Paradise Valley float trips are one our best options for large brown trout.
Parks' Fly Shop began running guided float trips in 1955, utilizing a war-surplus rubber raft that had apparently earned several Purple Hearts during its service, based on the number of leaks. We then graduated to low-profile jon boats, which sure made running rapids fun. Nowadays we utilize both purpose-built fly fishing drift boats and rafts with fly fishing frames. The Yellowstone River is our home water and the river on which we run the vast majority of our guided float trips. We run guided trips on the entire blue ribbon portion of the Yellowstone, between Gardiner and Columbus. In addition to the Yellowstone, we also offer trips on portions of the Madison, Gallatin, Boulder, Jefferson, and Missouri Rivers.
Float trips on the Yellowstone, Boulder, and Madison are available as full-day and half-day options. The other float rivers are full-day options only. We also offer double half-day floats on the Yellowstone only. See the "Yellowstone River Float Trips" section below for info on these specialty trips. Float trips are available from the middle of March through early November, though the availability of specific rivers varies throughout the year based on water conditions.
Our lake floats are discussed seperately.
Rates for float trips can be found on our general rates page.
Cutthroat and rainbow-cutthroat trout between 10 and 16 inches are a primary quarry on our Yellowstone River trips. We catch MOST of these fish on dry flies.
The Yellowstone is one of the most famous rivers on Earth, for good reason. In terms of variety of angling opportunities, quality, and the landscape through which it flows, the Yellowstone is unparalleled. Our shop is located a hundred yards from the Yellowstone River and only two miles from the first drift boat access. When running one of the upper floats near Gardiner, we are often the first boat on and the last boat off, while if our float takes us a considerable distance from Gardiner, it's best to make late dinner plans as we often get back to Gardiner as late as 8:00PM. We also fish a larger portion of the Yellowstone than any other outfitter, including the mighty Yankee Jim Canyon, the most challenging section of the Yellowstone to row. Regardless of the stretch we fish, we focus as much as possible on dry fly fishing. On many trips, we use nothing else.
Depending on time of year and stretch floated, the Yellowstone has something to offer for every angler, whether you're interested in catching a lot of cutthroat trout on dry flies or hoping for one real monster on a streamer. In general, we focus on the upper river near Gardiner for numbers of fish and when dry fly fishing is key, and go further downstream when looking for a handful of big daddies. Our double half-day trips make it possible to experience both the "action fishery" near Gardiner and have a chance at big fish twenty or thirty miles downstream, all on the same day.
We use both drift boats and whitewater rafts equipped with fishing frames on the Yellowstone, whichever is more suitable to the water conditions, the stretch we're floating, and client needs and preferences.
Meeting places and times for our Yellowstone River float trips vary widely depending on the time of year and the stretch we'll be floating. For floats near Gardiner, we'll generally meet at the shop between 6:00 and 9:30AM for full-day trips and 7:00 and 11:30 for half-day trips. For trips downriver, our meeting place and time will vary depending on the guide who you'll be fishing with and the stretch you'll be floating. Since many of our Yellowstone River fly fishing guides are based in Paradise Valley, Livingston, or Bozeman, we may have you meet them closer to the put-in rather than making them drive up to Gardiner to meet you and then back down again to the launch. If you're staying in Paradise Valley, Livingston, or Bozeman, odds are we'll have you meet the guide near one of these locations for all trips. We'll make rough arrangements on when and where to meet when you book, then finalize them a day or two before the trip.
Click the panels below for information on what to expect on a guided Yellowstone River float trip at different times of year, as well as plenty of eye candy. For information on other rivers we float, skip to the next section.
Early spring is prime time for pursuing larger trout. This one came in April.
In mid-March, the winter ice melts away from the riverbanks enough to make Yellowstone River float trips safe. From this point through early May, the Yellowstone offers its best big trout fishing of the year, as the fish seek to regain weight and energy lost after a long, cold winter. This period is the most under-utilized period on the Yellowstone: crowds are low, fishing is often great, and the weather is usually comfortable provided you're prepared to deal with a bit of rain, sleet, or snow from time to time.
In March, the water is still cold, so the fish are most active from late morning through late afternoon, when it's warmest. For this reason, we only offer half-day trips until early April, and they're usually better bets well into April. Slow, big, and deep is generally the name of the game. For this reason, you should expect to fish nymph rigs and streamers most of the time in March. In addition, we'll often use the boat mostly as transportation, rowing from spot to spot and then getting out to pound the moderate-speed runs where the trout spend their winters.
Typical early season rainbow.
As the weather warms consistently into the 50s, a wider range of tactics begin to work in addition to the low and slow game, including "stripping and ripping" big streamers. Hatches intensify through April, with midges and Baetis joined by the graceful March Brown mayfly. The period of good fishing expands, too, making short full-day floats a reasonable bet.
