Fly Fishing The Bighorn River

The Mighty Bighorn River

The Mighty Bighorn River

A Typical Bighorn Fish

A Typical Bighorn Fish

As I look through the plethora of multi-colored mini carcuses splattered all over my brother’s windshield, I get lost in my thoughts of chasing wild trout on the Bighorn river in Montana. I can hear background chatter in the truck during the long, 8-hour drive home to Colorado, but none of it is making sense to me because I’m in that zoned-out mode recalling all of the trout we just caught during our 4 day trip on the Bighorn.  I can’t help but reflect back to my childhood and recall my first few trips to the “Horn” with my Dad and brother.

Me, Dad & Bro

Me, Dad & Bro

Something About A Tiger??

Something About A Tiger??

Many firsts happened for me on the Bighorn river; my first drift boat float, my first pair of torn plastic waders, the most ferocious lightning storm I’ve ever seen in my life, my first airplane ride, catching my first “pounder” on a wooly bugger, meeting an actual Crow Indian and of course, the introduction to the old sow bug.

I also recall the first time I visited the Battle of the Little Bighorn site where Col. George Custer and Sioux Indians fought for what the Sioux called “their” territory.  The Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, lead by the great warrior Sitting Bull, defeated Custer and his men in June of 1876 near the junction of the Bighorn and the Little Bighorn rivers.  This is famously known as “Custer’s Last Stand.”  Additionally, I remember learning the history behind the fishing access to the Bighorn river which flows through the Crow Indian Reservation.  The Bighorn river is considered a public river due to a court ruling in 1981. The Crow Indians didn’t initially take well to this court ruling.  My father and others who first floated and fished the Bighorn in the 80’s can attest to this.  My many fond memories created here, as well as the hard-earned history of the Bighorn river means it will forever have a special place in my fly fishing heart.

Preparing A Meal

Preparing A Meal

I snap back to reality due to a fierce splattering noise filling the truck cab.  The once bug-covered windshield now has quarter-sized raindrops pounding the bug splatters into wind-swept oblivion.  The once unrecognized chatter in the truck turns into actual understandable words as my daydream is interupted.  The chatter is coming from my wife, brother and sister-in-law who joined me on this annual trip.  This trip however, was a little different than the past few years.  It wasn’t the testosterone-filled, male-dominated, chest-pounding Bighorn quest it usually is.  We had our wives in tow this time around.  Needless to say, there still, of course, was some testosterone and chest pounding going on, it was just a little tamer than normal.

Jarah (my wife), Marc, Dave (my brother) & Lynn (bro's wife)

Jarah (my wife), Marc (me), Dave (my brother) & Lynn (bro's wife)

Anyone who knows my wife is probably suffering from some sort of shock (if not a full-fledged heart attack) as they read this wondering what the heck she is doing on a 4-day fly fishing trip in Montana!  Well, if you didn’t already know that she joined me on this trip, yes – you read correctly – she did!  I will definately get a few phone calls asking if I remarried.  Frankly, I’m as shocked as all of you.  Now let me set this up for you…when I met my wife 11 years ago, I remember her vividly telling me that getting up at 4am to go fishing was out of the question.  I didn’t argue, but did bookmark in my mind that the word “never” will sometimes come back to bite you.  I don’t know if my wife meant 11 years equaled “never,” but “never” ended the day we left Colorado and headed Northbound to the famous Bighorn river.  Just as a side note, my wife did not catch (or attempt to catch) any fish during the trip…she did, however, “catch” up on her reading.

Reading - My Wife's Idea Of Fly Fishing

Reading - My Wife's Idea Of Fly Fishing

Ft. Smith, Montana was our destination and this little town (and I do mean little!) is home to many, many drift boats, a few fly shops, a single diner and, of course, the beautiful river.  Let’s not forget the plentiful pheasant flying and squawking throughout this region.  I must say, as a die-hard pheasant hunter, hearing these birds taunt me as I cast sow bugs and rojo midges to aggressively feeding trout makes me want to find the shotgun and one day participate in a cast and blast trip.  That’s a story for November, however, so let’s get back to June.

Lovin the "Horn"

22" Rainbow...Lovin the "Horn"

Nice Brown

Nice Brown

First Fish Of The Trip

First Fish Of The Trip

Teach'n The Boys

Teach'n The Boys

The water flows for early June were ideal as they hovered right around 4,800 cfs.  This being down from last years high flows of upwards of 7,000 to 8,000 cfs.  The rainbows were migrating toward their “reds” and gearing up for another spawn, and the browns were lining up rubbing their fins together like my brother does his hands for any meal.  This trip is always jammed packed with fishing.  Our goal is always to leave Denver around 5 am, and drive to Ft. Smith just in time for the late afternoon 3-mile float.  This quick float is great because the midges are typically creating some havoc and the fish tend to feed on the surface for at least the last couple hours of the day.  The nice part is that you have a shot at catching a 14-plus inch fish on a #22 black midge puppa drifting dry fly style.  Every once in awhile, you will get a nice 18-20-inch brown/rainbow seeking your midge, and if you should be so lucky, look out because landing it is not going to be easy.  Fun as hell, but horsing this fish in is damn near impossible.  Depending on the prior half-day float, the next two full days will either consist of the full 13 mile float from the afterbay of the Yellowtail Dam to the 13 mile take out, or we will fish the upper 3 mile stretch twice in a day.  Either way you slice it, the Pryor Mountains and the smaller Bighorn Mountains rise from the ungulating prairie to the south and west making either option a remarkable float.

Sheer Beauty

Sheer Beauty

Lovin Every Minute Of It

Lovin Every Minute Of It

One Last Cast

One Last Cast

The last day is always organized chaos as we try to get on the river as soon as possible, knowing that at about noon we must remove our now familiar garb and start the long trek back home.  I think my wife even felt a little sadness as she removed her brand new, made for women, of course, breathable waders (nicer than mine), Korker boots (nicer than mine) and cowboy hat (not nicer than mine).  For the last 10 years the Bighorn river has welcomed me, my family and friends with open arms, making this a tradition worth looking forward to year after year.  So, if you find yourself looking at your free-flowing rivers in May/June and wondering where you’re going to fish while the muddy runoff sweeps through, look no further than the mighty Bighorn river.  I could have “never” told you about this, but like my wife says, “Never is a long time!”

Bighorn Bite

Bighorn Bite

I Told You My Hat Was Better

I Told You My Hat Was Better

About the Author

Marc Montoya

Marc Montoya

Marc Montoya is a dedicated Colorado bowhunter who cherishes the challenge and mental fatigue that bowhunting presents. Marc has a passion for backcountry pursuits with his bow and arrow and wants to share that passion with the world.