Quarry and fishing spots on guided walk & wade trips range from large brown trout that migrate into Yellowstone Park from large bodies of water outside the park boundaries into several rivers within the park...
Parks' Fly Shop is lucky to be located on the doorstep of Yellowstone Park, the largest expanse of public trout water in the United States. Some of the most famous and most productive rivers in the world have their headwaters in the Park, and there are myriad walk &wade; guided trip options available for visiting anglers of any skill level, including total rookies and kids aged 8 and up, and to suit a wide range of fly fishing techniques. It's therefore little wonder that more than half of our total guided fishing trips are walk & wade trips in Yellowstone Park. We hope to show you some of our favorite waters.
The possibilities are almost endless. Depending on client skill and interests and the time of year, we might guide our clients to fish brawling canyon water in the Black and Grand Canyons of the Yellowstone far from the road, where the cutthroat trout love streamers and big attractor dry flies, or take them to the glassy-smooth waters of the Firehole, where finicky rainbows and browns sip Pale Morning Dun mayflies while geysers churn in the background and tourists stop to gawk at the show. There are literally hundreds of options between that fall somewhere between these two, and not even our top five guides, who have been fly fishing the park for well over 150 years combined, know all the park's secrets (but they do know quite a few).
...to tiny cutthroat trout like living jewels that live their entire lives in miniature creeks that a young child can step over...
In addition to park waters, several smaller streams outside the Park offer changes of pace. These creeks are harder to access than the roadside streams in the park, but they are never crowded, and some of the rainbow-cutthroat hybrids typically found in these creeks are among the most beautiful trout you'll ever see. Walk trips are also available on the Yellowstone outside the Park, particularly from late autumn through spring, including the dead of winter. Believe it or not, some of the best winter fishing in the entire region takes place on the Yellowstone River right through Gardiner, steps from our front door.
Walk & wade trips are available as full-day and half-day options in high season, half-day trips during the spring and late fall, and as short three-hour trips in the winter. Meeting times vary a great deal depending on the season, how far we'll be traveling, and the fish we'll be targeting. We'll discuss the details when you book.
Got a beginner in your group? Many walk & wade trips are suitable for rookies, novices, and kids, and most of the year these are the trips we suggest for less-skilled anglers. Check out our Beginner Trips page for more details on which walk & wade trips work for beginners.
...to plenty of fish and locations in between.
Besides beginners, novices, and kids, walk & wade trips are particularly good options for anyone who'd prefer to spot and stalk their quarry or match hatches, avid hikers, anglers interested in learning about a particular stream in detail, people who want to fish small water, and anyone who'd like a slower-paced day than is possible on a river float. Walk and wade trips offer more opportunities for personalized instruction than floats, including detailed information on access points and tactics for when you fish the Yellowstone area on your own. There are also more opportunities for wildlife watching, photography and other non-fishing activities.
With a few exceptions, public water walk trips are not good choices for those with limited mobility. They are also not good choices if members of your party are fishing with spinning tackle. In fact, we do not permit spinning tackle on our walk trips.
Click the tabs after the rate information to learn more about where we'll go, what we'll use, and what we'll catch when you take a walk & wade trip with us at specific times of year.
Early spring walk & wade trips are all about hunting larger rainbows and rainbow-cutthroat hybrids like this one.
Early spring, from ice-out in late February or early March through the onset of the spring runoff in early-mid May, is a great time for visiting anglers with some experience to target larger trout. This is true just about anywhere that is open at this time, on any trip we offer, but it's particularly true of walk & wade trips on the Yellowstone River. At this time, large rainbow and cutthroat-rainbow hybrid trout gather in runs downstream of the tributary streams in which they spawn, getting ready for the run. We don't target the fish once they enter the spawning streams, and you shouldn't either, but while they're still in the main river preparing for their runs, they're fair game. These pre-spawn fish offer unquestionably the Yellowstone's second-best opportunity for targeting large trout specifically (after the fall brown trout fishing), and offer far and away the best chances at large rainbow and hybrid trout without either paying for access to private lakes or taking a road trip to the Missouri River for one of our Jet Boat Trips.
Our primary early spring walk-wade opportunity should therefore be fairly obvious...
These trips are not for everyone. The techniques required are not easy and the casts are often long. In addition, the wading can be slippery and the walks necessary to reach the good spots are challenging, though they're very short. For experienced anglers who are spry on their feet who would rather target big fish on subsurface flies specifically rather than enjoy the mixed bag opportunities of early spring float trips, early spring walk & wade might well be the best trips of the year.
