Winter Fishing on the Horn

All of you rugged and anti-social anglers should consider fishing the Bighorn River in winter. Yes, the weather can be brutal and your guides (both human and otherwise) may ice up. You may cease to feel your hands and feet, and the boat’s anchor system may freeze solid. But these inconveniences can all be overlooked when the fish are biting. Since the fish are already wet and cold, they usually welcome the opportunity to eat a properly presented nymph or streamer. There is even the opportunity to catch fish on dry flies when conditions are perfect. And maybe I’ve exaggerated the weather. We often get warming spells that bring the temperatures into the 40s. The snow melts and it can even feel warm when you’re out of the wind. Oh yeah, I should mention that warmer temperatures are usually accompanied by gusty Chinook winds. (I’m not selling this very well, am I?)

Winter water temperatures of 39 to 40 degrees make for sluggish fish, yet these fish will often feed aggressively, contrary to conventional wisdom. The Bighorn does not contain a lot of baitfish, so our trout are almost always tuned into feeding on the plethora of small food items available. Midge pupa, Baetis nymphs, scuds and sowbugs are their mainstay. Stay out of the fast current, as the trout will be looking to conserve energy and will tend to hold in the medium to slower current water. The river is generally crystal clear this time of year, with little moss or aquatic grass. Because of the lack of angling competition, you can usually fish the premier runs and holes.

Here are a few tips and ideas on equipment which will help you fish comfortably in the cold:

1. Jack Daniels. Alright, I’m only kidding, although some anglers do find it comforting to carry a flask with this type of beverage, drinking alcohol actually reduces your core body temperature. Bring hot drinks in a thermos.
2. Bootfoot waders. Bootfoot waders keep your feet much warmer than conventional stocking-foot types. This is because high-quality boots, like those made by Simms, are well insulated. But the main reason they are so warm is that there is room in the boot for you to move your toes around, and the added space traps more warm air; plus you can wear thicker socks. I’m notorious for getting cold feet, but since I usually wear bootfoot waders in the winter and spring, I appear as a rugged outdoorsman to my clients when they start whining about their cold feet.
3. Good long underwear and layering garments. Capilene and Merino wool will keep you warm and dry. Don’t be afraid to spend a little money on your “base layer.” Also, thicker fleece pants are great when it’s very cold—fleece bibs are even better. I still like down garments for fishing. Down is very warm per weight, and seems to have a large comfort range. Just don’t get it wet. Jackets made with Primaloft insulation are also very nice.
4. Gloves. This is the last great challenge for fly fishing clothing manufacturers. (“You can put a man on the moon, yet nobody can make a decent fishing glove!”). Currently, the new Patagonia R1 glove is the best available. It’s a full glove (not fingerless) made out of light neoprene and lined with polypropylene insulation. If you get the right size, you can take it off easily enough when you need to tie knots or pick your nose.
5. Good rain gear or a shelled garment. When you’re experiencing windy, wet snow or rain (I guess all rain is somewhat wet), it’s important to have a bombproof outer shell. Many years ago while guiding in Alaska, I purchased one of the first generation Gore-tex garments. The seams were not properly sealed, and I experienced a number of cold, miserable days as a result. I harbor no ill will towards the manufacturer whose name began with a “C” and ended with “belas”. I’m sure they have things under control now. But suffice it to say, you’ll be very happy if you don’t skimp on buying quality.

Most people don’t have cell phone service on the upper Bighorn River (“You can put a man on the moon, and Verizon still can’t provide cell-phone service on the Res.”) so make sure you get your shuttle set up properly. It’s not much fun to walk down the road in the dark, especially when it’s snowing sideways.
The Bighorn River is a different world in the winter. Oftentimes, you’ll have your pick of the best runs, and the fish are willing enough. Put on the cold-weather gear and give it a try.

Another beautiful winter day in Montana