This page gives my prospective clients a rundown of the waters I guide, including their physical characteristics, when they fish best, how they're accessed (on foot or which boat I use), and tactics clients can expect to use. Ideally, this will help us plan out your trips, based on the waters that sound interesting and fit your skills.
The Yellowstone Park general season runs from the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend in late May through the first Sunday in November, in other words the period when all park roads are open and most visitors come, and there are only a few exceptions to the general rules. The Montana fishing season in the central district (in which all waters I guide are located) are open year-round, with a few minor exceptions to protect spawning fish. That said, most waters get muddy for a period in spring and/or early summer due to the spring melt. Some get too warm and low in midsummer. Others get too cold from sometime in the fall through early summer. As such, the "season" heading for each body of water discusses the period in which a body of water in Yellowstone Park or Montana can be expected to be good, rather than or in addition to when it is open.
In each section of this page, Montana Waters following by Yellowstone Park Waters, I have listed each river or type of water (e.g. Yellowstone River, private lakes) in the approximate order of how much I guide this water. Distance from Livingston, length of season, overall quality and dependability of the fishery, and frankly my own preferences and strengths all factor into this.
Looking for tips on fishing these waters on your own? Check out the area waters section of the fishing tips section of this website (as well as the rest of this section, too).
I primarily guide waters in the state of Montana utilizing a drift boat or raft, though we may get out of the boat to fish from shore from time to time. The primary exceptions are trips taking place on private spring creeks and trips taking place from late fall through mid-March. In both cases, all fishing is done on foot.
Since my guide service is centered on Livingston, MT, I primarily guide waters within a 1.5-hour drive from Livingston (and try to keep drives shorter when possible). All waters discussed here with the exception of the Missouri River fall within this radius. The "MO" is a special case, since it's by far the best river in the region during the spring melt period from mid-May through mid-late June, so guides from all over western Montana converge there during the spring, myself included.
The Yellowstone River is my home river and the one I float the most. Proximity to Livingston is one factor, but the huge variety this river offers in a relatively short distance (I routinely guide about 85 miles of it) is another factor. There's something for everyone here, whether you're looking for big numbers of medium-sized cutthroats on dry flies in the upper stretch near Gardiner or hoping for a couple great big browns on streamers in the prairie country near Big Timber. I use drift boats on most stretches of the Yellowstone through most of the season, but rafts are better in all whitewater stretches and enable using some awful boat ramps the drift boats can't use. In late fall, winter, and early spring, some great fishing is possible on foot.
The Yellowstone is a great choice for floating from as soon as the bank ice melts away sometime in March through early November save for during the spring runoff. Since there are no dams on the Yellowstone or any of its tributaries and its drainage basin includes 12,500-foot mountains that might get snow in any month except July, the spring melt is intense and prolonged. The river's almost always out of play for three weeks starting sometime in early-mid May, and more often it's shot for more than a month. If you're dead-set on floating the Yellowstone, best skip May, June, and the first week of July. The best "big fish fishing" on the Yellowstone occurs from late February through April. The best dry fly fishing and greatest consistency is from sometime in July through September, and October offers okay dry fly fishing and more shots at big fish.
My preferred method of fishing the Yellowstone is with dry flies or dry-dropper, at least from the end of runoff in late June or early July through late September. This tactic produces a lot of fish, but I'll readily admit it will produce less monsters than going deep with bigger nymphs and streamers. That said, I'll usually have a nymph/streamer rod ready to go, too, with which my clients get their share of 18-24" browns and some big rainbows and cutts.
The Yellowstone is the second or third most famous river in my operations area and receives heavy pleasure and angling boat traffic. That said, there are "nooks and crannies" that receive a lot less pressure, especially the whitewater stretches where rafts are necessary or at least far safer than drift boats. In addition, the vast size and often deep water of the Yellowstone (it's bigger than all other trout rivers in the area except the Missouri, which is only bigger at certain periods of the season) means that it only feels crowded on the most popular stretches on summer weekends and during the famous Salmonfly hatch in late June or early July. The rest of the season, there's plenty of room to spread out and we'll often or usually be fishing out of sight of other boats.
The Boulder is a small, turbulent, bouldery (hence the name) mountain river than flows parallel to the Yellowstone about 30 miles east of it, before joining it at Big Timber after the big river hooks east at Livingston. It's a great dry fly fishery from top to bottom, as are its forks. While its headwaters are strictly walk-wade fisheries, and often in the wilderness, the lower river is floatable for a short period in early-mid summer, basically after it clears from snowmelt but still has a good head of water. After it gets too low to float, the lower Boulder's trout are basically left to the millionaires who own the vacation homes lining its lower reaches.
The short season is the secret to the Boulder's quality as a fishery. By no means undiscovered, pressure is often heavy on this river during its short fishable window, but the fish are left alone the rest of the time and so seldom get spooky. This, combined with the fast, broken water, means that the Boulder's solid rainbow and brown trout love eating big dry flies. Most of the trout are in the low to mid teens size-wise, but some browns get big.
Because of its small size, numerous big rocks, and whitewater, all floating on the Boulder is done via whitewater raft. The best and only time to float is for the month or six weeks after runoff recedes, usually the last week of June through July.
