July 28, 2014
I don't remember the first time I fished the Yellowstone River, but I'm pretty sure I hated it. I grew up in Livingston, Montana, in a household where going fishing was not just a leisure activity; it was a way of life.
As I tangled my line less, and spent more time actually casting, my frustration subsided and fishing became more enjoyable. Catching, however, was rarely part of the equation. My joy came from the freedom to nap on a grassy bank, the intriguing insects I found under rocks, and peaceful moments watching ducks fly into the sunset. It was the simple pleasures of the Yellowstone—not my fish count—that originally captured me as an angler.
Unfortunately, 25 years later, sometimes I lose sight of this.
The Yellowstone is an angler's river. It is one of the most difficult waters I have fished, demanding a skill set few have mastered. Even if you get a perfect dead-drift and your line control is impeccable, even if you have the right split-shot and know where the schools of cutthroat congregate, even if you show up during the middle of a legendary hatch, you still cannot control how the Yellowstone will treat you.
This is partly due to the river's erratic behavior. Its flows range from as little as 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the winter to 27,000 cfs during spring runoff. One day it coughs up 40 fish on drys to a couple of beginners who can't cast past the oars, only to skunk a pair of veterans the next day.
After answering phones at the Yellowstone Angler fly shop for more than 10 years, a single question echoes in my mind over the rest: "So tell me, James, when's the best time to fish the Yellowstone?"
Half jokingly, I often replied, "Anytime you can!"
While that may sound like typical shop hype, part of it is sincere. The least predictable seasons have produced some of my best days.
Equally true, I've been skunked during high season on the Yellowstone. That said, when pressed to answer this question honestly, I do have a few favorite times to be on the water.
Spring Fishing on the Yellowstone River
Target dates: April 15 through June
Best section: Pine Creek to Big Timber
Flies: #2-4 Home Invaders (white or black), #14-16 March Browns, and #12-16 Baetis
Gear: 7- or 8-weight rod with sinking lines; 5-weight for drys
Good day: One or two fish per angler over 20 inches
Epic: One fish over 24 inches, with three to five 20+ inches
The Yellowstone is famous for its large, colorful fall browns, but the best time to catch these big browns is in spring.
Historically, the majority of the river's 30-inch monsters have been caught on bait, but occasionally one eats a streamer. If finding 24- to 28-inchers is your game, consider late April, when water temperatures rise to between 43 and 48 degrees F. These temps entice browns to move from their winter holes to the banks, where they will attack a well-placed streamer.
These temperatures often arrive a week or two before the fabled Mother's Day caddis hatch. As water temperatures rise, spring Baetis, midges, and March Browns join the menu, but stick to streamers for the biggest fish.
It's not uncommon to find murky water in the spring. The same warmer weather that heats up the river also melts the lower-elevation snowpack. Don't worry, this is actually a good thing. There's a common saying regarding water clarity on the Yellowstone: "Green is good." This means if the tint of the water is a translucent green rather than milky brown, it's go time!
One reason 2 to 3 feet of visibility is better than 5 to 6 feet is that the trout can't get a clear look at your fly, tippet, or boat shadow. They are forced to make split-second decisions—eat or don't. Considering many of these fish are hungry from winter, and haven't seen flies for months, that decision is often a simple one.
Dark streamers with contrast show up best in this greenish water. I typically fish streamers in tandem as part of a Bow River rig—a large white streamer as the lead fly, followed by a smaller black or natural olive streamer.
This setup triggers a brown's predatory instinct to chase smaller forage fish. Another idea behind the Bow River rig is that trout see the brighter, flashier fly first and begin hot pursuit. As they close in on the attractor streamer, they see your second, more natural-looking fly and eat it instead.
Pounding the banks. Trout hugging the banks are often looking to ambush baby whitefish, suckers, juvenile trout, and other forage fish. It is imperative to strip your streamer as soon as it hits the water, since natural prey isn't going to sit there when the chase begins.
Do this by shooting your flies toward the bank, stopping short near the end of the cast, and stripping line while the flies make contact with the water.
If a fish doesn't explode on your flies in the first 3 to 4 feet from the bank, wait a moment and let your sinking tip take the flies deeper before working the water 10 feet off the bank. Here I use a short strip-pause-strip-pause technique, or a rod-tip, twitch-stop-strip retrieve.
The pauses are the key. Maybe they give trout a chance to catch up and attack. Maybe small fish can dart quickly, but then get tired. Always be prepared to strike when you start to strip again, as trout often smash your fly in that instant.
Use a short, strong leader to turn over two heavy flies. My go-to streamer rod is an 8-weight with a 300-grain sinking line. This setup allows you to cover the banks, as well as deep runs.
Throwing it all day with two streamers, however, can be tiring, so I also keep a 7-weight rigged with a floating line. With the 7-weight, I shotgun the best bankside pockets and cover as much water as possible.
