Paradise Valley float trips are one our best options for large brown trout.
Parks' Fly Shop began running guided float trips in 1955, utilizing a war-surplus rubber raft that had apparently earned several Purple Hearts during its service, based on the number of leaks. We run guided drift boat trips on the entire blue ribbon portion of the Yellowstone River between Gardiner and Columbus as well as the lower Madison River near Bozeman.
Float trips on the Yellowstone are available as full-day and half-day options in high season, half-days in late autumn, and half-day and short full-day trips during the spring. Yellowstone River floats are available from late March through early November except during the spring runoff. Full-day trips start between 6:00AM and 9:00AM. Half-days usually run in the morning or around midday and meet between 7:00 and 10:00, though afternoon trips are also available.
Madison River trips are available only as full-days. Since it's a long drive to this stretch of river, you should expect to meet early, no later than 7:00AM if we're meeting you in Gardiner.
Cutthroat and rainbow-cutthroat trout between 10 and 16 inches are a primary quarry on our trips. We catch MOST of these fish on dry flies.
The Yellowstone is one of the most famous rivers on Earth, for good reason. In terms of variety of angling opportunities, quality, and the landscape through which it flows, the Yellowstone is unparalleled. Our shop is located a hundred yards from the Yellowstone River and only two miles from the first drift boat access. When running one of the upper floats near Gardiner, we are often the first boat on and the last boat off, while if our float takes us a considerable distance from Gardiner, it's best to make late dinner plans as we often get back to Gardiner as late as 8:00PM. We also fish a larger portion of the Yellowstone than any other outfitter, including the mighty Yankee Jim Canyon. We are the only shop or guide service to run drift boat trips through this canyon, which offers the best dry fly fishing in the region but is challenging to row. Regardless of the stretch we fish, we focus as much as possible on dry fly fishing. On many trips, we use nothing else.
Depending on time of year and stretch floated, the Yellowstone has something to offer for every angler, whether you're interested in catching a lot of cutthroat trout on dry flies or hoping for one real monster on a streamer. In general, we focus on the upper river near Gardiner for numbers of fish and when dry fly fishing is key, and go further downstream when looking for a handful of big daddies. Our double half-day trips make it possible to experience both the "action fishery" near Gardiner and have a chance at big fish twenty or thirty miles downstream, all on the same day.
Click the panels below for information on what to expect on a guided Yellowstone River float trip at different times of year, as well as plenty of eye candy.
Early spring is prime time for pursuing larger trout. This one came in April.
In mid-March, the winter ice melts away from the riverbanks enough to make Yellowstone River float trips safe. From this point through early May, the Yellowstone offers its best big trout fishing of the year, as the fish seek to regain weight and energy lost after a long, cold winter. This period is the most under-utilized period on the Yellowstone: crowds are low, fishing is often great, and the weather is usually comfortable provided you're prepared to deal with a bit of rain, sleet, or snow from time to time.
In March, the water is still cold, so the fish are most active from late morning through late afternoon, when it's warmest. For this reason, we only offer half-day trips until early April, and they're usually better bets well into April. Slow, big, and deep is generally the name of the game. For this reason, you should expect to fish nymph rigs and streamers most of the time in March. In addition, we'll often use the boat mostly as transportation, rowing from spot to spot and then getting out to pound the moderate-speed runs where the trout spend their winters.
Typical early season rainbow.
As the weather warms consistently into the 50s, a wider range of tactics begin to work in addition to the low and slow game, including "stripping and ripping" big streamers. Hatches intensify through April, with midges and Baetis joined by the graceful March Brown mayfly. The period of good fishing expands, too, making short full-day floats a reasonable bet.
In late April and early May, conditions deteriorate with the beginning of the high-elevation snowmelt. On days when the river is clear, it's stellar. If it's too warm, or especially warm and rainy, the river will be chocolate brown mud and we'll need to fish elsewhere. On the other hand, sometime between the last few days of April and May 10, one of the marquee hatches of the year occurs. This is the fabled Mother's Day caddis hatch, the first intense insect hatch of the season and one that drives the fish bonkers. When everything goes just right we can put a hundred fish per day in the boat. Seriously. All this activity gets the big fish excited, too, so by fishing streamers underneath the emerging caddis, we'll often move some huge brown trout that are more interested in the smallest of the caddis-eaters than the caddis themselves.