This river is ideally suited to my preferences towards fishing dry flies and fast-action fishing. You'll get one cast per spot here, and if you miss it, it's on to the next spot. We'll seldom if ever fish anything but dries and dry-dropper combinations here.
Don't expect to be alone on the Boulder. Lots of other guides and outfitters like this river during its short fishable window, too. That said, since every rock might hold a fish and the guys in the next raft probably flub as many casts as you will, there are usually plenty of eager fish to go around.
Float trips on private ranch lakes aren't for everyone. The fishing is generally slow-paced, fish numbers usually aren't super high (though each season there are massive exceptions), dry fly fishing is a rare treat, and the water isn't all that pretty most of the time. Moreover, the private lakes cost more than other boat trips. So why fish them? Two reasons: the fish are usually big, and the best fishing on the lakes runs from April through early July, when rivers suffer from the spring melt, and again in October, when cold snaps might make rivers tough in the mornings. Let me be clear: private lakes produce the largest average trout on any my trips (14 to 20+ inches, average), and they're by far the most consistent boat trip options (and maybe the most consistent trips overall) within a short drive of Livingston in May and June, when the Yellowstone is blown from the spring melt.
Clients from the eastern United States often appreciate the following note. Farm ponds back East tend to produce big bass and bluegill. Ranch ponds out West grow big trout, of many species. Most trout in the private lakes are rainbows and browns stocked as fingerlings that get big quick, but there are also cutthroats in some and wild brook trout that can break 20 inches in others.
I primarily guide two ranch properties: the Story Ranch lakes (two lakes) near Emigrant and Burns Lake near Big Timber. Both are within about 45 minutes of Livingston, with some of that spent in 4WD on the ranch roads. These drives really give you a taste of "real Montana," as the lakes are located on working cattle ranches.
I run all lake trips in drift boats, though depending on conditions and how deep the fish are cruising, we may also get out and stalk the banks. Most fishing is subsurface, but some Callibaetis mayfly hatches, midge hatches, and damselfly hatches bring the trout up. Some of the subsurface fishing is also visual when the fish are shallow: dropping nymphs and streamers in front of cruising fish.
Because the ranch lakes limit access to preserve the experience for their guests, the lakes are never crowded. This exclusivity comes at a price: $80 to $100 per angler per day on top of my standard guide fees, payable to the landowner. On the other hand, no license is required, which helps ease the burn a bit.
The Paradise Valley spring creeks are ten minutes from Livingston, offer spectacular dry fly fishing at the right times of year for large trout, offer the thrill of sight-fishing through most of the season, don't suffer from spring melt, too-warm water in late summer, or too-cold water in the dead of winter. To top it off, they offer easy access, warming huts, smooth trails, and other amenities to make them easy on older or less-fit anglers. What's not to love? A few things: the difficulty of getting on the creeks during the prime season, since they are often fully-booked six months or more in advance for prime dates, the access fees of $40-$120 per angler per day payable to the landowner, and the exceptionally spoiled, spooky, fussy, and all around difficult fish.
Let me be clear: the spring creeks hold the most difficult fish in my operations area, on average. They live in glass-clear and slow-flowing water, see fake flies every day of the year, eat tiny bugs, and otherwise have every reason to be hard. Impatient anglers, kids, and rookies are likely to be frustrated here and even experts get laughed at by the doctoral student wild rainbows and browns that primarily call the creeks home (some cutthroats are also present). I've personally gone four or five hours without a bite on the creeks, andtwenty fish in a day even for an expert is an absolutely amazing day. Five or ten is a more realistic goal.
Anglers should consider fishing the creeks to be like hunting. The best tactic is to pick a specific fish, sneak up on it, and figure out what it's eating. If there's a good hatch underway (most likely March-April and late June-July), the fishing might not be too hard. Otherwise, expect to go through many fly changes before fooling or spooking the fish.
The creeks are clear and can fish well all year, but they are best in spring and fall when BWO hatches can be good, fish numbers are higher due to spawning runs (though we will target only pre-spawn fish in deep water, not active spawners), and there's less angler traffic. The best dry fly fishing but also heaviest crowds run from about June 20 through about July 20, when the PMD mayflies are hatching.
All fishing on the creeks is done on foot. While never crowded, the creeks are fully-booked most days and we will often be fishing within sight of others. That said, it's rare for anybody to come charging up to steal your hole, as the clientele who love these sorts of places understand the need for decorum and to let everybody else have room to work.
For now, I guide two sections of the Missouri River. I previously guided another section generally only accessible for guided trips via power boat, but I sold my power boat to buy a house. Look for power boat trips to resume on much of the river, including some new stretches, in 2020.
Downstream of Three Forks, the Missouri passes through four reservoirs and four dams before running free between Wolf Creek and Great Falls, Montana. The dams clear and cool the water, so that downstream of Holter Dam, the last in the chain, about 45 minutes from Helena (2hr 45min from Livingston) the water is clear and cold all summer and clear and warm in the winter. This is the closest large tailwater to Livingston, making it the only float river in anything approaching reasonable range besides the lower Madison that remains fishable during the peak of the spring melt. Overall it is a far better river than the lower Madison, with heavy insect numbers, lots of big trout, and water that never gets too warm in the heat of the summer or too cold in the winter. It's wall to wall boats from April through July and gets busy again in mid-September and stays that way through the fall. The crowds are there for a reason. This is a great river, particularly if you're okay with nymphing.
