The famed Yellowstone is my number-one destination for guided trips. It offers well over 100 miles of fishable water within my operations area, and a huge diversity of fishing opportunities ranging from shots at head-hunting one or two giant cutthroats on foot, pounding banks with streamers for big browns, or nymphing five feet from the boat to give beginners their first chance of a fish on the fly. As such, it's one of the main fisheries anglers visiting the region come to fish, and it is arguably one of the five to ten most famous trout rivers in the United States.
In addition to being a major fishery in its own right, the Yellowstone is also the parent river to many of the other great rivers in the region, including the Lamar, Gardner, and Boulder, and further downstream, the Stillwater (the name's a lie) and Bighorn, as well as many wonderful mountain streams and the Paradise Valley spring creeks. All of the private lakes on which I guide drain into the Yellowstone, as well.
Over its long fishable length, the Yellowstone changes character dramatically, ranging from a placid meadow-lined river lined with ranches to raging canyon whitewater, the fish populations vary both in size and difficulty as well as species composition, consistent fishing tactics vary wildly, and both legal seasons and simply the times of year when given sections fish best vary. For this reason, I've divided the Yellowstone into five sections, each accessed by its own tab below and each containing hatch charts, descriptions, top flies, etc. These five divisions cover all of the blue-ribbon trout water on the Yellowstone from its headwaters to the confluence with the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone near Laurel, Montana. There are some trout below this point, but for the most part the Yellowstone becomes a smallmouth bass, pike, catfish, and carp river after this point. That's not to say these aren't worthwhile fish, but it's not what you're probably here for.
The Yellowstone River heads on the flanks of Younts Peak in the deep wilderness of northwest Wyoming south of Yellowstone National Park. This is the most remote area in the Lower 48 states, called Two Ocean Plateau after a small creek of the same name that actually splits into two forks, one feeding the Yellowstone east of the Continental Divide and the other feeding the Snake west of the Divide.
The river flows generally north, collecting small tributaries, then enters Yellowstone Park near its southeast corner. It then continues north through an area known as The Thorofare, then enters Yellowstone Lake in its Southeast Arm. The area from headwaters to lake is all over 7732 feet in elevation (the lake level). It is snowbound from October until well into June every year and sees no human traffic save from hikers.
Formerly host to hundreds of thousands of summer-spawning cutthroat trout running upriver like salmon from Yellowstone Lake and filling both the river and every tributary stream great and small, this water once probably offered the easiest fishing for 14 to 20-inch cutthroat trout in the world after its July 15 opening date. This is no longer the case. Sometime in the 1970s lake trout were stocked illegally in Yellowstone Lake. By the late 1990s they knocked down cutthroat populations in the lake by over 90%. They were aided in this by the arrival of whirling disease and a long drought that did not end until 2008, which made trout fry in the spawning streams easy prey for birds and in some cases prevented them from out-migrating to the lake, killing them when the creeks froze solid in winter or dried up in late summer. The cutthroats that were left in the lake grew gigantic, some to 25+ inches, but their numbers were so few that the difficulty in reaching the river’s remote headwaters was no longer worth the effort from a fishing perspective. The situation began improving dramatically around 2014, due to aggressive lake trout suppression efforts in the lake and a long run of good water years, but cutthroat numbers are still far below their historic levels and as such the extreme headwaters of the Yellowstone River are not really worth fishing, particularly given the multi-day hike or long horseback ride necessary to reach the area.
The situation is very different downstream of Yellowstone Lake. The lake is the largest alpine lake in the world, at somewhere around 88,000 surface acres depending on water level, and gathers many major tributaries besides the upper Yellowstone itself. This means that when the river emerges from the lake’s north end, it has grown to a giant trout river that can be waded across only with great difficulty and cannot be cast across. It’s also far easier to access than upstream of the lake, with a road following the west shore all the way to the head of the Grand Canyon at Chittenden Bridge and a good trail following the east shore. This easier access and the potentially very large fish that spawn here by dropping down from the lake make this Yellowstone Park’s premiere “head-hunting” destination, a place to go if you want to catch one to five large trout in a day of fishing, or get skunked if you can’t catch them. The vast numbers of fish that made this water famous from the 1970s through the mid-90s are not back yet, but if you decide to fish here you will have a shot at fish averaging 18 to 24 inches.
As briefly noted above, accessing the upper Yellowstone requires significant time investments (the hikes can exceed 30 miles one-way) and some serious shoe leather or saddle sores. Few commercial horsepackers now run trips into this area because of how poor the fishing became in the late 90s, but it is still beautiful country. The river is slow and silty here, with occasional riffles but no real rapids until beyond the park boundary. It twists in numerous curves through meadows and woodlands, becoming swampy near the lake. This whole area is home to enough mosquitoes that they might carry you off in July and August.
Below the lake the Yellowstone is large, over a hundred feet across everywhere and usually twice that. Flows are generally moderate, with the area around LeHardy Rapids being the notable exception. The river is powerful and deep, however, and it stays bitter cold year round, so watch your step. Also, from Alum Creek downstream to Chittenden Bridge the current gradually increases as the river accelerates towards the Upper Falls. Banks are generally wooded, though there are meadows in places. The bottom is most often composed of gravel or sand, but there is a great deal of muck upstream of LeHardy Rapids, in the section known as "The Estuary." Below LeHardy Rapids and for a short section above the angling closure at the rapids there is some obvious structure, including large rocks, current breaks, and depressions in the streambed, but there are also places where no clear structure exists, making blind-casting a frustrating endeavor.
