Parks' Fly Shop: Seasons in Yellowstone Country and How They Effect Fishing and Tourism

Seasons in Yellowstone Country

Season has a profound effect on the fisheries in the Yellowstone area. Coming to fish the Firehole in July when it is warmer than most outdoor swimming pools or trying to fly cast on the Yellowstone in the midst of runoff in May, while trees float down it and you can't see your boots through the mud even when you're six inches from the bank, would put a serious damper on your trip. Most of the information below is given in more detail on the individual Our Waters pages, but below the linkbox is a quick rundown to help you decide when to come, or to give you a basic idea of what the fishing is like in your timeframe if your travel itinerary is already set.


Early Spring: March through late May

Early spring fishing can be excellent, in the right places. The main problem for the visiting angler is that Yellowstone Park is not open to fishing at this time, which is too bad because it would be great on the geothermally-heated rivers like the Gardner, Firehole, Madison, and Gibbon. Thus early spring means fishing outside the Park.

spring rainbowIn March the best (and really only) bets are the Yellowstone River itself and the Paradise Valley spring creeks. On the big river, nymphs and streamers will bring lots of solid rainbows as they prepare to head up creeks to spawn, as well as cutthroats and browns that are trying to fatten up after a long winter. Dry fly fishing on the Yellowstone is not as good in March as it will be later in the year, but any day above freezing is likely to see at least an hour or two of good midge activity in the afternoon, which can bring great dry fly fishing in the foam pockets and eddies.

Midges are what you're looking for on the creeks, too, but there's also the chance of BWO. Otherwise, midge and small mayfly nymphs, streamers, egg patterns, scuds, and San Juan Worms are the tickets on the creeks. The creeks fish great in March, both because there are simply more fish present, since there are run-up rainbows present, and because the fish have seen relatively low pressure for several months and are not spooky. We suggest you consider a day on the creeks at this time.

In early April the last of the low-elevation snows melts and valley-level lakes thaw, expanding fishing options. Chief among these expanded options is fishing the lakes. Both public lakes like Dailey and area private lakes begin fishing at this time, and the trout are ravenous. Fish streamers and chironomids. The private lakes usually don't see heavy crowds until late May, so making your reservations a couple days or so ahead of time is fine.

On the Yellowstone, streamers and nymphs continue to be the hot tickets, but more and more insects begin to hatch, increasing dry fly opportunities. BWO predominate, but recent years have seen a big spike in the number of March Browns hatching. These beautiful large mayflies were almost wiped out on the Yellowstone by DDT in the 50s-60s, but they've finally made a strong resurgence and can bring up some big browns. If fishing the river in April, you need to plan for a few "down days," when you'll need to fish elsewhere or go play tourist, because early warm spells will send early spurts of high- elevation runoff into the river for a day or two at times, muddying it, or bitter cold winter weather will return and make fishing the Yellowstone unproductive or uncomfortable. Besides the discomfort, the lakes and spring creeks continue to fish well under these conditions.

The spring creeks jump to $75 rates (from $40) in mid-April, but otherwise they continue to be a great bet. More BWO hatch in April than midges, making matching the hatch a little easier. Please note that the creeks are usually fully booked some days in April, so making your reservations a couple months in advance is a good idea.

In early May, one of the best hatches of the season takes place on the Yellowstone in the narrow window between when the water begins to warm and when the muddy runoff from mountain snows turns the river brown, high, and mean. This is the fabled Mother's Day caddis hatch, when billions of caddis hatch in profusion. Sometimes sections of the river literally change color with the profusion of hatching caddis. After a long, hard, winter, the fish take full advantage of this bounty, and fishing can be phenomenal. This is a hard hatch to plan for, however, because of the brief window in which the bugs hatch. If you are able to hop on a jet to Bozeman at the drop of a hat, upon hearing that the fishing is on, this is the hatch for you. E-mail us regularly between early April and mid-May, or check our River Report to find out what the snowpack and weather forecasts tell us about when the hatch is going to happen. Streamers, BWO, and March Browns continue to hatch, as well.

