Fish America: The Bighorn

As trout waters go, there's good water, great water, and legendary water. The Bighorn River, which flows north from Wyoming into Montana before dumping into the Yellowstone, is of the third category. For sheer number and size of trout, there are few places you're better off wetting a fly than the Bighorn River. This is the Yankee Stadium, the Lambeau Field of trout fishing. I had yet to land a 20-plus-inch trout on the fly on my journey, so I came to the Bighorn. A 20-inch brown isn't a rarity here, but it was still a milestone I'd hoped to break.
I was fortunate enough to stay at the Bighorn Fly & Tackle Shop in Fort Smith, Montana. Flies, gear, guides, warm rooms and no cell phone service. What more could a fly-fisherman ask for?
I'd be floating three miles of the river on December 4 with guide and fly tier Eric Beebe. Eric makes a living tying flies and catching trout on them in and around Billings, Montana, but does much of his fishing on the Bighorn. A tailwater, the Bighorn flows ice-free year round and the winter offers some phenomenal fishing for brown trout that are staging to spawn. Taking longer than you expected to fish the country, on occasion, has its benefits.
In the early morning, a mist was rising off the river and the snow-covered banks had an eerie quiet feeling to them. No doubt they'd be lined with fishermen if it was two months earlier or 20 degrees warmer.
We'd put in right below the dam at about 9 a.m., once the air temperature had risen to a balmy 15 degrees.
Here's a selection of streamers Eric had tied up the night before we fished. I'd be throwing the "Bighorn Circus Peanut" for most of the day. Eric sells his flies to many distributors and estimates he ties 7,000 dozen in a year. That's a lot of time at the vice.
Here are the midges. We had most of our luck on the root beer glass bead thread midge on the day, but Eric wasn't about to run out, as you can see.
The river was frigid on this December Saturday, and a lack of wind is the only thing that kept it from being unbearable. We'd float sections while targeting the banks with a streamer and sinking line, and jump out to float midges through pockets and pools.
Eric works a streamer into an undercut bank. The river was flowing at about 2,300 cfs on the day we fished it, close to optimal conditions, Eric said.
The most impressive thing about the Bighorn is the sheer number of fish. You will be kicking fish out of your way as you wade down the river, and it didn't take long for Eric to tie into a trout.
This male brown trout, as evidenced by the kype, was getting darker for the spawn. An impressive fish, but an average trout by Bighorn standards.
We released these fish, most staging for the spawn, quickly so as not to hassle them too much in this important time of the year for the river's population.
Fifty, sixty, and even 100-fish days are not an abnormality on the river, Eric said. This bright female brown was one of at least 30 fish that Eric and I landed and released on the day.
The root beer midge took by far the most trout. Continue on through the gallery to see a link to Eric's site where you can check out and purchase some of his flies.
A colorful male brown ready for release.
Almost as impressive as the number of fish is the size. I'm grinning ear-to-ear here because despite the brutal cold, I got what I came in search of: my 20-inch trout. This female brown trout is the largest I've landed on a fly on the trip, and it's funny how you forget how cold your hands are when you're trying to turn a trout like this out of a pool.
There's some legendary trout water between me and my final destination, so I'm not going to call this the biggest trout of the trip quite yet, but as my first 20-inch fish on the fly, it's something I'll certainly never forget. Thanks to Eric and the guys at Bighorn Fly & Tackle for allowing me to check off this milestone in Montana.
Almost as fun as catching these fish is watching them swim away.
An interesting thing about fishing the upper stretch of the Bighorn in the winter is the cows grazing all around you. These animals aren't shy and will walk right through your pool. However, Eric explained that the trout are used to it, don't spook easily, and will even take advantage of the bugs falling off the animals for an easy meal.
There are some monster rainbow trout in the Bighorn as well. I wasn't able to land any enormous fish, of which I assure you there are plenty that a better fly-fisherman might have come home with pictures of, but I did get my Bighorn bow.
Temperatures can stay in the single digits, and you need to be adequately prepared for winter fishing on the Bighorn. But the cold can clear the crowds and the banks lined with snow make for a picturesque place from which to wrench trout.
December and January are great times to take advantage of aggressive male browns staging for the spawn. So if you hate crowds and don't mind the cold, get to the Bighorn River in Montana. The upper 5-mile stretch is particularly productive if you've got to concentrate your efforts in one area.
Target the banks with streamer patterns for enormous carnivore rainbows, and drift promising pockets and pools with midges for browns trout like this and bigger. Eric ties flies based on specific local knowledge for the Bighorn, you can check them out at www.bighornflies.com
If you go, head to Fort Smith and stay at Bighorn Fly & Tackle. You'll have warm rooms, television, and a fly shop connected to your room. Just warn the people that might send out a search team that there's no pay phone, no cell service, and depending on the fishing, you'll probably be gone for a while. www.bighornfly.com

I couldn't leave Montana without waving a fly rod on one of the West's' best trout waters.