Parks' Fly Shop: Guide to Fly Fishing the Yellowstone River

Introduction to the Yellowstone River

The Yellowstone is the longest free-flowing river in the United States and one of this country's top trout fisheries. In addition to being the most important river we at Parks' Fly Shop fish and guide on, it is also the parent river to many of the other great rivers in the region, including the Gardner, Lamar, Boulder, and further downstream, the Bighorn, as well as many wonderful mountain streams and the Paradise Valley spring creeks.

More than any of the other streams in our area, the Yellowstone offers an immense variety of water types, insect species, levels of accessibility, crowds versus solitude, and tactics an angler may use. In general, the Yellowstone can be divided into four sections for fishing purposes: from the headwaters above Yellowstone Lake down to the lake and from the lake down to Upper Falls, the canyon sections from just below Lower Falls to Gardiner, from Gardiner to Livingston, and from Livingston to the mouth of the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone, where the Yellowstone ceases to be a viable world-class trout fishery, though some trout can be found even past Billings.

The vast majority of Parks' Fly Shop's attention is focused on the canyon section inside Yellowstone National Park and on floating from Gardiner to about 30 miles downstream of Livingston. We have guides somewhere on all of this water every day it is fishable, and would love to introduce you to some of it.

Click on the tabs below the Trip Planning links tableto learn more about each section of the river.

Upper Yellowstone: Above Yellowstone Lake and Yellowstone Lake to Upper Falls

Introduction

The Yellowstone River between Yellowstone Lake and the Upper Falls is perhaps the most famous stretch of trout water on the planet. It's certainly in the top ten. For more than sixty years millions of anglers have targeted the immense runs of large cutthroat trout that used to call this stretch of river home for a few months a year, after migrating downstream from the lake to spawn. Once this stretch of river had a reputation for plentiful, easy fish, but these days are long past. Unfortunately, a misguided angler or anglers illegally stocked lake trout into Yellowstone Lake in the late 1980s, an act which now costs the Park Service much of their fisheries budget to combat every year. Lake trout are fish-eaters, and they are more than happy to eat cutthroats, including adult cutthroats. As if lake trout weren't bad enough, whirling disease has been found in this section of river and spawning creeks that feed into the lake, and the 2001-2007 drought reduced spawning effectiveness and at times prevented fry from reaching the lake. For these reasons, there was virtually no recruitment of new fish into the adult trout population from 2005-2007. Since virtually all trout in this section of the Yellowstone reside in the lake eight or more months a year, these issues have dramatically reduced the number of trout available to anglers.

Still, this section of river is worth your time if you like to carefully stalk fish. Most of the trout present when this section opens on July 15 run between sixteen and twenty-two inches, and there are fish even larger than this. Just don't expect many.

The headwaters section of the river, above the lake, used to fish similarly to the section from the lake to the falls, save that instead of migrating down from the lake, the fish migrated upstream. This used to be probably the best place in the world to fish for cutthroat trout, but the fishing has collapsed at least as bad above the lake as below. Due to the difficulty in reaching this region (it requires a 20+ mile hike or horseback ride, each way), it is no longer really a viable fishery. We hope this changes at some point in the future, but we don't know if it will

Please consult the Yellowstone Park fishing regulations or give us a call to learn about the regulations governing this stretch of river. There are several permanent closures, and it's important to know precisely where they are.

Description and Access

Above the Lake

As briefly noted above, accessing the upper Yellowstone requires significant time investments and some serious shoe leather or saddle sores. Few commercial horsepackers now run trips into this area because of how poor the fishing now is, but it is still beautiful country. The river is slow and silty here, with occasional riffles but no real rapids until beyond the park boundary. In many respects it resembles the Lamar, twisting in numerous curves through meadows and woodlands.

Lake to Falls

Below the lake the Yellowstone is large, over a hundred feet across everywhere and usually twice that. Flows are generally moderate, with the area around LeHardy Rapids being the notable exception. The river is powerful and deep, however, and it stays bitter cold year round, so watch your step. Also, from Alum Creek downstream to Chittenden Bridge the current gradually increases as the river accelerates towards the Upper Falls. Banks are generally wooded, though there are meadows in places. The bottom is most often composed of gravel or sand, but there is a great deal of muck upstream of LeHardy Rapids, in the section known as "The Estuary." Below LeHardy Rapids and for a short section above the angling closure at the rapids there is some obvious structure, including large rocks, current breaks, and depressions in the streambed, but there are also places where no clear structure exists, making blind-casting a frustrating endeavor.