Early in May, the spring creeks can continue to see solid BWO hatches. Later in the month, hatches decline and fishing becomes primarily subsurface. Most anglers fish tiny midge larvae/pupae and scuds, but we suggest streamers, especially in the turbulent water below the many road culverts.

Area lakes really start hitting their prime at this time. Some dry fly fishing is possible now on Vanessa's and Dailey, with chironomids, damsel nymphs, and small Woolly Buggers the most consistent bets everywhere. By this point you should start trying to make private lake reservations a week or two in advance.

Early spring tourism opportunities are excellent after the snow begins to melt and park roads besides the Gardiner-Cooke City road (which is open all year) begin to open. Opportunities for photographing newborn bison and elk exist, as well as rare treat of visiting the Park's geothermal features when few tourists are present. Cross-country skiing remains good through April, and for those who like to "earn their turns, some areas across the northern part of the park offer excellent backcountry alpine skiing and snowboarding until well into May.

Late Spring: Late May Through Mid-Late June

ben on vanessas lakeDuring late spring, river fishing right around Gardiner is more limited than it will be later. Thankfully, we're not far from waters in the Park that fish great early on. The Yellowstone is virtually always blown out by snowmelt, running extremely high, fast, and dirty, and isn't worth your time except as a whitewater river. Local lakes are the best bets outside the park. This is the most popular time to fish them, and the best time of the year to fish them if you are hoping to run into damselfly, Callibaetis, or midge hatches. Advance reservations are definitely required at this time.

The big public water draw at this time of year is Yellowstone National Park. The Park opens to angling the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, at which point the Firehole River is virtually always fishable and is frequently in prime shape. A week or two later, the Madison and lower Gibbon come into shape, and soon all three are producing some of their best fishing of the year. The Firehole above its falls and the Gibbon from Gibbon Meadows downstream, in particular, are usually in prime condition by mid-June. The Lewis River just downstream from Lewis Lake and the channel between Lewis and Shoshone lakes also can produce well at this time. For those of you who don't mind dredging large nymphs in off-color water, the lower Gardner River and the Yellowstone below its falls and above the Lamar confluence frequently become somewhat fishable by the middle of the month, though these rivers are not as aesthetically pleasing as they will be later in the season.

At the opener, most Park lakes remain frozen, and Yellowstone Lake and Trout Lake are closed. By the second week of June the ice goes off all area lakes save those at high elevation on the Beartooth Plateau. When the ice goes out, the shallows of Lewis and Heart Lakes produce their best fishing of the year (good luck hiking to Heart over the still-snowbound trail, however), and grayling pack the outlet of Grebe Lake. Other backcountry lakes can also produce some exceptional fishing at this time of year, while Joffe Lake provides an excellent place to teach children how to cast a fly, as its eager little brook trout are usually happy to take small streamers and wet flies with a lot of movement. On the smaller lakes, small streamers and nymphs under strike indicators are the top bets, but by mid-month you may begin seeing some fish rising to midges, Callibaetis, and damsels. On the big lakes, Yellowstone and Lewis especially, streamers are always the top bets.

Tourist traffic during this time starts getting heavier, but it's usually not extreme except during the Memorial Day holiday. All the young animals are born by the end of this period and bears are easily visible. At lower elevations, wildflowers are at their peak. One particularly good tourist activity at this time of year is whitewater rafting. The Yellowstone is normally not a particularly impressive whitewater river (the guides call it "Mellowstone"), but in late May and June it's big and runs hard, so even real whitewater aficionados will get a kick out of it and it'll really make kids excited.

Early Summer: Mid-Late June Through July

soda butte cuttIn early summer we have many of our gala hatches. These start with PMDs on the Firehole, Madison, and Gibbon, and continue with hatches of various small stoneflies and caddis in the Gibbon's canyon --think a #12-14 Olive or Yellow Stimulator with a #16 Four Feather or Prince dropper. In late June, the Gibbon sees the emergence of Brown Drakes and Pale Evening Duns in its meadows, a good time to look for the large browns that make their homes in these slow, challenging pools. Drench yourself in bug spray and be prepared for many fish to laugh at you before you can laugh back.

