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Battling Browns on the Bighorn  at Cabela's

Battling Browns on the Bighorn

Author: Frank Ross

Custer's Last Stand is recognized as the greatest miscalculation in military history. Today, the only battles on the Bighorn are between anglers and monster trout.

Flyfishing a sunset
Excluding the budget for the Bradley Tank, Custer's Last Stand has become widely recognized as the greatest military miscalculation in the U. S. Army's history.

Today, the only battles on the Bighorn, are between anglers and monster trout.

In Montana, there are many great places to fish, however, trout populations on the Bighorn are twice as numerous as any other river in the state. It is estimated that there are 7,000 catchable trout per mile of water on this scenic and historic river. Want better odds? Some stretches have upwards of 10,000 fish per mile. Fish average from 18 to 22 inches, with the potential to catch even larger fish on a regular basis.

This entire region is steeped in history and western tradition, if you are planning a trip for the entire family, or perhaps when your arm tires of casting and landing large trout, you'll want a diversion. One of the most popular area attraction commemorates a tragedy for the army, and one of the greatest victories for Native Americans in their battle to maintain a way of life. The battle of Little Bighorn, occurred in southeastern Montana Territory, in 1876. In this unfortunate campaign, Custer's arrogance and bravado cost the lives of his entire detachment, when he tried to surround upwards of 4,000 hostiles with a split force of 655 soldiers.

Spurred by attacks brought on by would be gold miners entering tribal land in the Black Hills, the army planned a campaign against the hostile Native Americans. On June 25, regimental scouts located the Sioux on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. Custer was assigned command, under General Alfred H. Terry. With his regiment of 655 men, Custer's command formed the advance guard. Captain Benteen and his Calvary were sent to the west to scour the southern bluffs for Indians, Major Reno was to cross the river and attack the southern end of the encampment. Unaware of the Native American strength, between 2500 and 4000 men, Custer disregarded arrangements to join Terry at the junction of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn rivers and prepared to attack at once.

In the hope of surrounding the Native Americans, he formed his troops into a frontal-assault force of about 260 men under his personal command. In short order his troops encountered the numerically superior Sioux and Cheyenne. Cut off from other forces and completely surrounded, Custer and his men fought valiantly, to their death.

In between fishing outings you might want to visit the Custer Battlefield and Museum located on I-90, 62 miles southeast of Billings.

Where to go fishing is always a challenging question, but don't let multiple names confuse you. The Bighorn and the Wind River are actually the same river. Early explorers arriving at the river, in what became the state of Montana, named it the Bighorn because of the Big Horn sheep found in adjoining mountains. Other explorers that came upon the river's southern banks, named it the Wind River. Over time, people in both regions realized that there was only one river with two well established names.

After flowing into Boysen reservoir twenty miles south of Thermopolis, the Wind River becomes a tail-water after passing through Boysen dam. From there it winds North through the breathtaking Wind River Canyon, punctuated with vertical walls that tower above the angler three thousand feet. Upon exiting the canyon, the river becomes the Bighorn at the sacred "Wedding of the Waters". From there it continues North into Montana, flowing into the Yellowstone River, which flows into the Missouri, and then into the mighty Mississippi en route to its ultimate destination, the Gulf of Mexico.
Brown trout
No matter what you call it, this fishery is excellent year-round and provides one of the best locations to catch trout early in the year. One of the best places to fish in the early spring is below the tailrace of the Yellowtail Dam, named after the famous Crow Chairman Robert Yellowtail. Rainbow, cutthroat, brown trout and mountain whitefish, inhabit this stretch of the Bighorn river, providing a blue-ribbon fishery of national fame.

One of the unique aspects of this region, sometimes called the "Banana Belt" of Montana, is its temperate climate and warm water supply from the 70-mile lake created by the dam. Warm springs that feed into the lake, and abundant vegetation create an ideal nursery for bug hatches. With the exception of January and February, something is hatching all the time. During some periods overlapping hatches provide additional options.

So many flies, so many choices!

Don Lyman is a seasoned veteran guide on the Bighorn, and Director of the 9 guides on staff at Forrester's Bighorn River Resort. He provides the following insight for fly selection. "April and May are our most popular months here, and the most consistent. Water temperatures are beginning to warm up to the 40's, and the rainbow action begins turning on with the spawn from April 1st through May. Browns spawn in late November and all of December, but there is not much food available until April, so they don't really get active until spring," he said.