Access is easy. Though the river cannot be waded all the way across anywhere except Nez Perce Ford (formerly known as Buffalo Ford), and here only from late July or early August onward, most areas can be wade-fished without danger. The Canyon-Lake road follows the river on its west bank at a distance of a few yards to a quarter-mile for this entire stretch, and pullouts are plentiful. For the angler who likes to walk, a hiking trail extends from Fishing Bridge downriver almost to Chittenden Bridge on the east bank. This is a flat hike of at least a mile to reach fishable water (the river is closed for a mile below Fishing Bridge), but it is a pleasant hike except for the mosquitoes.

Angling

Fish Species Abundance
Yellowstone Cutthroat common, but only during the summer months. Most fish gone by Labor Day.
Lake Trout Rare: occasional strays from Yellowstone Lake possible

 

Above the lake, there are now so few fish that it's difficult to consider the hike or horseback ride worth it. In general, hatches will resemble those discussed for the section below the lake, though the lack of angling pressure means you can probably get away with general attractor flies most of the time, if you manage to find a feeding fish larger than the 6" resident cutthroats.

The section below the lake may not be the most challenging stretch of water in the Park, but it's one of them. Beginning anglers need not apply. Insect hatches are immense and complicated, and trout frequently focus on one particular stage of one particular insect in an almost sadistic way. To have any chance at catching one of the enormous trout that call this water home, an angler needs patience, good line-handling and fish-playing skills, and a little bit of luck. The trout here are already returning to the lake after spawning by the opener on 7/15, so the angler is targeting fish that stay a while feeding on the abundant insect food in this section of river. By late August most fish have returned to the lake, making fishing even more difficult.

It is usually not worth your time to blind-cast. The area around LeHardy Rapids is the sole exception, and is the only place I'd suggest fishing the attractor dry and nymph dropper combination that works wonders everywhere else on the Yellowstone. Nymphing with stonefly nymphs can also work here, especially if the Salmonfly and Golden Stone emergences are late. Elsewhere, your best option is to stalk the bank looking for rising fish or fish feeding on nymphs in fairly shallow water. After spotting a fish, switch flies and tactics until you either catch it or scare it off.

Every insect species in the Park except for Brown Drakes hatches from this section of the Yellowstone, meaning a full vest is a necessity. In general, the most complex hatches appear above LeHardy Rapids, where seven or eight different insects may hatch or be falling as spinners at any given time. Below LeHardy, several species of caddis and Pale Morning Duns predominate, though it can still be difficult determining which stage a trout is feeding on.

Rods should be long and fairly light, to protect frail tippets. I'd suggest a nine-foot 5 weight. The only exceptions are fishing large nymphs around LeHardy Rapids or swinging wet flies and streamers, an increasingly popular tactic when no fish are rising and a good way of covering water. Both tactics require a 6 weight. Leaders should generally be long, from 9-15 feet, and should be tapered to 4X at an absolute maximum when fishing dry flies and nymphs, with 5-6X and fluorocarbon more likely, especially more than two weeks after the opener. With streamers, a short 3X leader and a sinktip line are good choices.

Hatches are more common in the evening than early in the morning, though spinner falls occur sporadically all day and Pale Morning Duns typically emerge at midday.


