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It’s almost an understatement to say that Billings is at the heart of some of the most diverse fishing opportunities Montana has to offer.
Travel an hour-and-a-half southeast and you’re flyfishing for big trout on one of the premier blue-ribbon rivers in the West – the Bighorn. Venture just a half-hour east of town and wet a line for catfish, sauger, walleye and smallmouth bass on the Yellowstone River.
Need a change of scenery? Drive an hour south to the Beartooth Mountains and hike into crystal clear alpine lakes atop a 9,000-foot high plateau. Keep driving another hour and you’re in Yellowstone National Park tossing a fly to native cutthroat trout.
If your inner angler is still not satisfied, drive the four hours northeast to Fort Peck Reservoir, which has more shoreline than the coast of California, and cast a lure that has an equal chance of hooking a trophy northern pike, walleye or smallmouth bass all from the same water. There are even chinook salmon and lake trout finning in the reservoir’s depths for those looking for some deep-water trolling.
Now that your appetite is whetted, here are some details.
- If you only have a couple of hours and want to chase trout, drive a half hour west out of Billings to the Buffalo Jump fishing access site. By hiking upstream a ways to avoid the crowd, anglers have the opportunity to tie into a rainbow or brown trout. Spinners work great – like a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce Panther Martin Teardrop in gold and black, or the classic Blue Fox Vibrax spinner of the same size in bronze. Work it just below the riffles and along the deep banks.
Fly anglers can try stripping streamers or dead-drifting Yuk Bugs, the Grinch, Bitch Creek Nymphs or Girdle Bugs. Ant and beetle imitations are good choices for dry flies, or if the timing is right you could float a hopper pattern. For a dropper, try a beadhead Hare’s Ear, Copper John or Prince Nymph in sizes 12 to 14.
Billings shops offering fishing licenses, tackle and advice include Big Bear, East Rosebud Fly and Tackle, Scheels and Wild Fly Angler.
- For warm-water species, travel a half-hour east to the small town of Huntley. Just west of town is the Huntley Diversion Dam on the Yellowstone River, a spot where catfish and smallmouth bass are known to stack up, along with the occasional sauger. The Minnow Bucket (406-696-1281) offers bait and advice on the best places to go. Or travel farther east to the Bundy Bridge fishing access, right next door to Pompeys Pillar National Monument. That’s where Capt. William Clark signed his name in the sandstone formation. There’s more information in the visitor center about the explorer’s amazing journey.
- Without a doubt the main attraction or trout anglers visiting Billings is the Bighorn River, which is essentially a huge spring creek. Emerging just below Yellowtail Dam about 90 miles southeast of Billings, the river between Three Mile and Bighorn fishing access sites contains more than 4,500 fish measuring 8 inches and larger per mile. These fish have a PhD in detecting line drag and the wrong patterns, but find the right combo and you’ll hook into strong rainbows and browns that will put a pleasing purr in your reel.
Fly shops like the Bighorn Trout Shop and Bighorn River Guides are based right in the town of Fort Smith only minutes from the water. Bighorn Fly and Tackle has a shop in Hardin, which anglers drive through on the way to Fort Smith. Float trips for two anglers start at just under $500 but can offer the detailed advice it might take days to the water on your own. Anglers often catch fish right at the boat launches.
Fly patterns that mimic the native sowbugs and scuds are a staple, as is the San Juan Worm. By the second to third week of July anglers can typically count on grasshoppers for some dry fly action, depending on the weather.
- Anglers who like intimate freestone streams can travel west 45 minutes along Interstate 90 to the Columbus exit and make their way across the Yellowstone to reach the Stillwater River. This tributary to the Yellowstone is a much smaller, less technical stream more typical of the Rocky Mountains. With less finicky fish, fly anglers can toss traditional caddis (Elk Hair Caddis) and mayfly (Adams) patterns followed by nymphs like the Copper John. Farther upstream the river gets more wadeable and offers fantastic views of the Beartooth Mountains. Stillwater Anglers (406-322-4977) in Columbus can offer local advice and float trips.
- Not far from the Stillwater River anglers can travel to Emerald and West Rosebud lakes to be fully enveloped by the Beartooth Mountains. This is a great place to launch a float tube or canoe, or simply sit on the bank and bobber fish. More adventurous anglers can trek up the trail to Mystic Lake, a 6-mile roundtrip hike on a well-maintained trail. Cast spinners from the bank to catch trout, or continue upstream to other mountain lakes to take in more jawdropping Alps-like scenery.
- If none of these sound quite right, check out the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ fishing access page on its website (http:// fwp.mt.gov/fishing/searchFas.html). There you can punch in the river, lake or region you want to fish and get a list of possible sites to reach the water. For up to date fishing conditions, check out The Billings Gazette’s weekly fishing report in its Thursday Outdoors section, or log on to the newspaper’s website at www.billingsgazette.com. Trying to condense all of the great fishing opportunities available close to Billings is no easy task, so pick a species, pick a place and do some homework. You won’t be disappointed with the great variety the area has to offer.
— Story by Brett French, courtesy Visit Billings