The following is an “article” that I wrote recently for our Fly Fishing in Paradise booklet:
The Yellowstone River conveys a certain wildness of spirit. You’ve most likely heard that the Yellowstone is the longest undammed river in the lower 48. But it’s more than that. It’s in the raging flows of runoff that can last into mid-July. It’s in the elk, deer, eagles, otters, bighorn sheep, antelope, bears, and bison that inhabit her shores. It’s in the spectacular mountain backdrops of the Paradise Valley. And it’s in the fish that survive and thrive in this most natural of settings. For an angler, this wildness can be intimidating. But it needn’t be. The stretch of Yellowstone River trout-water from Gardiner to Columbus can be one of the most rewarding in the world.
More than 30 public access sites can be found between Gardiner and Columbus. Most have boat ramps and the sites are appropriately spaced to make half-day, and full-day, floats possible, especially in the Paradise Valley (Gardiner to Livingston). Below Livingston, the accesses are generally a full day’s float apart. Wade fishing is often good at the public accesses and—thanks to Montana’s stream access laws—solitude can usually be found a short walk away (staying below the high water line, of course). To avoid some of the boat traffic, try fishing upstream of the access in the morning and downstream later in the day.
Fish numbers tend to be higher in the upper stretches, and the scenery of the Paradise Valley is hard to beat. The lower stretches, below Livingston, have the reputation of yielding larger fish. It used to be that you could avoid some of the boat traffic by heading further downriver from Livingston, but in recent years, word has gotten out that very good fishing is to be had outside of the Paradise Valley, particularly during hopper season. Still, the river offers plenty of room for anglers to spread out, and you’re unlikely to run into a “boat hatch” the size you’ll find on some of Montana’s other waters.
Runoff is a big deal on the Yellowstone. Literally. Peak flows can reach 25,000 cfs near Livingston, usually around the beginning of June. Intrepid rowers are back on the river at around 10,000 cfs (usually toward the end of June), but it’s still a big, and potentially dangerous, river at this time. Wait a bit, let the river drop a little more, and then choose one of the river’s mellower stretches (such as the “bird float” between Grey Owl and Mallard’s Rest) if you’re not a pro on the oars. The river can fish well anytime there’s a foot or more of clarity. But the “magic moment” for all-around great (especially top-water) action is around 5,000 cfs.
When to Go
Some of the best fishing of the year can occur before runoff, if you’re ready for the ever-changing elements. Nymphing is the most popular technique, but midges, blue-winged olives (Baetis spp.), and March Browns can bring trout to the surface. And a slowly-stripped, or dead-drifted, streamer could hook one of the Yellowstone’s bigger denizens.
The “Mother’s Day” caddis hatch, usually around the first week of May, is legendary. Bugs can blanket the water, making for tough fishing as you struggle to get the fish to notice your fly among the myriads of naturals. Try an imitation a bit larger or smaller than the real thing, and don’t forget about emergers, especially if you’re seeing splashy rises. The hatch tends to be best right around Livingston and flirts with the beginning of runoff, so be ready to take a sick day if you hear “it’s on!”
The end of runoff, if we’re lucky, coincides with another renowned hatch, the Salmonfly. These monstrous stoneflies can bring big trout smashing to the surface. The hatch tends to progress upstream a few miles each day, and is often best in the upper stretches, from Livingston upstream through the Paradise Valley to Gardiner. But this fishing is the stuff of legend, and it can inspire crowds. If you’re seeking more solitary fishing, try searching upstream of the hatch, drifting big stonefly nymphs right along the willows, imitating the bugs that are restless pre-emergence. Or fish a stretch where the hatch has already passed; fish will continue to look up for the big bugs for a few days even after the naturals have ended for the year.