For somewhat different fishing, early in this period the Gardner and often the Yellowstone upstream from the mouth of the Lamar and downstream of Lower Falls start to come into shape. Both will still be very high, but the signature hatch for both rivers -the famous Salmonfly or Giant Black Stonefly- will happen soon, and the nymphs of both these insects and the less glamorous Golden Stone will be moving towards the banks. Even if the water is still high and fairly cloudy, the fish will be gorging on these and other smaller nymphs, though you'll want to leave your dry fly rod in the car. A good rig in both stretches is a #4 Matt's Stone or #8 Golden Stone with a #12 BH Prince or Four Feather dropper, or you can try ripping a streamer in the eddies and slower pools. While this is not your classic image of fly fishing, it can be quite productive. Streamers are also great bets, especially on the Yellowstone.

On June 15, Trout Lake and Yellowstone Lake both open to fishing. On Yellowstone Lake, this is a good time to do your part to eliminate lake trout from what was naturally home to only cutthroat. All lake trout must be killed in Yellowstone Lake, and a large silvery baitfish pattern (a baby cutthroat pattern, in other words) fished on a sink tip or shooting head is a good way to go about doing so. You won't catch many lake trout, but they might be big. The cutthroats will likewise be fairly sparse, but many will exceed eighteen inches, and fish to six pounds are possible. Trout Lake also has big cutthroats, as well as even kid and cuttbigger rainbows. Many anglers like to troll scuds, leeches, and Woolly Buggers out of belly boats, but we suggest stalking the banks looking for cruisers. We like to fish dry/dropper combinations, with a medium-sized Parachute Adams or small Coachman Trude on top and a small, flashy beadhead underneath. They'll usually eat the beadhead, but they'll take the Trude surprisingly often. Other lakes in the park continue to fish well, but the private lakes are on the downswing by June 20, with heavy weed growth and warming water.

By late June, the Firehole begins to slow due to geothermal inputs raising the water temperature beyond the comfort zones of trout on hot days, though the Gibbon and Madison still fish well. The stoneflies are now moving in earnest throughout the Yellowstone and Gardner systems, and you might see your first dry fly action of the year on these rivers before the month turns, if runoff is early. Be ready with big Salmonfly patterns (#4-8), slightly smaller Golden Stones, #10-14 tan and brown caddis, and #14-16 Yellow Sallies. By around the 4th of July, the northern part of Yellowstone Park, including the Yellowstone and Gardner, will start really turning on, with lots of fish looking up. Frequently neither we nor our clients bother to fish nymphs between the peak of the Salmonfly emergence and the end of July.

By the middle of the month, the meadow streams in the western part of the Park, the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison, slump into their summer doldrums, with water temperatures exceeding 75 degrees on a regular basis and the fish either fleeing into cooler tributaries or sitting down on the bottom of the deepest, coolest holes. The meadow streams of the Park's northeast corner now come into their own, however, with heavy hatches of Green and Gray Drakes and PMDs during the day and caddis in the evenings. Though these green drakestreams are popular and crowded, a skilled angler can fool cutthroat averaging from 13 to 16 inches (with some much larger) and a few rainbows, provided their fly is right and their drift just about perfect. Likewise, the upper Yellowstone opens on July 15, and though runs of cutthroat from the Lake are down due to drought, whirling disease, and the predations of illegally- introduced lake trout, this stretch of river offers your best shot at a true trophy river cutthroat, with some fish stretching to 24" or even larger, the largest Yellowstone Cutthroat ever get.

Early summer sees the heaviest tourist crowds of the season, and traffic can be bad in mid-morning and late afternoon. On the other hand, the weather is usually excellent, wildflowers in most locations are at their peaks, and animals are usually quite visible from the roads (though often far away across the valleys). All tourist attractions in and outside the Park are now open, so there's a lot to do, from whitewater rafting to horseback riding to visiting the spa at Chico Hot Springs.

