Late Fall Yellowstone Fishing Trips

Posted on January 25th, 2024

large fall-run brown trout

Walter caught this one. He’s not alone in doing much of his personal fishing in late fall. The fishing is great, but guide business drops off since only hardcore visitors like to fish when it might be snowing sideways and 15 degrees.

Introduction to October Fishing Trips in Yellowstone and Montana

Late fall begins when the first extended cold weather hits, usually in the first ten days of October. October fishing in Yellowstone is not for the faint of heart, but it is fantastic for the right anglers in the right places.

While fewer waters fish well at this time than earlier in the year, simply because most waters are already at winter-low flows and have cold water temperatures and lethargic fish to match, those that do fish well at this time fish really well. Walter caught 53 trout in three hours on his last personal trip in October 2023, for example. That’s at the high end, but less unusual than if he’d caught ten.

The best waters are those that host fall-run brown trout, though nowadays we often focus on the non-spawning trout that follow the browns to eat their eggs and the bugs their spawning behavior disturbs, rather than the browns themselves. This is to avoid stressing actively-spawning trout and the angler crowds the spawn can bring to the best areas.

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Early Fall Yellowstone Fishing Trips

Posted on January 25th, 2024

fall brown trout, angler, and guide

For most visitors, fall-run brown trout are a focus in early fall. We’re not immune, but we try to dodge the crowds nowadays.

Introduction to Early Fall Yellowstone Fishing Trips

Early autumn in Yellowstone, generally meaning the month of September after nights start getting cold but the first heavy low-elevation snows have not fallen, offers the widest range of fishable waters of any season. Except for most small streams, which get too low and cold, virtually all water in Yellowstone Park can fish well in early fall.

For those who like match-the-hatch mayfly fishing, this is an ideal period, since mayfly hatches abound on all larger streams. It’s also a good chance for those who are willing to get out first thing in the morning or during the ugliest weather to get some of the biggest brown trout of the year.

The downsides are continued crowds near the road and inconsistent conditions. While overall crowds do decline, especially after September 15, these crowds slant older and less-fit, which means that the roadside easy-access streams can be more crowded now than earlier in the season, especially when the weather is nice.

Speaking of the weather, it might be beautiful and sunny or spitting bitter cold rain or snow. These varying weather (and water) conditions also mean that on our early fall Yellowstone fishing trips we have to play where and how we fish by ear, based on what fishes well given the day-to-day or even hour-to-hour conditions.

fishing guide filled with ice

Ice in the guides first thing in the morning, but warm afternoons, are common in early fall.

Early Fall Yellowstone Fishing Trips: Quick Facts

  • Best Waters: Rivers are better than small streams and lakes in early fall. Otherwise, the best waters depend on angler goals. The Yellowstone River remains a great choice regardless of weather for anglers eager to catch cutthroat trout in remote settings, while the Lamar and Slough Creek offer technical dry fly fishing as long as the weather isn’t too warm or too cold. When the weather’s ugly, the Firehole, Gibbon, and upper Madison turn on in a big way, and fall-run brown trout numbers steadily improve on all rivers that host them.
  • Three Top Reasons to Come in Early Fall: 1.) Excellent mayfly hatches occur on most rivers, even rough-and-tumble water where hatches are otherwise unimportant. 2.) A huge variety of rivers are available; September is typically the month when all rivers in Yellowstone Park produce, though not all on the same days. 3.) Fall-run brown trout fishing gets better and better as the month progresses (and the worse the weather gets).
  • Three Top Reasons to Avoid Early Fall: 1.) Gentle rivers and streams within 1.5mi of the road are unbearably crowded, especially before the typical mid-September cold snap. 2.) How well specific rivers and techniques produce depends hugely on weather. This is a poor time to come if you’re set on fishing one particular river or using one particular technique. 3.) The weather can be bright and beautiful, cool, drizzly, and unsettled (which is best for fishing), or miserable enough to make fishing impossible due to cold weather or muddy water. This is not autumn as it’s thought of in many parts of the country.
  • Perfect Clients: Early fall is a great choice for experienced and adaptable anglers willing to fish the rivers likely to fish well and use the techniques likely to produce given weather and water conditions.
  • What Early Fall Does Best: Early fall offers exceptional variety in river fishing, from small fish sipping tiny BWO mayflies on the Firehole on up to big cutthroats eating streamers on the Yellowstone.

September Trips: The Details

Sometime between August 25 and September 10, the nights start getting frosty while the days remain warm. This begins to change the options and techniques on walk-wade guided trips in Yellowstone. The small streams start to falter, as do the heavily-pressured meadow waters next to the road like Soda Butte Creek.

