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. There is every type of water 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!
Where We Guide on the Yellowstone River
Fins & Feathers of Bozeman fly fishing guides typically float a different section of the river every day, with most floats being around 10 miles in average length. During high water flows, our Bozeman fly fishing guides float over 15 miles a day whereas low flows often make a 7-mile drift more practical. In general, our fly fishing guides in Bozeman area on the Yellowstone River from late June through October and always have a good idea as to what stretches are fishing the best at the time. So, sometimes we focus on Paradise Valley or Yankee Jim Canyon while other times of the year we focus our efforts on fly fishing near Big Timber or Redpoint.
There is a diversity of river structure and trout habitat found on the Yellowstone River unlike anywhere else. This diversity enables our guides to find the right float for our clients based on their expectations, weather, river flows, hatches, and the feeding behavior of the fish during a given time of year. We are always happy to explore less popular sections of the river or to accommodate our guests that specifically request to fish a particular Yellowstone River section.
When to Fly Fish the Yellowstone
The Yellowstone River, like most of the main stem rivers near Bozeman, Montana, is open to fishing all year. The most consistent Montana fly fishing - and busiest time of year - on the Yellowstone River is between July 4 and early September. However, there is great fishing to be found throughout the year with the exception being a few weeks in May and June when the river’s flow peak as the winter snow melts from the higher elevations. It’s always difficult to predict the severity and duration of the runoff, but counting the Yellowstone out from May 7-June 25 is a pretty reliable bet every year. During particularly heavy snow years, the river remains largely unfishable even through late July. Our Bozeman fly shop staff and fly fishing guides usually have a very good handle on what to expect in terms of the spring runoff predictions by late March, so be sure to check with us first if you are planning for late June or even early July and fly fishing the Yellowstone River is one of your primary goals.
Highlights of Fly Fishing the Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River is an amazing 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! 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 fly 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 from year to year and can be difficult 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.
The Trout we Catch on the Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River is a wild trout fishery as are all of the Montana rivers that we offer guided fly fishing opportunities on. Wild trout waters are characterized by having a wide range of age classes in the resident fish populations. Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout is a native species that is found throughout the various drainages of the Yellowstone River, especially along the upper portions of the watershed. They are well regarded for their beauty and their slow rise to a dry fly. Yellowstone Cutthroats are most often found on the Yellowstone in the stretches of water above Livingston.
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. Our Bozeman fly fishing guides prefer mid-July to late August to target larger trout on hoppers on the Yellowstone River.
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 always worth the trip if you are looking for something a little different.
Rainbow and Brown Trout are common throughout the course of the Yellowstone River, with each section holding some true trophy trout well over 20”. The average size of fish does vary throughout the river, but most folks should expect to catch a mix of trout in the 12-16 inch range with a few larger and few smaller just about any day. There are legitimate opportunities to catch very large Brown and Rainbow Trout all throughout the Yellowstone River.
Yellowstone River Guided Fly Fishing Trips
Guided fly fishing trips on the Yellowstone River are full-day experiences, typically lasting 8-10 hours from start to finish. The guides provide everything you need with the exception of a Montana fishing license, which is available at our Bozeman fly shop or online. We meet at the shop in the morning, discuss the options for the day and then head on the way in the guide’s vehicle. The typical drive time is 30-60 minutes each way depending on which section of the river is chosen for the day. Give us a call at Fins & Feathers of Bozeman's fly shop, 877-790-5303, to talk more about all that the Yellowstone River and our professional fly fishing guides have to offer or you can e-mail us as well.