Another opportunity develops late in this period, in the first ten days of May just before the heavy spring melt turns the Yellowstone into a raging chocolate stew for four to eight weeks. This is the Mother's Day caddis, one of the marquee insect emergences of the year and one that drives the trout completely bonkers. We usually hit this hatch on full-day trips, but if you've got limited time a half-day walk/wade might be the better option. We'll walk into a section of the Yellowstone seldom or never fished via drift boat, for example in Yankee Jim Canyon or even right through the heart of Gardiner itself, to get away from the hordes of guided anglers that clog the float sections when the hatch is on. These trips will run in the afternoon or evening.
Early spring walk/wade trips all run as half-day trips and will generally meet sometime between 10:30AM and 3:0PM, with noon the most likely meeting time for trips throughout this period. We do not encourage these trips for anglers of less than low-intermediate skill. All early spring trips run in Montana, as Yellowstone Park's fishing season does not open until the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.
The Gibbon River Canyon, here pictured just below Gibbon Falls in early June, might be our most productive fishery for late spring walk & wade trips. The scenery doesn't hurt, either...
The Yellowstone National Park fishing season opens the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and fishing opportunities immediately take off. Even in wet years, the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison Rivers within Yellowstone Park see their best dry fly fishing of the year from late May through June. For anglers who like still waters, many lakes within the park are also always prime during this period. As late spring shades into summer later in June, or through most of June during years following a dry winter and early spring, more options become available across the northern part of Yellowstone Park, especially for fit anglers eager to handle rugged wading or some hiking to get on uncrowded fishing.
Both full-day and half-day trips make sense in late spring. Meeting times for full-day trips generally run from 7:00 to 8:00 in the morning if we're meeting at our shop, or a bit later if we're meeting you in the park. Half-day trips usually work better after lunch except in years with an early melt; we'll generally meet you for them between noon and 1:30PM.
This pool on the Firehole is often loaded with rising trout. Notice the steam at upper left? That's one of many geothermal features on the Firehole's banks. We walk past dozens between the parking lot and this pool.
Our late spring guide services almost always begin on the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers that drain the central part of Yellowstone Park. These rivers drain most of the park's large geyser basins, including Old Faithful in the case of the Firehole. They also drain lower mountain ranges than streams further north. These factors combine to mean that while the rivers further north are still ice-cold and chocolate brown with mud, the Firehole and Gibbon are clear (or clear enough) and their trout are eager to eat dry flies, as well as nymphs and wet flies fished near the surface.
The Firehole is generally a wide-open stream best-suited to dry fly and wet fly fishing. It's also perfect for goggling at the scenery and wildlife. We often take breaks from fishing here to show our clients assorted hot springs, small geysers, and mud pots that aren't visible from the road, or to dodge the bison herds that call the Firehole Valley home. Hatches are abundant in late May and June, with heavy hatches of a caddis commonly called a White Miller that is abundant almost nowhere else. Odds are, you'll exclusively use flies that we design and tie when these bugs are hatching.
While other shops have stretches they prefer, our favorite portions of the Gibbon are rugged and fast-flowing and home primarily to medium-sized and aggressive fish. This makes the Gibbon an ideal option for novice and intermediate anglers. The fish here also love attractor dry flies, sometimes with dropper nymphs and sometimes fished solo. While the heavy hatches common on the Firehole are unlikely here, our clients often catch more fish on dry flies on the Gibbon. The Gibbon is also typically less crowded than the Firehole. It's less famous, more rugged, a bit more challenging to fish for those who aren't familiar with the tactics necessary for fast water, and it's also a bit farther from the road in many spots.
Often we'll combine both rivers in one day of fishing, hitting the Firehole until lunch and the Gibbon after. Since the Firehole typically fishes better in the morning than the Gibbon, this makes for a great day of fishing.
Trout Lake is home to some of the largest trout in Yellowstone Park, and some of the best reflections when the wind is down.
Late spring is also prime time on most lakes within Yellowstone Park. Those we guide on are mostly shallow and weedy, and home to special fish. Some lakes deep in the backcountry can produce giant brook trout at this time, while others that are only a couple miles from the road produce vast numbers of the rare and pretty Arctic grayling and plenty of gorgeous small cutthroats, as well. A wide range of tactics work on the grayling waters, ranging from fishing streamers under strike indicators to head-hunting for rising fish using Callibaetis or midge dry flies. We love the dry fly fishing, and so do most clients... Finally, there's famous Trout Lake, home to some of the most-challenging and largest fish within Yellowstone Park. Even experts average only one or two fish per morning here, but you'll have the chance to sight-fish for some of the largest cutthroat trout in the region, and to see them ascend the spawning creek that feeds the lake, resembling salmon as they thrash up the rapids on this tiny stream. Almost all of the lakes we fish at this time require at least short hikes, but these hikes are worth it for great scenery, great fishing, and lower crowds than can be found on the Firehole and even most stretches of the Gibbon.