Quality of Fishing By Period: X=high, x=moderate, x?= variable, blank=poor or closed
May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
        X X x? x        

Upper Yellowstone Hatch Charts and Fly Pattern Recommendations
  Timeframe: X=major importance, x=minor importance, blank=unimportant
Insects May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Pale Morning Dun         X X x          
Fall BWO (Gray Baetis)             x X X x x  
Western Green Drake         X x x x        
Flav         x X X x        
Gray Drake         x x x x        
Callibaetis         x x x x        
Caddis, Various         X X x x        
Golden Stonefly         X x            
Salmonfly         X              
Yellow Sally Stone         X x            
Midges         x x x x X X X X
Terrestrials         x x X X X x    
Other Trout Foods May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Attractor Dries         x x x          
Streamers         x x X X X X X X

Upper Yellowstone Top Flies
PMD Sparkle Dun, #16-20
Beadhead Pheasant Tail, #18
Soda Fountain Parachute, #10-16
Partridge Caddis, #16
Copper John, #16-18
Rusty Spinner, #14-18
BWO Sparkle Dun, #20
Beadhead Prince, #16
Sparkle Pupa, #16
Flashback Pheasant Tail, #20


Yellowstone Canyons: Lower Falls to Gardiner

Introduction

The Yellowstone changes character utterly immediately below the Chittenden Bridge. The river drops immediately over two huge waterfalls, losing a total of over four hundred feet over the two drops. Meanwhile the banks are closing in, becoming rockier, and getting higher, so that soon the river is in a canyon 1,500 feet deep. Though the canyon walls get lower in places, they never quite disappear all the way to Gardiner, a distance of over 30 miles. The first ten miles are in the deeper, narrower Grand Canyon while the remainder are in the slightly more open Black Canyon. The river is narrower here than above the falls, but much faster and deeper. There are significant numbers of class-IV and class-V rapids whitewater aficionados would love to get on legally and which they occasionally run illegally, as well as a third fall in the middle of the Black Canyon, Knowles Falls, which marks the upstream limit for brown trout. For the angler willing and able to hike and scramble over and around rocks and deadfall, every piece of this water that isn't made inaccessible by sheer canyon walls is prime.

Parks' Fly Shop is the only outfitter in the area to put in a lot of time on this water. While it's never as crowded as the easy-to-reach water in the Lamar drainage, some places are less-known than others. If you choose to book one of our guides to fish the Yellowstone's canyons and can hike, we can usually find a large chunk of beautiful river to fish in solitude.

Description and Access

The river here is narrow, fast, and deep. The banks are often sheer, and when they're not they are covered in boulders and often downed trees burned in the 1988 fires. There are a few places where the river slows for brief stretches of a quarter mile and where gravel beaches come down to the water's edge, but these areas are rare. Make no mistake, this is canyon water, and there are probably more places you can't fish safely than where you can. The river bottom in most places is either gravel or cobble, with significant numbers of boulder fields. The only areas with significant quantities of sand and silt are eddies that have not been scoured recently, where the current deposits part of its particulate load during the spring.

Access is difficult. Most of the canyon stretch is difficult or dangerous to wade, meaning you'll seldom go in deeper than your knees on purpose. Much of the fishing is done from the bank. There is only a single ford in this entire stretch, Colter Ford, located about a mile upstream from the Tower Falls Trail river access. This ford does not become wadeable until at least mid-September, and even then it is neither obvious nor easy. Other crossing points are limited to bridges. The Northeast Entrance Road (the sole road access to this stretch) crosses the river just east of Tower Junction. There is a good amount of water on both sides of the bridge, both upstream and down. The Hellroaring Trail crosses the river a mile and 600 vertical feet from the trailhead. There's trail access from here upstream on the south bank and in both directions on the north bank. Trails and angler tracks follow both sides of the river from the Blacktail Trail footbridge, which is a four-mile hike with 800 feet of vertical just to get to the river.

There are several trails into the canyon stretch. In the Grand Canyon, the Glacial Boulder Trail gives access to the area known as Seven Mile Hole, the Agate Creek Trail descends to the mouth of Agate Creek, an angler's trail descends from the Specimen Ridge Trail through a notch in the canyon wall, and the Tower Falls Trail descends to the mouth of Tower Creek. Of these, the Tower Falls Trail is easiest at some 275 vertical feet in .4 mile. Trails into the Black Canyon include an angler track to the mouth of the Lamar River, an angler track from the south end of the Northeast Entrance Road bridge, the Hellroaring Trail, the Blacktail Trail, a bushwhack from the Rescue Creek Trail, and the Yellowstone River Trail. For more information on these trails, contact us or consult Richard's book Fishing Yellowstone National Park.

