Winter is not the ideal time to fish in our region. I'll say that right off the bat. Yellowstone Park's fishing season is closed from sunset on the first Sunday in November until sunrise the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, and though the Montana general season is open, many streams and rivers are either frozen or otherwise so cold they're not good choices.
So what's a rabid fly angler supposed to do if he or she is visiting from November through March? Go fishing, of course. You just have to pick the right spots and use the right techniques. Let us help. Check our Guided Trips FAQ (on the main site) for policies and info on what we include on our guided trips.
Please note that winter fishing will be very hard both technically and physically on beginning fly anglers and especially kids, regardless of how much experience the tykes have or how eager they are. We recommend beginners find something else to do at this time (though it's up to you what you can handle) and will not take clients under the age of twelve on any winter trips, regardless of their previous experience.
The following four options make sense for at least part of the winter, for purposes of this site from early November through March.
Angler rerigging on Depuy Spring Creek in early March.
The Paradise Valley spring creeks enjoy near-constant water temperatures year-round, and as such the aquatic insects and therefore the fish stay active year-round. This makes them by far the best overall option in the dead of winter, though early and late in the winter the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers can be just as good. To top it off, the fish see less pressure in the winter and access fees are lower ($40 per day). For many locals, the Paradise Valley spring creeks are actually better in the winter than they are in the summer.
In November and early December, egg patterns fished downstream of spawning browns remain good choices. Through the dead of winter, we'll be fishing midges, scuds, San Juan Worms, and perhaps streamers, hoping for calm, warmer days to prompt midge hatches. Hatches increase in February, and the resident trout in the creeks are joined by pre-spawn rainbows beginning their runs. In March, the spring BWO hatches can begin, midge hatches intensify, large numbers of pre-spawn (fair game) and spawning (not fair game) rainbows are present. Even though we do not target active spawners, fishing egg patterns downstream of these fish is a great option and can produce big trout.
From November through March 14, Rates are $350 for one client and $375 for two. From March 14 onward, when it's really spring and not winter anymore, Rates are $400 for one client and $425 for two. Three-person trips are not available. All winter trips run as short full-days, since the creeks do not offer any discounts for a short reservation. Expect to fish from midmorning through the afternoon, with a lunch including something warm halfway through. Trips after March 15 will meet a bit earlier and run a bit longer, due to the better chances of all-day fishing.
The author of this site with a huge early March rainbow/cutthroat hybrid on the Yellowstone River.
The upper Yellowstone River near Gardiner is open year-round and often the best section of the Yellowstone to fish, due to abundant warm water entering the river from the Gardner River and a couple hot springs. This warm water keeps the ice on this section of river to a minimum except during cold snaps and keeps the water warm enough that the insects and the trout more active than they are on other sections of the river. Walk/wades are the best option for fishing the river in the winter, since the trout tend to pod up in slow areas with easy access to food and, both early in the winter (November) and late (February-March) they tend to gather for spawning purposes.
Walk/wade winter fishing on the Yellowstone River depends on two factors: if there are spawning trout active and if there is drifting ice. If the answer to the second question is "yes," forget it. It isn't safe or good and we're not going, and it's probably cold enough we couldn't stand it even if the fishing would be safe and not terrible.
If there's no ice and no spawning trout, most common during January and February warm spells, we will midge-fish warm-water areas such as the mouth of La Duke Hot Spring and right through the heart of Gardiner. Some dry fly fishing is possible, but it's mostly nymphing with midge pupae and small attractor nymphs.
If spawning trout are present, basically in November and March, but perhaps including late February as well, we will fish much larger stonefly nymphs, usually trailing an egg pattern or attractor nymph, and either fishing downstream of actively-spawning brown trout for resident trout and post-spawn browns (in November) or targeting pre-spawn rainbows and resident trout (in late winter) gathered downstream of spawning tributaries. We do not target actively-spawning fish. These are excellent big-fish opportunities that often produce the best fish of the season and are radically underfished. My two personal best rainbow-cutthroat hybrids both came on the same magic day in early March, and I never saw another angler even while landing and releasing a pair of 23-inch trout. Even without such outlier fish, we get a lot of trout from 16 to 20 inches in early and late winter.
