September 20, 2022
It’s a long drive in a Vanagon from our home in northeastern Pennsylvania to the four Aces Saloon in Hardin, Montana. But back in the ’80s, that’s how Cathy and I made our annual trip. Our plan in that era was always to start in Paradise Valley near Livingston, fish a few spring creeks, and then head into Yellowstone Park for five or six days. After a short stay in West Yellowstone fishing the lower Madison, we’d work our way up the Gallatin and finish with a little spring creek near Belgrade. It was a mix of spring creeks and freestone rivers that had worked for us for a good number of years.
That all changed during lunch at the Four Aces, when we listened to three anglers talk about the great fishing they just had on the Bighorn River. The river had recently opened to the angling public due to the result of a lawsuit, and after just one day on the Bighorn, we stayed there for the rest of our trip. We canceled all of our reservations in Livingston, West Yellowstone, and Belgrade. We were hooked for life.
Best in the West
Today it’s pretty safe to say that most fly fishers have at least heard of the Bighorn. The river below Yellowtail Dam has earned a reputation of being one of the best tailwaters in the Lower 48, hosting a trout population of over 6,000 fish per mile with good to outstanding fishing every month of the year.
The Afterbay Access at Fort Smith is the first public access. From here it’s a short float to 3 Mile Access, and from there it meanders another 10 miles to the Bighorn Access. This upper 13 miles of river gets 90 percent or more of the fishing pressure, and the upper 3 miles of river is almost always crowded.
In the peak of the fishing season, from April through October, there is often a line of drift boats awaiting their turn to launch at the Afterbay. Wading fly fishers are always in a hurry to stake out a spot, and sometimes there is just so much going on, it reminds us of opening day of trout season in Pennsylvania. It’s these upper 3 miles of water that leads to the Bighorn’s reputation of being overcrowded and overfished.
Yet with all of the angling pressure, the upper 3 miles has some of the biggest rainbows in the river. Everyone seems to catch fish here, so they are willing to put up with the crowds.
From the 3 Mile Access to the Bighorn Access, there are many more well-known pools named mostly by fishing guides: Slime Hole, Bay Of Pigs, The Corral, Pipe Line, Gray Cliffs, and the list goes on. You will also see other fly fishers but there is more room to spread out, and it never seems as busy as it does on the upper few miles.
In this section of river there are side channels reminiscent of smaller spring creeks and depending on water releases, they can often offer a bit of solitude and some good fishing. For the majority of anglers a day of fishing the ’Horn ends at Bighorn Access. The 13-mile float makes for a big day of fishing, but more than once we’ve eaten lunch within sight of where we put in. The fishing can be that good.
Below Bighorn Access, the character of the river starts to change and it’s a long 9-mile row in slower water to the next takeout at Mallard’s Landing. Most guides avoid this section because there are long stretches where an upstream wind can tax the best rowers, the water can be dirtier from irrigation returns, trout are harder to find, shuttles are longer and more expensive, and the river is warmer. Oh, and jet boats are allowed. All good reasons why most drift boats stay upriver.
For a lot of years we stayed above Mallard’s Landing as well. Why not? The hatches were great, we caught lots of fish, why change?
Bob Krumm showed us why. Krumm is anything but your normal guide. He shows up late, seldom gets back at a reasonable hour, and he haunts the parts of the river that most other guides avoid.
He knows every spring hole in the lower river with cooler water and trout. He’ll put his head down and push his boat in the strongest wind, and his clients believe that the guy walks on water.
We might owe Krumm a thank you for sharing this lower section of the river with us. I say “might” because we’ve had some of our best days here, and also some of the worst. It’s always a gamble.
This is a seldom-seen section of the Bighorn that is worth a little extra effort. If the river is low you can walk downstream from the Bighorn Access boat ramp, but you must stay below the high-water mark to avoid trespassing. For most of the season you won’t get far before you encounter deep water.
The same goes for the boat ramp at Mallard’s Landing. At the right water level you may wade upstream to a series of fishable runs and islands, but this is a tailwater fishery, and water levels can change quickly. The best solution is to find a way to float.
If you don’t go with a guide, a kayak could be the perfect answer for unguided anglers. It’s light, aerodynamic, and easy to paddle. A canoe is another option, and you can also rent a drift boat from fly shops in Fort Smith.
Although the river is easy to navigate with no dangerous rapids, the float is long and exposed to the wind. If this is your first time, we suggest that you plan to float through and learn the water first, note some landmarks, and arrive at the takeout with plenty of daylight.
