It’s great northern air. Absolutely the best trout fishing in the country. No exaggeration. Fine country. Good color, good northern atmosphere, absolute freedom, no summer resort stuff and lots of paintable stuff.
—Ernest Hemingway to his friend Jim Gamble, 1919
I recently got a chance to escape the rat race and spend a glorious week on the Bighorn River in Montana. It’s the second time I’ve gone, and once again I am already missing it: the broad khaki river valley marked by clusters of green and gold cottonwood, the high desert mountains, and the red cliffs that bound the river. Of course there are many rivers in Montana and great trout fishing, but the Bighorn has found a place in my fly fishing soul; a soul that needs rekindling with future visits – hopefully lots of them.
This blog post is in two parts – Part 1 covering the first 4 days of the trip and Part 2 covering the remainder. The first part of the trip was unguided – the second part was done with a great outfitter and each day’s fishing was with a guide, fishing from a drift boat.
As I have been drawn to the Bighorn, so was Ernest Hemingway to the woods, lakes, and rivers of Northern Michigan. His family purchased a cottage on Walloon Lake and summered there every year from the time of his birth. The place made an indelible impression on Hemingway: one that shaped him as a man and provided a well-spring for his work as a Nobel prize-winning writer. Hemingway referred to Walloon Lake and the surrounding area as “the last good country”; a place he held near to him even later in life as he spread his wings and set up shop in more distant locales like Key West, Bimini, Kenya, Idaho, and Cuba. One of Hemingway’s great short stories, “Big Two-Hearted River” takes place in Northern Michigan, and it is one all anglers should read.
I first fished the Bighorn back in 2007 with my brother-in-law, Jeff. On that trip, the two of us fished for 3 days with the same guide (who still guides there – Ryan Stefek), and we experienced incredible fishing, mainly through nymphing. I was somewhat new to the game of nymphing, armed only with the basics. I knew how to mend and at least attempt a drag-free drift. I learned a lot from our guide, among them how to keep flies clean, how to set on any hesitation of the indicator, and how to do the reach cast. As I recall we caught 20+ good quality browns and rainbows a day, with double hook-ups on the drift a somewhat regular occurrence. I landed a few big rainbows too, some in excess of 20″.
As good as the fishing was, I had returned since, but Jeff had, fishing with a regular group of anglers over the next 10 years. These anglers found Eastslope Outfitters, a husband-wife fishing and hunting business catering to anglers and hunters in the Bighorn valley. Jeff had invited me along many times but I declined for myriad reasons. That was a mistake.
I finally accepted yet another invitation way back in January of this year. Reservations were made for the mid-September trip that at the time seemed so distant. Time passed: the month of August was consumed with preparation – prepping new lines, assembling leaders, and lining up my rods. I brought with me a favorite nymphing rod – my 10’6″, 4 weight, Cortland Competition Nymph rod with a double taper 3 weight line. Added to the mix would be my Scott A2 9 foot 4 piece 5 weight for dry fly duty – this was the “veteran” rod that had served nymphing duty and a little dry fly duty on my previous trip. But suddenly I was confronted with a streamer rod void.
I own several great streamer rods but they are all 2 piece 7 weights. I needed a 4 piece 7 weight so I could pack all my rods in a duffel bag. I considered building a 4 piece 7 weight, but time just ran out on me. I looked over alternatives and read an interesting post on the Bighorn Angler website about their favorite gear. Tucked within the words of wisdom in the post was a blurb about the 9 foot 4 piece 6 weight Helios 2 being a really great streamer rod and a good back-up nymph rod. This rod is built for saltwater use as well and has a fighting butt. That made it even more appealing – a very light fast action (tip-flex) rod I could fish streamers with and use double duty for light saltwater use (a great rod for the ladies). And so I purchased one…
Trip preps were made in January but August came quickly. I began to get my gear in order in the weeks ahead of my flight. Lines were checked and cleaned, leaders were replaced, and a book on Bighorn River fly fishing was purchased and then read and studied. The book, Fly Fishing the Bighorn River, by Steve Galletta, proved an excellent guide to fishing the river. Jeff and I would be fishing the first 4 days on our own, and while Jeff was very knowledgeable of the dry fly game, I wanted to be ready to do some nymph and streamer fishing as well.
We arrived in Billings on Saturday and I was immediately surprised with two things – the high heat and the haze in the air as a result of forest fires. Our outfitter had warned to be prepared for anything, from high heat, to freezing and snowy conditions, and everything in between, and that advice would prove right on.
