The Yellowstone River
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The Yellowstone River is the longest river in Montana and one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the United States. Throughout its entire length from its beginning in Yellowstone National Park to its confluence with the Missouri River in North Dakota, the river is free of any major dams, although a couple of diversion dams do exist.
This section of Big Sky Fishing covers the Yellowstone River that runs between the Yellowstone National Park border to the city of Billings. For those seeking information about the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park, please visit our Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park section. Additionally, for anglers looking to test their mettle on the various warm water species found on the Yellowstone River in the eastern part of the state (downstream from Billings), please visit the Lower Yellowstone River section.
General Yellowstone River Information
The Yellowstone River begins at Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park. It leaves the park near Gardiner and then flows north. Downstream from Gardiner, the Yellowstone flows through a scenic canyon before it enters Yankee Jim Canyon, a popular spot for whitewater kayakers and float parties. Once the river passes through Yankee Jim Canyon, the Yellowstone River spills out into the broad and very beautiful Paradise Valley.
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The river leaves the Paradise Valley in Livingston and then turns in an easterly direction, where it begins to meander through the plains and foothills that lie to the north of the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains.
Between Livingston and Big Timber, the Crazy Mountains and the Absaroka Mountains are all visible in the distance. The combination of distant mountains, cottonwood trees and the high plains combine for a unique and scenic float trip.
Beyond Columbus, the mountains start to fade in the distance as the Yellowstone River passes through the prairie, often flanked by small cliffs and forested hills.
Access to the Yellowstone River is excellent. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks maintains an extensive number of fishing access points scattered along the river. Once water levels drop in the summer, it is usually quite easy to walk along exposed graveled riverbank. Since the Yellowstone River has unregulated flows, the river also has a significant area that lies below the “high-water mark.” This, combined with Montana’s Stream Access Law, allows for easy shore-side access and also provides abundant camping options for float parties out on multi-night trips.
Fly fishing and floating pressure is often heavy on the Yellowstone River. The floating and fly fishing pressure is heaviest between Gardiner and Livingston. Downstream from Livingston, the pressure on the river lessens significantly and below Columbus it nearly disappears. For anglers and floaters looking for solitude, consider fishing or floating the river below Livingston, Big Timber or Columbus.
The quality of the fly fishing on the Yellowstone River is excellent. Not by accident the Yellowstone River is internationally known as one of the premiere trout waters in the United States. Cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, large whitefish and brown trout are all found in abundant numbers in the upper half of the river, while the lower half (below Billings) turns primarily into a warm water fishery of large walleye, catfish and sturgeon.
The Yellowstone River is a river that is generally best fished from a boat. While fishing from shore is popular and effective, fishing from a boat provides several distinct advantages on the Yellowstone. The river is generally wide, and in its upper section, flows very quickly. Moreover, parts of the Yellowstone are surprisingly deep. The combination of width and, often, depth, limit the ability of wade anglers to cross the river to reach productive fishing spots.
While fly fishing pressure and floating is heavy on the Yellowstone, it is not completely over-run with anglers and floaters like some Montana rivers occasionally are. This is because the long length of the Yellowstone River, combined with numerous access sites, helps spread anglers and floaters around. Quality trout fishing exists on the Yellowstone River for more than 300 miles, providing lots of water for anglers to choose from.
Detailed Fly Fishing Information for the Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River in Montana is superb river for any anglers venturing to Montana to fly fish for trout. Besides being home to large brown, cutthroat and rainbow trout, the Yellowstone River itself has such a wide variety of habitat that it offers excellent dry fly fishing as well as sub-surface fishing with nymphs and streamers.
Due to the Yellowstone Rivers length in Montana and the fact that quality trout fishing is found from Billings upstream to Yellowstone National Park, most anglers struggle not with the fly fishing but with attempting to decide where to begin. Since the river is quite long, it is best to focus in on a particular stretch of the river instead of driving back and forth hundreds of miles attempting to fish a couple stretches of the Yellowstone River.
Additionally, the scenery in the Yellowstone River country is beautiful and quite varied, so don’t be bashful about letting it influence where you fish. After all, the landscape is part of the experience of any Montana fly fishing trip.
Gardiner to Carbella Access Site
This section of the Yellowstone River flows between Gardiner, which is at the border of Yellowstone National Park, downstream to the end of Yankee Jim Canyon, marked by the Carbella Access Site. Cutthroat and rainbow trout fishing dominate on this stretch.
