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Guided fly fishing float trips near Livingston, Montana are the core of my business. They're the trips I run the most and the trips for which (and on which) I most often design my custom flies. I primarily run Yellowstone River fly fishing trips, but depending on water conditions, the time of year, and client interests, I also run trips on many other rivers near Livingston. Check out the Waters I Guide page for more details on the rivers where I work, and the rates & policies page for, uh, rates and policies. Guided float trips are available from March through November.

On my fishing trips I utilize both a low-profile drift boat and a 14-foot whitewater raft equipped with a rowing frame and angler seats. In general, the drift boat is better on gentler sections of river and with less-fit or less-experienced clients, while the raft is better in rough, rocky, or extremely shallow water, as well as when boat launches are terrible. Most of the contractor guides I turn to when I'm busy or unavailable use drift boats, but some also have rafts.

brown trout dry fly eater

This nice brown ate a golden stonefly dry within inches of those rocks in the background in early summer.

Because I use both types of boats (with a power boat in my future to add yet more versatility), I am able to float a wider range of rivers, big to small, than most guides, and also to use uglier boat launches if necessary. While no river in Montana suitable for day trips is ever devoid of other guides during the core season, I am often able to run my trips in such a way that we see less competition from other anglers. Even when we do, odds are the other boats aren't using flies like mine.

My Montana guided fly fishing trips on area rivers are ideal for anglers of at least intermediate skill, and probably offer these anglers the greatest opportunities of all of my trips for both significant numbers of decent-sized trout as well as the largest peak size, though private lake trips and walk & wade trips in a few locations do offer a larger average size. River floats are a bit harder on beginners and novices, and they usually catch more trout on walk & wade trips, but larger ones on river trips.

brown trout streamer eater

Whereas this one ate dad's streamer later on the same day (a "double half-day" trip). The guy in the background wasn't on the trip and just happened to be fishing on foot upstream of where we stopped for the photo. I suspect he was a little jealous of this fish...

I offer full-day, half-day, and what I refer to as "double half-day" trips on river floats. Double half-day trips are trips in which we float two short chunks of water, or perhaps one chunk twice, rather than floating a continuous longer stretch. The major advantage of these trips over a normal full-day is that they enable us to have a day of fishing impossible if we're only floating one long stretch as on most full days. The most common reason I run these trips is to fish close to Gardiner in the morning, aiming for numbers of smaller trout on dry flies, then going downriver closer to Livingston after lunch for a crack at some bigger fish. Once in a while I will instead run the same short chunk of river twice, most often when a specific short chunk of river is fishing extremely well.

When possible, I have my clients fish dry flies as much as possible on float trips. In general, dries work best on rougher/faster stretches of river during the summer, but all rivers can produce on the surface during heavy insect hatches. I've even had great dry fly fishing in March!

That said, the season plays a big role in where we fish and what we'll use. Read on for details on how my float trips vary at different times of year. Click the "learn more" links in each section below to expand that section. Yes, there are lots more pics.

Early Spring: March through Early or Mid-May

Early spring float trips are the best-kept secret in area fly fishing. Larger rivers fish very well at this time as the trout wake up from the long winter. Some dry fly fishing is possible, but the real draw is targeting big fish using subsurface tactics. Angler crowds are minimal, the big fish are on the hunt, and there's even a shot at dry fly fishing when it's warm (or skiing at Bridger Bowl or Big Sky on off days, if it's cold). What's not to love? The weather and water conditions, mostly. It might be bitter cold and snowing, it might be warm with howling winds. The rivers might be crystal clear or they might be chocolate brown with an early taste of the spring melt. Those are the dice you roll when you book an early spring float trip. Not daunted? Learn more about early spring float trips.

Big early spring rainbow-cutthroat hybrid.

Early spring is the best time of year to target large trout on the Yellowstone River. This big rainbow-cutthroat hybrid ate a stonefly nymph in early April.