There are a couple of closed zones in the canyons, but they are not typically of concern to most anglers. Check the regulations to be sure. Anglers should also note that the river briefly leaves the Park for approximately a half-mile around the mouth of Bear Creek in the lower Black Canyon. A Montana permit is required to fish this section of river.

Angling

Fish Species Abundance
Yellowstone Cutthroat Abundant throughout.
Rainbow-Cutthroat Hybrid Possible throughout, but increasingly common as you move downstream.
Rainbow Possible throughout but more common immediately around the Lamar confluence and just upstream of Gardiner.
Brown Absent above Knowles Falls, but increasingly common as you move downstream from there.
Brook Uncommon everywhere but also possible everywhere, especially near the mouths of tributary streams.
Whitefish Rare to absent above Knowles Falls, common below.

 

The Yellowstone River canyons are excellent fisheries for anglers with some fly fishing experience, and even expert anglers can find much enjoyment here. They also make good areas for beginners provided they are accompanied by someone with experience. The average fish size is smaller than that above the falls, but the maximum size is much larger, especially below Knowles Falls. Browns and rainbows to ten pounds have been taken between Knowles Falls and Gardiner, and fish over 20 inches are a very real possibility anywhere in the Black and Grand Canyons except around the mouth of Tower Creek, where there are more trout at a somewhat smaller maximum size. An average trout anywhere in the canyon will be a ten to fourteen-inch cutthroat, with plentiful fish in the 16-18 inch range. There are more rainbows and rainbow-cutthroat hybrids the further downstream one goes. Brook trout are possible anywhere but are more common near the mouths of tributary streams such as Tower and Blacktail Creek, both of which have large brookie populations. Brook trout in the Yellowstone are likely to be small, but I have taken a single sixteen-incher shaped like a football, so there are exceptions.

Fishing is quite different in the canyons than above the falls. The river below the Upper Falls opens with the general Park season on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and occasionally the river will be nymphable then, especially if the winter has been dry or the spring cold. Most years, however, the river becomes clear enough to fish with nymphs or streamers in late June, though it will still be very high. Until the Salmonfly and Golden Stone emergences, which are phenomenal and long-lasting, the best fishing is had with Woolly Buggers and stonefly nymphs with smaller nymph droppers. The Salmonflies and Golden Stones usually begin hatching near thermal areas between June 25 and July 4, with the heaviest emergences between July 4 and July 20. If conditions are right they may remain in certain parts of the canyon (especially downstream of cold tributaries) until the end of the month, though usually they are gone by the 25th. Caddis, Yellow Sallies, and some mayflies begin hatching at the same time and continue to hatch in decreasing numbers until mid-August. In late August or early September the first fall Blue-winged Olives (Gray Baetis) emerge, and these can provide excellent fishing until sometime in late October. There are also some Epeorus mayflies in August and Hecuba mayflies in September. The most consistent fishing from mid-July until late September is to be found by fishing attractor or hopper patterns with nymph droppers. Grasshoppers are plentiful in the canyon, and in more remote areas the largest fish in the river will come up for the largest hoppers in your box -size 4 hoppers, in some cases. Streamer fishing can be good some days in August, if the fish aren't eating grasshoppers, but it gets better in September and remains good through mid-late October provided no prolonged cold snaps drop water temperatures below 42 degrees.

Early in the season, the primary structure is created by boulders along the banks and small bankside eddies. At this time, virtually all fish will be found within ten feet of the bank save in the largest eddies, and most will be closer still. Later in the summer, as the spring melt recedes, more offshore structure begins to form, with runs and boulder fields beginning to comprise the most important structure. In some places riffle corners at bends and near islands also come into play. Late in the season the river takes on a much more complicated character, with what were raging torrents in July now becoming deep pools, plunges, and other "classic" trout stream habitat.

Regardless of season, this is one place where we always fish 6 weight rods. Not only do they make casting big, wind-resistant dries much easier, they allow you to fish streamers with less false casting and make it possible to put much more pressure on big fish, important given the fire hydrant-like flows present in some parts of the canyons. The canyons are a place where you always want to have a dozen #4-10 streamers in your box. Seven or eight should be Woolly Buggers in various sizes and colors, while the others should be Zonkers, white Marabou Muddlers, and Slumpbusters or squirrel leeches. Make sure to bring a sinking mini-tip leader or a full-on sinktip line to use with the streamers, as these work much better at getting them down on short drifts than tin split shot or beadheads.


