Although I live only 82 miles from the launching ramp on the famed Big Horn River, I had not visited it in quite some time. Truth be known, I had kind of crossed it off my list of epic places I choose to go on a day off. The reason? Well, 4 years of serious drought between 2002 and 2005 had reduced water levels in the river to an average flow of 1250 CFS (cubic feet per second). As one of my good ranching buddies and an avid angler put it... "1250 CFS is a piss trickle. All the fish have moved downstream below Mallard just to survive".
In fact, my many trips up to the river between 2002 and 2005 had usually ended in frustration. All my favorite side channels were bone dry and the main river flow was low. Not that I didn't catch some trout, I did. The trout I caught were small, all huddled up in specific spots: drop-offs and ledges, and they were kind of pathetic... just trying to survive. I actually felt sorry for them and stressing them by fishing for 'em just bummed me out. I went up a few times to humor buddies that had come into town. We had fun rowing the river, catching a few fish drifting along, using two huge split shot and a couple of San Juan worms dangling from our leader ticking the bottom.
Echo back to 1995, the halcyon days of the Big Horn when I was first introduced to her. I remember my first trip in June of 1995. World class photographer, Jeff Stine, had invited me to come out from Boston (where I lived at the time) and experience the river. Now, this guy had fished around a lot and he told me it was his favorite river. I figured he knew something, so I hopped on a jet and a few hours later was in Billings, Montana. At that time, Montana had no day time speed limit. Being the cocky young buck that I was, I figured this was an Autobahn opportunity and I rented the biggest fastest car Hertz had on the lot. Turned out it was a Ford/ Yugo imitation - a four cylinder something or other. "Thundering" down the interstate was truly a euphemism, foot to the floor, I maybe hit 100 MPH. What a disappointment...I had visions of rocketing down the interstate at 130 MPH waving as I passed Montana Highway Patrolmen. No speed limit... really? Let's just hope the river was as good as I had heard.
Disappointment aside, I arrived at the agreed location way off the beaten path of the "Autobahn" and met up with Jeff. We had scheduled 10 days of actual fishing and I must tell you that at the time, as a saltwater angler, I was thinking to myself "that's gonna be a bit long". Well, it was actually too short. The days were perfect and Jeff taught me every nuance of that river. I sucked it up like a dry sponge thus shortening the normal trout fishing curve to some sort of seriously steep angle. Not really too hard with 8000 trout per mile. As Jeff so eloquently put it "you couldn't swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting a fish." We nymphed, we dry fly fished and we fished the banks with streamers. It really did not matter ...the fishing was that good. We landed "legit" 20 to 30 fish EACH DAY - swear to God. And remember, I was not an experienced trout guy. I heard others call it the best river in the lower 48 and I am quite sure that at that time that assessment was right on.
Then came the dreaded low water years of 2002 to 2005 or so. The dam authorities cut back the flows to sustainable levels and the results were devastating to the fish. The spawning grounds evaporated because the side channels dried up. Most of the big dominant fish moved into the primo lies and the smaller fish died or were forced downstream. What was left were fish struggling to survive. You could catch big trout, but they were thin and clearly stressed, always fighting for position in the main channel food line. I stopped going to the Big Horn. Choosing rather to explore the mountains and the prairie streams around Sheridan and the absolutely epic fishing that exists in the Big Horn Mountains. But don't spend time thinking about fishing the Big Horns... Just stay on the highway North and go to southwestern Montana where the fishing is "good".