Large brook trout from "Lake X," a five-mile hike off the road requiring two stream crossings, and worth the effort.
While the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison tend to get most of the attention in June, as the month progresses additional rivers and streams across the northern part of Yellowstone Park become fishable. Some of these are our Beginner Brookie waters popular with kids and beginners, but the Yellowstone and especially Gardner Rivers also become good targets, especially in dry years. As a matter of fact, sections of these rivers can be fishable right from the beginning of the season if weather is right.
The early fishing on these rivers is rugged and only suited for fit anglers who don't mind beating themselves up a bit. The water's high, fast, deep, and dirty, just clear enough for the fish to find big nymphs and streamers. For these reasons, the fishing is totally unsuited to beginners, novices, and kids. Adult intermediates and up who aren't afraid of some skinned knees or falling in, though... they can tear it up.
The Gardner and Yellowstone are sometimes fishable in June, sometimes not. The Gardner in particular often goes up and down like a yo-yo depending on how much snow is melting. When they are fishable, well, I've just told you where our guides fish on their days off and after they're done working for the day...
Portions of the Yellowstone and Gardner Rivers are usually fishable for part of late spring. These fisheries typically produce larger fish with lower crowds than the "standard" late spring rivers, but they're far more physically demanding to fish at this time.
Early summer is prime time to match stonefly hatches on the Yellowstone River in its Black and Grand Canyons. Notice the angler in the background is also landing a fish. The lady's was bigger...
A switch flips in our region at some point in late June or early July. Beforehand, the most consistent walk & wade fisheries in the region are the headwaters of the Madison River system in Yellowstone Park and a few lakes, with the Yellowstone and Gardner Rivers either challenging and marginal or completely unfishable, depending on weather and water conditions. Afterwards, the action jumps north to the Yellowstone River and all its tributaries, big and small, inside and to a degree outside the park. Here it remains through early autumn, and in some areas all the way through the remainder of the Yellowstone Park season and even beyond. From early summer onward, we often don't go far before we start fishing or start hiking into our fishing spots on our walk & wade guide trips. In fact, some of our favorite fisheries during this period are within walking distance of our shop.
Both half-day and full-day trips make sense in early summer. Generally speaking, we prefer full-day trips at this time except when kids or beginners are involved, because full-days give us more travel time, particularly hiking time to get away from roadside crowds. Early summer sees the best weather and the most consistent (though not necessarily the best) fishing of the season, so roadside crowds can be intense, particularly on gentle, famous streams. Did you notice I mentioned beginners a moment ago? Early summer is the best time of year for rookies to learn how to fly fish in Yellowstone Park. We have tons of walk-wade options for beginners available at this time. Check them out.
Regardless of whether we're guiding experienced anglers or rookies, we will generally meet for early summer walk trips between 6:00AM and 9:00AM, depending on whether we're meeting at our shop or inside the park and our anticipated drive/hike time before we get to our fishing spot. We also run some afternoon half-day trips at this time, particularly on the Gardner and Yellowstone Rivers, but a majority of our half-days in the summer take place in the morning.
This cutthroat rose to a salmonfly during the first day or two of the hatch in the lower Grand Canyon in 2015. I (Walter) put clients on fish during the same hatch a full month later a half-mile downstream.
The first waters to fall into shape across the north end of the park are the rough sections of the Yellowstone, Gardner, and Lamar Rivers, as well as small portions of Slough Creek (though note that some stretches of the Yellowstone remain closed until July 15). Better yet, these waters are almost never crowded, except perhaps near the easy-access points. All other things being equal, these are our favorite waters within the park to run guide trips on from this point through early fall. The reasons these waters become fishable first are simple. First, the large boulders lining the banks on these stretches of water offer slow holding water to the trout. Just as important, they provide habitat for the enormous giant black stonefly or salmonfly, the largest trout stream insect in North America and one that always gets the trout excited. The park stretch of the Yellowstone and the Gardner in particular have the best and longest-lasting hatches of this insect anywhere. While most waters that host it, including the Yellowstone downstream where we float, only see hatches of this bug and its smaller cousin the golden stonefly last a week or maybe ten days, the many cold tributaries and hot springs feeding the waters inside the park serve to "smear" this hatch, so that we can sometimes get a solid month of salmonfly fishing. As long as we can, our guide service focuses on this hatch.