Late Summer: Early August Through Labor Day

By early August or even late July in dry years, hatches on the Yellowstone in its canyons and outside the Park and in the Gardner start to slow down, with evening caddis now the most common emergence. The fish still look up, however, and they take grasshopper patterns and attractor dries like Trudes and Stimulators well. In the Park's northeast corner, though Pale Morning Duns, Green Drakes, and increasingly Heptagenia and Flavilinea mayflies still predominate, a well-presented hopper, beetle, or ant may be the ticket to fool even the wariest fish. For those anglers willing to stay out until dark, less-crowded conditions and dense spinner falls await, as well as an occasional serenade by one of the many neighborhood wolf packs.

In late August, though the weather is most commonly hot and dry, as in most of July, an occasional break usually occurs, in which a cold rain or even a rare summer snow shower cools the water and brings out the first fall Blue-winged Olive hatches. When gray skies, cold wind, and rain predominate, hearty anglers who hit the Yellowstone or the Park's northeast corner can have phenomenal fishing, during hatches most commonly seen elsewhere only late in the year, reminding the visitor that he or she is, after all, both a lot farther north than many places in the United States, and far higher in elevation. When it's warm, as it usually is, grasshopper and other terrestrials remain key patterns, as well as the caddis, Drakes and Flavs, and PMDs.

In early August, tourist traffic is as high as it is in July, but the ten days or two weeks before Labor Day are usually much less crowded. Kids are back in school and the crowds who come after Labor Day to "beat the crowds" are nowhere to be found. There are fewer wildflowers at this time, but the animals are sleek and fat, and the bull elk start to bugle.

Fall: Labor Day Through Early November

September can be a continuation of August, with the sun beating down and grasshoppers getting blown into undercut pools where they are snatched by large trout. It can also be a replica of winter, with snow falling heavily even at lower elevations, though it rarely sticks so early, save on the high peaks surrounding most area rivers. Either way, September is a lovely time to visit the area, with good fishing in a variety of places, though crowds can still be high from Labor Day until about the 20th of September.

By Labor Day, brown trout are starting to begin their annual spawning runs on the Yellowstone, lewis river brownGardner, and Madison Rivers, with fish sometimes traveling up to fifty miles or more on salmon-like quests to climb rapids and wriggle across shallow gravel bars to reach their spawning grounds. Also like salmon, they fast on these runs, striking only out of aggression. Thus, in a few well-known and many other not-so-well-known pools and runs, some of them made famous by decades of anglers, streamers and big stonefly nymphs now start to produce some surprisingly large fish in surprisingly small water, though the peak of the run occurs much later, near the end of the season.

In September, the Park's northeast corner can be great, or it can be terrible, depending on weather. On hot, dry, still days, the now gin-clear streams in this area will test your patience, with long leaders, light tippets, and small flies requirements for success when casting over trout that have been hooked many times throughout the summer and which have therefore become very cautious. On bitterly cold days, when the wind howls and chilly rain or snow falls, these streams can be simply too cold, the fish and water both feeling an early shot of winter. Perhaps the best days are those in the middle, when cool temperatures and clouds bring out the Blue-winged Olives and Flavs, and when a beetle or ant can still fool a large, wary trout grown fat on summer's bounty. By the middle of the month, the Firehole and Gibbon again start fishing well, especially on the coldest days, when the geyser outflow is offset by cold runoff. When the snow flies in September, Blue-wings may hatch in the greatest profusion on the Firehole, even as the fish in the Lamar are shivering.