Quality of Fishing By Period: X=high, x=moderate, x?= variable, blank=poor or closed
May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
x? x? x? x? X X X X X x? x?  

Yellowstone Canyons Hatch Charts and Fly Pattern Recommendations
  Timeframe: X=major importance, x=minor importance, blank=unimportant
Insects May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Pale Morning Dun       x x x x          
Fall BWO (Gray Baetis)             x X X x x  
Western Green Drake       x X x            
Epeorus           x x x        
Heptagenia             x x x      
Hecuba               x x x    
Caddis, Various       x X X x x        
Golden Stonefly     x X X x            
Salmonfly     x X X              
Yellow Sally Stone       x X x            
Terrestrials       x X X X X X x    
Other Trout Foods May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Attractor Dries       x X X X X X x x  
Attractor Nymphs X X X X x x x x X X X X
Stonefly Nymphs X X X X x       x x x x
Streamers         x x X X X X X X

Yellowstone Canyons Top Flies
Matt's Black "Brooks" Stone, #6
Matt's Golden Stone, #8
Coachman Trude, #12-16
Beadhead Prince, #16
Wiese's P-Bugger, #4
White Marabou Muddler, #6
Parachute Adams, #18
Turck's Tarantula, #10
Gould's Half Down Salmonfly, #6
Purple Haze, #16-18

Middle Yellowstone: Gardiner to Livingston

Introduction

At Gardiner, the Yellowstone leaves the Black Canyon and its north bank leaves the Park for good. After a short stretch through Gardiner itself, the south (soon becoming west) bank of the river is inside the Park once again for a distance of approximately four miles, terminating at the mouth of Reese Creek. When fishing on the north/east bank or out of a boat, Montana regulations and licenses apply, while on the south/west bank Yellowstone regulations apply. Beyond this point, the river flows through a mix of public and private property to the mouth of Yankee Jim Canyon some fifteen miles downriver, while after this point land ownership is primarily private with regular public boat ramps and several foot access sites through Livingston, 53 miles north of Gardiner. The river exhibits several characters in this section, but except for several stretches in the middle of Paradise Valley there are still quite a few rapids, especially from Gardiner downstream to Carbella and from Pine Creek to Livingston. This section of the Yellowstone is best fished from a boat.

Description and Access

From Gardiner to Carbella, a distance of seventeen miles, the Yellowstone retains much of its Black Canyon character, save that the rapids top out at class-III rather than class-V. Numerous class-II and class-III drops are present, and in Yankee Jim Canyon the rapids are heavy enough that it's difficult to float even a high-sided drift boat unless the person on the oars knows the river well and can really row. We don't run drift trips through the canyon until flows drop to 4000cfs, and stop when flows drop below 2000cfs. This roughly translates to early-mid August through mid-late September, depending on the year. We are the only shop to run driftboat trips through the canyon, though some outfitters use rafts. Still, this whole section of the river is used primarily by whitewater floaters save during the Salmonfly hatch in early-mid July. A great deal of public land is present in this section, mostly National Forest land though Yellowstone Park borders the west bank of the river from just downstream of Gardiner down to the mouth of Reese Creek. There are also a total of five public boat ramps, plus one carry-down access at the mouth of the Gardner River and a private boat ramp.

Carbella to Mallard's Rest comprises the upper and middle sections of Paradise Valley, a distance of slightly less than thirty miles. With the exception of several wing dikes and areas where the river cut a chaotic channel during the back-to-back 1996 and 1997 "100 Year" floods, floating this section of river is easy, and both canoes and innertubes join the driftboats and rafts. This section of river is generally much broader, shallower, and slower than the section upstream, with many gravel bars and riffle corners outnumbering the boulder fields that predominate above. These corners are often worth stopping to fish on foot. Public access is less common in this stretch than it is above, with a few sections of highway right of way, a stretch of BLM land right at Carbella, and boat ramps providing the best access.