  • Best Waters: The top rivers in early spring are the entire Yellowstone except the shallowest stretches of Paradise Valley, the lower Madison, and the Missouri downstream of Holter Dam.
  • Three Top Reasons to Come in Early Spring: 1.) This is prime time for larger fish. 2.) Crowds are low to nonexistent on most rivers. 3.) The fishing in early spring is just different than it is the rest of the year.
  • Three Top Reasons to Avoid Early Spring: 1.) Dry fly fishing is limited. 2.) Weather and water conditions are inconsistent (aka it might be 15 degrees and snowing sideways, 50 with good fishing conditions, or 80 and sunny with a chocolate milk river). 3.) Fewer fisheries are good in early spring than during peak season.
  • Perfect Clients: Experienced anglers eager to accept inconsistent weather and water conditions to fish nymphs and streamers for high-average and potentially really big fish, without the fishing crowds of summer and fall. Early spring is especially good for anglers who've been to Montana in the summer or early fall and want to see something different.
  • What Early Spring Does Best: Produces good numbers of larger rainbows and some browns using indicator-nymphing techniques.

I classify early spring as the period from which the winter ice recedes enough to make floating safe until the heavy spring runoff hits sometime in early-mid May, or once in a while the last few days of April. This is the last truly "underfished" time of year in most areas within my operations area. On most rivers I fish, we're unlikely to see another boat during this period. Even on the Missouri and lower Madison, which see the most pressure at this time of year, we're unlikely to see more than a handful. Despite the lack of pressure, this is a great time of year to float area rivers. The trout have the feedbags on to recover from the rigors of winter and the rainbow and cutthroat trout are preparing to spawn in tributary creeks, and are therefore aggressive.

I'll be honest, I typically only guide a few trips a year during this period, because there simply aren't enough tourists visiting Montana at this time. That said, it's not uncommon for the largest fish of the year to come at this time, particularly rainbows and browns. Because of this, I do more "personal" fishing on the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers in early spring than during the rest of the year combined. One glorious day in late March I caught two fish over 23 inches long in an hour on the Yellowstone, and I never saw another angler or boat that day. Need I say more?

Early spring tactics are primarily subsurface. My usual technique is to nymph with a big stonefly trailing something smaller, with a streamer rod at the ready as a changeup option. The fish often gather in big numbers in small areas at this time, whether sitting out the winter cold in pods or preparing for their spawning runs. For this reason, in early spring we often stop the boat and fish small areas hard, either anchored up or by using the boat mostly as transportation, then getting out to fish the likely spots on foot.

Unlike during the summer and early fall periods discussed below, I never fish dries in early spring unless I see rising fish. With the water still in the 30s or 40s, the fish simply don't want to burn the energy to rise unless there are enough bugs to make it worthwhile. That said, the last few days of early spring on the Yellowstone can see some of the best dry fly fishing of the year. This is the fabled Mother's Day caddis hatch. This bug comes off in the millions or billions and drives the fish wild, provided the river is clear. This is a tough hatch to plan for, as often the river blows out with runoff right at the beginning of the hatch, but if you can hit it right, this might be one of the best days of fishing of your life.

Early spring streamer eater.

Early spring streamer-eating brown trout, caught the last day the Yellowstone was clear in mid-May.

By far my favorite river to guide in early spring is the Yellowstone. It is clear most of the time in this period, though warm weather can muddy it for a day or two as low-elevation snow melts, especially when the warm weather is accompanied by rain. When this occurs, the lower Madison is a great option. Further afield, the Missouri below Holter Dam is always great in early spring, and sees less traffic at this time than it does a few weeks later.

The major downside of early spring is the weather. "Spring" in Montana is not like spring in warmer places. It might be 15 degrees in the morning. It might snow all day. Worse, it might spit a mix of drizzle and snow. The wind often howls. It might also be 80 degrees and turn the rivers filthy with early snowmelt down from the mountains. Floating can therefore be rather uncomfortable when the weather is bad, and it can be unproductive when it's "good." The somewhat variable water and weather conditions carry over to the fishing: it's not consistent. Sometimes it's great, but it can be tough too, especially if you're after big numbers of fish rather than larger fish.

During early spring, half-day trips are better choices most of the time. This is especially true in March. Later in April, and especially in the few days of May before the runoff hits, the water warms and the fish get more aggressive, meaning full days are also a great option. Regardless of trip duration, we won't meet early. There's seldom any need to be on the water before 10:00AM.

