Introduction to the Yellowstone
The famed Yellowstone River is Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing’s number-one destination for guided trips. Use this Yellowstone River fishing guide to learn about how we approach the Yellowstone on our guided trips or to plan your own Yellowstone River fishing trips.
The Yellowstone offers about 180 miles of fishable water within our operations area, 30 miles within Yellowstone Park and 150 in Montana. Throughout this length it offers a huge diversity of fishing opportunities ranging from shots at head-hunting one or two giant cutthroats on foot, pounding banks with streamers for big browns, or nymphing five feet from the boat to give beginners their first chance of a fish on the fly. As such, it’s one of the main fisheries anglers visiting the region come to fish, and it is arguably one of the five to ten most famous trout rivers in the United States.
In addition to being a major fishery in its own right, the Yellowstone is also the parent river to many of the other great rivers in the region, including the Lamar, Gardner, and Boulder, and further downstream, the Stillwater (the name’s a lie) and Bighorn, as well as many wonderful mountain streams and the Paradise Valley spring creeks. All of the private lakes on which we guide drain into the Yellowstone, as well.
Over its long fishable length, the Yellowstone changes character dramatically, ranging from a placid meadow-lined river lined with ranches to raging canyon whitewater, the fish populations vary both in size and difficulty as well as species composition, consistent fishing tactics vary wildly, and both legal seasons and simply the times of year when given sections fish best vary.
This page covers the fishing in Montana, from where the river leaves Yellowstone Park at Gardiner down to Laurel, where it transitions into a warmwater prairie river. The Yellowstone Park section is discussed on the Yellowstone Park Waters page.
- Location: The Yellowstone leaves Yellowstone Park 53 miles south of Livingston, flows north through the Gardiner Basin, Yankee Jim Canyon, and Paradise Valley, flows through Livingston as it hooks eastward after leaving Paradise Valley, and continues to be a blue-ribbon trout river all the way to Laurel, about 100 miles east of Livingston. The Yellowstone is the closest river to Livingston and our home water.
- Access: For most of the season, the Yellowstone is best guided from a boat. We guide the Yellowstone via raft during high water periods, on the roughest stretches, and when using the roughest accesses. Otherwise we use low-profile drift boats, the most common boats on the river. We also guide the Yellowstone on foot, primarily from November through March when the water is low and cold and the fish might be gathered in large numbers in small areas.
- Season: The Yellowstone is open year-round. It is unfishably high and muddy due to the spring melt from sometime in early-mid May through mid-late June or the first week of July. It can also get muddy due to summer thunderstorms that hit several tributaries in Yellowstone Park. Provided it is clear and ice-free, the Yellowstone is an excellent bet year-round.
- Our Favorite Stretch: Our favorite stretch of the Yellowstone is undoubtedly Yankee Jim Canyon. This rough stretch basically requires guides to use rafts or high-sided whitewater drift boats (which few guides have), rather than the more-popular low-profile drift boats. Because of this, the canyon sees far less pressure than most stretches of the Yellowstone. It produces lots of fish on dry flies and can produce larger trout subsurface, as well.
- What It Does Best: While it can produce lots of fish, big fish, and three species of trout as well as whitefish, our preferred reasons to guide the Yellowstone are the following: 1.) It offers excellent summer and early fall dry fly and dry/dropper fishing for numbers of medium-sized rainbow and cutthroat trout, especially in the first 20 miles below Gardiner and right through Livingston, 2.) It produces big brown trout on nymphs and streamers, and 3.) It is excellent on nymphs for large rainbow trout in fall and late winter-spring.
- Perfect Clients: Because the Yellowstone has varied characters, different predominant fish, different tactics that work well, and even different climate and scenery depending on which stretch we float and the season, the Yellowstone is an ideal fishery for any clients.
The Yellowstone is a great choice for floating from as soon as the bank ice melts away sometime in March through early November save for during the spring runoff. It’s a good wade-fishing river in spots even in the dead of winter, provided the ice is manageable.
Since there are no dams on the Yellowstone or any of its tributaries and its drainage basin includes 12,500-foot mountains that might get snow in any month except July, the spring melt is intense and prolonged. The river’s almost always out of play for three weeks starting sometime in early-mid May, and more often it’s shot for more than a month.
If you’re dead-set on floating the Yellowstone, best skip May, June, and the first week of July. Occasionally the river is fishable for a day or two when the runoff pauses, and the fishing is FANTASTIC when this happens, but you can’t plan for these breaks.
The best “big fish fishing” on the Yellowstone occurs from late February through April. The best dry fly fishing and most consistent fishing is from sometime in July through September, and October offers okay dry fly fishing and more shots at big fish.
Our preferred method of fishing the Yellowstone is with dry flies or dry-dropper, at least from the end of runoff in late June or early July through late September. This tactic produces a lot of fish, but we’ll readily admit it will produce less monsters than going deep with bigger nymphs and streamers. That said, we’ll usually have a nymph/streamer rod ready to go, too, with which our clients get their share of 18-24″ browns and some big rainbows and cutts.
Because of its fame, quality, and proximity to major population and tourism centers, the Yellowstone receives heavy pleasure and angling boat traffic. There are still “nooks and crannies” that receive less pressure, especially the whitewater stretches where rafts are necessary or at least far safer than drift boats, though nowadays we see a fair number of guides even in these areas during the core July through mid-September season.
On the other hand, the vast size and often deep water of the Yellowstone (it’s bigger than all other trout rivers in the area except the Missouri, which is only bigger at certain periods of the season) means that the Yellowstone only feels crowded on the most popular stretches on summer weekends and during the famous Salmonfly hatch in late June or early July. The rest of the season, there’s plenty of room to spread out and we’ll often or usually be fishing out of sight of other boats even if there might be ten or twenty floating the same stretch we are.
For Yellowstone River fishing tips, click the button below.
Sections of the Yellowstone River
For sake of this Yellowstone River fishing guide, it makes sense to divide the Yellowstone from Gardiner to Laurel into four segments: Gardiner to Carbella, Carbella to Mallard’s Rest, Mallard’s Rest to Mayor’s Landing, and Mayor’s Landing to Laurel. Each section fishes somewhat differently than the others, including peak seasons and fish species. While there are many specific floats within each section (Mayor’s Landing to Laurel is about 100 miles of water, after all), a single float or day wade-fishing in each section would give you a good overview of what the Yellowstone in Montana has to offer as a trout fishery.