Before spring run-off occurs in mid-May, which turns the Yellowstone River into a muddy mess, excellent fishing happens using small nymphs such as the Hare’s Ear and Pheasant Tail, weighed down to get the nymphs down deep in the quick current. Additionally, large streamers and stoneflies, such as Montana Stones, also work well when fished in deeper water along the bank.
A strong Salmon Fly and Golden Stone hatch occurs every year beginning in late May and lasting until early July. However, the hatch frequently coincides with spring run-off, turning the water muddy and murky, greatly reducing the effectiveness of dry fly fishing the Yellowstone River.
To take advantage of these late-spring and early-summer hatches, nymph fishing is the technique of choice. The nymph should be large (sizes 4-8), and should be floated in the slower sections of the Yellowstone River or right along the bank. As the water is murky, darker colors work best.
The Yellowstone River generally begins to clear in late June or early July during normal water years, coinciding with sporadic caddis fly hatches. Popular dry flies such as the Elk Hair Caddis, although selecting larger flies will catch the larger fish and reduce the number of whitefish brought to the net. Compared to the other rivers in Montana, the caddis fly hatches that occur on this stretch of the Yellowstone River during the summer are not extensive.
Beginning in late July, and continuing for the rest of the summer, hopper fishing is excellent. Use large hoppers, sized 4-8, floating them right along the banks. Additionally, anglers can use streamers like the Marabou Muddler, fishing them in the deep holes and around the larger rocks.
How to Select a Fly Rod
Read the web’s best guide on how to select a fly rod to meet your own specific fishing needs.
Carbella Access Site to Livingston
This section of the Yellowstone River, which flows through the beautiful Paradise Valley, has the most fishing pressure. Besides offering solid trout fishing, anglers are awarded with scenic vistas of the towering peaks of the Absaroka Mountains to the east and the Gallatin Range on the west.
This section of the Yellowstone River is home to a solid mix of large brown trout, cutthroat and rainbow trout are found. The diversity provides anglers with a wide variety of fly fishing possibilities and also allows for flexibility.
As in the upper section, the Yellowstone River is typically swollen and muddy due to spring run-off from mid May to early July, limiting top water fishing. However, for those times when the river runs clear due to either cold weather or a limited snow pack, excellent dry fly fishing happens using standard Caddis flies, such as the Elk Hair Caddis. When going after rainbow trout, locate the edges of slow and fast current, floating the fly right along the seam. Brown trout can also be taken by floating the fly right along the rivers edge and around obstructions in the river, such as rocks and downed trees.
Most likely, however, early summer conditions will leave the Yellowstone River murky and muddy. When this happens, fly fishing this stretch isn’t much different than fishing further upstream discussed previously. Use large nymphs or large attractors, floating them down deep in slower current. Dark colors are once again recommended.
Later in summer, this stretch of river, as is the rest of the Yellowstone River, turns into prime hopper fishing waters. As the river flows through the Paradise Valley, the riverbanks are lined with grass and hayfields—prime hopper country. Use a larger hopper in sizes 2-10, noisily plopping them in the water and floating them right along the banks. If you’re tired of fishing hoppers, attractor flies such as Royal Wulffs also work well.
A number of feeder creeks feed into the Yellowstone River along this section. For the angler who has a boat or is willing to walk along the riverbanks to reach these feeder creeks, fly fishing at the mouths of these creeks can provide excellent action. Many of these little creeks have their own little mayfly and caddis hatches, providing the angler with excellent fishing if you happen to be there when the hatch starts. Additionally, some of these creeks run clear when the Yellowstone River runs murky—thus opening up top water fishing when spring run-off blows out top-water fishing on the Yellowstone itself. When fly fishing at the mouths of these creeks, float a dry fly along the seams of fast and slow current, as the large trout often hold there.
Finally, as the Yellowstone River nears Livingston, a number of braids and channels are located in the river. Don’t ignore these channels, as they often hold large fish. Additionally, since most anglers do tend to ignore the side channels and braids, fishing pressure is often less. Look for braids and channels that are fairly deep with a decent current, as they are less likely to have frozen over during the winter or run dry during a previous summer of low water. While you will find trout in braids that do freeze over, you won’t find many large trout for the simple reason that food will be scarce in braids that freeze during the winter.
