Fly Fishing on the Bighorn River

Our Last Day

It was our last day to float the Bighorn River out of Fort Smith, in south central Montana. We had already completed four successful days of fishing and I was looking forward to the last day topping them all. Stepping out of our room at 7:00 am to be greeted by another beautiful day was certainly a welcome beginning.  Although my boat mate Fred Knappenberger is a beginner fly fisherman, he has to be really pleased with his success the last four days. After just one day of casting lessons at my lawn and one trip to Spruce Creek in Pennsylvania, Fred has handled his fly rod extremely well and he’s caught a lot of fish.

Here’s Fred and me with our guide Tyler Steele

I was also pleased with the number of trout I caught our first four days but was still hoping to land a big one for bragging rights. The others in our party are my good friends Bob and Mimi Gall. Bob is an accomplished fly fisherman. He has fished all over the Western United States, South America, and Alaska. Mimi took up fly fishing just within the last four years. She is good at it and dedicated to the extent that she usually catches the most fish.

Mimi and Bob Gall with guide Merritt Harris

Today Fred and I have a new guide since Tyler Steele, our guide for the first four days, took a well deserved day off.  Kip Dean, our new guide has been on this river for twenty years, making him a real expert. We met him at 7:30 am outside the Bighorn Trout Shop in Fort Smith, Montana where we have been staying, and after discussing plans for today’s float trip and making some rod rigging adjustments piled into his Subaru Forester with boat attached and headed to the put-in ramp for our last day on the Bighorn.

The Bighorn Trout Shop, Fort Smith, Montana

Averaging 5000 to 7500 trout per mile, the Bighorn River is one of the premier trout rivers in this country. The launch site is several hundred feet from the outflow of the Afterbay Dam, a mile or so below the Yellowtail Dam, about 150 miles downriver from the river’s origin in Wyoming. From this point the river flows in a North Easterly direction through Montana.

              Fred watching Tyler Launch our boat below the Afterbay dam

The flow report for the day was about 8000 cubic feet per second. Although it has been lowered during the week this is still 2000 to 3000 cfps higher that normal. The significance of this is that it makes the pace of drifting faster and the water more cloudy which adds another challenge to our fishing. We started out drift fishing nymphs along the far bank. This method uses a small strike indicator about 12 feet above the flies, two tiny nymphs imitating stream insects tied in tandem about a foot apart. Fred hooked the first fish before we were out of sight of the dam and set a pace for catching fish. By the time we hit the bend in the river Fred had several fish and I had none which pretty much set the pattern for the morning.

One of Fred's nice brown trout

One of my philosophies of fly fishing is not to keep count. This helps most when you’re not doing so well!! After a delicious lunch complements of the Fly Shop, Kip suggested we switch to fishing hoppers. The wind had picked up a bit and we were approaching ideal river banks for this kind of dry fly fishing. The hopper fly is a realistic imitation of the grasshoppers that are abundant on the banks of the river. With wind gusts they are blown into the water providing a succulent meal for the trout. Believe me; they know it well, since they’re holding along the shore in shallow water. The most common method used for this type of fly fishing is to drift within casting range of the bank. An ideal cast puts the hopper within a foot of the shore and with proper mending of the line allows a good drift in the feeding zone. It is very surprising to see large trout that close to shore but, as I’ve mentioned, they instinctively know that a good meal awaits them there. The strikes vary from dramatic crashes to subtle takes. In either case the trout will spit out the fly in a split second, requiring very fast reflexes on the part of the fisherman. On that day my reflexes let me down as I just couldn’t seem to hook the fish that hit my hopper. On the contrary, Fred was doing quite well, hooking a number of fish while I struggled. As we were getting closer to the take-out ramp which would herald the end of our fishing the Bighorn for this year, I had just about resigned myself to having an all around bad day yet all the while I continued to cast to the bitter end. One of my casts was a good one close to shore. With an immediate mend of the line, I got a great drift that didn’t  go very far before a dark shape appeared in the water moving toward my fly. It was almost like slow motion when the trout sucked in my hopper. To avoid pulling it out of his mouth I hesitated for a second, and then set the hook. The battle began and I knew from the feel that it was a good fish. Since all the hooks we used were rendered barbless, it is mandatory to keep a tight line on a hooked fish at all times. Any slack in the line can result in a lost fish. Kip immediately rowed to shore, and not wanting to take a chance on loosing a big trout, jumped out of the boat in the shallow water with his net.  The fish gave me a good fight but with the benefit of 3x tippet, I finally managed to bring him close enough for Kip to net him. Fred was already prepared with my camera to get a picture as quick as possible. There is an understanding among fly fishermen and fisherwomen on the river that all fish that are caught are immediately released. This guy, however, stayed a little longer for a picture. Don’t worry, it didn’t hurt him and he swam quickly away when returned to the water. My fish turned out to be a beautiful brown trout measuring 20 inches with a large girth. After my limited success for nearly eight hours, he made my day.

My brown trout caught on a hopper

Notwithstanding my philosophy of not counting, that’s one trout I’ll sure remember.





Now, how about some more pictures from our trip:



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