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The longest free-flowing river in the continental U.S., the Yellowstone River in Montana offers a wild character and incomparable setting that is second to none. Forming deep within the borders of Yellowstone National Park, the river meanders nearly 700 miles before coming to its confluence with the Missouri River in North Dakota. On a journey nearly impossible to comprehend, the Yellowstone River travels and changes its mood through staggering canyons, picturesque mountain valleys and vast ranchlands.
Though trout aren’t found throughout the entire course of the river, more than 120 miles of water outside of Yellowstone National Park offer healthy populations of rainbow trout, brown trout, and cutthroat trout with more than 20 public access points along the way. From riffles and runs to whitewater and deep holes, the Yellowstone River has it all. Being characterized as a large, powerful river bordered predominantly by private land, fly fishing the Yellowstone is most easily done from a drift boat or raft. While it is certainly possible to float the river in your own craft, a Montana Fishing Guide is recommended, at least for your first trip, due to the Yellowstone River's large size and tricky currents which can look deceivingly tame to the novice boater.
With nearly endless amounts of water from which to choose, anglers have the ability to spread out so that crowding is seldom an issue. Those seeking solitude should keep on the move. If certain stretches of river are busy, it’s typically the product of random luck; more than likely other parts of the river will be vacant.
Once crossing the Yellowstone Park Boundary, the stretch of river from Gardiner to Yankee Jim Canyon is loaded with pocketwater and several sizable rapids, making this stretch of the Yellowstone River dry fly fishing heaven and one of the most scenic parts of the river. Yellowstone Anglers would be wise to spend at least one day of their trip casting large dry flies to cutthroat trout amidst the canyon walls of this stretch. Once leaving Yankee Jim the river flattens out as it flows past the town of Emigrant and through Paradise Valley to the town of Livingston, Montana. Without a doubt this is the most popular section to fish the Yellowstone River due to easy rowing, incredible scenery and solid fishing throughout the year.
Once reaching Carter’s Bridge, just south of Livingston, the Yellowstone begins to gather character in the form of channels, rapids and powerful back eddies. And while the riffles and runs from here to the Highway 89 bridge hold good numbers of fish, rowing and wade fishing this section can be difficult. From 89 to Big Timber, typically considered the “Lower Yellowstone River,” insect and fish populations are lower than those found upriver and while this can mean less action, some of the largest fish caught each season come from this long section. Streamer fishing is an excellent choice here as are hoppers and large attractor dry flies during the summer and early fall.
Without a doubt, the pre-runoff conditions of spring offer some of the best fly fishing of the year. From midges in February and March, Blue Wing Olives in April and a phenomenal Mother’s Day caddis hatchoccurring towards the end of April or early May, there is plenty to keep an angler busy. Spring fly fishing on the Yellowstone River can be risky with the weather and water conditions, but if you happen to come at the right time you can find yourself with unbelievable dry fly fishing opportunities with much of the river to yourself. In normal runoff years, fishing is typically shut down by mid-May as snowmelt turns the river to mud. In the event of low snowpack the river might clear by mid-June in time for the salmonfly hatch. Once the river clears, fishing should remain productive throughout the rest of the season into late fall.
Though nymphing is productive throughout the season, the sights of a Yellowstone cutthroat trout's slow rise to a dry fly is something not to be missed. Caddis flies, Pale Morning Duns and various stoneflies are predominant hatches in early summer and while matching them exactly is an effective approach, most Montana Anglers can keep it simple with proven attractor patterns that represent a wider variety of bugs. Of course, some of the most noted fly fishing in Montana on the Yellowstone River occurs in late summer with the presence of terrestrial insects such as grasshoppers, ants and beetles. Many people return to the Yellowstone every year to experience the wonderful hopper fishing that this river has to offer. Beadhead droppers fished 15-24” below these highly visible “indicator” flies can produce great results as well.
The Yellowstone River is certainly one of this country’s national treasures and everyone should experience its beauty and wildness at least once in a lifetime. There are very few trout rivers in the world that can rival the Yellowstone for its diversity. One can fish for three days on this river and it seems like you are on a different river each day. A fly fishing trip to Montana would certainly be incomplete without a day spent floating the Yellowstone River. If you would like more information about the Yellowstone River or would like information on a Yellowstone River guided float trip, please feel free to contact us.