In late April and early May, conditions deteriorate with the beginning of the high-elevation snowmelt. On days when the river is clear, it's stellar. If it's too warm, or especially warm and rainy, the river will be chocolate brown mud and we'll need to fish the lower Madison or private lakes. On the other hand, sometime between the last few days of April and May 10, one of the marquee hatches of the year occurs. This is the fabled Mother's Day caddis hatch, the first intense insect hatch of the season and one that drives the fish bonkers. When everything goes just right we can put a hundred fish per day in the boat. Seriously. All this activity gets the big fish excited, too, so by fishing streamers underneath the emerging caddis, we'll often move some huge brown trout that are more interested in the smallest of the caddis-eaters than the caddis themselves.
The onset of the heavy spring runoff with the first spring heatwave sometime between May 1 and 25 turns the river to chocolate stew. The runoff ends the fishing on the Yellowstone from now through at least the middle of June, and usually sometime between June 20 and July 4. At this time, we run river floats on the Madison and Missouri Rivers (see the relevant tabs below).
Mid-May streamer-eating brown trout caught on the last day the river was fishable before the heavy runoff hit.
This brown ate a dry golden stonefly pattern less than 4 inches from the line of rocks in the background.
The spring runoff recedes sometime between the middle of June and the middle of July. In years with dry winters and early springs, it happens earlier. In years with wet winters and late springs, it happens later. Most years, it happens in the last week of June or first week of July.
When the river drops into shape, the fishing immediately becomes off the charts good, with hungry trout crashing dry flies and large nymphs just off the shorelines as they make up for a hungry month or two during the high, muddy water of the spring melt. In addition to good fishing, this is also the single most consistent time of year, with solid fishing occurring almost every day, and often all day. You might have a more epic day of fishing at a different time of year, particularly if you're after great big fish rather than numbers, but the overall consistency isn't as high. In early summer you're almost guaranteed a good day. Little wonder that this is our busiest time of year, and the most popular period to float the river for first-timers to the Yellowstone area.
Both half-day and full-day trips are great choices at this time. We typically float anywhere between Gardiner and Livingston in early summer, focusing on the stretches closer to Gardiner for numbers of fish and better dry fly fishing and the stretches in Paradise Valley and into Livingston for larger fish (on average), though less-consistent dry fly fishing. In addition to our standard half-day and full-day trips, this is a great time to book one of our special double half-day trips. We'll float near Gardiner in the morning and get our quota of free-rising cutthroats and rainbows on dry flies before lunch, then pull the boat out, have lunch, and head downriver a ways to hunt large browns on subsurface flies for the rest of the day.
When salmonflies are hatching on the Yellowstone, it's game on!
The fishing kicks off just before or during the fabled salmonfly hatch. These large black stoneflies are the largest aquatic insects in North America, often reaching lengths of two inches. The fish gorge on these bugs. During the salmonfly hatch, along with the golden stone hatch that occurs about the same time, the river is jammed with guide boats and anglers. This isn't the time to float if you like solitude, but it is the time to float if you want a crack at the largest fish in the river eating dry flies.
This brown ate a large caddis dry just off the bank in late June. Notice the submerged grass in the background. The water is still high and fast in early summer, so to avoid working too hard the trout will sit right on the bank.
Once the "big bug" hatch continues on upstream into Yellowstone Park, smaller insects begin to take over the surface fishing. There's a smorgasbord of caddisflies, mayflies, and smaller stoneflies hatching at this time. These hatches start at the same time as the salmonflies, but last all through July and into early August. Sometimes fish that are looking for smaller dry flies key on one fly in particular, but more often they eat whatever comes along, provided it attracts their attention, is behaving like food, and is running right next to the bank. Yep, right next to the bank. The water remains high most years even in late summer, even after it drops and clears enough to get the fish active again, so surface eaters are almost always found within a couple feet of the bank. Sometimes it's more like four inches. This can make for challenging fishing, particularly when the wind is blowing and the river's still right up to the edges of the willow bushes and grass, but once you get it right, you'll be into a lot of fish.
Photos of a Peacock Clacka Caddis, one of our custom flies, before and after the trout destroyed it. We got about thirty fish on this one before retiring it.
Early summer is also a good time to try for a few big trout. The best bet to get a few monsters is to target them with big nymphs and dead-drifted streamers. This is a little more novice-friendly than the dry fly fishing, since casts don't need to be quite so accurate and it's easier to hook fish on subsurface flies than on the top. Sometimes we'll fish our "big fish flies" under a strike indicator, usually in conjunction with some sort of caddis pupa to attract enough small fish to "keep the kettle boiling," but sometimes we'll fish the big nymphs or even smaller streamers underneath huge, gold dry flies that suggest the midnight stonefly, a midsummer stonefly that hatches after the golden stoneflies and salmonflies are done for the year. We don't get many trout on the midnight stone dry flies, but we do get a few, and when one does choose to rise to smash a midnight stone dry, it's a strike that you might remember forever.
