Introduction to Fisheries in the Yellowstone Area
The Yellowstone region is home to the widest variety of trout waters on Earth, many of which are both at least relatively easy to access and public. While the region can produce big fish and a lot of them, it's the variety and ease of access available here that really explain why this small corner of northwest Wyoming and southern Montana (and on into far eastern Idaho) is widely considered the heart of the American fly fishing universe.
Many guidebooks have been written on fly fishing the Yellowstone area, with entire books out there just about the Yellowstone, Madison, and Missouri, as well as too many to count focusing on the waters within Yellowstone National Park. The pages within this section of the site don't go into quite as much detail. Instead, here I give basic introductions to the major waters on which I guide, which are generally the famous or almost famous waters in the region, as well as shorter introductions to rivers that are outside my operating area or of limited interest to most visitors but still within feasible day-trip range of my base at the north end of Yellowstone Park, for example the remote hike-in rivers in the southern part of Yellowstone Park and the Jefferson River. In addition, there are pages covering "types" of water, for example spring creeks or waters most-suited to beginner anglers who either have never fly fished before or are just learning.
Many of the pages in this section of the site are very long, particularly those covering long, major rivers. For this reason, most will feature collapsible panels containing content on major sections of a river, specific waters within a larger drainage (for the Lamar and Madison Systems), types of water (for example on the Small Streams Page), and so on, rather than just having all content written in linear fashion down the page. Simply click or tap on the heading title to expand the section of content you want to read. This organization is designed to make navigation easier. Here is what I'm talking about:
Here is the first content box.
Here is the second content box. You get the idea.
Click one of the links in the Guide to Area Waters tab to start digging deep into information on Yellowstone area fly fishing waters.
I Want to Fish a Certain River/Lake; When Should I Come? Where Should I Fish Right Now?
The remainder of this page answers these questions. They are the single most important questions you should ask, the first one while you're planning, the second one once you've firmed up your plans and/or once you're already here. These questions are so important because certain waters fish well at certain times, others at other times, and in some cases there is little or no overlap. The single most common mistake people make is coming with their heart set on fishing a certain water when it is unfishable (due to runoff or regulations) or simply not a good choice. Use the following table and the discussion that follows to plan your trip or decide where to fish after you arrive. Then use the other pages within the Guide to Area Waters menu to narrow things down further based on your skill level, tactics, fitness, etc.
In the following charts, an uppercase "X" denotes a water that's a very good choice compared to other options at a given time. A small "x" denotes a water that's a fair choice. Question marks next to either suggest uncertainty. This is usually related to uncertainty regarding the timing and severity of spring runoff, uncertainty regarding summer water temperatures (it's a problem when they get too high), or uncertainty regarding fall water temperatures (it's a problem when they get too cold). A blank for a given water in a given timeframe means that it is probably a very poor choice (or even closed) at that time.
If you would like to download printable copies of the charts, as well as all other charts on this site, please visit this link.
Where and When to Fish Waters in Yellowstone Park
Where and When to Fish Waters in Montana
Where and When to Fish Waters in Montana: EVEN MORE DETAIL!
I really, really, really want to give folks enough information to choose when to fish where. The following discussion goes into even more depth than the charts above.
Note that the way I've organized the following information is not necessarily how I organize it on the more-specific pages within this section of the site. The following is organized to tell you how Water X or section of Water X fishes through the season, rather than to offer fishing tips. The following entry on the Yellowstone River is a good example. The fishing techniques and flies that work are comparable all the way from the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone to the town of Gardiner, but the Grand Canyon is generally fishable sooner, so it gets its own heading below but not on the Yellowstone River page, which is more about tactics.
- Headwaters to Yellowstone Lake and Yellowstone Lake to Chittenden Bridge: This stretch opens July 15 and is best through late August. This fishery is primarily dependent on lake-run cutthroat from Yellowstone Lake, and most of them have returned to the lake by the end of August.
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Lower Falls to Lamar River Confluence): This water is consistent from early July through September and decent in the afternoons until late October or even the close of the park season on the first Sunday in November. In dry years this water may be fishable as early as the first week of June, while in cold years it may be fishable on the YNP general season opener (Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend) before getting muddy with the spring runoff a few days later.
