Please note that this page will be heavily revised in the spring of 2019.
The rivers (or sections of a river, in the case of the Madison) discussed on this page are far enough from Livingston, MT, 2+ hours or so, not counting any hiking involved, that Livingston does not make an ideal base of operations for them. I guide some of these areas, on occasion, particularly early in the season or by basing out of a different home base, but staying in Livingston does not make a huge amount of sense if you're looking to fish one of these places. That said, some folks don't mind driving as much as we do, and if all our local water is muddy, this fact makes a lot of sense. Thus, here's a brief rundown of some other rivers in the area.
The following rivers are organized more or less by drive time from our shop.
The Shields River is a small river that heads in the Crazy Mountains north of Big Timber. It's a decent small stream up in the mountains, but in its lower reaches it sees severe irrigation drawdowns in the summer. In the fall, it gets a small run of brown trout from the Yellowstone east of Livingston. Access this river via US-89 North from just east of Livingston.
The Gallatin heads north of West Yellowstone in the northwest part of Yellowstone Park. It forms the next drainage to the west from the Yellowstone, but due to the lack of roads over the Gallatin Mountains, it takes at least two hours to reach the good portions of this river from Gardiner.
In Yellowstone, its headwaters are remote small-fish water. Closer to US-191, it is a fast-flowing riffle-pool meadow stream with a mixed bag of medium-sized trout that fishes well at midsummer. It sees very good spruce moth fishing anywhere near evergreen trees, as well as caddis, Green Drake, and PMD fishing. The terrestrial fishing is very good at late summer.
From the Yellowstone Park boundary north to Gallatin Gateway, the river is generally near the road and access is abundant. Some of this is fast meadow water as in the park, but most is fast-flowing canyon water. Stoneflies, various attractor nymphs, hoppers, large attractor dries, and the like offer the best fishing.
Downstream of Gallatin Gateway, the river slows and returns to a riffle-pool character. The fish are spookier here. There is good caddis fishing in early-mid summer and some winter fishing with midges, nymphs, and streamers. Downstream of Four Corners near Bozeman, the fishing drops off due to irrigation withdrawals and high summer water temperatures. There is some decent fishing possible particularly in the fall all the way from here to Three Forks, where the Gallatin joins the Madison and Jefferson to make the Missouri.
This river is an important Yellowstone tributary that enters at Big Timber, about 30 miles east of Livingston. It flows south to north and forms the next major river drainage east of the mainstem Yellowstone itself in Paradise Valley. It is hampered by difficult access across private land in its lower reaches. The best access is by floating in rafts in early-mid summer, basically the month after runoff, before it gets too low.
The upper river and its forks have much better access via National Forest lands. These are mostly fast-flowing pocket water streams populated by a mixed bag of small-medium sized trout, but there are some hike-in meadow sections that produce larger fish. This is a good albeit long side trip from Gardiner.
The Madison outside Yellowstone Park is a big, heavily-used river that is absolutely worth fishing. You should just stay in Ennis to do it.
Just west of the YNP boundary, the Madison enters Hebgen Lake. Below the lake, there's a short tailwater run before the river runs into natural Earthquake (Quake) Lake. This is very good water in late winter and spring. Midges and scuds are crucial here, and there can be good summer caddis hatches as well. There are some very big fish here, mostly run-up fish from Quake Lake. Pressure can be heavy, particularly when other stretches are in runoff. Fishing from boats is not allowed here.
Downstream of Quake Lake is the famous 50-Mile Riffle, which leads most of the way to Ennis. This whole section (and much of the next) is paralleled by US-287, which offers abundant access. This water clears in mid-June, usually. It sees excellent summer caddis hatches, as well as some Olive Caddis in the spring. The late June and early July Salmonfly hatches are also a very big deal. The rest of the summer, nymphing is usually the best tactic, but fishing with terrestrials and assorted mayflies can also be good, as can streamer fishing. This is the most heavily-used stretch of trout river in the state of Montana. The upstream end is closed to fishing from boats, but foot traffic is high, and as many as 100 boats a day use each usual float stretch.