This early summer brown crashed a dead-drifted streamer.
This brown was one of dozens of nice fish two clients rose to assorted grasshopper patterns.
Sometime in late July or early August, the Yellowstone undergoes a subtle transformation. It's still fast, but it's not so fast. The fish still tend to hang near the bank, but not on the bank, except in the fastest stretches. The willow bushes, which had been in the river in many places, are now dry. The hillsides begin turning gold or brown. The hatches and flies important earlier fade away, replaced by the bugs that many long-time regular clients most like to fish: grasshoppers, as well as other terrestrial insect imitations. It's now late summer.
At left, real grasshopper. At right, fake grasshopper that the trout have destroyed.
In late summer the trout are a little spookier, the water's a little clearer and a lot lower, and there is a smaller range of food items present for the trout to eat, so the fish aren't quite as eager to eat whatever comes by. On the other hand, casts need not be so accurate, the current has slowed enough that not so many casts are required, and there are many fewer snags in the water ready to eat your flies when you do make a bad cast. The trout actually get prettier now than earlier in the summer, getting flashier coloration due to the clearer water and more weight from the abundant aquatic food they got to eat in early summer, plus the abundant grasshoppers and ants they consume at this time.
Grasshoppers are the star of the show at this time. Imitations of these insects can be big or small, natural-colored or ostentatious. Our best hopper patterns most years are pink! That said, nowadays imitations of smaller terrestrial insects usually work better. Most of the time, this means ants. Our usual game plan in late summer should therefore be clear: most of the time we fish grasshopper imitations with ants on the dropper. The hoppers draw eats from a few big fish each day, while the ants get the numbers (and occasionally a big fish that wants a light meal). We also continue to fish streamers and big nymphs under indicators, now often with a mayfly nymph dropper rather than a caddis.
This gorgeous brown ate a tiny grasshopper pattern.
We focus a majority of our attention in late summer on the Yellowstone between Gardiner and Point of Rocks 20 miles downstream. In most years, this is prime time for running Yankee Jim Canyon, typically the best big numbers fishery on the Yellowstone River as well as one that can produce larger fish as well. When weather and water conditions are right, most commonly in normal to wet years, we also spend quite a bit of time in the stretches of the Yellowstone between Emigrant and Livingston and from Livingston downstream to Big Timber, up to 90 miles downstream. The faster sections of these portions of the river can produce numbers of rainbows, but most of the time when we run "down low" in late summer, we're hunting big fish.
In late August, a mixed bag of dry flies can bring up solid cutthroats, rainbows, and their hybrids on the river near Gardiner. This one ate a flying ant imitation.
Sometime in mid-late August, we start getting our first hints of fall fishing. The afternoons are usually still hot, with grasshoppers hopping and ants the "numbers" bug, but the mornings might have a bit of a nip, and before the shadows get off the water in the morning, we might want to wear a fleece. Under such conditions, the first early-bird fall mayfly and midge hatches might take place, and we might replace the ant behind the grasshopper with some sort of tiny dry fly suggestive of a fall gray Baetis (BWO) mayfly. If we do get a cloudy day, the trout might just go bananas for this insect. Often the first heavy hatch of the year ranks among the best. These bugs get more and more important on a day-in, day-out basis through the latter half of August and on into September.
Got a beginner in your group who wants to float? Around the middle of August is the first point in the year when we can wholeheartedly encourage river float trips instead of some form of walk & wade trip or lake trip for beginners. Check out our Beginner Trips page for details on the beginner fishing in late summer.
This pretty copper-colored cutthroat ate our top Yellowstone dry fly overall, a PURPLE mayfly cripple, during one of the first Gray Baetis hatches of the year in late August.
Mayfly hatches are the prime draw in September, and even large trout will eat them at this time. This one ate a tiny mayfly cripple.
Sometime in the last few days of August or first week or so of September, the brief nip in the morning common in late summer is replaced by the sparkle of frost on the grass. The velvet drops off the antlers of the bull elk and they begin to bugle. The grass is now dying back, and the ground cover is starting to change colors even if the trees are still green. The river is now about as clear as it will ever get, and instead of six inches from the rocks, you'll often want to fish six feet from them, or even in the middle of the river. It's early fall, the best time of the year for match-the-hatch dry fly fishing on the Yellowstone River, and a period that's rapidly becoming almost as popular as high summer.
The Purple Hazy Cripple: It's one of our Custom Flies and the best dry fly on the Yellowstone in the fall, period. We guarantee you'll use it in September.
