Yellowstone Fly Fishing Tips: fly fishing the garder river, gardner river fishing guide, gardner river hatch chart, gardner river brown trout

Introduction to Fly Fishing the Gardner River

The Gardner is the closest river to the town which took its name (the river's name is spelled right, well-meaning cartographers added the "i" in the name of the town). It is fishable over its entire length, from the headwater meadows stuffed with brook trout to the endless pocket water in the canyon between Osprey Falls and Gardiner, where it meets the Yellowstone. It runs along the road for much of its distance, but due to its character (steep and rugged) it is seldom crowded except during the Salmonfly hatch and occasionally in the fall, when the browns are running. The Gardner has something for everyone, from brookies and rainbows at high summer to huge browns in late autumn.

Like the Yellowstone between the Falls and Livingston as well as the Lamar drainage, we consider the Gardner our home water. For the best information on fishing this river, rely on us. We created many of our custom fly patterns for this river, both its early summer nymph fishing before and during the Salmonfly Hatch and for the fall-run brown and rainbow fishing. If you'd like targeting the fall runner browns up from the Yellowstone, our guides are your best resource, since we fish the river religiously in the fall and spend a lot more time pursuing the Gardner's runner browns than any other guides.


Introduction

The upper Gardner River from its headwaters near Joseph Peak down to Osprey Falls (as well as its many small tributaries in this reach) is the best beginner water in Yellowstone Park. In high summer, provided they get off the road and can flop-cast about 20 feet, even young children can expect to catch good numbers of brook trout here. They'll do it in beautiful surroundings, too: either in a high alpine meadow with tall mountains in the background or in a precipitous canyon interrupted by many small waterfalls.

Note: Just about everything I say with regards to fishing tactics and so on concerning the upper Gardner River applies to its high-elevation tributaries and many other brook trout creeks as well: they all fish with similar tactics, have similar-sized fish, etc.

One thing to note is that this is not good country for anglers with mobility issues. While there is some fishing available near Indian Creek Campground that is accessible to anglers who can't walk far or handle rough terrain, this water gets fished out quickly. You will do better if you walk a mile or two, especially if the water is fast or the banks rough once you walk in.

Description and Access

The headwaters of the Gardner down to the mouth of Fawn Creek are deep in the backcountry. There are plenty of small brook trout here, but it's hardly worth walking 4+ miles to reach them.

At the mouth of Fawn Creek, the Gardner matures into a trout stream 15-25 feet wide. From here to the confluence with Obsidian Creek near Indian Creek Campground, the river flows through Gardner's Hole, a high alpine valley. Sometimes the river is constrained by hills, where it flows in a mix of pocket water and riffle-pool water. Sometimes it flows in many long bends between low, grassy banks, with only occasional riffles to break the flow. It gathers Panther and Indian Creeks near the lower end of this reach. Accessing most of this water requires a hike upstream, generally on non-official but easy-to-find trails. The farther you get frmo Indian Creek Campground and the road, the better. Footing is easy except while side-hilling along the steeper hillsides above the river. Just be sure to wear long pants, as there are many rose bushes here waiting to prick you.

At the Obsidian Creek confluence, the river gets wider and begins breaking into pocket water as it cuts down into the upper end of Sheepeater Canyon. From Sheepeater Cliffs to Osprey Falls (and beyond), there's a mix of pocket water and riffles and pools, interrupted by many small waterfalls and cascade sections, as well as some steep gorges. Much of this is very hard to access, with clefts and game trails following breaks in the canyon walls providing the only means to access the river, even if the footing is good and the banks themselves stable once you're on the water. The hikes to access this chunk of the Gardner range from half a mile to several miles, the latter also with a lot of vertical climbing. It's great for teenagers because of the athletic nature of access and the eager fish.

