located on the Crow Indian reservation, there?s not much there other than one caf?, one store/gas station, several fly shop/lodges, and about 600 drift boats. The caf? is open from 8 am to 10 pm and has a limited menu. In addition, because it?s on the res, there?s no beer/liquor available to purchase so if you want a cold beer at the end of the day, bring it yourself.
I checked in at Bighorn Anglers, got my room, arranged to meet my guide the following morning, and picked up some local fly patterns. These included sow bugs, Ray Charles, red and black midge pupa and larva, and some bateis nymphs. I asked about wade access for that evening and was directed to cross the Afterbay and hike down towards first Island.
I rigged up, changed to my waders, and got on the river about 5:30. As I hiked down river, I began to see some rising fish in the shallows and many midges on the water. I tied on a size 20 hi-vis Griffis and a size 24 CDC Midge and started casting to risers. In that clear, shallow water I quickly discovered that the most effective way to fish was a down stream presentation with no false casting over the fish. I picked up several fish before they stopped feeding on the surface; nothing of any size, but all in great shape. I hiked on down to First Island and crossed over. There were several boats stacked up at the Meat Hole and a number of anglers out of the boats and working the shelf so I started working back up river, drifting a nymph rig about 6 to 10 feet off the bank. The fish here were larger than what I?d found up stream and a couple of them had real attitudes; anyone who thinks big Brown Trout don?t jump, hasn?t met the Bighorn residents.
On Wednesday morning I met up with my guide and we fished Afterbay to 3-Mile. The weather was hot and the sky was very clear which tended to make the fishing a little tougher than I had been lead to expect. We only saw a couple of rising fish and we were on the river until 7 pm, so the day was spent casting nymphs to visible fish. There were plenty of Midge?s and BWO?s on the water, but the fish just weren?t looking up.
The primary purpose of boats on the river is to get you from one spot to the next so you can get out and sight fish. The average fish on Wednesday was around 16 inches, with a few that went upwards of 18 or 19. It was a mix of Rainbows and Browns, with a couple of possible Cutbows thrown in. We stayed away from the redds and the Bow?s busy making little Bow?s, but did find some cruising that we worked too.
We also encountered some cruising SNAKES. On Wednesday we had a 4 to 5 foot Bull snake pass within a couple of feet of us on the upstream side, Thursday we saw two more large Bull?s and a large Rattlesnake on the water; it tends to keep you looking upstream as you?re wading around, and very careful when you go looking for a bush to wiz on.
Thursday we did 3-Mile to the Bighorn takeout. The fishing was much better but still no surface action worth talking about. I took several fish that were over 20 inches, and broke off a couple that probably went a little bigger. There?s a lot of moss on the Horn and the fish tend to dive for it and get you tangled up with it. I was fishing 5x most of the time so it definitely gave the advantage to the fish. Here?s a couple of the fish I landed on Thursday.
All-in-all it was a great trip, and I will definitely do it again. Next time out I will either take a ?toon, or rent a drift boat and row myself. The river is an easy float and at 2500 cfs, doesn?t really provide any challenges in the way of difficult water.
Fly patterns that were working included sow bugs, red and black midge pupa and larva, small baetis nymphs, and San Juan worms. One thing that was new to me was the use of balloons as an indicator. The setup was to use a 9 foot 4x leader and a couple of feet of 4 or 5x tippet to the top fly, then 18 to 24 inches of 5x tippet to the trailer. The balloon was attached to the leader just below the line/leader connection. Small split shot is added or subtracted about 12 inches above the top fly and you work long drifts. I was surprised at how sensitive the balloon indicator is to any take by a fish.
"I still don't know why I fish or why other men fish, except that we like it and it makes us think and feel." Roderick Haig-Brown, A River Never Sleeps