Because of the distance involved, I only guide this stretch of the Missouri from March through June, before closer rivers are ready. This is a great time of year on the "MO," as the fish wake up from the cold winter. Most fishing before early May is nymphing. After that, dry fly fishing gets stronger and stronger provided the water doesn't get too high for the trout to rise, as it can do following wet winters. This water is suitable to anglers of all skill levels, since it's mostly short-range nymphing from the boat during the time I guide it. All of my guided trips here are from a drift boat.
Please note that Missouri River trips downstream of Holter Dam Require a minimum booking of two consecutive days. This water is too far from Livingston to do as a day trip efficiently. Book two days and we'll float different sections of this water on each day. The trips may be full-days or half-days.
The upper Missouri between Three Forks and Canyon Ferry Reservoir (the second in the chain) is a very different river. This is the best "multispecies" fishery in my area of operations. Formed at Three Forks by the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin, this is a prairie river that is just barely cool enough for trout. Rainbow and brown trout numbers are only a few hundred per mile, not many in this big a river. That said, the trout are often quite large (2-6lbs), since this is a fertile river full of minnows, crayfish, and nymphs. The resident trout tend to cluster near cold tributary streams and springs. They're joined in the spring downstream of Toston Dam (the first in the chain) by very large run-up rainbows, and in the fall by even larger browns. The other resident fish are rather more esoteric fly rod quarry: carp, walleye, and pike. Of these, the carp are by far the best fly rod gamefish. There are a lot of them, they run 4-12lbs on average, targeting them is primarily sight-fishing in shallow water, they fight hard, fishing for them is great in mid-late summer when the trout rivers might be 'meh,' and in all ways save their reputations they are ideal gamefish.
Fishing the upper Missouri requires a variety of tactics and flies depending on what's going on. Most of the time, warmwater-style streamers and crayfish patterns (Clouser Minnows and the like) are the tickets for everything. Sometimes carp or trout will rise to mayflies or hoppers. In the fall, the browns might want big articulated streamers or egg flies. This is emphatically not beginner water. All species here require accurate casts and good presentations. If you manage that, you'll get a fair number of eats, but given that the average fish of all species here run 3+ pounds and can easily crack ten, once a fish is hooked you're in for a fight that would induce panic and breakoffs for beginner anglers.
For now, I exclusively fish this water with a drift boat. I say "with" rather than "from," because the boat is often just transportation. When we spot fish, we'll pull over, get out, and sneak up on them. Once I get a new power boat, we'll do the same thing using it.
Upper Missouri trips are available from April through November except during the spring runoff. The best multispecies fishing is from late July through early September. Single-day bookings are possible here, since this water isn't all that far from Livingston. This water is lightly fished even though it's easy to access, since few locals and fewer tourists like to fish for anything other than trout (I do, and I'm not the only guide or outfitter...).
If you're willing to fish for "what's willing to eat," rather than fixated on trout, this is the ultimate "nook and cranny" stretch of river in my bag of tricks.
Through most of May and June, the lower Madison is the closest and really only float river within reasonable day trip range of Livingston. While it gets high, it seldom gets filthy muddy. For this reason, it gets fished really hard in late spring and early summer, before the massive crowds of drunk and/or bikini-clad pleasure floaters in inner tubesshow up in late June. Why does this river get a lot of pleasure floaters compared to every other river? Because this low-elevation section of the Madison downstream from the shallow, silted-in heat sink called Ennis Lake gets too warm, often touching the high-70s in late July and early August. This wrecks the fishing in mid-late summer and reduces trout numbers overall.
Why fish it then? Two reasons, first off, it is the only float river near Livingston and Bozeman (closer to the latter) in May and usually June, and some anglers just want to float. Second, while it holds few fish, those it holds are generally good. Rainbows and browns are present here, as are carp and pike in the bottom-most sections. The trout average in the mid-teens and can get quite large. The browns in particular reguarly exceed 20 inches, growing that large on a diet of crayfish, which are abundant here and often the best forage to imitate.
Besides matching the crawdads, the fishing here primarily involves nymphing in dropoff "buckets" downstream of weed beds, with a variety of mayflies, caddis, midges, scuds, and worms. There's also some chance of a big fish in spring and fall on large streamers, and there's some good caddis, mayfly, and early Salmonfly hatches here in May and June, plus some BWO mayflies from late September into early November. Just don't expect big numbers of fish. Heavy pressure and low fish densities mean a handful of good trout per angler is a very solid day. On one admittedly tough September trip a few years ago, the number one boat on the stretch of river I floated landed a total of six trout, and they were throwing spinning lures. My boat got two or three. That was a tough day. A good day might mean ten fish.
All of my trips here run in drift boats. Some fishing on foot is possible here in late winter and early spring, or by hiking upstream a bit later in spring into the wilderness water of the Beartrap Canyon below Ennis Dam, but I have better and especially less-crowded wade-fishing options closer to Livingston at these times.