The onset of the heavy spring runoff with the first spring heatwave sometime between May 5 and 25 turns the river to chocolate stew. The runoff ends the fishing on the Yellowstone from now through at least the middle of June, and usually sometime between June 25 and July 4.
Mid-May streamer-eating brown trout caught on the last day the river was fishable before the heavy runoff hit.
This brown ate a dry golden stonefly pattern less than 4 inches from the line of rocks in the background.
The spring runoff recedes sometime between the middle of June and the middle of July. In years with dry winters and early springs, it happens earlier. In years with wet winters and late springs, it happens later. Most years, it happens in the last week of June or first week of July.
When the river drops into shape, the fishing immediately becomes off the charts good, with hungry trout crashing dry flies and large nymphs just off the shorelines as they make up for a hungry month or two during the high, muddy water of the spring melt. In addition to good fishing, this is also the single most consistent time of year, with solid fishing occurring almost every day, and often all day. You might have a more epic day of fishing at a different time of year, but the overall consistency isn't as high. In early summer you're almost guaranteed a good day. Little wonder that this is our busiest time of year, and the most popular period to float the river for first-timers to the Yellowstone area.
Both half-day and full-day trips are great choices at this time. We typically float anywhere between Gardiner and Livingston in early summer, focusing on the stretches closer to Gardiner for numbers of fish and better dry fly fishing and the stretches in Paradise Valley and into Livingston for larger fish (on average), though less-consistent dry fly fishing. In addition to our standard half-day and full-day trips, this is a great time to book one of our special double half-day trips. We'll float near Gardiner in the morning and get our quota of free-rising cutthroats and rainbows on dry flies before lunch, then pull the boat out, have lunch, and head downriver a ways to hunt large browns on subsurface flies for the rest of the day.
When salmonflies are hatching on the Yellowstone, it's game on!
The fishing kicks off just before or during the fabled salmonfly hatch. These large black stoneflies are the largest aquatic insects in North America, often reaching lengths of two inches. The fish gorge on these bugs. During the salmonfly hatch, along with the golden stone hatch that occurs about the same time, the river is jammed with guide boats and anglers. This isn't the time to float if you like solitude, but it is the time to float if you want a crack at the largest fish in the river eating dry flies.
This brown ate a large caddis dry just off the bank in late June. Notice the submerged grass in the background. The water is still high and fast in early summer, so to avoid working too hard the trout will sit right on the bank.
Once the "big bug" hatch continues on upstream into Yellowstone Park, smaller insects begin to take over the surface fishing. There's a smorgasbord of caddisflies, mayflies, and smaller stoneflies hatching at this time. These hatches start at the same time as the salmonflies, but last all through July and into early August. Sometimes fish that are looking for smaller dry flies key on one fly in particular, but more often they eat whatever comes along, provided it attracts their attention, is behaving like food, and is running right next to the bank. Yep, right next to the bank. The water remains high most years even in late summer, even after it drops and clears enough to get the fish active again, so surface eaters are almost always found within a couple feet of the bank. Sometimes it's more like four inches. This can make for challenging fishing, particularly when the wind is blowing and the river's still right up to the edges of the willow bushes and grass, but once you get it right, you'll be into a lot of fish.
Photos of a Peacock Clacka Caddis, one of our custom flies, before and after the trout destroyed it. We got about thirty fish on this one before retiring it.
