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Gallatin River Fly Fishing

Although the infamous movie, A River Runs Through It, was set in Missoula, Montana, on the Blackfoot River, it was filmed on Montana’s Gallatin River. The Gallatin is in the center of Southwest Montana’s Big Sky country and serves as a welcoming site to travelers arriving in Bozeman and making their way south to Big Sky and West Yellowstone. It is easily one of the most charming and scenic rivers in the state.

The Gallatin River is well-known for its wade-only options, except on the lower river in the Gallatin Valley. And while the river doesn’t produce the size of trout like the Madison or Yellowstone, it does host a large population that can provide constant activity throughout a day of fishing.

The river has a unique personality compared to other fisheries throughout Southwest Montana. It is small in size and goes through various changes as it makes its way from Yellowstone National Park toward Three Forks, Montana.

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Sections of the Gallatin River

Yellowstone National Park
The Gallatin River begins on the Wyoming side of Yellowstone National Park in Gallatin Lake, just below Three Rivers Peak. It then makes its way around ten miles until it reaches Highway 191 on the Montana side of the park. The fishing always seems to improve the closer the river is from Highway 191. From where the river meets the road to where you exit the park is arguably some of the best trout fishing in the entire river system. Keep in mind, because this section of the river is in the park, you can only fish it from the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend until the first Sunday in November.

The Gallatin in the YNP section is calm water that is very easy to read when fishing for trout. It features rock beds, drop-offs, flats, gravel bars, deep pools, shelves, and plenty of pocket water. When the salmon flies come through, the dry fly fishing can be spectacular. This gets the fish looking up the rest of the summer for other hatches, including yellow sallies, caddis, pale morning duns, and blue-winged olives. There are plenty of areas to pull your car to the side of the road, grab your rod, and walk down to the river. Before you start fishing, be sure you also have a Yellowstone National Park fishing license, which you can obtain from any area fly shop.

Yellowstone National Park to Canyon Exit
This is the most famous and fished section of the Gallatin River, especially between the park boundary and the greater Big Sky area. The river is in a canyon that, in various places, features the most beautiful large rock walls that tower over the valley below. Pre and post-runoff, the water is gin clear in color and gives off an emerald-colored hue as it progresses over the cobblestone river rocks. Anglers can find success swinging streamers through deep pools, casting nymphs in seams behind stones, and targeting rising trout during hatches of mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis. In addition, there are numerous places to access the river. All you have to do is drive up or down HWY 191 until you find a pull-off. In late July, spruce moths can provide some of the best dry fly fishing opportunities of the year. The spruce moths slam the water’s surface from the large spruce trees that line certain sections of the river. Hungry and aggressive trout wait patiently below to attack their prey with frequently ferocious strikes.

A little north of Big Sky, the river begins to pick up speed as the gradient and width of the river change. This section is popular with whitewater rafters and has Class III and IV rapids on a famous stretch known as the Mad Mile. Once out of the Gallatin Canyon, the river opens back up and calms itself.

Canyon Exit to Manhattan
Upon exiting the canyon, the river flows through Gallatin Valley just south of Bozeman, Montana, through agricultural fields. Large cottonwood trees line the river that provides shade for the trout and shelter for the numerous aquatic insects hatched from the river bottom.

The Gallatin begins to braid and creates side channels that form islands once it is past the canyon. Anglers can find trout in the numerous rock gardens, riffles, and deep pools. While the concentration of trout is unlike that in the canyon, the fish are generally larger. The river access isn’t as prominent as it is in the upper reaches but available near bridges and posted fishing access sites. Anglers can target fish using various angling options using dries, nymphs, midges, and streamers.

Manhattan to Confluence
The lower Gallatin is floatable from a drift boat on the last twelve miles before the river dumps into the Missouri near Three Forks. The fish populations are unlike that of the upper Gallatin, but brown trout that move in from the Missouri provides other exciting options to potentially target trophy-sized fish.

Most of the Gallatin in this section flows through private land. You can get out of the boat but stay below the high water mark. The likelihood you will see many other anglers fishing is slim. The lower Gallatin is best fished with streamers or dredging large nymphs on the bottom of the river to pursue that “one” fish.

Seasons on the Gallatin River

Late March-May
During periods of warm weather, the Gallatin can fish well on nymphs, small streamers, and baetis dry flies. If you can find a warm day coupled with some overcast weather, take your dry fly rod and go for a walk! You’ll most likely find several fish rising in slicks or behind rocks to BWOs. When we get a cold front, the fish seem to go lock-jaw, and trying to get one to the net can prove challenging. Don’t be afraid to use larger nymphs that are slowly dredged in deep pools. At this time, only the Gallatin above Yellowstone Park is open to fishing.