If you would rather jump to a specific river section rather than reading the whole manifesto, use the following links:
- Gardiner to Carbella – “The Upper River”
- Carbella to Mallard’s Rest – Upper Paradise Valley
- Mallard’s Rest to Mayor’s Landing – Lower Paradise Valley and the Livingston Town Section
- Mayor’s Landing to Laurel – “East of Town”
Gardiner to Carbella – “The Upper River”
The first 17 miles of the Yellowstone after it leaves Yellowstone Park is often “the Upper Yellowstone” by locals, referring to the fact that it’s the uppermost section of river that can be legally floated. Drift boats and rafts (to a much lesser extent) are the most popular way of getting on the Yellowstone from here on down from an angling perspective, though there’s plenty of fishing to be had on foot as well.
The upper river is a transition area from the canyons upstream in Yellowstone Park. While it produces big fish particularly in early spring and late fall, it’s most notable for its heavy populations of medium-sized cutthroats and rainbows that love to eat dry flies from the end of the spring runoff through fall. Compared to the stretches both upstream and down, it tends to produce greater numbers of trout on dry flies at a smaller average size. As such, it’s a great action fishery but not a great choice for anglers who want to hunt big fish (except in March-April and October-November).
Despite its reputation as a numbers fishery, fishing this stretch of the Yellowstone is not easy. It is what I consider an “easy catching, hard fishing” stretch of river. By this I mean that the tactics required for success are challenging to many anglers, but once you get it right, you will catch a lot of fish, with the fish themselves not being finicky provided you fish correctly. More details on this will be in the angling section.
This is a good stretch of the river for those who like whitewater and fast-paced fishing. It’s not a very relaxing stretch, it’s not great for wildlife watching, and if you are fishing on foot, much of it is as physically-challenging as the canyons upstream.
One advantage of this stretch of the Yellowstone is that not every Yellowstone River fishing guide uses this stretch. Many of the accesses require National Forest operating permits, which have not been issued to new operations in decades, and the rest of the accesses require rafts, which not every Yellowstone River fishing guide has.
Description and Access
Beginning at Gardiner, the canyon walls die away for the first thirteen miles of this stretch. That said, with the exception of a few stretches of hay meadows, the banks remain steep. They are also crumbly, covered in a mix of dirt, boulders, willow bushes, and sage brush for the most part. As such, fishing on foot requires anglers to scramble along the banks, often crashing through bushes and tottering on slick, uneven boulders.
The footing and particularly the wading get easier as the season progresses, with September through April or early May offering much easier wading access. That said, it is never easy even in the flat, slow areas, since the bottom is generally comprised of boulders and cobble and the river is generally quite deep and fast.
At Yankee Jim access, the river enters Yankee Jim Canyon. This short (3.5-mile) canyon is just as rough as the worst stretches of the Grand and Black Canyons in Yellowstone Park. Some of the upper canyon is entirely inaccessible to anglers on foot, while all the rest features steep banks comprised of boulders and scree, with deep, swift water just off the banks. It’s right next to the highway and offers abundant public access, but anglers who are not fit and surefooted should not contemplate fishing the canyon on foot.
Boat accesses are abundant. There’s a carry-down raft access right at the mouth of the Gardner River in the town of Gardiner, a rough access suitable for rafts season-long and drift boats when flows are 3,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second 2 miles north of town, and good boat amps at 3, 7 and 8, and 13 miles out. The first mile of this is too rough for drift boats, but the rest is good.
Yankee Jim Canyon is heavy whitewater not suitable for low-sided drift boats, so be sure to pull your drift boat out at this ramp at the 13 mile marker if you aren’t fishing with a Yellowstone River fishing guide. The canyon’s not too bad in a raft below 8,000cfs. Only the stretch from Brogan’s Landing access to Yankee Jim access is suitable for open canoes, and even then only for experienced paddlers. Personal watercraft can handle the water from 3 to 13 miles north of Gardiner, but the flow is generally too fast to fish effectively from these craft until at least late August.
As noted, foot access is physically demanding. On the flipside, it is abundant. Any boat ramp provides an easy route to the water. There is also 4 miles of public access on the west bank of the river from just NW of the Gardiner school down to the mouth of Reese Creek. The bank is in YNP and therefore public, while the river itself is Montana. So you can fish the river under a Montana permit and regulations, but if there’s a puddle on the bank that looks fishy, you need a Park license. The banks in this stretch are very rough, however, so again only billy-goats need apply.
The best wading access for non-fit anglers is from fall to spring at Cinnabar Ramp. There’s also good public access near La Duke Hot Spring, throughout Yankee Jim Canyon (rough footing), and by fishing upstream from the Tom Miner Basin Bridge or from the Carbella Boat Launch near the 17 mile marker that concludes this reach.
Overall, this is my favorite stretch of the Yellowstone to float, and it’s the one I do the most. I can’t help but brag and say I know it like the back of my hand, and am probably on it more than any other outfitter or guide these days. In particular I love floating Yankee Jim Canyon when flows are right. The upper half of this canyon is the single best piece of dry fly water in the region, in my experience.
- Yellowstone cutthroat: Cutthroat are the predominant trout species here. They tend to run 8 to 14 inches through most of the season, with larger fish present near tributary streams and during the fall. The biggest pure cutthroat you can hope for here run about 18 inches.
- Whitefish: There are tons of whitefish in this stretch, running from 8 to 22 inches with most under 14 inches. The heaviest numbers are located in areas of nondescript structure: riffles without prominent seams and constant-sized cobble on the bottom, or long, shallow areas with gravel bottoms. They are eager to eat medium-sized nymphs but will also eat dry flies, particularly when they get aggressive in their pre-spawn timeframe in late August and September. This makes them good beginner quarry but kind of annoying sometimes.
- Rainbow-cutthroat hybrid: “Cutt-bows” are common and often hard to distinguish from the cutthroat. They tend to run about the same size as cutthroats but can get big. Fish over 20 inches are most common from late February through April. I have seen a half a dozen in the 22-24″ range.
- Rainbow: Rainbow are about as common as hybrids. There tends to be a bit of a split in the population here. You will catch many from 6 to 10 inches, then reasonable numbers from 14 to 18 inches. The former are the dry fly eaters. The latter are the nymph eaters. Bigger fish to 24 inches are occasionally caught, usually from February to April and in October and November.
- Brown: Browns are common and larger on average than the fish above, but are much more picky and less eager to eat small dry flies. Except from mid-October through mid-November, when they are on their spawning runs and can be targeted downstream of good spawning gravel throughout this reach, the best ways to catch these fish are with large streamers, large hoppers, and large nymphs, in that order of importance. This does cut your overall numbers, however. Browns in this stretch run 8 to 24 inches, with “big ones” targeted with the previous flies running 16 to 20 and anything larger pure luck.