Early summer is also a good time to try for a few big trout. The best bet to get a few monsters is to target them with big nymphs and dead-drifted streamers. This is a little more novice-friendly than the dry fly fishing, since casts don't need to be quite so accurate and it's easier to hook fish on subsurface flies than on the top. Sometimes we'll fish our "big fish flies" under a strike indicator, usually in conjunction with some sort of caddis pupa to attract enough small fish to "keep the kettle boiling," but sometimes we'll fish the big nymphs or even smaller streamers underneath huge, gold dry flies that suggest the midnight stonefly, a midsummer stonefly that hatches after the golden stoneflies and salmonflies are done for the year. We don't get many trout on the midnight stone dry flies, but we do get a few, and when one does choose to rise to smash a midnight stone dry, it's a strike that you might remember forever.
This early summer brown crashed a dead-drifted streamer.
This brown was one of dozens of nice fish two clients rose to assorted grasshopper patterns.
Sometime in late July or early August, the Yellowstone undergoes a subtle transformation. It's still fast, but it's not so fast. The fish still tend to hang near the bank, but not on the bank, except in the fastest stretches. The willow bushes, which had been in the river in many places, now stand on the banks instead. The hillsides begin turning gold or brown. The hatches and flies important earlier fade away, replaced by the bugs that many long-time regular clients most like to fish: grasshoppers, as well as other terrestrial insect imitations. It's now late summer.
At left, real grasshopper. At right, fake grasshopper that the trout have destroyed.
In late summer the trout are a little spookier, the water's a little clearer and a lot lower, and there is a smaller range of food items present for the trout to eat, so the fish aren't quite as eager to eat whatever comes by. On the other hand, casts need not be so accurate, the current has slowed enough that not so many casts are required, and there are many fewer snags in the water ready to eat your flies when you do make a bad cast. The trout actually get prettier now than earlier in the summer, getting flashier coloration due to the clearer water and more weight from the abundant aquatic food they got to eat in early summer, plus the abundant grasshoppers and ants they consume at this time.
Grasshoppers are the star of the show at this time. Imitations of these insects can be big or small, natural-colored or ostentatious. Our best hopper patterns most years are pink! That said, nowadays imitations of smaller terrestrial insects usually work better. Most of the time, this means ants. Our usual game plan in late summer should therefore be clear: most of the time we fish grasshopper imitations with ants on the dropper. The hoppers draw eats from a few big fish each day, while the ants get the numbers (and occasionally a big fish that wants a light meal). We also continue to fish streamers and big nymphs under indicators, now often with a mayfly nymph dropper rather than a caddis.
This gorgeous brown ate a tiny grasshopper pattern.
We focus a majority of our attention in late summer on the Yellowstone between Gardiner and Point of Rocks 20 miles downstream. In most years, this is prime time for running Yankee Jim Canyon, typically the best big numbers fishery on the Yellowstone River as well as one that can produce larger fish as well. When weather and water conditions are right, most commonly in normal to wet years, we also spend quite a bit of time in the stretches of the Yellowstone between Emigrant and Livingston and from Livingston downstream to Big Timber, up to 90 miles downstream. The faster sections of these portions of the river can produce numbers of rainbows, but most of the time when we run "down low" in late summer, we're hunting big fish.
In late August, a mixed bag of dry flies can bring up solid cutthroats, rainbows, and their hybrids on the river near Gardiner. This one ate a flying ant imitation.
Sometime in mid-late August, we start getting our first hints of fall fishing. The afternoons are usually still hot, with grasshoppers hopping and ants the "numbers" bug, but the mornings might have a bit of a nip, and before the shadows get off the water in the morning, we might want to wear a jacket or fleece. Under such conditions, the first early-bird fall mayfly and midge hatches might take place, and we might replace the ant behind the grasshopper with some sort of tiny dry fly suggestive of a fall gray Baetis (blue-winged olive imitation). If we do get a cloudy day, the trout might just go bananas for this insect. Often the first heavy hatch of the year ranks among the best. These bugs get more and more important on a day-in, day-out basis through the latter half of August and on into September.
Got a beginner in your group who wants to float? Around the middle of August is the first point in the year when we can wholeheartedly encourage river float trips instead of some form of walk & wade trip or lake trip for beginners. Check out our Beginner Trips page for details on the beginner fishing in late summer.