From Mallard's Rest to Livingston, especially below Pine Creek, the Yellowstone begins dropping more swiftly again. Because gravel bottoms still predominate, the river typically cuts new channels every year, with sudden bends and hidden obstacles both man-made and natural present. This section of river should not be attempted by inexperienced oarsmen or in fishing craft other than driftboats or rafts. Access is slightly better in this lower section of Paradise Valley than it is in mid-valley, since there's a great deal of public land in the channels around Pine Creek and in Livingston itself.

Angling

Fish Species Abundance
Yellowstone Cutthroat Abundant Gardiner-Emigrant, common below.
Rainbow-Cutthroat Hybrid Common throughout
Rainbow Abundant throughout.
Brown Common throughout, though you see a lot fewer of them than rainbows and cutts, since they're spookier.
Brook Rare throuhout. On guide trips we get about one per season.
Whitefish Abundant throughout.

From Gardiner to Carbella and in sections from Carbella to Livingston, the season kicks off in late June or early July with the Salmonfly hatch as runoff recedes. The river is still quite high and dirty at this time, so except for a few places with steep, rocky banks, it is much easier to fish the Yellowstone from a boat at this time. Large stonefly nymphs and streamers are the top draws to start with, but good dry fly fishing is possible as long as there's at least 18" of visibility. Fish stout gear: 7.5' 1-2X leaders are a good place to start. The river can be crowded during Salmonfly time, especially from the first access site at Queen of Waters down to the head of Yankee Jim Canyon and from Carbella to Emigrant. Some dry fly action on caddis and Green Drakes is possible, as well, but the really consistent fishing with dry flies starts a week or two after the river drops into shape.

By July 20, the whole river from Gardiner to Livingston really comes on for dry fly fishing. Typically caddis, small stonefly, and attractor dries are best, but scattered PMD and Green Drake activity is possible. Generally the upper river from Gardiner to Carbella puts up the most numbers, but chances for bigger fish are higher from Point of Rocks down to Livingston. Some years grasshopper activity starts in late July, though odds are most of these early grasshopper-eaters are taking grasshopper imitations as nighttime Golden Stones, anyway, which continue to hatch off and on through Labor Day.

By early August the mayfly bite is gone and the caddis are limited to evening emergences, leaving attractor and terrestrial dries the best bets, usually trailing either another, smaller dry or caddis emerger or a #14-16 beadhead nymph such as a Prince. Sometimes it's necessary to go deep, usually with a stonefly nymph or Woolly Bugger trailing a smaller nymph, though this is a last resort for many, including those affiliated with PFS. The hopper bite is probably the biggest draw now, with different points on the river and points in the year requiring different hoppers. 2010 saw the fish show a strong preference for pink and peach-colored hoppers, with a side of large and tiny natural tan-colored hoppers. Medium-sized black terrestrials also worked well.

Late in August or early in September the first fall BWO (Gray Baetis) hatches begin. On cloudy days these quickly become the key to a great day of dry fly fishing, while good terrestrial/attractor fishing holds on during sunny, warm weather at least until the beginning of October. Besides the BWO, September can see excellent hatches of Timpanoga hecuba, the Hecuba, Drake Mackeral, or Fall Drake, which is a robust tan and gray insect. 2010 in particular saw excellent rises to this bug, often in the midst of large numbers of BWO. Some Tricos will possibly bring rises in slower sections of river, but they are usually not key. The fish now move into softer currents, often well off the bank on the inside of bends, rather than tuck right in tight to steep banks in fast water.

The streamer bite can be hot all season long, especially early in the morning and late in the evening, but it becomes more consistent in mid-late September. From this point on, it is usually a good idea to get a later start if you want to focus on dry fly fishing, since the surface bite usually doesn't get going until 11:00-1:00 from this point in the year forward. A better idea is to bring both a 7 and a 5 weight and throw large streamers until lunchtime, hoping for a big brown or rainbow. Bring a full streamer box, as the color and size flies the fish prefer change substantially depending on weather. Frequently large-profile dark flies work best on rainy days, while slimmer natural or white flies work best on sunny days.