Once the hatch fades out, or if the trout are in the mood for a lighter meal, these same rough, bouldery sections of river remain strong fisheries with attractor dry and dropper nymph rigs, streamers, and sometimes hatches of caddisflies and smaller stoneflies. One or more of these tactics almost always works until early August at least.
What are the downsides of this fishing? It requires strenuous hikes and/or bad footing along the river banks and while wading. The rougher the footing and wading and the longer and harder the walk to get there, the better the fishing. While our guides all prefer to make aggressive, tiring hikes at this time of year, we recognize that not all of our clients are up for such treks.
Here's a three-panel series about how to catch fish in the Lamar Drainage: 1.) Spot a green drake hatch, even a mild one. 2.) Tie on a Soda Fountain Parachute, one of our custom flies. 3.) Catch fish!
For anglers who don't mind a little crowding, whose aggressive hiking days are behind them, and for those who prefer the chance for spot & stalk match-the-hatch dry fly fishing for spooky trout, the meadow sections of the Lamar and its major tributaries Slough and Soda Butte Creeks (as well as a couple smaller hike-in tributaries we won't name online) are just the ticket. These waters typically fall into shape a week or so after the rough waters mentioned above. Early summer sees the heaviest hatches of the year on these meadow streams. The western green drake hatches in particular drive the trout wild this time of year, but there are also pale morning duns, several less-important mayflies, yellow sallies, and evening caddis. If the fish aren't eager to rise, they'll often take nymphs or--in more remote areas--streamers. These are the some of the largest cutthroat in the region, running 12 to 18 inches on average and routinely reaching a bit over 20 inches, and there are a few monsters mixed in, too.
Options are available in the Lamar Drainage for clients of almost any fitness level, provided they are capable of walking across a meadow and wading a fairly gentle (though still often swift) stream. In fact, the Lamar System offers the easiest-access walk-wade fishing for large trout of any water in the entire region, besides the fee-access Paradise Valley spring creeks. While most of the famous water in this part of the park is near the road, not all of it is, and hike-in opportunities are available to the meadow streams in the Lamar Drainage as well as the canyon stretches of the Yellowstone and Lamar and the Gardner mentioned above. Please note that absent a long walk, these waters are likely to be crowded at this time.
Early summer sees many tiny meadow streams fall into shape. These offer solitude and pretty fish, and they seldom, if ever get muddy after they drop out of the spring melt.
Along with the larger, famous streams and rivers mentioned above, early summer also offers the first great small-stream options of the season. Many of these are the small brook trout streams in the Yellowstone and Gardner Drainages where we take beginners and kids on our "Beginner Brookie" trips, but there are many options with larger and/or spookier fish that are great choices for small stream enthusiasts, especially those who want to get away from crowds and see some stunningly beautiful parts of Yellowstone Park that most visitors don't know exist, as well as some stunningly beautiful fish. That "living jewel" cutthroat from the top of this web page came from just such a creek, at this time of year.
We aren't kidding about the hikes we're willing to take being rather strenuous. That blue ribbon down below on this off-trail hike is the Yellowstone River. Two novice clients landed about fifty fish between them in less than four hours after we got to the river. Then we had to climb out...
Late summer offers excellent fishing on the steepest, roughest sections of river, now that the water is low enough for midstream rocks to provide cover for the fish. This angler is fishing a grasshopper pattern on the Lamar River.
Sometime in late July or early August, depending on water levels and the weather, subtle changes occur in the fishing on walk & wade waters in and around Yellowstone Park and therefore our guide service. The bushes are now completely out of the water, making walking and wading easier. The heavy current begins moving offshore, exposing midriver structure in places. The hatches of early summer begin to fade out, but from the grass and sagebrush comes the clatter of grasshoppers, ants and beetles are busy, and in wooded areas the blond spruce moths begin falling into the streams. The grass turns gold, the wildflowers die back, the meadow streams get low and their fish spooky, but the steep mountain creeks are now low enough to wade easily and to fish even the midstream structure, rather than just the slow spots along the banks.
Welcome to late summer.