This pretty copper-colored cutthroat ate our top Yellowstone dry fly overall, a PURPLE mayfly cripple, during one of the first Gray Baetis hatches of the year in late August.
Mayfly hatches are the prime draw in September, and even large trout will eat them at this time. This one ate a tiny mayfly cripple.
Sometime in the last few days of August or first week or so of September, the brief nip in the morning common in late summer is replaced by the sparkle of frost on the grass. The velvet drops off the antlers of the bull elk and they begin to bugle. The grass is now dying back, and the ground cover is starting to change colors even if the trees are still green. The river is now about as clear as it will ever get, and instead of six inches from the rocks, you'll often want to fish six feet from them, or even in the middle of the river. It's early fall, the best time of the year for match-the-hatch dry fly fishing on the Yellowstone River, and a period that's rapidly becoming almost as popular as high summer.
The Purple Hazy Cripple: It's one of our Custom Flies and the best dry fly on the Yellowstone in the fall, period. We guarantee you'll use it in September.
The reasons for this increased popularity are simple: there are fewer people on the river and the dry fly fishing is outstanding. Fall is when we get lots of rising fish that can be targeted with precision. Whereas during the summer we use attractor dry flies suggestive of caddis and stoneflies early, followed by terrestrial insects later on, and almost always fish to structure rather than to spotted rising fish, in the fall we use mayfly imitations (and some midges) and fish to trout we can often see. This is exciting fishing, with a bit of a predatory feel to it.
On warm and bright days, we'll still fish terrestrials, and we'll often leave a tiny grasshopper imitation on even during hatch situations, but now our best flies are rather delicate imitations of emerging mayflies. The fly above is the top fly, and the fall gray Baetis is the key hatch, but there are other hatches of note: Drake Mackerals, Mahoganies, tiny olive Baetis, a couple species of midges, and sometimes others. Most of these bugs are small. This makes early fall fishing far more delicate than fishing early in the year. It's not necessarily more challenging unless you set the hook like a Bassmaster (which results in a lot of busted-off fish sporting flies as lip jewelry), but it is quite different. A lot of folks love it. I, Walter Wiese, am one of them. My favorite period both to guide and to fish on the Yellowstone is during the fall match-the-hatch fishing.
We spotted this fish rising and actually rowed up and drifted back on him three times before he took.
During early fall, we primarily focus on two sections of the Yellowstone. The upper river from Gardiner down to Yankee Jim or perhaps Carbella is good for both numbers of rising trout and potential for larger brown trout at this time. Our other favorite stretch at this time is at the lower end of Paradise Valley and on through Livingston. This stretch is particularly good with experienced anglers who want to throw streamers for big fish earlier, than match mayfly hatches later in the day. We might also fish the upper portion of Paradise Valley, down to about the 26-mile marker, but seldom float the dead middle of Paradise Valley this late in the season.
Because the best fishing is usually from 11:00 on through the middle of the day, particularly if it's cold, there's no reason to get an early start. If you're interested in early morning fishing on your September guided trip, check out our Walk/Float Combo Trips. Fall is prime time for these trips.
One thing to note about early fall trips before you book one is this: the best fishing is when the weather stinks. The best fishing of all occurs when air temperatures range from 40 to 55 degrees and a little rain or even when snow is spitting down. Do not book a float trip in the autumn unless you're prepared to fish when it's cold, wet, and nasty.
By early fall, cutthroats are dark in color, pretty, and eager to eat mayfly patterns.
Angler fishing a riffle corner on foot on the Yellowstone in October. We'll often get out and fish on foot late in the season.
While it can snow in September, it usually just dusts the high peaks. Sometime in the last few days of September or in early October, it gets downright cold even at valley level and snows all the way down to the river banks. With this first serious snow, the terrestrial insects depart for good, water temperatures in the river plummet, and though there's still a narrow window of dry fly fishing in early afternoon most days, our thoughts on float trips instead turn to one thing: big fish on streamers.
