Few things scream “America!” like the longest freestone river in the country – The Yellowstone. At Yellow Dog, we are fortunate to have quick access to this iconic fishery right next door in the old railroad town of Livingston, Montana. Formerly known as the “Elk River” by Native American Indian tribes, the Yellowstone molded a rich history well before the trout bum migration to the U.S. West. The river was explored in 1806 by William Clark, utilized as means of transportation by the Crow Indians, and visited by U.S. Presidents.
Today, anglers from around the globe venture to fish her waters from the mouth of Yellowstone Lake to well below Livingston. It is well worth experiencing the Yellowstone River, and in fact, one can make several trips to fish the Stone before you truly get to experience all the fishable sections of water.
+ Listen to this WAYPOINTS Podcast: JAKE WELLS – Planning the Perfect Trip to Montana
The Yellowstone River is the quintessential large western river and provides a unique Montana fly fishing opportunity with over 100 miles of quality, wild trout water. In fact, the Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48. Every type of water is to be found through its course, including the whitewater sections of Yankee Jim Canyon, the placid glides of Paradise Valley, and the long riffles of the lower sections near Big Timber.
Ideally suited for the floating angler, the Yellowstone River is surrounded by stunning mountain backdrops and banks lined with Cottonwood trees. Being on the river is simply a great experience and provides much more than just some of the best wild trout fly fishing in the world. Wildlife flourishes along the river, and common sighting includes eagles, Ospreys, Mule Deer, River Otters, Mink, Moose, and even the occasional Black Bear. It’s hard to walk away from a day on the Yellowstone without feeling like it was a great day, even when the fishing is tough!
Highlights of Fly fishing the Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River is a fantastic fishery and we feel the best time to be on the water is any day when the wind is not blowing over 20 mph, and your schedule allows it! That being said, one of the most common questions we hear from our guests is, “When is the best fishing?” On most days, we can reliably find a number of trout and whitefish that are feeding on a variety of both nymphs and adult insects of one kind or another. Honestly, anytime can be terrific, even in the middle of winter, but here are a few key times of year and hatches to keep in mind when trying to schedule your Montana fishing experience.
The Mother’s Day Caddis hatch is one of those legendary hatches that bring every trout in the river to the surface for a few days every year. This phenomenon is largely driven by increasing water temperature and usually begins in late April or early May. The exact timing varies yearly and can be challenging to plan for as the hatch coincides with warmer weather, which in turn causes the snow to melt and the river to rise dramatically. Every avid angler in the Bozeman area appreciates the significance of this particular hatch and has a “sick day” or two in reserve for the first few days of the hatch. We encourage folks to shoot for hitting this hatch the first week of May but to be flexible in terms of fishing other rivers (the Madison River is always reliable this time of year) if the Yellowstone River becomes too high and dirty.
Popular Yellowstone River Fishing Methods
Salmonflies are one of the biggest aquatic insects you’ll ever see and they more resemble a wounded Hummingbird than most other hatching insects. To say they make for a great trout meal is a gross understatement. There is nothing like fishing back to the bank with size 6 dry flies during the peak of the Salmonfly hatch on the Yellowstone River. The river, however, is usually just on the tail-end of the runoff during this hatch and historically is not fishable throughout much of its course. We are usually able to have a few days – maybe a week – of great fishing during the Salmonfly hatch on the upper portions of Paradise Valley in late June and early July, but it is another hatch that can be tough to count on as much depends on the water conditions.
Hopper fishing on the Yellowstone is my favorite time of year” is a phrase you hear around here and throughout fly fishing circles. Not only can the fishing be phenomenal this time of year, but also the weather is usually spectacular and the landscape is stunning as well. The hatches of aquatic insects diminish during the heat of summer and trout begin to key on terrestrial insects like hoppers, ants, and beetles. Once the fish get keyed in on the hopper, it’s not uncommon to see some of the largest Brown Trout of the Year come to the surface in the skinny waters along the banks in the riffles.
Streamer fishing in the Fall, especially through Livingston, consistently brings some seriously large fish to the net every year. Once the days get shorter and the weather cools down in October, the Browns become very aggressive as part of their pre-spawn ritual. This type of fishing often involves lots of casting with heavy flies and sinking fly lines, so it’s not necessarily for everybody. This is one of our guides’ favorite times of year to be on the Yellowstone River as things are quiet, the leaves are changing color, and our clients are committed to hunting for a few big fish rather than big numbers of smaller ones. It’s a nice change of pace for everyone and is always worth the trip if you are looking for something a little different.