Late Spring (Runoff Season): Early-Mid May through Mid-Late June or Early July

Late spring is prime time for trout fishing in many parts of the United States. In the Rockies, it's not. This is particularly true for anglers who want to float rivers. The issue is the spring melt that raises all area rivers and turns most into raging brown chocolate milkshakes for at least a few weeks. During this timeframe, river float trips turn to tailwaters: the Madison and Missouri Rivers. These rivers downstream of dams stay clear, so that all the high water they experience at this time does is flush lots of insects and other foods into the drift for the trout to gorge on. In contrast to other rivers, these rivers offer great float fishing at this time. Learn more about late spring float trips.

Big Missouri River rainbow.

Great late spring Missouri River rainbow.

  • Best Waters: The top rivers in late spring are the lower and upper Madison and the Missouri downstream of Holter Dam. The Jefferson can be good some years late in this period.
  • Three Top Reasons to Come in Late Spring: 1.)You are eager to fish the lower Madison River, 2.) You are eager to fish the Missouri River when it fishes "easiest," if not "best," or 3.) This is when you can come, and you would rather float a river than a lake or take a walk trip.
  • Three Top Reasons to Avoid Late Spring: 1.) Most rivers are too high and muddy to float at this time, particularly the Yellowstone, 2.) Crowds are high on the rivers that are floatable, and 3.) Except during hatches, dry fly fishing is poor.
  • Perfect Clients: Clients of any skill level who are coming at this time of year and would rather nymph-fish a river than fish using a variety of techniques on foot or on a private lake.
  • What Late Spring Does Best: Provides the best fishing of the season on the lower Madison and Missouri Rivers.

May and some portion of June is runoff season in Montana, when the high mountain snow melts at last and turns every river, stream, creek, trickle, and rivulet that isn't immediately downstream of a large dam into a raging chocolate brown torrent full of sticks, logs, and debris up to and including dead livestock and game animals. Sometimes this period even extends into early July, though with the effects of global warming this happens less and less often. Needless to say, this is not the time to float freestone rivers, as rivers that aren't downstream of dams are known.

There are few rivers that remain good at this time within my operations area. The lower and to a lesser extent the upper Madison are closest to Livingston. The Missouri River is further afield and almost always the best option during this period. In fact, this is usually the best period on the Missouri overall, provided anglers are willing to fish deep with nymphs to rack up the numbers if the trout aren't rising. The crowds that swarm the "MO" at this time attest to the quality of the fishing. This is also the most consistent period on the lower Madison, though this is simply not as good a stretch of river as the Missouri below Holter.

Crowds on all rivers low and clear enough to float in late spring are generally high. There's just no getting around it. Lots of people come to Montana expecting everything to be good in May and early June, as it is in many other parts of the country, and they are all clustered onto fewer rivers than usual. The Missouri gets hit hard, in particular.

Big Missouri River rainbow.

More typical but very pretty Missouri River rainbow.

Most fishing is subsurface at this time, with assorted nymphs, dead-drifted or stripped streamers, and even crayfish imitations the most likely suspects. BWO and March Brown mayflies, Mother's Day caddis, and even early Salmonflies (giant black stoneflies) can bring up rising fish at certain times. It's just unwise to bank on these insect hatches. Odds are you'll be staring at a bobber most of the time. The hatches are best on the Missouri, and are fairly consistent during low water years and most years by early June.

Half-day and full-day trips are available at this time, and I also offer a discount for a full-day and a half-day on the Missouri on consecutive days. Since water temperatures are now warm, the fishing can be consistent throughout the day, though hatches occur depending on the specific insect's preferences (caddis in the afternoons and evenings, for example). Most trips will meet around 7:00-8:00AM at this time, depending on drive time to the fishery. Almost all fishing is done from the boats in late spring, since flows are up even on the rivers that remain clear.

Other good trips at this time include private water trips on lakes and walk & wade trips in some areas of Yellowstone Park, generally streams heated by geyser action, though also on some lakes and occasionally on portions of the mainstem Yellowstone River in Yellowstone Park itself.