In the winter, this section can be very good whenever it is ice-free. The best sections are within the town of Gardiner itself and in the exposed areas in the middle of this reach where it’s a bit shallower and slower. Fish midge patterns, small mayfly nymphs, and stonefly nymphs. Look for the walking-speed water from three to six feet deep. Some midge hatches will occur on warm, calm days.
By early March, switch to big stonefly nymphs and slow-dragged streamers. The year’s best rainbows and hybrids often come to such tactics, especially if you target the deep runs downstream of tributary streams, into which the trout will run as the water warms to spawn. Leave the tributaries themselves alone to let them do so.
From mid-April through early May, the above tactic is joined by heavier BWO and March Brown mayfly hatches, though these hatches are not as intense as the early summer caddis or fall BWO and Drake Mackerals. In early May, there is usually one to five days of spectactular fishing during the Olive (Mother’s Day) Caddis hatch, but this hatch depends on water temperatures around 50 degrees and the hatch is sometimes completely blown out and often has its last couple days blown out by the onset of the spring melt, so you need to have a Plan B fishery in mind if you try to hit this hatch. Good tactics for it are stripping a caddis pupa behind a streamer, then switching to an olive caddis or peacock-bodied caddis-style attractor (Clacka Caddis or Trude) with the pupa under it. You can also fish a low-riding caddis wet.
The best fishing before late March is always on foot. From late March until runoff, it is just as good from a boat. Always stick to somewhat slower and deeper water off the bank pre-runoff, though as the water warms and rises in late April the fish will begin moving towards faster areas and the shore.
The runoff virtually always keeps this water out of play from sometime in the first half of May (it typically begins May 7-12) through sometime between June 20 and July 4. In dry years the runoff ends June 20, in wet years July 4. In REALLY dry years it can end June 10-15, while in REALLY wet years it might not end until July 10-20. Check with me through the late winter and early spring to get my thoughts on when runoff will end. I usually have a good idea by mid-April and can time it to within a few days by mid-May.
From the time the water clears until sometime in late July or August, fishing from the boat is by far the best tactic. From this point until late August or September boats still provide the best options but fishing on foot is reasonable in most areas. Only in late fall is fishing on foot as good or better than fishing from a boat.
The Salmonfly and Golden Stonefly hatches begin as runoff recedes. Sometimes in high-water years the entire hatch is buried under the runoff, but this is rare. More commonly the first few days will see marginal conditions, with the last few days seeing good conditions. Fish big stonefly nymphs near shore near the head of the hatch. Dark streamers can also work at this time. During and past the core of the hatch, fish big Salmonfly and Golden Stone imitations with either a smaller nymph dropper or a big attractor dry suggesting a caddis or Yellow Sally. Fish these flies as close to the bankside boulders or bushes as you can get without getting hung up. 6 inches from structure is not too close and 18 inches is often not close enough.
During the heaviest portion of the “big bug” hatches, angling pressure is higher than other points in the season. It sometimes seems like every Yellowstone River fishing guide is on this stretch then. Since almost everybody is throwing big stonefly, the smaller dry flies or nymphs may actually work better. After the number of big bugs and guide boats declines a few days later, there is often good “backdoor” fishing with big dry flies, even if there are only a few naturals left.
After the end of the Salmonfly and Golden Stone hatches, which end between the beginning of July and about the 15th depending on when they started, two tactics predominate until about Labor Day. The first is to fish smaller attractor dries or terrestrial dries in tandem or with a dry and a small attractor nymph on a short dropper. The second is to fish a huge Midnight Stone or hopper imitation with a Midnight Stone or large attractor nymph on a very long (3-4 foot) dropper. The former technique generally produces the numbers while the latter produces bigger trout.
If you fish the “smaller dry” option, use caddis-style (Clacka Caddis) or stonefly-style (Yellow Stimulator) attractors early in this period, in tandem or with a BH Prince or caddis pupa dropper. Later, use a small hopper with an ant dropper. If the weather gets gray in late August, swap the ant for a Purple or Copper Hazy Cripple or another attractor mayfly. I do not suggest fishing small nymphs of any kind after about August 20, because the whitefish get hyper-aggressive and will eat them before the trout can. Fish double-dries after this point. With the small dries, aim for the first current seam off the bank no matter how close to the bank it is. This might mean six inches or six feet, but probably not much further except in the largest eddies and/or late in this period.
With the big dry and long dropper, fishing tight to the rocks can work if the water is deep enough to prevent hang-ups. Otherwise run just slightly further off the bank.
Indicator nymphing or streamer fishing are usually not required, usually produce fewer trout, and will not produce larger trout than the above options during this period on this section of the river (other sections downstream are different). When I see another Yellowstone River fishing guide running bobbers on this stretch, I know that either the clients are beginners/novices or the guides are incompetent.
Speaking of beginner/novice anglers: This is a terrible place for them from the end of runoff until at least the beginning of August and sometimes as late as early September, since catching numbers of trout require extreme accuracy and good line management skills. Beginners and novices will do better further down the Yellowstone or up in Yellowstone Park. Generally speaking, the beginner fishing (mostly for whitefish with nymphs) here gets better once flows drop below about 3000cfs or the middle of August, whichever comes first.
Beginning sometime in late August, BWO, Mahogany, and later Drake Mackeral hatches increase. At first, there usually are not enough of these insects to make it worthwhile to remove the small hopper. Instead, fish a Purple Hazy Cripple as your dropper. With the first cool, gray weather, the hatches intensify and it might make sense to double up on mayfly imitations, either with two dries (one larger or more visible and one smaller and sparser) or with a dry and an unweighted nymph or emerger.
The mayfly hatches shift toward 11:00AM or 12:00PM through late afternoon by mid-September. At this point you may catch some fish on midge cluster dries first thing in the morning, but this is inconsistent. You’re better off throwing streamers or starting late. The midday to late afternoon hatches continue at least through the middle of October, but they can last well into November, with midges gradually replacing the mayflies and the fish shifting to slower eddies where dead insects collect.
Beginning in mid-October, the fall-run brown trout intensify to the point where targeting them makes sense. Fish big streamers from a boat or stop and fish the deeper, boulder-bottomed runs downstream of gravel riffles using stonefly nymphs and egg patterns. You should not target active spawners over such gravel, but their pre-spawn cousins downstream are fair game. This pattern continues until mid-November, after which the fishing fades to the winter midging described at the head of this piece.