Angling

Angling Quality
Upper Gardner River quality by month
The Fish
  • Brook: Brook trout are the most common trout throughout this section, dominate upstream of Sheepeater Canyon, and are the only trout present much above the mouth of Obsidian Creek. They average five to eight inches and are hyper-abundant.
  • Rainbow: More rainbows join each time the river passes over a waterfall. By Osprey Falls, they make up perhaps 1/3 of the population. They average seven to ten inches and very occasionally reach 14 inches.
The Fishing

This is all small fish beginner water, and as such the worst thing you can do is make it too complicated. Just tie on a buoyant attractor dry fly with a similar silhouette to the most common insects you see, then hang a flashy beadhead nymph eighteen inches below it. Whatever flies you pick, you will probably do well provided you are fishing at the right time of year, not too close to the road, and in water that holds fish.

This water becomes fishable sometime in late June or the first half of July, depending on winter snowpack. The best fishing is through mid-August, and it remains decent upstream of Sheepeater Cascade until around the end of August. Later, the trout above this waterfall disperse into high country trickles to spawn and can be hard to find. Downstream of Sheepeater Cascade, which serves as a fish barrier and has a fishable population of rainbows that don't spawn in the fall, the fishing can remain fair until late September provided it is warm.

It is crucial to get away from the road when fishing the upper Gardner (or any of its tributaries). Because the fish are so small and so dumb, the areas near the road generally get fished out within a couple weeks. The presence of Indian Creek Campground and Sheepeater Cliffs Picnic Area beside the river make things worse. The pocket water near Sheepeater Cliffs can fish acceptably well in spots even at midseason. Otherwise, you need to get a mile or so off the road. Some hiking trails provide access, but many of the best access points are non-official bushwhacks that follow game trails through clefts in canyon walls, around marshes, etc. Buy a good topo map or go the first time with somebody who knows where they're going.

Once you're on the water, fish the obvious structure. In faster sections and early in the season, this will mostly involve bankside boulders or eddies, while later on more obvious riffle-pool structure is visible. The fish are not spooky, so you'll do best by making short, accurate casts except in the slowest stretches, where longer casts might be helpful. Try not to follow other anglers, as one good stick can easily catch 20 fish an hour here, and it will take a while for the fishing to recover.

Hatch Chart
Upper Gardner River hatch chart

If you wish to print a full-size version of this hatch chart, those covering other insects and food items important when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, and all other charts on this site, please visit this link.

Top 10 Flies

  1. Coachman Trude, #12-14
  2. BH Prince, #16
  3. Pink Bob Hopper, #14
  4. Royal Wulff Cripple, #12-16
  5. Purple Hazy Cripple, #14
  6. Trina's Bubbleback, #16
  7. Olive MT Prince, #14-16
  8. Yellow Stimulator, #14
  9. Any high-viz, high-float ant pattern, #14
  10. Parachute Adams, #12-16

Introduction

The Gardner River changes at Osprey Falls. Instead of small brook trout and some rainbows suitable for athletic beginners, it becomes a rainbow and brown trout show. They are joined by whitefish and a few cutthroats. The average size remains relatively small all the way to the Yellowstone, 6-10 inches near Osprey Falls and 8-12 closer to the Yellowstone, but giant fish are possible all season, particularly in the fall when Yellowstone Park's #3 brown trout run occurs, fish heading upstream from the Yellowstone. These average 13-18 inches, smaller than their cousins that run into the Madison from Hebgen Lake or the Lewis-Shoshone Channel from Lewis and Shoshone Lakes, but fish over 22 inches get caught every year and the river record pushes 10lbs (note how common the name "Minch" is in the top fly list below; he's the one who caught it, and we're the only shop that sells his flies).

This stretch of the Gardner is almost entirely fast-flowing, with steep, crumbling banks, huge boulders, and heavy flows. As such it's terrible for anglers with any sort of physical issues. For those who like to rock-hop, it offers great fishing for most of the season. In fact, the stretch below Boiling River is one of only a handful of places in the park where the fishing might be good on Opening Day, the 15th of July, and on the last day of the season. One benefit of the river's ruggedness here is that only the few flat areas routinely see heavy pressure, particularly in the summer when the water is still fast and high. Otherwise, you can often do well even right next to the road, a rarity in the region.