Small streams are Montana's ultimate nook and cranny waters. Some hydrologist might have an educated guess about how many creeks hold fish in southwest Montana, but I sure don't. Let me put it this way: I've caught fifteen-inch trout in creeks I could step over. How many creeks that size can there be? Most visitors and few locals fish them. I love them, as well as some bigger creeks that get more pressure but offer slightly less obnoxious access.
Most Montana small streams that I guide are fast-flowing and rocky. Such characteristics breed small, pretty trout that are eager to eat dry flies. There are also some creeks that are slower-moving and hold larger, spookier fish that demand sneakier tactics. Almost all small streams worth fishing require getting off paved highways and onto gravel or dirt, which gives clients a better taste of "real Montana" than larger rivers in the state, which generally have paved roads providing access.
With the exception of the few public meadow streams, most small streams are not ideal for older or less-fit anglers. Instead they're better for teens and young adults who like to rock hop, crawl under branches, etc. The action nature of the fishing in most small streams is also ideal for younger people. The meadow streams are a different story. They're better bets for experienced, patient anglers who want to approach the water with care and essentially hunt their fish.
Small-stream walk-wade trips in Montana are best run as either half-day trips or as one of my walk/float combo trips. We'll fish a larger river in the morning, either the Yellowstone or the Madison, then move on to some higher-elevation creek to get out of the sun and the wind after lunch. Most small streams are best from late July until early September, while a few at lower elevation are good for much of the year.
Note: Some small streams are located in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, which requires commercial users to have an additional permit I do not have and cannot easily get, since no new permits are currently being issued. If we fish one of these creeks, I will run the trip in conjunction with Parks' Fly Shop, which has the necessary permits.
The Stillwater is the Boulder's big brother. It basically drains the next large valley east of the Boulder, joining the Yellowstone at Columbus about 35 miles downstream of Big Timber. This river is fast-flowing and rough, so much so that many have suggested the name was a joke. Its headwaters are wilderness. It's floatable lower stretches are high enough to float from late June or early July into September most years.
Pressure here is lighter than it is in rivers closer to Livingston or Bozeman, for the simple reason that this one is pretty far away, and far from other fisheries. The heaviest traffic is actually from Billings locals.
Tactics here match those on the Boulder: mostly fast-action fishing with attractor dries and terrestrials, with some streamers mixed in during the fall. Fish also match the Boulder: mostly rainbows in browns in the teens, length-wise.
Because it is fast, turbulent, and rocky, all my guide trips on the Stillwater utilize whitewater rafts, though there is good wade fishing available too.
For what it's worth, I'd fish this river more if it were closer.
The upper Madison River from Quake Lake to Ennis Lake is perhaps the most famous stretch of river in Montana and certainly the most heavily-fished. During the Salmonfly hatch in late June and on summer weekends, literally hundreds of boats--most guided-- float this river daily. There's good reason for the river's popularity. There's a lot of big trout here, and both the valley and the river are gorgeous. That said, the crowds are awfully high for my taste, especially given the fact that this stretch of the Madison is good about when the Yellowstone ten minutes from my house is also good. Because of the pressure, fishing is best early and late in the season
This stretch of the Madison is fast, shallow, and rocky, but not rough in most places. Therefore, most fishing is done from drift boats. There are also opportunities for walk/wade fishing here, especially on the short sections of river at the upper and lower ends of this water where fishing from moving boats is illegal (though it's legal to use boats for transportation).
Because of the pressure here, fishing is best with a variety of small to moderate-sized nymphs. Larger nymphs and streamers can also work, as can imitations of various caddis and mayflies when hatches are underway. In late summer, ants, bees, and small hoppers also work. The key here is finding deep spots around the rocks that others haven't hit yet on a given day, or at least hitting such spots with flies the harried fish there haven't seen in a while. Because of the pressure, fishing is best early in the season, immediately after the light spring runoff begins to recede, and in the fall.
The primary quarry on the Madison are hard-fighting rainbows in the high teens. There are also browns in the same ballpark size. While fish numbers are great here, especially for a river half the size of the Yellowstone or Missouri, the fishing is not easy due to the pressure, and the numbers of fish caught in a day tend to be lower than on the Yellowstone, Boulder, or Stillwater. That said, the fish do tend to average an inch or two longer than on these other rivers.
The Gallatin is the "home river" for the entire angling populace residing in Bozeman and Big Sky. The best portions of it for wade-fishing are basically paralleled by a US highway featuring innumerable access points for wading anglers. As such, pressure is high, though the character of the water (fast, bouldery, and turbulent, over much of its length) means that the fish stay fairly aggressive. Still, similar water in the Yellowstone and Gardner River drainages in Yellowstone Park is a bit closer to me and in my opinion better, since it's harder to access.
That said, the Gallatin downstream of the park boundary has a huge advantage over the Gardner and Yellowstone in the park: it's open all year. Fishing can be good in many sections between Big Sky and Four Corners from February to early May, when the park is closed. This is therefore my favorite time to wade this water. It's also before the whitewater fiends get on the water.