Top 10 Flies
- Purple Hazy Cripple, #16-18
- Cinnamon or Bicolor Flying Ant, #16
- Pink or Peach Bob Hopper, #14
- Gold Chubby Chernobyl, #6-12
- Tunghead 20-Incher, #8-12
- Brown Girdle Bug, #6-12
- Coachman Clacka Caddis, #12-16
- Yellow Stimulator, #14-16
- Bead, Hare, and Copper, #12-16
- Parks’ Salmonfly, #4-6
Links for This Section
While occasionally it’s important to use the data graphs below to keep an eye on high water temperatures, flow spikes (muddy water) are a much bigger concern. There’s often a south wind on this section and a stiff north wind in the afternoon, but only when the wind is terrible should you consider avoiding this stretch. To try to get a sense of likely winds, compare all three weather forecast links below. If a south or east wind is forecast for Gardiner but a north wind is forecast for Carbella, odds are you’ll have a stiff south wind early and a stiff north wind late.
- Lamar River Streamflow Data: Sudden flow spikes in the Lamar will reach Gardiner in about 6 hours.
- Gardner River Streamflow Data: Sudden flow spikes in the Gardner River (yes, river and town are spelled differently) will reach Gardiner in about an hour and blow out this hole section inside 6 hours. They also run through quickly, though.
- Corwin Springs Streamflow Data: Keep an eye on this graph. Sudden spikes the day before or even the morning you plan to fish can catch you on this section.
- Gardiner Weather:
- Corwin Springs Weather:
- Carbella Point Forecast:
- Gardiner Webcam: This raft company webcam gives a good sense of Yellowstone River level and clarity for the Upper River.
Carbella to Mallard’s Rest – Upper Paradise Valley
Near the Carbella fishing access, the Yellowstone’s character changes once more. The high banks fall away and are replaced by grassy meadows and cottonwood trees. The river gets much wider, then shallows and slows. The mountains bordering the river valley, which had been hidden by high banks, are suddenly revealed in their beauty, as are innumerable gigantic vacation rentals and “trophy” homes built to appreciate the views. Fish populations change, public access declines, and the amount of boat traffic goes up (not least because there are few wading accesses). F
rom this point to the Carter’s Bridge access just south of Livingston, a distance of about 25 miles, the Yellowstone flows through the upper two-thirds of Paradise Valley, by far the most famous and beloved stretch of the river outside Yellowstone Park. If you’ve seen postcards, magazine articles, or coffee table books with pictures of smiling anglers in a drift boat on the Yellowstone, with the cottonwoods in fall color in the near distance and a bit of snow on the mountains behind, odds are the photos were shot in this stretch.
In comparison to the upper river described in the previous section, this stretch of river is gentler, wider, shallower, prettier in a “scenery” sense, though the water itself is less interesting, and offers more wildlife viewing opportunities. The fish population gradually shifts from cutthroat-dominated at the head of this reach to rainbow and brown-dominated a few miles downstream, a pattern which continues down to Livingston and beyond. The average fish is larger here than above, particularly the browns, but there are fewer of them (or at least they’re less aggressive) and the larger fish in particular are not so eager to take dry flies as the larger cutthroats upstream.
This is an excellent reach of the Yellowstone for those who value time to look at the scenery and don’t mind fishing subsurface for the opportunity of a few solid trout and maybe one real pig. It’s not as good for those who want a wilderness experience or to shed crowds, since this is a very popular chunk of river both with anglers and with recreational floaters. It sees the most use by Yellowstone River fishing guides, as well. In addition, it’s definitely not the best stretch for numbers of fish on dry flies. That said, it’s actually better for beginners and novices than other portions of the Yellowstone, mostly because accuracy isn’t as crucial here.
Description and Access
All the way from Carbella to Mallard’s Rest, the river is generally wide, relatively shallow, and flows in a single channel with only a few broad, sweeping bends and a few short stretches where the river splits into numerous branching channels covered in cottonwood trees. While hayfields and the lawns of the large estates that have replaced many of the hayfields come down almost to the river in many places, with only sparse tree cover on the river banks, heavy stands of cottonwoods are also found on many of the islands and on the main banks in the island complex areas.
Overall, the island complexes reward wading anglers quite well, while drift boat anglers do better in the more-homogenous areas where the river flows in one channel. As is the case with the Upper Yellowstone, wading anglers need to take care during the summer months, as the water drops from runoff, but this stretch is never quite so horrible to walk/wade than the stretch upstream, in particular since this section features more riffles off the bank which wading anglers can fish without crashing through brush.
That said, public access is limited in this reach, particularly for wading anglers. The best public accesses are sections of highway right of way. Basically, if there’s a stretch where the river runs right next to US Hwy 89 and there isn’t a fence between the road and the river, it’s probably legal to fish. Otherwise, the accesses at Carbella, Point of Rocks, Chicory, Dan Bailey (formerly Paradise), Loch Leven (the downstream parcel of this two-parcel access is better for waders), and Mallard’s Rest probably offer wading anglers their best opportunities. The Mill Creek bridge also offers good access. Footing ranges from easy to rugged, largely depending on current speed and the size of the rocks on the bottom.
This stretch is generally a better option for floating anglers than waders. There are numerous ramps, generally spaced about five miles apart though sometimes less. All of these are suitable for drift boats, though some are steep enough and rough enough that 4WD is needed to use them. There are no significant rapids in this entire reach, so it is suitable for experienced canoeists as well. Just be careful of the numerous turbulent eddies, most associated with bank protection structures. Overall the mellowest float is from Grey Owl access to either Loch Leven or Mallard’s Rest, while the most turbulent section is from the Highway Rest Area near the 24 mile marker to Emigrant.
- Rainbow: Rainbow are the predominant fish in Paradise Valley. There are good numbers of 12-16 inch fish, but not many over about 18 inches in general. You will also catch loads of tiny ones on caddisflies if the larger fish are not rising.
- Brown: While rainbows are the “bread and butter” fish in Paradise Valley, the browns are what out-of-state anglers usually want. There are good numbers of 16-20 inch browns here, and enough in the 20-24″ or greater (though not much greater) range that they are not at all out of the question.
- Yellowstone cutthroat: There are fewer cutthroats in this section than the number you catch if you are fishing dries might suggest. They fade quickly between Carbella access at the top of this section and the rest stop near the 24 mile marker. Downstream of the rest stop, they are most common near tributary streams, where they spawn. The cutthroats in the valley do run larger than their cousins in the section upstream. While a lot of those that eat your small dries run 8-12 inches, there are good numbers of 14-18″ cutts here too, particularly in the first five miles of the valley or so.
- Rainbow-cutthroat hybrid: There are less cutthroats in this stretch, so also fewer cutt-bows. That said, they run about the same size as the cutts.
- Whitefish: There are fewer whitefish in this section than upstream, though there are still a lot. The whitefish in this portion can get quite large: I have seen them in the 22-inch class. That said, they’re still just “potboiler” fish for all except beginners, fish to eat your dropper nymph and keep you interested while you’re waiting for a big brown to hammer your dead-drifted sculpin.