Note that even though much of this stretch of the Gardner is near the road, it is not at all suited to anglers with limited mobility. In fact, it's probably one of the most physically-demanding stretches of water discussed on this website, with large slick rocks, steep banks, and fast water.

Description and Access

This entire stretch of the Gardner consists primarily of heavy pocket water, with the river generally around 30 feet wide and flowing fast and hard. There are only a few area where steep canyon-type banks come all the way down to the river, but there are many other sections where the river flows in a sort of trench between five and twenty feet deep that requires a bit of a scramble to the water. There are some short riffle-pool sections, but these are uncommon and usually do not fish as well as the rougher pocket water.

A major hot spring, Boiling River, joins the Gardner midway through this stretch. For the first and last month of the season, the area downstream of this spring offers better fishing as it is warmer (and somewhat clearer at the tail end of runoff). In August, downstream of the hot spring can get too warm, particularly in the afternoons. Otherwise, the hot spring has little effect on the fishing. The bugs are the same above and below, and while the area above the hot spring is slightly farther from the road, it's also generally a little less rugged, so pressure is about even above and below.

This is the most arid part of the park. This means the bankside vegetation is mostly comprised of grass and sagebrush, with some cottonwoods and junipers. Closer to Osprey Falls, there are more trees. Further downstream, the terrain is more open and you actually have to watch out for cactus.

This section of the Gardner is prone to getting muddy within an hour or so after heavy rains, due to runoff into tributary Lava Creek and the main Gardner itself from the low mountain called Mt. Everts, which is basically a highly-erosive dirt mound. This mud clears quickly, but it makes the Gardner absolutely filthy after storms or even when early fall snows on the mountainside melt. This is one of very few places in the region where there is a flash flood danger. After sudden cloudbursts, the many gullies coming off Mt. Everts can actually flood with mud, which could pose a danger if you are nearby. These runoff channels are very obvious when you're walking the banks; avoid them if there's any chance of rain.

Access is easy, requiring only short hikes (albeit sometimes steep hikes) on game tracks and official trails, even if footing is not. The bottom of Sheepeater Canyon requires a hike of a half-mile to a couple miles on game trails, with the easiest access from the High Bridge over the Gardner just east of Mammoth. This is by far the hardest section to access, especially near Osprey Falls, but it's also not the best stretch. This bridge also offers access downstream. The Lava Creek Trailhead provides access to the next section. The bridge a half-mile downstream of Boiling River provides access to the final section that is not beside the road. From the bridge down almost to the Yellowstone, the Gardner is closely paralleled by the North Entrance Road.

Angling

Angling Quality
Lower Gardner River fishing quality by month
The Fish
  • Rainbow: Rainbow trout are the most common resident trout in this stretch, though they do not dominate. Most average 8-12 inches, with the smaller fish common near Osprey Falls and the larger from the High Bridge on down. Some fish to 18+ inches are possible, particularly in the fall when they follow brown trout up from the Yellowstone.
  • Brown: Brown trout are almost as common as rainbows, particularly below Boiling River. When the fall-run browns come in, they may predominate in certain areas. Resident browns average 8-12 inches. Fall-run browns average 13-18 inches and occasionally get very large, though they do not average so large here as in the other rivers that receive fall runs within Yellowstone Park. Browns do run as far as Osprey Falls, though they are most common in October below Boiling River.
  • Yellowstone cutthroat and cutt-bow hybrids: While present throughout, cutthroats and cutt-bows are somewhat rare, usually making up about 1/10 of the catch. Some good ones are possible, particularly in June-July and near the mouth of major tributary Lava Creek.
  • Whitefish: Whitefish also make up about 1/10 of the catch, though they tend to run in bunches. They average 8-12 inches, but some very large ones (22+ inches) inhabit the Gardner.
  • Brook: Brookies are very common near Osprey Falls, uncommon by the time the Gardner reaches the High Bridge, and very rare below Boiling River. They average 6-9 inches here.
  • Sucker: A few very large (18-24") suckers inhabit the Gardner year-round. A heavy June spawning run from the Yellowstone can mess up the fishing in the bottom mile or so of the Gardner for about a week (if the river is clear enough to fish). The big suckers push the trout from the slow water near shore where they can be targeted out into deep, fast water where there's no way of getting a fly to them.
The Fishing