The fishing in this upper section is classic rough water angling with attractor dries and various attractor nymphs. The caveat is that the pressure makes for spookier fish than usual for water of this type, often meaning that flashy but slender nymphs are the tickets. In late summer, the terrestrial fishing is great, particularly in the Gallatin Canyon below Big Sky and near the Yellowstone boundary, where heavy infestations of spruce moths make imitations of this blond bug the most consistent flies overall.
The "lower middle" section of the Gallatin between Gallatin Gateway or Four Corners south of Livingston down to Manhattan offers poor fishing due to warm water and irrigation drawdowns. The fishing picks up again at Gallatin Forks, where the spring-fed East Gallatin joins (this is a good albeit mostly private small stream in its own right). From here a bit under 13 miles to Three Forks, the fishing is lunker hunting from the drift boat. Resident fish numbers are low, but they're reinforced in the fall by run-up browns out of the Missouri. Most of the fishing is therefore in the fall, using large streamers from the boat, hoping for "the one."
Like a lot of the rivers in this chunk of the page, the lower Gallatin is mostly a change-up fishery for anglers who've already seen the Yellowstone and the Madison. It ain't a good choice for novices. The upper river is far better for those with limited experience, especially those who are visiting in late winter or early spring and want a break from skiing at Big Sky or Bridger Bowl.
The Jefferson is formed by the confluence of the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and to a lesser extent the Ruby River, at Twin Bridges, Montana. These forks are all better fisheries than the "Jeff" itself, but they're too far away from Livingston to make sense and also require some permits for commercial use that really don't make sense, given how far I am from them.
The Jefferson is a big, slow, low-elevation river home primarily to brown trout, and some big ones. If there was no irrigation in its valley, it would probably hold a whole lot of fish and get a lot more pressure. Unfortunately, irrigation drawdowns coupled with the low elevation and slow flows mean this river gets low and warm in the summer, retarding fish numbers. This limits fishing to spring, the period immediately after runoff, and the autumn. At these times, the Jefferson is an excellent option for modest numbers of above-average browns and a few rainbows, in a lovely setting, without crowds. It's just not a place to go when you want to rack up the numbers.
While fish numbers are highest in the upper section of the river, in the Jefferson Valley downstream of Twin Bridges where the water is cooler, this stretch also gets a fair amount of pressure from Twin Bridges-based guides and isn't all that scenic. I prefer the middle section of the river through the Jefferson Canyon, which sees less pressure and is beautiful. It's also (and this is not a coincidence) a lot closer to Livingston.
Most of the fishing here is subsurface, with crayfish patterns, nymphs, and streamers all fished under indicators the best bets. Dry fly action is mostly limited to some hopper fishing in early autumn. I want to reiterate that this is not a numbers fishery. A half-dozen trout is a solid day here, and one or two is acceptable so long as they're high-teens browns. The real draws aren't the numbers of fish: they're the pretty canyon and the lower traffic relative to other good early summer options.
All of my fishing here is done via drift boat.
I concentrate my Yellowstone Park guided fishing trips in the northcentral and northeastern parts of the park, primarily waters draining into the Yellowstone River and the Yellowstone itself. Early in the season I also guide on the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers, the Madison River's sources, in the western part of the park. There are plenty of other good fisheries in Yellowstone, but they are too far from Livingston, MT to make sense for me (or my clients).
All fly fishing in Yellowstone National Park is walk/wade fishing. Boats are banned except on the park's lakes, which are generally hike-in fisheries anyway. Because of excellent public access, roadside streams lacking large boulders or otherwise difficult footing are generally extraordinarily crowded, even those that aren't all that productive. For this reason, when guiding in Yellowstone Park I primarily guide on small, rugged streams and/or on hike-in rivers, streams, and small lakes. I seldom guide the most-famous, easy-access meadow rivers, since the overwhelming crowds on these waters make them difficult to guide simply because it's often hard to find enough room. For clients fit enough to burn some boot leather and enjoy a hike before and after fishing and/or risk a swim in rough water, good-sized fish in far better condition than those in the roadside streams are easy to find, and the overall experience is far more enjoyable and "wild."
Note that the Yellowstone Park season opens the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and closes at sunset on the first Sunday in November. Runoff lasts a long time here, so there are usually few options for the first month or even 5-6 weeks of the season, during wet years. Fishing is good for the remainder of the season, even when the weather is hot and bright and the larger, lower-elevation rivers downstream in Montana can be tough, which makes a park walk-wade a good way to beat the heat during low water years and hot spells.
Note: For right now, all Yellowstone Park trips are run in conjunction with Parks' Fly Shop, in Gardiner, MT. A portion of your guided fee will go to this shop.
Let's get one thing straight. The Yellowstone in its Black and Grand Canyons makes you work for it. Everywhere I guide on the park portion of the Yellowstone requires a hike. While short (1-3 miles one-way), the hike is usually in dry country while the sun beats down, requires some climbing whether on-trail or off, and usually involves tough footing on cannonball-sized boulders once you're on the river. From one access, I've looked downhill at Bighorn sheep... Clients who are worried about their ability to handle such conditions should not fish the Yellowstone in the park. Instead, they should float it in Montana, or do a walk-wade elsewhere.