Early Summer: Mid-Late June or Early July through Late July or Early August

Between the middle of June and early July, runoff recedes and the high season begins. This period finds rivers still running high and fast, but clear. Insect hatches are abundant, including the famous Salmonfly, and the trout are eager to eat after a month or more of high, muddy water. This time of year typically offers the best caddis, stonefly, and attractor dry fly fishing of the season, especially for experienced clients able to hit small targets along the bank while the boat is jetting downriver in the high flows. This period is also a decent time for big fish on floats, especially for clients interested in fishing big nymphs and streamers. Since the fishing and weather and water conditions are great at this time, it's little wonder that this is the absolute peak season for float fishing in the region. Learn more about early summer float trips.

Big Yellowstone brown.

This brown trout ate a caddis pupa fished subsurface on a float in Paradise Valley, on the Yellowstone.

  • Best Waters: The Yellowstone, Boulder, and Stillwater are my favorite waters at this time, but all rivers except the lower Madison, lower Gallatin, and most years the Jefferson are good bets at this time.
  • Three Top Reasons to Come in Early Summer: 1.) This is peak dry fly time on all rivers, 2.) This time of year offers the most consistent float fishing, if not always the best fishing, and 3.) this period offers the most consistent weather and water conditions of the year.
  • Three Top Reasons to Avoid Early Summer: 1.) This is the most crowded time of year, 2.) This is the worst time of year for total beginners to float, and 3.) Late summer and early fall are better for large fish on dry flies, though early summer is probably better on subsurface flies.
  • Perfect Clients: Clients with at least some fly fishing experience who enjoy fast-paced fishing and like to rack up the numbers rather than try to sight-fish or otherwise "hunt" a few big fish (though a few big fish are possible in early summer). Really, early summer is great for all clients except total beginners and people who can't stand to see any other anglers on the water.
  • What Early Summer Does Best: Early summer provides the best attractor, caddis, and stonefly dry fly and dry-dropper fishing of the season; it's also a good time for big trout using a few techniques and in a few places, though not generally on dries.

Sometime between the middle of June (following dry winters) and early July (following wet winters), freestone rivers begin dropping out of the spring melt. This happens earlier on the Jefferson, later on the Yellowstone. Just as the water gets a foot or eighteen inches of visibility, usually while the rivers are still up in the bushes and the current is raging, the fish and trout stream insects on which the fish feed go bananas and probably the most consistent fishing of the year begins.

The Yellowstone, Boulder, and Stillwater are my favorite haunts at this time. The upper Madison is also good. In fact, every river on which I float with the exception of the lower Madison is great at the beginning of early summer, though pretty quickly the lower Gallatin and lower Jefferson get too warm. All rivers see their most-varied aquatic insect hatches of the year at this time. Many rivers see brief hatches of the fabled Salmonfly (giant black stonefly) for a week or so, but all possess good populations of smaller stoneflies and several species of caddisflies. Some mayflies also hatch on float rivers at this time, especially in slow areas and on the Missouri. This smorgasboard means that attractor patterns are often better than imitations of one specific insect at this time. With so much to choose from, the fish often don't get particular for any one thing.

River flows remain high through early summer, often at least grazing the willow bushes and grass throughout this period. Heavy aquatic insect hatches coupled with flows that remain high mean that the fish are pushed close to the banks in search of food and to stay out of the current. Therefore, most fishing involves casting shallow, within a few feet of shore, or right behind midriver rocks that break the surface and therefore cushion the current.

Overall, I have three preferred techniques while guiding at this time. By far my favorite when the fish are cooperative is to fish only dry flies. These might match the various insects that are hatching, large and small, but more often I like to fish various attractors, especially a couple "caddis-like" patterns I have personally developed. Whatever the dry fly, not only is it more fun to see fish rise, but it's also easier to avoid hanging up in the bushes or the shallow rocks when the fly (or flies) are on the surface and visible. If the fish aren't rising well but are doing so occasionally, I will hang a nymph or emerger under a dry. Usually this is a small attractor nymph, a big stonefly, or a caddis pupa. My final preferred technique at this time is "drifting and dragging" streamer and nymph combinations. This is indicator nymphing using a streamer pattern with a nymph as a "second chance" fly. Of these three techniques, the last produces the biggest fish, while in the right conditions the "dry or die" method produces the most fish.

