Bighorn River - Montana
Open to the public since 1981, the Bighorn River is one of the finest trout streams in the United States. The Yellowtail Dam created a classic tail water fishery that is cold and clear in the summer and ice free in the winter. 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, it does demand the attention of those who use the river. 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.
Water currents are much swifter than they appear on the surface. There are numerous short runs or rapids which are easily negotiable by raft, canoe, kayak, or any other type of watercraft, even to the novice floater. Boats with motors are prohibited on this upper thirteen miles of the Bighorn.
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 and is not open to the public. Respect landowner rights!
Do's and Don'ts - While Fishing the Bighorn
Since trout populations depend primarily on natural reproduction, environmental factors are important to their well being. Please follow the guidelines listed below to have an enjoyable experience and protect this blue ribbon stream!
It is your responsibility to know and understand the fishing regulations on the Bighorn River and surrounding areas (Afterbay Reservoir and Bighorn Lake). If you are unsure about a regulation or fishing practice, ask a Park Ranger or reference the fishing page for links to current regulations.
Bighorn River Etiquette - Respect and Enjoy
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.
Fort C.F. Smith was built in 1866 on the south side of the Bighorn just downstream from the present site of Afterbay Dam. The fort provided limited protection for travelers on the Bozeman Trail.
One hundred years later, the Yellowtail Dam was completed providing irrigation water and flood control. Relatively stable water releases and temperatures and sediment deposition in Bighorn Lake allowed an additional benefit: an ideal trout habitat. The Bighorn River has since developed into a “World Class” blue ribbon trout fishery/
Please reference the main fishing page for links to current regulations.
Trout can be caught anywhere regardless of current or stream depth. Dry and wet flies are used year round. Fine trout can be taken at any time of year, even during a snowstorm. Though many different patterns of fly will take fish, some are more popular and productive. Here are a few of each type:
Learn more about the types of fish located within the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation area.
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.
Last updated: February 23, 2020