THERMOPOLIS, Wyo. — At the southern end of the Bighorn Basin, just below the tilted uplift of the Owl Creek Mountains, the Bighorn River steals the Wind River’s glory.
Shortly after exiting the dominating cliffs of the Wind River Canyon, the Wind River becomes the Bighorn River at a place known as Wedding of the Waters. This location is a geographic oddity, blamed on early explorers who named the upper river in Wyoming the Wind, and the lower river in Montana the Bighorn before realizing it was all the same water.
Cartographers ended up splitting the river by inventing the Wedding of the Waters. They couldn’t have predicted that the name would one day become synonymous with great trout fishing. This stretch of the Bighorn/Wind River in Wyoming is now rivaling its more famous brethren more than 100 miles downstream — the Bighorn River below Yellowtail Dam in Montana — for quality fishing.
Off the path
Even today, the Thermopolis area remains remote, with a county population of less than 5,000. Yet the location has long been on the radar screen of anglers from across the United States. They continue to make pilgrimages to this high desert in search of line-tightening tugs by muscular brown and rainbow trout and the occasional Snake River cutthroat.
“We’ve seen a lot more fish than we’ve ever seen at home,” said Chris Collins, a Maine resident who has temporarily relocated to Lander, Wyo. He chatted as he strung up his fly rod in preparation to wade fish the Bighorn at Wedding of the Waters fishing access site.
“The fishing is 500 times better here than at home,” he added. “I don’t know what they do, but I wish they’d do it at home.”
What the Wyoming Game and Fish does is stock 16,000 rainbows and 8,000 Snake River cutthroat trout at least 6 inches long in the popular section of river every year before mid-July.
Water that plunges out of Boysen Dam at the southern end of Wind River Canyon provides a steady flow of cool nourishment that keeps the aquatic bugs and fish that feed on them fat and feisty.
“They are very lively fish here; the rainbows are nuts,” said Chuck Cole, a fellow Maine angler who had flown in to fish with Collins. “I don’t think I’ve ever lost so many fish in the net.”
Last October, WGFD fisheries biologists counted about 3,000 trout per mile on this stretch of the Bighorn, the highest amount ever recorded. That puts the trout population second only to the Grey Reef section of the North Platte River in terms of trout abundance in Wyoming, and more than three times the number of trout per mile compared to the North Fork of the Shoshone River and the upper Green River, according to WGFD.
Fish also grow fast in the river. The percentage of rainbows that are 16 inches in length or longer has increased steadily over the last six years from 17 percent in 2009 to a high of 54 percent in 2014, according to WGFD.
Such productive water is due in part to a cooperative effort between WGFD and the Bureau of Reclamation to boost flows through Boysen Dam in the springtime to flush fine sediment out of the river’s gravel. The fine dirt can smother fish eggs as well as aquatic bugs. More bugs and more fish that hatch means more food for fish.
It’s a combination that has brought Bozeman fishing guide Ryan Eisfeldt to Wyoming’s tailwater stretch of the Bighorn River for about the last 10 years. He gathers in the spring with other friends from as far away as Seattle and St. Louis to spend a week casting to the river’s sometimes finicky trout.
Given that Bozeman is at the eye of what many consider a western trout Mecca, it may seem surprising that Eisfeldt would drive 300 miles for six hours towing a drift boat when out his back door are the fabled Gallatin, Madison and Yellowstone rivers. Yet a glance around here shows few other anglers and only a couple of rigs at the boat launch even though it’s a Saturday. That wouldn’t be the case back home.
Collins has noticed the solitude, as well. Even though he’s fishing just upstream from the fishing access site, he rarely has company for more than 15 minutes. Then the boaters float downstream and he’s alone again.
For Montana anglers, Wyoming fishing is a different ballgame in one very profound way: on private property anglers cannot wade in the river, on the shore or even drop anchor from a boat without landowner permission. In Montana, the river banks to the high water mark and stream bottoms are public property.
Luckily, there are several public fishing access sites owned by the state around Thermopolis that make it easier for waders to fish. Anglers are also a common site in town and along the shores of the popular Hot Springs State Park, known for its hot mineral pools.
Anglers can also fish the Wind River Canyon, which is part of the Wind River Reservation, if they purchase a tribal fishing permit. The reservation boundary ends just below Boysen Dam. There are two public campgrounds — Upper and Lower Wind River campgrounds — which provide public access to that upper portion of the river, as well, where anglers don’t need a tribal permit.
Tying one on
At this time of the year, when rainbow trout are spawning, Collins said he was tying on “anything you can think of that will drive them nuts, or something they haven’t seen before.” He displayed a wide variety of tiny nymphs in his tackle box, colorful beadheads in small sizes — 18 to 20.
Eisfeldt’s crew had tried everything — from dry flies like small baetis to woolly buggers and nymphs.
“The fish are 16 to 17 inches on average, although we hooked and lost much larger ones,” Cole said. “Usually there are one or two big ones that snapped me off.”
The best spring fishing was on the cloudy, stormy days, Eisfeldt said. Those dimmer days also were more productive for brown trout, Collins added.
“The browns aren’t touching anything until after 4 in the afternoon, or early in the morning,” Collins said.
One other thing he noted: if the wind is blowing in the canyon it’s usually calm downstream from the canyon, and vice versa.
Before going back to Maine, Cole had one last goal in mind.
“I’m fishing for the elusive cutt,” he said.
So far the native fish had eluded him, but he was hoping his last day at Wedding of the Waters would hitch him up to a fat Snake River cutthroat trout. He wanted to capture his catch on video so the movie could sustain him after returning to snowbound Maine.
And if not, he would still enjoy the sunshine, the view of the Owl Creek Mountains and the call of blackbirds from the surrounding brush as he watched and waited for a trout to rise on a smooth stretch of the Bighorn River.