Fly Fishing the Yellowstone River
By Dan Vermillion
The Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing river in the United States. Born on Two Ocean Plateau in southern Yellowstone Park, the rain and snow falling on Two Ocean Plateau can wind its way through the Snake River as it flows into the Columbia River, or it can flow down the Yellowstone River as it joins forces with the Missouri at Fort Union, North Dakota.
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A driftboat floats down the Yellowstone on a summer afternoon. Grasshoppers and terrestrials can make the fishing very exciting.
A typical box of attractor patterns should accompany any angler fishing the Yellowstone region in the Summer.
The caddis hatch on the Yellowstone can provide some of the best fishing of the year. It is a race between the bugs and the spring run-off.
The salmon fly hatch usually starts the summer off with a bang, as the salmon flies line the banks while the Yellowstone’s trout eagerly await.
The Paradise Valley Spring Creeks are famous the world over for their hatches, crystal clear water, and remarkably challenging fish.
At its inception, the Yellowstone is a meandering stream flowing through alpine meadows and the semi-alluvial plain south of Yellowstone Lake. Known colloquially as the “Thorofare,” this stretch of river is home to a robust population of Yellowstone Cutthroat. With golden sides, black spots, and the tell-tale orange slashes under the jaw, the Cutthroat is one of the most beautiful trout. It is the only native trout species in the Yellowstone drainage.
The Cutthroat are integral to the health of Yellowstone’s ecosystem, as Grizzly Bears, eagles, and other animals feast upon them when they enter the smaller tributaries of the Yellowstone in May and June to spawn. To protect the spawning Cutthroat, the Thorofare stretch of the Yellowstone is closed until July 15.
The Thorofare is not easy to access. Anglers can either access it by trail or boat via Yellowstone Lake or from the south by foot or horse. Permits for camping in this area are by reservation only; entering for a day trip is not an option. Travel time is simply too long.
Because the feeding season is short, the Cutthroat will rise to almost any fly in a desperate attempt to fatten up prior to the winter. Attractors such as the Royal Wulff, Adams Irrestistible, and foam hoppers are the fly of choice. All fishing for cutthroat is catch and release. The best time to fish this stretch of the river is mid July to early September.
After leaving the Thorofare, the river is engulfed by Yellowstone Lake. The Lake is actually the caldera of an ancient volcano which last erupted approximately 600,000 years ago. The Lake is a favorite for float tubers pursuing cutthroat cruising the shorelines in pursuit of ants, beetles, and small mayflies.
In recent years, trout numbers have decreased due to predation by Lake Trout and Whirling Disease. To protect the Cutthroat, the Park Service requires anglers to kill any Lake Trout they catch. Despite this double dose of trouble, the Lake is still a wonderful fishery. The best fishing is along the shore which can be accessed by float tube or foot. The best time of year to fish this stretch of water is June and early July; Adams, Royal Wulffs, Beetle, and Hopper pattern are the fly of choice.
Upon leaving the Lake, the Yellowstone flows under the famous “Fishing Bridge.” In the 50’s, anglers by the hundreds lined the banks or the bridge and dangled worms, flies, and lures in front of the hundreds of fish. This stretch of river fills with Cutthroat in June and July, as thousands of fish drop down from the lake to spawn. Today, Fishing Bridge is closed, but it is still a very impressive sight to see the Cutthroat lazily sip flies and nymphs.
Approximately eleven miles below the Lake, fishing re-opens in a stretch of river known as Buffalo Ford on July 15. Opening day will remind a person of Bennett Springs in Missouri. It is elbow to elbow fly-fishing. That said, the fishing can be challenging and truly enjoyable. Flies of choice include small nymphs such pheasant tails #16 or #18, hare’s ears #16 or #18, and, of course, terrestrials and mayflies in similar sizes.
Shortly below Buffalo Ford, the river enters the Hayden Valley. The Hayden Valley is one of the most beautiful parts of the Yellowstone drainage. Unfortunately, it is closed to fishing to protect the nesting needs of waterfowl. The Hayden Valley is home to robust populations of buffalo, elk, wolves, and bear. Park on any hillside, get out of your car, and gaze upon America’s Serengeti.
After the Hayden Valley, the Yellowstone begins to pick up speed and drops into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Steep canyon walls, Rocky Mountain Sheep, and more than a few tourists dot the landscape. The weight and force of the Upper Yellowstone cascade over a 308 foot precipice. The canyon section is over ten miles long. Although it is probably filled with fish, access requires life-threatening descents through steep, scree slopes which line both sides of the river. In short, fish this section at your own risk.
After getting bruised up by the canyon, the Yellowstone begins a more measured descent. Beginning around Tower Junction and flowing through the Black Canyon to the Park boundary, the river becomes fishable again to the adventurous angler. This stretch is treacherous wading but offers great dry fly fishing. Although it opens on June 15, high water typically makes it difficult to fish until late June. The water moves through this stretch at a good clip, and anglers should treat this area with respect. Do not fish this stretch alone.