Sections of the Yellowstone River
Yellowstone Lake to Upper Falls
Some of the west’s best cutthroat trout fishing occurs in this section of the river. Anglers can target large cutts after July 14th on dries, streamers, and nymphs. Unfortunately, the introduction of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake has hurt the cutthroat population; however, one can still experience special days here. The water can be crystal clear, and you may spot fish feeding and swimming in the water well before you make a cast to them.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Below the famous Upper Falls in Yellowstone National Park is Yellowstone’s rocky and rough Grand Canyon. The water in this section of the river is fast and wild but still fishable. Anglers can hike into the canyon to fish for wild Yellowstone cutthroat trout using big, foam dry flies. Stoneflies thrive in this section with giant boulders and well-oxygenated water. The salmon flies arrive in this section of the river around the first week of July and can be present throughout the month. Timing a salmon fly hatch is a science. If the fish seem reluctant to eat your fly, try moving up or down the river quite a ways before you begin fishing again. These are giant bugs, and the trout can quickly get stuffed.
Gardiner to Yankee Jim Canyon
Once the Yellowstone exits the park, it flows by the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park and past the small town of Gardiner, Montana. This section of the river is very popular with whitewater rafters. Still, it mellows out below the Black Canyon for several river miles well situated for drift boats – be sure you don’t go below the Joe Brown takeout! This section of the river offers fantastic dry fly fishing for cutthroat trout. While there are browns and rainbows, the cutts always seem willing to take a big foam dry fly. In the late summer, terrestrial fishing can be gangbusters. Wide-open fields surround the Yellowstone, and the wind seems to be constant around the greater Paradise Valley area. The wind knocks the hoppers into the water, where they helplessly float down the river before getting nailed. Cast your hopper, ant, and beetle patterns close to the bank and get ready for some exciting eats.
Yankee Jim Canyon
Beware! This is some rough water that we recommend you access via rafts or use a knowledgeable guide. Both small and large boulders sprinkle the river throughout the canyon section where class III rapids exist. Usually, this section of the Yellowstone is unfishable until mid-to-late July purely due to safety reasons. But once it is low enough to float, anglers can experience nonstop action on big foam dries cast to the bank, above and behind boulders, and the various seams for wily cutts, rainbows, and a few brown trout.
Paradise Valley Section
This is likely the most famous section of trout water on the Yellowstone River and where most guided trips take place. For anglers, this is the first section of the river that can be fishable before everything else opens. Upon exiting the Yankee Jim Canyon, the Stone widens and meanders through the valley to Livingston. Braids break away from the main stem, where the water can get shallow enough to jump out of the boat and wade. When the water drops low enough, rock islands begin to appear, making perfect stopping points for lunch or camping. The upper portion of the Paradise Valley section hosts stable cutthroat trout populations, but they start to decline the closer you get to Livingston. Rainbow and brown trout in the 14-16 inch range are considered common and larger fish in the 21″ + range are caught.
Town Stretch (Carter’s Bridge to 89 Bridge)
The Town Stretch is defined by its character: many drop-offs, gravel bars, flats, braids, a few wave trains, and bank structure. It is some of the fishiest looking water on the Yellowstone River. To find fish, look above and below large boulders, dredge deep pools, cast flies close to the bank and underbrush, fish the drop-offs, and search for risers on the flats during hatches. You can park on one of the many islands and walk up the bank to find fish as well. The best fishing on this section generally occurs in April and early May, then after the runoff, it becomes fishable again sometime in late June/early July.
East of Town Stretch
Below or east of town, the river and scenery change again. There is a little more gradient in this section of the river than Paradise Valley, which creates numerous swift chutes, deep pools, and large gravel bars. The numbers of trout also begin to decline the further you move away from Paradise Valley and Livingston; however, anglers have the chance to tangle with one of the trophy brown trout that call this part of Yellowstone their home. While there’s a larger population of cutthroat and rainbow trout in the upper sections of the river, the concentrations seem to level out with the availability of brown trout in the lower reaches. Some of the largest trout in the river are caught here. Not only can the streamer fishing be productive, but this is also an excellent section for casting hoppers in August.
Seasons on the Yellowstone River
The month of April can be some of the best streamer fishing of the year. The trout are just coming out of their winter haunts, and they’re hungry for a big meal. Someone always tends to catch a behemoth of a trout during April and early May. Use a sinking line to get your streamers down. For a retrieve, go slow or even dredge the streamer through runs and deep pools. In addition, look for fish feeding on blue-winged olives and March Browns on the surface. March Brown mayflies are between size 12 and 14, and although they never hatch in abundance, the trout key in on them. If we get cooler weather throughout May, then you may be able to fish the Mother’s Day caddis hatch on the Yellowstone. This hatch kicks off the trout season here in Montana. Fish can be rising all over the banks, in eddies, and flats. The timing can be tricky and totally out of your control, but it produces some of the best dry fly action of the year when everything aligns. Come mid-to-late May, runoff is in full swing, and the river isn’t fishable until late June or early July.