Access is easy. Though the river cannot be waded all the way across anywhere except Nez Perce Ford (formerly known as Buffalo Ford), and here only from late July or early August onward, most areas can be wade-fished without danger. The Canyon-Lake road follows the river on its west bank at a distance of a few yards to a quarter-mile for this entire stretch, and pullouts are plentiful. For the angler who likes to walk, a hiking trail extends from Fishing Bridge downriver almost to Chittenden Bridge on the east bank. This is a flat hike of at least a mile to reach fishable water (the river is closed for a mile below Fishing Bridge), but it is a pleasant hike except for the mosquitoes.
Above the lake, there are now so few fish that it's difficult to consider the hike or horseback ride worth it. In general, hatches will resemble those discussed for the section below the lake, though the lack of angling pressure means you can probably get away with general attractor flies most of the time, if you manage to find a feeding fish larger than the 6" resident cutthroats.
The section below the lake may not be the most challenging stretch of water in the Park, but it's one of them. Beginning anglers need not apply. Insect hatches are immense and complicated, and trout frequently focus on one particular stage of one particular insect in an almost sadistic way. To have any chance at catching one of the enormous trout that call this water home, an angler needs patience, good line-handling and fish-playing skills, and a little bit of luck. The trout here are already returning to the lake after spawning by the opener on 7/15, so the angler is targeting fish that stay a while feeding on the abundant insect food in this section of river. By late August most fish have returned to the lake, making fishing even more difficult.
It is usually not worth your time to blind-cast. The area around LeHardy Rapids is the sole exception, and is the only place I'd suggest fishing the attractor dry and nymph dropper combination that works wonders everywhere else on the Yellowstone. Nymphing with stonefly nymphs can also work here, especially if the Salmonfly and Golden Stone emergences are late. Elsewhere, your best option is to stalk the bank looking for rising fish or fish feeding on nymphs in fairly shallow water. After spotting a fish, switch flies and tactics until you either catch it or scare it off.
Every insect species in the Park except for Brown Drakes hatches from this section of the Yellowstone, meaning a full vest is a necessity. In general, the most complex hatches appear above LeHardy Rapids, where seven or eight different insects may hatch or be falling as spinners at any given time. Below LeHardy, several species of caddis and Pale Morning Duns predominate, though it can still be difficult determining which stage a trout is feeding on.
Rods should be long and fairly light, to protect frail tippets. I'd suggest a nine-foot five-weight. The only exceptions are fishing large nymphs around LeHardy Rapids or swinging wet flies and streamers, an increasingly popular tactic when no fish are rising and a good way of covering water. Both tactics require a six-weight. Leaders should generally be long, from 9-15 feet, and should be tapered to 4X at an absolute maximum when fishing dry flies and nymphs, with 5-6X and fluorocarbon more likely, especially more than two weeks after the opener. With streamers, a short 3X leader and a sinktip line are good choices.
Hatches are more common in the evening than early in the morning, though spinner falls occur sporadically all day and Pale Morning Duns typically emerge at midday.
If you wish to print a full-size version of this hatch chart, those covering other insects and food items important when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, and all other charts on this site, please visit this link.
The Yellowstone changes character utterly immediately below the Chittenden Bridge. The river drops immediately over two huge waterfalls, losing a total of over four hundred feet over the two drops. Meanwhile the banks are closing in, becoming rockier, and getting higher, so that soon the river is in a canyon 1,500 feet deep. Though the canyon walls get lower in places, they never quite disappear all the way to Gardiner, a distance of over 30 miles. The first ten miles are in the deeper, narrower Grand Canyon while the remainder are in the slightly more open Black Canyon.
The dividing line between the two canyons is pretty arbitrary. For my purposes, it's the mouth of the Lamar River. Above this point, the primary component of the river's flow is water leaving Yellowstone Lake, which is joined by only a handful of small and medium-sized creeks between the Lake and the Falls and in the Grand Canyon. This means that the Grand Canyon warms slower in early summer, but clears faster, and stays consistently warm until later in the fall. Moreover, the Lamar often gets filthy muddy for days and days after summer rains, muddying the Black Canyon downstream, but the Grand Canyon seldom gets muddy for more than a few hours or a single day, since its mud sources are limited to the volcanic ash deposits along a few sections of its wall.
The river is narrower in both canyons than above the falls, but it's much faster and deeper. There are significant numbers of class-IV and class-V rapids whitewater aficionados would love to get on legally and which they occasionally run illegally in both canyons, as well as a third fall in the middle of the Black Canyon, Knowles Falls, which marks the upstream limit for brown trout. For the angler willing and able to hike and scramble over and around rocks and deadfall, every piece of this water that isn't made inaccessible by sheer canyon walls is prime.
Portions of the lower Grand Canyon and one stretch of the upper Black Canyon are my favorite waters of all to fish and guide. There are places that produce bigger trout or more trout, or that offer a higher percentage of trout on dry flies, and smaller creeks offer more solitude, but no other water in the region offers such a good combination of solid numbers of decent-sized cutthroat trout willing to eat dry flies (and nymphs and streamers) coupled with solitude. There's one problem: all of the good water in the canyons is physically demanding, both to access and to fish.
The river here is narrow, fast, and deep. The banks are often sheer, and when they're not they are covered in boulders and often downed trees burned in the 1988 fires. There are a few places where the river slows for brief stretches of a quarter mile and where gravel beaches come down to the water's edge, but these areas are rare. Make no mistake, this is canyon water, and there are probably more places you can't fish safely than where you can. The river bottom in most places is either gravel or cobble, with significant numbers of boulder fields. The only areas with significant quantities of sand and silt are eddies that have not been scoured recently, where the current deposits part of its particulate load during the spring.