The bigger and rougher waters remain good, though early morning is seldom worthwhile except when anglers are hunting a couple big fish on nymphs and streamers rather than a bunch of little ones on dries. Thankfully, big fish opportunities increase at this time, as large numbers of brown trout begin moving towards their October-November spawning areas, prompted by cooling water. Dry fly fishing switches from better in the mornings and early afternoons to typically better from noon until roughly 5PM, and terrestrial insects and lingering summer mayflies are joined and soon replaced by heavier hatches of autumn insects.

fall cutthroat trout

Fall cutthroat are usually in very good shape and feed well on dry flies and streamers.

This is an excellent period for walk-wade trips for clients who want to use a variety of tactics. Probably our most common wade trip destination at this time is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. We tend to fish streamers in the mornings in September (sometimes racking up huge numbers), then switch over to dry flies in the afternoon. Since the water is much lower here at this time than in the summer, the fishing is slower-paced and we often wade-fish good runs and riffles for an hour or more, rather than bouncing from spot to spot.

Fall-run brown waters tend to be crowded at this time of year. On some, getting to the water at dawn is half an hour late to stake out your favorite spot, even though legal fishing hours don’t start until dawn. As such, we no longer focus on the run-up fish like we used to. When we do target them, we like to hit the secondary spots and secondary waters, aiming to surprise a few fish in uncrowded conditions rather than pounding the well-known holes. This tactic is most common on the Gardner River, where the rangers now sometimes scope the well-known spots with night-vision goggles to catch poachers. No thanks to those spots!

As early autumn progresses, the Gibbon and Firehole rejoin the party, though we seldom guide on them when rain and early snow (yes, it can happen in September) muddy the water closer to home.

angler streamer fishing on the yellowstone river

Streamer fishing is a good tactic on the Yellowstone in September.

Early fall typically offers very good fishing on walk-wade trips, especially for anglers with a bit of know-how. That said, it’s also an inconsistent time of year, primarily due to weather and water conditions. When it’s abnormally hot and bright, the mayfly hatches might not occur. Cold weather is better, but if this cold is accompanied by too much rain and snow, most of the good waters get muddy for a day or two.

Because of the lack of consistency, we encourage anglers considering early fall Yellowstone fishing trips to stay flexible. Walk when and where the walking is good and use the techniques the trout demand. If it looks like another one of our guided trips will be more productive, don’t hesitate to switch.

Full-day or half-day hike & wade trips make sense in this timeframe. Unless we’re looking for a few big ones early, there’s often no reason to start full-day trips before 9:00, especially later in September. The fall-run browns are the exception. If we decide to risk the crowds (we might want to try it on cold, wet, nasty days), we want to be on the water at dawn for either full-days or half-days.

Half-days in which we’re not chasing browns can meet at a far more civilized time, around 11:00.

Early autumn is not a great time for beginners to take walk trips unless they’re prepared to only get a few bites and mostly want to focus on learning rather than catching a lot of fish. Beginners typically catch FAR more fish on our float trips this late in the season.

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angler fishing good brown trout pool

When targeting fall brown trout in September, look for spots like this. This one only lasted two seasons (this go-round, it has formed and disappeared several times) before the river changed configuration, which is one reason we’re willing to show it to the Internet.

Late Summer Yellowstone Fishing Trips

Posted on January 24th, 2024

angler, guide, and cutthroat trout

The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone remains a key hike-in destination on our August Yellowstone fishing trips. This fish ate a grasshopper.

Late summer, which begins in late July or early August and continues until the first cold nights in late August or early September (henceforth just called ‘August’), continues to offer excellent hike-in fishing, and both the hikes and the wading are usually not so onerous at this time as in early summer. In addition, this is prime time for small, rough mountain creeks that might still be too high in early summer. Regardless of locale, August Yellowstone fishing trips are excellent bets for anglers who like fishing terrestrial dry flies, and can turn out some big fish on subsurface flies, as well.

The downsides of late summer are continued crowds, especially on famous waters that flow through meadows, and potentially low, clear, and somewhat warm water than might mean we have to start fishing early in the morning and quit at midafternoon to avoid stressing the trout. The latter issue is much more common during drought years.

More wade-fishing options also up outside Yellowstone Park. While stretches of the Yellowstone River that don’t see much boat traffic remain our bread and butter option, lower flows also make it possible to wade several small streams safely (and legally), and the Boulder River is now too low to float, opening it up for wading anglers. While a bit out of the way, these options also enjoy less traffic than easy-access waters in the park.

mountain creek in Montana

Several Montana creeks provide changes of pace to Yellowstone Park in August. No, I won’t name this stream online.

