New Water-Management Plan Ensures Great Trout Fishing on the Bighorn

Written by:Nick Chiasson, Forrester’s Bighorn River Resort

The Bighorn continues to be one of Montana’s premier clearwater fisheries, and it’s only getting better.
Photos courtesy Forrester’s Bighorn River Resort

A friend returned from a fishing show in Denver recently, and he said that he had heard from many folks that the Bighorn River wasn’t worth fishing. Some bad press about water issues over the past couple years has apparently led to this misinformation. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of the river’s death was an exaggeration. We can assure you that the river is very much alive and producing some stunning trout.

We are a few weeks into the season on the Bighorn, excited and looking forward to a fresh start. The spring fishing has been good, and the size of trout being caught is similar to the early years, when the average size was 16 to 18 inches long. The Bighorn has returned to its classic form and is once again the most consistent clearwater fishery in the state of Montana. Here is why:

Over the past few years, Montana’s Bighorn River has experienced higher-than-normal water flows in both spring and summer. Mother Nature threw us a little curve ball, but guides were still able to find plenty of beautiful Bighorn trout every day. Thankfully, the awkward trend in dam management has come to an end, thanks to the critical involvement of the Bighorn River Alliance.

Plenty of gorgeous trout are being caught on the Bighorn as we post this.

The Bighorn River Alliance has established a technical group, comprising various state and federal agencies, to improve dam management for the health of the Bighorn River. This work group has changed the way the dam forecasts water flows in and out of the Yellowtail Reservoir. In the past, they used only the basic gauges in the mountains to predict snow pack. They are now taking into considerations historical rainfall in the spring, the old snow pack gauges, and, most importantly, the mid- and low-level snowfall in the Bighorn River Basin. All of this ensures that the Bighorn River will remain the incredible fishery that it is now and always will be. For more details visit the report on the Bighorn River Alliance website.

The first thing we have seen this spring is a healthy and productive rainbow trout spawn, uninhibited by aggressive currents flowing over the spawning beds. Next, the vegetation is starting to grow back and with it the billions of insects–including scuds, midges, sow bugs, Baetis, PMDs, Yellow Sallys, and more–that thrive on the numerous grass and moss species in the river. The food source is abundant and creating a healthy habitat for numerous and thriving Bighorn trout. The long term effect of the consistent low flows will be huge returning numbers of brown trout. Smaller fish from the previous year’s spawn will thrive in this food rich, easy living water.

The fishing has been consistent this spring , with multiple trout over 24 inches caught every week. The water clarity is remarkable, and the moss and grass are extremely low. Good stream access and consistent river flows make the Bighorn River one of the most scenic and enjoyable rivers in the nation.

Nick Chiasson is a guide at Forrester’s Bighorn River Resort, in Fort Smith, Montana.

7 thoughts on “New Water-Management Plan Ensures Great Trout Fishing on the Bighorn”

  1. Truth be told, we had a beautiful, but challenging time catching (very few) trout last September on the Bighorn. Members of our group had been there previously during September and enjoyed a great deal of success 3, 4, and 5 years ago, but not recently.

    I am a big fan of the area and very hopeful that the ‘awkward trend in dam management’ is indeed over and that the river provides excellent fishing again.

    1. So far so good Charlie. The water is crystal clear and the temperature is climbing up. River flows are low and the river is extremely accessible. The fish are moving into the riffles to eat the thousands of mayflies and midges hatching each day. Hope to see you back on the Bighorn this year or next.

  2. “The Bighorn has returned to its classic form and is once again the most consistent clearwater fishery in the state of Montana”

    I think a couple guys in Cascade or Craig would argue with this statement. Mo’ trouts don’t look like snakes either.

    1. Those Mo’ trout are dandy’s for sure! Heck of a fishery! But when the Missouri gets warm and grassed out the Bighorn will be cool and consistent like it always has in the past. Come on down and we’ll show you how to fish it.

  3. Spent a few days on the Bighorn fishing this month and it was incredibly slow fishing. Crystal clear water, 40 degree water temps, lots of bugs around, lots of anglers around, but no fish. We thought it was just us, but in talking with guides and anglers on the river we learned that a good day was 5-7 trout in the boat. We ran an experiment where we floated a mile of river, crisscrossing back and forth simply trying to see a fish in the crystal clear water, and we never saw a single trout. During our two day trip we floated A to B both days, and caught 5 trout and one sucker total. We saw three fish caught by other anglers, on a very crowded river. We nymphed and threw streamers almost exclusively. Something seems broken. Saw dead fish in the river, skinny carp and suckers, and the trout we caught were not in good condition. Fish were long and snaky, except for one healthy rainbow. I suppose we’ll know for sure the actual fish count per mile when FWP does its survey in a few weeks. Let’s hope the fishery recovers quickly.

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