Dry fly fishing on the Yellowstone, from below Livingston all the way to the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone at the Lower Falls, is usually excellent during September, with attractors and grasshoppers still pulling fish on warmer, brighter days, but with great hatches of Blue-Wings on most cloudy or cooler days. fall drakeHatches of Heptagenia and Hecuba (Tan Drake or Drake Mackeral) mayflies are also on the increase in the Yellowstone, and in 2010 accounted for some of our best fall fish. When nothing is happening on top, a Woolly Bugger or other streamer fished on a sink tip might bring a runner brown below Knowles Falls, but even in the lower Grand Canyon at Tower, a stretch occupied almost exclusively by cutthroat, the fish feel the approach of winter and slam big streamers in the boulder fields, preparing for the lean months ahead. The river is now low and clear, with well-defined riffles, boulder fields, and pools -quite different from the willow-lined torrent of July.

The cooler nights of September make the private lakes a viable bet again in early-mid September. Some lakes will fish well with hoppers early in the month, but streamers trailing chironomids or wet flies are the best tickets. Streamers continue to get more and more effective through the fall, until serious cold in late October or November shuts the lakes down. In our opinion, the lakes in October are probably your best bet for big numbers of big fish, beating out even the Gardner or Madison. Best of all, very few anglers fish the lakes in the fall, meaning that even on the larger private lakes you often won't have any competition.

After the equinox, which is frequently accompanied by the first serious winter storm of the year, the northeast corner of the Park shuts down for the season, the metabolisms of the trout slowing to a crawl as water temperatures there drop through the forties. The Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison return with a bang, with dense hatches in the meadow sections and runner browns beginning to move in earnest throughout the Madison and into the Gibbon and Firehole below their respective falls. These runner browns increasingly become the focus for most anglers visiting the area throughout October and until the close of the Park season on the first Sunday in November, and on the Yellowstone until December or it simply gets too cold to fish.

Few anglers make the journey, since dry fly fishing is what the area is famous for, but for those that do make the trip and put up with cold fingers and several layers of fleece, many large brown trout await. Most of these fish, be they in the Lewis, Madison, or Yellowstone drainage (including the lower Gardner), stretch 16-20 inches, but for a lucky few, fish to ten pounds are possible. One local angler once took two six-pound browns on consecutive casts in the Gardner a few years back, for example. Both the Madison drainage and the Gardner also receive some fall-run rainbows, fish either spawning in winter due to hatchery-bred genes still issuing their commands thirty years after area fish were last stocked, or running up early for the spring spawn. For both species, large nymphs and streamers --even fished using spey rods-- are the order of the day. Patience like that required when fishing for steelhead is often required, with pass after pass through a pool needed to excite a fish into striking; but when the strike happens, a steelhead-like fight might await. Best of all, this can happen --if you know the right places-- out of sight of any other angler.

Winter: November Through Early March.

Parks' Fly Shop is open year-round, but our guide service shuts down from shortly after the close of the Park season on the first Sunday in November until March. This does not mean there aren't opportunities for the visitor early and late in the year. While Yellowstone National Park is closed to angling from the winter elkfirst Sunday in November until Memorial Day Weekend, catch and release trout fishing in the Yellowstone River outside the Park is open year-round. Throughout the winter, warm days bring midge hatches, especially near hot spring vents and the mouths of spring-fed tributaries. Midwinter is also a great time to fish the Paradise Valley spring creeks, especially since rates are only $40/day and there's never a crowd.

There are plenty of opportunities for the casual visitor to enjoy many of the area's other attractions in winter. Few tourists are present except those who enter via snowmobile at the West Entrance, which means that Yellowstone Park is uncrowded. Gardiner is the only entrance of the Park open year-round to wheeled vehicles, making it a mecca for wildlife-watching enthusiasts. Winter visitors frequently see even more wildlife than those later in the year, often including the more secretive fauna of the area, including wolves on the hunt. In addition, the cross-country skiing available across the north end of Yellowstone is phenomenal, allowing you to see the scenery of Yellowstone from a whole new perspective. This is the chief reason Parks' Fly Shop transforms, to a degree, into Parks' Ski Shop from December through March -check with us for your cross-country ski needs.

phone 406 848 7314, address 202 Second Street South PO Box 196 Gardiner, MT 59030 E-mail Walter Wiese E-mail Richard Parks link to PFS Youtube Channel link to PFS Facebook

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