This stretch fishes quite similarly to the Upper River, save that your priorities should shift towards tactics more likely to produce large fish rather than numbers and you should be more eager to indicator-nymph if need be.
Winter fishing is not as good in this stretch as it is near Gardiner, for one reason: ice. This shallower stretch without any hot spring water inputs ices up much more than the stretch near Gardiner. As such, it’s not a very good bet until the bankside ice shelves melt sometime in late February or early March. Be very careful about floating in winter or early spring – your takeout might still be iced-up.
In late March and April, covering lots of water with streamers is the best tactic. This can produce excellent fish bulking up after a long winter. Contemporary articulated streamer tactics work well for this. In the same timeframe, you might find fish rising to midges, BWO, or March Browns, in that order of likelihood. Since the trout are not as eager to rise here as upstream, look for pods of fish rising in prominent eddies and seams before deciding to throw dries in the spring.
The olive Mother’s day caddis hatch in early May. This stretch is slightly more dependable for these insects than the stretch upstream, for a simple reason: it’s farther from the main mud sources (the Gardner and Lamar Rivers) and located at lower elevation, so it warms slightly faster. This usually gives this stretch an extra day or two with these insects. Even large fish will gorge on drowned caddis that gather in the many foam patches present on this stretch. Another option is to fish big streamers with a caddis pupa dropper. The caddis will get the numbers, while the streamer might get a fish or two big enough to eat the fish eating the caddis.
Runoff shuts this water down from May into mid-late June except during the occasional runoff breaks that occur during cold snaps. This stretch is phenomenal during these rare clear water windows. Throw streamers anytime you have 18″ of visibility and water that’s more gray-green than brown. Some of the best big fish fishing of the season takes place on this section of the Yellowstone during runoff breaks. It’s a shame there aren’t more of them…
As with the stretch upstream, the Salmonfly hatch is the first big summer event. While the big bugs hatch in bouldery, turbulent, swift areas from Carbella down to Mallard’s Rest and beyond, only about one year in three sees fishable numbers downstream of Emigrant. Most years, there either aren’t enough insects or they hatch while the river is still too muddy with runoff. The best Salmonfly fishing in this reach is from Carbella down to the rest stop near the 24 mile marker. The hatch overall is not as good here as it is upstream. On the flipside, the fish are larger, and the Salmonflies are big enough insects to bring them up. I have seen good numbers of fish over 20 inches eat dry flies during the Salmonfly hatch on this stretch.
Once the hatch fades out in early July, the best tactics for larger fish through the summer and into early fall are fishing a large Chubby Chernobyl or similar Midnight Stone/grasshopper imitation with a long dropper and a Midnight Stone nymph or fishing Woolly Buggers, sculpin imitations, or stonefly nymphs with a smaller attractor nymph or caddis pupa (from July to early August) or mayfly nymph (after early August) under a strike indicator. The “drift and drag” streamer method, in which a #2-6 streamer is fished like a nymph under an indicator, but dragged just enough to keep it from hanging up, is just the ticket to provoke territorial strikes from large browns. The smaller nymph behind gets whitefish and smaller trout, and occasionally a big one that doesn’t quite commit to the streamer or stone nymph.
The best targets for either the big dry/stone dropper or the indicator rig are turbulent rips where the bank suddenly drops into deep water, where boulders cause turbulence, where shelves suddenly stop, etc. Some sort of sharp seam between fast, turbulent water and slower water is key. Big browns have a reputation for living in slow water under logs and whatnot, but in the Yellowstone they don’t live in such places in the summer. They’re in the sharp seam/dropoff areas. Locally these are commonly called buckets. Overall, the bobber/streamer rig or the big nymph hanging under the bigger dry work better in July, while in August larger browns might just eat the stonefly/hopper dry, or perhaps even a smaller caddis-style attractor behind it.
For numbers in July and early August, focus on the caddis and Yellow Sally hatches. The Tan Caddis hatches are very good in this stretch, and a caddis-style attractor trailing a caddis pupa will draw action all day, with more-dedicated caddis dries turning on in the evening, or possibly around 3:30PM if clouds roll in. Larger fish seldom eat these small flies downstream of the 26-Mile access, but upstream some good cutthroats will take them. Still, you should expect mostly 8-12″ fish with a few 14-16″ fish if you’re sticking to small stuff in the summer. In early August, swap the caddis for an ant pattern. In late August, start expecting some BWO and Mahogany hatches and use Purple or Copper Hazy Cripples when you’re seeing mayflies in the air.
In practice, it’s a good idea to carry two or even three rods if you’re in a boat. Rig one with a light dry fly or dry/dropper (caddis pupa) rig, one with a big dry and a big nymph, and one with a streamer or nymph rig under a bobber. This is my standard practice when I guide this water. On banks I know to produce good browns, we shoot for the moon and use the bobber rod. Elsewhere we go for numbers with dries to keep the pot boiling.
In the fall, larger fish will rise to BWO and Drake Mackerals, particularly in the afternoons, most particularly from Carbella to Point of Rocks at the top of the valley. Before the hatches begin, fish big streamers. Hope for one or two big browns in the morning, followed by numbers of smaller but still solid fish in the afternoon, with one or two good fish sipping little dries for spice. In late October and November, larger browns are most anglers’ primary focus, but midge and late-season BWO fishing can be outstanding on calm days.
Top 10 Flies
- Olive Barbell-eyed Woolly Bugger, #2-6
- PT-Bugger, #2-6 (tan sculpin-style bugger)
- Jig Montana Sally Nymph, #16
- Tan Gut Instinct Caddis Pupa, #14-16
- Tan Caddis Cripple, #16
- Delektable Brown Stone, #8-10
- Gold Delektable Spanker, #16
- Peach Bob Hopper, #10-14
- Copper Hazy Cripple, #14-18
- Cinnamon Flying Ant, #16
Links for This Section
While occasionally it’s important to use the data graphs below to keep an eye on high water temperatures, flow spikes (muddy water) and the potential for howling downriver winds are bigger concerns.
- Corwin Springs Streamflow Data: Keep an eye on this graph. Sudden spikes the day before or even the morning you plan to fish can catch you on this section.
- Emigrant Weather: Check this page for wind forecasts. Strong south winds are common here. They are usually worse between Carbella and the rest area at the 24 mile marker and not as bad from the rest area down. The upper Yellowstone above Carbella is also seldom as bad as Carbella to the rest stop during windy periods.