If you don't have a streamer rod, a 5- or 6-weight gets the job done, but consider downsizing the weight and size of your streamers.
Mother's Day Caddis
Target dates: April 25 to May 15
Best section: Emigrant to Springdale
Flies: #12-16 Hi-Vis Elk Hair, Goddard Caddis, Sparkle Caddis Pupa
Gear: 4-, 5-, or 6-weight rod, depending on wind; 7- or 8-weight for streamers
Good day: 10 to 20 fish per angler in the 12- to 16-inch range, with one or two over 18 inches on drys
Epic: 30 to 50 fish per angler, with several near or over the 20-inch mark
The Mother's Day Caddis hatch is one of the most difficult hatches to hit perfectly. This is because the same warm temperatures that trigger the emergence of Brachycentrus occidentalis also initiate spring runoff. And the combination of a thick hatch, with fish keyed on the bugs, along with clear water and no wind, is rare near Livingston.
In a perfect year—which happens about once every 10 years—we are blessed with nearly two weeks of incredible dry-fly fishing. Most years we only get a three-day window of optimal conditions.
The good news is that even if you can't fish the Mother's Day caddis hatch, there are always several outstanding plan Bs in the area.
Keep your options open during late April/early May and you'll find incredible fishing somewhere nearby, whether it's on Paradise Valley spring creeks, local tailwaters, or private trophy lakes.
If you hit the Mother's Day hatch right, the Yellowstone comes alive with rising trout. The best sections for caddis are from Emigrant to Springdale.
Key water temperature of around 52 degrees F. makes the caddis "pop." Since the hatch is water temperature related, it starts on the lower river and works upstream. Caddis arrive earlier on local spring creeks since the water is flowing out of the ground at 52 degrees year-round.
Once fertilized, caddis females dive or crawl back into the water to lay their eggs on the undersides of rocks and sticks. Slap your drys down hard to mimic the egg-laying females trying to break through the surface.
Rene Harrop ties a deadly CDC Fertile Caddis, with a bright green tail. My other favorite drys include #14-18 Hi-Vis Elk Hairs, Trudes, Goddard Caddis, and Butch Caddis.
While it's more fun to catch fish on drys, caddis emergers are also killers during this hatch.
In addition to caddis, late April and early May also have impressive hatches of March Browns, Baetis, and midges. Yellowstone trout seem to focus on the largest insect of the day. If skies are overcast, bring larger #10-12 Parachute Hare's Ears to match Western March Browns.
Target dates: June 25 to July 10
Best section: Gardiner to Loch Leven
Flies: #4-6 Flutter Bugs, Sofa Pillows, Rogue Golden Stones; #14-16 Morrish's Iron Sally, Stimulators
Gear: Fast-action 6- or 7-weight rod
Good day: 10 to 12 fish per angler around 16 inches, with one or two over 18 inches
Epic: 30 trout in the boat, with several hogs over 20 inches spewing live Salmonflies
Salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica) fever infects many guides and local fish bums in late June and early July on the Yellowstone. Since the Yellowstone is the last river to clear after runoff, and the last to see Salmonflies, many Montana anglers have already been bewitched for weeks.
Before you peel out of the parking lot, it's a good idea to have a plan. You might want to stay strategically ahead of the hatch and fish nymphs; fish in the middle of the hatch with impressive numbers of huge bugs crawling all over you; or fish below the hatch with no bugs, but fish rising to drys again.
You'd think the best fishing would occur during the mid-hatch time frame, but due to the quantity of food in the river, the fish become gorged. Remember how you felt last Thanksgiving? Well, the trout also have to loosen a belt before dessert, and often take a day or two off before they actively start feeding again.
Hank Fabich was the first to turn me on to the incredible fishing above the hatch with big Rubber Legs or Bitch Creek patterns. When fishing above the hatch, not only are you away from the crowds, but you're also one of the first to get flies in front of large fish.
Most anglers fish two nymphs with split-shot 3 to 6 feet below an indicator. I use large black Rubber Legs that show up better in turbid water, with a #6-8 Prince Nymph as my dropper.
A George's Brown Stone or a Bitch Creek with white rubber legs also shows up well in murky water. As with all nymph fishing, practice perfect dead-drifts and control the line so that when a fish eats, you're able to strike quickly and keep it tight.
For the ultimate dry-fly fishing, float your chosen section three to five days after the hatch has passed. Even though the event has moved on, the trout haven't forgotten and are finally hungry for more. For whatever reason, trout often take Golden Stones or a caddis dropper over a Salmonfly, so don't be afraid to fish two drys.
One of my favorite drys this time of year is a Chubby Chernobyl Hopper. I love this fly because its white Antron wing is easy to see, and it floats like a battleship.
Behind it I trail a yellow Stimulator or a Hi-Vis Elk Hair, trying to get my flies as close to the willows as possible. Since Salmonflies and Golden Stones flutter on the surface, a small twitch as soon as your flies hit is effective. Also, the females skitter along the surface of the river as they lay their eggs, so constantly twitching your fly like a popper can be a good technique.
