The Bighorn River
The Bighorn River begins at Boysen Reservoir in Wyoming. It enters Montana more than 150 miles downstream where it flows into Bighorn Lake, formed by the Yellowtail Dam. It is nationally recognized as one of the premiere trout streams in the United States. As such, it is a very popular destination spot for anglers on a Montana fly fishing trip.
Below the dam, the Bighorn River flows through an open and isolated landscape. As the river sets on western edge of the high plains, few trees are found except along the riverbank. The Bighorn Rivers banks are a mix of grass, cottonwood trees, alfalfa and brush. Despite the lack of trees beyond the river, the area is scenic. The Pryor Mountains and the smaller Bighorn Mountains rise from the prairie to the south and west. Additionally, small rock cliffs with sparse forests are found along the middle section of the river, providing a nice backdrop for any float trip.
The Bighorn River travels through the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area for the first twenty miles below the dam, where it then enters the Crow Indian Reservation. Due to a court ruling in 1981, the Bighorn River is considered a public river. As a result, a special tribal fishing license is not needed to fish the river in the Crow Reservation.
After flowing through the reservation for twenty-eight miles, the Bighorn River continues flowing in a northward direction towards the confluence with the Yellowstone River near the town of Bighorn, MT.
The Bighorn River is considered to be one of the finest trout streams not just in Montana but in the lower forty-eight states. The river consistently pulls out large fish. Brown trout average about 16 to 18 inches, with fish daily over 20 inches. Rainbow trout average around 18 to 20 inches, with fish up to 26 to 28 inches. The river has outstanding hatches. And unlike many rivers in Montana, the Bighorn is a high quality fly fishing river for the entire year, offering anglers who don't mind the elements the opportunity to catch large fish in the middle of the winter.
Trout fishing on the Bighorn River is generally localized to the first 13 miles below the dam, to the Bighorn Access Site. In these upper thirteen miles, Afterbay Dam regulates river flows and irrigation has only a minimal impact on river flows. As a result, the Bighorn River almost always flows steady, clear and cool, creating ideal fishing conditions.
Below Bighorn Access Site, the current begins to slow down somewhat and becomes quite slow as it nears the Yellowstone River. Irrigation also begins to pull water out of the Bighorn. As a result, the temperature of the Bighorn River begins to warm up. Good trout fishing, particularly for brown trout, can be had between the Bighorn Access Site and the Two Leggins Access Site, although the numbers of trout per mile are less than found further upstream. Below Two Leggins all the way down to the Yellowstone River, large brown trout can still be found although their numbers are quite low.
Any angler visiting the Bighorn River in winter (November - March) should come prepared. Being located on the western edge of the high plains can provide for wild shifts in weather. Some days will be in the sixties, while others will have sub-zero temperatures with blizzard conditions. So the motto for winter fly fishing in the Bighorn River is to come prepared for truly anything.
In general, the Bighorn River fishes well for both wade anglers and floaters, although wade anglers may have problems during higher water. Additionally, floaters have the big advantage of being able to easily go from prime location to another, as well as being easily able to cover the whole width of the river.