Fall on the Bighorn

The Big Horn River may be one of the most famous trout fisheries in the world.  The river flows through the heart of the Crow Indian Reservation, who came upon the land as they migrated in search of the perfect land to plant their magical seeds.  The Crow tribe has many great stories and lore that has lead the tribe throughout their time on this earth.  Many of the stories revolve around animals that were sacred or who gave them direction in their lives.   One such animal lent the river it’s name and gave the tribe hope that they would be eternal as long as the river remained named after the animal.  The story of Metal Head is steep in tradition and the basic story follows the path of a tribal warrior who disliked his step child.  He took the child on a hunting trip high into the canyon and as they looked over the rim of the canyon, the warrior shoved the child from the cliff.   The warrior headed back to the camp and told the other members that the boy had fallen into the canyon.  The boy fell into the canyon and landed on a tree that stuck from the side of the cliff wall,   as the boy sat clinging to the branch a group of Bighorn sheep led by metal head, who had golden horns,  rescued the boy from the cliff.  They returned the boy to the village and told the tribe that as long as the river was called the Bighorn the tribe would be prosperous.   This is just one of the many great stories that has directed the Crows over their long and storied existence in the land of the Bighorns.

The river starts high in the mountains of northern Wyoming.  The river flows on a northeasterly path through Wyoming where it eventually dumps into the 70 mile long Yellowtail Reservoir.   The reservoir was created in 1965 when the Bureau of Reclamation placed a 525 foot concrete dam at the mouth of Bighorn Canyon.   The dam was built for flood control and storage for downstream agriculture that needs the water during the dry summer months to grow sugar beets and other crops.   The dam was named after Robert Yellowtail, who was a highly educated crow member who fought against the government and it’s taking of tribal land.  The government finally won out and built the dam, which they named after Robert Yellowtail.  The government did not name the dam after him as a tribute, they named it after him because of the trouble he caused and the fact that Mr. Yellowtail had split the tribe during the negotiations of the dam building process.  The government had offered to pay the tribe 50 million dollars for the dam but in the end only payed the tribe 5 million.   Just before his death in 1988 the government finally came through on their promise to the tribe and were forced to pay an additional 30 million dollars to the tribe.  It was not until 1980 that the reservation was again opened to the white man so that we could fish this magnificent river.

"Zig Zags" on Yellowtail Reservoir

The dam sits in the center of the reservation and planning a trip to the Bighorn must be some what well thought out.   There are several flyshops, a small market and one restaurant in the small town of Ft. Smith.  The next place for groceries is back down the road 50 miles in the town of Hardin.  The reservation is also a dry reservation so those wishing to bring along something to drink must plan ahead and pick it up before they arrive in town.   My good friend John had one of my favorite lines of all time about beer in Ft. Smith.  “You better bring enough with you because bottom line, it’s 5o miles to get more beer!”  Meals are also not easy to come by so you will want to plan out a menu and bring along everything you need for the time you are on the river.   Lodging opportunities range from do it yourself camping, hotel rooms, rental homes and full service lodges.   Of course the easiest way to take a trip to the Bighorn is through an all inclusive lodge but you will still need to bring along your own adult beverages if you take that route.   There are plenty of shops to pick up the necessary gear as well as shuttles so this is about all that you can count on while you are here.

The River:

Most of the fishing on the Bighorn takes place on the Upper thirteen miles of river as it leaves the dam.  Access to the river is limited to three primary access points that provide some wade fishing opportunities, however the best way to fish the river is from a boat.  A boat allows anglers to either fish from the boat or to use the boat as a manner of getting from one good wade fishing area to the next.  I personally prefer to use the boat as transportation and get out and fish one of the many great places to stop.  The river is very easy to read and there are literally hundreds of fish in most of the holes.  A trip to the Bighorn is really like going to Disneyland where you stop at the rides you like and pass by the ones you don’t.  Many of the stops have names such as the Breakfast Hole, Hot Dog, Duck Blind, Holly’s and Soap Creek.  These holes are great places to get into but they can be tough to access when the river is crowded.  The real key to fishing the Bighorn is managing the people more than managing the fish.  Knowing small holes to stop in or places that don’t seam as likely can be a saving grace on busy weekends.

Bighorn Bow's

I personally spend my time on the Bighorn during the spring and the fall when things are slow on rivers in my home near Bozeman.   The Bighorn is a spectacular river with a lot of fish but all those fish bring people out in droves.  If you like solitude you will not like the Bighorn.  You have to go to the Bighorn with the right mindset and not allow others to spoil your experience.  It’s a little more like playing at Bush Wood Country Club during the caddies day than during the members only club championship.   It can be great if you have the right attitude, but it’s not for everyone.

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