Good dry fly fishing continues through the summer months (golden stones, caddis, yellow sallies, and PMDs to name a few), and both attractors and more natural imitations can put fish in the net. But the next “big thing” on the Yellowstone are late summer grasshoppers. Warm breezes blow these terrestrials into the water, and the trout do not miss the big meals. Gaudy foam-sandwich type flies can pick up fish early in hopper season. But as the fish see daily parades of foam flies for weeks, more realistic, lower-riding patterns will usually be more productive. Be patient with your hook-set when a trout eats your fly. Do not overreact at the agonizingly slow take of a native cutthroat and pull the fly from the fish before it eats it. Sometimes a little “Yellowstone twitch” (gently moving the fly on the surface) will entice an otherwise wary trout to explode on your offering. And don’t forget about the smaller terrestrials; drop an ant or beetle behind your hopper and you might find that you get just as much action on the smaller fly.
Autumn is streamer time. As they prepare to spawn, big browns get aggressive and the fish are looking for hearty meals to prepare for the lean winter months. Trophy hunting may involve a shoulder-taxing day of chucking 5-inch long monstrosities with 7-weight rods and sinking lines. But nice fish can be picked up on more reasonably-sized streamers and tackle. Color seems to be critical with streamers. If you’re not picking up fish pretty quickly, switch to a fly of a different hue.
Floating vs. Wading
The Yellowstone is often seen as a float-fishing destination. Floating allows the angler to hit a large number of productive spots in a day. But wade fishing can be equally effective, allowing the angler time to concentrate on a few fruitful pools or riffles. Some of the best wade-fishing can be found in the stretch between Gardiner and the head of Yankee Jim Canyon. But wading opportunities exist throughout the Upper Yellowstone. Stop in any of the local fly shops and the staff will be happy to point you toward some good locations.
The Yellowstone is home to rainbow, brown, and native Yellowstone Cutthroat trout. Cutthroats are more prevalent in the upper stretches, toward Gardiner, and browns increase in numbers the farther downstream you go. Native whitefish are also prevalent throughout.
Yellowstone River Fishing Regulations
Regulations on the Yellowstone are relatively straightforward. Contrary to beliefs of many, the Yellowstone is neither a catch-and-release nor a fly-fishing only river. But do respect the resource. And, importantly, all cutthroats must be released; if it has a slash, you must put it back.
Yellowstone National Park Boundary to the I-90 Bridge at Billings
–Open entire year
–Combined Trout: 4 Brown trout and/or rainbow trout daily and in possession, only 1 over 18 inches. Catch-and-release for cutthroat trout.
Yellowstone River Tributary Fishing Regulations
–Buffalo Fork, Hellroaring, Slough, and Soda Butte creeks upstream from Yellowstone National Park Boundary: Cutthroat trout—3 daily and in possession. None over 12 inches.
–All tributaries between YNP boundary and Springdale: Opens at the advent of the YNP fishing season. Catch-and-release for cutthroat trout.
— All tributaries downstream of Springdale: Open entire year. Combined Trout: 4 Brown trout, rainbow trout, and or cutthroat trout daily and in possession, only 1 over 18 inches.
Livingston, I-90 exit 333, is the gateway to the Upper Yellowstone. Take the exit toward Gardiner and Yellowstone National Park onto Highway 89. 89 parallels the river all the way up to Gardiner. Some of the less-crowded accesses are on the scenic East River Road, which can be reached via several bridge crossings. The first you will come to, a couple miles south of Sweetwater Fly shop on the left hand side of the road, is Carter’s Bridge.
If you bypass the Livingston exits on Interstate 90 (exits 333 and 330), the highway eventually parallels the lower sections of the Yellowstone River, downstream of Livingston. Access to the river can be gained from several exits off of I-90.
Whenever, wherever, and however you choose to fish the mighty Yellowstone River, you’re bound to have an experience that you’ll remember for a lifetime. You will take home with you memories of the feisty wild trout and majestic scenery that make this, one of America’s last free-flowing rivers: the stuff of fly fishing legends.0