Big Yellowstone brown.

Typical "high-average" Yellowstone River cutthroat that devoured a dry fly.

This is a wonderful period for experienced anglers who like fast-paced dry fly fishing. The fishing is fast-paced because of the current speed. The slow spots where the fish hold are small, and no matter how hard I row back upstream, most of the time anglers get only one crack at each spot. This is why early summer offers harder float-fishing for total beginners than any other period. Except when floating a few gentle stretches of the Yellowstone within Paradise Valley, the current speed, the small targets, and the many hangups (bushes in the water and rocks) can be frustrating for rookies. I suggest a walk-wade or walk/float combo trip to get these anglers started, with a float for another day or another visit.

Because of the high water, almost all fishing at this time is done from the boat. There are a few areas I might pull into and drop anchor to hit a little harder, and many more where we might back into for a few casts, but otherwise almost all fishing in early summer is done while the boat is moving.

Half-day, full-day, and "double half-day" trips are available in early summer. All are good choices, and all offer some advantages and disadvantages over trips of other duration. Meeting times will range from 6:00AM to 8:30AM for full-day trips, from 7:00 to 4:00 for half-day trips, and from 7:00 to 8:00 for double half-days.

Late Summer: Late July through August or Early September

Late summer begins when river flows drop from the edges of the bushes and get slower. In the meantime, rivers turn crystal clear rather than green and aquatic insect hatches diminish, but terrestrial insects such as grasshoppers and ants begin blowing into the water in greater and greater numbers. While not quite so consistent as early summer, this period often offers easier fishing, and certainly slower-paced fishing, since flows are now low and slow enough to pick targets apart rather than blowing by. For anglers who want to target larger fish on dry flies, as well as numbers on dries and small nymphs, this is a great period. Learn more about late summer float trips.

Big Yellowstone River hybrid.

The average size of fish willing to eat dry flies increases in late summer. This big Yellowstone rainbow-cutthroat hybrid (probably mostly cutthroat) ate a big gold-colored hopper.

  • Best Waters: The Yellowstone, Stillwater, and upper Madison are the best rivers at this time. This is also prime time for multispecies float trips on the upper Missouri.
  • Three Top Reasons to Come in Late Summer: 1.) The terrestrial dry fly fishing is great 2.) The fishing if not necessarily the catching is easier at this time than earlier in the summer, and 3.) Larger fish (on average) are more interested in dry flies than they were earlier.
  • Three Top Reasons to Avoid Late Summer: 1.) During dry years, late summer is when we have fishing restrictions due to warm water temperatures and the greatest potential for forest fires, 2.) Crowds are still high, and 3.) "Match-the-hatch" fishing is limited at this time.
  • Perfect Clients: Clients who love dry fly fishing, but prefer the slightly slower pace the lower water present during this period gives to trips.
  • What Late Summer Does Best: Late summer generally produces excellent dry/dropper fishing for fish that average a bit bigger than they do earlier in the summer, albeit with less consistency of weather and water conditions and therefore less consistent fishing

As the rivers drop, clear, and warm, and as aquatic insect hatches begin to decline, conditions transition into what I consider "late summer." This is a gradual change and isn't clear-cut. This period begins sometime in late July or early August, depending on the previous winter's snowpack, how this snow melts, and summer weather. The fishing during this period is similar to early summer, but it's a little less frenetic, a little easier for beginners in terms of technique, and the fish start getting a touch spookier. While the fishing is a little harder overall than it is earlier in the summer, it remains quite good unless water temperatures get too high, and the slower pace of the fishing coupled with the better chances of big fish on dry flies make this another favorite period for many of my clients, and many visiting anglers in general.

There are two key drivers to the float fishing at this time: terrestrial insects and water conditions.

The terrestrial insects, mostly meaning ants and grasshoppers, are usually the most important dry flies at this time and are a lot of fun for most anglers to fish. The big numbers of fish usually come on ants, while the big trout tend to come on the larger grasshoppers. The fish aren't quite as eager to wallop dries at this time as they are a few weeks earlier, so anglers need to up their game a bit for success, but when anglers get it right, this is often the time that produces the most action on dries, simply because the fishing is a bit slower-paced than earlier in the summer and so it's easier to hit more of the holding water.