The reasons for this increased popularity are simple: there are fewer people on the river and the dry fly fishing is outstanding. Fall is when we get lots of rising fish that can be targeted with precision. Whereas during the summer we use attractor dry flies suggestive of caddis and stoneflies early, followed by terrestrial insects later on, and almost always fish to structure rather than to spotted rising fish, in the fall we use mayfly imitations (and some midges) and fish to trout we can often see. This is exciting fishing, with a bit of a predatory feel to it.
On warm and bright days, we'll still fish terrestrials, and we'll often leave a tiny grasshopper imitation on even during hatch situations, but now our best flies are rather delicate imitations of emerging mayflies. The fly above is the top fly, and the fall gray Baetis is the key hatch, but there are other hatches of note: Drake Mackerals, Mahoganies, tiny olive Baetis, a couple species of midges, and sometimes others. Most of these bugs are small. This makes early fall fishing far more delicate than fishing early in the year. It's not necessarily more challenging unless you set the hook like a Bassmaster (which results in a lot of busted-off fish sporting flies as lip jewelry), but it is quite different. A lot of folks love it. I, Walter Wiese, am one of them. My favorite period both to guide and to fish on the Yellowstone is during the fall match-the-hatch fishing.
We spotted this fish rising and actually rowed up and drifted back on him three times before he took.
During early fall, we primarily focus on two sections of the Yellowstone. The upper river from Gardiner down to Carbella is good for both numbers of rising trout and potential for larger brown trout at this time. Our other favorite stretch at this time is at the lower end of Paradise Valley and on through Livingston. This stretch is particularly good with experienced anglers who want to throw streamers for big fish earlier, than match mayfly hatches later in the day. We might also fish the upper portion of Paradise Valley, down to about the 26-mile marker, but seldom float the dead middle of Paradise Valley this late in the season.
Because the best fishing is usually from 11:00 on through the middle of the day, particularly if it's cold, there's no reason to get an early start. If you're interested in early morning fishing on your September guided trip, check out our Walk/Float Combo Trips. Fall is prime time for these trips.
One thing to note about early fall trips before you book one is this: the best fishing is when the weather stinks. The best fishing of all occurs when air temperatures range from 40 to 55 degrees and a little rain or even when snow is spitting down. Do not book a float trip in the autumn unless you're prepared to fish when it's cold, wet, and nasty.
By early fall, cutthroats are dark in color, pretty, and eager to eat mayfly patterns.
Angler fishing a riffle corner on foot on the Yellowstone in October. We'll often get out and fish on foot late in the season.
While it can snow in September, it usually just dusts the high peaks. Sometime in the last few days of September or in early October, it gets downright cold even at valley level and snows all the way down to the river banks. With this first serious snow, the terrestrial insects depart for good, water temperatures in the river plummet, and though there's still a narrow window of dry fly fishing in early afternoon most days, our thoughts on float trips instead turn to one thing: big fish on streamers, nymphs, and egg patterns.
This is brown trout season. They're migrating on their spawning runs, and by mid-October, the spawn itself begins. Once the fish are actively spawning in shallow water, we leave them alone, but they're fair game on their migrations and as they prepare to spawn in deep water downstream of the spawning gravel. Targeting these fish requires heavy gear and serious flies. There are two main tactics we use when targeting big fall browns. The first is to cover lots of water out of the boat, stripping and ripping streamers or doing a "drift and drag" with a streamer trailing a nymph or egg. Another option is to stop and fish classic streamer runs using swinging techniques on foot, treating the boat as transportation. On most days, we'll use both techniques.
For those who aren't keen on throwing "meat," there is some good dry fly fishing to be had, but it's limited to the warmest part of the day, which makes half-day dry fly floats the best option. The best days, particularly after October 15, are those with gray skies, calm temperatures, and temperatures in the 50s. In such conditions, heavy hatches of fall gray Baetis remain possible on into mid-November, though increasingly after the middle of October the more important hatches are midges.
Except for the first week or so of October, particularly when it is warm, late fall is a poor time for beginners to float. This is intermediate-expert season on floats.
The entire Yellowstone can fish well in late fall, though we will generally choose a stretch with abundant slow, deep runs and areas where shallow gravel bars suddenly drop into deep water. The former areas are where the fish move in preparation for winter, while the latter are places where the big browns stage in preparation for the spawn or rest when they're done, and where the rainbows and cutthroats gather to eat their eggs. Expect to skip a fair amount of water in late fall, as fast and/or shallow stretches are basically worthless now.
Late fall streamer-eater.
While the Yellowstone's our home river, in 2019 we will begin offering trips on many other Montana Rivers. Previously, we'd done a trip or two here and there on the Madison and the Missouri, as well as power boat trips on the Missouri (these will return in 2020), but now that we have two full-time staff members based in Livingston rather than Gardiner, it makes a lot more sense to look further afield from the Yellowstone when water conditions, the season, or client interests dictate.