- Black Canyon of the Yellowstone (Lamar Confluence to Gardiner): The Black Canyon fishes consistently except after thunderstorms from about July 10 through September and decent in the afternoons until late October or even the end of the park season. In dry years this water may be fishable by about June 20. In very wet years it may not clear before July 20. It always clears slightly later than the Grand Canyon due to heavy runoff out of the Lamar Drainage. Thunderstorms at the head of the Lamar can make this stretch of the Yellowstone downstream from the Lamar filthy muddy.
- Gardiner to Livingston: Open year-round. Some good fishing can be had during warm periods even in the dead of winter, but more consistent fishing runs from early March through the end of April. Spring runoff halts fishing for 4-8 weeks beginning sometime in the first half of May. It usually becomes fishable again sometime in the first week of July, while it can be fishable by June 15 in very dry years or as late as July 20 in exceptionally wet years. Good fishing continues until mid-November. Summer storms that strike the Gardner or Lamar can make this section muddy.
- Livingston to Laurel: Similar to Gardiner to Livingston but more prone to ice jams in winter and does not drop from runoff until about a week later in early summer.
Lamar River Drainage
- Lamar River Mainstem: This water is typically consistent from sometime in the second week of July through September, with October fishing dependent on warm temperatures. The hike-in water upstream from Soda Butte Creek is seldom good after about September 15. During dry years, the canyon section near the Yellowstone confluence may be fishable as early as June 20-25. Both the spring runoff and thundershowers in the summer make this water filthy muddy.
- Soda Butte Creek: Downstream of Ice Box Canyon, Soda Butte becomes fishable in the first or second week of July and is best from this period through September. Like the mainstem Lamar, October fishing depends on warm weather. Occasionally lower Soda Butte is fishable in the last week of June. Upstream of Ice Box Canyon, the only consistent period is from about July 20 through Labor Day. Summer thunderstorms and the spring melt make this water filthy muddy, but it clears faster than the Lamar.
- Slough Creek: In exceptionally dry years, Slough Creek might be fishable with streamers for the first few days of the Yellowstone Park season before going into full runoff, but this is rare. It usually becomes fishable in the first week of July, but occasionally the last week of June or second week of July. It is best from this point through mid-August. From this point through September, the fish get spookier and spookier, though the fishing can still be worthwhile for experienced anglers until early October. After this, good fishing depends on warm weather. Summer storms do not generally make Slough muddy, and the runoff is not as intense as on the Lamar or Soda Butte.
Madison River Drainage
- Firehole River: The Firehole downstream of Old Faithful (the better and more famous stretch) is always fishable from the start of the park season in late May and is best from this point through the middle of June or perhaps June 20. Hot water from geyser basins makes the Firehole unfishable in midsummer. In wet years, it remains fishable in the morning until perhaps July 4. In dry years it may be too warm to fish by June 15-20. It is always too warm from sometime in early July through August. It becomes fishable again in the first half of September and remains good right until the end of the park season on the first Sunday in November. Above Old Faithful, it is a small mountain stream that drops into shape around June 20 and is best until mid-September. Geyser basins do not impact this stretch.
- Gibbon River: The canyon section beginning at the downstream (southwest) end of Gibbon Meadows is best from the first or second week of June through June. It is occasionally ready at the start of the park season but this is rare. Geyser runoff makes this water too warm particularly after lunch from late June or early July through August, though it never gets as warm as the Firehole. The fishing picks up again at the beginning of September and stays good through the close of the park season. The water upstream of Gibbon Falls is best (for numbers) in June, while the water below the falls is best in the fall (for size). Gibbon Meadows and Elk Park are best in the latter half of June and first week or so of July. From Virginia Cascades to Elk Park (above the geyser drainage) is best from June 20 or so through Labor Day. The water upstream of Virginia Cascades is not currently fishable due to a cutthroat trout and grayling reintroduction project.
- Madison River, Madison Junction to Riverside Drive: This section of the Madison, the headwaters downstream of the Firehole-Gibbon confluence that creates the river, becomes fishable in the first or second week of the park season and remains good through June. It typically becomes too warm to fish in July and August, but in cool, wet years, morning fishing remains good through the summer. All-day fishing picks up again in the first half of September and stays good through the close of the park season.