Mallard’s Rest to Mayor’s Landing – Lower Paradise Valley and the Livingston Town Section
Downstream of the Mallard’s Rest Access, Paradise Valley starts to tighten up and the Yellowstone River begins to meander more. From here down through the small canyon immediately upstream of Livingston, then as the Yellowstone skirts the eastern edge of Livingston down to Mayor’s Landing Access on the northeast side of town, the Yellowstone splits into many small channels around islands, with many turbulent small rapids dropping into long, glassy pools. Rip-rap banks are now commonplace to keep the river from jumping channels as often. Some of these rip-rap areas provide good fishing, but many do not.
The river in this section is much more challenging to navigate than most of the water upriver. Turbulent eddies below rapids and where side channels rejoin are the main obstacles, but there’s also a lot of dangerous debris (wood and both natural stone and rip-rap) in the middle of the river eager to eat your boat. It can also be hard to tell which channels to float unless you’re familiar with the river, and the proper channels change every year. Because of the difficult navigation, this section receives less pressure than upper Paradise Valley and does not become fishable until later in the summer, after the water has dropped some.
I do not suggest floating this section of the Yellowstone on your own until you are familiar with it. First go with a Yellowstone River fishing guide.
The fishing quality in this section is very high whenever the water is both clear and low enough to float without danger, even right through Livingston. The numerous twists and turns, wide variety of structure, and many side channels all combine to produce a wide range of fishing options. In addition, there are several quality tributaries in this section that provide good spawning habitat, chief among them the Paradise Valley spring creeks, all of which join in the upper half of this 15-mile stretch. This stretch is much better for experienced anglers, though, because the currents are much more tricksy and turbulent than upper Paradise Valley and even portions of the Upper River.
Description and Access
This entire section save for the last mile or so twists and turns chaotically as the river seeks to find the best channel to follow through the valley, which gets narrower and narrower as you approach the Carter’s Bridge Access halfway down this section. The river then runs through a short canyon before skirting Livingston on the town’s eastern edge. While there are a fair number of houses on the west side of the river and you even pass directly under Interstate 90 on this section, it’s remarkable how little of “civilization” you actually see on this float. Tall cottonwoods choking the riverbanks and islands help explain that, but so does the river’s shifty nature. It’s not a good idea to build your house right on the riverbank when the river might jump channels and eat it with next year’s runoff.
The side channels on this section are arguably the dominant structure. Even when side channels are too small to float down, they can sometimes be wade-fished. Even when they’re not worth that, places where side channels depart or reenter the main river create structure. Riffles, riprapped banks, and bank protection wing dams also create a lot of structure. There are also a few steep, boulder-strewn banks.
Boat access to this section is good, though floating can be treacherous. Many side channels that look large enough to float down split into smaller channels halfway through, channels which aren’t big enough to float down. There are also a few irrigation diversions that either don’t return to the river at all or traverse nasty diversion dams that will flip drift boats. Large chunks of debris in the river in several spots have sunk many boats. Suffice it to say that this is not a section to float with a rookie guide or solo for your first trip in your new drift boat.
Boat ramps on this stretch are Mallard’s Rest at the top, Pine Creek about 3 miles downstream, Carter’s Bridge, and Mayor’s Landing. There is still a boat ramp between Carter’s and Mayor’s at the 9th Street Island, but a shift in river channels leaves this boat ramp high and dry most of the year nowadays. It’s a shame, too. The old left-hand channel around Ninth Street Island usually produced good fishing. Mallard’s Rest to Carter’s Bridge makes for a good spring or fall full-day float if you plan to get out and wade fish some or want a short day. Otherwise, Pine to Mayor’s is the better full-day run on this section. You can also start higher and float to Pine or Carter’s or start at Carter’s and float to Highway 89 further downstream.
Wading access at the upstream end of this reach is limited to Mallard’s Rest (meh) and the Pine Creek Bridge (better). Good access is also found where a channel flows adjacent to the highway a mile or so south of Carter’s Bridge. Several bridges, fishing access sites, and a public river walk provide drastically better wading access right through the heart of Livingston, though the banks are often steep.
- Rainbow: Rainbow are the predominant fish in this stretch. There are good numbers of 12-16 inch fish, but not many over about 18 inches in general. You will also catch loads of tiny ones on small dry flies if the larger fish are not rising. This is particularly true between the Carter’s Bridge Access and Mayor’s Landing (the Livingston town section), where it seems like there’s a million hand-size rainbows that are always rising.
- Brown: While rainbows are the “bread and butter” fish here, the browns are what out-of-state anglers usually want. There are good numbers of 16-20 inch browns here, and enough in the 20-24″ or greater (though not much greater) range that they are not at all out of the question.
- Yellowstone cutthroat and hybrids: There are fewer cutthroats in this section than the number you catch if you are fishing dries might suggest. That said, quality tributaries in this stretch mean their numbers are probably higher than just upstream. Look for cutthroats in slow troughs below riffles.
- Whitefish: There are far fewer whitefish in this stretch than upstream, but still enough that when you’re nymph-fishing you can expect to catch a lot.
The fishing in lower Paradise Valley and through Livingston is more challenging from a technique standpoint than in upper Paradise Valley and the fish themselves are a bit more finicky. For experienced anglers who hit things when it’s on, this stretch is definitely better. It can also be really tough if things aren’t on. Overall, August through early November is my favorite period to guide this stretch. It’s also very good in late April and early May unless early spring runoff blows it out. Late July is also good right through Livingston, though I seldom float from Mallard’s Rest to Carter’s Bridge in late July and almost never float any of this stretch in early July, when it is too turbulent for most anglers to handle and is very turbulent even for floating via drift boat.
In general, it starts to make sense to fish this stretch when flows on the Livingston stream gauge drop below 6000cfs.
Because it is deep and turbulent and has steeper banks than most sections of upper Paradise Valley, as well as many inviting side channels, this stretch tends to produce better on dry flies and using dry-dropper combinations than points upstream. It also receives stronger hatches, with both the Mother’s Day caddis in early May (runoff-dependent) and September-November mayfly and midge hatches typically producing large numbers of rising fish. A lot of these fish will be small, but not all of them.
When dry fly fishing, look to steep natural rock and rip-rap banks where turbulent pockets and eddies exist just off-shore. These areas will produce best in summer, when trout are more likely to hold in fast water. Rip-rap areas where there aren’t slow targets ranging in size from an end table on up to a hot tub or small swimming pool are unlikely to produce. Rip-rap banks with larger targets (hot tub to small swimming pool) will hold pods of fish in spring and fall, as well.
When the water is lower and colder in spring and fall, the places where riffles spill over gravel bars usually produce more fish than the fast rip-rap. Side channels are always good. Both riffles and side channels make excellent targets for wade-fishing, especially in the fall when fish start podding up for winter.