In general, the rivers we float besides the Yellowstone are best at other times of year than the Yellowstone, especially in late spring and early summer when the Yellowstone is in runoff. The Boulder River is the major exception. It's a small river that's only floatable for about a month immediately after runoff. Some rivers also provide opportunities for "multispecies" fishing, targeting carp, pike, and walleye in addition to trout.
It takes quite a bit of travel time to reach the other rivers we float, but except the Missouri River below Holter Dam (which requires a two-day commitment and an overnight in Craig or Wolf Creek, MT), they're all in reasonable day trip range of Gardiner, and within an hour to an hour and a half of Livingston and Bozeman. Meeting times and places will vary quite a bit depending on which river we'll be fishing, though if you're staying in Gardiner, Paradise Valley, Livingston, or Bozeman, you should expect to meet your guide in Livingston or Bozeman since all the guides we use on rivers besides the Yellowstone are based in these cities. As always, we'll make tentative meeting arrangements when you book and finalize these arrangements a day or two in advance.
Note: Most of the rivers discussed in the following tabs are too far from lodging areas within Yellowstone Park besides Mammoth Hot Springs to make sense if you're staying inside the park rather than in Gardiner or another town outside the park. Please let us know where you're staying and we'll be up-front about whether or not you should plan to float one of the following rivers.
The rivers are listed in their approximate drive-time from Gardiner, rather than in order of how often we float them.
When: For a couple weeks in late June and early July, then again in October and early November/
Where: Between Manhattan and Three Forks, Montana, about 1hr 45min from Gardiner.
The Fish: Brown and rainbow trout averaging 14 to 24 inches, though numbers are low.
The Fishing: Covering lots of water with streamers hoping for one to five big trout per angler.
The Boat: We exclusively float the lower Gallatin in drift boats.
The Gallatin River begins in the western part of Yellowstone Park, then flows north, northwest, and finally west to join the Jefferson and Madison to form the Missouri. While most of the Gallatin is a wade-only fishery, the lower stretch downstream from the East Gallatin confluence is open to float-fishing. This twelve-mile stretch of river is too warm in midsummer, but offers fair fishing in early summer, just after runoff ends, and is good in the autumn when large brown trout run upstream from the Missouri River. We strictly fish this portion of the Gallatin when we're targeting large fish with experienced anglers. It just isn't a good choice for anyone less experienced, since overall fish numbers are low.
Depending on which of our guides you'll be fishing with and where you're staying, when you will be floating the Gallatin you should expect to meet the guide at between 7:00AM and 9:00AM in Livingston or Bozeman, Montana.
When: For four to six weeks after the spring runoff ends, usually beginning in late June or early July
Where: Southeast of Livingston, Montana, about 1hr 55min from Gardiner.
The Fish: Rainbow and brown trout averaging 12 to 18 inches, plus a few cutthroats.
The Fishing: Fast-paced banging banks and rocks with attractor and terrestrial dries for good numbers of solid trout.
The Boat: We exclusively float the Boulder in whitewater rafts with fishing frames, since it is too small and rocky for drift boats.
The Boulder River begins north of Yellowstone Park and east of the Yellowstone River Valley. It flows northeast to join the Yellowstone near Big Timber, Montana, about 30 miles east of Livingston. The upper reaches are walk-wade only due to the river's small size and fast, rocky character in this reach. Much of the upper Boulder and its East and West Fork are paralleled by roads, but their headwaters are generally in the wilderness and require a hike. The lower Boulder downstream of Natural Bridge State Park flows almost entirely through private land, and is just big enough for small whitewater rafts for four to six weeks after the spring runoff winds down. After that, this small river gets too low to float and the trout in the lower reaches are left alone except by the movie stars whose properties line its banks.
The floatable portion of the Boulder (and really all of it) is a small, fast-flowing, rocky river where the trout (mostly rainbows and browns) crush attractor and terrestrial dry flies. Fishing the Boulder is fast-paced and requires short, accurate casts and good drifts in the small patches of slow holding water. In many respects, it fishes much like the upper Yellowstone between Gardiner and Corwin Springs and in Yankee Jim Canyon, save that the trout are somewhat larger on average and the Boulder has more midstream structure. Overall, this is an excellent action fishery that also produces some large fish, with dry flies being the most productive bugs overall. This isn't an undiscovered fishery. Crowds are moderate during the short float season, since many Livingston and Bozeman guides like guiding here while water levels allow it , but the fish never get too smart since the float season is so short and the fish are mostly left alone the rest of the year.
