On to ‘where to start’. As with all waters it is best to break the river down into manageable bits. When the river is busy, groups of anglers and guides mark the ‘best spots’, but river vets know that even small, out of the spotlight micro habitats hold fish. Most guides and Bighorn regulars have dozens of these places held in reserve. Observation is a critical skill in fly fishing, and one needs to take some time to scope out the immediate surroundings before plowing in. Obviously look for fish rising, but also train your eyes to notice a subtle flash or the white of a mouth opening to take a passing sow bug. Take note of current seams, ledges, edges and natural feeding lanes. All are hotspots where trout stake out lays and territories. Near by deeper security retreats are also an indicator of prime water. The best areas will be filled with trout, feeding, playing grab ass as they chase and jockey for position or simply holding inactive fish. The first rule is not to wade where the fish are. This seems obvious but I am always amazed at the number of guys I see titty deep in a run with feeding fish ducking their back cast. As with most tailwater rainbows, if one wades just a bit too deep into a riffle the rainbows will swarm your feet eating what you kick up and thus become unavailable targets. (Browns are either too proud or too dumb to adopt this behavior…the anthropomorphist in me prefers to view them as being above such low brow feeding!) Bighorn fishermen are careful not to wade on redds and fishing to trout that are actively spawning is considered a big no-no. Just a word to the wise, doing so will draw evil looks and even harsh words.
Once you have identified a likely place, it’s time to catch a few. Tactics are just as varied as an angler cares to employ. When a hatch is not on, little can beat a nymphing rig with a sow bug or scud teamed with a midge larva or mayfly nymph. Blind fishing runs and riffles normally produces, just be sure to match your weight and leader length to the flows ensuring you get your fly in the trout’s face. The old adage about snagging up once in a while to insure you are down applies in spades as with so much food drifting by there is little reason for a fish to move too far for your fly. The real game begins when the trout indicate to you that a hatch or feeding period is about to get going in earnest . Shallow ledges and feeding lanes suddenly fill with fish moving in from deeper holding water. The river suddenly seems to be coming alive, previously inactive trout subtly rise off the bottom and get ready for action…as should the angler.
At this point it would be pertinent to discuss benthic drift. Nature ensures genetic distribution at all costs, even for scuds, worms larva and such. Several times a day it’s all move and for a few synchronized minutes many of the nymphs and critters release en mass and drift to a new place several feet or many yards down stream. The trout display an uncanny awareness of when this is about to happen and become very active in anticipation. The observant angler is also made aware, and if armed with a nymphing rig will be in the money.
Sight nymphing is a fulfilling tactic employed anytime we can actually watch trout feeding subsurface. In this situation I like a bare leader and visible bright orange or pink sow bug trailed by a midge larva or nymph. Present the flies in a manner that naturally drifts them right to the fish at it’s level, striking on the white flash of an opened mouth or a slight turn of the head.
When the bugs actually begin to emerge it’s time switch to dries or emergers. Preferably both, run in tandem over risers using a drag free drift with a down and across presentation. Avoid flock shooting, and try to pick out a target or line of targets. If you don’t get a take let your fly drift well beyond the fish before recasting to avoid putting them down, especially when fishing to a large pod working tricos. These fish often stay right on the surface gulping spinners, and when one spooks they all do. Just wait a few minutes and the first tentative rises will start back up and if left unmolested soon the rest will be up feeding with gusto again.
Some of the most challenging angling on the Bighorn is to find a brushy bank with nice sized browns rising tight to cover. The best and often only way to get at these fish is to start at the bottom of the run and stealthily wade upstream targeting individual noses with accurate casting. Depending on the season mayflies, caddis or terrestrials are the ticket.
Streamer fishing is a favorite and productive tactic as well. With the current river conditions promoting lots of reproduction, fry are thick in all sections of the river. Streamers that mimic small trout or rough fish are taken in most conditions, but really come into their own in the fall and winter as well as windy days when the weather interferes with the hatches. Clouds always help streamer fishing, but in truth clouds help all methods of fishing here.
The Bighorn is a place where everyone catches fish and lots of them, but also allows for any and all tactics that suit any angler’s tastes. As such it is the perfect destination to challenge yourself as a fly fisher. Taking on the more technical aspects of the sport may be humbling and frustrating at times, but the rewards become all the sweeter. After all our sport is one which never lacks for learning opportunities nor stops teaching us about ourselves and our place in the natural world.
Bighorn River Guide Bob Bergquist
This post was written by Bighornangler