The late fall dry fly fishing is notable here. In October and November, look to the large, slow-moving eddies. Many of these are found behind rip-rap wing dams that stick out from the banks like fingers. These deep, slow areas make good wintering holes and also concentrate midges and BWO mayflies that drown in the turbulence the dams create. Very large numbers of rising trout and whitefish can sometimes be found in these areas, especially in the foamy seams where the eddy currents meet the main currents.
When dry fly fishing, big stonefly or grasshopper imitations can work in midsummer, and summer tan caddis and Yellow Sally hatches are good at times. There are fewer large stoneflies here than upstream, so the Salmonfly and Golden Stonefly hatches are usually not worth chasing on this stretch. The fall mayfly hatches are my favorite hatches on this water. Both BWO and the rusty tan #12 Drake Mackeral hatches can be very heavy and usually mingle in early afternoon in late September on into early October. Fishing a Drake Mackeral with a dry BWO behind it is a good bet, as is fishing the drake with a small soft hackle or emerger suggestive of a drowned or emerging BWO. The latter method tends to produce larger fish on average. Midges join the BWO in mid-late October and replace the drakes.
Subsurface, dry-dropper techniques work in the same places mentioned for dry fly fishing. For deep nymphing, the medium-depth runs and seams work best. Many areas are too deep for good nymphing through much of the season. In all honesty, if I fish nymphs deep here except from September through November, it’s a sign the fishing is not going well.
Streamer fishing is excellent, on the other hand. Hucking a Woolly Bugger or articulated streamer into the same turbulent pockets along the rip-rap where small fish are rising can produce big trout that are eating the smallest rising fish, and there are many good streamer runs below riffles where swinging streamers can be productive in the fall. In addition, the sections of this stretch that aren’t bottomless holes are often shallow even at midriver, which means covering water across the “X-Axis” of the river versus fishing a specific “Y-axis” drift near the bank can prompt chasing fish even in the middle of the river. This is especially common in the low flows of late spring and late fall.
Top 10 Flies
- Olive Barbell-eyed Woolly Bugger, #2-6
- PT-Bugger, #2-6 (tan sculpin-style bugger)
- Red Gussied Lightning Bug, #16-18
- Copper Matt Caddis Pupa, #16
- Gold Delektable Spanker Jig, #16
- Peach Bob Hopper, #12
- Brindle Chute, #12
- Purple Hazy Cripple, #16-18
- Copper Hazy Cripple, #16-18
- Griffith’s Gnat, #18-20
Links for This Section
While occasionally it’s important to use the data graphs below to keep an eye on high water temperatures, flow level (safety) and flow spikes (muddy water) are bigger concerns.
- Corwin Springs Streamflow Data: Keep an eye on this graph. Sudden spikes the day before you want to fish might mean mud from upriver will catch you in Livingston.
- Livingston Streamflow Data: Flows under 6000cfs on this graph mean this stretch is safe to float.
- Emigrant Weather: Check this page for wind forecasts for the area upstream of Carter’s Bridge Access. When north winds are blowing, this stretch can be a nightmare.
- Livingston Weather: Check this page for wind forecasts for the area downstream of Carter’s Bridge. When south winds are blowing, this stretch can be a nightmare.
- Pine Creek Webcam: Check for ice in early spring or muddy water at other times using this cam.
Mayor’s Landing to Laurel – “East of Town”
At Mayor’s Landing (actually about a half-mile upstream), the Yellowstone River stops splitting into channels quite so often and begins flowing generally broad and shallow through open prairie country. Turbulent rapids where the river cuts down through hills and rock ledges or bends sharply are interspersed with long and almost featureless pools that can be a nightmare to row against when the intense upriver winds for which this stretch is known for are blowing. This character continues all the way to the mouth of the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone at Laurel about 100 miles east, which marks the end of the Yellowstone’s blue-ribbon trout fishery.
The river is within a mile or two of Interstate 90 through most of this section and is closely paralleled by railroad tracks for even more. This evidence of civilization aside, the river actually seems more remote for most of this stretch than upstream. There are many fewer trophy homes along the river banks than closer to Yellowstone Park, with vast cattle ranges a lot more common. The turbulent rapids and numerous cliff bands lining the river also add to the sense of wildness. The large numbers of eagles often sighed when floating this section don’t hurt, either.
Trout numbers decline gradually through this entire reach. The habitat is not as conducive to large numbers of fish and the water also gets steadily warmer the further downstream you float, both due to the increasing distance from the mountains and increasing irrigation drawdowns, both from the main river and from tributary streams. Cutthroat trout numbers in particular fall off sharply, especially east of Big Timber about 35 miles downstream of Livingston.
Trout size is higher here, though. The brown trout in particular can get very, very large through this entire reach, though they aren’t easy to catch. Hunting pig browns with large grasshoppers and streamers is the main draw of this water.
Note that this is a TERRIBLE section for beginners, largely due to the reduced numbers of both trout and whitefish. Instead, it’s a great section for experienced anglers who want to try for a small number of big fish. I like to float it as the second or third day of a multi-day booking after we’ve caught a bunch of smaller fish elsewhere, after we’ve taken the edge off things and are already assured of a successful trip.
Also note that you should not float this section when east winds are forecast. This is one of Montana’s windiest places and strong “upslope” east winds can blow 50+ mph here. If it’s blowing 20+ upstream, you will see whitecaps blowing upriver and it can be very hard to even make headway downstream. This makes for a terrible day floating and an even worse day fishing.
Description and Access
This stretch of the Yellowstone features long, shallow, fast sections that can be treacherous to float through divided by long pools. The fastest and most turbulent stretches occur where the river cuts down through bands of low hills, which happen with great frequency between Livingston and Big Timber, and slightly less thereafter. The primary structure is composed of long riffles and the solid rock ledges over which the river drops, particularly amid the hill bands. Compared to the entire river upstream, there is far more midriver structure in this section, formed either by gravel bars at midriver or by the rock ledges. There is still good bankside structure as well, particularly along the cliff-like banks and the many old riprap banks where the river flows near the Interstate or railroad right of way. This is generally ranch country, with the river surrounded by hay meadows and stands of cottonwoods where it is prone to switch channels. There are island complexes in the flatter areas, but more often the river flows in one or two broad channels.
Access is limited, particularly for bank-bound anglers. This stretch only gained popularity from a fishing perspective in the late 1990s, long after the rest of the Yellowstone, and this fact coupled with the huge ranches mean that there are only a few state access points and no federal accesses through this entire reach. Particularly downstream of Big Timber, it can be fifteen miles between public accesses. For this reason, floating is far and away the best way of accessing this water, especially downstream of the Springdale Access about 20 miles east of Livingston. If you’re looking to wade fish in this area, I suggest checking out the Stillwater or Boulder Rivers instead.
