Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Sixty-one



Seasons of the Bighorn
An Angler's Year

By George Kelly
Excerpt from: Seasons of the Bighorn, An Angler's Year
Published by Willow Creek Press


SOME YEARS AGO I WROTE that the Bighorn stands as a nonpareil among North American trout streams. Nothing that has happened in the years since has caused me to change my mind. Indeed, I am more convinced than ever that this is the case, and my conviction grows with the passing of the seasons.

Shortly after the Bighorn reopened to the angling public in August 1981, noted Montana angler George Anderson asked rhetorically, as the title of an article in Fly Fisherman magazine,The Bighorn: Is it the Best? He wrote that while only time and experience could provide a definitive answer to this question, preliminary evidence suggests that it well might be.

Fifteen years have passed and time has indeed given us some perspective and produced some answers to this question. I think it is now fair to say that not only is the Bighorn a nonpareil among North American trout streams but that it is, by any measure, among the best in the world. The evidence for this assertion is persuasive.

If one accepts the thesis that a great part of the reason that we fish for trout is to catch them, then one of the measures of a great stream should be that it is home to a significant number of trout. That is to say that we can fish with confidence, secure in the knowledge that we are not wasting our time on unproductive waters, and that our success or lack thereof will depend mainly on our angling skills. According to Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and parks biologists, in the first 13 river miles below Yellowtail Dam the Bighorn is home to over 5,000 catchable trout per mile - a very conservative estimate, in my opinion. Still, while the number varies somewhat from year to year depending on stream flow, it is a staggering figure. It indicates that with a few exceptions there are nearly twice as many catchable trout per mile in the Bighorn than in any other trout stream in Montana. If the sheer number of trout available to be caught was the sole criterion for judging the value of a trout stream, then surely the Bighorn would stand tall among its peers.

Fortunately, such is not the case and we must consider the size of its fish as a factor at least as important as mere numbers when judging the relative merits of various trout stream. Who among us would not trade quality for quantity on nine days out of ten? It is well documented that the Bighorn is blessed with an abundance of large trout, and some of them are real monsters. I can recall any number of encounters, usually brief and always memorable, with trout whose size I am reluctant to speculate about here, because their proportions are beyond belief. Suffice it to say that there are some biggies about, and one such was a brown caught by one of our guests a few years ago. He was a wondrous creature, thick and heavy in his maturity and he weighed around ten pounds, according to the scale at the local grocery store. He has since grown in memory to about 11-1/2 pounds, which is admirable growth for a dead fish, but somewhat less than he would have enjoyed had he remained in the river. This is not to say that these leviathans are to be expected on the Bighorn as a daily possibility. They are certainly not. Rather, they should be savored when they do occur as the rarities that they are, and released unharmed with a salute and a prayer that you will meet again. For if the Bighorn has a weakness, it is a lack of large forage species such as the sculpin and some of the larger stonefly nymphs such a pteronarcys and acroneuria, components of aquatic food chains that regularly produce outsize trout. I've never seen a sculpin or an acroneuria on the river and the few pteronarcys I've seen could have been transported to the river in an itinerant angler's boat.

There are rivers in Montana such as the Beaverhead and some lakes tucked away throughout the state that regularly produce these fish of fervid dreams, and if you want to catch a "double digit" trout try one of these places. If you have the skill and put in sufficient time your efforts will like be rewarded. Better yet, try New Zealand or Tierra del Fuego. You can scarcely miss in "the land of fire." Of course, it helps to have a good bit of dicretionary cash laying around.

Everyone should fish it at least once!

The Bighorn, on the other hand, is everyman's river. It is easy to get to, and when you get there accommodations range from inexpensive to free to opulent and expensive. The point is that you have a choice and the trout, egalitarian creatures that they are, don't care what choice you make. Though I've noticed over the years that, all things being equal, browns seem to prefer an angler dressed in at least a bit of tweed, and rainbows most assuredly prefer a ball cap that says "Joe's Bait Shop" or something of that nature. This preference doubtless has to do with their respective heritages.

Having decried the lack of truly outsized trout on the Bighorn, I must hasten to add that growth rates for its trout are just short of phenomenal. This spring's six-inch rainbow is next fall's twelve-incher, should he be lucky enough to live so long. Lest you think I've confused multiplication with addition, I lifted these figures from a masters thesis from Montana State University by H. R. Stevenson, Rich, a Livingstone-based guide and artist, actually went out in the spring, tagged and measured certain fish and then measured them again in the fall. These are the results he noted.

Of course these growth rates are not sustainable in terms of inches gained overtime, but the reality of the situation is pretty special. The average four-year-old fish approaches twenty inches and is thick and broad of beam. So much for the quality of the trout in the river. There are lots of them and some of them are large.

We all know trout fishing is not merely a numbers game and we anglers are not or shouldn't be bean counters. This being the case, we must look further for the source of the Bighorn s magic and the spell that it casts over those who know and love it.

Is it the fact that the Bighorn is blessed with moderate weather more or less year round - a veritable banana belt by Montana standards - making it possible to cast to rising fish a good percentage of the days of the year? Or is it the great insect hatches that assure that the trout will rise sometimes hour after hour and day after day? Is it the fact it is an easy river to wade, a factor I would surely have scoffed at twenty years ago and just as surely cherish today. Or maybe it's just the sheer peace and beauty of the river and its place in the sun. I doubt that any of those factors alone can claim the river such a special place in the hearts of the legion of anglers who yearly heed its call. Rather, it is the combination of these singular and remarkable elements that results in the special magic of the Bighorn. George Kelly


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