The Bighorn River Transforms: Adapting to a Changing River

The Bighorn River Transforms: Adapting to a Changing Current

The Bighorn River, Montana, has always been an approachable, consistent and easy to read river for most anglers. But sometimes a curveball is thrown, and the Bighorn has certainly been representative of that over the past few years. From dramatic water level fluctuations to earlier insect hatches, the river is demanding adaptation from even the most seasoned anglers.

Gone are the days of predictable water flows. 2023 saw our highest river flow in history, which water reshape the riverbed, carving new channels and altering familiar landmarks. While some stretches remain relatively unchanged, others require a complete rethink of approach. Deep runs might have become shallow riffles, and once-productive holding lies now sit shallow and only holding a few fish. Understanding these changes is crucial for success, and local guides can be invaluable navigators through this new terrain.

But the alterations aren’t just physical. The river’s rhythm, dictated by hatches and fish behavior, has also seen a shift. The delicate dance of aquatic life has accelerated, with hatches erupting earlier in the season. The iconic Baetis mayfly, once a staple of March and April afternoons, now blankets the water in early May, demanding earlier starts and adjusted fly selections.

For the Summer months, the prolific PMD hatch, historically peaking in June, now explodes in late July, requiring anglers to be ready sooner rather than later. Even the Black Caddis hatch, a cornerstone of August fishing, has moved forward, starting in mid-July instead of the traditional September debut. Following closely on its heels is the Tan Caddis, another recent addition to the earlier summer dance. And there’s even a glimmer of hope for the Trico hatch, once thought lost to time, with sporadic September appearances offering a chance for this legendary hatch to make a comeback.

These changes can be daunting, but they also present exciting opportunities. Adapting your tactics – nymphing deeper in altered runs, adjusting to new patterns and presentations for earlier hatches – can unlock a new level of connection with the river. Remember, the Bighorn still whispers its secrets, but now they might be delivered in a different language.

Fewer Fish, Bigger Rewards: Gone are the days of guaranteed 50 fish days. Recent fluctuations in water flow have impacted overall trout numbers. However, what might seem like a setback has a surprising silver lining. With less competition for resources, surviving trout are thriving, growing larger and stronger. This translates to an increased chance of landing trophy-sized fish, ranging from 20-24 inches, and even approaching that magical 30-inch mark.

A Rainbow of Giants: And it’s not just brown trout basking in this growth spurt. Rainbow trout are joining the party too, with impressive specimens regularly exceeding the 16-inch mark. This broader size range, encompassing both brown and rainbow trout, presents exciting opportunities for anglers of all skill levels. Whether you’re a seasoned pro seeking a monster brown or a newcomer hoping for a memorable first catch, the Bighorn has something for everyone.

Embrace the New Chapter: The Bighorn River’s transformation isn’t a step back, but rather a shift into a new, exciting chapter. The chance to encounter a true personal best trout adds a thrilling dimension to the fishing experience. So, grab your rod, adapt your tactics, and head to the Bighorn. You might just find yourself face-to-face with a giant that will rewrite your Montana fishing story.

Remember, responsible fishing practices are crucial to maintaining this healthy population of big fish. Be sure to practice catch-and-release for most of your catches, and follow all local regulations.