Then in 2006, I began to hear reports from friends who told of the resurgence of the Big Horn River, respectable guys whose comments caught my ear. I worked, I went to the kid's basketball games, raced my road bike and I worked some more. Then in November 2007, I decided to go up to the Big Horn and give it a look. Kayak strapped to the back of my truck I hit the afterbay, arranged a shuttle to float the full 13 miles hoping to give it a good assessment. I stopped at the first island on the left, many of you know it. There is a side channel which makes its way back to the main river in about 900 yards. I walked down it looking for fish and found a nice looking tail out about half way down. Rigged up with my favorite 4 wt. armed with double pink soft hackles, I stripped out some line and put a shot right in the "honey hole" of the little tail out (I'm not wasting time here on subtlety...last time I fished this channel it sucked). Not 4 seconds after that fly hit the water did the indicator make an abrupt halt, I lifted up and a mammoth rainbow trout exploded out of that calm water porpoising 3 different times heading up river at the speed of heat. Dumbfounded, I could only watch as the big girl ran up into a calm pool and promptly broke me off. HOLY %$^&! I took a pause. Next time I carefully re-rigged my terminal tackle, taking great care with the knots, again selecting two pink size 16 soft hackle flies. Rigged and ready I went right back at it. Same result... Indicator stops. Fish bolts up stream, but this time I was in hot pursuit. By the time I caught up, I was deep into my fly line and looking at hittin' backing soon. I worked the big girl backwards and after 10 minutes (I timed it!) I drew her to the bank. You gotta trust me that in my profession of being a trip host and traveling angler, I hear A LOT of exaggerated fish stories. Hey truth management is a part of our chosen endeavor. No bullshit here, this fish was huge. I'm gonna say 26 inches, 6 to 7 pounds. No camera, didn't bring one, whatever. Believe it or don't.
Intoxicated from that episode, I paddled off down river, I still had 12.5 miles to go. I hit every side channel that looked to be flowing good and every single spot was magic. Crazy stuff, deathbed stuff. As an example, I ran my nymph rig through an inside seam down on mid-duck blind channel... 6 casts, 6 fish hooked, every single one well over 20 inches. I lost some of 'em and landed some of 'em, but I am telling you folks it happened.
As the day wore on, (remember days are short in Montana in mid-November, maybe 9 hours of sunlight), I decided to end my day on Schneider's Channel. Schneider's, for those of you who do not know, is perfect. About a mile or so long, it transitions from wide shallow riffle to robust channel and then to 400 yards of text book tail-out that must hold about a billion trout. With a perfect grass bottom, it is an insect's dream location and a smorgasbord for any trout. Well, I looked up at the waning sun, held up my palm and figured I had about 60 minutes before the big ball hit the horizon and things got really cold and dark. I still had to paddle about 5 miles of river to the take out so I had a bit of a time scheduling problem on my mind.
I hit river right, carefully paddling up quietly behind a hugh fallen cottonwood, beached the kayak and tromped off downstream. I got to the bottom of the run, checked my rig, my knots and started to cast. Bingo... I had indicators ripping up stream, cartwheeling fish, hooting & hollering, broken leaders, re-rigging while the sun was getting lower and those hook eyes were gettin' harder to see. The fish were there in force but, time was running out? I landed a few more and at some point I knew that if I continued to fish, I would pay the fish gods later down the road for the sin of gluttony. Somewhere, some time in the future, while wading some bonefish flat, I was gonna have to endure three days of driving rain without even seeing a fish! So I called it a day. Penance for the piscatorial gods. Hopefully, I was laying the groundwork for future success by not abusing the amazing privilege I had been given that day. Call me crazy, but I swear these things are true and I do my best to pay attention to them.
I paddled downstream in the twilight thinking about the events of the day. My overwhelming thought was " The Big Horn is back!" Say what you will about the other great trout rivers in the American West, I've fished most of 'em and when the 'Horn is on, it's damn hard to find a better spot.
Perhaps I am late in spreading this news and most of the angling community already knows this, but I thought it important to trumpet the information to everyone... "THE BIG HORN IS BACK"! Call me and I'll fill you in on all the details (800) 211-8530.
Oh, and by the way... Many of you heard the tragic news of the fire that killed three visiting anglers a few years back. Well like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Steve Hilbers and his partner have rebuilt a world class lodge that can house over 25 guests in style, a complete fly shop and a superb restaurant to boot. It's your one stop shopping to optimize your Big Horn River fishing trip. Call us for all the details and we'll help you secure the best guides for the best hatches of the year.
Hey, I'll be watching the weather next week and plan on hitting the three mile ramp at dawn on the warmest day. Perhaps I'll see you up there and we'll shares a few casts.
Written by: Brad Wolfe