Mud can be an issue in this stretch of river at any time of the season. In the Grand Canyon, the culprit as volcanic ash from the steep hillsides sloughing off into the river after summer downpours. This usually clears after a day or so. In the Black Canyon, it's mud from rains high up the Lamar or Soda Butte Creek. This mud can last two or three days when we're in the midst of a storm cycle. The spring runoff leads to high water in the Grand Canyon, but only a short round of muddy water. Basically the instant the river begins to drop here, falling back into the channel it scoured as it rose, it becomes clear enough to fish. The spring runoff lasts at least a week longer in the Black Canyon, on average. In dry years, it may be more like two weeks. The runoff is also far more severe in the Black Canyon; it's possible for the Lamar to double the Yellowstone's flow for a week or so at the peak of its runoff.
Overall, the Grand Canyon is narrower and has higher canyon walls than the Black Canyon, but they both have areas with sheer stone walls that cannot be passed at water level. The last of these is actually within sight of the bottom the canyon, just upstream from the town of Gardiner at the park's north entrance. Therefore, on even the mellower hikes into the Black Canyon, which are fairly flat albeit hot hikes across sagebrush flats, you will wind up huffing and puffing up and down steep banks when you come to such obstacles while fishing.
Access is difficult. Most of the canyon stretch is difficult or dangerous to wade, meaning you'll seldom go in deeper than your knees on purpose. Much of the fishing is done from the bank. There is only a single ford in this entire stretch, Colter Ford, located about a mile upstream from the Tower Falls Trail river access. This ford does not become wadeable until at least mid-September, and even then it is neither obvious nor easy. Other crossing points are limited to bridges. The Northeast Entrance Road (the sole road access to this stretch) crosses the river just east of Tower Junction. There is a good amount of water on both sides of the bridge, both upstream and down, but of course the water within about half a mile of the bridge receives more pressure than the rest of both canyons combined. The Hellroaring Trail crosses the river a mile and 600 vertical feet from the trailhead. There's trail access from here upstream on the south bank and in both directions on the north bank. Trails and angler tracks follow both sides of the river from the Blacktail Trail footbridge, which is a four-mile hike with 800 feet of vertical just to get to the river.
There are several trails into each canyon. In the Grand Canyon, the Glacial Boulder Trail gives access to the area known as Seven Mile Hole, the Agate Creek Trail descends to the mouth of Agate Creek, an angler's trail descends from the Specimen Ridge Trail through a notch in the canyon wall, and the Tower Falls Trail descends to the mouth of Tower Creek. Of these, the Tower Falls Trail is easiest at some 275 vertical feet in .4 mile. There are also a couple "scramble" accesses I don't suggest doing without someone familiar with them. Trails into the Black Canyon include an angler track to the mouth of the Lamar River, an angler track from the south end of the Northeast Entrance Road bridge, the Hellroaring Trail, the Blacktail Trail, a bushwhack from the Rescue Creek Trail, and the Yellowstone River Trail. For more information on these trails, contact us or consult Fishing Yellowstone National Park, by Richard Parks, which is an angling guide focused on access rather than fishing tips (use this site for those).
There are a couple of closed zones in the canyons, but they are not typically of concern to most anglers. Check the regulations to be sure. Anglers should also note that the river briefly leaves the Park for approximately a half-mile around the mouth of Bear Creek in the lower Black Canyon. A Montana permit is required to fish this section of river.
The Yellowstone River canyons are excellent fisheries for anglers with some fly fishing experience, and even expert anglers can find much enjoyment here. They also make good areas for beginners provided they are accompanied by someone with experience. The average fish size is smaller than that above the falls, but the maximum size is much larger, especially below Knowles Falls. Overall, fish numbers are higher in the Grand Canyon, where the average size is smaller. There are bigger but fewer fish in the Black Canyon. An average trout anywhere in either canyon will be a ten to fourteen-inch cutthroat, with plentiful fish in the 16-18 inch range. The fish will just run towards the smaller end of that spectrum in the Grand Canyon, particularly around Tower Falls where there can be scads of small fish at certain times. There are more rainbows and rainbow-cutthroat hybrids the further downstream one goes. Brook trout are possible anywhere but are more common near the mouths of tributary streams such as Tower and Blacktail Creek, both of which have large brookie populations. Brook trout in the Yellowstone are likely to be small.
Fishing is quite different in the canyons than above the falls. The river below the falls opens with the general Park season on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and occasionally it will be nymphable then, especially if the winter has been dry or the spring cold. Most years, however, the river becomes clear enough to fish with nymphs or streamers between June 15 and the end of June, though it will still be very high. Until the Salmonfly and Golden Stone emergences, which are phenomenal and long-lasting, the best fishing is had with Woolly Buggers and stonefly nymphs with smaller nymph droppers. The Salmonflies and Golden Stones usually begin hatching near thermal areas between June 20 and July 4, with the heaviest emergences between July 4 and July 20. If conditions are right they may remain in certain parts of the canyon (especially downstream of cold tributaries) through the first week of August, though usually they are gone by the 25th of July. Caddis, Yellow Sallies, and some mayflies begin hatching at the same time and continue to hatch in decreasing numbers until mid-August. In late August or early September the first fall Blue-winged Olives emerge, and these can provide excellent fishing until sometime in late October, particularly in the middle of the afternoon on snowy days. There are also some Epeorus mayflies in August and Drake Mackeral mayflies in September.