This is an all wild fishery, and is self sustaining. The numbers are there, but how about the size? "You can hear a lot of fish stories, but I tell anglers when they inquire that you will have an honest 24-25 inch trout on at least once in a three-day trip. Once a year I'll catch one in the 8-9 pound class, but that is a very old fish. They don't live that long here. A 4-year-old fish is a very old fish on the Bighorn. Still, an 18 to 20 inch fish is a real nice catch," he added.

"During early April and May we have both a midge and baetis hatch, with an overlapping period when either will work well. Nymphs are very productive, as well as the soft tackle Sow Bug (14-16), trailed with a Midge Pupa, Red Midge Larva or Miracle Midge of some type. We also use a dry Midge cluster (18), or a Griffiths Gnat with a Super Midge trailing shark. This time of year the predominate action is in larger pools. Sparkle Tail Baetis and Blue Wing Olives (16) are also work well. We use 5x tippets predominately, with 4x on the Nymphs. Sometimes in the spring you can even get away with 3x. The water is crystal clear, and still fairly cold, so they're not going to rip you apart like they do in the summer. If you're not paying attention in the summer, and have your line dallied about your reel you'll get broken off very quickly," he added.

Early morning or evenings are definitely better, with primetime always coming right before dark.

If you're not a do-it-yourself person, Cabela's Outdoor Adventures books trips to the finest lodge in the area, which features impeccably decorated cabins, a Manhattan trained chef producing gourmet meals, and the best guides available. A three night/two day trip is only $995 per person, which includes lodge, meals and guides.

According to Nick and Francine Forrester, next to "fish on" the most exciting phrase on the Bighorn is "dinner time" in the Forrester's dining room. We serve fine food, but don't want our guests to feel like they have to wear a tie. Francine's specialty is French cuisine. She has studied Classical French cooking under Peter Kump in New York, and has studied at the Culinary Institute of America twice. Her partner in the kitchen adds a flavor of the Pacific Rim. Fresh seafood is abundant as well as fresh vegetables from the kitchen garden. An emphasis on organic grown vegetables is prevalent at this table. After dinner you may want to retire upstairs to the cigar level, or out on the spacious deck to view the river and share stories of the day's experiences.

It has been said that fishing Montana in April is like investing in the stock market. There is risk, but the benefit is disproportionate to the risk. Weather can be fickle in this part of the country, so you will want to be sure that you are prepared with plenty of layers, and insulated waders.

A good pair of gloves is mandatory, especially when the air is crisp. Seal Skinz have a three-layer system with an abrasion-resistant nylon/Lycra outer layer for durability. The second layer, an MVT membrane, allows perspiration to escape while preventing water from intruding. A final inner layer of Dupont« CoolMax serves to wick perspiration away from your skin.

As any seasoned outdoor person knows, layering is the key to a comfortable day. This is especially true when you are on or in the water from sunrise to sunset. For fly fishermen who have to live with the "weight" of their decisions, the ability to be self-contained as the peeling process begins is particularly important.

The Polartec 200, is an excellent middle layer. It is made from the most advanced double-sided, medium-weight pile fabric available, and loaded with warmth and comfort features. High-performance, durable non-pilling velour traps warmth in tiny air pockets creating an efficient insulating zone without extra weight or bulk. This jacket is highly breathable and dries quickly, but light weight qualities and low price are the real "hook setters."

You might also want to try a new fly-fishing jacket designed by the gear gurus at Cabela's. The Dry-Plus Wading Jacket is a good value at $99.95, more packable than the Gore-tex jacket and still 100% waterproof. This innovative new design has some very unique features that address issues relative to this gadget oriented sport. One of the cleverest features is a half-glove sleeve, which keeps water out of your jacket, and provides added warmth for those chilly Montana mornings.

For more details on this innovative new jacket, check out Mark Mazour's review of this great new product our Field Guides Section.

Need a great vest, check out Cabela's new River Guide Supplex Vest. Its designed for waders and float tube anglers, with an emphasis on maintaining functionality. The Supplex nylon has a water repellent finish for fast drying and exceptional durability. A Coolmax mesh liner keeps you cool and comfortable even during mid-day heat. One of the most unique features of this vest is the addition of a Neoprene yoke collar that flexes with every cast. It also supports the load more evenly over the upper shoulders. A dozen outside pockets and four large inside pockets provide enough space to carry every item you will need. A zippered back pocket that expands to carry layers particularly handy feature when you start removing layers.

Now you've got the perfect location, and the right gear; the perfect time to line up the trip is now! Call Ed Beattie at Cabela's Outdoor Adventures, 1-800-346-8747, and start packing for your own battle on the Bighorn, or contact them on-line at

Author Frank Ross
Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.

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