Prolonged Drought Means Lower Water, Lower Expectations for Bighorn

Montana’s Bureau of Reclamation is once again having to choose between the lesser of evils as it attempts to satisfy irrigators, industry, Indian tribes, power producers and recreational interests with its releases from Yellowtail Dam this fall. It looks like the target number is far below the suggested ideal of 2,500 cubic feet per second. “At 1,750 cfs, Wyoming recreationists would be guaranteed high enough lake levels to launch boats at Horseshoe Bend year-round. But Montana recreationists would lose their brown trout spawn in the Bighorn River – again. Due to prolonged drought, there has only been one year in the past eight when side channels in the river carried water and the browns pulled off a good spawn.”
Meanwhile, this morning Wyoming politicians Keith Grant and Elaine Harvey published an opinion in the Billings Gazette labeling the call for higher water flows an “elitist rationalization.” “Does Montana want to set a precedent to allow for downstream states to take upstream water due to economics? And, is it insulting to our National Park Systems’ 300 million owners who are not able to spend $200 per day for a guided boat trip?” Those complaints sound like histrionics in the face of the real story of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area: 73 area ranches were inundated to create it, but the number of annual visitors never rose above a fraction of what planners had hoped.

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  • Those of us that have been fishing the Bighorn River these last few years have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of fish several years ago, but recently both the numbers of fish and insects have been on the rebound. The Bureau of Rec. has been running the flow at a constant 1750 CFS now with small fluctuations for the past several years. The resulting low water temperatures during the summmer months (high 40’s) have hurt the famous PMD and Trico hatches but good hatches of midges, Baetis and Caddis have given the browns and rainbows plenty to feed on. In August this year I experienced the best dry fly fishing I’ve had on the Bighorn in the last ten years! There were enough PMD’s at times to bring up good fish, and the Midges and Black Caddis hatches were intense. It seems that there are also many more nice fish in the river now than there were just two years ago, and many of these are browns and rainbows in the 16-17 inch class with some larger. Next year should be a banner year as these fish grow larger.
    Obviously, if there is a greater flow there are more places and side channels for both the rainbows and browns to spawn, but even with this “low” water level of 1750 CFS, there are many, many perfect gravel tail-outs that provide perfect spawning habitat for brown trout (as well as the rainbows in the spring) To say that the brown trout spawn will be lost is hogwash.
    If anything it appears that the brown trout numbers are now increasing in the bighorn.
    Last fall I saw lots of brown trout spawning in the main river from the Afterbay dam all the way down to Hardin, a distance of 45 miles! Many of these spawning areas in the main river are ones that have been used for many years by both browns and rainbows.
    An increase in flow to 2500 CFS would be dandy, but most of the old side channels would still be dry and do not hold water until the flow gets up around 3500-4000 CFS. With the drought conditions we’ve experienced for the past 8 years, there is little likelihood that we’ll see kinds of flow levels again soon. This depends completely on the winter snowpack in the Wind River mountains of Wyoming and the runoff volume next spring needed to fill Boysen Reservoir and Yellowtail Dam.