While it's a numbers fishery and its trout are not usually picky, the Boulder River is a poor choice for beginners because of the fast-paced nature of its fishing and the accurate casts it requires. It's also a horrible choice for anyone who is nervous about whitewater, as this is overall the roughest river we guide.
Plan to meet your guide (probably Walter) in Livingston around 7:00 to 8:00AM if you would like to float the Boulder. It's generally only floatable from sometime in the last few days of June or first half of July until sometime in early-mid August. Even in wet years it's too low by Labor Day.
For what it's worth, opening up the Boulder is one of the three reasons Walter opted to replace his high-side drift boat with a raft when it came time for a new boat, the others being keeping Yankee Jim Canyon on the Yellowstone floatable at a wider range of flows and being able to use the Airport access on the Yellowstone at low water. Does this fact pique your interest?
When: Primarly mid-April through June or early July, with secondary opportunities from September through early November.
Where: The lower Madison is located about 25 miles southwest of Bozeman, Montana, about two hours from Gardiner.
The Fish: Primarily rainbow and brown trout averaging 12 to 18 inches, with a few giant browns for the skilled/lucky, plus limited chances for pike and carp.
The Tactics: Primarily nymphing with crayfish patterns and small nymphs, though some dry fly fishing is possible during hatches.
The Boat: We exclusively float the lower Madison in drift boats.
The Madison River begins in Yellowstone Park, flows west and then north while passing through Hebgen, Quake, and finally Ennis Lakes. It then flows through the rugged Beartrap Canyon, exiting it downstream of the Warm Springs fishing access. The "lower" Madison runs from this fishing access north to the river's confluence with the Gallatin and Jefferson to form the Missouri.
The lower Madison is unique among rivers near Bozeman in that it does not see an appreciable spring runoff due to the series of lakes upstream and therefore produces excellent fishing during the May-June runoff period that plagues our other nearby rivers, the Yellowstone most of all. This makes it our only reliable day-trip option for float trips in May and June. This fishery is still a long way from Gardiner, about two hours, but that's little more than half the distance to our next-closest spring float river, the Missouri. The lower Madison is only half an hour from Bozeman and an hour or so from Livingston, making the drive far less onerous if you're staying in one of these towns.
Because it's near Bozeman and the closest reliable fishery in May and June, traffic on the lower Madison is heavy. This, coupled with the river's large trout but somewhat low fish numbers, shallow water, and abundant weed growth, makes for technical fishing. Expect to fish crayfish patterns, San Juan Worms, and a variety of small nymphs most of the time. In May and June, some good dry fly fishing is possible, especially during the Mother's Day Caddis hatch (which is far more reliable here than on the Yellowstone). Some terrestrial fishing is possible in the fall, and the fall Baetis hatches can also be good. While not at all a numbers fishery, the lower Madison can produce some large fish, particularly brown trout that are often willing to chase huge streamers.
The lower Madison is not typically challenging from a tactics standpoint. Casts need not be accurate, and much of the fishing is done with the boat anchored in good areas, which allows for second chances if anglers mess up their first casts. That said, this is not a good stretch for impatient people of any age or kids, since the river character is not very interesting (few rapids to keep heart rates up) and the overall fish numbers on most trips are not high. It's a good stretch of river for those who want a slow-paced day and some cracks at solid trout on a river when other nearby rivers are muddy.
Because of its low elevation and the "heat sink" created by shallow Ennis Lake upstream, the lower Madison is seldom a good choice in high summer. The water is just too warm. There are a few opportunities at this time in the very bottom of the lower Madison to pursue large carp and a few pike, but the Missouri is usually better for this unless you are interested in observing the chaos of the "inner tube and bikini hatch."
The guides we use on the lower Madison are all based in Livingston or Bozeman, so you should expect to meet your guides in one of these towns if traveling from Gardiner, Mammoth, or Paradise Valley. If you happen to be staying in West Yellowstone or Big Sky, you will meet the guide near the launch point. We'll want to be on the water no later than 8:00 most days.
When: April and early May and from early July through mid-November.
Where: Between Three Forks and Townsend, MT, roughly 1hr 45min to 2hr 15min from Gardiner.
The Fish: Spring and Fall: seasonal runs of rainbow and brown trout averaging 18 to 24 inches. Summer: Montana's best spot & stalk fishing for "golden bonefish" averaging four to twelve pounds, walleye, some large resident rainbow and brown trout, and a few pike.
The Tactics: Varies by season and quarry but always involves large rods and reels with powerful drag systems.
The Boat: For now, all fishing is done via drift boats. We will resume offering jet boat trips on this water in 2020.