Livingston to Big Timber
Below Livingston, fishing pressure is less than further upstream. As the Yellowstone River flows through this section, it’s no longer confined within a scenic valley. Instead, it runs through true “high plains” country, with the Absaroka Mountains now to the south and a number of other mountain ranges always visible in the distance.
The landscape is basically devoid of trees east of Livingston, except for right along the river where cottonwood trees line the bank. The prairie that is found away from the Yellowstone River, though, is hardly flat. Instead, it is a series of rolling hills, some of which are quite large. Thus, don’t let the “prairie” setting scare you away from fishing this section of the Yellowstone River.
Although the Yellowstone River flowing through high plains and would seem to offer reduced fly fishing opportunities, an angler should not pass up the opportunity to fly fish somewhere along this section. The Yellowstone River, between its fast current and mountainous origin, tends to run cool all year long, allowing healthy trout populations to exist in places where many anglers would dismiss at first sight. Healthy populations of rainbow and brown trout are found along this stretch.
Additionally, the fish in this section of the Yellowstone River tend to be larger than further upstream. The larger fish, combined with reduced fishing pressure (the further downstream you go from Livingston, the less fishing pressure exists), can make for some wonderful fly fishing possibilities.
The Yellowstone River in this section is broad and deep. Additionally, for most of its length in this section the Yellowstone River has a moderate current (faster nearer Livingston and slower further downstream), so except during very low water years, wading can pose problems for the angler seeking the best fishing spots.
When fly fishing along this stretch of the Yellowstone, an angler has a number of strategies they can use, depending on the season.
During the early season, excellent caddis hatches occur. Unfortunately, spring run-off frequently turns the river into a muddy mess, limiting top water fishing. When the river is clear, though, an angler should make sure that they have caddis flies for all occasions (nymphs, emergers and top water), using the appropriate fly to match the hatch. Successful fishing during this hatch requires using the right type of caddis fly to match what the trout are feeding on. Thus, if you are fly fishing an Elk Hair Caddis on top with no luck, don’t hesitate to try an emerger caddis pattern such as a X-Caddis or a nymph caddis pattern such as a Prince Nymph.
A second strategy is to fish for the large trout that lurk in the many deep holes. While dainty dry flies will occasionally work, the best bet to hook these large fish is to use large weighted streamers on sink-tip fly lines, with heavy leaders, fishing them down deep in the holes. For the angler looking to pull up a large brown or rainbow trout, this is perhaps the best method.
A glance at the country the Yellowstone River flows through, with endless vistas of hay and grass, should offer a solid clue to the third strategy that’s used later in summer. Fish hoppers right along the banks, focusing on any obstructions lying in the river or where any undercut banks happen to be found.
A fourth strategy, also for later in summer, is to match the various small hatches. Both caddis and mayfly hatches occur along this stretch. While the hatches don’t match those found on some other Montana rivers, they none-the-less provide solid fishing. While an angler is unlikely to take a very large fish this way, it does provide the top water fisherman an excellent opportunity to land decent sized rainbows with smaller flies on top.
Big Timber to Billings
This section of the Yellowstone River is the least heavily used. Floaters and wade fisherman who are willing to walk away from the access sites are quite likely to have this stretch of the Yellowstone River to themselves. The Yellowstone is wide and fairly slow, with many deep pools. The Absaroka Mountains still line the south sky line, but slowly fade into the distance as the river approaches Billings.
The best fly fishing on this stretch is on the upper half. Quality trout fishing drops the closer to Billings one gets, although brown trout are still found in decent numbers sizes.
Fishing this stretch is not much different than the stretch between Livingston and Big Timber. Use streamers and large nymphs to catch the larger fish that are found in the deep holes. And use the ever-popular hopper right along the banks.
Floating & Paddling Information for the Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River begins in the Absaroka Mountains of Yellowstone National Park, where it soon flows into the massive and beautiful Yellowstone Lake. Beneath Yellowstone Lake, the river continues to flow through Yellowstone Park, flowing over the huge Yellowstone Falls. Beneath the falls, the river enters steep canyons and flows wildly, before entering Montana in the town of Gardiner.
