The Yellowstone River
Bozeman or Livingston
Streamer fishing and attractor dry fly fishing
Freestone Fickleness and Dry Fly Prospecting
If Montana had a Yankee Stadium, the Yellowstone River would be it. Not only is the Yellowstone a fairly large river - it is over 200 feet wide in most parts and its peak flow is over 15,000 CFS - it boasts the state's longest length of high-quality trout water-nearly 120 miles of prime fly fishing. Oh, and, we haven't even mentioned that it begins in Yellowstone National Park, flows through Paradise Valley (aptly named for its majestic peaks), and the river is banked by cottonwoods and back-dropped by four distinct mountain ranges.
Bozeman is a popular jumping-off point for anglers headed to the Yellowstone. However, it is the town of Livingston that is the epicenter of the Yellowstone's fly fishing activity. If a town were to be created by a fly fisher, Livingston would be that town: Not too big, not too small, not over-priced, yet there is no Wal-Mart in town, and has the perfect mix of great food, lodging, and good beer. Plus, the river literally runs right through town as there are two Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks state managed access sites in town. Very few cities in Montana can lay claim to that.
Because the river drains such a large area and much of the drainage area is high mountain country, the Yellowstone experiences a prolonged runoff well into June and sometimes July. For some this adds to the excitement of fishing this river because the only way to know when it is fishable requires on-hand local knowledge. The river is devoid of any dams so the fish-ability of the river is entirely dependent on snowpack and whether and when it becomes fishable is related to when the muddy water from runoff clears enough to successfully fish.
Sections of the Yellowstone River
Yellowstone National Park Boundary to the mouth of Yankee Jim Canyon
As the river tumbles out of Yellowstone Park at the town of Gardiner, anglers can begin to float fish the river and access becomes easier than in the remote sections of YNP. Wading anglers have a little more trouble wading because of the steep banks and willows that align the banks. Most people serious about fishing this stretch opt for a float trip.
This stretch is often referred to 16-or-so miles of water upstream Yankee Jim Canyon. Yankee Jim Canyon has three major rapids and many float-fishing anglers tend to stay out of the canyon. Whitewater enthusiasts and guides can be found floating the canyon on any given day.
The fishing in this stretch is fun and fast and Yellowstone cutthroats make up the bulk of the fish on this stretch. This typically means that on most days anglers will have plenty of fishing to dry flies, but the lack of many fish over 16 inches keeps many guides and locals from making this stretch a prime run. Browns, rainbows, and whitefish can also be found.
From Carbella Bridge/Outlet of Yankee Jim Canyon to Emigrant Bridge / Chico Hot Springs
As the river leaves Yankee Jim Canyon it opens up into a broader valley where anglers can view the Hyalite Peaks, Ramshorn Peak, and the Absorakas to the northeast. From here on out the river is easily wadeable and floating requires no special skills or worries. For floating anglers from here to Columbus there is only one tricky section in the town of Livingston which we will cover later.
From Livingston to Big Timber
The first 10 or so miles around Livingston is not as crowded as one would think. The main reason is due to one tricky turn the river makes at the 9th Street Bridge. Experienced boaters will have no problem and inexperience boaters, in most years, will be fine, however, it would be advised to float this stretch with an experienced floater before attempting this stretch on your own.
The fishing downstream of Livingston is fairly straightforward: long riffles, high banks with exposed cottonwood roots, and long medium fast moving runs. Anglers will find mostly brown and rainbow trout with the rare Yellowstone Cutthroat trout scattered here and there. But what you have below Livingston that can be hard to find above town is solitude, and for good reasons: access points are spaced farther apart, the wind tends to blow on a regular basis, and because there are less fish from Livingston down, many anglers opt for the beauty and higher fish numbers of Paradise Valley rather than the longer floats, less access, and less fish than the water downriver of Livingston.
Once the river crosses under US Highway 89 and the Shields River flows into the Yelly, the river turns almost due east. Lewis and Clark dubbed this "the big bend," and from here on out the river is out of the mountains and onto the high plains. Views of the Crazy Mountains and Beartooth Rangs are spectacular and the river feels like a large prairie river than a high mountain stream.
Once the river nears Big Timber it becomes less braided, widens, and is known for large brown trout and the occasionally rainbow. Breathtaking views of the Crazy Mountains and Beartooths often making fishing this stretch difficult - anglers watch the mountains instead of their fly!
From Big Timber to Columbus and Billings
Few anglers target this stretch on a daily basis. And most local anglers sort of like it that way - it keeps the river uncrowded, undeveloped, and relatively unknown. Most angling maps and books tend to leave out the information about the Yellowstone below the Greycliff access, about 10 or so river miles below Big Timber. There are a few reasons for this: local anglers like to keep that stretch to themselves, low late summer flows and irrigation draws don't offer a lot of cool water, and the dewatering of tributary streams offer little in the way of spawning habitat for younger fish.
However, for those anglers desiring solitude instead of more fish, the Yellowstone from Big Timber to Columbus offers a respite from the crowds of Paradise Valley and a beautiful float any time of year. The fall is perhaps the best time to be on this water-the cottonwoods are awash with color, big brown trout are on the move, and the water is much cooler than in the summer.
Near the town of Columbus, the Yellowstone is joined by the Stillwater River. The Stillwater is a fast flowing stream coming from the heart of the Beartooth Mountains. This influx of cold, clear water causes an increase of fish numbers for the Yellowstone around Columbus and downstream. However, it is no way provides enough cold water to sustain a great trout fishery for many miles below the confluence of the two.
From Columbus all the way to the Missouri, the Yellowstone is a warm-water fishery and often ignored by most fly anglers. However, as many fly anglers venture into pike, bass, walleye, and carp opportunities, the beauty and allure of the Yellowstone holds lots of future potential.