I’ve been on the Big Horn River a lot lately and have observed a slow deterioration in the fishing. This is mostly due to abnormally high water temperatures coming from Yellowtail Dam.
My last check put the water temps at 58 degrees at the Afterbay Dam and 64 degrees 12 miles downriver. These high water temps have messed up the insect hatches, dramatically increased the weed growth on the stream bottom and have left the trout a bit sluggish as they struggle for oxygen.
Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, though, because the river always goes through a period like this every year. The difference now, however, is that instead of a warm, mossy river for three weeks in October, we’re going to see it prolong this year for the next three months.
Why, is this happening, you might ask? My personal belief is that the federal Bureau of Reclamation is not managing outflows from the dam in a manner which gives any consideration to its effects on the downstream trout fishery.
Over the past few years, the Bureau has received a lot of pressure from Wyoming users of the upper Big Horn reservoir to maintain a full lake in order to launch motorboats at the Lovell boat ramp. This has led to a pattern of management complacency by the Bureau where they just keep the lake full, and whatever water happens to come into the lake, the same flow will be automatically released into the Big Horn River down below: it doesn’t matter whether those flows end up being 15,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), or 2,000 cfs.
Why even have a dam in the first place?
If any of my readers are concerned about this issue, please contact your federal representatives with your opinion (Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, and Rep. Cynthia Lummis) about how there are many hundreds of Wyomingites with more concern about the Big Horn River in Montana than the dozen folks concerned about the Lovell, Wyoming, boat ramp on the reservoir.
On a happier note, some fun fishing can still be had on the Big Horn. You just have to be patient and not expect to catch huge numbers of fish right now. The slower, deep pools have all the trout hiding in the shade of 4-foot thick moss forests where they can’t be reached easily with any kind of tackle.
Concentrate your nymph and streamer fishing in the faster, shallow water located in the riffles and the large pool “tail-outs.” There is some limited dry fly fishing for a few black caddis in the evenings and extremely tiny Pseudo mayflies in the afternoon. All the flies are small. Last week I went four days of guiding without ever tying on a fly larger than a size #18, and often used #20s and #22s.
On an even happier note, the river is warm enough to wet-wade the entire day without any waders. This week I was lucky enough to have a local family give me a nice break from the typical fishing clients expecting to catch 40 fish per day on dry flies. Stephanie Willey, and her two children Alexis, 12, and Ethan, 13, joined me on a trip during one of those 100 degree days with no clouds to shade the sun.
Even though Ethan still landed about 20 trout over the eight-hour day, he and Alexis had their most fun swimming in the river.
On more than one occasion when I stopped to work on redoing a fishing rig, Alexis would wait until a few other boats floated nearby before dropping a big surprise into the river: herself!
She’d climb up onto the high platform deck in the front of my boat, let out a horrible, blood curdling scream and then leap into the river with the biggest splash she could make.
Everybody’s head, within a half-mile in both directions, would spin around in shock that somebody had fallen out of my boat. I’ve never laughed that hard in one day over my 25 years of guiding.
I suppose I’ll receive a complaint from the Board of Outfitters about my inability to keep my fishing clients “safely contained” within my boat, but when my clients come out to have fun, by golly I’m going to let them have it!
GORDON ROSE works as a commercial fly tier and operates Sheridan WYO Healing Waters, part of a national nonprofit organization which teaches disabled military veterans fly fishing, fly tying and fly rod-building as part of their therapy.