- Madison River, Riverside Drive to Hebgen Lake: This stretch of the Madison is dependent upon fall-run brown trout (and a few rainbows that follow them). As such it is not a worthwhile fishery until at least mid-August and is best from the beginning of September through the close of the park season.
- Madison River, Hebgen to Quake Lake: This is a year-round fishery, with the best fishing in the spring and fall when crowds are lower than summer, but the winter snow does not hinder access. If you can handle the snow and cold, it's a good winter fishery too. In May, mud from a couple tributaries hinders fishing in the bottom half of this short chunk of river.
- Madison River, Quake Lake to Ennis Lake: This is another year-round fishery. It is best from the end of its mild spring runoff in mid-late June through November. Spring angling pre-runoff can be very good, but anglers should leave spawning rainbow trout alone. The spring runoff can make this section too muddy to fish for a while in late May and June, particularly below the mouth of the West Fork, though summer storms do not generally cause mud.
- Madison River, Ennis Lake to Three Forks: This fishery is best from late winter through June and again in October and November. Late June or early July through sometime in late August or early September routinely sees closures (2:00PM quitting time or even full closures) due to high water temperatures on this low-elevation section of river.
- Headwaters to High Bridge: This high-elevation small fish water is best from late June or early July through Labor Day. Some fishing is possible in the mile or so upstream from the High Bridge (just east of Mammoth Hot Springs) through September, as well. Very occasionally this stretch gets muddy after heavy rains near Electric Peak, but this is unusual.
- High Bridge to Yellowstone River: This section of the Gardner is fishable on a day-to-day basis from the beginning of the park season, particularly during dry years, but it becomes more consistent after mid-June. It remains good through the close of the park season in early November, with July and August best for numbers of fish and September and especially October offering fewer but larger fish. The best fishing before July 15 and after September 15 is downstream of the Boiling River hot spring, while in the middle of the season it's better upstream. This whole stretch can get muddy after summer storms on Mt. Everts, but it typically clears within 18 hours or so.
- Headwaters to Yellowstone Park Boundary: This water is too cold if not too muddy before mid-late June, sometimes early July. It is best from this point until mid-September. It is seldom impacted by summer showers.
- Yellowstone Park Boundary to Big Sky: Similar to upper section, but offers some fishing from March through early May, before the spring runoff, as well. Below the Taylor Fork just north of the park boundary, the remainder of the Gallatin downstream can get muddy after summer showers.
- Big Sky to Gallatin Gateway: Fishable all year provided it is ice-free and not muddy with the spring melt. The most consistent fishing for visiting anglers is from July through September. Mud from the Taylor Fork can mess up this water after rains.
- Gallatin Gateway to Three Forks: The upper portions of this water, down to about Four Corners, are fishable all year save when the river is icy or muddy, with the best fishing in April and for the first month after it clears from runoff in late June or early July. Fall fishing can also be good. The lower portion is badly dewatered due to irrigation drawdowns and offers lower-quality fishing. That said, it can be okay in the mornings in wet years except in early August and sees comparatively little pressure compared to stretches further upstream. The major lower-Gallatin tributary, the East Gallatin, is a much better choice overall than the lower reaches of the Gallatin mainstem.
- Three Forks to Canyon Ferry Reservoir: This is primarily carp water from July through early September (this is not to badmouth carp, it's just a fact). For the small resident trout populations as well as run-up fish from Canyon Ferry Reservoir (downstream of small Toston Dam near the town of the same name), October and November are best. The small resident trout populations will hover around the mouths of springs and cold tributary creeks in the summer. They are big, but not numerous. This water is blown from the spring melt from sometime in late April or the first week of May through early June, though summer storms are no problem.
- Land of the Giants (Hauser Dam to Holter Lake): This stretch of the Missouri is fishable and potentially very good year-round. The least consistent period is from late July through September, when weeds can make fishing challenging. The highest numbers of fish and best average size are available from March through mid-May, but this is also a very crowded period and the fish are on their spawning runs, which is an ethical quandary since it is hard to avoid actively-spawning trout here. Mid-May through June offer fishing that is almost as consistent for fish that are in far better shape, with less traffic. Winter fishing is excellent if you can stand the cold. This stretch never gets too muddy to fish.
