Fishing action continues to be good to excellent around Cody and the rest of the Big Horn Basin. Compared to the past several years, hunters have not had to contend with copious amounts of snow and arctic temperatures in January and early February. The lack of cold weather appears to have accelerated the desire to spawn among rainbow and trout this winter.
I have witnessed trout spawning behavior in several areas in the Lower Shoshone and on the Big Horn River in the southern portion of the basin over the past week. This behavior typically occurs in late February or later when water temperatures warm and tributaries lose their ice, creating a corridor for fish to migrate upstream. The actual spawning time is much later in the months of April to June, but it is interesting to see this behavior much earlier than usual.
And based on long-range weather forecasts, there’s nothing ahead that suggests there will be any record amounts of snow headed to the East Yellowstone area over the next few weeks. Again, compared to winters past, our mountains are sorely lacking in snowpack, which is what the Rocky Mountain West depends on for good river and stream flows to keep trout and happy, and to fill reservoirs to the brim for irrigation and other commercial interests. Snowpack also provides some power generation to populate the electrical grid to run lights and heat for the civilian population.
Because daytime temperatures have been moderately warm for winter and nights have been well above zero for most of this winter, insect activity has been relatively better than in years past. Midges (small, mosquito-like aquatic insects) have been hatching sooner than expected in the Lower Shoshone and Big Horn River south of Kirby, Wyoming. The numbers of insects hatching should increase as the daylight hours lengthen.
These tiny insects have made trout fat and plump in both river systems this year. Trout feed on larvae, pupae, emerging and imitating adults of this insect. This gives the fly angler the ability to fish deep, medium and surface fishing almost all day long. Better yet, there was a limited amount of ice in the fly rod guides, unless you’re one of those die-hard anglers who have to be first on the river every day. The moderate temperatures also mean that your fly line isn’t scarred from the ice in the guides and our rod guides and fly reels aren’t frozen solid, so we can let some of the larger trout charge to freedom and still work the puck drag. Good thing in winter!
While 20 inches are becoming less common in the Lower Shoshone due to increased numbers of anglers, there is plenty to be found in the 6-17 inch range in the Lower Shoshone to keep the rod bending. The Big Horn and Wind Rivers are popular for fathead, longbow, and brown trout. If you’re looking to splurge more than your fishing buddies, it’s best to head south. As mentioned earlier, trout are fattened by eating midges. Now, the trout are also seeing small winter stoneflies and a few small mayflies whose nymphs are high in protein and energy as the trout begin to fatten up early this year.
On the Big Horn River, the fishing has been best from a boat. However, there are some walkable areas on this river that offer rod-bending fun as well. There is one at Wedding of the Waters, with several more in town near the famous Thermopolis Hot Springs and then downriver to Wakely Inlet before the walk becomes a challenge. Expect to see clouds of midges on days when temperatures rise above 45 degrees. The blue-winged olive is most active on cool, cloudy days and best when there is a storm.
To fish Wind River Canyon, a valid fishing permit is required for the Wind River Indian Reservation south of Wedding of the Waters all the way to the final tunnel on the way to the Shoshoni. These passes are available at the grocery store in Thermopolis and a few hardware and aviation stores, if they are open. You have the option to purchase daily or annual passes. Access is very good from the road side and private property will be located in the valley. Expect to see the same gates as the Big Horn River.
Equip two rods, or even three if fishing from a boat. One rod should be set up for dry fly fishing and the other rod for wet flies such as soft nymphs, hare’s ears and pheasant tails or standard backwater nymphs such as pheasant tails, zebra nymphs, SJ worms, midge larvae and imitation pupae. They should be caught under indicator or using European nymphing techniques. When fishing port side, set up your cast and drift indicator at 10am. When fishing from the right side, set up your drift at the 2 o’clock position. Streamers always work when nothing else will, so tie some of your favorite streamers to your third stick leader.
I hope these suggestions motivate you to get outdoors. Remember to layer up under those waders and cover your hands and head in the colder parts of the day to avoid hypothermia. This is especially true if you are a wading fisherman. The water and air temperatures are still too cold to wade in despite the fact that we saw senior citizens and students running around in short sleeves and shorts with flip flops already in February!