Near Ennis, the Madison slips into a number of braiding side channels before entering Ennis Lake. While not as productive as the 50-Mile Riffle, this stretch is not hit as hard as the stretch upriver and offers solitude for hikers. Fishing from boats is not allowed here.
Below Ennis Lake, the river flows through the rugged Beartrap Canyon, where only whitewater fanatics should float. Wade-fishing is good, with crayfish, stoneflies, caddis, and San Juan Worms the top bets. Access is primarily via a hiking trail that begins at the bottom of the canyon. This water gets much too warm to fish from sometime in late June or early July through about Labor Day, and it often sees afternoon closures.
At Warm Springs near the bottom of the canyon, boat access again becomes possible and is the preferred method for fishing the remainder of the Madison down to Three Forks. This is a technical, shallow tailwater fishery. Small nymphs and crayfish patterns work best. Some hatch-matching opportunities are possible, with late winter midges, spring Olive Caddis and BWO, and a brief Salmonfly hatch in early-mid June the top bets. This water is not easy. By late June or early July, fishing quality plummets due to warm water temperatures and many recreational floaters (often in inner tubes). Below Greycliff access, trout numbers begin dropping. Below Cobblestone, carp and pike are about as common as trout.
The Jefferson, which flows northeast to join the Madison and Gallatin at Three Forks, is 2+ hours from Gardiner even at its mouth. It suffers bad irrigation drawdowns and high water temperatures in midsummer, but produces some big browns on nymphs and streamers. The best fishing is via floating. Its main sources, the Beaverhead, Big Hole, and Ruby, are much better numbers fisheries but are 3+ hours away and definitely beyond the scope of this guide.
The Henry's Fork offers excellent match-the-hatch fishing not too far southwest of West Yellowstone. The best fishing is in June and early July, with late summer harder. The portions within somewhat reasonable range of Gardiner are the Box Canyon and Railroad Ranch portions. Check with shops in Island Park, Idaho for details as this is beyond both guiding range and in a different jurisdiction from where we are licensed.
The Snake begins parallel to Yellowstone's south boundary deep in the wilderness. It flows west, first coming in sight of the road right at the South Entrance Station. The upper Snake makes a good backcountry hike with some fishing, but the fish populations here are not high and are highly migratory, with many fish moving in and out of Jackson Lake not far downstream seasonally. Basic attractor dry/dropper combos and streamers are the top bet. The South Entrance Station is roughly 2.5 hours from Gardiner with mild traffic.
Its tributary the Lewis is much more important. The Lewis begins at Shoshone Lake in the backcountry and flows about 3.5 miles to Lewis Lake. This hike-in section has the park's #2 brown trout run after the upper Madison. This run takes place very late, basically after the middle of October. Tiny nymphs and eggs are the top flies, as this is shallow, clear water and the fish are spooky and see heavy pressure at this time. The lower portion of this section of the Lewis, immediately above Lewis Lake, also sees good early season fishing right after ice-out for both browns and lake trout. Use streamers. This portion of the Lewis is the only river in the park where boats are allowed. They must be rowed or paddled up from Lewis Lake, and an additional boating permit is required.
For the mile or so downstream from Lewis Lake, drop-down fall-run browns are possible in late October. Early season fishing (right after ice-out in the lake) can also be fair, with streamers and wet flies top choices. Wear snowshoes, as in wet years the snow does not melt here until late June. At Lewis Falls, lake-run fish become impossible. The mile or so below the falls can fish well with streamers or with tiny dries during mayfly hatches. Much of this is very flat and technical water, but there are some big browns in it. The best bet for non-experts is streamer fishing the plunge pool right below Lewis Falls.
A mile or so downstream of the falls, the Lewis enters a deep gorge which it mostly stays in all the way to the Snake. Only the bottom half-mile or so, between Crawfish Creek and the Snake, is worth fishing, and then only if you are already in the area. Fish attractor dry/dropper combos.
