Feb 4, 2014

Christmas on the Bighorn

Bighorn Brown
Less than an hour east from where Custer and Sitting Bull collided lies the sleepy town of Ft. Smith, Montana, home to the Yellowtail Dam, a few fly shops and the legendary Bighorn River. Constructed in 1961 primarily for flood control and to enable irrigation to reach the semi-arid farmland of the Bighorn Basin, the dam resulted in what many consider the most prolific trout fishery in the lower 48 states.

The truth is, actually, that the fertility of the Bighorn and its adjoining farmland extends far beyond the fishery, as a trip to Fort Smith and it’s downstream cousin St. Xavier will reveal. I spent two days there over the holidays, the only one fool enough – according to most of the members of my family – to float the river in the dead of winter.

The only boat but ours...
In fact, I wasn’t the only one. There were one or two other boats on the water, a few duck hunters, and an occasional wade fisherman, but clearly the temperatures or the bowl games or a cold beer or two by the fire kept most away. That’s part of why I went. The idea of having that river all to myself was pretty darn enticing.

Simms ExStream
Of course, to fish and survive to tell some fish tales this time of year requires good gear, and lots of it. For my son and I, that meant Simms, primarily, layers of the stuff. Being partial to their merino base layer, I started with that followed by the Fall Run Vest to keep my core warm and reduce bulk in my arms. On top of that I layered an early iteration of what Simms now calls its ExStream Jacket (read review). This, by the way, is the warmest garment I’ve ever worn. Top it off with a G3 shell, fleece pants and some G4 waders, and my trusty Guide Boots and I was ready to go. Given the temperatures were in the single digits when we put in, and the prospect of snow loomed, I also sported some Simms fleece fingerless gloves and a waterproof Patagonia hand warmer around my waist.

My son wore much the same, though given his penchant for growing out of clothing at an alarming and fiscally debilitating rate, he was in a Simms jacket and boots. He also had on a down coat just beneath his shell, and a possum fur hat, causing him to look like a brown version of the “stay puft” marshmallow man.

Carson: Brrr!
Didn’t matter what we looked like, though. It was all about the fishing, which was phenomenal. As with most tailwaters, even when the air temperature plummets, the water being released from the bottom of the dam holds around 43 degrees. And for trout, that’s downright balmy!

We threw streamers throughout the day, focusing on a slow wobbly retrieve – something to make a predator believe it had encountered vulnerable prey. Often there is dry fly fishing too, and nymphing is always effective, but the wind and weather kept surface action to a minimum. So we went deep, using both 6 and 7 weight rods with 150 and 250 grain RIO sink tips respectively. As always, our 7 weight Loomis NRX was the hot rod, throwing that heavy line effortlessly and easily reaching the fish at depth.

Even when the snow began to fall and the guides iced up, that shooting line just busted right through. In fact, my son noted that his stripping hand, which got pretty cold at one point, miraculously warmed up with each fish he brought to net. And there were a lot of those, ranging in size from 14” to 24”.

Nice Winter Brown Trout
What’s more, for every minute of the eight hour float, we were surrounded by waterfowl, wild flushing pheasants, and evidence of a valley even in the middle of winter simply bursting with life. As my son noted when yet another flight of ducks passed over, that whistle of wings just makes you smile. Catching fish after fish helps, too.

Any day on the water is a good one, of course. But there is something remarkable about winter on the Bighorn. As long as you can keep warm, you’re in for a treat. 

Submitted by Ben Williams
January 7, 2014

"Fly Fish the World with Us"


  1. Ben - go easy on stories like this. My buddies and I fish the Horn during the winter just for this reason, the worse the weather gets, the fewer boats out on the water. Those fish don't care one bit about what is going on above the surface, only what kind of fly you're putting out there for them to smash. Maybe some time this coming fall, we'll be the only boats on the river and we can discuss this over a couple of bent fly rods!!!

    1. Good point ... Sorry to let the cat out of the bag! Nice, though, to hear from another foul weather fisherman. We will surely run into each other on the water before too long. Until then I'll do my best not to publicize all the best spots ...


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