Montana and the Yellowstone region are home to the widest variety of trout waters on Earth, many of which are both at least relatively easy to access and public. While the region can produce big fish and a lot of them, it’s the variety and ease of access available here that really explain why this small corner of northwest Wyoming and southern Montana (and on into far eastern Idaho) is widely considered the heart of the American fly fishing universe.
Many guidebooks have been written on fly fishing the Yellowstone area, with entire books out there just about the Yellowstone, Madison, and Missouri, as well as too many to count focusing on the waters within Yellowstone National Park. Our outfitter Walter Wiese has written one of them. The pages within this section of the site don’t go into quite as much detail.
Instead, in the “Our Fisheries” section of our website we give introductions to the major waters on which we guide: their character, the anglers they’re suited to, and when and how to fish them, as well as shorter introductions to waters that are within our operating area but on which we seldom guide, whether because these waters will be of limited interest to most visitors or simply because we have better waters closer to us. In addition, there are pages covering “types” of water, for example Montana small streams in general.
To learn about a specific fishery or type of fishery, use the menu bar to your right. If you’re on a phone or small tablet, you won’t see it. Instead use the dropdown menu at the top of your screen. If you’re just looking for a general fishing report, click the button above.
For a general overview on when and where we guide, and when and where you should fish a specific body of water, as well as the sorts of flies and techniques you should expect to use at certain times of year, read on.
When Should I Come? Where Should I Fish Right Now?
This is the most important question you should ask yourself when planning a Montana-Yellowstone fly fishing trip. Certain waters fish well at certain times, others at other times, and in some cases there is little or no overlap. The single most common mistake people make is coming with their hearts set on fishing certain waters when they are unfishable (due to runoff or regulations) or simply not a good choice. Use the following table to plan your trip.
In the following charts, an uppercase “X” denotes a water that’s a very good choice compared to other options at a given time. A small “x” denotes a water that’s a fair choice. Question marks next to either suggest uncertainty. This is usually related to uncertainty regarding the timing and severity of spring runoff, uncertainty regarding summer water temperatures (it’s a problem when they get too high), or uncertainty regarding fall water temperatures (it’s a problem when they get too cold). A blank for a given water in a given timeframe means that it is probably a very poor choice (or even closed) at that time.
Note that in almost all cases the water is higher from May through July and lower from August through March or April, even where dams or geyser discharge mean the spring runoff doesn’t make the water too dirty to fish. Wading is generally easier from midsummer through April and more difficult from May through mid-July. River floats are generally faster-paced from May through July than otherwise, though rivers that remain high enough to float regardless of water level (Yellowstone, Madison, Missouri, and usually the lower Stillwater, plus a few marginal rivers) can fish well out of the boat whether they are high or low unless they’re actually suffering from the spring melt.
Where and When to Fish in Montana
This table covers our entire operations area and then some. Note that a few fisheries listed as fishing well at certain times are not actually trout fisheries. Portions of the Missouri River from Three Forks to Canyon Ferry Reservoir fish great in late summer, but mostly for carp, for example. Look at a fishery’s specific page for specifics on the fishing.
Note that most “Other Montana Waters” are not covered in the table below. Check that page for details on minor or marginal waters that don’t warrant their own pages.
Where and When to Fish in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone Park opens to fishing at dawn on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend and the season runs through sunset on the first Sunday in November. Most waters are in runoff on the opener and quite a few have restricted seasons to protect spawning Yellowstone cutthroat trout, animals, or nesting birds. Please consult the current regulations to be sure you’re fishing open water.
Some waters in YNP have substantial geyser basin inflows, the Firehole River most of all. Most streams or stream segments listed as fishing well in May and June but fair or poorly in mid-late summer fall into this category. Streams that fish well right at the end of the season in YNP almost all hold fall-run brown trout. The rest are generally too cold.
What Flies/Techniques Should I Expect to Use?
This question is answered in exhaustive detail on individual water body pages. The following tables give an overview of when specific techniques work well as well as when various insect hatches are most prominent region-wide. Note that not all tactics work well on all waters and not all (or even most!) insects hatch in all waters. These tables are just designed to give you an idea of when to plan to come if you like specific tactics or specific insect hatches.
When We Use Various Techniques
In this table, a large X means a tactic is of primary importance, a small x of secondary importance, and a blank means we seldom use the tactic during the month in question. Note that when we use specific techniques on a given water varies hugely. Match the hatch dry fly fishing is a certainty on the Firehole in June but extremely unlikely on the Yellowstone River in Montana at the same time, for example.
Montana and Yellowstone Park Hatch Chart
The following chart covers the most important insect emergences in the area as well as the timeframe in which trout are likely to eat other food items such as grasshoppers, scuds, and baitfish. Only food sources important on a wide range of waters are included below. The individual “Our Fisheries” pages go into more detail for specific streams, and the insect hatches pages in the Regional Fishing Planner go into exhaustive detail.