The Missouri starts at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin at Three Forks, Montana, about 30 miles west of Bozeman or 1hr 45min from Gardiner. This upper section of the Missouri flows roughly north, past Toston Dam and the towns of Toston and Townsend, before emptying into Canyon Ferry Lake. While there's some fishing from Three Forks to Toston Dam (which will get more interesting in 2020 when we start running power boat trips again), the best fishing on this section is from Toston Dam to Canyon Ferry Lake.
In this reach, the Missouri is broad, shallow, usually slightly off-color, and often warm. Structure is formed by rocks, riffles, and the occasional cliff or island hole. Resident trout populations are low, only a few hundred per mile, but they are clustered around the many small springs that enter the river and so are not impossible to find despite the river's vast size, even in the summer. Larger numbers of trout run up from Canyon Ferry on their spawning runs in spring and fall, and these periods are the main times to fish here when we're chasing trout, especially fall when some stupendous browns are possible. This is not a numbers fishery for trout, but the fish are larger on average than any other stretch on which we run float trips, usually over 18 inches and often over 22. The trout usually prefer streamers, large nymphs, crayfish, and egg imitations, but they'll eat dries as well, including both terrestrials and various aquatic insects.
"Golden bonefish" are our main quarry on the Missouri River headwaters during the summer. This one is average.
Most of the season, the real story here is the very good "multispecies" fishing. This water is full of walleye that will eat streamers as well as conventional lures, has fishable numbers of big pike that will chase BIG streamers, and offers Montana's best fly fishing for the elusive "golden bonefish." I'm talking about carp here, and I'm serious. Our guides have been chasing these fish since about 2005 on their off time, and we'd LOVE IT if more people were willing to pursue them with us.
This isn't your garden-variety mudhole fishing with bait. The nickname "golden bonefish" is well-earned, except the carp average larger than bonefish and you'll cast to many more of them in a day of fishing. Carp here average four to twelve pounds but can reach twenty pounds. Except for some dry fly fishing with hoppers and aquatic insect dries from the boat, targeting foam patches and eddies where the carp may gather in numbers, all fishing here is sight-fishing in six inches to three feet of water with flats-style streamers, with a variety of Clouser Minnows and Gotchas our preferred patterns. The carp probably take these as crayfish or juvenile baitfish. Getting the carp is more akin to hunting than most fishing. It usually involves spotting them from a distance either from the boat or after parking it and stalking the banks, then carefully working into casting position and making one good cast. Screw it up and the fish bolts for deeper water. Get it right and you're hooked up to a freight train. The first run is usually 100-200 feet in length and is unstoppable, so a strong reel and plenty of backing are required. After that, it's more of a bulldog fight to the shore. A couple big carp will exhaust even the toughest anglers.
One other key thing worth noting: Carp fishing is best in hot weather when the skies are bright, from late July through mid-September. In other words, these fish bite best in conditions that trout elsewhere bite worst.
Bigger, but still average. This one took Walter about 50 feet into his backing on a seven-weight rod.
Regardless of species, this is a specialty fishery requiring heavy gear. Seven-weight and eight-weight rods are required for everything save dry fly fishing for trout. For the spring and fall trout, spey and switch rods are good bets for those who like them. Good reels and plenty of backing are always a must. Typical flies regardless of target species are different here than anywhere else we guide.
As you might gather from the above, this is NOT a fishery that's suited to kids, beginners, or anyone who wants to rack up big numbers of trout. It is a GREAT fishery for people who are looking to do something different and tie into some big, challenging fish, especially fish most anglers have never targeted with a fly before.
If you're staying in Gardiner, Paradise Valley, or Livingston, expect to meet your guide in Livingston at around 7:00AM or a little later. The drive to reach the best stretch of this water is about 2hr from Gardiner in total, about an hour and ten minutes from Livingston.
When: April through sometime in July except during the spring melt, then again from September until early November.
Where: The portion of the Jefferson we fish is located between Whitehall and Three Forks, MT, around two hours from Gardiner.
The Fish: Brown and some rainbow trout averaging 14 to 20 inches, with some giant browns, plus limited chances for pike and carp.
The Tactics: Primarily nymphing with crayfish patterns and hucking streamers, though some hopper fishing is possible beginning in September.
The Boat: We exclusively fish the "Jeff" with drift boats.
The Jefferson River is formed by the confluence of the Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby Rivers near Twin Bridges, Montana. It flows northeast and then east before joining the Madison and Gallatin at Three Forks to form the Missouri. While it's fishable for its entire length, we run our trips on the middle and lower river, between the town of Whitehall and Three Forks, and pay the most attention to the beautiful Jefferson River Canyon near Cardwell.