Floating is not allowed in Yellowstone Park, so floating begins in Gardiner. For most of its length, the Yellowstone River has few major rapids. The exception occurs in the upper section soon after the river leaves the park. Several Class II rapids are found downstream from Gardiner.
And beginning thirteen-miles downstream from Gardiner, just below the Joe Brown Fishing Access Site and lasting to the Carbella Access Site five miles downstream, the Yellowstone River flows through Yankee Jim Canyon. Several Class II-III rapids are located here, requiring experienced floaters in whitewater capable boats, such as drift boats, inflatable fishing rafts and expedition level inflatable kayaks. The severity of the rapids encountered in Yankee Jim Canyon depends on river levels—during high water the rapids are stronger. Usually by August river levels have fallen low enough that most of the rapids become a series of short Class II+ rapids with large waves.
Below the Carbella Access Site, the Yellowstone River flows through the very scenic Paradise Valley with no whitewater but plenty of riffles. Floating pressure is moderate to heavy between Carbella and Livingston as this stretch of river has the most fishing pressure. Several outfitters also provide recreational floating services, too.
Access to the Yellowstone River is excellent between Gardiner and Livingston. Public lands are found along many stretches of the river. Additionally, there are numerous designated fishing access sites that provide great access.
Below Livingston, floating and fishing pressure both fall. Access to the Yellowstone River, while still good, is more difficult since the river flows primarily through private lands and access sites are more widely spaced.
Except during higher water levels, this section of river is easily floated by anyone, with the strongest rapids being some shorter Class II sections.
However, while there are no major rapids between Livingston and Columbus, there are many areas that have strong riffles and small waves. These rapids can usually be avoided, except for one section directly downstream from Livingston. Only floaters in canoes will have any difficulty navigating this stretch when water levels are low to moderate—the waves, while small, can still capsize a canoe quite easily if the canoe hits the wave broadside.
Downstream from Columbus, there is one final strong rapid that ranges from Class II to a weak Class III, depending again on river levels.
Following these rapids, the Yellowstone River continues to flow through the prairie and slowly leaves the mountains behind. Although the river flows through the prairie, the float is still quite scenic, since the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains loom to the south and the Crazy Mountains dominate the skyline to the north.
Downstream from Billings to the rivers confluence with the Missouri River in North Dakota, floaters will encounter several diversion dams that require portaging, including one in Forsyt. These dams are widely spaced apart, however, for the rest of the Yellowstone Rivers length in Montana.
Selected Yellowstone River Miles
Listed below are selected river miles for the Yellowstone River in Montana. You can get more detailed information about these access sites at the Montana FWP website.
5 Best Rafting Trips Near Yellowstone and Grand Teton
Whether you want to ride the rapids or enjoy a leisurely float, the rivers near Yellowstone National Park deliver.
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“Montana Whitewater” Photo: Montana Whitewater
Nothing beats a whitewater rafting adventure for escaping the summer heat. Although there is no rafting inside Yellowstone, the waterways surrounding the park offer up everything from lazy floats to intense rapids—pleasing everyone from kids and grandparents to adrenaline junkies. Find your perfect whitewater (or flat water, as the case may be) adventure on these favorite rivers.
NOTE: Because of COVID-19, not all rafting companies opened for summer 2022. Please check with individual companies to find out their summer schedule.
1. Snake River in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
This large, long waterway rises in Yellowstone and travels more than 1,000 miles through Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington to become the Columbia River’s largest tributary. The most popular rafting section of the river runs from Grand Teton National Park through Jackson Hole, the area surrounding Jackson, Wyo.
“Rafting and floating the river is my favorite way to see the park,” says Evan Toal, a guide for more than eight years and the head boatman at Jackson Hole Whitewater. “It’s the best way to take in the beauty of the area in a peaceful setting that is unobstructed by roads, buildings or any other human-made structures.”
Whitewater Rafting Trips on the Snake River
The Snake River offers both whitewater and mellow scenic float trips. “Whitewater” means more rapids and more adrenaline as you navigate through the Snake’s rushing waters. There are a number of companies that offer whitewater rafting trips on the Snake River.
