Bighorn Fishing Strategies 2014
Learning to adapt to changing conditions is the key to being successful on the Bighorn River. Here are some techniques, tackle tips, and strategies that will help you catch more fish this season.
To begin, water flows are high this year. I don’t expect flows to come down until early July. You’ll need to get your fly to the bottom. Many people fish split shot, and shot still performs dependably; however, many of the Bighorn Trout Shop guides use tungsten putty to weight their leader. Tungsten is a metal that is actually 10% heavier than lead. The name “tungsten” comes from the Swedish words tung sten, meaning heavy stone. Tungsten is indeed a heavy metal, but don’t get this confused with Metallica or Iron Maiden. The element tungsten can be mixed with various substances to create a putty that is pliable and can be rolled onto you leader. There are different name brands. For example, and this list is not complete: Hareline’s Soft Tungsten Tacky Weight, J.P.’s Brown Nymphing Mud, Loon’s Deep Soft Weight, Tung Fu Tungsten Putty, and Cortland’s Tungsten Putty. These products have slightly different properties. Some are very soft and sticky, while others tend to be of a firmer consistency. They all work—the softer ones are handy when the weather is cool, while I favor the firmer types in the heat of summer. Lately, I’ve been mixing different brands, folding and kneading the product in my hands in order to create a finished product that has the precise properties I desire. I hope to market a “Tungsten Kneading Made Easy” DVD series soon.
Many people don’t know how to use tungsten putty. You don’t just pinch it on in a small glob. You need to roll it out, making a tapered, cigar shape. If you’re a fly tier and you’ve dubbed fur, this is basically what you’re doing with the putty. Roll it one direction very tightly between your thumb and index finger. If the ends start to separate from the line, fold it back toward the middle and roll it out again. I usually put the tungsten above my tippet knot just to ensure that it doesn’t slide. If you apply the putty correctly, it generally stays put, but moss and other debris could pull it loose, so I put it above the tippet knot just to be safe.
During high water, there are holes and drop-offs where you can do well with a Czech-nymphing style of fishing. Czech-nymphing originated in Poland. No, I am not making this up. This is not to be confused with Polish dry fly fishing, which originated in Yugoslavia. Anyway, Czech nymphing discards the strike indicator. The angler uses weighted flies, and generally fishes “in close,” relying on the weighted fly and weighted leader to get you down in a hurry. You follow the fly down with your rod tip and try to stay in contact with the fly as it bounces on the bottom. You feel the strike rather than see it. You have to be selective as to where you fish this system. The Bighorn is not a river that has a lot of pocket water, but high water creates more of the type of water, namely rips and deeper drop offs, where getting down quickly is the priority. I guided a guy recently who fished with the U.S. Fly Fishing team. He was able to use a modified Czech-nymphing system to his advantage in some of the faster, deeper water, but his partner out fished him in the gliding runs.
Let’s talk about strike indicators. It may not be a subject that generates a lot of passion among fly fishing purists, but the fact remains that the majority of Bighorn River fish are caught while fishing nymphs under an indicator. Thingamabobbers and their ilk are the most popular indicators among our guides. Thingamabobbers are basically industrial-strength balloons with little holes or handles built into them for looping your leader through. They float well and can be moved up or down your leader easily. They come in different sizes and colors. Most of the time we’re using the ¾” size. In low water or certain wade-fishing purposes, we sometimes use the ½” size, and we occasionally use the 1” size during very high water. I tend not to use the 1” size very often because people make fun of me and call me a “bobber fisherman.”
Some people use regular balloons as strike indicators, inflating them to the size they prefer. I recommend a water balloon in the brighter colors. The balloon loyalists maintain that they have more sensitivity than the commercial Thingamabobbers. Balloons are definitely less expensive; however, they are quite fragile, and an errant cast will pop them.
Yarn indicators are used by some. Yarn is very sensitive and it lands on the water delicately. Small yarn indicators are great for fishing light nymphing setups in shallow water. Oftentimes the shallow water angler is “sight fishing,” casting to a trout that is holding near the bottom, yet is visible to the angler. Yarn indicators are perfect for this, as yarn spooks fewer fish than the bobber style indicators. For sight fishing purposes, keep the size of the indicator small. Using subtle colors like white or tan also helps. Angling pressure can make Bighorn River fish, especially the larger trout, especially wary, and utilizing some stealthy techniques can reap rewards.
There are a number of ways to attach yarn to your leader. Probably the slickest system I’ve seen uses the New Zealand Strike Indicator Tool. This tool allows you to use a small piece of clear plastic tubing (junction tubing if you tie tube flies) to anchor the yarn to your leader. The setup can be moved up or down the leader easily, and the size of the indicator can also be adjusted. Google this product and you’ll find videos on how this all works. You can purchase the tool and kit at our shop.
The downside to using yarn indicators is air resistance. If you’re fishing a big yarn indicator and the wind is blowing, it’s not fun to cast.
Pinch-on strike indicators are also an option. These are the small, foam indicators with adhesive on the back that allows you to stick them to your leader. Examples include Palsa, Rio Kahuna, Umpqua Strike Detector, and Lightning Strike. Pinch-on indicators are easy to use and do a good job when you’re using a small amount of weight. They’re not a bad choice when your fishing shallow water, and you need a small strike indicator that’s easy to cast. The downside to pinch-on indicators is you can’t move them without tearing them off and applying another one. And they leave a sticky residue on the leader.
Let’s talk about the double fly setup. Our guides generally fish two flies, whether they’re fishing nymphs or dries. The larger fly, acting as somewhat of an attractor, is used as the up fly, while a smaller fly is used as the point fly. We recommend tying the bottom fly directly to the bend of the hook of the upper fly. There are less tangles this way. This spring a popular nymphing setup has been a #14 Hotbead Sowbug up with a #18 Red Midge Larva below. The larger bead-headed Sowbug helps get the flies near the bottom, plus it adds visibility to the setup, allowing trout to see the rig more readily than if you were fishing two very small flies. Below 3-Mile Access the guide will sometimes switch the upper fly to a San Juan Worm. This is because the character of the water changes as you move downriver. There is faster, deeper, more turbulent water below 3-Mile Access, plus there are more aquatic worms in the water.
Dry fly fisherman across the western U.S. fish two fly rigs, especially the ubiquitous hopper dropper. We fish hopper dropper rigs on the Bighorn, especially as mid-July approaches. Hoppers with Atomic Worms (floss version of the San Juan) on the point are very effective. As we get later into the summer and early fall, we sometimes substitute a caddis pupa pattern for the worm. While float fishing, concentrate on the water near the bank, or in the shallower riffle areas. The distance between the hopper and dropper is around three feet for this type of fishing.
A subtler brand of dry dropper fishing is often employed on the Bighorn. During hatches we fish a larger dry/smaller dry combination, the larger fly serving as the “indicator fly” with the match-the-hatch fly on the end. Depending on the angler’s eyesight, the indicator fly can be quite large or, and take the Baetis hatch for example, it might be nothing more than a slightly larger, dark-winged Compara Dun that is easy to see against the surface glare. Fishing a sunken nymph below your dry can be very effective. Fishing this setup over rolling or bulging fish often elicits a strike, and it is an effective rig for those who lack the finesse necessary to get perfect, drag-free drifts on the surface. An almost endless variety of dry dropper combinations can be used, and if you target the banks or shallower water, you can enjoy lighter tackle fishing all day.
The Bighorn is a river with myriad opportunities to catch fish, but you have to be willing to respond to changing conditions.