This is brown trout season. They're migrating on their spawning runs, and by mid-October, the spawn itself begins. Once the fish are actively spawning in shallow water, we leave them alone, but they're fair game on their migrations and as they prepare to spawn in deep water downstream of the spawning gravel. Targeting these fish requires heavy gear and serious flies. Some eat eggs or stonefly nymphs. Most eat giant streamers. There are two main tactics we use when targeting big fall browns. The first is to cover lots of water out of the boat, stripping and ripping streamers. Another option is to stop and fish classic streamer runs using swinging techniques on foot, treating the boat as transportation. On most days, we'll use both techniques.
For those who aren't keen on throwing "meat," there is some good dry fly fishing to be had, but it's limited to the warmest part of the day, which makes half-day dry fly floats the best option. The best days, particularly after October 15, are those with gray skies, calm temperatures, and temperatures in the 50s. In such conditions, heavy hatches of fall gray Baetis remain possible on into mid-November, though increasingly after the middle of October the more important hatches are midges.
Except for the first week or so of October, particularly when it is warm, late fall is a poor time for beginners to float. This is intermediate-expert season on floats.
We focus on three stretches of river in late fall. The short section of slow water in the upper Yellowstone, from Corwin Springs to Yankee Jim, is our usual half-day haunt. If we're taking a full-day, which we seldom do after mid-October, we will fish lower Paradise Valley just upstream from Livingston and through Livingston, where numerous eddies create good opportunities for dry fly fishing. With real trophy hunters, we also go east of Livingston, where the largest trout ever caught on a trip with our shop was caught in mid-October, 1994.
Late fall streamer-eater.
The Yellowstone's our home water, but unfortunately it's always muddy for four to six weeks due to the spring snowmelt, which begins sometime in early-mid May and continues until mid-late June or even later. In wet years, the Yellowstone can remain too high and muddy to fish as late as the middle of July.
Thankfully, when the Yellowstone's out of play, the lower Madison River southwest of Bozeman is in GREAT shape. Protected from the worst effects of runoff by Ennis Dam, the section of the Madison from the mouth of the Beartrap Canyon down to Three Forks fishes better from late April through June than at any other time of year.
This stretch of river is broad, shallow, technical, and home to some excellent brown and rainbow trout. Most fishing here is subsurface, with small nymphs, San Juan Worms, and even crayfish imitations. Good dry fly fishing is possible, though. This stretch of the Madison sees excellent blue-winged olive and Mother's Day caddis hatches in May, and there's a short Salmonfly hatch here in early-mid June.
The lower Madison is not a numbers game. This piece of water usually only produces a handful of fish per angler in a day of fishing. The flipside is size: there are scary-big fish in this stretch of river, and most days we'll encounter at least one over 20 inches. Note that "encounter" doesn't necessarily mean "catch." Big brown trout on small flies and light tippets can be a recipe for a short, tantalizing fight followed by your leader going "snap."
The Lower Madison can fish well all through the winter, but we don't begin running trips here until the beginning of April, when the fish get more active and the days are warm enough to make good fishing throughout the day likely, which in turn makes the long drive from Gardiner worthwhile. Good fishing continues through late June most years. During high summer, this shallow, low-elevation stretch of river usually gets too warm for good fishing, so from July through early September we generally fish elsewhere. The main exception is when cool,wet weather roars in and muddies up the Yellowstone. When this happens, the lower Madison cools down enough to fish well again, but doesn't get muddy. Fireworks can ensue...
Because it's so far from Gardiner, expect long days when we fish the lower Madison. We'll typically meet around 6:00AM and likely won't be back until past 6:00 in the evening.
Richard Parks is Montana Outfitter #327. Under his licensure, Parks' Fly Shop is licensed to operate in Yellowstone National Park, Montana waters under general regulations, and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Walter J. Wiese is Montana Outfitter #22001. Under his licensure, the shop is licensed to operate on the Madison and Missouri Rivers.
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Website, text, and graphics by Walter J. Wiese. Photos generally by Walter J. Wiese unless noted.