The Stillwater is a medium-sized Yellowstone River tributary that joins near Columbus, about 75 miles east of Livingston. It forms the next drainage draining the Beartooth Plateau east of the Boulder. Abundant foot access is available and it can also be fished from rafts. It's too small for drift boats. Attractor dry/dropper combos and hoppers work well. Red Lodge or Absarokee, Montana, make good towns to base out of to fish here.
The Snake gets much better in and immediately downstream of Grand Teton National Park. This is big attractor dry water that's best in late summer and fall. You're looking at a 3+ hour drive to reach any of it, so work out of a shop in Jackson, WY.
The headwaters of the Missouri at Three Forks and down to Toston Dam and the town of Toston are less than 2.5 hours away from Gardiner and we do fish it some. This is basically carp water. Use Clouser Minnows, crayfish patterns, hoppers, and flies imitating cottonwood seeds. The few resident trout here are large. They are concentrated near cold tributaries
Downstream of Hauser Reservoir near Helena is the "Land of Giants" section of the Missouri. This is 3.5 hours away, but we fish it often due to excellent winter, spring, and early summer fishing for rainbows averaging 16 to 22 inches and reaching 26+ inches. From February to mid-May, use egg patterns, pink scuds, pink mayflies, and other patterns at least suggestive of eggs, even if they have the proportions of insects and crustaceans. After mid-May, switch to sow bugs, scuds, and BWO nymphs. By early June, caddis pupae and PMD nymphs are good choices. The best (limited) dry fly fishing is to PMD and caddis hatches in late June and July. Streamer fishing can be good in spring and after mid-November. I (Walter) run power boat trips here from March through July, but I stage out of Helena, Montana to do so. I suggest you do the same.
The most famous Missouri River trout fishery is found below Holter Dam, 4+ hours away. This is the "famous" stretch of the Missouri best fished from a boat, though wade-fishing is good near the dam anytime flows are below 5000cfs. In winter and spring, fish midge patterns, mayfly nymphs, sow bugs, scuds, and San Juan Worms (think big on the worms). Pink flies can be as good here as above, but are not as crucial. Excellent BWO and midge hatches are possible in April and May. Caddis and PMD replace them in June, when mayfly nymphs are the top subsurface flies, along with caddis pupae. In July, the famous Trico hatches begin. They last into fall. In high summer, some terrestrial dry fly fishing is possible, but nymphing is better. Fall sees good October and November BWO and streamer fishing.
The Falls River drains the remote SW corner of Yellowstone Park and generally requires long (often multi-day) hikes to fish. Its major tributary the Bechler is a better fishery. Due to rough roads and a long, roundabout trip into Idaho required just to reach the trailhead, this is way too far away to fish as a day-trip from Gardiner. Counting the hike, you're looking at 14+ hours of travel time in, out, and around. The Bechler Meadows offer Yellowstone's largest and spookiest rainbow trout. They can reach 26 inches and often break 20. This is hands and knees fishing with tiny flies and 7X tippet for trout that spook if they catch a glimpse of you 50 feet away. Anyone of less than expert skill should not think of making the trip. The best fishing is in July, but this is a swampy area and the bugs are awful. September sees the fish at their spookiest, but the meadows are dry and the bugs are gone.
Walter Wiese is Montana Outfitter #22001 (formerly guide #9530) and Madison River SRP Holder #297. Yellowstone Park trips are run in cooperation with and under the permit of YNP CUA holder Richard Parks.
All text copyright Walter J. Wiese. Photos copyright Walter J. Wiese or the photographer. If you would like to use any of the content on this site for noncommercial purposes, you are welcome to do so provided you include this copyright notice and our contact information. Please do not use the information here for commercial purposes without written permission.
Website, text, and graphics by Walter J. Wiese. Photos generally by Walter J. Wiese unless noted.