In late summer, which begins sometime between July 20 and August 20 depending on streamflows and how hot the summer has been, our walk-wade guide services focus on most of the same waters as in early summer, though we're perhaps even more eager to hike, since the roadside water will have been pounded for a month or so by this point and the lower, clearer water at this time of year, along with the reduced insect hatches, makes for spooky fish. That said, this is the favorite time of year for many anglers: everything across the northern part of Yellowstone Park and north of the park boundary is now low enough to fish without trouble, the fish are less likely to key on one particular aquatic insect at this time and instead focus on terrestrial insects like grasshoppers and ants, and the fishing is actually easier now, since currents are slower, the grass and bushes are now way up the banks due to the rivers continuing to drop, casting targets are larger and less likely to be near obstructions, and wading is easier. The catching is not as consistent in most places, but it's still excellent.
Late summer walk trips generally meet between 6:00AM and 9:00AM depending on where we meet and our travel time from our meeting place to our fishing destination. Most trips will meet between 7:00 and 8:00 at our shop. This includes both full-day and half-day trips. With the exception of trips on cold days or trips to steep mountain creeks, particularly those north of the Yellowstone boundary that see limited pressure and feel like ice water year-round, we seldom run afternoon walk-wades at this time of year. In fact, during hot spells in low-water years, we might meet early and be done for the day by midafternoon. This is most likely to occur before the middle of August, when the first hints of fall cool things down.
This fat cutthroat ate a large grasshopper pattern in the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, a prime destination at this time of year.
Our favorite walk/wade guided trip destination in late summer is unquestionably the Yellowstone River, both in its lower Grand Canyon and Black Canyon. A hike of one to three miles, or perhaps even shorter if you'd prefer to scramble down a slope where mountain goats fear to tread rather than walk farther, will usually shed the tourist crowds and produce great fishing. The fish in the Black Canyons have fattened up by this time of year, and many expose the lie that "cutthroats don't fight." We'll usually fish a giant grasshopper or cricket with a nymph at this time of year, but at times we'll fish streamers. The canyons of the Yellowstone feature steep drop-offs immediately off the banks and by this point in the season the river is emerald-green, with six or eight feet of visibilty, so often when streamer fishing the trout will chase the flies right up to your feet and you'll see them follow your flies for fifteen or twenty feet. This is the best visual streamer fishing in the world, in our experience.
Side channels in the Lamar Drainage can require sneaky approaches in late summer, but they produce big rewards. This angler got two or three trout in the 16-18" class on beetles in this channel.
For anglers who aren't up to or aren't inclined to hike long distances, or for those who do want to hike but would rather fish meadow water, the Lamar Drainage streams continue to fish well in late summer. This is the one part of the park where insect hatches can remain strong all summer, though instead of the full-size western green drakes, most of the insects in late summer are smaller, requiring a bit more finesse in casting and hooksets, much like spring creek fishing. Sometimes we even encounter midge hatches at this time, a rarity in Yellowstone Park, where most of the time we don't have to use bugs that small. When no hatch is underway, ants and beetles are the main tickets, though once in a while a fish will take a flier on a hopper even though these heavily-pressured trout see vast numbers of fake grasshoppers. In addition, some years see heavy falls of spruce moths in the forested sections of these rivers, which can prompt the fish to respond as though to a heavy hatch.
This great cutthroat came from a creek small enough to jump over in many places. It ate a beetle.
For anglers eager to ditch the crowds and fish pretty water for pretty fish, and at this sometimes shockingly big fish, this is prime time for small mountains streams. Our "Beginner Brookies" trips remain good at this time, but some meadow streams holding cutthroat trout get challenging. The steep, rough-and-tumble mountain creeks are a different story. Earlier in summer they're still often too high to fish well. In late summer, a fish might be waiting behind every rock, and sometimes a big one like the cutthroat above, or perhaps a nice rainbow, brown, or the rare (around here) brook trout exceeding ten or eleven inches. The cutthroats might just be hanging out after their late spring/early summer spawn is complete, but the rainbows and browns are just as likely to be entering these small, cold, well-oxygenated, shady streams in order to escape the warmth and heat to be found in larger rivers. Such creeks are my (Walter's) personal "refuges" at this time of year, since I can be assured of getting away from the crowds on them. So can you.
Late summer is usually hot and dry, but sometime in mid-late August we'll usually see the weather crack for a day or two, with cold nights and a bit of cold rain cutting the summer heat. When this happens, some serious surprises are possible, in the right places, at the right time of day, on the right flies, almost every one of which is one of our (custom/local) flies. This early in the season such fish are far from a sure thing, but if you hit it right, some of the biggest fish of the year are possible before most guides and shops even think about pursuing them. We have it dialed. We will say no more online...
The common wisdom about when, where, and how fish like this can first be targeted in Yellowstone Park is utterly wrong. That's not to say such fish are easy. Book a trip with us to learn more...