Once you're committed to the Yellowstone, it usually offers solid numbers of solid trout. Most of these are fat, pure cutthroats averaging somewhere between twelve and sixteen inches depending on which stretch we're fishing, with the "typical range" fish running 8-15 inches in some areas and 12-18 in others. Typically the areas with larger fish on average hold fewer of them. Some rainbow-cutthroat hybrids and pure rainbows are present through both canyons, while browns and whitefish join around Knowles Falls. The rainbow-cutt hybrids are typically the largest of the fish. I've had clients catch them to 24 inches.
The season in the lower Grand Canyon can start with the park season during dry years. This early fishing, if present, is all nymph and streamer fishing. More typically, both canyons drop from runoff between June 20 and July 4 (note: the Black Canyon starts at the mouth of the Lamar, and is never clear before at least June 15). Nymph and streamer fishing is always good out of the gate. After the Salmonflies begin between June 20 and July 4, large dries take over for most of the summer, but streamer fishing remains good all season. In the fall, some mayfly hatches also bring good match-the-hatch fishing, but this is much more an attractor and terrestrial river for most of the year.
I do more of my Yellowstone Park guiding on the Yellowstone than any other river, probably more than all other waters combined with the exception of the Gardner. The pretty, chunky, healthy fish, breathtaking canyon scenery, and dependable fishing all make up for the challenge of getting on the water and not falling in while you're fishing it.
The lower Gardner River mostly runs parallel to the park's North Entrance Road, and only requires a hike of more than about a mile for one short stretch that isn't as good as stretches closer to the road. Even so, pressure is light for most of the season in all but a couple stretches, for one simple reason: this is a steep, narrow, fast-flowing stretch of river that requires anglers to wade well and understand how to fish bouldery pocket water effectively for success.
The lower Gardner begins at Osprey Falls, in the Sheepeater Canyon. This stretch is the only backcountry water on the lower Gardner. Soon the river comes in sight of roads, and there in generally stays for the remaining five miles or so to its confluence with the Yellowstone. There are two pocket meadows and a handful of pools. Otherwise, the river here is all pocket water. Rainbows and browns are the dominant trout throughout, but there are also cutthroat and brook trout as well as some big whitefish making this the best place in the area to try for a "slam" comprising all of the area's stream-dwelling salmonids.
Most of the fishing here is fast-paced nymphing with large stonefly and attractor nymphs. Czech and other short-range nymphing tactics (usually without indicators) in the pocket water produces the largest numbers of fish. Dry/dropper in the same areas works well from the end of runoff in late June through early September. The average trout caught with such techniques run eight to twelve inches, but there are a lot of them and always some bigger fish around. Nymphing the deepest holes with indicators can produce some seriously large fish, most (but not all) of which are browns running upriver from the Yellowstone in the autumn. These fish average 14 to 18 inches but can reach 25 to 30 inches on very rare occasions.
Because of the chance for big fish and the hot spring at the middle of this stretch of the Gardner that keeps it warm and fishing well in the late season, this is my favorite body of water to guide from about October 5 through the close of the Yellowstone season in early November.
The mellow portions of the Yellowstone's major tributary the Lamar River and its major tributary Slough Creek (it's really a small river) see overwhelming pressure often resembling Eastern-style "combat fisheries" after the stocking truck just left. To shed these crowds, I prefer guiding rough water portions, preferably those a bit off the road. My preferred hike-in areas are about a mile from the road, but I sometimes guide stretches as much as five miles from the road. The further we walk, the mellower the water can be and still have reasonable crowds of other anglers, though the Second Meadow of Slough Creek almost five miles from the road still gets fairly heavy traffic, so there are limits to this.
Besides lower crowds, the rugged portions of Slough and the Lamar offer the advantage of typically producing far more trout than the meadow stretches. 20 trout per angler in a short day of fishing is nothing. That said, these fish are going to average much smaller than in the meadows, typically around 8-10 inches in Slough Creek and about 12 inches in the Lamar. There are always larger fish present, though. In fact, the very largest fish in the Lamar System are probably found in the rough stretches of the Lamar and Slough. I've personally caught fish in the 20-inch class, and I've seen photos of fish approaching two feet. If you do catch 20 fish in a day, odds are that at least a couple fish in the high teens will have eaten. It's easier said than done sticking these big slow-eating fish when you're used to dinks pecking at your flies.
Most fishing here is dry-dropper, with various attractor dries and hoppers and small attractor nymphs the most likely suspects. Like the flat water in the Lamar System, hatches in the rough water are strong. A couple small stoneflies and Green Drake mayflies are most common, but this water receives Salmonfly and Golden Stonefly hatches in early July, too. Some streamer fishing is also worthwhile, especially on the Lamar in early autumn.
This is great water for teens and up of any skill level provided they're fit enough to rock-hop and hike a bit. I primarily guide here in July and August, the period when there's a better chance for big fish and the hatches are strong.
Due to some poor decision making by those who first introduced fish to originally-fishless waters in Yellowstone back in the late 1800s, higher-elevation small streams in Yellowstone Park are home almost exclusively to vast numbers of tiny brook trout (4 to 8 inches). While in most cases not very interesting for experienced anglers, these are great fish for kids, families, and any beginners who want to be sure they get a lot of action. There are better options for beginners who want to focus on learning, since the small fish that call the small high-elevation creeks home are so hungry that it's possible to do almost everything wrong and still get a lot of bites.
