Float trip brown trout ready for release. Caught in Paradise Valley on the Yellowstone.
Parks' Fly Shop began running guided float trips in 1955, utilizing a war-surplus rubber raft that had apparently earned several Purple Hearts during its service, based on the number of leaks. We run guided drift boat trips on the blue ribbon portion of the Yellowstone River between Gardiner and Columbus, including the glorious Yankee Jim Canyon, as well as the lower Madison River near Bozeman.
Float trips on the Yellowstone are available as full-day, "double half-day," and half-day options in high season and intermediate-length trips during spring and fall. Full-day and double half-day trips usually meet between 6:00AM and 9:00AM. Half-day trips may meet anytime between 6:00AM and 4:00PM, depending on the season, your interests, and water conditions. Spring and fall trips typically meet between 9:00 and 10:00. Yellowstone River floats are available from mid-March through early November except during the spring runoff.
Yellowstone River "double half-day" floats consist of running one 4-7 mile stretch in the morning, then pulling the boat out and driving to a different 4-7 mile stretch of river in the afternoon. This is a great choice for anglers who only have one day to fish but want to see a couple sections of the Yellowstone or hope to combine both numbers of trout and a few big ones.
Madison River trips are available only as full-days. Since it's a long drive to this stretch of river, you should expect to meet early, no later than 7:00AM if we're meeting you in Gardiner. Madison River trips are available only from about April 15 through June except when thunderstorms muddy the Yellowstone.
While eagles and osprey are common sights on floats, this pic is less common than catching an eight-pound trout on a dry... Photo courtesy Ann Herzler.
Our shop is located a hundred yards from the Yellowstone River and only two miles from the first drift boat access. When running one of the upper floats near Gardiner, we are often the first boat on and the last boat off, while if our float takes us a considerable distance from Gardiner, it's best to make late dinner plans as we often get back to Gardiner as late as 8:00PM. The Yellowstone is one of the most famous rivers on Earth, for good reason. In terms of variety of angling opportunities, quality, and the landscape through which it flows, the Yellowstone is unparalleled.
Depending on time of year and stretch floated, the Yellowstone has something to offer for every angler, whether you're interested in catching a lot of cutthroat trout on big attractor dry flies or hoping for one real monster on a streamer. In general, we focus on the upper river near Gardiner for numbers of fish and when dry fly fishing is key, and go further downstream when looking for big daddies. Our double half-day trips make it possible to experience both the "action fishery" near Gardiner and have a chance at big fish twenty or thirty miles downstream, all on the same day.
The Yellowstone has different things to offer and fishes differently depending on the season. Read on for details on how we fish it on guide trips in spring, summer, and fall.
A rare gray afternoon in late July brought great streamer fishing for big browns. This was the largest, snaky but 23+ inches.
Our float season on the Yellowstone begins in the middle of March, when longer days and warmer water make good fishing more likely to last most of the day rather than just a couple hours. The early season, from the beginning of the guide season until runoff dirties the river, is something of a sleeper bet, and offers uncrowded conditions, usually comfortable weather as long as you remember a spare layer and a raincoat, excellent streamer and nymph fishing, Blue-winged Olive (Baetis) and March Brown mayflies and midges for match the hatch dry fly action, and in late April or early May, the epic Mother's Day Caddis hatch.
The spring float season ends with the onset of the spring snowmelt, which usually occurs around May 5-10. Once the Yellowstone becomes too dirty to fish, we head over to the Madison.
Spring is a good time of year for those seeking to escape the crowds, especially if you have a couple days on which a float might work, in case cold and snow or an early surge of spring runoff forces us to reschedule. It is also a good bet if you want to fish "meat" for big fish, since the larger trout are aggressive for streamers and large nymphs after a tough winter. Spring floats run under our spring specialty rate and typically last 6-8 hours from door to door.
Below: a huge spring rainbow-cutthroat hybrid, caught on the McConnell-Yankee Jim float.
Summer is high time for action fishing for cutthroats, rainbows, and cuttbow hybrids on the Yellowstone. Here are a couple of the nice fish from this teen's first-ever float trip, both caught on dries. McConnell-Yankee Jim float.
90% of the Yellowstone's float pressure occurs in the summer, and if you're making your first visit to the region or love attractor and terrestrial dry fly fishing, this is when you should come, too. Try to book early, though. During the summer we're typically booked solid every day.
Immediately after runoff recedes sometime between June 15 and July 10 (typically the last week of June), the trout go on a subsurface feeding binge, seeking out Golden Stonefly and Salmonfly nymphs. The famed emergence of these bird-sized bugs is one of the most anticipated events of the angling year, and is a time when some of the largest trout in the river will rise to dry flies. As the Salmonflies and Golden Stones taper off, many species of caddis and small stoneflies begin hatching, making it possible for our clients to fish dry flies almost exclusively for much of the summer.
For the dry fly angler, midsummer is Nirvana. As the grass begins to turn gold, natural insect hatches begin to fade and the trout turn increasingly towards terrestrial food sources: grasshoppers. While the wind can make casting a challenge, few things beat the explosive rise of a rainbow or cutthroat, or better yet, the gentle sip of a 20-inch brown taking a two-inch grasshopper imitation like a smaller trout would take a half-inch mayfly. The weather is usually quite comfortable and most of the time we leave the waders at home and wet wade getting in and out of the boat. Since flows are high and the trout concentrate tight to the banks (and the bushes), we tend to float 10-12 miles every day and do almost all our fishing from the boat.