Since winter fishing on the Yellowstone is cold and miserable even when the fishing is good, and the quality fishing generally only occurs in the warmest part of the day, we offer only midday-afternoon half-day trips. During the dead of winter, Nov. 15 through March 14, trips run short and cost $200 for one client and $225 for two. Expect to be on the water only about two hours during the warmest part of the day. Early and late in the winter, when the window of good fishing gets wider and the weather is more tolerable, trips run as standard half-days and rates are $300 for one client and $325 for two.
Winter float trips depend on warm weather and boat ramps that are free of ice. For these reasons, we do not accept float trip bookings from November 1 through March unless anglers are willing to do a walk/wade trip if conditions are not suitable for a float. Float trips are not available at all from late November through February. It's just too cold and there's always too much ice.
Winter float trip tactics generally match those described in the walk/wade section above, save that we may also fish streamers, particularly in late March. We'll often have two or even three rods rigged for each client, so that we can fish small midge pupae or even dry flies, big double-nymph rigs to target larger fish, or even swing streamers. The boat will often serve only as transportation; we'll row from spot to spot, then get out and fish on foot. Doing so allows us to fish spots that cannot be accessed on foot from the road.
The main draw of early and late winter float trips, compared to walking, is the opportunity for potentially excellent midge and even Blue-winged Olive dry fly fishing. This fishing is most likely to occur in early November and in March.
Rates for half-day winter float trips between October 21 and November 14 and from ice-out in early March through the spring run $300 for one client and $325 for two. November full-day trips really don't make any sense and we do not offer them. In March, full-days run $400 for one client and $425 for two. Expect to start late and finish early, as there's no point in fishing before about 10:00AM or after about 4:30 even if the weather is unseasonably warm.
Big March rainbow from the Missouri River. The fly is a #16. That fish exceeded 20 inches.
Wade-fishing the Missouri River, both the "Land of Giants" section below Hauser Dam as well as the more-famous tailwater below Holter Dam, can be excellent all through the winter. If you find yourself staying in Helena, Montana, I heartily recommend it. That said, access points for wade fishing are limited and very crowded and this water is so far from us that we do not offer walk/wade guided trips here.
When the ice goes off Holter Reservoir and power boats can run up to the Hauser Dam tailwater, this all changes instantly and jet boat trips become our single best option for anyone who can stand the icy blast of running around in near-freezing air temperatures in what amounts to an aluminum convertible with the top down. This usually occurs in early March. This water is a spectacular big fish option from this point through the summer months, with the heaviest crowds occurring at peak spawn between mid-April and mid-May. In March, the crowds aren't as heavy (particularly the crowds of guide boats) and the fish are healthier and happier. Several Parks' Fly Shop guides love to fish this water on their own time, and March is when they go most often.
March fishing is all nymphing, generally with sow bugs, scuds, egg patterns, and perhaps small midge and mayfly patterns. Some opportunities exist for sight-fishing on foot, but for the most part you should expect to watch bobbers from a drifting boat. Expect large fish. They average 16 to 20 inches and routinely exceed 23 inches. They're also very fat, so that a 24-inch fish, of which we see a few each season, can exceed five pounds.
Note that this water is a long, long, long way from Gardiner and really requires staying overnight in Helena, Montana. Our rates reflect the travel involved. For March trips, which will include about six or seven hours in the boat, we charge $500 for one day of fishing and $450 per day for two or more days of fishing.
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.
Text, graphics, and logos copyright Parks' Fly Shop. Photos copyright Walter J. Wiese or the photographer. If you would like to use any of the content on this site for noncommercial purposes, you are welcome to do so provided you include this copyright notice and our contact information. Please do not use the information here for commercial purposes without written permission.
Website, text, and graphics by Walter J. Wiese. Photos generally by Walter J. Wiese unless noted.