Unless there's a heavy hatch underway, the most consistent fishing from mid-July until early September is to be found by fishing attractor or hopper patterns with nymph droppers. Grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, and even Mormon crickets are plentiful in the canyon, and in more remote areas the largest fish in the river will come up for the largest terrestrials in your box. Size-4 hoppers, in some cases. Even where pressure is heavy, a #12 hopper with an attractor nymph dropper usually works great. Streamer fishing can be good all season, if the fish aren't eating stoneflies, attractors, or grasshoppers, but it becomes the most important tactic in September and remains good through mid-late October provided no prolonged cold snaps drop water temperatures below 42 degrees.
Early in the season, the primary structure is created by boulders along the banks and small bankside eddies. At this time, virtually all fish will be found within ten feet of the bank save in the largest eddies, and most will be closer still. Later in the summer, as the spring melt recedes, more offshore structure begins to form, with runs and boulder fields beginning to comprise the most important structure. In some places riffle corners at bends and near islands also come into play. Late in the season the river takes on a much more complicated character, with what were raging torrents in July now becoming deep pools, plunges, and other "classic" trout stream habitat.
Regardless of season, this is one place where we always fish 6 weight rods. Not only do they make casting big, wind-resistant dries much easier, they allow you to fish streamers with less false casting and make it possible to put much more pressure on big fish, important given the fire hydrant-like flows present in some parts of the canyons. The canyons are a place where you always want to have a dozen #4-10 streamers in your box. Seven or eight should be Woolly Buggers in various sizes and colors, while the others should be Zonkers, white Marabou Muddlers, and Slumpbusters or squirrel leeches. Make sure to bring a sinking mini-tip leader or a full-on sinktip line to use with the streamers, as these work much better at getting them down on short drifts than tin split shot or beadheads.
If you wish to print a full-size version of this hatch chart, those covering other insects and food items important when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, and all other charts on this site, please visit this link.
The Yellowstone River leaves Yellowstone Park at the mouth of the Gardner River, at the east end of the town of Gardiner near the Park's north gate. From here to its confluence with the Missouri in western North Dakota, it's open year-round and subject to Montana regulations. It's good trout water whenever it is clear and ice-free for about the first quarter of this distance, down to the mouth of the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone near Laurel.
The upper 17 miles of this water is often called "the Upper Yellowstone" by locals, referring to the fact that it's the uppermost section of river that can be legally floated. Drift boats and rafts (to a much lesser extent) are the most popular way of getting on the Yellowstone from here on down= from an angling perspective, though there's plenty of fishing to be had on foot as well.
The upper river is a transition area from the canyons upstream. While it produces big fish particularly in early spring and late fall, it's most notable for its heavy populations of medium-sized cutthroats and rainbows that love to eat dry flies from the end of the spring runoff through fall. Compared to the stretches both upstream and down, it tends to produce greater numbers of trout on dry flies at a smaller average size. As such, it's a great action fishery but not a great choice for those who want to hunt pigs.
Despite its reputation as a numbers fishery, fishing this stretch of the Yellowstone is not easy. It is what I consider an "easy catching, hard fishing" stretch of river. By this I mean that the tactics required for success are challenging to many anglers, but once you get it right, you will catch a lot of fish, with the fish themselves not being finicky provided you fish correctly. More details on this will be in the angling section.
This is a good stretch of the river for those who like whitewater and fast-paced fishing. It's not a very relaxing stretch, it's not great for wildlife watching, and if you are fishing on foot, much of it is as physically-challenging as the canyons upstream.
Beginning at Gardiner, the canyon walls die away for the first thirteen miles of this stretch. That said, with the exception of a few stretches of hay meadows, the banks remain steep. They are also crumbly, covered in a mix of dirt, boulders, willow bushes, and sage brush for the most part. As such, fishing on foot requires anglers to scramble along the banks, often crashing through bushes and tottering on slick, uneven boulders. The footing and particularly the wading get easier as the season progresses, with September through April or early May offering much easier wading access. That said, it is never easy even in the flat, slow areas, since the bottom is generally comprised of boulders and cobble and the river is generally quite deep and fast. At Yankee Jim access, the river enters Yankee Jim Canyon. This short (3.5-mile) canyon is just as rough as the worst stretches of the Grand and Black Canyons. Some of the upper canyon is entirely inaccessible to anglers on foot, while all the rest features steep banks comprised of boulders and deep, swift water. It's right next to the highway and offers abundant public access, but anglers who are not fit and surefooted should not contemplate fishing the canyon on foot.
Boat accesses are abundant. There's a carry-down raft access right at the mouth of the Gardner River in the town of Gardiner, a rough access suitable for rafts season-long and drift boats when flows are 3,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second 2 miles north of town, and good boat amps at 3, 7 and 8, and 13 miles out. The first mile of this is too rough for drift boats, but the rest is good. Yankee Jim Canyon is heavy whitewater not suitable for low-sided drift boats, so be sure to pull your drift boat out at this ramp at the 13 mile marker. It's not too bad in a raft below 8,000cfs. I do the canyon in a high-side drift boat, but only between 4,000 and 1,750cfs flow, and I am very familiar with it. Only the stretch from Brogan's Landing access to Yankee Jim access is suitable for open canoes, and even then only for experienced paddlers. Personal watercraft can handle the water from 3 to 13 miles north of Gardiner, but the flow is generally too fast to fish effectively from these craft until at least late August.
As noted, foot access is physically demanding. On the flipside, it is abundant. Any boat ramp provides an easy route to the water. There is also 4 miles of public access on the west bank of the river from just NW of the Gardiner school down to the mouth of Reese Creek. The bank is in YNP and therefore public, while the river itself is Montana. So you can fish the river under a Montana permit and regulations, but if there's a puddle on the bank that looks fishy, you need a Park license. The banks in this stretch are very rough, however, so again only billy-goats need apply. The best wading access for non-fit anglers is from fall to spring at Cinnabar Ramp. There's also good public access near La Duke Hot Spring, throughout Yankee Jim Canyon (rough footing), and by fishing upstream from the Tom Miner Basin Bridge or from the Carbella Boat Launch near the 17 mile marker that concludes this reach.