Late May-Late June
During peak run-off, The Gallatin is best left to our whitewater rafting friends. You can try to find sections of the river that have some visibility. The Taylor Fork right below Big Sky and other streams can pump mud into the Gallatin. Usually, the park section tends to clear up before anything else. Try casting dark-colored streamers close to the bank if you must fish the Gallatin.

July-August
This is by far the best time to fly fish the Gallatin River. After run-off, the Gallatin returns to its greenish hue, and it is game on! Hatches of pale morning duns, yellow sallies, various caddis species, and stoneflies can provide excellent fishing throughout the day.

Using dry dropper rigs is a popular method to catch trout in the summer months. Start with a Chubby Chernobyl hopper pattern (during August) or other foam dry and drop your favorite nymph at least a foot off the bend or eye of the hook. Attractor dry flies such as Royal Wulffs, Purple Haze, Stimulators, and PMX dries can take trout when nothing else is happening.

The evening caddis hatches can produce excellent dry fly fishing during the mid-to-late summer months. Use an X-Caddis in size 14-16. In late July, trout hone in on the spruce moths that get blown into or dive toward the water’s surface. To find excellent spruce moth fishing, look for high concentrations of spruce trees. During midday lulls, keep moving to find fish. Work your way up the bank and target fish in all of the likely holding spots. This is a river that often requires some work on foot to have a successful day.

September-October
By this time of year, the Gallatin River has been well-pressured, and the water is low. Numerous other options may be better than fishing the Gallatin; however, targeting trophy brown trout on the lower Gallatin in their pre-spawn stage may prove effective.

Popular Gallatin River Flies

Dry Flies:

  • Chubby Chernobyl (size 4-14)
  • Amy’s Ant (size 10-14)
  • X Caddis (size 8-18)
  • Sparkle Duns (size 12-20)
  • Morrish Hopper (size 10-12)
  • Stimulator (size 8-10)
  • Purple Haze (size 8-16)
  • Royal Wulff (size 12-18)

Nymphs

  • Two Bit Hooker (size 12-18)
  • Pat’s Rubber Legs (size 6-14)
  • Red Copper John (size 12-18)
  • Zebra Midge (size 14-18)

Streamers

  • Woolly Bugger (size 8-10)
  • Sculpzilla (size 4-8)
  • Sparkle Minnow (size 6-8)

Making the Most of Your Trip

The Gallatin River is in our backyard. It is a small and intimate western river that is recognizable in fly fishing circles around the world. When planning for a trip to fly fish the Gallatin, we have several lodging and day trip options for anglers to choose from. But a trip to Big Sky Country wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the culture, food, and scenery. We have compiled a list of other things to do before or after your fishing trip below. Not only are these great options for a non-angling companion during your trip, but for everyone that wants to experience Yellowstone country fully.

  1. Big Sky – If you’re in the area, check out Big Sky and the surrounding area. There are tons of great restaurant options, a few breweries, bars, and of course, beautiful scenery.
  2. The River House – This is by far one of the best restaurants in the area. Conveniently located just outside of Big Sky on the banks of the Gallatin, the River House serves Texas-style BBQ, and they are good at it. It is generally pretty busy during dinner, so be sure to call in or get there a little early so you can get a spot.
  3. Bozeman – The town of Bozeman is worth spending a day in. Several other popular outdoor brands call Bozeman their home, including Simms, Sitka, Schnee’s, Stone Glacier, and Mystery Ranch. There are plenty of shops, great restaurants, numerous breweries, and hiking trails close by. Make sure to stop by Yellow Dog and say hello!
  4. Hiking – Gallatin Canyon has numerous hikes that are suitable for all ages. One of the most popular hikes in the area is Lava Lake, three miles from the trailhead and full of hungry trout.
  5. Yellowstone National Park – If you took the time to travel to Montana, a day in the park is a must. You can go to one of the local fly shops and obtain a park fishing license, which allows you to fish in hundreds of different creeks and rivers within Yellowstone legally. You can spend the day visiting many popular tourist sites such as the Upper Falls, or you can get off the beaten path and find some wild cutthroat trout water entirely to yourself.

Lodging Options

Gallatin River LodgeOn a 350-acre ranch just outside the town of Bozeman, Montana sits the Gallatin River Lodge, a full-service fishing lodge situated within easy striking distance of the Yellowstone River, the Lower Gallatin, the Upper and Lower Madison, and numerous spring creeks and lakes (all less than an hour’s drive from the Lodge).  As for “home waters,” a short walk across a meadow on the Lodge property leads to two miles of private access on the Gallatin River, excellent water for both brown and rainbow trout. Your room is the perfect place to return to after a long day on the water and the exceptionally comfortable accommodations are matched nicely by the outstanding cuisine. The Gallatin River Grill and Bar has rightfully earned its reputation of serving the best food in Bozeman, with a menu featuring a wide range of entrees and appetizers plus nightly specials to choose from.

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Gallatin River Fly Fishing

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