Bighorn River Trip
The more I fish and guide Bighorn River, the stronger I feel that I'd like to introduce this amazing river to my repeating clients and anglers who are planning fly-fishing trips to Montana.
Indeed, for those anglers who may plan to visit Livingston or Bozeman area in August and September and if your plans may include float trips, I strongly advise to think about taking Bighorn River Trips with me. I understand floating Yellowstone River and casting for elusive big trout in this mighty river are in bucket lists of either repeating or new anglers. And I can be one of the best available in the area. However, due to the nature of "true free-stone" river, we always have to monitor weather and muddy waters coming out of Yellowstone Park tributaries (Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek) and deal with some special regulations (river closure caused by PKD in 2016, the month long hoot-owl restriction = no fishing between 2pm nd midnight = in 2021).
This is the reason #1: my business direction as well as everyone's concerns.
Then here's a real & practical reason = fishing.
Honestly and plainly speaking, the Bighorn fishes much better than the Yellowstone or the Madison in August and September. While we struggle to get some rises on terrestrial fly patterns (because insect hatch wanes as summer goes by and the fall arrives) or we try to figure out something with nymphs and streamers on the Yellowstone or the Madison, the Bighorn reaches the real prime of fishing season with prolific insect hatches although, in this truly an all-season fishery, any days can be prime and epic (more details next).
Then again, you are still in Montana. Before or after you fish Bighorn River, you can plan to fish Livingston's spring creeks or Yellowstone Park waters with me. You can even plan to float the Yellowstone or the Madison when conditions are right.
Let me explain and help you customize your near future fishing tips.
Scroll all the way down for the video library - MUST WATCH - and photo gallery.
Fort Smith is about 3.5 hours of driving from Livingston (add 0.5 hour from Bozeman city or airport); Livingston - Billings (about 120 miles & 2 hours driving), Billing - Hardin (about 50 miles & 45 minutes driving), and Hardin - Fort Smith (about 40 miles and and 40 minutes driving).
As this town locates within Crow Tribe Reservation, NO alcohol is sold. This is one of big reasons that Fort Smith/Bighorn is truly a Fly-Fishing ONLY destination. One can be merry ONLY by fishing!! (One can purchase alcohols at stores in Hardin and bring in.) Also, every time I pull into this town, it reminds me of some towns in Western movies = several rustic (or rusty😅) buildings and unpaved roads. However instead of cowboys and merchants, fishermen or guides in waders are walking around, and instead of horses and stagecoaches, pickup trucks with drift-boat trailers are moving around 😲. Also, as government agencies and Tribe own or manage the lands in the area, development is few to none, unlike Montana's other famed rivers' banks. In that regard some may feel true Western atmosphere.
The Bighorn once was just a plain river with some warm-water species, originated in Wyoming and running north to Montana. Construction of Yellowtail and Afterbay Dams made a huge Bighorn Lake (Reservoir) and the flows from these bottom-release dams resulted in a world-class tail-water trout fishery. To put it simply, this is one giant spring creek; water temperature remains cool even in the middle of summer and water is gin-clear most of time (except when lake turnover occurs, which lasts only several days seasonally), plus aquatic insects, crustaceans & hatching insects, are abundant. Then the most importantly, trout population is perhaps the highest among any Montana rivers. It's said, depending on times/years of survey, it reaches 5,000 to 8,000 trout per mile in upper 13-mile.
As you may have heard of already, the "double nymph" rig is always deadly and catches fish in this river. Streamers may produce surprising results too. Then when insect hatch occurs, this river turns to be one of the most enjoyable yet the most challenging match-the-hatch-dry-fly fisheries in the world. Yes, it's just like at Livingston's spring creeks. There are times that I admit I got my pride knocked down and my rear-end kicked.
Bighorn River is truly for every level of fly-fishers, from beginners to experienced. That is why so many anglers come back to visit this river repeatedly year after year.
Also some of you may have heard of this too: Bighorn can be so crowded. I don't deny it and indeed it can be. However, there are some differences from Montana's other popular rivers. On the Bighorn, yes, boat ramps in the morning can be very busy. As a guide, I get my boat ready, make a line, then back up and launch smoothly. After this point, all the boats will soon spread out. Some may want to stop and fish at certain spots while others float and fish or float to their desired spots. I honestly don't feel crowded or too tight. Besides, majority of guides and fishermen who fish/float regularly are very courteous. I actually confess I have seen or even experienced directly much more crowded and even uglier situations on Yellowstone Park waters or while floating the Yellowstone and the Madison. This information and description I'd like you to trust me and I'm not exaggerating. You will feel the difference if you really come and fish here. I could even feel this be a "model" for the popular rivers: we are all on the river for one common reason = enjoy fly-fishing and catch some trout, so why don't we think of others. To me, Bighorn regulars seem to show this attitude more than anybody on the other rivers.
