The East Gallatin River forms just to the east of downtown Bozeman and runs its course in a northerly direction to its confluence with the West Gallatin River near Manhattan, Montana. This relatively placid, small stream flows through the Gallatin Valley with limited public access. The East Gallatin is highly regarded throughout Montana’s fly fishing lore because of its quality fishing and close proximity to Bozeman.
The upper portions of the East Gallatin River are considered to be upstream of the airport near Belgrade. The river is typically less than 20’ wide in this stretch and experiences seasonal fluctuations with runoff and irrigation demands. Access is found through various county bridges and an FWP fishing access site or two near its headwaters. The river is too small for any floating here and offers some tremendous wade-fishing opportunities for the mobile angler around Bozeman.
Although the East Gallatin River can offer solid fly fishing for anglers in Bozeman throughout the year, fall and winter offer some exceptional angling. Brown Trout get aggressive and show up in solid numbers by early October, which can make for excellent streamer fishing. Typical streamers for this stretch of the East Gallatin River are smaller than the standard patterns that most anglers typically fish at this time of year. Classic patterns like the JJ Special or Light Spruce help round out more modern selections, including Sculpzillas, Skiddish Smolts, and various articulated sculpin patterns. A floating line with or without a sinking leader is sufficient to cover the water in these stretches of the East Gallatin River.
One of our staff’s favorite events on the East Gallatin is mid-winter dry fly fishing. The Midge hatches can be surprisingly heavy on a mild, cloudy winter day on the upper portions of the East Gallatin River. It’s rare to find rising fish throughout the day during the winter months, but there will be lots of fish looking up for an hour or two when conditions are ideal. Standard Midge dry fly patterns like the Griffiths Gnat often work well during a prolific hatch. We always stock several variations and sizes of Midge dry fly patterns in our Bozeman fly shop, though Midge feeders can be notoriously picky sometimes.
As with most of the rivers and streams with prolific insect activity throughout Montana, nymph fishing is always productive on the East Gallatin River. The upper river stretches have become heavily “silted-in” in the last 10 years, and the insect populations have also changed. Midges, Craneflies, and various mayflies are the predominant aquatic insects. As a result, typical pattern selections include Pheasant Tail variations, Zebra Midge, San Juan Worms, and general attractor nymphs in the 12-16 size range. Match the hatch with your nymph rig by matching the nymphs to the natural nymphs of the hatching insects when you experience sparse hatches.
Access to the East Gallatin is often the most challenging part of fishing this little “urban gem.” As always, make sure that you know and understand the Montana Stream Access Law before heading out. This is a small stream, so be sure to give other anglers their space and leave a few holes alone if someone else is behind you. A quick conversation with a fellow angler can save a lot of frustration and might even be a great way to learn something.
Fly fishing a river like East Gallatin River is a rare treat for most anglers, and we encourage folks to explore the river independently.