Overall, this is my favorite stretch of the Yellowstone to float, and it's the one I do the most. I can't help but brag and say I know it like the back of my hand, and am probably on it more than any other outfitter or guide these days. In particular I love floating Yankee Jim Canyon in my drift boat when flows are right. The upper half of this canyon is the single best piece of dry fly water in the region, in my experience.
In the winter, this section can be very good whenever it is ice-free. The best sections are within the town of Gardiner itself and in the exposed areas in the middle of this reach where it's a bit shallower and slower. Fish midge patterns, small mayfly nymphs, and stonefly nymphs. Look for the walking-speed water from three to six feet deep. Some midge hatches will occur on warm, calm days.
By early March, switch to big stonefly nymphs and slow-dragged streamers. The year's best rainbows and hybrids often come to such tactics, especially if you target the deep runs downstream of tributary streams, into which the trout will run as the water warms to spawn. Leave the tributaries themselves alone to let them do so.
From mid-April through early May, the above tactic is joined by heavier BWO and March Brown mayfly hatches, though these hatches are not as intense as the early summer caddis or fall BWO and Drake Mackerals. In early May, there is usually one to five days of spectactular fishing during the Olive (Mother's Day) Caddis hatch, but this hatch depends on water temperatures around 50 degrees and the hatch is sometimes completely blown out and often has its last couple days blown out by the onset of the spring melt, so you need to have a Plan B fishery in mind if you try to hit this hatch. Good tactics for it are stripping a caddis pupa behind a streamer, then switching to an olive caddis or peacock-bodied caddis-style attractor (Clacka Caddis or Trude) with the pupa under it. You can also fish a low-riding caddis wet.
The best fishing before late March is always on foot. From this point until runoff, it is just as good from a boat. Always stick to somewhat slower and deeper water off the bank pre-runoff, though as the water warms and rises in late April the fish will begin moving towards faster areas and the shore.
The runoff virtually always keeps this water out of play from sometime in the first half of May (it typically begins May 7-12) through sometime between June 20 and July 4. In dry years the runoff ends June 20, in wet years July 4. In REALLY dry years it can end June 10-15, while in REALLy wet years it might not end until July 10-20. Check with me through the late winter and early spring to get my thoughts on when runoff will end. I usually have a good idea by mid-April and can time it to within a few days by mid-May.
From the time the water clears until sometime in late July or August, fishing from the boat is by far the best tactic. From this point until late August or September boats still provide the best options but fishing on foot is reasonable in most areas. Only in late fall is fishing on foot as good or better than fishing from a boat.
The Salmonfly and Golden Stonefly hatches begin as runoff recedes. Sometimes in high-water years the hatch is buried under the runoff, but this is rare. More commonly the first few days will see marginal conditions, with the last few days seeing good conditions. Fish big stonefly nymphs near shore near the head of the hatch. Dark streamers can also work at this time. During and past the core of the hatch, fish big Salmonfly and Golden Stone imitations with either a smaller nymph dropper or a big attractor dry suggesting a caddis or Yellow Sally. Fish these flies as close to the bankside boulders or bushes as you can get without getting hung up. 6 inches from structure is not too close and 18 inches is often not close enough. During the heaviest portion of the "big bug" hatches, angling pressure is exceptional, and since everybody is throwing big stonefly, the smaller dry flies or nymphs may actually work better. After the number of big bugs and guide boats declines a few days later, there is often good "backdoor" fishing with big dry flies, even if there are only a few naturals left.
After the end of the Salmonfly and Golden Stone hatches, which end between the beginning of July and about the 15th depending on when they started, two tactics predominate until about Labor Day. The first is to fish smaller attractor dries or terrestrial dries in tandem or with a dry and a small attractor nymph on a short dropper. The second is to fish a huge Midnight Stone or hopper imitation with a Midnight Stone or large attractor nymph on a very long (3-4 foot) dropper. The former technique generally produces the numbers while the latter produces bigger trout. If you fish the "smaller dry" option, use caddis-style (Clacka Caddis) or stonefly-style (Yellow Stimulator) attractors early in this period, in tandem or with a BH Prince or caddis pupa dropper. Later, use a small hopper with an ant dropper. If the weather gets gray in late August, swap the ant for a Purple or Copper Hazy Cripple or another attractor mayfly. I do not suggest fishing small nymphs of any kind after about August 20, because the whitefish get hyper-aggressive and will eat them before the trout can. Fish double-dries after this point. With the small dries, aim for the first current seam off the bank no matter how close to the bank it is. This might mean six inches or six feet, but probably not much further except in the largest eddies and/or late in this period With the big dry and long dropper, this can work if the water is deep enough to prevent hang-ups. Otherwise run just slightly further off the bank. Indicator nymphing or streamer fishing are usually not required, usually produce fewer trout, and will not produce larger trout than the above options during this period on this section of the river (other sections downstream are different). When I see other guide boats running bobbers on this stretch, I know that either the clients are beginners/novices or the guides are incompetent.
Speaking of beginner/novice anglers: This is a terrible place for them from the end of runoff until at least the beginning of August and sometimes as late as early September, since numbers of trout require extreme accuracy and good line management skills. Beginners and novices will do better further down the Yellowstone or up in Yellowstone Park. Generally speaking, the beginner fishing (mostly for whitefish with nymphs) here gets better once flows drop below about 3000cfs or the middle of August, whichever comes first.