While there are brookie creeks in the Gibbon, Firehole, and Lewis River drainages, those I guide are all in the Gardner or Yellowstone drainages within about a half-hour of Mammoth Hot Springs. This includes the Gardner River's headwaters. There are also a few rainbows in portions of the upper Gardner that get a little bigger than the brookies. All of these streams are best from sometime in early July through late August, though the fishing can begin as early as around June 10 in dry years and extends into early September, with slightly less consistency.
While some of these streams flow right next to the road in places, the fishing is seldom worthwhile close to the road after about the first week the streams are clear. Instead, clients who book me to fish these streams should expect to hike a mile or two, on or off trail. In general, the hikes aren't too onerous unless that's what you want, and the landscape is pretty and includes opportunities for wildlife and wildflower viewing, a few waterfalls, berry-picking, and other activities that might keep people who are "meh" about fishing interested for a half-day. A half-day is all these waters are worth even for rookies. With beginners on full-day trips, we'll chase dink brookies in the morning, then move on to bigger/harder fish.
All in all, the brook trout streams are great "family" destinations, and fishing with families or groups of friends who are both fishing and doing other things on their Western trip are the usual reasons I guide on them. Some of the creeks are suitable to children as young as 8 years old if they're eager to try fly fishing, and 12 year-olds typically love them.
Mountain streams offering fish other than (and therefore potentially bigger than) brook trout are common in many areas of Yellowstone Park. They're often small and/or steep, and the smaller and steeper they are, the more likely they are to be utterly choked with downed trees. The key advantages they offer and uncrowded fishing and exceptionally pretty albeit often small trout. Longer hikes raise the possibility of bigger fish on a consistent basis, and there are less than a handful of streams it's possible to jump across that nonetheless hold a few big post-spawn cutthroats for several weeks after they're done spawning.
The small streams vary wildly in terms of size, from step-across rivulets to large, rough streams that are challenging to wade across until late summer. They also vary in terms of fish species, tactics required, fish size, and access. Generally speaking, the smaller and/or steeper the stream, the more likely we can fish within earshot of the road without dealing with too much competition. One creek I like is good right next to the road, but that's because it's so small you can't even see it from the road.
With a couple exceptions, most non-brookie small streams in Yellowstone are best from sometime in July through about Labor Day. The smallest become fishable a little sooner and get too low a little sooner. All are half-day destinations, either on their own for "blue lining" enthusiasts, or in conjunction with time spent on bigger water (usually the Yellowstone, Lamar, or Gardner) for the rest of the day.
In addition to serving as worthwhile fisheries in their own right, the smallest streams are excellent educational waters. Their fish can be quite spooky even if they're small, and the tactics required to get them translate well to small streams elsewhere, often including little trickles in the Appalachian Mountains. In the past couple years, I've had quite a few clients who enjoyed the small creeks due to the knowledge fishing them gave that would be applicable when they got home.
Except for a couple meadow creeks, the small streams usually require some rock-scrambling, clambering through brush, etc. This makes them bad choices for many though not all older anglers. They're also not good bets for those who want numbers of big fish or to "cast like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It, since the brush, overhead cover, logs, and so on make for a lot of trick casts and improvisation. For me and a lot of others this is part of the fun of such waters, but it sure isn't pretty.
For what it's worth, when I fish on my own in Yellowstone Park during the peak July-September tourist season, I'm usually fishing waters like this, since they're so different from my primary guiding fisheries and I can always shed crowds while fishing them.
Most of the lakes in Yellowstone Park are so-so from a fly fishing perspective. This includes the big roadside lakes, Yellowstone and Lewis. The smaller roadside lakes are often fishless. In fact, about 9 out of 10 lakes in Yellowstone Park are glorified puddles that don't hold any fish at all. There are about half a dozen notable exceptions across the northern part of the park. One offers the best fishing in the region for Arctic grayling, as well as numerous small but pretty cutthroats. One offers big cutthroats that often laugh at an angler's best presentations. A couple offer small brook trout, especially in the spring. A couple offer not small brook trout. Of these, Cascade Lake, the cutthroat and grayling lake, is my favorite. Pairing a half-day on this lake with a half-day on the Gibbon River (see below) makes for an enjoyable day in early summer. The other lakes are basically changeup options to equivalent streams: fishing for "beginner brook trout" on a lake rather than a stream, chasing big brook trout in the fall rather than big browns, etc.
The Gibbon is a small river that offers delightful attractor dry/dropper fishing for small-medium browns and rainbows early in the park season when most rivers in the area that offer similar fishing are too high, with some opportunities for big browns both at this time and again in the fall. In midsummer, it gets too warm from the many hot springs that feed it.
I primarily guide the Gibbon Canyon, centered on picturesque Gibbon Falls. While only a couple stretches of the Gibbon see heavy pressure, this section sees the least and offers dependable fishing, albeit mostly for fish under about 12 inches in length. Short and fairly mellow hikes will shed most of the crowds, and while the Gibbon in this reach is pocket water, it's milder pocket water than can be found on the Gardner and some sections are suitable for most clients. I do most of my guiding here with dry-dropper rigs.
