2020 Year in Review
The fishing season of 2020 is drawing to a close and as you might already suspect, it was a challenging year. I’m not specifically referencing the fishing, which I’ll get to in a moment, but maintaining a destination lodge business in the midst of travel restrictions, quarantines and economic shutdown is not easy. I know we’re all going through this together, so I’ll dispense with the specifics of what our business had to deal with. Let me just say that my heart and prayers go out to those who suffered financial hardship, illness, or lost loved ones. I know we’re all hoping for a return to normalcy soon.
Due to travel restrictions and non-resident quarantines, our clients missed out on the spring fishing of April and May. May is usually one of our busiest months as the river remains clear during a time when a number of other Montana rivers are high and too turbid to offer good fishing. A few locals slipped out to enjoy the river and Steve Hilbers and I enjoyed a great day of dry fly fishing in May. Please watch the short video, “A Day in May,” if you haven’t seen it already. Steve and I almost had the river to ourselves. Anyway, our guide season began in mid-June.
This season was a good year for water flows. We saw flows peak at just over 5,000 cfs in the spring, but these quickly came down to 3,500 and lower in late spring. Nymph fishing was steady throughout spring and summer. We might refer to the fishing season of 2020 as “the year of the big fish.” Our guide boats didn’t average large numbers of fish but many of our clients, even those who have fished with us for twenty years or more, claimed a “personal best” trout this season. While fish numbers are on the rebound, the overall population is still low and older age-class fish in the river have all the food they can eat. These fish were extra big, fat, and strong. Guides had to deal with many lost fish due to broken tippet and straightened hooks. The big fish were even tougher to land when aquatic grass became a factor but some clients got it done. Check out our Facebook and Instagram pages to see some great fish pics! We suspect that because of their condition, a number of these trophy fish will make it through the winter and provide us with some incredible opportunities next year. In addition to the big fish, we’re seeing a sizeable population of 8 to 10-inch trout. Many of these fish we’ll be nice sized by the end of next summer. 2021 should be a good year.
2020 was not an exceptional dry fly year. There were bright spots to be sure, but I didn’t think our insect hatches were as intense as years past and when the bugs did come off the trout weren’t coming to the surface like they usually do. Lower fish numbers were to blame to some degree, and the larger fish seemed to be content to enjoy the plethora of subsurface food. That being said, the PMD hatch was better than it had been in years and these larger insects seemed to garner the trout’s interest. We had some great days during this hatch, but only in certain runs on the upper section of the river. Black and tan caddis provided decent action, especially if you were willing to fish late. The trico hatch was the big disappointment. Normally, it is our most exciting and dependable hatch, but this year it never really got going. We did see small clouds of tricos at times, but nothing like years past. I don’t have any long-term concerns, as over the course of 35 years on the river, I’ve seen “off years” for various hatches.
Hopper fishing produced some outstanding fish mid-July through August. The huge number of grasshoppers proved a plague to local farmers and gardeners, but the trout appreciated them. Bighorn River hopper fishing is not for everybody, mainly because it’s not a numbers game. The nymph fisherman will almost always catch more fish. If you want to catch Bighorn trout on hoppers, you need to commit to fishing them for several hours. If you’re a good caster and there’s a hopper breeze blowing, you will probably hook several large fish. Some of this will depend on your location on the river, whether you’re fishing behind another boat throwing hoppers, or basic luck. Over the years I’ve noticed that the fish you catch on hoppers are larger than average, and it’s quite an experience when a 20-inch fish engulfs your hopper. We landed a number of trophy fish on hoppers this summer.
Streamer fishing has its own cult following here on the Bighorn. Cult members understand the adage “he who covers the most water wins” and they have the rotator cuffs and stamina to get things done. 2020 was not a great streamer-fishing year, but there were some epic days sprinkled throughout the summer. The occasional cloudy days (even thin, high clouds or smoke can suffice) made the fish grabby and truly large fish created a lot of excitement. Keep in mind, the best streamer fishing of 2020 is still in the future—November and December. The long-term weather forecast calls for colder than normal temperatures, so bundle up and give us a call.
To all our customers, we appreciate your business this season. We all had to make sacrifices and endure inconveniences in this year of Covid-19, and we thank you for making the effort to fish with us. We hope to see you in 2021!