Barker Ewing by Jackson Hole Whitewater rafting on the Snake River in Jackson Hole. Courtesy photo
Hop on a boat with Barker Ewing by Jackson Hole Whitewater for whitewater fun and adventure on the Snake River. It offers daily 8-mile rafting trips from mid-May through mid-September (call for exact dates as they change according to weather). The trips take approximately 3.5 -4 hours round trip from Jackson, Wyo. www.barker-ewing.com
Rafting near Yellowstone with Mad River on the Snake River. Photo: Mad River Boat Trips
Whitewater trips with Mad River Boat Trips are divided into three categories of rafts: classic adventure, small and super small. The smaller the boat, the bigger the adventure. Each trip covers eight river miles near Alpine, Wyo. The classic adventure is best for those that want a taste of whitewater rafting without any white knuckling. The raft holds 10-12 people and has several non-paddling positions if you’re not sure you’re up to wielding a paddle. www.mad-river.com
Scenic Float Trips on the Snake River
If you’re looking for a more relaxing way to take in the majestic scenery of Grand Teton National Park and the surrounding area, then a scenic float trip is in order. Enjoy a secluded trip down Snake River within Grand Teton National Park and experience the park in a unique way. Bring a camera or binoculars because it’s possible to see a variety of wildlife, such as bald eagles, moose, elk and otters.
For most companies the minimum age limit is 6, but depending on the difficulty and intensity of the river at the time, the age limit could increase.
Spotting an eagle while floating through Grand Teton National Park Photo: Barker-Ewing Scenic Float Trips
Barker-Ewing Scenic Float Trips pioneered commercial trips down this scenic section of the Snake River in 1963. Float 10 miles with a knowledgeable guide to experience the natural beauty and wildlife on your trip. Rafters often spot moose, beaver and eagles. And, if you’re really lucky, you might spot a wolf or a bear. barkerewing.com
Barker Ewing by Jackson Hole Whitewater offers a 7-mile scenic float trip outside of Grand Teton National Park. Your guide will provide you with information on the the geology and ecology of Snake River and the wildlife living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A discount is applied to all fares purchased online. www.barker-ewing.com
Grand Teton Lodge Company, based in the national park, offers float trips on the Snake River. Choose a morning, afternoon, lunch or dinner float for epic scenery and wildlife. gtlc.com
Solitude Float Trips are 100 percent in Grand Teton National Park, which means you’ll see a totally different side of the park than the majority of people who visit. As you float through the park, your Solitude guide will share fun facts about the wildlife, the geology and the people who have left their marks in the area. You’ll start at Deadman’s Bar below the famous Snake River Overlook where photographer Ansel Adams took his iconic shot. Trips are two hours long and six trips leaves per day. grand-teton-scenic-floats.com
Mad River Boat Trips’ 13-mile serene float is also on the Snake River with iconic Teton views on a calm stretch of water. All 10 seats on the boat are non-paddling positions, so you can sit back and relax as your guide navigates you through world-class scenery. www.mad-river.com
Mad River Scenic Float with Teton Views Photo: Photo courtesy Mad River Boat Trips
2. Yellowstone River near Gardiner, Montana
The mighty Yellowstone River winds for almost 700 miles through some of the park’s most stunning scenery: Yellowstone Lake, the Upper and Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, a 2,000-foot-deep canyon on the north side of Blacktail Deer Plateau.
From the park, it flows east through Montana and North Dakota, eventually joining the Missouri River. It offers a ton of fun in terms of rafting trips along the way.
Yellowstone Rafting with Flying Pig Adventure Company
At Yellowstone National Park’s North Entrance sits the town of Gardiner, Mont., where you can literally load into rafting boats from town into the Yellowstone River. The river is a great one for families. Plus, the river flows along one of the borders of the park, making it a unique way to see a different side of the landscape.
“You can’t raft on the rivers in the park, so it’s the closest you’ll get to rafting in the park,” says Thomas Davis, co-owner of Wild West Whitewater Rafting. “It’s a great stretch of river whether you are looking for splashes or something more. It’s not overwhelming, so it’s pretty much good for all age levels.”
