“Alas, the Bighorn,” by William G. Tapply

Written by: William G. Tapply

Bill Tapply sits on the bank, waiting for his turn to cast to rising browns.
Photo courtesy Vicki Stiefel

[Editor’s note: This story was written in 1997. Like all of Bill Tapply’s stories, there’s a timelessness about it, but I also love the way this shows how an angler’s relationship to a river can change. For a current discussion of the Bighorn’s fish numbers–it seems that numbers are down, but size is way up–check out this great post from Forrester’s Bighorn River Resort.]

Andy and I made our first Montana Trout odyssey in the summer of ’87. It took us from the South Fork of the Snake to the Henrys Fork to the Box Canyon to Hebgen Lake to the Madison to the Yellowstone to Slough Creek to the Paradise Valley spring creeks. It was glorious and eye-opening for a pair of Eastern dudes, but after almost two weeks of baking under a relentless Montana sun, fishing dawn-to-dark, driving by night, eating on the fly, and sleeping in motels, we were kind of worn down. I wouldn’t say we were sick of fishing. But the edge had definitely rubbed off.

We had saved the Bighorn for the end of our trip. If the stories were just half true, we would be rejuvenated.

* * *

Bill Rohrbacher, a big burly guy with a giant mug of coffee in his hand and grin peeking out of his tangled beard, took one look at us and said, “You boys’re looking kinda used up. I got just the thing for you.”

We launched Bill’s driftboat for our first look at the Bighorn. It was one of those soft, gray, misty mornings, absolutely still, rare for Montana, the kind of morning that just feels fishy no matter what part of the world you’re in. The water was scummy with bugs, and we saw dimples and noses and swirls all along the banks as Bill steered us downriver.

I pointed. “What about them?”

He smiled. “We got plenty of fish.”

After ten or fifteen minutes, he rowed across the river, nosed the boat against a steep bank, and threw the anchor up into the bushes. “Behold,” he said, gesturing upstream from where we sat.

It took me a minute to realize what I was seeing. At first it looked like a ten-foot swath of riffled water flowing against the bank and extending upriver into the mist.

Then I realized that the riffle effect was caused by feeding trout, hundreds of trout, poking up their noses, humping their dorsal fins, wagging their tails, turning and swirling and boiling. Big trout, judging by the size of their noses. Bill called them “toads.” The snout of a big brown trout does look something like a toad when he pokes it up to eat a bug.

Andy and I took turns casting to toads that day. It was just what we needed. While one of us fished to that pod of trout, the other one sat on the bank with Bill, sipping coffee, munching apples, telling stories, kibitzing, getting to know each other. Rarely did either of us need more than ten minutes to hook a trout. The trick, Bill said, was not to flock shoot. Pick a nose, learn his rhythm, and then lay the tippet between his eyes.

I found that flock shooting actually worked pretty well, but I didn’t tell Bill that.

The trout ran from about fifteen to nineteen fat, healthy inches long. When they felt the hook, they exploded in the shallow water and surged for the heavy currents in the middle of the river. They were powerful, barely-stoppable fish on four-weight rods, and by the time we released them, the others were up and feeding again.

After a while, we got so we could pick out the nineteen-inch toads by the size of their snouts, and those were the ones we tried to catch.

The next day we fished with Dave Schuller, Bill’s partner. Dave was quick and athletic and bubbling with energy and enthusiasm, the yin to Bill’s laid-back yang. He must have beached his boat at twenty places. Move it, let’s go, climb out, cast quick, come on, catch a few, that’s it, back in the boat, next spot. There were rising fish everywhere Dave stopped, pods of big brown trout eating pale morning duns. He wanted to catch them all. Just about the time the PMD hatch petered out, black caddisflies began swarming, and the water became crusty with them. The trout switched over, and so did we. We fished into darkness. Dave didn’t want to quit. There were still fish to catch.

* * *

Bighorn browns sometimes feed in big pods.
Photo by Steve Galletta, Bighorn Angler Fly Shop & Lodge i

When I got home and had time to sort it out, I realized that by all the standards I could think of, the Bighorn had to be the best trout river in the world. Certainly none of the other legendary Western rivers I’d fished came even close.

There were 8,500 trout per mile in the Bighorn’s upper thirteen miles that summer, of which half were over thirteen inches, making it probably the most densely populated trout river in the history of trout rivers. With the even tailwater flows, the fertile weedy water, and the abundant forage, the fish grew at the astonishing rate of six inches a year.

I wrote an article called “Bighorn of Plenty” for Field & Stream. Bill and Dave got prominent mention and presumably more business, so they insisted that thereafter we fish with them as partners, not clients.