Finding Mallard’s Landing in the dark can be very difficult. Once you become familiar with the terrain you’ll have a better idea of how to plan your fishing day.
Below Mallard’s Landing is another 10 miles of river to Two Leggins. This last section has much less pressure because there’s even more frog water, fewer fish per mile, a small dam to navigate, and the parking lot at Two Leggins is prone to car break-ins. Despite all that, it’s a great place to find Montana solitude and with the right water conditions, this section of river can really turn on.
Bighorn Hatch Highlights
The insiders who fish downstream from Mallard’s Landing prefer cloudy overcast days with light wind, and use heavier 6- or 7-weight rods, and RIO Outbound lines with a clear intermediate tip. Any streamer will work as long as it’s big and black. The idea here is to cover as much water as possible while moving downstream looking for other opportunities.
Like his father, guide Clint Krumm spends most of his year rowing the river between Afterbay and Two Leggins. An entomologist, teacher, sporting dog trainer, fly tier, and fishing guide, Clint loves to hunt heads. By that I mean he loves to find rising fish.
When fishing the lower river, Clint is more than happy to explore with a big streamer, but when he sees a rising fish, the anchor drops and out comes a 5-weight rod. To be successful in the lower river, follow his lead: While you are working the streamer rod, make sure your oarsman is watching downstream for rising trout.
The ’Horn has some prolific insect hatches along with an abundance of scuds and aquatic worms. Midges are always in the picture and we have witnessed some unbelievable midge hatches through the coldest winter months.
Like most tailwaters, the ’Horn also serves up heavy Blue-winged Olive hatches generally appearing in April and continuing through June.
Little Yellow Sallies and Pale Morning Duns usually show in July.
August brings hot, windy afternoons but it can also put hoppers in the river. In the right years, the Bighorn is a great hopper river, and fishing big drys from a drift boat can help you cover some miles on those bright sunny days when streamer fishing gets you nowhere.
August is also when swarms of black and tan caddis coat the river. On a good caddis evening, you either wear a neck gaiter or you eat a lot of flies, and at the end of the day your waders below the water line will be plastered with green caddis eggs.
At the same time of year, Tricos show up early every morning like clockwork (unless there’s wind) and if you’re there to meet them, you can start the day by hunting heads. Trout quietly sipping Tricos can be very selective to both pattern and presentation, and are normally looking for a size 22 or 24 black-body Trico spinner.
They won’t move far for a morsel like this, so wade closely (and carefully) and make sure your accuracy is up to snuff. On the flat water of the lower river, this is the most challenging, and the most rewarding dry-fly fishing you can hope for.
Bighorn River Fly Guides
When we started fishing the river, we were lucky to hook up with Mike Craig and George Kelly, both legends on the Bighorn. Craig owned the Bighorn Angler, the first fly shop in Fort Smith, and Kelly owned Kingfisher Lodge just below the 3 Mile Access. Both were on the river when it first opened to the public in the 1980s. Through their friendship and guidance we truly learned the river, its fish, and its hatches. In 1997, George Kelly penned Seasons of the Bighorn which gives a detailed history of the river and takes readers through all the seasons by vividly describing his love affair with this tailwater.
These days there’s sometimes a new look in Fort Smith. A younger group of guides are showing up, and last year we saw dreadlocks, a Range Rover, and a truck or two without a cracked windshield and a dog riding in the back.
These days we often find ourselves fishing with second-generation guides like Mike Kelly and Clint Krumm who have Bighorn River blood flowing in their veins. These are hardcore go-for-it individuals who were taught well, and they live simply to be on the river. They know its moods and its currents, they are trout hunters at their best. Yes, you can rent a boat, float in your kayak, and walk/wade from an access point but you will miss the total experience of the river if you don’t spend a day with a Bighorn guide.
Miles of Perfection
I once heard an angler in Fort Smith complaining that the ’Horn all looks the same. His exact quote was “every mile of water is like the last mile of water.” Then he boasted that he had landed more fish in one day on the ’Horn than he had in three days floating the Yellowstone River.
I walked away thinking that he just hadn’t looked close enough. True, there are no snow-covered mountain peaks, just hills that often glow in front of a beautiful sunset, but as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And if every mile of river is like the last, you should count yourself fortunate to have seen any one of them.
Barry and Cathy Beck are longtime contributors to Fly Fisherman and they have fished the Bighorn annually for 30 years. Cathy Beck’s instructional Fly-Fishing Handbook (Stackpole Books, 2013) is now in its third edition, and the couple offers guided fishing and casting instruction on their home water of Fishing Creek, near Benton, Pennsylvania.