This section of the Gardner is primarily a nymphing river. It is ideally suited to short-line nymphing techniques, including Czech nymphing. I generally use a strike indicator, but except in the larger, deeper pools, I am more likely to high-stick with no more than a rod-length of fly line out and the indicator out of the water. Top nymphs throughout the fishable season include Minch's Golden Stones and Minch's Hare and Copper, a Golden or Midnight Stone imitation and an attractor nymph suggestive of caddis, respectively. Any other stonefly nymph trailing any other fairly large attractor nymph is worth a shot.

The fishing can begin here right at the beginning of the season, particularly downstream of Boiling River. This early fishing depends on cool, dry weather that allows the snowmelt to slow for a time. The Gardner is a short, steep, fast-flowing river, so it can clear enough to be fishable with the big nymphs just described with only a day or so of cool weather. The river is still very high and gray-brown in color; fish the bankside pockets only. This is very physical fishing that requires crashing through bankside brush.

In mid-late June, the Gardner almost always drops into shape. Stonefly nymphs are crucial now, in preparation for the upcoming Salmonfly and Golden Stonefly hatches, which occur sometime in the last ten days of June and first week of July below Boiling River and in July and early August above. This is the longest-lasting Salmonfly hatch in the Rockies. The only problem is that most of the trout in the river are too small to eat full-sized Salmonflies. Fish #8 imitations rather than the #4-6 imitations common elsewhere. Don't hesitate to fish these wet, as the real bugs drown easily in the Gardner's turbulent flows.

In July and early August, some dry caddis fishing is possible, particularly in the evenings. Attractors resembling caddis also work well at this time. This is much more limited dry fly fishing than can be found on most Yellowstone-area rivers at this time, however.

In August and September, small grasshoppers, crickets, and other terrestrials with nymph droppers can replace your double-nymph rigs, particularly in areas that see lower pressure.

Fall browns begin trickling in sometime in late August but are mostly incidental catches (on nymphs) at this time. The best numbers of fall browns that are not actually spawning yet occur in the first half of October. Fish the same nymph combinations noted above, or swap the smaller nymph for an egg pattern. The Gardner is not a great streamer river, but there are a few larger runs where they work well. After October 15, avoid fishing shallow gravel areas, as this is when the spawn begins. Suitable spawning areas are minimal on the Gardner, so it's not good to harass actively-spawning fish here (or anywhere really). Instead, keep fishing the deep pools if you are targeting browns, or the rainbows that sometimes join them. The pocket water areas with boulder-strewn bottoms are also good at this time, as the resident trout begin keying on eggs and BWO nymphs. There are plenty of non-spawning or pre-spawn fish available in these deeper areas through the end of the park season.

Another good option in October is matching afternoon BWO and occasional Drake Mackeral hatches. These are only common below Boiling River. The best hatches usually occur while it is snowing. This is the only hatch situation which can lead to selectively-rising fish on the Gardner. Even so, a #18 Purple Hazy Cripple or Parachute Adams is usually close enough.

Hatch Chart
Lower Gardner River hatch chart

If you wish to print a full-size version of this hatch chart, those covering other insects and food items important when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, and all other charts on this site, please visit this link.

Top 10 Flies

  1. Minch's Bead, Hare, and Copper, #12-14
  2. Minch's Golden Stone, #8-12
  3. Brown Girdle Bug, #4-8
  4. Minch's Black Stone, #6
  5. 20-Incher, #8-12
  6. Coachman Clacka Caddis, #12-14
  7. Turck's Tarantula, #10-12
  8. Parks' Salmonfly, #8
  9. Gold Chubby Chernobyl, #10-12
  10. Pink Egg Pattern, #14-16

Parks' Fly Shop

PO Box 196 or 202 Second Street South

Gardiner, MT 59030

Phone: (406) 848-7314

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