The Jefferson holds primarily brown trout, though rainbows are making a resurgence after several years in a row of good streamflows. Streamflows are the "Jeff's" bane. The river is frequently dewatered for irrigation in late summer, leading to warm water and limited holding water and therefore high mortality for trout. This makes it a poor choice in midsummer unless you're interested in small numbers of pike or carp. In the spring, just before runoff, in early summer before the water drops, and in the fall after the irrigation pumps are turned off, the Jefferson is a far different and far better river. It's not a numbers fishery, but it's one that can turn out some excellent brown trout in beautiful scenery, without the crowds of the Madison, Yellowstone, or Missouri.
Fishing here is primiarly subsurface, with crayfish patterns and streamers the top bets. If it's a good water year and/or the weather has been cool in late August and early September, the hopper fishing can also be outstanding. The Jefferson is a slow river, with deep runs separated by long, dead pools and riffles. We'll target the deeper, faster water, as well as the undercut banks and other typical brown trout haunts.
The Jefferson is not a numbers fishery and it's rather slow-paced, so it's not a good choice for beginners or kids. It's a great choice for anglers who would prefer to target a small number of larger brown trout in beautiful and peaceful surroundings, without the crowds that choke the Madison. It's a particularly good choice for anglers who are visiting just before the spring melt in late April, just as the melt ends in late June (but before the Yellowtone is quite ready), or who want to try for a monster in late fall.
Expect to meet your guide in Livingston at around 7:00AM to float the Jefferson. The drive to our favorite launch point near Cardwell is an hour and ten minutes from Livingston, or two hours from Gardiner. If you happen to be staying in Bozeman, your guide will pick you up there around 7:30, and that cuts 25 minutes from the drive.
When: Year-round, though we mostly fish here from April through June, when most other waters are out of play due to the spring melt.
Where: This portion of the Missouri begins at Holter Dam near Wolf Creek and Craig, Montana, about 30 minutes north of Helena or 3hr 20min from Gardiner.
The Fish: Rainbow and brown trout averaging 14 to 20 inches.
The Tactics: Everything under the sun, though nymphing with small mayflies, scuds and sowbugs, and San Juan Worms will put up the big numbers.
The Boat: We exclusively fish the Missouri with drift boats.
Let's get one thing straight immediately: this section of the Missouri is too far from Gardiner to make sense as a day-trip fishery. Instead, you should plan to spend at least one night in Helena, Wolf Creek, Craig, or Cascade, Montana, if you would like to fish here. In fact, due to the distance even from Livingston (2.5 hours), we require bookings of 2+ consecutive days for trips here (half-day bookings are okay). It makes sense to add-on a couple days on the Missouri to the front or back end of your Yellowstone-area trip, especially in May and June when the Yellowstone and Jefferson are muddy and the Madison is crowded.
After leaving Canyon Ferry Lake, the Missouri is transformed once more into a coldwater fishery by the dam's cold outflow. It passes almost immediately through another lake, Hauser Lake. Below this lake is the four-mile "Land of the Giants" section, which can be accessed only on foot or via power boat (look for our previous power boat trips to resume here in 2020). The river then enters Holter Reservoir. The most famous and most fished section of the Missouri begins at the dam backing up the reservoir and extends most of the way to Great Falls. Here the Missouri is big, almost always crystal clear, full of weeds, full of insects and other trout food, and therefore full of trout. It's also full of anglers, for good reason. The fishing here is almost always consistent, even in the dead of winter and when other rivers are chocolate brown with runoff, and the trout are both numerous and large.
The reason we offer trips on this water is simple: this is by the best float river in anything resembling acceptable range of our shop during the spring melt. Unlike every other water we float with the exception of the technical and demanding lower Madison, the Missouri fishes great in May and early June, when everything else is blown.
During the timeframe in which we float it consistently, from April through June, the fishing begins with nymphing and occasional midge matches, while advanced anglers might move a few bigger fish on streamers. By the end of April, the BWO hatches offer better dry fly fishing, while later in May the caddis begin. In June, PMD replace the BWO. Nymphs remain strong choices all through this period.
Unlike many of our other fisheries, at this time even beginners have the chance of moving both numbers of fish and larger fish from the boat, since typical nymphing tactics on the "MO" require short casts and the guide can often row the boat into prime position.
Because of the distance, lodging, and time commitment involved for the guide, we require significant notice for Missouri trips. That said, at least in the April-May timeframe, our guides aren't yet busy for the season and can almost certainly make room in their schedules for a road trip to the Missouri.
As you might expect given the distance involved and the fact that there are MANY outfitters closer to the Missouri than we are, most of our Missouri trips are with repeat/regular clients who want to be sure they're fishing with us on good rivers, regardless of the travel involved.
Richard Parks is Montana Outfitter #327. Under his licensure, Parks' Fly Shop is licensed to operate in Yellowstone National Park, Montana waters under general regulations, and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Walter J. Wiese is Montana Outfitter #22001. Under his licensure, the shop is licensed to operate on the Madison and Missouri Rivers.
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