Andy and I spent ten days to two weeks in Montana every summer. We always arranged our fish-’til-you-puke, trout-bombing-mission so that the best—a few days on the Bighorn with Bill and Dave—came last. We learned the river’s hotspots, such as the Owl Tree, Spring Creek, Glory Hole, the Bluffs, Pipeline. We knew the best runs for throwing early-morning streamers, the best riffles for mid-morning nymphing, the best scumlines for midday PMDs, the best banks for afternoon sippers, and the best flats for evening caddisflies. After a while, I think Andy and I could have done a decent job of guiding on the Bighorn.

For several years, the river didn’t seem to change. Oh, the boat traffic became ridiculous as the word got around. (I suppose my article didn’t help.) But the fishing was great and the hatches came like clockwork. You could plan your trip a year ahead and know exactly what to expect.

And that’s what Andy and I and thousands of other trout fishermen did, and none of us was ever disappointed. By the early nineties, a hundred boats were launched on the Bighorn every summer day. A village of fly shops had sprung up in Fort Smith. Dozens of trout guides worked the river. They all conceded that Bill and Dave were the best.

If you launched early enough, you could get there first and stake out a prime piece of water, and you’d find fishing almost as good as it had been back in ’87. Those who counted them reported that the trout density was declining: 5,000 fish per mile in the early ‘90s was a big falloff from 8,500, but it was still an awful lot of trout.

Andy and I kept going back to the Bighorn. There were high-water years and low-water years and some years when you got both. The fluctuating water levels affected the insects and the fish. One year the PMDs started in mid-June and petered out after a few weeks. One September, just a dribble of tricos hatched right at sunup. It merged with the spinnerfall and lasted barely an hour, and for the rest of the day the Bighorn went dead. It was a spooky sight.

In the summer of ’97, ten years after that first magical day, we found the river high, and there were no PMDs to speak of, even though it was late July. The tricos had started already, more than a month early. Bill said that was a bad sign. We worked hard and caught some trout. On any other river, we would’ve considered it fine fishing. But on our Bighorn, it was disappointing.

That fall Bill called to tell me that one of his clients had offered him a real job, and he was going to take it, sell his boat, and move to Atlanta. Health insurance, pension, stock options, sick days, salary? Hey, you can’t be a fishing guide all your life.

It was unclear whom he was trying to convince.

After that, Andy and I left the long drive to Fort Smith off our annual Montana itinerary. Half the fun of it had been fishing with Dave and Bill.

* * *

The drought has been severe in the West the past several years. Many of the premier trout rivers are suffering. The Bighorn’s flows have been low, and the trout numbers are way down, and the hatches are sparse and unpredictable. Those thirty-trout dry-fly days are fond memories.

But the upside is, the trout are bigger than ever. Everybody who goes there tells me it’s still a great river, if you’re willing to fish with nymphs and don’t mind the crowds.

Bill’s working in the Bahamas now. He goes bonefishing on his days off.

When we talk on the phone, as we do quite often, we always end up reminiscing about the Bighorn. I get wistful. Bill says I’ve got a bad attitude. “It’s a new river,” he says. “An adventure waiting to happen.”

Next time he’s back in the states, I’ve agreed to meet him in Fort Smith. We’ve got some exploring to do.

* * *

Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. 

Check out these great e-books by William G. Tapply (available on all formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.):

And visit Vicki Stiefel’s new website and facebook page to learn about her new book, Chest of Bone and the reissue of her Tally Whyte series.

3 thoughts on ““Alas, the Bighorn,” by William G. Tapply”

  1. Reminds me of some places I know. Word gets out and places get ruined by crowds. This story makes me sad..especially on a Monday!

  2. The Bighorn is my Home river living in Sheridan, Wy. We love our river the amazing black caddis and trico hatches. Only frequent the river in the summer on specific hatches (too many people). Winter fishing is our favorite time with streamers and BWO hatches. We have had very high water with unpredictable flows. Bighorn River Alliance is working to get the suits that run it all to work with those responsible for flows to better manage the river. Will always love the Bighorn but yes the fish are smaller every year.

    1. Patrick,
      Not sure what evidence is out there showing that fluctuating flows have to do with size, if that’s the case you may want to talk to the folks down on the White about that….. they may have a thing or two to say about that. The alliance is motivated by money and their own interests in the guide business. You want a tailwater but don’t want to deal with fluctuations?? Sounds like a sick joke of sorts, but hell I am sure you have all the answers like the rest.

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