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Water of the Week

Montana's Big Horn

The Wyoming and Montana’s 461 mile long Bighorn River is a tributary of the Yellowstone

The river was named in 1805 by fur trader François Larocque for the bighorn sheep he saw along its banks as he explored the Yellowstone.[4]

The upper reaches of the Bighorn, south of the Owl Creek Mountains in Wyoming, are known as the Wind River. The two rivers are sometimes referred to as the Wind/Bighorn. The Wind River officially becomes the Bighorn River at the Wedding of the Waters, on the north side of the Wind River Canyon near the town of Thermopolis. From there, the river flows through the Bighorn Basin in north central Wyoming, passing through Thermopolis and Hot Springs State Park.

At the border with Montana, the river turns northeast, and flows past the north end of the Bighorn Mountains, through the Crow Indian Reservation, where the Yellowtail Dam forms the Bighorn Lake reservoir. The reservoir and the surrounding canyon are part of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.

The Little Bighorn River joins the Bighorn near the town of Hardin, Montana. Approximately fifty miles farther downriver, the Bighorn River ends where it joins the Yellowstone.


The Yellowtail Dam created a classic tail water fishery that is cold and clear in the summer and ice free in the winter, one of the finest trout streams in the United States.

Rainbow and brown trout are prevalent.

Public access to the Bighorn River is limited to three points on the upper 13 miles of the river: Afterbay, 3 Mile (Lind Ranch) and 13 Mile (Bighorn Access). Fisherman can float and wade the waters of the Bighorn, but are required to stay below the high water mark.

The Bighorn is a gentle cool, clear water river. Though not a challenge to rafters or other whitewater enthusiasts. The loose rocky bottom is lined with mosses and aquatic vegetation making it slippery and quite deceptive, presenting an illusion of shallow water where it may be over ten deep.

The river banks are lined with willow thickets, stands of cottonwood trees, ash, and numerous shrubs.

The land above the high water line is almost entirely in private ownership

trout populations depend primarily on natural r

The Bighorn River is one of the most heavily fished streams in Montana.

Fifty years ago the Bighorn was a wild river. Water levels fluctuated drastically with snow melt and rain storms in the Bighorn and Pryor Mountains. Water temperatures could vary from freezing to tepid within a few days. The Bighorn-Wind-Shoshone drainage was laden with tons of sand, silt and gravel. These sediments rendered the Bighorn River unsuitable for a trout fishery.

Construction, the Yellowtail Dam was completed provides irrigation water, flood control y stable water releases and temperatures and sediment deposition in Bighorn Lake resulting in allowed an additional benefit: ideal trout habitat.

The Bighorn River has since developed into a “World Class” blue ribbon trout fishery/

The most frequently caught fish are the brown trout. Rainbow trout are scarce.

A sizeable population of carp is in the river. In fall, spawn

Fine trout can be taken at any time of year, even during a snowstorm. Though many different patterns of fly will take fish,

Learn more about the types of fish located within the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation area.

River Access

Due to Crow Tribal and private land ownership, access to the Bighorn is very limited. The National Park Service maintains public parking and launching facilities at the Afterbay Dam (River Launch) and the 3 mile (Lind) access downstream. The state of Montana maintains the Bighorn Access thirteen miles downstream.

Most anglers drift the river, stopping along the way and fishing likely spots. The river can be waded, as long as you remain below the high water mark, below where terrestrial vegetation ceases. Limited shoreline access exists at the above access points. Trespassing on Crow Tribal or private lands can result in a citation and fines which would spoil your experience on the Bighorn.

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