Montana Fly Fishing 5 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Bighorn River in Montana

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

December 19, 2016

bighorn river fly fishing

A trip to Montana to fly fish for brown trout is an experience that angler’s dream of. The beautiful landscape of the state of Montana coupled with the clear waters of the Bighorn River combine to excite the senses as the fly rod is cast.

Anglers can tackle the Bighorn year round for trout, embracing the beautiful scenery of the spring, summer, and fall. For the more adventurous types, fishing is possible through the winter months as well, as careful thought and consideration prior to taking your trip will be necessary to be prepared for the unexpected winter weather conditions.

About Bighorn River

Zack, Sam, and Travis of the Montana Wild crew take their drift boats on a journeydown the Bighorn River, a tailwater in southeast Montana. The goal is to fish a remote, 50-mile stretch of river that cuts through the Crow Native American Reservation. Thunderstorms, rising trout, and rugged landscapes join them as they search for clear water and good times.

Best Place to Fish Bighorn River

The Bighorn River is well respected as one of the elite trout fishing destinations in the lower 48 states. While there are many places to access the Bighorn as it winds toward the Yellowstone River, the most popular location is the 13 miles from the Afterbay Dam to the Bighorn Access Site. This portion of the river is located a little over an hour’s drive from Billings. This 13 mile stretch is best known for its fish population, as estimates have it from three to five thousand per mile.

Fly fishing is the predominant choice for anglers searching for trout, as the hatches that occur through certain seasons lend to ideal conditions. The majority of anglers find that drifting works best on this stretch, while wading and fishing from shoreline is also popular.

Why is it that this river, and this 13 mile stretch, is so popular among fishing enthusiasts? The large populations of fish per mile certainly raise the eyelids of any seasoned angler, yet this area offers so much more in the intoxicating atmosphere that is the state of Montana. Let’s take a look at some tips to help you plan and execute your dream vacation on a budget to the Bighorn River in Montana.

Bighorn River Map and Fishing Access Sites

Map of fishing access spots on the Bighorn River in Montana

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Due to Crow Tribal and private land ownership, access to the Bighorn is very limited. The National Park Service maintains public parking and launching facilities at the Afterbay Dam (River Launch) and the 3 mile (Lind) access downstream. The state of Montana maintains the Bighorn Access thirteen miles downstream.

Most anglers drift the river, stopping along the way and fishing likely spots. The river can be waded, as long as you remain below the high water mark, below where terrestrial vegetation ceases. Limited shoreline access exists at the above access points. Trespassing on Crow Tribal or private lands can result in a citation and fines which would spoil your experience on the Bighorn.

This 13 mile portion of the river is best accessed from Highway 313, and the access point is 5.7 miles south of St. Xavier. It is likely that you will want to fly into Montana for your dream fishing vacation, and Billings Logan International Airport is located a little over an hour away from the hotbed of trout fishing in the lower 48. From the airport you will spend 45 minutes on I-90 East and then 30 minutes on Highway 313.

Bighorn River Fly Fishing Tips

Steve Galletta of the Bighorn Anlger and author of Fly Fishing the Bighorn River: Hatches, Fly Patterns, Access and Guides’ Advice provides an comprehensive review of the Bighorn tailwater system in Montana and how to fish it. From access, to flies, to when to fish the Bighorn River, Steve covers it all in this 1-hour+ video.  Thanks Steve for such a detailed look at the Bighorn River and excellent fly fishing tips!

Best Time to Fish Bighorn River

The experience of anglers who have fly fished the Bighorn River is that August is the best month. While the fishing is good year round, and certain hatches occur from spring through the fall, August stands alone. It is during this month that the pale morning dun hatches are coming to a close and the caddis hatch is firing up. The prime time of day to capitalize on the caddis hatch is during the evening, while the PMD hatch is most active during the early afternoon hours.

If you plan on attacking the Bighorn River Access during the month of August, it behoves you to have an assortment of flies that will complement both the PMD and caddis hatches. Sizes 14-18 of the Sparkle Dun and PMD Cripple will cover your basic needs for the PMD hatch while the Tan and Elk Hair Caddis will certainly get the attention of the trout for the caddis hatch time periods.

Best Flies for the Bighorn River

Trout can be caught anywhere regardless of current or stream depth. Dry and wet flies are used year round. Fine trout can be taken at any time of year, even during a snowstorm. Though many different patterns of fly will take fish, some are more popular and productive.

Here are a few of each type:

  • Dry Flies: Midges (dark), sizes 16-22 work well as midge hatches occur at any time of the year. The Adams, sizes 16-22, as well as the Blue Dun will produce well when any surface feeding is observed.
  • Nymphs: Numerous nymph patterns will take fish. Scud (freshwater shrimp), San Juan Worm, Hares Ear, Pheasant Tail Nymph, and the Zug Bug work well.
  • Streamers: The Bighorn Special, Wooly Buggers, Muddler Minnow, Dirty Red or Yellow, and others will do the job particularly in the cool winter months.
  • Grasshoppers: Various grasshopper patterns produce well at times, fished wet or dry.

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the ABC River. For larger nymphs and streamers a 9-foot 6-wt with a sink tip fly line makes life easier. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 6X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Bighorn River Fishing Reports

There are a number of Bighorn River fishing reports available on-line and from area fly shops.  A few to check out include:

Trip Planning Tips

Where to stay when vacationing in a remote area such as this can cause budget-minded travelers some unnecessary stress. For those of you who are so fortunate as to have a camper, there are campsites to be found in close proximity to the Bighorn Fishing Access and this prized fishery of 13 miles. A great suggestion for those who will be taking their camper is to visit the Montana Office of Tourism’s site to browse through the camping options that are listed. This site is well organized and provides the angler with valuable information such as addresses, mileage from the site to the campgrounds, and telephone numbers.

For those of us who will not be taking a camper to Montana, fear not as there are plenty of lodging options to choose from at your disposal. The city of Hardin contains many motels, which is a short 30 minute drive from your fishing destination. Within this 30 mile radius you will also find numerous lodges, cabins, and bed & breakfast establishments. Again, some simple searches online, done in a timely fashion so as to save money, will prove beneficial and cost efficient for the angler planning their dream vacation.

Don’t let the regrets of not taking the fly fishing trip of your dreams haunt you in the years to come. The Bighorn River can be traveled to and fished on a budget. After all, the “early bird gets the worm”, so plan ahead.

Visit our DIY Guide to Fly Fishing in Montana for information on other fly fishing destinations in Montana.