This bottom-release tail-water fishery runs cooler in summer and warmer in winter than other rivers. Again, it's just like Livingston's spring creeks. So fishing can be done and enjoyed any days of the year, except days with intolerable weather conditions. As mentioned above, "double nymph" rig will produce all through the year as scuds, sowbugs, mayfly nymphs, caddis & midge larvae are always present and active in this river. Streamers can be effective any time as well. So now let's look at hatches.
From some time in March, midges start to hatch and trout start to rise. Eventually, as early as March, or in April at the latest, baetis start to hatch as well and trout key on them. This spring actions through May.
June and July are months to anticipate PMD and Yellow Sally. As days get longer and hotter, terrestrials = hoppers, ants, and beetles = become active and important for both trout and anglers.
In July, August, and September, we strongly anticipate the world famous Trico hatch & spinner falls. There comes Tan Caddis, Black Caddis, Pseudocloeon hatches too. Terrestrials are still important especially in between hatches. We may fish with dry-flies literally from dawn to dusk.
As the fall approaches in late September and then October, baetis and midge hatches bring trout to the surface. Depending on the year, one of those summer hatches may continue.
Even in November, I have had terrific dry-fly fishing with baetis and midges.
Bighorn River and Fort Smith have been the destinations since the river was re-opened for public in 1981. There are a few fly-shops in town, several nice lodges, and many other long-time outfitters/guides over there. In that regard, I may be considered still new. Then as you know I am based in and around Livingston and waters in the area. However, I have gained strong passion, deep understanding, and much experience on the Bighorn over my career. And two of my accumulated experiences also consist of my resume: 1. I have been rowing and guiding on Yellowstone River, which is some of the toughest river to row and to read the waters. "If you can learn to read the waters of Yellowstone River and consistently take trout, you can travel the world and consistently be a successful angler" - Don Williams, Livingston's legendary guide. I'm confident to say that even when some of known spots are already taken by others or situations get tough, I can always find alternative good spots and can figure out different methods. 2. My spring creek expertise DO match this river's match-the-hatch-dry-fly characters. My techniques and custom flies DO work on this river as well. Furthermore, from both success and hard times on the Bighorn, I have tuned up my approaches and have been proven to be successful. Then my spring-creek-oriented custom flies also shine on this river as no other fly shops carry those.
Indeed I've been recognized on the Bighorn and Fort Smith due to my resume above and have already be known as one of a few guides who spends until real darkness, as well as one of the earliest guides in the morning at each boat launch.
Above being said, this is NOT a competitive statement at or against other guide services or individual outfitting in and around the Bighorn. Indeed I have strong respects and appreciations for fly-shops and lodges that accommodate myself and my clients. Also guides whom I may meet or pass on the river, some of them are sincerely nice people. I'd really like to have good relationships with those good people in the same industry. My business direction here is to introduce Bighorn River to my own clients.
Full Day Float Trip: $650 (1 or 2 Anglers, lunch & flies included)
**Third angler can be accepted with $200 extra cost. We'll only float, stop, and wade-fish Upper 3 miles.
Full Day trip includes river-side lunch that I most of the time cook and serve fresh & hot. Even in the remote country, I'll do my best NOT to lower my lunch quality, just as I do at my guide trips in Livingston area (if you have taken my guide trips before, you know what we're talking). I'm very good at and careful about food safety. My coolers and ice management keep my foods well chilled. Even during the week long trip, my clients or I have had no troubles, instead every lunch with different menu!
Minimum THREE DAYS.
It's definitely recommended to experience the Bighorn for a few days at least. Besides, since I travel and stay overnight the day, just conducting one day trip is not feasible to me. The Day 1 = Check-in day short trip can be counted as one.
Unlike other shops/outfitters in Bozeman or Livingston, I do NOT charge extra gas fee or guide's lodging (what a joke😑).
Payment: On the Bighorn and in Fort Smith, we have OK cell coverage however internet is somewhat unreliable. Hence my credit card system may not work well. So I'd like to ask CHECK or CASH for the payment.
Gratuity (20% or more from the final bill) is greatly appreciated as always.
Itinerary: Example & Planning
It's highly recommended and practical for visiting anglers from other states or countries to fly into Billings Airport. From there, you will rent a car and drive to your lodging in Fort Smith.
On Day 1 = Check-in day, if you can arrive at Fort Smith, check in with the lodge, and be ready to fish, sure, let's do it.
On the last day of fishing with me, it's up to you whether you stay in Fort Smith or drive to Billings and stay there. Either way, I suppose you will catch a flight next day.
There are two (that I know of or have business with) full service fly-shops in Fort Smith.
These operations offer: all the necessity gears (from big stuffs like rods, reels, & waders to all kinds of small gadgets), lodging, breakfast, and dinner. It's convenient and comfortable. And the most importantly people in these operations are not only knowledgeable but also nice and kind.
I highly recommend visiting anglers to stay here and I meet up with you every morning.