Late Summer Yellowstone Fishing Trips: Quick Facts

  • Best Waters: Deeper, more turbulent rivers and streams are usually best in late summer: The Yellowstone, Gardner, rough portions of the Lamar River and Slough Creek, and many shady, rocky mountain creeks are top choices.
  • Three Top Reasons to Come in Late Summer: 1.) Excellent attractor and terrestrial dry fly fishing is common on most waters. 2.) Wading is much easier than it is earlier in the year. 3.) We typically see more large fish in late summer versus early summer.
  • Three Top Reasons to Avoid Late Summer: 1.) The fishing is less consistent than early summer, particularly during drought years. 2.) There are fewer insect hatches at this time than earlier or later in the season, so we fish attractor and terrestrial dries, nymphs, and streamers more than we match hatches. 3.) While not as crowded overall as early summer, the park and its waters are still pretty busy.
  • Perfect Clients: Late summer is ideal for adventurous, fit anglers who enjoy fishing steep, rugged rivers and streams, whether they’re looking for numbers of smaller trout on dry flies or big ones on nymphs and streamers.
  • What Late Summer Does Best: Produces good action for medium-sized fish with attractor and terrestrial dry-dropper combinations, while providing some opportunities for large fish on nymphs and streamers.

August Trips: The Details

Beginning in the last few days of July, the fishing in Yellowstone Park begins to shift to terrestrial insects. On steeper and broken streams that see lower pressure, this generally means grasshopper and cricket imitations. On streams with gentle gradients where pressure is heavier, it generally means ant and beetle imitations, while certain streams and the Gallatin River can see phenomenal falls of spruce budworm moths that really get the trout excited.

Aquatic insect hatches fall off in August, though we’ll occasionally see sparse mayfly hatches. These hatches are most likely when the weather is gray.

small creek waterfall

Small, cold, mountain creeks provide excellent fishing on hot August afternoons, as well as a few surprises. When I first explored this creek in the northeast part of the park, I didn’t know about this waterfall.

Speaking of gray weather, it’s not uncommon to have a few cold, rainy days in August, especially in the latter half of the month, though the average weather is still warm and sunny. We actually like cold days in August, because they reduce water temperatures and the forest fire danger.

Other than slight changes in the flies we use and the venues we fish, there are fewer changes with the transition to late summer on Yellowstone Park trips than on other guided trips.

The Yellowstone in its canyons remains our favorite destination for walk trips. Portions of Slough Creek, the Lamar, and the Gardner the main big-water support acts for experienced anglers. For experienced anglers who love small stream fishing, steep mountain creeks are usually better than gentle creeks on August Yellowstone fishing trips, both because the steep creeks may just be getting low enough to be prime by this point and because they are usually deeper, colder, and better oxygenated.

Angler streamer fishing the Yellowstone River

Angler fishing a streamer in a deep hole in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River in late summer. The spot where he’s standing is inaccessible in early summer.

Deep, cold, and well-oxygenated water can be critical in late summer, especially in early August when the nights are still warm and the days still blazing hot. In drought years, water temperatures can be too warm in late afternoon. This is most common on shallow waters at low elevation, such as the lower Gardner River and the Yellowstone just before it exits the park.

When we run into warm water issues, we’ll either need to start fishing extremely early in the morning and quit at midafternoon or head to the high country to fish a small stream once bigger rivers get too warm for ethical (to say nothing of productive) fishing.

Beginner fishing on small brook trout streams remains good in late summer, though often we’ll fish steeper and faster streams and small rivers than we do earlier in the summer, for the same reasons just noted. By about August 20, the brook trout fishing falls off sharply and our beginner brookie family trips stop making much sense. In fact, after about August 20 most beginner anglers actually catch more fish on float trips than they do on Yellowstone Park hike and wade trips.

late August brown trout

Some big early morning trout are possible in late August.

Our focus often shifts on late August Yellowstone fishing trips, just as the weather starts shifting towards fall. Gray weather often prompts the first hatches of fall aquatic insects, the Blue-winged Olives and Tan Drakes. Gray weather and especially a few cold nights also increase our chances of catching larger trout on nymphs and streamers, especially for anglers willing to get out on the water before dawn to be in position and ready to make our first casts right at dawn when it’s legal to start fishing.

Otherwise, late August continues to fish like early August. Late August is therefore a bit of a changeover period: sometimes it fishes as described above, while sometimes we’ll want to go into “early fall” mode, at least for the first couple hours we’re fishing.

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