I would call the decade of the 1980s the salad days on the Bighorn River. Previously a warm water fishery until the completion of the Yellowtail Dam in 1967, it quickly developed into one of the most fertile tailwater trout breeding grounds anywhere in the world. But few knew because it was closed to the public…only the Crow were allowed to fish and other than a few bait slingers and lure chuckers, nobody much bothered with it. I used to guide a gentleman on the Madison and Beaverhead by the name of Jack Love who had a ranch in Sheridan, Wy. He would tell me tales of the Bighorn where he had finagled his way on to fish.
Jack Love, Sheridan, Wy. on the Beaverhead R.
(Randy Brown photo)
“You know I only have had two trout mounted for my wall,” he told me, “a ten pound rainbow and a twelve pound rainbow. I caught ’em both on the Bighorn using a Bitch Creek.”
Mr. Love would special order his Bitch Creek nymphs unweighted from Dan Bailey’s, size four and size two, with the rubber legs head and tail untrimmed, dangling four inches each end. He would rod-tip twitch ’em like a streamer.
His claims of big fish captured my thoughts.
How can I get on the Bighorn?
The answer came in 1981 when legislation was passed to allow public access to the Bighorn River up to the high water mark. After a brief kerfuffle at The Two Leggings Bridge near Hardin and some negative national press, the coast was clear and a bunch of us planned our maiden voyage to the Bighorn, fully armed with a fleet of drift boats, one canoe and boxes and boxes of secret flies.
It was September, 1981.
We were not disappointed.
Richard Rosolek, Bob Walker, Tom DiMeola, Nancy DiMeola, John Seaman..Afterbay boat ramp, Bighorn R., Sept. 1981
(Randy Brown photo)
Floating down a new river for the very first time is Forrest Gump’s chocolate box…you’re not sure what you’re going to get but you know it’s going to be good. We drifted down below the dam and under the power lines. Around the first bend to the left was a smooth pocket of water that was boiling with rising fish. We had on Girdle Bugs and Bitch Creek Nymphs. It didn’t really matter.
A fine Bighorn rainbow
First cast, WHAM!…twenty inch rainbow and so on and so forth. The fish weren’t picky (stupid is a better word), and we caught them most of the way down. Then late in the day and into the evening out came the black caddis…hordes of them. Angry trout smacking on the surface, ripping line, burning drags, eating up backing.
Bob Walker, Randy Brown, Richard Rosolek at Bighorn Access (13 mile), Bighorn R. Sept. 1981
One afternoon, late in the day, we hung around the boat ramp at the Bighorn Access (13 Mile). A group of spin and bait guys in john boats from Billings were rolling in. They beached the boats, pulled out Coleman coolers and popped them open along the shore. Out rolled slabs of crimson red and golden brown…large trout, many well over twenty inches flopped out, slithering through grass and gravel. Filet knives flashed, bright orange shrimp-fed fish flesh was laid open, gills and guts were flung out into the river amid much shucking and jiving and loud boasting…”Son, thatsa hog!”
Bob Walker with Bighorn bow…Sept. 1981. Dave Shuler’s canoe in background. (Randy Brown photo)
On that first trip, we saw firsthand what The Bighorn was…an incredible fish factory.
I guided anglers quite a bit on the Bighorn through the 1980s, making the 300 mile run from Ennis to Ft. Smith, Mt. for a week at a time in Aug. Sept. and Oct.
Some of my notes from those days:
Oct. 22, 1987…AB to 3 (Afterbay to 3 Mile)… 5-8pm…hundreds of risers on #18 BWO…caught several nice fish
Aug. 10, 1988…caught 10 fish over 18” on shrimp and PMD emerger…22” bow went 4 lbs…Schneider’s to BA (Bighorn Access)
Aug. 17, 1988…30 fish day on shrimp nymph and comparadun dry…13 fish in side channel 2-4pm sipping small dries…6 bows, 7 browns, black caddis & midges late pm…4 over 18”
Aug. 18, 1988…Big fish at Soap Ck. channel…20″ bow on shrimp…bigger fish working late pm in Rainbow Hole on #16 cream comparadun…5 trout over 18” on dries.
Aug. 17, 1989…Overcast, rain on and off…big fish bit all day…50 fish hooked, 34 landed all on shrimp…all nice fish…nothing under 15”…Schneider’s to BA…pd. $250 check.
Aug. 18, 1989…31 trout hooked, 21 landed on shrimp, PMD emerger, pheas. tail…20 ½” bow…Schneider’s-BA.
Aug. 20, 1989…25 trout below Schneider’s by noon…all over 15”…31 for 51 for the day…all on #14, #16 shrimp patterns.
Bighorn shrimp pattern
Sept. 6, 1989…super good today 9am-2pm on caddis & PMD emergers size #16…30 trout, 20” brown, two 19 inchers.
Sept. 7, 1989…fished Big Riffle across from Schneider’s…big fish busting dry caddis…#14 elk hair…20” brown, 19” bow before noon.
Sept. 8, 1989…AB to Schneider’s…clouds, drizzle, rain…13 fish before lunch…major baetis hatch 2-5pm…thousands of flies…#16 flashback, #18 BYO…20” bow on dry.
Sept. 9, 1989…Schneider’s-BA…13 trout 11am-2:30pm on #16 elk hair caddis and caddis emerg…4 big fish at Soap Ck 4pm…3 fish at Cliff Hole on caddis emerg…25 trout total, 20” bow, 20” brown.
Sept. 11, 1989…Schneider’s-BA…13 fish at Big Riffle…19/31 for the day, most on caddis emerg.
Sept. 12, 1989…Big Riffle…PMD emerg…14 trout largest 19”, 20”…Soap Ck, two big browns on shrimp in upper stretch…Jerry lost huge brown.
Oct. 5, 1989…Schneider’s am, big trico spinner fall …20 trout on dries.
Oct. 6, 1989…Great BWO hatch in Schneider’s channel am…many risers…caught 10 on dries & hare’s ear.
Map of first 6 1/2 mi. of Bighorn R. from Afterbay boat ramp
Map of second 6 1/2 mi. of Bighorn R. to Bighorn Access (13 mi)
1989 was my final year guiding on the Bighorn. The fishing was and is still great but just too crowded for my liking. It remains a world class fishery. I was so lucky to experience it at it’s peak and the memories are priceless!