Beginning sometime in late August, BWO, Mahogany, and later Drake Mackeral hatches increase. At first, there usually are not enough of these insects to make it worthwhile to remove the small hopper. Instead, fish a Purple Hazy Cripple as your dropper. With the first cool, gray weather, the hatches intensify and it might make sense to double up on mayfly imitations, either with two dries (one larger or more visible and one smaller and sparser) or with a dry and an unweighted nymph or emerger. The mayfly hatches shift toward 11:00AM or 12:00PM through late afternoon by mid-September. At this point you may catch some fish on midge cluster dries first thing in the morning, but this is inconsistent. You're better off throwing streamers or starting late. The midday to late afternoon hatches continue at least through the middle of October, but they can last well into November, with midges gradually replacing the mayflies and the fish shifting to slower eddies where dead insects collect.
Beginning in mid-October, the fall-run brown trout intensify to the point where targeting them makes sense. Fish big streamers from a boat or stop and fish the deeper, boulder-bottomed runs downstream of gravel riffles using stonefly nymphs and egg patterns. You should not target active spawners over such gravel, but their pre-spawn cousins downstream are fair game. This pattern continues until mid-November, after which the fishing fades to the winter midging described at the head of this piece.
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Near the Carbella fishing access, the Yellowstone's character changes once more. The high banks fall away and are replaced by grassy meadows and cottonwood trees. The river gets much wider, then shallows and slows. The mountains bordering the river valley, which had been hidden by high banks, are suddenly revealed in their beauty, as are innumerable gigantic vacation rentals and "trophy" homes built to appreciate the views. Fish populations change, public access declines, and the amount of boat traffic goes up (not least because there are few wading accesses). From this point to the Carter's Bridge access just south of Livingston, a distance of about 35 miles, the Yellowstone flows through the Paradise Valley, by far the most famous and beloved stretch of the river outside Yellowstone Park. If you've seen postcards, magazine articles, or coffee table books with pictures of smiling anglers in a drift boat on the Yellowstone, with the cottonwoods in fall color in the near distance and a bit of snow on the mountains behind, odds are the photos were shot in this stretch.
In comparison to the upper river described in the previous section, this stretch of river is gentler, wider, shallower, prettier in a "scenery" sense, though the water itself is less interesting, and offers more wildlife viewing opportunities. The fish population gradually shifts from cutthroat-dominated at the head of this reach to rainbow and brown-dominated a few miles downstream, a pattern which continues down to Livingston and beyond. The average fish is larger here than above, particularly the browns, but there are fewer of them (or at least they're less eager) and the larger fish in particular are not so eager to take dry flies as the larger cutthroats upstream.
This is an excellent reach of the Yellowstone for those who value time to look at the scenery and don't mind fishing subsurface for the opportunity of a few solid trout and maybe one real pig. It's not as good for those who want a wilderness experience or to shed crowds, since this is a very popular chunk of river both with anglers and with recreational floaters, and it's definitely not the best stretch for numbers of fish on dry flies. That said, it's actually better for beginners and novices than other portions of the Yellowstone, mostly because accuracy isn't as crucial here.
All the way from Carbella to Carter's Bridge, two general characters predominate. In one, the river is wide, relatively shallow, and flows in a single channel with only a few broad, sweeping bends to alter its course dramatically. In the other, the river splits into numerous branching channels cutting chaotically around islands big and small. While hayfields and the lawns of the large estates that have replaced many of the hayfields come down almost to the river in many places, with only sparse tree cover on the river banks heavy stands of cottonwoods are also found on many of the islands and on the main banks in the island complex areas. Overall, the island complexes reward wading anglers quite well, while drift boat anglers do better in the more-homogenous areas where the river flows in one channel. As is the case with the section upstream, wading anglers need to take care during the summer months, as the water drops from runoff, but this stretch is never quite so horrible to walk/wade than the stretch upstream, in particular since this section features more riffles off the bank which wading anglers can fish without crashing through brush.
That said, public access is limited in this reach, particularly for wading anglers. The best public accesses are sections of highway right of way. Basically, if there's a stretch where the river runs right next to US Hwy 89 and there isn't a fence between the road and the river, it's probably legal to fish. Otherwise, the accesses at Chicory, Dan Bailey (formerly Paradise), Mallard's Rest, and Carter's Bridge probably offer wading anglers their best opportunities. The Pine Creek bridge also offers good access. Footing ranges from easy to rugged, largely depending on current speed and the size of the rocks on the bottom.
This stretch is generally a better option for floating anglers. There are numerous ramps, generally spaced about five miles apart though sometimes less. All of these are suitable for drift boats, though some are steep enough and rough enough that 4WD is needed to use them. There are no significant rapids in this entire reach, so it is suitable for experienced canoeists as well. Just be careful of the numerous turbulent eddies, most associated with bank protection structures. Overall the mellowest float is from Grey Owl access to either Loch Leven or Mallard's Rest.
This stretch fishes quite similarly to the stretch upstream, save that your priorities should shift towards tactics more likely to produce large fish rather than numbers and you should be more eager to indicator-nymph if need be.
Winter fishing is not as good in this stretch as it is near Gardiner, for one reason: ice. This shallower stretch without any hot spring water inputs ices up much more than the stretch near Gardiner. As such, it's not a very good bet until the bankside ice shelves melt sometime in late February or early March. Be very careful about floating in winter or early spring; your takeout might still be iced-up.
In late March and April, covering lots of water with streamers is the best tactic. This can produce excellent fish bulking up after a long winter. Contemporary articulated streamer tactics work well for this. In the same timeframe, you might find fish rising to midges, BWO, or March Browns, in that order of likelihood. Since the trout are not as eager to rise here as upstream, look for pods of fish rising in prominent eddies and seams.