The reason the fishing has a slower pace during this period is streamflow. All rivers drop through the summer. The only question is how much they drop. If they drop too much, especially if the weather is hot and dry, they get too warm. Sometimes this means the afternoon fishing is poor. Sometimes this means that rivers are closed after 2:00PM. These are called "hoot owl" closures, and they're getting more and more common due to global warming. Certain rivers within my operations area are now almost always closed at this time, chief among them the lower Madison and the Jefferson, but these are poor choices at this time anyway. The real problems happen when water temperatures begin spiking over 70 degrees on the Yellowstone. It's unusual for the Yellowstone to endure hoot owl restrictions, but low water and high temperatures do lead to some tough fishing, usually in early-mid August, particularly in shallow areas of Paradise Valley and east of Livingston. Because of the potential for water temperature issues in mid-late afternoon, visitors looking to come in late summer must understand the risk of having to start early or cut trips short if temps are too warm.

fishing Yankee Jim on foot.

Beginning in late summer, we stop the boat more often to fish good stretches on foot, like this stretch in Yankee Jim Canyon on the Yellowstone.

If water temperatures are okay, as they are on my preferred rivers (the Yellowstone and Stillwater) much more often than they're not, fishing techniques resemble those of early summer: dries, dry/dropper, and "drifting and dragging" streamers. The flies themselves change a bit, since as noted the terrestrials are the hot bugs most of the time, and the fish begin moving off the banks somewhat, but other than that, anglers who like the sound of early summer will like late summer well, too. Beginners will like it better. Since casts need not be as accurate and the currents are slower, beginners do much better on late summer river floats than they do in early summer.

Full-day, half-day, and double half-day trips are available at this time. Because of the potential for water temperature problems, it's conceivable we might need to meet for full-day trips as early as 5:00AM, though this is rare. Unlike early summer, there's usually little point for half-day trips meeting late in the afternoon. In fact, we'll usually run half-day trips in the mornings during this period unless it has been cool.

Early Autumn: Late August or Early September through September or early October

As air and water temperatures cool in late August or early September, flows continue to drop and aquatic insect hatches turn back on. This period offers the best match-the-hatch fishing of the season, with even larger trout sometimes rising to tiny flies, and can still produce with terrestrial dry flies as well. This time of year is all about flexibility. If it's warm and bright, we'll want to fish hoppers and ants for numbers of free-rising cutthroats on the upper Yellowstone. If it's cool and gray, it might be prime time to float the Yellowstone's "town section" or east of Livingston and hope for a few monsters. This is rapidly becoming the second most-popular period for float trips in the region, after early summer, and for good reason: the weather and water conditions are great, the fish are fat and healthy, and the crowds of general tourists have departed. Learn more about early autumn float trips.

Big Yellowstone River hybrid.

Some spectacular match-the-hatch dry fly fishing is possible in early autumn. This great cutthroat ate a #18 BWO imitation while I had the boat stopped in an eddy. It got out in the current and I had to chase after it while my client's reel screamed.

  • Best Waters: The Yellowstone is by far the best option at this time, but the Jefferson and lower Madison start getting interesting again, too.
  • Three Top Reasons to Come in Early Autumn: 1.) The widest range of tactics of the season might work at this time, depending on weather and water condtions 2.) Float trip crowds nosedive and are often nonexistent even on popular stretches of river (Note: this is not the case on walk trips), and 3.) The best "match-the-hatch" fishing of the year typically occurs during this period.
  • Three Top Reasons to Avoid Early Autumn: 1.) Fishing and weather/water conditions are less consistent than they are during the summer, 2.) The fish can be spooky, and 3.) The fishing tends to "ebb and flow" much more at this time of year than earlier: it's good for a while, then gets tough, or vice-versa.
  • Perfect Clients: Clients who enjoy less-crowded conditions, come prepared for a wide range of weather and water conditions, and are willing to use the tactics the trout demand, whatever they may be. Early fall also offers some of the easiest beginner floating of the year, due to the aggressiveness of the mountain whitefish at this time.
  • What Early Autumn Does Best: Early fall offers great (if sometimes inconsistent) match-the-hatch fishing during Blue-winged Olive mayfly emergences. This is my favorite hatch of the year, which is why early fall is my favorite time to guide.

