Fishing Regulations & Seasons

Staying Within the Law, aka How to Avoid Showing Up to Fish When the Season is Closed

Note: I’ve had clients show up expecting to fish Yellowstone Park three weeks before the season opened, hence the above tagline. Moving on…

The Livingston area is in two jurisdictions for licensing and regulations, Montana and Yellowstone National Park. No Wyoming license is required, even though most of Yellowstone Park is in Wyoming.

For full regulations and options to purchase licenses online, please use the following links:

Additional pages that might include short-term emergency regulations that aren’t covered in the normal regulations, or that might just be of general interest, are below:

The remainder of this page covers some general management goals and policies, regulations, and officially-suggested best practices that are unlikely to change anytime soon.

Yellowstone National Park Regulations & Policies

Yellowstone National Park places an extremely high importance on native fish conservation and restoration. This is the #1 guiding principle that governs regulations. The #2 principle is preserving the park’s geology and plant/animal life while minimizing potential dangers to park visitors. This latter point in particular places some severe restrictions on where you can fish. In particular the Park Service has lately been cracking down on fishing in thermal areas. In recent seasons I have been warned for fishing in areas that have been famous for decades.

Here are some general points that are unlikely to change in the park regulations in future years, though the details might shift a bit:

  • The general season runs the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend through October, but many areas open later or not at all (the latter are generally spawning habitat, in dangerous terrain, or in bear-heavy areas). Check the regulations for exceptions to the general season opening dates.
  • Fishing hours are legal sunrise to sunset. Rangers have been known to use night vision equipment to make sure people don’t start early, particularly during the fall brown trout run.
  • Power boats are legal only on Yellowstone and Lewis Lakes. Hand-powered craft are legal on all other lakes. No watercraft on flowing water except the channel between Shoshone and Lewis Lakes in the southern part of the park. Otherwise, streams are wade-only. All watercraft require a separate permit and an official invasive species inspection.
  • Everyone 16+ needs a license. License fees change yearly. Children 15 & under may fish under adult supervision without a license or can get a free license signed by an adult considered responsible for their behavior, if they’ll be fishing out of direct supervision. Rule of thumb: get the kid a free license.
  • Catch and release only on all native fish parkwide: Yellowstone & westslope cutthroat trout, Arctic grayling, and mountain whitefish (as well as, presumably, any of the non-game minnows and such you might encounter).
  • Liberal or unlimited bag limits on non-native trout where any native trout or grayling are found, even where the natives are very uncommon (the Gardner River is 95% non-native fish overall, and 100% non-natives upstream from Osprey Falls, but you’re allowed to kill every one. Please don’t…).
  • Must-kill regulations on all smallmouth bass, on lake trout in the Yellowstone System, and on rainbow and brook trout in the Yellowstone System upstream from Knowles Falls 6mi upstream from Gardiner, including the Lamar River System and all tributaries flowing into the Yellowstone from the north.
  • Catch & Release regulations on rainbow and brown trout in most places where no native trout are present (Firehole, Madison, and lower Gibbon Rivers)
  • Flies and artificial lures only. Note that plastic worms and similar are considered “artificial bait,” rather than lures, as are any artificial scents.
  • Lead-free weight is required, both in flies (lead-free wire) and on leaders (tin or tungsten shot, etc.)
  • Felt-soled wading gear is prohibited, and wading gear must be cleaned before moving to a different fishery.
  • Barbless hooks only, with a maximum of one hook per fly and two flies per line. In other words, articulated streamers must have one hook removed. Hooks can be single, double, or treble.
  • The Park Service officially suggests following the “visual rule of crowding.” If possible, you should fish out of sight of anglers that aren’t in your party.
  • Maximum group size in one area is six people, including guides. In practice this means that large groups with multiple guides need to split up and fish different areas.

Montana Regulations & Policies

Montana fishing regulations are generally more permissive than those in Yellowstone Park, but bag limits are lower. Except in the case of fire or extreme high water temperatures and low water, the legal fishing season in our operations area is year-round.

  • We are located in Montana’s Central District. While there are some exceptions more than 2hr from Gardiner, the Central District general season is year-round and 24hr per day.
  • Fishing from a moving human-powered boat is not permitted on a few sections of the Madison River and on most of the Gallatin River, but otherwise is allowed. Unless stated otherwise in the regulations, if you can get a boat down the stream, you can fish from the boat. Horsepower limits and some complete bans effectively limit watercraft to human power on area rivers with the exception of the Missouri River (top to bottom) and the Yellowstone River downstream of the US Hwy 89 Bridge about 10mi east of Livingston. Motors are allowed on almost all area lakes.
  • The Montana stream access law allows for boats to float or anchor and for anglers to wade through private land on all natural streams (not irrigation ditches or lakes). Anglers need to stay below the normal high water mark. Basically if there’s rocks and willow bushes, it’s below the high water line. If there’s dirt and other trees or shrubs, it’s above the high water line. Anglers must access the water from legal public accesses: fishing access sites, federal land, bridges, or highway right of way. It is legal for landowners to fence across a stream or right up to a bridge, but it’s also legal for you to hop that fence.
  • All non-residents 12 and up must have fishing licenses. Fees are slightly lower for kids 12–15. Seniors don’t get a break. Regulations are slightly different for residents (6 months consecutive, with a driver’s license or similar local ID).
  • Catch and release on cutthroat trout in almost all areas that have self-supporting populations, including the Yellowstone River from Gardiner (the park boundary) to Pine Creek Bridge 10mi south of Livingston.
  • Must-kill regulations on smallmouth bass on the Yellowstone River from Gardiner to Springdale Bridge east of Livingston.
  • The general daily limit on rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout (where the latter are legal to keep) is five, only one over 18 inches. The Madison River is the major fishery within day-trip range of Livingston to have tighter regs. We strongly suggest catch and release except on stocked lakes.
  • The daily limit on brook trout and whitefish is 20.
  • Maximum two flies per line (dry-dropper, no third fly). Articulated flies with more than one hook are legal.
  • Barbs, lead weight, bait, spinners, etc. are generally legal on public water. Portions of the Madison River are the major exception in our operations area. We strongly encourage barbless hooks everywhere. We encourage artificials-only on the Yellowstone River due to the cutthroat, since bait kills far more fish than lures or flies. Private landowners can set whatever policies they want. In general, all private water fee-access fisheries are barbless, catch and release, and flies or flies and artficial lures only.
  • Emergency 2:00PM to midnight fishing closures are common from mid-July through August on rivers/streams near Livingston, particularly on low-elevation waters during drought years. The lower Madison and Gallatin Rivers and the East Gallatin River are most likely to see restrictions, though they do occasionally impact the Yellowstone River as well.