I spent a few days guiding fishermen on the Big Horn last week and I’ll be up there all next week too. The water is low (about 3,000 cfs) and warm, and the river is quite crowded. Add to this 95 degree weather with clear skies and I was expecting some very difficult fishing. I was amazed, however, at how good the fishing was, and the variety it had to offer.
My first day out last Thursday was a perfect example of how desperate I was to see a lot of variety in the fishing. By variety, I mean a little deep-water nymph fishing from the boat as we drifted downstream, some good nymph fishing from shore as we stopped to wade-fish and some dry fly fishing action as well.
Sound like a lot to ask? Well it is, but that’s exactly what my clients told me they wanted to do when I met them in the morning. Jeff, the man who booked the trip, told me that he had been fishing the river for 20 years and that he had zero interest in catching any trout on anything except dry flies. In fact, he refused to fish from the boat under any circumstances (this approach, by the way, is something I totally disagree with, and which I view to be a bit elitist). To him, catching fish on nymphs from the boat just isn’t “challenging” enough. As their guide, though, it was my job to help them have fun whichever way they wanted to do it.
Jeff’s fishing partner, Warren, however, had only tried fly fishing a couple of times. He’d never caught a fish on a dry fly in his life. He just wanted to have fun catching fish any way he could. OK, let’s see, I can fish nymphs with Warren until I see some fish rising for Jeff to catch while wading from shore.
Wait a minute: A black caddis hatch has been the predominant event to bring feeding fish to the surface, but it’s only at its best after 7:30 p.m.! The lodge I was guiding for said I had to be back to Ft. Smith by 6:30 p.m. in time for dinner (yes mother, I’ll do my best). I felt quite the anxiety attack coming on as I backed my boat into the 3-mile access site. Boy, was I ever in a pickle.
To my surprise, the river provided me with sufficient variety to meet all of the above goals. I started Warren out fishing from the boat with a #16 Sow Bug and a #18 flash-back Pheasant Tail nymph. To this I added a BB size split shot, and a strike indicator about 8 feet above the flies on his leader. He started catching fish right away from the boat, and Jeff seemed to enjoy razzing Warren about every single thing he could point out that Warren may be doing wrong. They were old friends, and the razzing went equally in both directions. The beauty of this is that it gave me a chance to teach Warren how to improve his casting skills, and how to play and land fish. I’d hoped that when I finally saw some fish rising to feed on the surface, I could put Jeff to work on his “passion,” but not leave Warren completely out of the mix.
By about 1 p.m., I finally located a few fish surface feeding along a quiet bank in flat water, only about 18 inches deep: the perfect challenge to keep Jeff occupied for a while. True to his story, Jeff was an expert caster, and was able to land a half dozen nice trout on a tiny size #22 mayfly pattern called a “Pseudo.” Unfortunately there wasn’t enough room for both guys to fish along that bank, so Warren had to sit and watch. OK, they’d both caught fish the way they liked. Things were going better than I’d expected, but I wanted them both to end up catching fish together at the same time.
Mother Nature’s favor continued to shine upon me, believe it or not. At about 3:30 p.m. I located a few rising trout along a bank just like the one Jeff had fished earlier. The difference was that just 40 yards downstream of where I put Jeff was a nice wide, shallow riffle where I could work nymphs with Warren. The beauty was they’d be close enough to one another that I could run back and forth to net fish, change flies, untangle leaders, etc. As I started working with Warren, I began seeing more and more fish feeding on the surface right in the middle of where we were nymphing. Perfect! I could begin getting Warren to catch fish on dries in a riffle with just enough broken surface to mask his rather “unrefined” casting abilities.
As it turned out, I had Jeff and Warren standing side-by-side in that riffle for two hours catching one fish after another. There was just the right mix of Pseudos and Black Caddis coming off at the same time to put the fish in a frenzy. The hot rig turned out to be an Elk Hair black caddis dry pattern, trailed by a #20 Pheasant Tail which hung just an inch or so under the surface.
One out of every four trout took the Caddis, while three out of four took the Pheasant Tail nymph. You could see the elk hair easily in the choppy water, so it worked perfectly when the fish ate it, but then served as a strike indicator when the fish ate the nymph.
If you’re planning a trip to the ‘Horn over the next month, the fishing should continue to be quite good. Keep your nymphs in the relatively fast water, and look for your dries wherever you see the fish rise. It’s all going to happen at some point during the day.
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.