- Holter Dam to Cascade and Beyond: Good year-round, though the weeds are horrendous from mid-late July through September. The very best fishing is in May and June, regardless of how high the water is. mid-October through early December offers good fishing for larger trout provided it is warm enough you can stand it. This is another good stretch of river in midwinter provided there is no ice. This stretch never gets too muddy to fish, though it can be stained during runoff below Little Prickly Pear Creek and pretty borderline for a few days below the Dearborn River.
Other rivers, including the Snake, Lewis, Bechler, and Falls within Yellowstone Park, the Shields and Boulder (Yellowstone tributaries), and the Jefferson all have brief descriptions on the Other Rivers page. Except the "Jeff," and the Lewis, they are best from July through September. The Jeff is best in June. The Lewis is decent in June and great in late October.
Small streams excluding spring creeks generally experience spring runoff from early May through early July, but they very seldom get muddy due to summer storms. This makes them good refuges after thunder showers muddy major fisheries.
- Streams Containing Brook Trout: These streams are all generally best from either late June or early July until about Labor Day and are usually very tough thereafter.
- Other Small Streams: Flat, meadow-type small streams may fish well as early as mid-June, but most are generally best from mid-July through early-mid September, with streams at lower elevations staying good longer. Note that the lower reaches of many streams outside Yellowstone Park are dewatered due to irrigation and offer poor fishing overall in their lower mile or two.
All area spring creeks are outside Yellowstone National Park and are clear and fishable year-round regardless of weather or snowmelt. They are best in the winter through early May, again from mid-late June through early August, and again after early October. At these times insect hatches are stronger, fish numbers are higher, and/or angling pressure is lower. Note that the creeks require access fees of $40 to $120 per angler per day, with the lowest rates in the winter and the highest rates during the PMD hatch timeframe in late June and July.
- Small Lakes in Yellowstone Park: All that are open are best as soon as the ice goes off the trails in early June through mid-July. Note that some lakes do not open until early July. They are best in the first week thereafter. Some fall fishing is also available but it is not as good as the early season fishing. Note that most worthwhile small lakes in the park require hiking. Spring runoff and summer rains do not muddy the lakes, though their banks may become marshy.
- Large Lakes in Yellowstone Park: Yellowstone Lake is best in June but can be productive through July. Lewis and Shoshone Lakes are best in the month after ice-out in early June, but their inlet and outlet areas are also good from late September through the close of the park season. Large lakes are not negatively impacted by runoff or rains.
- Private Ranch Lakes: These lakes are all best from ice-out in late March or early April through about June 20. Story and Merrell Lakes then get too warm for good fishing until early September, except during cold spells. Burns Lake continues fishing through July before getting too warm for optimum fishing. All get progressively better again through September and see very good fishing in October and early November. Very occasionally these lakes can get muddy for a few days during the spring runoff, if their feeder streams get dirty, but summer showers are not a problem.
- Large Reservoirs: Large reservoirs outside Yellowstone Park are best from ice-out in April or May through mid-June. Hebgen Lake is at higher elevation and therefore also fishes well into early fall, with the areas where streams enter good through about October 20. Except perhaps near feeder streams, neither the spring melt nor summer storms cause the reservoirs to get muddy.
Beginners may learn how to fly fish anywhere in the Yellowstone area as long as it's warm enough to stand it, but the ideal waters for beginners are gentle streams and rivers with numerous, aggressive, small trout. This is particulary true for young kids, who will probably get bored with not catching any or many big, challenging fish. The best times for such streams is from the middle of July through the middle of August, but there are some good opportunities starting in late June most years. Other good beginner options are small hike-in lakes in Yellowstone Park in June and floating the Missouri River from April to June, the former since though casting on these waters can be hard the techniques are not, while on the latter nymphing near the boat works well, though fly choice can be harder. The Yellowstone from late August through the middle of October can also be good, though beginners will catch mostly whitefish rather than trout. The final decent beginner option is fishing private lakes from April to June. These are poor choices for kids since the fish numbers will not be high.