The Olive Caddis hatch in early May. This stretch is slightly more dependable for these insects than the stretch upstream, for a simple reason: it's farther from the main mud sources (the Gardner and Lamar Rivers) and located at lower elevation, so it warms slightly faster. This usually gives this stretch an extra day or two with these insects. Even large fish will gorge on drowned caddis that gather in the many foam patches present on this stretch, particularly in the lower quarter of the valley downstream of Mallard's Rest access. Another option is to fish big streamers with a caddis pupa dropper. The caddis will get the numbers, while the streamer might get a fish or two big enough to eat the fish eating the caddis.
Runoff shuts this water down from May into mid-late June. As with the stretch upstream, the Salmonfly hatch is the first big summer event. While the big bugs hatch in bouldery, turbulent, swift areas from Livingston upstream, only about one year in three sees fishable numbers downstream of Emigrant. Most years, there either aren't enough insects or they hatch while the river is still too muddy with runoff. The best Salmonfly fishing in this reach is from 26-Mile upstream to Carbella (about nine miles). The hatch overall is not as good here as it is upstream. On the flipside, the fish are larger, and the Salmonflies are big enough insects to bring them up. I have seen good numbers of fish over 20 inches eat dry flies at this time on this stretch.
Once the hatch fades out in early July, the best tactics for larger fish through the summer and into early fall are fishing a large Chubby Chernobyl or similar Midnight Stone/grasshopper imitation with a long dropper and a Midnight Stone nymph or fishing Woolly Buggers, sculpin imitations, or stonefly nymphs with a smaller attractor nymph or caddis pupa (from July to early August) or mayfly nymph (after early August) under a strike indicator. The "drift and drag" streamer method, in which a #2-6 streamer is fished like a nymph under an indicator, but dragged just enough to keep it from hanging up, is just the ticket to provoke territorial strikes from large browns. The smaller nymph behind gets whitefish and smaller trout, and occasionally a big one that doesn't quite commit to the streamer or stone nymph. The best targets for either the big dry/stone dropper or the indicator rig are turbulent rips where the bank suddenly drops into deep water, where boulders cause turbulence, where shelves suddenly stop, etc. Some sort of sharp seam between fast, turbulent water and slower water is key. Big browns have a reputation for living in slow water under logs and whatnot, but in the Yellowstone they don't live in such places in the summer: they're in the sharp seam/dropoff areas. Locally these are commonly called buckets. Overall, the bobber/streamer rig or the big nymph hanging under the bigger dry work better in July, while in August larger browns might just eat the stonefly/hopper dry, or perhaps even a smaller caddis-style attractor behind it.
For numbers in July and early August, focus on the caddis and Yellow Sally hatches. The Tan Caddis hatches are very good in this stretch, and a caddis-style attractor trailing a caddis pupa will draw action all day, with more-dedicated caddis dries turning on in the evening, or possibly around 3:30PM if clouds roll in. Larger fish seldom eat these small flies downstream of the 26-Mile access, but upstream some good cutthroats will take them. Still, you should expect mostly 8-12" fish with a few 14-16" fish if you're sticking to small stuff in the summer. In early August, swap the caddis for an ant pattern. In late August, start expecting some BWO and Mahogany hatches and use Purple or Copper Hazy Cripples when you're seeing mayflies in the air.
In practice, it's a good idea to carry two or even three rods if you're in a boat. Rig one with a light dry fly or dry/dropper (caddis pupa) rig, one with a big dry and a big nymph, and one with a streamer or nymph rig under a bobber. This is my standard practice when I guide this water. On banks I know to produce good browns, we shoot for the moon. Elsewhere we go for numbers with dries to keep the pot boiling.
In the fall, larger fish will rise to BWO and Drake Mackerals, particularly in the afternoons, most particularly from Carbella to Point of Rocks at the top of the valley and from Pine Creek to Carter's Bridge in the lower valley. Before the hatches begin, fish big streamers. Hope for one or two big browns in the morning, followed by numbers of smaller but still solid fish in the afternoon, with one or two good fish sipping little dries for spice. In late October and November, larger browns are most anglers' primary focuse, but midge and late BWO fishing can be outstanding on calm days. Look for pods of fish rising in the scum-filled eddies on the east side of the river.
At Carter's Bridge just south of Livingston, Paradise Valley ends in a short canyon through which the river runs into Livingston. The river's course, bottom substrate, and the topography through which it flows begins to change dramatically here, and once the river leaves Livingston it is a dramatically different river: eastward-flowing, wide, often shallow and full of midriver structure (which is uncommon upstream) formed by rock ledges over which the river drops, home to fewer but larger trout, wind-swept, and offering very limited access for bank-bound anglers. With the exception of the half-day float through Livingston itself, which is much less urban than you might expect and offers very good fishing, this is no place for number-hunters, and the whole stretch is a poor choice for beginners and novices. It's also a bad place if you can't handle wind. This is one of the windiest places in Montana, and many days will see wind speeds of 30+ miles per hour. All that said, if you're looking for a real pig brown, this is the stretch of the Yellowstone you want to run. Just be prepared to not get many.
From Carter's Bridge to the downstream end of the 9th Street Island in the heart of Livingston, the river is generally fast-flowing and quite turbulent save for a few long, slack pools. The banks are often steep and wooded, and the river channels are braiding and chaotic, changing every year. There are houses visible on the banks, and near and alongside the 9th Street Island itself is suburban in character, but it's remarkable how little of Livingston you actually see. The river passes under Interstate 90 in two channels around the island, and I've seen moose within earshot of it.
