Fly Fishing the Gallatin River near Bozeman
The Gallatin River snakes its way through the Gallatin Valley after leaving the Gallatin Canyon. Ultimately, the Gallatin joins the Jefferson and Madison rivers to form the Missouri River near Three Forks, Montana. The Gallatin Valley stretches of the river are mid-sized, easily wadeable, and offer diverse types of holding water. Public access is available at several bridges and Montana, Fish, Wildlife and Parks fishing access sites. Private lands are adjacent to the river for the most part throughout the Gallatin Valley, so please be sure to respect private property and understand the Montana Stream Access Law before heading out.
One of our Bozeman fly shop’s favorite sections of the Gallatin River is the stretch between the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon and the HWY 84 Bridge, just south of 4-Corners. Access is found at several bridges, however, there is enough distance between access points that the adventurous angler can get away from crowds by walking a mile or a two. Fishing from a boat is not allowed on the Gallatin River, upstream of the town of Manhattan. Some anglers use small rafts and personal watercraft to move between access points, stopping at various places to fly fish along the way. As with much of the Montana fly fishing water around Bozeman, there is plenty of water along the Gallatin River, so be courteous and give other anglers space whether wading or floating.
The water in the stretch of the Gallatin River is characterized by main channel flows with classic riffle-pool-run structure. High water flows in June and early July fill dozens of side-channels that run dry by early August. Wading can be difficult during high flows in June through mid-July on the Gallatin River in the Gallatin Valley. High flows also make it difficult to stay within the high-water marks so be sure to understand the Montana Stream Access Law prior to heading out and please respect private property.
The Gallatin River is open year-round and fishes well so long as conditions are good throughout the year. Things to watch for when planning a day of Montana fly fishing on the Gallatin River in the upper Gallatin Valley include ice jams in the winter, spring runoff (mid-May-mid-June), and anytime following heavy rains south of Big Sky. There is a major tributary of the Gallatin River called the Taylor Fork that dumps heavy sediment loads into the river following rains near its headwaters. The Gallatin will turn off-color with a grayish hue, but this typically lasts a few hours to less than a day as the “plug’ of sediment moves through. It’s always a good idea to stop by Fins & Feathers of Bozeman’s fly shop on your way out for the latest reports on Gallatin River conditions.
Insect life throughout the Gallatin River is diverse and healthy, thanks to clean, cold water that flows into the river from the hundreds of small streams upstream and in Yellowstone National Park. Stoneflies, Caddis, Mayflies, Crane Flies, and Midges make up the aquatic invertebrate biomass. Terrestrial insects such as Grasshoppers, Ant, and Beetles become more important in mid-August and September.
The Spruce Moth “hatch” has become one of the most significant events for Montana fly fishing along the Gallatin River in the last 10 years and typically kicks off the dry fly transition period where aquatic insects become less important and abundant than the terrestrials. Expect to see Spruce Moths in mid-late July in the upper portions of the Gallatin Valley. A Tan Elk Hair Caddis, a tan Delektable Baby, or a light-colored Spruce Moth in a size 14 should be at the top of the list for the dry fly angler on the Gallatin River in July and August.
The diversity of aquatic insect species, sizes, and colors makes fishing the Gallatin River with “generalist” nymph patterns very productive. Nymph-fishing under a strike indicator is always a great way to search for feeding fish throughout the stretch of river near Gallatin Gateway and Axtell Bridge. European-nymphing works great here as well as there are plenty of fast runs and mid-river boulders as well.
A well-stocked fly box for the Gallatin River should include some basics like the Beadhead Prince, Copper John, Pat’s Rubberleg, and Pheasant Tails. Variations of these patterns should be fished around hatch periods with flies that are matched to the hatching insects for best results. Color variations become more effective later in the summer as angling pressure increases.
Streamer fishing can be exceptional in post-runoff conditions typically found in late June and early July. Large, articulated patterns such as Sex Dungeons and Double Gongas fished on a sinking line like Airlflo’s Streamer Max Short can be a fun way to find some nice fish that tuck into the heavy cover provided by fallen trees and collapsed banks. Fall streamer fishing is best with light sink tips and small streamers like Sulpzillas, Sheila Sculpins, and Skiddish Smolts. Although the Gallatin is known for having good numbers of trout in the 10-16” range, the Gallatin Valley stretches still hold some large Brown Trout that will occasionally push the 24” mark.
The Gallatin Valley is always changing these days, but the Gallatin River has continued to be a great choice for both travelling and local anglers alike. Healthy populations of wild Rainbow and Brown Trout make for ample opportunities at catching a few fish on the fly. Private landowners are more sensitive to trespassing in the Gallatin Valley than in other parts of the state so always be mindful of the high-water marks and read the Montana Stream Access Law. There is enough, accessible water in this stretch of the river for most anglers to spend a few days or even up to a week fishing and exploring when conditions are ideal, so there is no need to crowd other anglers of push the stream access laws.
Our staff and Montana fly fishing guides have spent years and years fishing the Gallatin River as it is just a few hundred yards from our Bozeman fly shop. Our tackle and fly selection has been built around helping fly anglers find success on all of the rivers and streams in Southwest Montana with an emphasis on the Gallatin River.
The Gallatin River is an excellent place to fish an 8 ½’ 4 Weight or a 9’ 5 Weight fly rod with a matching reel and floating, weight forward fly line. Fly rod choices like the Orvis Helios 3F, Sage Trout LL, and Scott G Series make more sense here than some of the faster action we tend to prefer on the larger rivers in the area. Medium-action fly rods are easy to load at short distances and give an angler more feel while playing fish that are common in the Gallatin River. The Rio InTouch Gold, sized to match your fly rod is a great, all-around choice for fishing the rivers in Southwest Montana.
Fins & Feathers of Bozeman is located at 4-Corners, just a few miles west of downtown Bozeman. If you are planning on fishing the Gallatin River, chances are that you will be driving right by our Bozeman fly shop which is open year-round. Guided fly fishing in Bozeman and the surrounding areas like Ennis, Livingston, and Three Forks is available through our Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Outfitter year-round as well. Stop by our fly shop and follow our fishing reports for updated conditions prior to you next fly fishing outing on the Gallatin River.