The pursuit of brown trout averaging 14 to 20 inches and reaching trophy size makes up a greater and greater percentage of our walk trips as fall progresses.
Sometime in late August or early September, it all happens overnight: the groundcover beside the Mammoth to Tower Road turns gold and red, the grass all goes gold, the bull elk join the cows in Mammoth and begin bugling and sometimes attacking cars, the brook trout we chase with beginners all scatter into high-elevation tributaries, not to be seen again until late June or July of the following year, but far larger numbers of brown trout begin entering the upper Madison River from Hebgen Lake and far less famous park waters from other big rivers and lakes. It's early fall.
Early fall sees the widest variety of weather and water conditions of any point in the season, the widest range of fishable waters, and the widest variety of effective fishing tactics. This makes September a great time to come fishing with us if you are up for doing what the conditions dictate: visiting the Firehole or chasing early fall-run browns when it's cold and rainy (or snowy!), hiking the Yellowstone when it's bright and warm, etc. Because of the changeable nature of the weather and fishing at this time of year, our meeting time will vary hugely depending on conditions, as will whether full-day or half-day trips are the best option.
Important Note About Angling Pressure in Early Fall Early fall is by no means the offseason for walk trips. Many visitors are shocked at the heavy crowds common this time of year. While the post-Labor Day crowds were indeed low until about ten years ago, nowadays the word is out that this is a great time of year to fish, and many waters actually seem more crowded for the two weeks after Labor Day than they do in the latter half of August. To really start shedding crowds, nowadays you should plan to come after September 20 or especially in October. Some waters, particularly the Madison near West Yellowstone, remain crowded right through late October. We're not trying to dissuade anyone from coming at this time, but if you want solitude, you'll still need to work for it just as you do in summer.
Cutthroat and rainbow trout and their hybrids are at their prettiest, fattest, healthiest, and spookiest in early autumn. This one ate a tiny mayfly imitation.
Cutthroat fishing remains a top draw in early fall. Unlike summer fishing, when the best insect hatches run from midmorning until early afternoon, most of the time in the fall there's no need to get up early and the best fishing is in the afternoons. This is particularly true during colder weather in the Lamar Drainage, where it's possible to even find skins of ice in backwater areas first thing in the morning following cold nights. The Yellowstone is a better all-around choice for consistency, but the hatches on the Lamar and Soda Butte Creek can be very good in September, and this water is now so low and clear that it can't be beat if you're a sight-fishing fan. On the other hand, this often seems like the most crowded time of year in the Lamar Drainage. In reality July is more crowded, but there's also far more water in July, so there's more room for both the fish and fishers to spread out.
As noted, for consistency we'll generally choose the Yellowstone. Because the anglers who come in September tend to run a bit older and less frisky than those who come earlier in the year, shorter hikes than are necessary earlier in the year will often shed the crowds. This is especially true when it's cold and gray. Often we'll fish an access point that only requires a half-mile hike, for example. In addition, the Yellowstone is now far easier to wade than it is earlier in the year. In fact there's one place where the river is often low enough in September that it can be crossed, believe it or not, which opens up another huge chunk of water without a great deal of effort. Streamers are always our top bets on the Yellowstone this time of year, and when the fish are on them it is possible to rack up a huge score. On one trip a few years ago, I (Walter) set up a client to fish one run at the start of the day, walked the other down to the next spot 200 yards away, then returned to the first client. He had already caught nine fish. Dry fly fishing is less consistent overall, but it too can be gangbusters. The best hatches occur when it it spitting rain or snow, while on bright days, the fish will still eat grasshoppers and, especially this time of year, the giant Mormon cricket.
In addition, on warm days the rough mountain streams and the Gardner River remain good options for numbers and dry fly fishing, while Richard Parks loves guiding on the Firehole at this time when the weather is cool and gray, though these are all secondary options.
This angler is fishing a pool ideal for fall-run brown trout: it's deep and located above and below long runs of shallow, fast water (notice the channel split at top). This photo appeared in a story in the summer or fall issue of Fly Rod & Reel Magazine in 2008.
As early fall progresses, a greater and greater percentage of our time is spent chasing fall-run brown trout. These fish do not spawn until late October, but by early fall vast numbers of them are on the move. Some of these fish are trophies. We generally have between one and three lucky clients get one in the 6lb class each year, whether in early fall or later in the year. Besides these monster exceptions, there are a lot of fish in the 16 to 20 inch class, fish that probably run about two to three pounds, and even a small one is 14 inches and fat. We have these fish dialed in, particularly on the body of water where we guide for them the most; we've had clients of other guide services come in and brag about the number of fish they caught, which we would have considered a very poor day.
