Chumming and Slumming on the Bighorn
Peace and pressure define one of the world's most popular trout fisheries.
By Sam Lungren

A Clackacraft launched into the Three Mile braids shortly behind us, immediately dominating the once-serene August soundscape.

“Fish on, yeehaw!” one of the anglers in the Clacka bellowed as they passed through the first bucket. I compulsively turned to look. He didn’t have a fish on. They did have a Bluetooth speaker pumping Nashville country for the rest of the river to “enjoy.” All three young men continued shouting over the music.

Feeling solidly situated into my 30s, I pulled oars to the far side of the river and dropped anchor to let my friend Natalie nymph a deep seam and allow the current to carry the noise away. Relative peace returned.

“Bighorn” and “busy” rarely rest far apart in descriptions of this stream. Fort Smith, Montana, population 160, revolves around a shape-shifting parking lot shared by three fly shops. The ramp at Afterbay Dam is wide enough to launch four boats at once and it’s usually full of trailers from 7 a.m. to noon. A hundred driftboats a day on the upper 3-mile reach is not uncommon. The river also being crowded with larger-than-normal trout seems to be less of a problem, however.

The Bighorn River below the dam is famously crowded with fish and fishermen.   Photo by Sam Lungren

Like all tailwaters, it wasn’t always this way.

The federal government began studying the idea of damming the Bighorn Canyon in 1905 and Congress authorized the project in 1944, an effort to control flooding and provide electricity and irrigation to southeast Montana. The Crow Tribe, on whose reservation land the dam site lies, initially supported what seemed like a lucrative project, but vocal opposition and division later arose in the 1940s and ‘50s when the Department of the Interior withdrew a profit sharing plan, offering far less compensation than the tribe requested for the right to flood their sacred canyon. Robert Yellowtail, chairman of the Crow Nation, led the effort to prevent the dam but ultimately lost in a close vote to sell the land for only $2.5 million. The Bureau of Reclamation completed the 525-foot-tall dam in 1967 and derisively named it Yellowtail. The Afterbay Dam 2 miles downstream was completed two years later.

The Afterbay Dam was completed in 1967, the same year as the Yellowtail Dam 2 miles upstream. The barriers flooded the Bighorn Canyon but created a world-class trout fishery in the process.   Photo by Sam Lungren

The Bighorn’s warm, muddy, flood-prone waters became clear, cold, consistent, and fertile as they flowed out the bottom of Bighorn Lake from several hundred feet down. Aquatic insects, vegetation, and fish proliferated. Access to the stream was exclusive to the Crow Tribe until 1981 when an agreement and three Fish, Wildlife & Parks boat launches opened it to the public. It didn’t take long for anglers to take note of the thousands and thousands of rainbow and brown trout per mile in the mossy tailwater, and Outdoor Life Magazine quickly proclaimed it the greatest trout stream in America. Plenty of people have held that highly arguable view ever since. Glassy flows, deep pockets, countless braids, and too many trout to educate, even with an army of watercraft on the water each day, led to more lodges and fly shops and guides than you’d expect an ecosystem to support. High, sustained spring flows knocked back the fishery substantially in 2016 through '18, but the trout and the economy endured and recovered.

One of those lodges was operated for a spell in the ‘90s by my father’s best friend from high school; thus my family travelled from Seattle to St. Xavier almost annually during my first decade on earth. David edified me in the miracle of fly fishing there at age 8, and his son Jacob and I have been fishing it together ever since—slightly longer, I figured, than the boom-box angling party had been alive.

The Bighorn is known for its glassy glides, but the fast water can be productive too.   Photo by Natalie Rhea

I slowly picked my way downriver through clouds of black caddis, pale morning duns, midges, Hydes, Adiposes, and Clackas, anchoring or parking to work rising fish or dredge deep runs. A mile or two down, the river splits in several directions and I picked a center chute that didn’t already hold anglers. Passing through the tight slot I looked over and noticed a large rainbow holding just off the tongue of current.

