WINTER FLY-FISHING ON THE BIGHORN RIVERBy: Chris Chapman • chrischapmanphotography.net
The Bighorn River below Fort Smith is a tail water flowing from the dammed Bighorn canyon, a National Recreation Area. The fishing is consistently excellent around the calendar even if the weather isn’t. If you don’t mind possible biting cold and piercing wind and you like to avoid the a crowd then may I suggest Winter. In the winter the crowds have gone home and you can have long stretches to yourself.
Sun up on a Montana winter day is around 8:00 am and the day goes dark in the early 5 o clock hour. At six am it’s coffee and prepping for the day. After breakfast, ribs go in the oven to slow cook all day while on the river, that’s tradition and shall not be messed with or altered in any way. By sun up we’re in Fort Smith sliding drift boats down the snowy ramp. This area is also one of the great fly ways for geese and duck in the West. They move like V shaped clouds and cast a substantial shadow when the sun is shining. You hear the rumble before you see them.
If you can’t catch fish on the Bighorn, you probably cannot catch fish anywhere. Before all the boats are in the water we have a few Rainbows in hand. The fish are hungry for dark green woolie things. We need to find out which one in particular.
Taking turns on the oars and with the rod give everyone ample fishing time. Rule #1: Catch a fish, you’re on the oars. Rule #2: Miss a catchable fish, you’re on the oars. Repeat... But the fishing is good so we amend the rules to every two fish.
This is catch and release fishing so we’re eating fajitas on shore while wild horses roam around. Life is supposed to be hard in Montana so we go without hot sauce. The beer is cold… because it’s really cold outside.
I’m on the oars and my buddy John is in the back seat. I see a giant fish turn on his fly out of the corner of my eye. He missed it. He is a fishing guide and thinks he can drink beer and fish at the same time. Even with two days of fishing left we both know he missed the biggest fish of the trip. He’s on the oars now. How big was that fish you missed John? Shows hands….
I made up that part about life being tough in Montana, but the days are short and the cold is long in winter. At the end of the day Dan and I make a sort of Swedish candle from a hollow log. We stuff it with dry tinder, sticks and small pieces of wood and light it from the bottom. The people who were laughing at our project aren’t laughing now that they feel the hot fury of the candle. Other people are running shuttles for rigs and we’ll be outside for an hour with nothing but beer and the fire to keep warm. Sparks burn holes in coats.
At night the temperature drops rapidly. It’s hard (like I’ve said before) and I can barely finish the ribs on the grill outside. A sip of Pendletons and a pipe to ward off the chill.
It will be colder in the morning. We’ll do the same thing on a different stretch of water.