- Rainbow: Rainbows are the potboiler fish on this stretch, with most running 8-16 inches, but they do get big. I have seen them to 22+ inches here.
- Brown: Big browns are the target species for most anglers who fish this stretch. They can get very large, over 10lbs, and if you fish hard all day and land half a dozen, you will almost certainly get one in the 20-24″ class.
- Whitefish: There are far fewer whitefish downstream of Livingston than above, probably a result of lower water quality downstream of Livingston’s old railroad yards. The whitefish that are in this stretch tend to run pretty big, 14-18 inches, but you will only catch a handful per day. They get less and less common the further downstream you go.
- Yellowstone cutthroat and rainbow-cutthroat hybrid: Cutthroat numbers decline sharply in this section. They are most common from Livingston to Springdale and eventually disappear between Big Timber and Columbus, probably due to a lack of quality tributary creeks for spawning.
- Carp: Carp are common in backwater areas throughout this stretch, such as the lake-like areas at the mouths of old channels. They take hoppers well.
- Goldeye: These herring-like fish (with teeth!) are more common further downstream, but you may find pods of them in slow areas here and there. They will eat both dry flies and streamers.
- Smallmouth bass: Smallies are creeping further upriver every year but are still more common downstream of Columbus near the bottom of this section. They run 8 to 18 inches. You probably won’t catch any upstream from Big Timber and they’re a surprise even at Columbus.
This is big fish water. Numbers days are possible too, particularly when summer evening caddis hatches or fall afternoon BWO and midge hatches get the fish excited, but the rest of the Yellowstone is better for numbers. The rest of the Yellowstone is not better for big fish. In general, the largest fish caught in the Yellowstone each year come from Mayor’s Landing on down.
Downstream of Mayor’s Landing, the big fish fishing is what you generally want to aim for all season, with the exception of during good hatches (caddis and assorted small mayflies including Tricos in the summer, BWO and midges in the fall). Articulated streamers are good spring and fall, while in the summer a big hopper or Midnight Stone imitation like a Chubby Chernobyl with a big stonefly nymph or even a crayfish pattern on the dropper works well when the fish are looking up. If they’re sitting on the bottom, fish a dead-drifted streamer, stonefly, or crayfish with a caddis pupa or mayfly nymph dropper.
Very large hoppers can be important on this reach. I’ve already mentioned the hay meadows and the large trout. They combine to mean that the biggest hoppers in your box (#4 to #8) might just bring up the biggest brown of your life. Don’t fish such flies by themselves. Fish a nymph dropper or perhaps a smaller terrestrial if the fish are eager in order to keep your fish count above zero if you are toad-hunting with the big hopper and the big guy doesn’t want to eat.
The midriver structure is often critical on this reach. Look for sudden dropoffs downstream of the rock ledges traversing the river, or even shallow but slow spots in the middle of the ledges. The bankside structure is still important here, as it is upstream, but it’s not so often the ONLY structure you need to be looking for.
Note that two of the crucial hatches further upstream are not good on this stretch. In the spring, the Olive Caddis hatch is usually blown out with muddy spring snowmelt from a couple creeks that enter in Livingston and from the Shields River, which joins about 9 miles east of Livingston. There are also too few Salmonflies and Golden Stones to make the concurrent hatches of these bugs any good.
Because of runoff from the Shields, which sees its snowmelt start earlier than points upstream, the Yellowstone downstream is never a safe bet in May on this reach, except for the short float from Mayor’s Landing to the Highway 89 Bridge, the uppermost float on this stretch. In addition, the extreme turbulence created by the rock ledges and behind islands and gravel bars make this water unsafe later into the summer than points upstream. Look for flows to drop below about 6000cfs before you consider floating. 4000-2000 is ideal.
In late July and August, high water temperatures and abundant weed growth can cause problems during low-water years with hot summers. High-water years and/or cool summers offer more consistent mid-late summer fishing. Overall, late July and October through mid-November offer the best fishing on this stretch, particularly since this is when the big fish are most frisky. August is also very good if water temperatures are cool enough. The September fishing is very hit or miss – either great or terrible.
Besides trout, other game fish get steadily more important the further downstream you go. Smallmouth bass are the real prize. Their best numbers are found downstream of Columbus and even downstream of Laurel beyond the scope of this guide. Target them with streamers and crayfish. Carp are found in backwaters throughout this stretch, especially where old channels enter the river around islands. You can park your boat to explore these backwaters looking for carp sucking hoppers, Tricos, or wads of dead insects of various kinds. The strange herring-like goldeye is the other noteworthy fish here. Again, the further downstream you go, the more you’ll see. They tend to gather in schools to feed on emerging mayflies or caddis, but also eat streamers. Beware of their teeth!
Here’s one strange fact to put in your back pocket: the trout (especially rainbows) get less picky towards specific flies the further downstream you go on this stretch. Why? Because they see less of them. The furthest downstream most guides operate on this section is near Pelican Access east of Big Timber. From there down to Laurel, much more traffic is local and consists of people either fun-floating or using spinning tackle rather than flies. For that reason, specific fly choice doesn’t matter quite as much the further you go. Near Columbus they seem willing to eat whatever grasshopper pattern you put over their heads, for example. Finding the fish is the hard part.
Top Ten Flies
- Peach Bob Hopper, #12
- Gold Chubby Chernobyl, #10
- 20-Incher Stonefly, #10-12
- Copper Matt Caddis Pupa, #16
- Red Gussied Lightning Bug, #16
- Gold Delektable Spanker, #16
- Copper Hazy Cripple, #16-18
- Olive Barbell-Eyed Woolly Bugger, #2-6
- Olive Home Invader, #2
- Olive Scleech Sculpin, #2
Links for This Section
Pay particular attention to the water temperature data in the streamflow links below. If water temperatures are breaking 70 degrees, quit by 2:00 or 3:00PM. If water temps are breaking 73, fish elsewhere. Closures are likely when temperatures hit 73+ anyway.
- Livingston Streamflow Data: Safe flows downstream of this point are 6000cfs or lower.
- Shields River Streamflow Data: Watch for big spikes in spring. These indicate muddy water that will trash the Yellowstone below for the duration of spring runoff.
- Springdale Streamflow Data:
- Big Timber Streamflow Data:
- Stillwater River Streamflow Data: If water temps are hitting 70+ on the Stillwater, they’ll be well over 70 on the Yellowstone at Columbus.
- Big Timber Weather: Watch the wind forecast. If they’re forecast to be out of the east at 10+mph or out of the west at 20+, it’s best to float somewhere else.