Notes from the Field: On The Bighorn River

Fort Smith, Montana.  In 1961, the Bureau of Reclamation (at one time the world’s largest engineering organization) and the private construction firm of Morrison-Knudsen began building the gigantic Yellowtail Dam across the Bighorn River in southeast Montana.  The federal engineers, in an act of cultural insensitivity and political jujitsu named the dam after Crow Indian tribal chairman Robert Yellowtail, who had been the dam’s staunchest opponent.

After six years and the expenditure of $110 million dollars, the federal government completed the structure.  The dam now stands heavily and immovably inside the tight, high-walled Lower Bighorn Canyon.  Yellowtail Dam looks similar to several other big dams in the U.S. West.  Hoover Dam near Las Vegas and Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona are almost identical to Yellowtail Dam in size, shape, and mass.  With the closure of the dam in late 1965 and the impoundment of the river’s murky water behind the structure’s tall upstream face, the dam radically transformed the Lower Bighorn River from Fort Smith, Montana, to the downtrodden town of Custer, Montana, (located near the river’s mouth). The river went from muddy, brown, sluggish and warm to clear, blue, cold, and fast.  The water exiting the dark depths of the reservoir was so clear and so cold that trout (which couldn’t survive in the former shallow, silt-laden river) could now not only survive in the Bighorn – they could thrive in it.  In the late 1970s and 1980s, trout numbers exploded in the stream, spurred on by changes in the river’s morphology and streambed vegetation.  By the 1980s, the Lower Bighorn had gained a reputation in fly-fishing circles as one of the premier trout streams in the United States, if not the world. The first thirteen miles below the dam teemed with wild brown and rainbow trout. Today, the river is chock full of big, fat, ravenous trout that take readily to a fly.  It’s not uncommon for fly-fishers to catch 20 or 30 fish in a day, and the bulk of those fish will be 16 inches long or larger.

And yet, the Lower Bighorn is hardly natural and certainly not pristine; although it sure looks beautiful and wild when the fly-fishers depart its waters in the evening and leave the river to the trout and the mosquitoes.  No, the Bighorn River as a trout stream is entirely a human construction.  The trout would not be there unless we were there.  That reality – that we humans massively altered the river’s environment and in the process created a world class fishery – is acceptable to the tens of thousands of fly-fishers who fish the river each year.  Fly-fishers tend to be an environmentally-aware and socially conscious lot of men and women. But there are no fly fishers – at least none that I know of – calling for the removal of Yellowtail Dam and the restoration of the Bighorn River to its former silty, catfishy self.  Out here in southeastern Montana, the nature lovers in the fly-fishing world have made a temporary, if somewhat reluctant peace with the U.S. industrial juggernaut (not because they love all of its byproducts) but because it created something beautiful and good – one of the United States’ truly amazing trout streams.

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