After the channels come back together at the downstream end of the 9th Street Island, the river takes on the character it generally holds all the way to Laurel. It's broad, shallow, and fast save for the long pools. The fastest and most turbulent stretches occur where the river cuts down through bands of low hills, which happen with great frequency between Livingston (right in town) and Big Timber, and a bit less thereafter. The primary structure is composed of long riffles and the solid rock ledges over which the river drops, particularly amid the hill bands. Compared to the entire river upstream with the exception of the stretch immediately below Yellowstone Lake, there is far more midriver structure in this section, formed either by gravel bars at midriver or by the rock ledges. There is still good bankside structure as well, particularly along the cliff-like banks and the many old riprap banks where the river flows near the Interstate or railroad right of way. This is generally ranch country, with the river surrounded by hay meadows and stands of cottonwoods where it is prone to switch channels. There are island complexes in the flatter areas, but more often the river flows in one or two broad channels.
Access is limited, particularly for bank-bound anglers. This stretch only gained popularity from a fishing perspective in the 1990s, long after the rest of the Yellowstone, and this fact coupled with the huge ranches mean that there are only a few state access points and no federal accesses through this entire reach. Particularly downstream of Big Timber, it can be fifteen or miles between public accesses. For this reason, floating is far and away the best way of accessing this water, especially downstream of the East End Access about 15 miles east of Livingston. In and around Livingston itself, there are many bridges and walk-in access points. Otherwise, not so much.
This is big fish water. Numbers days are possible too, particularly when summer evening caddis hatches or fall afternoon BWO and midge hatches get the fish excited, but the rest of the Yellowstone is better for numbers. The rest of the Yellowstone is not better for big fish. In general, the largest fish caught in the Yellowstone each year come from Mayor's Landing at the northeast edge of Livingston down.
The run through Livingston itself is a bit different. The stretch that starts this section, from Carter's Bridge to Mayor's Landing, is very good for numbers of solid fish, rainbows and cutthroats averaging 12-16 inches and reaching more like 20, but it also turns out solid opportunities for browns from 16 to 20+ inches. Don't let the "urban" nature of the fishing fool you. This is great water, and probably my second-favorite stretch of the Yellowstone overall. The best fishing for numbers is during the summer evening caddis hatches, the early fall BWO and Drake Mackeral hatches, and perhaps the late summer and early fall hopper and ant fishing. For size, fish a big hopper or Midnight Stone trailing a stonefly nymph in July or early August or a mayfly nymph later. The streamer/bobber rig and articulated streamers are also good here, particularly in the spring.
Downstream of Mayor's Landing, the big fish fishing is what you generally want to aim for all season, with the exception of during good hatches (caddis and assorted small mayflies including Tricos in the summer, BWO and midges in the fall). Articulated streamers are good spring and fall, while in the summer a big hopper or Midnight Stone imitation like a Chubby Chernobyl with a big stonefly nymph or even a crayfish pattern on the dropper works well when the fish are looking up. If they're sitting on the bottom, fish a dead-drifted streamer, stonefly, or crayfish with a caddis pupa or mayfly nymph dropper.
Very large hoppers can be important on this reach. I've already mentioned the hay meadows and the large trout. They combine to mean that the biggest hoppers in your box (#4 to #8) might just bring up the biggest brown of your life. Don't fish such flies by themselves. Fish a nymph dropper or perhaps a smaller terrestrial if the fish are eager in order to keep your fish count above zero if you are toad-hunting with the big hopper and the big guy doesn't want to eat.
The midriver structure is often critical on this reach. Look for sudden dropoffs downstream of the rock ledges traversing the river, or even shallow but slow spots in the middle of the ledges. The bankside structure is still important here, as it is upstream, but it's not so often the ONLY structure you need to be looking for.
Note that two of the crucial hatches further upstream are not good on this stretch. In the spring, the Olive Caddis hatch is usually blown out with mud downstream of a couple feeder creeks in Livingston. If it's not blown by these creeks, it's blown by the Shields River which enters about 10 miles downstream of Livingston. There are also too few Salmonflies and Golden Stones to make the concurrent hatches of these bugs any good.
Because of runoff from the Shields, which sees its snowmelt start earlier than points upstream, the Yellowstone downstream is never a safe bet in May on this reach, except from Carter's Bridge to the Highway 89 Bridge, the uppermost float on this stretch. In addition, the extreme turbulence created by the rock ledges and behind islands and gravel bars make this water unsafe later into the summer than points upstream. Look for flows to drop below about 6000cfs before you consider floating. 4000-2000 is ideal. In late July and August, high water temperatures and abundant weed growth can cause problems during low-water years with hot summers. High-water years and/or cool summers offer more consistent mid-late summer fishing. Overall, April and from late August through mid-November offer the best fishing on this stretch, particularly since this is when the big fish are most frisky.
Besides trout, other game fish get steadily more important the further downstream you go. Smallmouth bass are the real prize. Their best numbers are found downstream of Columbus and even downstream of Laurel beyong the scope of this guide. Target them with streamers and crayfish. Carp are found in backwaters throughout this stretch, especially where old channels enter the river around islands. You can park your boat to explore these backwaters looking for carp sucking hoppers, Tricos, or wads of dead insects of various kinds. The strange herring-like Goldeye is the other noteworthy fish here. Again, the further downstream you go, the more you'll see. They tend to gather in schools to feed on emerging mayflies or caddis, but also eat streamers. Beware of their teeth!
Walter Wiese is licensed to operate on all waters in Montana under general regulations, Yellowstone Park, and the Madison River in Montana. He is Montana Outfitter #22001, Yellowstone Park CUA holder 426SSF, and Madison River SRP Holder #297.
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