Fishing Postcard From California

Greetings from California. In late August of this year, a rare electrical storm moving over the northern half of California, produced thousands of lightning strikes, igniting what has now become the most destructive fire season in California history.

After 52 continuous days of smoky air and dangerous air quality levels, blue sky returned, but not until after the fires consumed over 1,618,000 Hectares of forest and destroyed towns, vineyards, wineries, ranches and commercial structures. A few of the larger fires remain active.

The smoke made most outdoor activities unsafe, including flyfishing in the high Sierra Nevada mountains. All four of my California flyfishing trips this summer were cancelled due to Covid and fire restrictions. 

In September, I flew to Montana and fished the clear waters of the Big Horn River. The Big Horn River is a 1,900-kilometer drive from where I live in California, and even that far away, there were signs of smoke high above me.

The Big Horn River is considered to be a world class fishery. The river was named in 1805 by fur trader Francois Larocque for the bighorn sheep he saw along its banks as he explored the Yellowstone. The river originates in Wyoming as the Wind River and travels for 320 kilometers before entering Montana and Big Horn Lake. The lake and clear tail waters are located within the Crow Indian reservation. It is from here the famous fishing waters begin.

Below the dam, the Big Horn river flows through an open and isolated landscape. 

As the river sets on the western edge of the high plains, few trees are found except along the riverbanks. Several mountain ranges can be seen in the distance and small rock cliffs dot the western side of the river. It is common to see antelope, black bear, osprey, eagles, heron, king fishers and giant hatches of several insects.

Because it is a tailwater fishery, this upper section of the Bighorn River fishes well all year. It is possible to have as good a day in January as you would in July. On any given day, an angler may use dry flies, streamers or nymphs.  It is not unusual to catch trout using all three methods in a single day.  The most popular section of the river is the first 20 km below the dam, done entirely using drift boats. Most of the day’s fishing is done within the boat, with parts of the day spent wet wading along the shore, small islands and gravel bars. Brown trout are the most common, though Rainbows are plentiful. Throughout the river’s length, these rainbows and browns thrive on a steady diet of Sowbugs, scuds, worms, and Midges year-round, which accounts for the large average size of these trout. 

Early in the season, midges come off on warm winter afternoons, making for good surface action. Spring fishing on the Bighorn consists of Baetis and midge hatches. Try trailing an emerger several centimeters below your dry fly to increase your chances. Nymph choices for this time of year are Caddis Larva, Baetis, Sow Bugs, and Algal Worms.

Summer months provide hatches of Midges, Caddis, yellow Stoneflies, Pale Morning Duns, and Tricos. Hoppers arrive for the rest of the summer and fall seasons. The nymphs are mainly Caddis Larva, Algal Worms and Baetis. These months provide a variety of food, good weather and great fishing.  Opportunity rises for sight fishing on the riffs and shelfs, as this is a good time for dry fly enthusiasts. The huge Caddis hatches are referred to as blizzards they are so thick.

Fall sees an impressive Trico hatch. If caught at the right time, you could spend the entire morning casting to small pods of trout moving slowly upstream, feeding on the Tricos. I once made the mistake of looking up during one of these incredible hatches and observed millions of Tricos hovering above me. There were so many insects for the trout to choose from. I have no idea why that one single fly I kept presenting was taken over and over again. 

Streamer fishing can be productive and exciting. As your drift boat moves through small rapids and riffles, your guide (Ghillie) is directing your casts. When you are casting close to the river’s edge, there is nothing like seeing the flash of a large trout emerge from the bank and take your fly. 

The Bighorn River winds its way through part of the Great Plains, where millions of Bison once roamed and Lt. Colonel George Custer made his last stand against the Plains Indians, at one of the tributaries to the Bighorn River, the Little Bighorn River. 

My trip to the Bighorn was productive, fun and relaxing. After several days of guided trips down the river, our outfitter offered us the use his drift boat for the day. My brother, a school mate and I, accepted his offer and set out on our own. After setting the boat on the water, our day almost ended as we each assumed one of us was holding the lengthy piece of rope attached to the boat, which was happily floating away. A friendly group of fishermen were able to retrieve the boat and the rope attached to it. The next 20 Km provided mixed results. We seemed unable to make the boat do what we wanted it to do, we ran into more rocky bottoms than I can count, I only fell overboard once, I broke my beloved Douglas flyrod in two sections, but we caught fish. Big fish. It was a great day.

A big hello to my favorite Ghillie, Colin and the two fine Scotsmen I met on the river Tweed, Paddy and David.

Tight Lines from America!

Rick R.

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