Yellowstone River Fly Fishing Overview
The Yellowstone River is the longest free flowing river in the lower 48 and one of North America’s most productive wild trout fisheries. This large river drains much of Yellowstone National Park and its surrounding wilderness areas. The mighty “Stone” offers more than 200 miles of high quality trout waters that include a variety of fish species and water characteristics. Many avid anglers consider this big and sometimes brawling freestone river to be the quintessential Montana fly fishing experience. The Yellowstone has it all: lots of trout, huge trout, a variety of trout species, amazing scenery and a huge choice of different sections to choose from that each have their own personalities. The style of fishing on the ‘Stone is classic Western big water angling with the most productive techniques often involving big rabbit fur streamers and large foam attractor dry flies. Although wade fishing is an option in the park and at a few other locations, the size of the water lends itself ideally to float fishing from rafts and drift boats. The Yellowstone is also one of the most variable rivers in Montana with a huge range of water flows and fishing conditions. Casting a fly on the ‘Stone at 11,000 cfs vs. 1500 cfs is quite a different experience. Because of the massive amount of water that the river has to offer, the wide range of water levels, the diversity in the river sections and the seasonal changes in fishing patterns the Yellowstone can take years before a fly fisher truly understands the full majesty of this amazing river. The diversity, changing character and quality of fishing that the Yellowstone River offers makes it a favorite of many of our guides.
The headwaters of the Yellowstone are found upstream of the massive Yellowstone Lake in the Thoroughfare region. This a true wilderness area that requires a 34 mile hike or a long boat ride across the lake to access. Most anglers that visit the Thoroughfare make it a multi-day wilderness camping experience. Grizzly bears are ever present in this remote area and the fishing is for medium sized cutthroats. The best fishing is from mid July to mid September.
Yellowstone Lake to the falls
This section used to be one of the most productive and unique cutthroat fisheries in the world. Large cutthroats from Yellowstone Lake would move into the river where it resembled a large spring creek with productive hatches. Unfortunately the invasion of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake has taken its toll on this fishery and it is not what it once was. There are still some 20-23” cutthroats in the river below the lake and it still offers a quality experience, but the trout numbers are significantly down from the glory days.
The Grand Canyon and Black Canyon
Most of the Yellowstone below the falls is found in two rugged canyons: the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Black Canyon. The river here is a big, brawling, boulder strewn canyon fishery that is loaded with 14-17” cutthroats and a sprinkling of browns and rainbows. The dry fly fishing for the surface feeding cutties can provide for a lot of action. It is possible to fish some of this water on a day trip with a solid hike but much of it requires at least one night of camping. These sections fish best from the end of runoff in late June or early July into the early fall.
Gardiner to Yankee Jim Canyon
Once the Yellowstone exits the Park float fishing is permitted. The river from Gardiner to the Joe Brown access point above Yankee Jim Canyon is dominated by cutthroat trout with a healthy supply of rainbows and a handful of browns sprinkled in. The abundance of cutthroats helps to make this stretch one of the best for finding consistent dry fly action. Even when the browns and rainbows are feeding subsurface the cutties seem to always be looking up. Fishing varies greatly by time of year. In the spring baetis hatches and caddis rule the show until run off hits in early or mid May. Once run off subsides the attractor dry fly fishing with big bushy foam flies can be epic. This is section also produces some of the best salmon fly fishing on the river and on lower water years the hatch can be amazing (on big water years the hatch occurs during run off). By the end of July the hopper fishing kicks in and on a windy afternoon you will see dozens of the terrestrials getting blown into the water from the high sage flats above the water. Fishing remains good well into the fall when the baetis mayflies bring pods of fish to the surface on cloudy days.
Yankee Jim Canyon
From Joe Brown to Carbella the river enters Yankee Jim Canyon. The river is big water in this stretch and has some class III whitewater that can flip inexperienced boaters so caution is advised and rafts are highly recommended (vs. drift boats). The canyon needs to drop to lower levels than the rest of the river before it begins to fish well which usually happens in mid July. The fish make up is dominated by cutthroats and rainbows with a handful of browns. The complex currents, boulders and monstrous eddies make for interesting fishing. A guided fly fishing trip in the canyon is a fun way to mix in some scenic whitewater with some great fishing.
Paradise Valley (Carbella BLM - Mallards Rest FAS)
Upon exiting Yankee Jim Canyon the gradient of the river drops and the Yellowstone enters the scenic Paradise Valley. This section of the river is the first to begin fishing well when run off ends because of the gentler flows. Good fishing can be had at flows as high as 10,000cfs. The flows are much more uniform in the Paradise Valley section which makes it a great float for beginning anglers. Scenery is nothing short of spectacular with the snow capped peaks of the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges towering overhead on both sides of the river valley. Cutthroat trout populations start to drop off after Carbella and do not dominate the fish count once you move farther downstream from the Carbella boat ramp. The Paradise Valley floats can produce some very large brown trout and there are still some 10 lb. trout roaming the Yellowstone here. One of ourMontana fly fishing lodge partners, the Yellowstone Valley Lodge, is located in the heart of Paradise Valley overlooking the river and surrounding peaks!