Cottonwood Camp is located by 3 Mile Access = several miles down the road from Fort Smith town. They offer cabins, RV hookups, and tent sites and could be budget friendly or serve well for groups.
There are many other lodging operations or rental houses in Fort Smith or along Bighorn River. You may be able to look around online. Those lodging listed above are people and businesses I know and have good reviews from visiting anglers.
My guide trip price includes lunch and beverage of the day (softdrinks and water).
Please prepare your own breakfast and dinner or arrange them with lodge.
Bighorn Angler and Bighorn Trout Shop both offer continental breakfast and superb dinner at their lodges.
A bit over 10 miles down the road, close to Bighorn Access, Tailwater Restaurant within Garrison Stoker Resort offers delicious home made menu (my favorite😋) at modest price (they have rental cabins too).
As mentioned above, there's no alcohol beverage sold or purchased within Crow Tribe Reservation, including these operations. You are welcome to purchase in Billings or Hardin and then bring with you.
Things to Bring
It's highly recommended to bring two rods along with matched reels and lines.
I'd like to keep one 4-wt or 5-wt 9-feet for dry-fly fishing and another 5-wt or 6-wt 9-feet (6-wt is ideal) for nymphs and streamers. That way, we don't have to re-rig leaders and tippets, off-or-on split-shots. Even when we don't use nymphs or streamers and cast terrestrial dry-flies as we float, another rod is handy.
If you have only one rod, I let you use one of my spare 5-wt rigs that can be used for any methods.
Above being said, if you focus only on pods of rising trout as we stop, or season and situations call for floating & nymphing, only one rod may suffice.
Wader and boots are highly recommended even in the middle of summer. Remember this tail-water comes out of bottom of huge reservoir. It remains cold even when air temperature reaches 90F. You can always take off in the boat and wet-wade if needs be.
Rest of list consists of regular items wherever you go fly-fishing:
Montana fishing license, polarized sunglasses, sun-screen, vest or pack loaded with gadgets, rain coat,
As Fort Smith is remote, if you have regular medications, I suggest bringing extra amounts. In my case, I bring two extra pairs of contact lenses.
If you come in March, April, and September, there can be chilly days. Even in May and June, we could feel cold. Eastern Montana tends to be generally dry through summer months, but then again, who knows. So check weather forecast, consult with me, and pack your clothes accordingly.
As mentioned above for a few times already, both clients and guide (I) need to be present at Fort Smith/Bighorn with considerable amount of driving. It's a commitment to have some fun! Also it has to be different from my regular trips conducted in Livingston area in which clients fly to Bozeman Airport, stay in Bozeman or Livingston, then meet me somewhere in Livingston to fish spring creeks or Yellowstone Park. Even when anglers book guide trips with Fort Smith operations, they still have to drive to get there. It's the destination.
Again, flying into Billings Airport, rent a car, and drive to Fort Smith is the only way.
For this trip, I pack my truck with extra amount of foods and camping gear besides my regular fishing gears, plus towing a boat trailer, so unfortunately it is hard for me to offer a ride and is too tight to carry even one angler with luggage between Billings Airport and Fort Smith. (During the guide trips along the Bighorn, your suit-cases are at your lodge and it's only a short drive between boat ramps and lodges so it shouldn't be a problem.)
Besides, having your own car apparently gives you more freedom. As you check in or on our designated short day, you can pry some wade-fishing on your own or quickly run to Hardin in the evening and so on. Besides, if you book lodging on your own other than town of Fort Smith, I'd like to ask you to come over to either Afterbay or 3-Mile boat ramp in the morning.
These are the things we can communicate and get straightened out before the trip. So please ask me anything as you plan a fishing trip and book my service and other accommodations.
Last But Not The Least..........
Fort Smith & Bighorn are located in such a remote area. Compared to any other destinations, amenities = mostly foods and lodging = are limited. I understand signing up a guide trip is expensive and already taking a big portion of anglers' budget, so, some anglers want to figure out ways to lower rest of the cost. However, I strongly suggest you to use businesses and facilities mentioned above. They are the people who live and work in that remote area all year around and accommodate all the out-of-town visitors & fishers, including myself. Without them, our trips wouldn't be planned well. If you need or run out of some fishing gears, buy from those shops in Fort Smith. Use their lodges and dining service, rather than trying to find someone's rental cabin and bringing groceries from Billings or Hardin (except for alcohol beverages). Let me state again; it's a commitment to get yourself up there and have fun fishing. So please be loyal to the river and townspeople. Any businesses you bring will be appreciated and they will treat you super well!!
This is NOT the moon-shining night! Ready to float at Afterbay Dam WaaaaaaY before dawn!
Renee enjoyed her first trip to Bighorn.
Maiden Voyage with my brandnew boat was quite successful on the unusually high water!
In early September, Pseudo hatch and pile like this all along the river.
Zillions of Trico hatch and fall as spinners!!
Always stomach pump to learn & observe!