I'll make one thing clear right away. Early autumn is my favorite time to guide float trips on the Yellowstone. Early fall is just awesome. The fishing isn't as consistent as it is in early summer, and the big grasshoppers don't work as well as they do in late summer, but the mayfly hatches, the eagerly-rising trout that are in their best shape of the year, the falling crowds of competing anglers, and the fall colors more than make up for it.

This period runs from the first hints of colder weather in late August or early September when the late summer water temps drop sharply until the first really cold weather hits about a month or five weeks later. With cold nights and often hot days, and a good chance of fall rains to freshen the rivers and make the mayflies hatch, the fishing is extremely varied at this time of year, both from day to day and even over the course of a given day. It's often hard to predict what will happen, even with an accurate weather forecast. This makes early fall the most interesting time of year to fish the Yellowstone, for good and ill.

Tactics are all over the place in early fall, but I emphasize dry fly and dry-dropper fishing, with streamers a changeup technique for experienced anglers. I seldom resort to strike indicators at this time except when guiding beginners. First thing in the morning, we might throw streamers before switching to mayfly imitations, then swap the mayflies for grasshoppers during the warmest part of the day. Or the day might start off warm and sunny with hoppers hopping, then get cloudy and cool and prompt an immense afternoon mayfly hatch.

Regardless of the specific fly I tie on my client's line, the prime mover of early fall fishing is mayfly emergences. Hoppers and ants still draw some action, but mayfly imitations both on the surface and fished as droppers under hoppers are what separate the great days from the decent ones. There are several mayflies of note: Mahoganies, Tricos, Tan Drakes (sometimes called Drake Mackerals), and especially several species of Blue-winged Olives (BWO or Baetis)If the mayflies are hatching in profusion and the trout are going crazy, the fishing can be epic. If there's at least a trickle of mayflies, the fishing will be solid. If it's bright and sunny and the mayflies aren't popping, it might be tough.

Big fall rainbow.

This big rainbow ate a BWO nymph.

The epic dry fly days in my guiding year are more likely to happen at this time than at any other. This is also the period during the peak season when fishing is likely to be tough. I like to tell people that floating in July will usually mean a seven or eight out of ten in terms of angling quality. In early fall, it might well be a ten. It might also be a two. Sevens and eights are still more common, but the variability is higher in early autumn, and it's important to accept that.

Variability is actually less common with beginners in early fall than with experienced anglers. Why? Whitefish. These under-appreciated gamefish are preparing for their spawn and therefore hyper-aggressive at this time. This makes them great beginner options. I typically have beginners fish a nymph and a streamer under an indicator, and they'll usually fill the boat with "whitey" and get a few good trout, too. This opportunity makes early fall the best time for beginners to float, and one of the better beginner options overall.

Early fall is a good time for anglers who like to keep "banker's hours." Unless my clients want to throw streamers first thing in the morning for chances at one or two good fish, there's seldom any reason to be on the water before 9:00 or 10:00. The fishing is usually good from this point until around 5:00. I typically run either full-day trips that run a hair short or half-day trips that aim to get on the water around 10:30 or 11:00 at this time.

Late Autumn: October and Early November

Late autumn begins when nights begin falling below freezing most nights, and it might snow from time to time. There's now no reason to get out early in the morning save for hardcore anglers who want to try for one or two really big fish. The best fishing is typically from about 10:00AM through about 4:00PM. Fishing is slow-paced at this time, with nymphs and streamers pounded in the deeper runs the most likely producers, but big numbers of rising trout also possible during good BWO hatches. This is the time of year when guides do most of their fishing. Little wonder. Crowds are nonexistent and the big fish are eating. Want to find out why the guides tend to like fishing during this period? Learn more about late autumn float trips.

fall brown trout.