“I’m going to catch that fish real quick,” I said, expressing far more confidence than I felt.

I anchored in the eddy below and stood up on the thwart. I couldn’t see the ‘bow but could visualize its location. I ran my hopper rig over the lie. Nothing. Natalie passed me the PMD stick. Nothing. But, if at first you don’t succeed in the ‘Horn, try, try the scud.

The first drift caught the current and ripped through the standing waves. The second languished nicely in the deep swirl but eventually returned to the stern unmolested. The third struck some balance, moving at a relatively natural pace just inside the seam. I mended hard to catch the eddy return, the bobber dove, and the rod loaded. The line sliced up toward the chute, and 3 pounds of salmonid muscle spy-hopped out and into the current tongue. It shot downstream as I jumped out of the anchored drifter to give chase.

Bighorn trout are supercharged on highly oxygenated water and lots of scuds.   Photo by Natalie Rhea

The slab-sided trout put every inch of its shoulders diagonally into the flow as I cautiously applied pressure to the 4X. He zipped down, then up, then away, punching those afterburners mature ‘bows often develop in such cold, fertile waters. But there’s only so much energy to burn, and the low- to mid-20-inch-class fish finally found the net bag. Itch scratched, I returned to rowing and instructing.

Rainbows grow fast and run fast in the Bighorn.   Photo by Natalie Rhea

As we fished into a wide bend, I noticed a large blue heap among the riparian grasses. Puzzled, I kept my eye on the shape as we rounded the corner. Then I saw the saw DJ Driftboat parked below, now silent. We quickly realized the blue pile was in fact the angler originally casting from the bow, now curled fetal on the bank. Natalie and I chuckled.

A few hundred yards down, I set the anchor again so we could work the tailout of the long run. Retying a rig, I jolted upright and dropped the knot as a ferocious roar echoed off the adjacent clay butte. Coughing ensued, followed by another tremendous hurl.

“Chum ‘em up!” an old man shouted, laughing hard from his rower’s seat upstream.

More heckling ensued from various boats within earshot—mine included. Before long though, we craved focus and pulled the pick to slip down a smaller side channel. Big gulps caught my eye along an ivy-draped bank below a fallen tree. We sidled in with a stealthy anchor drop in stiff current and waited for the feeding pace to resume. Soon, 20 or more trout sipped steadily, including a large brown at the head of the pack.

Natalie and I began trading drifts. She cracked one off with the redfish hookset she’d recently practiced, then landed one after a gentler swing. The burnt-orange brown in lead position arrogantly refused my oversized black caddis and then disregarded two different smaller ones. I took it personally.

A smattering of PMDs wafted by. I tied on a mimic. It landed in the lane. The hooked nose sunk it with particular gusto. In a compressed moment, line came tight, rod bent, fish backflipped, fly pulled free.

Some exceptionally accomplished steelhead and tarpon anglers will clip their hook points to only experience the jump, I mused briefly. Counting coup but not a scalp. We plucked a few smaller fish from the pocket as the sun withdrew behind the bluff.

The channel returned to the main stem. We parked in one final tailout to luxuriate in the sultry golden summer sunset and sipping trout. A Clackacraft bearing a blue-clad angler floated past.

“Feeling better?” I asked with slightly more sympathy than before.

“You saw that, yeah,” the contrite fisherman replied. “Sorry, we had a little too much fun last night. And this morning.”

“Part of the experience,” I allowed, as the yellow tailwater carried them away.

This is why people travel from all over the country to this small corner of Southeast Montana–crowds and drunkards be damned.   Photo by Sam Lungren

Sam Lungren Fishing

Sam Lungren

Sam Lungren grew up in the rainforests of Western Washington and began chasing the steelhead dragon at age 15. That led him on a lifelong journey in pursuit of other challenging fishes, from Costa Rica to Iceland and across the United States. His professional career has been dedicated to fueling that addiction, editing and writing about fishing, hunting, and conservation at RMEF, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, MeatEater, and Outdoor Life.