Neil Travis - Sep 09, 2015

Over the last couple decades my nephew and I have made a couple trips each year to fish Montana's Bighorn River. Fishing the Bighorn involves a 4 hour drive from our home along the Yellowstone River in Livingston, Montana and we headquarter in Fort Smith at the Bighorn Trout Shop, which is owned and operated by our old friends Hale Harris and Steve Hilbers. We come in May for the spring Baetis hatch and in late August for black caddis and Tricos. For big trout rising to small flies the fishing on the Bighorn is hard to beat.

Usually on our August trip our old friend Paul can get away to join us for on our trip and the three musketeers assault the Bighorn trout for three days. So it was just a few days ago that we set off in the predawn darkness for our annual pilgrimage to the Bighorn.

This year Montana has experienced a different summer with short bursts of summer heat and then several days of autumn-like cool. On our first day on the river it was like mid-September. Clouds covered the normal summer sun and for an hour or so during the mid-day we had a strong west wind and driving rain that persisted for a couple hours. The temperature, which had been hovering in the low 60's, dipped into the low 50's and my old wool jacket under my rain coat felt really good. Remember this was the third week of August.

Before the weather turned foul we found a few fish rising to a smattering of trico spinners. Normally the tricos on the Bighorn are a respectable size 20 to 22 but this year they make a size 26 look oversized. Fortunately I had a few tricos of the appropriate size and I landed a decent hook jawed brown with one of these tiny imitations. A few minutes later I hooked another similar fish but he was not as cooperative and took me for a ride through the weeds before we parted company. The tricos disappeared, the rain and wind started and I sat hunched over in the boat wondering why I loved fly fishing so much. As the wind dripped off the hood of my rain jacket golf began to sound like fun!

If you have never fished the Bighorn you need to understand that it takes a relatively heavy hatch of flies to bring fish to the surface. The biomass of trout food found in this river is so substantial that a trout merely has to glide along the bottom and eat enough food to last him a week. I'm always amazed that they even bother to feed on the surface at all, especially to the tiny flies that comprise many of the major hatches. When the rain finally stopped we were left with the gusty winds and cool temperatures. A couple miles down the river we pulled in along the bank when a hatch of tiny Pale Olive Baetis began to create enough of a hatch to bring the occasional trout to the surface. Between the three of us we managed to bring a few more trout to net but the fishing was anything but fast. The hatch sputtered on for a couple hours and then quit as suddenly as it had begun. It was time for a hot meal at the Trout Shop, a hot shower and a good night's sleep.

The following day Montana's Big Sky stretched from horizon to horizon unbroken by a single cloud and a light breeze gently ruffled the leaves of the cottonwoods along the river. As we slid the boat into the river clouds of Trico spinners danced above the trees. This is what we came for and it seemed like today would be the day. A half mile or so down the river we anchored along the bank and waited for the spinners to fall and start a feeding frenzy. We could see other boats anchored upstream and downstream awaiting the same event but we all waited in vain. I did notice several fish feeding is a narrow lane between the underwater weed beds. The fish was feeding in a channel of water that was bordered on one side by trees on one side and a dense weed mass on the other side. The water was less than a foot deep and it took several minutes to get in position to make a cast. After a couple of attempts I managed to drop a cast less than a foot above the last place I saw the trout rise and was rewarded with a solid take. The trout ran straight at me and then turned into the weeds. Rod held high I kept the pressure on and waded into the weeds after the trout. Pulling weeds off my leader and holding my rod high over my head I managed to keep the trout from freeing itself from my fly. Paul joined me with the long handled boat net and we scooped the fish out of the weeds. A hog fat brown was my reward.

The clouds of tricos continued rise and fall above the trees along the river and then they simply disappeared. There was just a smattering of spinners on the water, hardly enough to interest the trout. The rest of the day we only saw an occasional rise and even the nymph fishing, which is normally a reliable way to take fish on the Bighorn was slow.

Smoke turns a color image into black and white

When we awoke on the morning of the third day the sky was a strange gray color and the sun appeared blood red through a thick blanket of smoke. Clouds of tricos hovered just over the water and this morning they dropped to the water. Despite gusty southwest winds the next couple hours a steady stream of tiny black and white flies covered the water and the trout rose steadily. Most of the time one of us was playing a fish and when the spinner fall waned the fish continued to rise sporadically and when the wind would subside it was possible to pick up an occasional fish. We waited, hoping that we would get a hatch of the tiny olive Baetis mayflies but they never materialized. Looking at a four hour drive home we pulled off the river at 5 pm.

During three days of fishing we hooked and landed several nice trout but the world-class dry fly fishing that we normally enjoy was limited to just one day. When we loaded the boat for the trip home the smoke from the wildfires in Idaho and Washington continued to thicken. I had a great time of fishing with two old friends on a world class trout stream; what more could any angler want from a fishing trip? 

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