Bigger fish are present in some areas downstream of Gibbon Falls throughout the year, but especially right at the beginning of the season and in October, when run-up rainbows and browns from Hebgen Lake arrive in numbers. In fact, the spring fish are probably holdover runners who have not yet returned to the lake. A more-consistent but much harder stretch for big trout is in the two big meadows near Norris Geyser Basin, Gibbon Meadows and Elk Park. In contrast to the pocket water, these stretches are glass-smooth and resemble large spring creeks. This breeds large, spooky brown trout that are challenging even for experts. The best fishing in these stretches is in late June when the heaviest mayfly hatches occur.
Some "small water" sections of the Gibbon above Norris Geyser Basin are also worthwhile, for smaller trout as well as a few grayling, but I'm not going to go into detail about where...
The Gibbon is a great bet early in the season, and if you book a Yellowstone trip with me in the first two or three weeks of June, odds are we'll spend some time here, at least a half-day.
Roadside and easy-access portions of the Lamar, Slough Creek, and Soda Butte Creek are the most famous and most crowded wade-fishing waters in the Yellowstone area and some of the most crowded in the Rocky Mountain West. Simply put, it is often hard to find even a single pool on these waters to yourself, the scarred and poor-fighting fish see a relentless barrage of flies every day from early July through at least September 20 and get caught several times per week in many cases. When I worked the counter at Parks' Fly Shop in Gardiner, more than 2/3 of our customers on any given day were asking for flies and info for these waters, and the tide never seemed to recede no matter how much I and the other staff encouraged anglers fit enough to do so to fish almost anywhere else.
No waters in my area of operations would better benefit from being five miles from the nearest road than these, because these are fertile, beautiful streams in lovely valleys, that produce heavy insect hatches (particularly of Green and Tan Drake mayflies, the latter the so-called "Drake Mackeral") and a lot of high-average cutthroat trout running 12-18 inches most of the time (though few truly BIG fish). Actually, Slough Creek is five (or eight!) miles from the road in spots, and still gets crowded, but it's a special case because of all the horseback outfitters who shuttle clients in to fish it. In any case, the "catching" as opposed to the "fishing" is undeniably good. The "fishing" if the experience is seen a whole is a different story. There are simply too many people. They'll walk into the hole you're fishing. They'll walk down the undercut bank you're casting towards, putting down the fish you spotted. On Soda Butte, I once had some idiot rush into the small pool my client had been fishing after he hooked a fish that ran downstream out of the pool, demanding pursuit.
I could guide on these waters more than I do, and frankly doing so would make my job easier, both physically and mentally, since these waters are easy on the body to guide and the fish that live in them are usually easy enough to catch except in the dog days of August and on cold September mornings. The crowds leave me too cold to do this. The appeal is undeniable especially for anglers who aren't fit enough to hike, but fishing rougher rivers offers better experiences for clients who can handle such rivers, and floating offers better experiences for those who can't hike.
That said, I typically guide the roadside portions of one of these streams a couple times a year. Usually this is due to client preferences. Once in a blue moon I'll choose to take a single client to some less-productive stretches of these streams that aren't quite as crowded (though they're still busy), where I know we can cover a lot of water and find a few good fish in deep spots in otherwise unproductive side channels. Otherwise, I stay away from this water as much as I can, as do most other experienced guides besides a few old salts who remember when the crowds weren't so heavy.
The Firehole is Yellowstone Park's premiere early season river, particularly for those who want match-the-hatch fishing and those who want to enjoy Yellowstone's scenic wonders as well as fish. The late legend Charlie Brooks referred to the Firehole as "the strangest trout river on Earth," and he was probably right. If I take you to the Firehole, there is a 100% chance I'll show you some combination of hot springs, geysers, mud pots, bison, small but somewhat selective rainbow and brown trout that fight hard for their size, and heavy aquatic insect hatches.
Sounds great, right? There are three problems. First off, the same geysers and other geothermal features that are so fascinating and make the Firehole warmer and clearer than every other fishery in the park in late May and early June make it intolerably hot most of the season. In drought years, even early June afternoons can see water temps spiking to over 70 degrees. More often, the fishing stays good at least in the mornings through most of June, but then it's OVER until after Labor Day. Even then, the Firehole isn't as good as some closer options in the fall. For this reason, I typically only guide on the Firehole before about mid-June, or late June in wet years. Second, because it's the only match-the-hatch fishery in the early season, the Firehole can be crowded. Usually it's possible to find some small chunks of water to yourself, especially on the sections requiring a modest hike that I prefer, but you'll seldom be the only angler in view.
Finally, and most critical, the Firehole is just a long way away. Even when I was based in Gardiner about 50 minutes closer to the Firehole than I am now, the drive was daunting. With road construction involviny delays in the way that shows every sign of continuing until doomsday (the road has been a mess for three seasons now, not counting 2019), the drive to the Firehole from Livingston is now as long as the drive to the portion of the Missouri that offers good spring and early summer trout fishing. This basically makes the Firehole a destination that's only worth fishing with me rather than a guide from West Yellowstone (a lot closer to the Firehole) because you're staying in Livingston or Paradise Valley and wish to have what amounts to a half-day guided drive through Paradise Valley and Yellowstone Park along with a half-day of fishing.
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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