Unless the weather is cold and gray, targeting these larger brown trout requires fishing at first or last light, with first light the better choice. If we're going to go after them, we'll want to meet you before dawn, generally about 6:00AM or maybe even a bit earlier, so that we can be in position and ready to fish at official sunrise, which is the legal start to fishing. This is all subsurface fishing: nymphing for the most part, though we get some on streamers as well. Many of our custom flies were created with these fish and tactics in mind, even if they happen to work elsewhere too.
This is a prototypical early fall brown: fat, silvery-purple, and in the mid-teens in length. I specifically took a picture of this fish because of how much closely it "fit the mold." When conditions are right, we see far, far more of these fish than you might think: two dozen, on some half-day trips, though you certainly shouldn't expect that many.
There are many ways of putting together a brown trout trip, with the caveat that they must begin or end during periods of low-light, whether that means dawn, dusk, or fishing in ugly weather. When the weather promises to be grim, we'll just chase browns as a morning half-day trip, since getting a gaggle of nice fish before brunch is usually enough for the day. When the weather is bright, we might instead run a full-day trip and go chase cutthroats on the Yellowstone or the Lamar Drainage after lunch as noted above. When we're guiding beginners who really want to get spoiled, we might instead meet at midmorning, fish for smaller fish through midafternoon, then hope for a handful of big fish as the light starts to fade. This is also an exceptional time of year to take one of our Walk/Float Combo Trips. We'll fish for big browns early in the morning, then get in the boats around 10:30 to fish dry flies on the Yellowstone River north of the park. In fact, we run about as many full-day combo trips this time of year as we do standard walk & wades.
Ben shows off a client's big brown. We have VAST numbers of photos of fall browns caught in early autumn that didn't quite make the cut, don't quite fit the proportions we needed for the website, or reveal more than we want to share about locations and flies...
There's a reason we chose a picture of an angler wearing a warm cap to start the entry for late fall walk trips: it's cold, and you need to be prepared for the weather when you're chasing browns.
Sometime in the last few days of September, or more likely the first week or so of October, the first true cold weather hits. It doesn't just spit a few flurries or snow a little slush that melts at midday at low elevations, the temps instead drop into the teens at night and it might snow six or eight inches that don't melt for a couple days. Up high, the snow marches steadily down from the peaks and won't melt again above about the 7000-foot level until May or June, and the roads in Yellowstone begin closing due to this snow and the difficulty of plowing it. The crowds of anglers and general tourists finally disappear as the snow starts to fly. The leaves are now all gold, the grass now dead and brown. It's late fall.
The good fishing options begin to narrow sharply with the cold, often wet weather. While some good fishing is possible on the warmest afternoons in the Lamar Drainage, we seldom if ever guide there this late. The Yellowstone is still okay most afternoons, but we seldom guide walk & wade trips on it, either (though we still run Walk/Float Combos when we think there will be good dry fly fishing the afternoons). The Firehole River can offer great opportunities for match the hatch fishing now, but only Richard Parks really likes to guide it at this time. So what do our other guides do? We chase browns and the incidental rainbow and other trout found in the same places as the browns, either with clients or, since our business does finally start to drop off sometime in early October, for ourselves.
By early October, the male brown trout start getting darker and meaner-looking.
By early October, many more brown trout are in every river system that hosts them than earlier in the fall, and the onset of the colder weather begins making them more aggressive as they begin thinking more seriously about the spawn. Moreover, the light gets flatter and flatter as autumn progresses even on sunny days, and gray, dismal weather gets more and more common. All of this adds up to mean that it's no longer necessary to fish at first and last light unless you want to. This means that we often fish the warmest part of the day on into early evening, rather than daring the below-freezing temperatures we have to deal with most mornings at this time.
The very best fall-run brown fishing takes place in the first three weeks of October. Before about October 15, all fall browns will still be on the move, in pre-spawn mode rather than actively on the spawn. Between the 15th and 20th, some fish will begin spawning, and very many will be doing so by the 25th. Since it is unsporting and also not helping the resource to drag fish off their spawning beds, this means that the number of brown trout available peaks in early October, then begins to decline. In early October, we'll catch these fish in all types of water, not just in the deep holes where we find them earlier. Since not all the fish spawn at the same time, good numbers of pre-spawn (and, increasingly, post-spawn) browns remain available all the way through the close of the park season at sunset on the first Sunday in November, and on the Yellowstone outside the park through about November 15.