After picking up our rental car and stocking up on beer and liquor (Fort Smith is dry!), we drove the 1.5 hours to Fort Smith where Jeff had set up at a nice motel room. We checked in, picked up some dry flies at one of the fly shops, and headed out in hopes of cashing in on the evening black caddis hatch. We fished from the 3 mile pullout and while the black caddis seemed to be hatching just fine, the trout were either busy subsurface or not interested in this epic hatch. It would turn out that the black caddis dry fly action never really turned on. Locals, including guides and fly shop staff had no explanation for the lack of surface feed on this heavy hatch.
We returned to our motel room, drank beer, and readied for the trico hatch, an early morning hatch that could involve millions of these tiny mayflies and lots of trout hungry for them.
That first morning of fishing was every bit as good as I could have hoped it would be. Jeff and I arrived at the access point a little late compared to what we’d do the next few days, and combined with being a Sunday, the parking lot was already pretty busy for 6:30 am. We fished our 5 weight dry fly rods with a 9 foot 5X leader. Attached on the business end was a size 20 spent-wing trico followed by 12″ – 18″ of 5X tippet and a trico CD emerger.
The tandem rig worked well but visibility was difficult in the early morning darkness. We would later fish a dark trico CD emerger followed by a white winged trico emerger. The dark / black lead fly was often easier to see. Regardless, fishing a tandem rig increased the odds of watching the drift and obviously increased the odds of an eater.
Jeff was off to the races the very second we were rigged up at the car and and it wasn’t long before we were huffing down a dusty trail that wound along the river. It was already on the warm side – in the 70’s – and we had decided to wet wade. We came around a bend in a river braid where the river had gouged out a nice deep bend pool. We were a good 6 feet above the water and looking down I could hardly believe my eyes.
From my perch on the elevated bank, I could almost touch a pod of nice browns with my fly rod as they gorged on the spent tricos drifting down the river. We quickly and carefully descended on the feast and I hooked up but then lost a solid fish as it fought in the heavy current below. We moved upriver and began to cast to steady risers. The action lasted 2 hours, waning in the last 30 minutes. The sun climbed and the morning heat began to press down on us.
We enjoyed a late breakfast at “Trico’s”, appropriately named and then wandered the fly shops in “downtown” Fort Smith. I stocked up on some nymphs I had read about in Steve Galletta’s great book, namely the poodle sniffer and the split case PMD. Both nymphs would turn out to be outstanding patterns and helped me dredge up quite a few browns and rainbows in the hot afternoons. Both flies featured triggers – namely the green wire on the poodle sniffer and the bright yellow spot on the PMD.
Fished in a tandem rig below a few split shot and an indicator, these nymphs seemed to outfish the standard scud and sowbug patterns more typical of Bighorn nymphing. Black caddis were certainly around in the evenings, so I figured a pupa pattern would definitely be about in the afternoons, and PMD’s (pale morning duns) could be seen hatching in the afternoons.
On successive hot afternoons I had some nice sections of the river around the access all to myself, save a few drift boats passing through. I found a nice run on a river braid that featured some fast water entering into a deep hole with an undercut bank. This too was heavy water but not as fast as the main river section it fed.
Rigged with a split case PMD as my anchor fly and a poodle sniffer on the trailer, I worked my nymph rig through the fast water at the head of the run. I adjusted my indicator for the depth and it wasn’t long before the indicator plunged forward and a nice rainbow launched out of the water. As fast as it was on, it was off. What followed was steady action. I worked the run from head to toe and there was no shortage of affection from browns (the majority), rainbows, and one stocky whitefish…
My first day of nymphing proved excellent – my second day was even better, with 15 trout landed and quite a few lost.
The dry fly fishing also got better. On the following mornings, Jeff and I were up earlier, walking to the river in the dark with the moon high above. Being prepared the night before and rising earlier meant choice fishing locations. Wading wet was delightful, and easier, but the first hour or so was pretty chilly. Most anglers who dressed in waders enjoyed the morning coolness but wilted as the sun climbed high in the morning sky. Daytime highs were hitting the upper 90’s!
We had the dry fly fishing dialed in nicely by the second morning. Sometimes the trout would school up in big pods and just wander back and forth across the river, slowly pushing up river, snouts up. It was an amazing sight that made one’s hands shake and fumble with excitement when tying on a fly…
The fish were not spooky when in “full feast mode”. With just a little stealth, one could easily approach behind a working pod. Most times, even hooking up did not put the pod down.
Jeff and I fished the river on our own until Tuesday – we then moved from our hotel room to the Eastslope Outfitters lodge. The last time I had fished the Bighorn with Jeff, we started off with guided fishing and ended up with a day or two fishing on our own. I felt good about our first few days of fishing success and now looked forward to fishing under the tutelage of Bighorn River experts.
Part 2 of 2 follows…