Upon emerging from the Park, the river passes through the town of Gardiner, Montana. At the Montana border, the river opens to drift boats, and anglers will begin to catch good numbers of rainbows, browns, and cutthroat. The stretch of river between Gardiner and Yankee Jim Canyon is very similar to the last Park section. There are several boat launches in this stretch, but it should be noted that this water can be tricky to the unskilled oarsman. Accordingly, a guide is recommended.
Approximately 12 miles north of Gardiner, the Yellowstone enters Yankee Jim Canyon. This canyon is named after an entrepreneur in the last century who charged tourists a fee on their way to visit Yellowstone Park. Today, passage is free but treacherous.
Yankee Jim Canyon can offer very good fishing, but it should not be floated without the assistance of an expert oarsman. The river flows along Highway 89, and anglers can access the entire canyon by foot. This stretch of river is largely a cutthroat fishery but also offers good fishing for rainbows and brown trout. The salmon fly hatch, evening caddis hatches, and mayfly hatches are provide good fishing throughout the summer.
After emerging from the canyon, the Yellowstone enters its most famous stretch – Paradise Valley. Paradise Valley is an appropriate name for a valley which is lined to the east and west by towering mountains, pine covered hillsides, and a multitude of drainages each adding a unique ripple to the fishing.
The angling year on the Yellowstone begins with the occasional calm day when the midge fishing can be productive. Midge fishing varies from bend to bend, so local knowledge is key. Anglers should approach the river slowly looking for noses sipping midges in the spots where the bugs accumulate. The midge fishing typically begins in January and remains good, weather permitting, through March.
April can produce the best fly-fishing of the year, or it can provide nothing but frustration while the best hatch of the year occurs through muddy, snowmelt. With proper cooperation from the weather, April has strong March Brown hatches and the world famous Mother’s Day Caddis hatch. The Mother’s Day hatch typically last a week or so, but it pops a different time each year which makes trip planning difficult. If you are in the area, however, take a drive over to Livingston, or call us, a blizzard caddis hatch may await.
Whether the water is clear or not, the salmon flies kick off the summer season in Paradise Valley. This hatch starts right around the first of July in the vicinity of Livingston, moving up the river at varying speeds. This is a great time of year to catch a large trout on a dry fly. The river is typically quite high at this time of year, so a drift boat is the best way to fish the river.
After the salmon flies, the river is host to mayfly hatches, stonefly hatches, and evening caddis hatches. These are not thick hatches, but they offer enough food for the trout to keep the dry fly fishing good. The best flies during this time are Royal Trudes #14, Royal Wulff #14, Elk Hair Caddis #14, and all variety of Stimulators.
Depending on the summer heat, the grasshopper fishing begins to really cook in late July. The date and hopper density are completely weather dependent. Wet, cold springs tend to create low grasshopper population, whereas warm, drier springs tend to result in robust grasshopper activity.
When the grasshopper fishing begins, fly choice becomes quite simple - grasshoppers. During most days, the best hopper fishing is in the afternoon. Typically, it takes a while for the grasshoppers to start moving. Once they start moving, the errant fliers begin to fall into the river creating lots of hungry trout looking for a plump grasshopper.
Grasshopper fishing remains solid until mid to late September. Grasshoppers typically survive one or two frosts, and, even after the hoppers are all dead, trout will still rise to a hopper in a mistaken belief that the golden days of summer are still around.
After hopper fishing turns off, there is some good baetis activity along the river, but this is limited to short periods of time during on cloudy days. When the fish are not rising, anglers should switch over to streamers – large wooly buggers, light spruce flies, and Olive Zonkers are all great patterns. For many locals, this is the hallowed time of year with runs named after local anglers who have caught the Brown trout of a lifetime. Fishing improves throughout October and November.
The truth of the matter is that the Yellowstone River is a wonderful, wild fishery which has a variety of personalities. By no means does the fishing stop at Livingston. The fishing remains good for trout all the way to Park City, Montana, some 80 miles east of Livingston. However, if the visit to the Yellowstone is a short one, Livingston upstream is the best option.
The Yellowstone has survived over a hundred years of assault on its integrity. Poorly planned mines, bad subdivision planning, and a misguided attempt to dam it, have all challenged its ability to remain the longest free-flowing river in the United States. Despite these challenges, it still offers world class fishing for rainbows, browns, and cutthroat. This does not even include the world class Paddlefishing down by Glendive and Sydney, the great smallmouth and sauger fishing by Forsythe, or the Ling fishing near Laurel. The Yellowstone will remind all anglers of what a river should be; an ever changing, wild flow of water which brings a surprise around every corner.
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