Spectacular late-season rainbow, caught by the author on an egg pattern.
Just as the numbers of brown trout peak, the other trout in rivers that host spawning browns suddenly put on the feedbags as well. While sometimes this is related to insect activity, in particular the very good blue-winged olive mayfly hatches possible for an hour or two each afternoon on most waters where browns spawn in late fall, for the most part this is related to the brown trout migrations. Simply put, they go crazy for the eggs of the browns, just like fish in Alaska go bananas for salmon eggs. While these egg-eaters can cluster in the first deep water immediately downstream of spawning browns, along with pre-spawn and post-spawn browns, the resident fish are almost always willing to eat eggs in their normal holding water at this time, as well. Since this same holding water will also produce browns that are still on the move, we'll often fish just about every likely piece of holding this time of year, and never know if the fish that jerks a strike indicator down is an 18-inch brown or an 8-inch rainbow. As a matter of fact, the fish could be an eighteen-inch rainbow! Just as rainbow trout will follow salmon on their migrations, so too some big rainbows follow the browns in on their runs. Whether they do this solely to gobble eggs or as exceptionally early late winter or spring-run fish already preparing for their own spawns, we don't know for sure. Whatever the case, these are fat, acrobatic fish that are a great surprise when we're expecting either smaller resident rainbows or a big brown. The fish above was just such a one. About one year in five, our best fish of the fall actually turns out to be a big rainbow, even though we probably catch ten times as many browns over 16 or so inches as we do rainbows during the fall.
Have I gotten you excited for late fall? Give us a call to book a trip. Our guides might have to take a day off from their own pursuit of fall fish, but they'll be eager to show you what you can catch after most tourists have gone home for the year...
Can you tell we like chasing browns in the fall?.
The Yellowstone National Park fishing season closes at sunset on the first Sunday in November, and opportunities for walk-wade fishing on public waters immediately plummet. After the brown finish spawning and the Yellowstone River gets biting cold or even starts to ice up sometime in the latter half of November, they all but disappear.
That's not to say they disappear completely. While spring creek trips remain better options through the winter, the portions of the Yellowstone that remain ice-free fish quite well from midday into early afternoon, particularly after we start getting a bit more daylight in mid-January. When we do start seeing more sunshine at this time, the best water on the Yellowstone is all within about eight miles of our shop. In fact, the very best water, which is fishable even in the darkest days of December, is the portion of the Yellowstone that runs right through Gardiner. There's no reason to run long trips in the winter, so we'll plan to meet you around lunchtime at our shop. Then we'll walk from our shop and start fishing about 100 yards away. No kidding.
The reason for this is simple: a major hot spring enters the Gardner about three miles upstream from the Gardner's confluence with the Yellowstone, keeping it running warm all winter, and the Yellowstone immediately downstream of the Gardner's mouth retains much of this warmth, albeit only for a third of a mile or so. This means that when the rest of the Yellowstone is frozen bank to bank, a stripe of river right outside our door is ice-free, with active aquatic insects and therefore active trout. Most of the fishing is subsurface, with tiny, flashy mayfly nymphs and midge pupae the likely suspects, but when the winds are calm and there's some high overcast, we actually see good numbers of rising trout. We've had days even in January that produced dozens of trout on tiny dry flies, though the air temperature never cracked 20 degrees.
This fishing is emphatically not for everyone. It's never warm outside, and it's often biting cold. The flies are universally small, #18 through #22, and this marks about the only time of year when we might need to fish 6X tippets on the Yellowstone. Beginners, kids, and anyone who hates iced-up guides should probably wait til spring. Yet if you're here in January or February, there is good fishing to be had.
More opportunities begin to arrive around the middle of February, when the rest of the Yellowstone begins to lose its ice, some warmer weather prompts insect activity on bigger chunks of river, and the first vague hints of spring cause large rainbow and rainbow-cutthroat hybrid trout to begin thinking about their spawning runs. At this time, the fishing remains concentrated in early afternoon, but more spots start to make sense, and opportunities for the big fish start to climb towards the fishing described in the tab above about early spring.
We won't lie and say that midwinter is the best time for you to fish the region, particularly when you're limited to fishing public water on foot, but there are fish to be caught and we'd love to introduce you to them.
Richard Parks is Montana Outfitter #327. Under his licensure, Parks' Fly Shop is licensed to operate in Yellowstone National Park, Montana waters under general regulations, and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Walter J. Wiese is Montana Outfitter #22001. Under his licensure, the shop is licensed to operate on the Madison and Missouri Rivers.
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