By early October the streamer and BWO bites are the tickets, with some chance of interesting fish on small egg flies. There are now some midge hatches as well, so be sure to have some Sprouts and Griffith's Gnats. Fish slower water, and fish long leaders when dry fly fishing. As October progresses, it becomes important to beware of actively spawning trout. Stay away from bright, dish-shaped areas in shallow gravel, which may be brown trout redds.

Consistent streamer and dry midge and BWO fishing continue most afternoons until around November 10, when serious cold sets in. From this point until early March, nymphing with small, flashy beadheads trailing a midge larva is the most consistent bet, and the river should not be floated due to the possibility of ice jams. Focus on slow areas and near warm water sources, such as the mouths of the Paradise Valley spring creeks and the Gardner River, and near hot springs. Some midge and tiny winter BWO (olive, size-22) emergences can bring surprisingly good dry fly fishing, but usually for no more than an hour or so a day.

From early March until the runoff hits in early May functions sort of like a reverse of the end of the season. Midges may bring dry fly action early, followed by BWO in April, March Browns in late April, and Mother's Day Caddis right before runoff hits. Streamers are a good bet throughout the spring. The Mother's Day hatch in particular is a fabled event, but it's very hard to hit right as it usually comes just as the high-elevation snowmelt hits. Call us to find out our latest predictions on when the hatch is likely to happen. Fishing is excellent in the spring, if less consistent than July and August, but anglers visiting in the spring need to have a variety of backup plans, since either unseasonably warm weather or unseasonably cool weather can shut the fishing down on the big river for a day or two, warm weather by sending in flushes of muddy snowmelt and cold weather by chilling the water.


Quality of Fishing By Period: X=high, x=moderate, x?= variable, blank=poor or closed
Jan. Feb. March April May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
  x? X X x? x? X X X X x?  

Middle Yellowstone Hatch Charts and Fly Pattern Recommendations
  Timeframe: X=major importance, x=minor importance, blank=unimportant
Insects Jan. Feb. March April May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Pale Morning Dun             x x        
Fall BWO (Gray Baetis)               x X X x  
Spring BWO   x X X x              
Western March Brown     x X x              
Western Green Drake           x x          
Epeorus             x x x      
Heptagenia               x x      
Hecuba                 x x    
Caddis, Various       x X x X x        
Mahogany Duns               x x      
Tricos               x x      
Golden Stonefly           x X x x      
Salmonfly           x X          
Yellow Sally Stone           x X x        
Midges X X X x x   x   x x X X
Terrestrials             x X X x    
Other Trout Foods Jan. Feb. March April May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Attractor Dries   x x x X   X X X x x  
Attractor Nymphs X X X X X X x x x X X X
Stonefly Nymphs x x x X X X X x x x x x
Streamers x x X X X x x x X X X x

Middle Yellowstone Top Flies
Matt's Black "Brooks" Stone, #6
Matt's Golden Stone, #8
Coachman Trude, #12-16
Beadhead Prince, #16
Wiese's P-Bugger, #4
Parachute Adams, #18
Chubby Chernobyl Hopper, tan, black, and gold, #8-12
Clacka Caddis, peacock and tan, #14-16
Gould's Half Down Salmonfly, #6
Purple Haze, #14-18

Lower Yellowstone: Livingston to Laurel

Introduction

At Livingston, the Yellowstone hooks to the east, leaves the mountains for good, and widens considerably. Three important tributaries enter the river in this reach, the Shields, Boulder, and Stillwater Rivers. Each adds flow and nutrients, but also the chance of muddy runoff, making this section the first to get dirty in the spring and the last to get low and clear enough to fish in the summer. Access drops, as does the number of trout per mile, but large fish are more prevalent. Boat ramps are less common than they are upstream and often aren't in great condition, but foot access sites are mostly limited to the ramps, so floating is by far the preferred option. Due to the lower elevation and intensive agriculture in this section, grasshopper season can bring up some very large fish. Good fishing continues almost to the mouth of the Clark's Fork, which due to significant irrigation return water comes in warm and muddy, putting an end to the good trout fishing. Parks' Fly Shop generally floats only slightly past Big Timber, roughly thirty miles downstream of Livingston, though a few of our contract guides go a bit farther down.