From early to mid-July, the Yellowstone is in total runoff. It isn’t fishable or safe to float the river at this time of year, and it’s best to be avoided. Things tend to clear up on the Stone around late June. In the meantime, there is still a lot of water, including several lakes, fishable such as the Boulder, Madison, Gallatin, Missouri, and Stillwater Rivers. Around 10,000 CFS, the Yellowstone can begin producing some good fishing on streamers and nymphs. This also, depending on the year, corresponds with the salmon fly hatch. Usually, by mid-July, the river is in full fishing shape, and the dry fly fishing can be spectacular. Anglers turn to large, foam stonefly dry patterns fished against the bank on riffles, seams, and drop-offs. By late July, hatches of pale morning duns occur. Target fish during the hatch using emergers and cripples, then cast rusty spinners in the early morning hours.
If there is one thing that the Yellowstone River is most famous for, it is hopper fishing. The Paradise Valley area is surrounded by large fields that host large populations of grasshoppers, and coupled with the ever-constant wind; they’re constantly knocked in the water where they become an easy meal. In addition, there is also a hatch of nocturnal stoneflies that happens in late July. Nocturnal stones, as the name implies, hatch during the night. Large stoneflies (size 4-10) can be effectively fished using golden-colored Chubby Chernobyls in the early morning hours. Cast your fly up against large boulders and add a jerking movement of the rod tip. You may experience some explosive eats. Streamer and nymph fishing can also be highly productive through August. By mid-to-late September, the surrounding country begins to slip into its autumn groove. Many anglers leave the river to pursue elk in the mountains or Montana’s various wing-shooting opportunities. Brown trout spawn in the fall and can display more aggressive behavior during this time of year. Hatches of fall baetis focus pods of trout on bugs on the surface. This is a great time to fish the Yellowstone, and it’s often overlooked. You’ll most likely have more water to yourself coupled with excellent fishing opportunities.
Popular Yellowstone River Flies
- Chubby Chernobyl (size 4-14)
- Amy’s Ant (size 10-14)
- X Caddis (size 8-18)
- Sparkle Duns (size 12-20)
- Turk’s Tarantula (size 6-14)
- Pink/Black Morrish Hopper (size 8-12)
- Parachute Hopper (size 8-10)
- Sweetgrass Hopper (size 8-12)
- Two Bit Hooker (size 12-18)
- Pat’s Rubber Legs (size 6-14)
- Red Copper John (size 12-18)
- Zebra Midge (size 14-18)
- Barely Legal – olive/white (size 4)
- Home Invader – black, white, olive, yellow (size 6)
- Bow River Bugger (size 4-6)
- Sparkle Minnow Sculpin (size 4-8)
Making the Most of Your Trip
The Yellowstone River is in our backyard. It is a classic, big western river that is recognizable in fly fishing circles around the world. When planning for a trip to fly fish the Yellowstone, we have several lodging and day trip options for anglers to choose from. But a trip to Paradise Valley wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the culture, food, and scenery around this world-class fishery. 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.
- Murray Bar – The Murray Bar is in a historic building located in downtown Livingston. This has been a hot spot with guides, locals, and fishing enthusiasts for decades. On the walls of the Murray Bar are pictures of famous anglers and a personal fly that they tied. As stated on their website: “The criteria for making our wall is two things – you drink like a fish at the Murray, or you live a life of fishing and have a few at the Murray!”
- The Old Saloon – The Old Saloon is a famous bar located in Emigrant serving since 1902. It is a quintessential old western-style bar that still holds on to its rich character and timeless stories. Stop by to have a drink or catch one of the many concerts they host during the summer months.
- Chico Hot Springs – Located in Pray, Montana, Chico Hot Springs is centered around pools of hot mineral water that pump water from the ground at nearly 37 gallons per minute. In 1900, the Knowles family built a hotel around the hot springs and invited guests to soak in the naturally warm water. Today, Chico consists of several guest cabins, a bar, pool area, hotel, and restaurant.
- Hiking – Paradise Valley has numerous hikes that are suitable for all ages. One of the most popular hikes in the area is Pine Creek Falls, a 2.5-mile hike to a beautiful waterfall.
- 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.
Yellowstone Valley Lodge – recently renovated and re-opened – is a highly personalized Montana fishing lodge located in beautiful Paradise Valley, Montana. Built directly on the banks of the world-famous Yellowstone River – known for its prolific hatches and excellent cutthroat and rainbow fishing – YVL offers the finest location in the entire area. Through head guide and outfitter Eric Adams, the Lodge is committed to offering the best Montana fly fishing experiences on the world-famous waters of the Yellowstone, Madison, and Boulder Rivers, as well as area spring creeks that include Armstrong’s, DePuy’s, and Nelson’s. From any of the ranch’s 16 private riverside cabins, you look directly over the Yellowstone River in the shadow of Dexter Point (elevation 9,859 feet). Notable additions to the Lodge include new and upgraded furnishings in the cabins, added availability for additional activities such as hiking, rafting, horseback riding, and coordinated transportation services to and from the airport in Bozeman.
Other Nearby Rivers:
– Madison River
– Gallatin River
– Jefferson River