For many anglers, late aumumn is all about pursuing larger pre-spawn brown trout like this one.

  • Best Waters: All waters that remain high enough to float this late in the year can be excellent, but I generally stick close to home on the Yellowstone.
  • Three Top Reasons to Come in Late Autumn: 1.) This is an excellent time to target big fish, 2.) Crowds are nonexistent, and 3.) the dry fly fishing can still be good, generally much better than early spring.
  • Three Top Reasons to Avoid Late Autumn: 1.) Weather and water conditions are wildly inconsistent and can be miserable: it can snow feet and remain below freezing for days at a time, or be too warm and bright. 2.) The numbers of fish caught on an average day are far lower than in summer, and 3.) Morning fishing is very slow most days.
  • Perfect Clients: Experienced anglers who want to fish nymphs and streamers for larger fish, with a solid chance of some good dry fly fishing many afternoons.
  • What Late Autumn Does Best: Produces big rainbows that have followed brown trout on their spawning runs using nymph tactics (though the pre-spawn browns are sure fun too).

Things fall apart in late fall (October and early November), but they fall apart in a delightful way. After early spring, this is the best big fish period of the season, and since the early autumn hatches continue to a degree, this is still an okay time for solid numbers of trout, as well. The top rivers at this time are the Yellowstone, the lower Madison, the Missouri near Holter Dam, and the lower Gallatin, Jefferson, and the Missouri River headwaters (these last three waters only for those wanting one or two monster trout). I spend most of my personal and guiding time on the Yellowstone.

Most fishing during this period is subsurface, with streamers producing the largest fish and midge pupae, BWO nymphs, and egg imitations producing the numbers. BWO hatches continue and can produce good dry fly fishing for an hour or two in the afternoons and the fish willing to eat the nymphal forms of these bugs much of the rest of the time. The main driver of the fishing at this time isn't bugs, however. It's the upcoming or underway brown trout spawn.

In early October, the big browns are migrating to spawning areas and feeling aggressive, making streamers targeting these fish the best tactic. In late October and early November, the browns are in the midst of their spawn. I do not target actively spawning wild trout on any of my trips, but the non-spawning rainbows, cutthroats, and even non-spawning or pre-spawn browns that hang below their cousins chomping eggs are fair game. Egg imitations are the best flies for these fish, but they're frequently quite aggressive to a variety of flies, including dead-drifted streamers and mayfly nymphs as well as eggs.

Weather and water conditions can be rather... burly... at this point in the year. Early cold snaps in particular can make both the fishing and just being on the water a challenge. Ideal conditions see air temperatures between 35 and 55 degrees with cloud cover, drizzle, and occasional flurries. Let that sink in. Gross and uncomfortable weather produces the best fishing. The bright, sunny, warm, Indian summer sort of days most people love to see in October are poor for angling at this time. "Winter in October" is also bad, but it does require seriously ugly river for me to consider canceling: temperatures below freezing, with wind and precipitation. Bear that in mind before booking a float for this period.

Fall rainbow.

Trout of all sizes are fat, healthy, and fight hard in late autumn. This "typical high average" (but very pretty) rainbow ate a BWO nymph.

There's almost never any reason to get out early during this period, particularly after the middle of October. I mostly run half-day trips meeting around 10:30AM. Full-day trips in early October may need to get on the water by 9:00AM. In the latter half of October, I seldom if ever lift the anchor to start fishing before 10:00, which is one reason I provide discounted rates for trips after the middle of October.

Late fall floats are better for experienced anglers who know what they're getting into in terms of the weather, but particularly early in this period they're still good bets for beginners, and they're not poor choices for rookies right up until it gets too cold to want to float for the rest of the year. This is because nymph tactics in slow-moving water are often the best tactic for numbers of trout, often with the boat stopped in likely areas. This give beginners plenty of second chances to get the casts and drifts right and will not overwhelm them. This is a poor time for young kids, however, as they often get cold/wet/miserable given the "standard" fall weather.

My float season concludes sometime in early November when it gets too cold to make these trips feasible.

brown trout streamer eater

Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing

Walter Wiese

113 Altair Drive

Livingston, MT 59047

(406) 223-8204

E-Mail Walter

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