Flying Pig Adventure Company, based in Gardiner, Mont., runs several trips here. All of Flying Pig’s raft trips launch from behind the Flying Pig Camp Store right in Gardiner, Mont. Choose from an 8-mile trip (Class I, II, and III rapids), an exhilarating, more technical 18-mile ride through Yankee Jim Canyon (Class III-IV), or a totally immersive overnight trip. Flying Pig also offers lodging, horseback rides, guided fly-fishing, a camp store, park tours and more. flyingpigrafting.com
Rafting with Montana Whitewater Montana Whitewater
Montana Whitewater Rafting and Zipline Company offers half-and full-day trips on the Yellowstone (Class II-III). Their Yellowstone EcoTour Zipline, based in Gardiner, offers zips on the mountains bordering Yellowstone, sky bridges, and multiple 1,200-foot ziplines soaring 200 feet above Cinnabar Creek. yellowstoneraftzipline.com
Rafting the Yellowstone River with Paradise Adventure Company Ondrus courtesy of Paradise Adventure Company
Paradise Adventure Company launches from two locations, Gardiner and Pray, Mont., to run 6, 8 and 18-mile trips on the Yellowstone River. www.paradiserafting.com
Also in Gardiner, Mont., Wild West Rafting runs float trips through the Yellowstone’s majestic Paradise Valley, which is a gorgeous landscape just south of Livingston that stretches just north of Yellowstone. Framed by the Absaroka range and the Gallatin range, it’s great for wildlife watching and photography, as well as high-quality whitewater and scenic river trips. Trips are suitable for the entire family, from beginners to more seasoned thrill-seekers. wildwestrafting.com
3. Gallatin River near Big Sky, Montana
From its source in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, the Gallatin River courses north for 100 miles to join the Madison and Jefferson rivers in the quaint, small town of Three Forks, Mont. Its upper 40 miles dish out the most thrilling whitewater, with miles of rapids, rocks and waves.
The Gallatin River is also home to the Fly-Fishing Adventure Center, located at Karst Camp, a private riverfront property, on the banks of the river. Options include the Learn to Fly-Fish Program for beginners and families and guided trips on the Gallatin, Yellowstone, and Madison Rivers. yellowstonefish.com
Rafting the Gallatin River with Montana Whitewater Montana Whitewater
Montana Whitewater Rafting and Zipline Company (locations in Gardiner and Big Sky) runs trips down the Gallatin River, from a Class I-II scenic float in the Gallatin River Canyon to full-day runs into Class IV whitewater. Half-day, full-day, and overnight trips are available. The Gallatin and Gardiner locations also offers zipline tours. montanawhitewater.com
4. Madison River West of West Yellowstone, Montana
Most famous for its excellent fly-fishing, the Madison River also offers great miles for rafting and tubing. From its origins on the west side of Yellowstone National Park, the river flows northwest through Bear Trap Canyon and more remote terrain to finally join the Missouri River near Three Forks, Mont.
If you don’t opt for a tubing float down the Madison River near Bozeman, Mont., you’re going to be really envious of all the tubers you see having an amazing time floating down the Madison River as you drive Hwy. 287 from Big Sky toward Ennis and Virginia City. It’s really worth setting aside a day to float the Madison River under Montana’s big sky.
Floating down the Madison River in inner tubes Photo: Courtesy Montana Whitewater
Montana Whitewater Rafting and Zipline Company offers a shuttle and rental tubes, including coolers, for trips on the Madison River. This is a great option for families with children or anyone looking for a mellow day out on the river. The company also offers a much more intense rafting trip: full-day wilderness rafting through the Bear Trap Canyon (Class II-IV). montanawhitewater.com
5. Shoshone River between Yellowstone and Cody, Wyoming
Teddy Roosevelt declared this stretch of country from Yellowstone National Park’s East Entrance to Cody, Wyo., as the most scenic 50 miles in America. But don’t take his word for it. Go see it yourself as you drive out of Yellowstone’s East Entrance toward Cody.
While rafting through this gorgeous area, you’ll see the spectacular scenery of the Wapiti Valley on the North Fork of the Shoshone while bouncing over Class II rapids. Two-hour to half-day trips are available. Don’t forget to look beyond the river for wildlife. The riverbanks are full of wildlife including eagles, elk and deer.
Do you have a young family? Take a float on the milder sections of the river. Outfitters can be found in Cody, Wyoming. Visit the official Cody Yellowstone site to learn more.
Pssst. Want to receive a printed insider’s guide to Yellowstone, where to stay and what to do? Order our free stunning Yellowstone Trip Planner filled with an inspiring itinerary, gorgeous photographs and everything you need to plan your dream vacation.
Yellowstone River Fly Fishing
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.
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:
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