Beginning sometime in late July or early August, flows through Yankee Jim Canyon drop enough to make drift boat fishing reasonable. As the only fly shop to run this section of the river in drift boats rather than less-nimble and less-comfortable rubber rafts, we'd love to introduce you to this beautiful, rugged section of river where the trout love taking dries especially well.
As noted above, summer is the peak of dry fly fishing on our floats and is the most popular time to float the river. It also offers the most consistent fishing in general, though chances for gigantic fish probably aren't as good as in spring and fall. Conditions are usually pleasant, though the occasional summer thunderstorm can make some stretches unfishable for a day or two. Except in Yankee Jim Canyon it's hard to avoid competition from other boats and some wading anglers, but the Yellowstone only gets truly "crowded" on rare summer days and during the Salmon Fly hatch, and even at the peak of the season your back cast is more likely to hit a whitewater boat or a pleasure floater than another guided drift boat.
Below: Golden Stonefly eater on the upper Yellowstone near Gardiner.
Our bread and butter float trip fish from late August through early October are large cutthroats and cutt-bow hybrids willing to eat small dry flies. This one ate a #18 Blue-winged Olive imitation in early September.
Sometime between August 20 and Labor Day, the Yellowstone begins to change, becoming lower and clearer, with an increase in mayfly activity. Instead of banging the banks, we often run a bit farther out and fish broader riffles and other midriver structure. The trout start getting suspicious about the larger, normal grasshopper patterns and attractor dries, and start wanting smaller flies.
At some point in late August comes the first taste of cold weather, with clouds spitting drizzle and daytime highs in the 50s. With this weather come the first heavy fall Gray Baetis (Fall Blue-winged Olive) mayflies, which typically bring large numbers of selectively rising trout to the surface, some of which can be surprisingly large and most of which are very fat and healthy. As fall progresses, hatches of this insect become more and more consistent, so that by the middle of September we're fishing Baetis imitations almost every day. At times they are joined by the larger Hecuba, or Fall Drake. By late October the Blue-winged Olives begin to grow somewhat less common, but they continue along with midges until our guide season ends in early November.
Starting in late September or early October the hardcore streamer bite comes back after languishing somewhat through the summer. With brown trout preparing to spawn, and the rest of the rainbows and the cutthroats fattening up for the tough winter, ripping big flies out of the boat or swinging them slowly through the longer pools can produce some exceptional fish. The fishing for fall run browns gets steadily better through October, though fewer and fewer anglers are around to target them. Often in late September and October we'll strip streamers in the morning, hoping for a bruiser, then fish dries after lunch.
We remain quite heavily booked for Yellowstone floats through September, so it's best to book September trips as early as you can. Things thin out through October, meaning that we can usually set you up on short notice even if you have a large party requiring multiple boats.
Fall streamer-eating brown. Note the flashiness of the streamer. Such flies are getting more and more important to our guiding and fishing.
The Yellowstone's our home water, but unfortunately it's always muddy for four to six weeks due to the spring snowmelt, which begins sometime in early-mid May and continues until mid-late June. In wet years, the Yellowstone can remain too high and muddy to fish as late as the middle of July.
Thankfully, when the Yellowstone's out of play, the lower Madison River southwest of Bozeman is in GREAT shape. Protected from the worst effects of runoff by Ennis Dam, the section of the Madison from the mouth of the Beartrap Canyon down to Three Forks actually fishes better from late April through June than at any other time of year.
This stretch of river is broad, shallow, technical, and home to some excellent brown and rainbow trout. Most fishing here is subsurface, with small nymphs, San Juan Worms, and even crayfish imitations the likely suspects. Good dry fly fishing is possible, however. This stretch of the Madison sees excellent Blue-winged Olive and Mother's Day caddis hatches in May, and there's a short Salmonfly hatch here in early-mid June.
The lower Madison is not a numbers game. This piece of water usually only produces a handful of fish per angler in a day of fishing. The flipside is size: there are scary-big fish in this stretch of river, and most days we'll encounter at least one over 20 inches. Note that "encounter" doesn't necessarily mean "catch." Big brown trout on small flies and light tippets can be a recipe for a short, tantalizing fight followed by your leader going "snap."
The Lower Madison can fish well all through the winter, but we don't begin running trips here until the beginning of April, when the fish get more active and the days are warm enough to make good fishing throughout the day likely, which in turn makes the long drive from Gardiner worthwhile. Good fishing continues through late June most years. During high summer, this shallow, low-elevation stretch of river usually gets too warm for good fishing, so from July through early September we generally fish elsewhere. The main exception is when cool,wet weather roars in and muddies up the Yellowstone. When this happens, the lower Madison cools down enough to fish well again, but doesn't get muddy. Fireworks can ensue...
Because it's so far from Gardiner, expect long days when we fish the lower Madison. We'll typically meet around 6:00AM and likely won't be back until past 6:00 in the evening.
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