By Bob Krumm
What a difference a day makes” so the lyrics of an old song goes. However, with the Bighorn River fishing the song should state, “What a difference a year makes.” After three abysmal years 2020 has turned into a pleasant contrast. Admittedly, the fish numbers are not as high as some would like, but the condition of the trout is astounding. Long time guides and anglers remark that the trout are in fantastic shape. The average length for brown trout this year seems to be 16 to 18 inches with many of them sporting girths that connote that the fish are getting plenty to eat. Before I go too much further, I would like to point out that in 2019 the water remained fairly clear after high water subsided and the trout seemed to plump up. It seemed that the fish were in decent shape going into autumn and winter.
Our flows in 2020 were up and down for several months. Initially, the flows were elevated to draw the reservoir down to accommodate spring runoff, but low snowpack in Wyoming soon caused a reduction in flow. In short, river flows never went above 4,500cfs and soon were down to 2,500cfs.
The onset of Covid 19 put a wrench in the works for a while but eventually quarantine rules were relaxed and nonresidents could fish the river.
Once anglers had access to the river it became clear that the trout were more aggressive than in the past three years. In late July/early August one of the best hatches of pale morning duns since the late 1990s occurred. It was so heartening to see flotillas of the size 14 PMDs floating down the river. To top it off there were pods of trout feeding with abandon on the PMDs. The trout were no push overs, but if an angler could make an accurate 30 foot cast with a PMD pattern the action could be frantic.
Wade fishing during the PMD hatch would often result in an angler running downstream after a husky fish for if he/she stood still fish would get so much line out that the hook eventually pulled out or bent out or the leader broke. The challenges were great but the fishing experience was one of joy and thrill. I know that it had been several years since I had to run after a trout hooked on a dry fly. I chased one bruiser for about 100 yards before I was able to coax it to the net.
Another dry fly opportunity came toward the end of August. Black caddis hatched in numbers that compared to the best that I had seen in the 1990s decade. To have twenty, thirty or more black caddis crawling on me as I waded the river at dark brought back memories of some of the best dry fly fishing I had ever experienced.
The grasshopper infestation also contributed to some great opportunities on windy days. Late August winds blew hoppers in on several spots on the river. The toilet flush rises were unmistakable allowing anglers to zero in on the aggressive fish. Again, hooking the trout was only half of the challenge; landing those extremely fit fish required lots of know how and the patience to fight a 16 to 18 inch fish for 10 minutes or more and to be able run with the fish.
Throughout the year anglers did well on nymph patterns: PMD nymphs, black caddis pupae, gold-ribbed hares' ears, quill nymphs, and pheasant tail nymphs. Probably the most successful nymph patterns were Ray Charles. There is a health population of sowbugs in the river and the trout have been dining on them day in, day out.
While most of the trout in the river fall in the 14 to 20 inch range, there are few monster trout in the river ranging from 21 to 27 inches. Another hopeful sign is that there are a fair number of brown trout in the 7 to 9 inch range. I call these fish, “job security fish” for they will be next years 12 to 15 inch fish and bigger in the years to com.
I feel that it is important to note that, though the average fish is such a hunk, anglers should handle them with care. Though it is nice to get a photo or two of your trophy catch, be cognizant of the fact that ever second you're holding the fish out of water decreases the likelihood of the fish surviving upon its release. Try to limit the time the fish is out of the water to 30 seconds or less. Make sure to revive the fish before you release it.
The fall fishing outlook appears rosy. We should have some great streamer fishing well into December. Of course, the nymph fishing will hold up. The Tricos will probably continue to hatch into late October to provide dry fly anglers with some late season fireworks.
In summary, the Bighorn River fishery has turned the corner and is on an upward climb. Hopefully, this year's drought will ease and we'll have “average” flows next year, but if not, we can rejoice that this year was almost as good as 1999.