The Livingston “Town Stretch” (Mallard’s Rest to the 89 bridge)
The Yellowstone changes character as it flows from the lower Paradise Valley section into and around the town of Livingston. The “Town” stretch has some of the most interesting water on the river with multiple channels, gravel shelves, seams, eddies and riffles. The town stretch is also close to the mouth of the Armstrong and Nelson spring creeks which are major spawning grounds for rainbow trout. The varied habitat and the proximity of spawning gravel in the spring creeks combine to produce some of the highest rainbow trout counts on the entire Yellowstone River. This section has also produced a few 15 lb. browns in recent years! The best fishing on the town stretch occurs when the river has dropped below 7000 cfs due to the higher gradient here.
The Lower River (89 bridge to Reed Point)
The Yellowstone continues to grow in size at it turns east after Livingston and heads toward the town of Big Timber and beyond. Trout numbers slowly drop as the river gets farther from Livingston with the exception of the floats around the Boulder River mouth near Big Timber which also adds spawning habitat for rainbows. The brown trout populations on the Yellowstone are lower than cutthroats or rainbows but they are more stable in numbers on the different section since they are primarily main river spawners. Browns also tend to be the largest fish in the river, although some monster rainbows in the 20-25” class are caught with some frequency. The lower river has a blend of large sweeping riffles, gravel shelves, long sift runs and slow pools. There are also several large islands which produce smaller side channels that can often be productive. The river valley is much more open and the mountain views are more distant. The Lower river can produce some outstanding hopper fishing and late season opportunities for baetis mayflies in the fall. Many of the largest trout on the Yellowstone are caught on these lower floats.
Seasons for Fly fishing the Yellowstone River
Spring (Pre Run Off)
April and May can produce some off the most exciting fishing on the Yellowstone. Baetis mayflies (or blue winged olives) begin showing up in mid April and can produce outstanding dry fly fishing during cloudy days. These small size 18 insects never seem to fill the fish up and the hatches can last for several hours. In late may the larger size 12 march browns begin to show up. Although they are never in as great of abundance as the baetis; the trout often key in on them heavily and the larger insect also entices larger trout to the surface. April is also an ideal time to strip or dead drift streamers for some of the largest trout in the river. Every year a few very big trout in the 25-30” class are caught during this time of year. In early May the famous Mother’s Day Caddis hatch starts to come off great abundance. This explosive hatch is the most intense of the year and attracts anglers from far and wide. There are often so many bugs on the water that back eddies are covered with mats of adult insects. Run off comes early on the Yellowstone and usually by mid May the river is done until run off subsides.
Early Summer (Post Run Off)
The duration of run off depends greatly on the snow pack. On drought years the river can clear in mid June while on big snow years the high water can extend into mid July. The Yellowstone is often the last river in Montana to clear from run off. This is not necessarily a bad thing because there are so many great nearby rivers that even if the Yellowstone is dirty the Boulder, Stillwater, Madison, Gallatin and spring creeks is usually outstanding. When the Yellowstone finally comes around the trout haven’t seen pressure in over a month which helps this river to produce some of the best mid summer fishing in the region. The Yellowstone first produces reliably good fishing when flows hit 10,000cfs. Often this coincides with the salmon fly hatch but every year is different and some years flows are much lower than 10,000cfs when it clears. Fishing at 8,000-10,000 cfs is mostly a nymph fishing or streamer game and expect to loose a lot of flies because the trout will be right against the bank along the willows. The river drops quickly in the post run off stage and phenomenal attractor dry fly fishing begins as soon as the river hits 8,000cfs. Good dry flies include large foam attractors such as chubby chernobyls and rogue stones that resemble the salmon flies and golden stones that the trout have grown accustomed to eating. As flows continue to drop smaller attractors such as pmx’s, wulffs and stimulators also become effective as well as flies that imitate caddis, yellow sallies and pale morning duns that follow just behind the large stonefly species.
Late Summer and Early Fall (late July - mid September)
Yellowstone River fly fishing is arguably most famous for its legendary hopper fishing. Once the bulk of the aquatic hatch cycles finish sometime in mid to late July the hoppers and ants become a major staple for Yellowstone trout. The timing of the initial wave of good hopper fishing varies from summer to summer and can begin as early as mid July or as late as the first week of August. There is also a late hatching golden stonefly called the nocturnal stone or “noc stone” that hatches at night on the Yellowstone in late July. Stonefly nymphs such as girdle bugs are often productive during this period and sometimes hopper patterns are taken for this insect. Small attractor dries like pmxs, stimulators and smaller wulffs are also effective in the late summer, especially in the morning before the hoppers start flying. Subsurface nymphing can also be very effective and wooly buggers trailed by attractor bead-heads like princes, lightning bugs and pheasant tails (or the other dozens of specialty patterns sold in the shops) are always a consistent method of putting trout in the boat (and usually larger sizes than dry flies).
Fall (mid September to early November)
Autumn is an exciting and beautiful time to fish the Yellowstone River. The river is lined with yellow leaved cottonwoods and the surrounding mountains are often freshly dusted with the first high elevation snows of fall. Brown trout are fall spawners and the largest fish in the river let their guard down as they become preoccupied with reproductive activities. Casting large streamers on cloudy fall days can produce some heart stopping strikes from trophy sized fish. Fall is also a great time to cast dry flies. The fall baetis hatch encourages pods of rainbows to sip the small mayflies out of current seams and eddies. With few other anglers on the water and productive fishing this is a great time to visit the “Stone”!