Description and Access

Private land predominates in this stretch, making floating by far the best option. While a good number of ramps exist, they are often rough and hard to find if you're unfamiliar with the area. The farther downstream you go, the greater the difficulty in finding ramps spaced a comfortably distance apart for single-day trips. The river is generally broad in this stretch, with a gravel bottom save where the river cuts down through sandstone ledges, which often extend all the way across the river and include sharp upjutting rocks that can do some serious damage to a drift boat. Like the stretch immediately above Livingston, this section has some fairly rough rapids, though rifflies and long pools are more common. Early in the season, heavy flows and the tendency of the main river channel to rearrange itself around various islands can make rowing tricky, though by mid-August it's usually pretty easy except for the aforementioned sandstone spires, which will keep you on your toes.

Angling

Fish Species Abundance
Yellowstone Cutthroat Uncommon, though you catch more of them that their numbers would indicate
Rainbow-Cutthroat Hybrid Uncommon.
Rainbow Abundant throughout.
Brown Abundant throughout, but no pushovers.
Whitefish Common, but nowhere near like they are upstream.
Goldeye Rare. This fish is much more common further downstream on the Yellowstone.
Carp Rare to uncommon. Look for these brutes in backwaters, where they'll take hoppers. Make sure you have plenty of backing...

This section fishes much like the section above Livingston, with a few exceptions. First, since the river is broad and often shallow all the way across, with good structure formed by the sandstone ledges and various bars and islands, it often makes sense to run the boat well off the bank hitting structure at midriver, even fairly early in the season. Second, there are far fewer large stoneflies in this section of river than there are above, so there's not much of a Salmonfly or Golden Stone hatch. Third, overall numbers of trout are much lower here than they are upstream, and there are also few whitefish to "fill in the gaps" between trout, so this stretch is a very poor choice for beginning anglers. We typically do not guide on it with new clients whose expectations and skill levels are uncertain. Even experts may get only a few shots on tougher days on this stretch. On the other hand, and the fourth difference, both average and "logical" maximum trout size in this section are much higher than they are upstream. While a 30-inch trout is about as likely to come from anywhere below Knowles Falls, there are far more 22+ inch fish below Livingston, and many trout in the 16-19 inch class. For these last two reasons, this is a great section for an expert to hit late in a long trip, hoping for a few really big fish.

Because fish populations are scattered and the open, low-elevation agricultural surroundings breed lots of hoppers, streamers and hoppers are our top bets here. We frequently fish extra-large hoppers trailing small attractors on this reach during the summer, but good mayfly populations make small beadheads good droppers, as well. For streamers, go big. We fish articulated patterns in the 5-6" range here more often than not.


Quality of Fishing By Period: X=high, x=moderate, x?= variable, blank=poor or closed
Jan. Feb. March April May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
  x? X X x? x? X X X X x?  

Lower Yellowstone Hatch Charts and Fly Pattern Recommendations
  Timeframe: X=major importance, x=minor importance, blank=unimportant
Insects Jan. Feb. March April May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Pale Morning Dun             x x        
Spring BWO   x X X x              
Fall BWO (Gray Baetis)               x X X x  
Western March Brown     x X x              
Western Green Drake           x x          
Epeorus             x x x      
Heptagenia               x x      
Hecuba                 x x    
Caddis, Various       x X x X x        
Mahogany Duns               x x      
Tricos               x x      
Golden Stonefly           x x x        
Salmonfly           x x          
Yellow Sally Stone           x X x        
Midges X X X x x   x   x x X X
Terrestrials             x X X x    
Other Trout Foods Jan. Feb. March April May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Attractor Dries   x x x X   X X X x x  
Attractor Nymphs X X X X X X x x x X X X
Stonefly Nymphs x x x X X X X x x x x x
Streamers x x X X X x x x X X X x

Lower Yellowstone Top Flies

Flexi-Girdle Bugs, #4-6

Double Bugger, #4 and #4
Beadhead Prince, #16
Wiese's P-Bugger, #4
Pink Pookie, #10
Chubby Chernobyl Hopper, tan, black, and gold, #8-12
Clacka Caddis, peacock and tan, #14-16
Disco Midge, pearl and red, #20
Purple Haze, #14-18

Chartreuse Copper John, #16-18

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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