The best section to look for Salmonflies is from Gardiner to Loch Leven. Like caddis, the hatch is temperature and light related, so the lower portions of the river get these big bugs first.
Unlike caddis nymphs, Salmonfly nymphs live up to three years before crawling out on rocks or willow stalks to hatch into adults. Also unlike caddis, the head of the hatch moves upstream fast—conditions and numbers change daily. You may see Salmonfly adults swarming one area, then return the next day to find nothing.
Once the Salmonflies hit Gardiner, they continue moving upstream into Yellowstone National Park. It's illegal to float in the park, but there's incredible fishing on foot.
In addition to the Yellowstone, don't overlook the Gardner River and Lamar River Salmonfly hatches. Angling pressure is typically low in the park at this time of year, and your chances of an epic dry-fly day are high. Since the park's native cutthroat rise slower to drys, it's the perfect practice ground for beginners.
Target dates: July 15 to Aug. 30
Best section: Gardiner to Columbus
Flies: #2-8 Grand Hopper, Chernobyl Hopper, BLT Hopper, Pat's Rubber Legs, beadhead nymphs
Gear: Fast-action 5- or 6-weight rod; 7- or 8-weight for streamers
Good day: 10 fish per angler, with one or two 18+ inches
Epic: 15 to 20 fish per angler, with one or more fish in the 22- to 24-inch range
The most popular time to fish the Yellowstone is midsummer. The weather is beautiful, and it coincides with both summer vacation and the best hopper fishing, which begins in late July and continues through August.
The beginning of July can fish great in low-water years, but by August the river may or may not be under "hoot owl" fishing restrictions, which forces you to quit after 2 P.M. In a high-water year, the window pushes back a couple of weeks.
There are many factors that affect hopper fishing. To begin with, it takes time for hoppers to grow to an edible size.
It helps if we don't get a late freeze during the spring. If the hoppers hatch from the ground early, and get snowed on while they are young, many of them die.
Probably the most important factor is that when water temperature rises to between 60 and 65 degrees, bigger fish are no longer comfortable lying in the deep, dark holes. To get more oxygen, they move into shallow riffles where they are game to eat. When your hopper floats inches over their heads, hold on.
The Yellowstone's best hopper fishing occurs on sunny, hot afternoons. As the afternoon sun bakes the banks, the hoppers become active and get blown off course by the wind. Unlike Salmonflies, hoppers can't skitter or swim well, making them easier targets.
In addition to fast and rapid riffle corners, another effective way to fish hoppers is tight to the banks where a perfect cast often rewards you with a satisfying slam. Try to cast where no man has ever gotten a fly before.
The bigger the risk, the better the payoff. Even if you get your fly within a foot of the bank, it is not uncommon to hear your guide say, "Closer, closer—you're not going to catch them unless you get it closer."
While fishing the bank, make your casts at a 45-degree angle ahead of the boat for the longest drifts. Big fish rarely eat dragging flies. If you are in the back of the boat, land your flies downstream of the oars; if you're in the bow, get your flies as far ahead of the boat as possible.
If something looks too good to pass up, the guy in the back of the boat can cast behind, but as outfitter Hank Bechard often reminds me, "Hey! Fish the future, not the past!"
For bank fishing, I fish two hoppers, or a hopper followed by a smaller dry such as a Trude, Stimulator, caddis, or Wulff. This way you can get centimeters from the bank, with better accuracy and avoid snagging sticks just under the surface.
If you're tangling up and sense your guide's frustration, stick with one hopper and focus on getting it as tight to the bank as possible. Twitching it ever so slightly is a subtle trick. Twitch the fly too hard and it will sink.
If you're in the back of the boat and your friend in the front is covering the water like white on rice, don't be afraid to cast toward the middle of the river. At the end of August and early September, some fish move off the bank into deeper water to avoid pressure.
For this type of fishing, longer drifts catch more fish. You'd be surprised how many fish "test" your drift by slowly backpedaling beneath your hopper with the current.
If you can't get a 5-foot drift without drag, then they know your fly is a phony. If you can get a 20-foot drift, well that's got to be real!
For midriver hopper fishing I use a Pat's Rubber Legs or small beadhead nymph dropper. If you are after a toad, toss the Rubber Legs. If you'd like to catch a few whitefish and some smaller trout to keep things interesting, fish the beadhead.
As with a strike indicator, if you see your hopper go down quickly or slowly, set the hook. A trout take and a snag look identical. If you strike and nothing is there, simply turn your strike into a strong backcast, pause for a moment, and zing your flies back in there.
Fishing with excess slack on the water may give you a great drift, but you won't be able to pull enough slack out of the line to tighten on the fish.
One strike technique that helps pull a lot of slack out at once is the "Daffy." To do it, quickly raise the rod with your casting hand, and at the same time pull down on the line with your other hand. This way, instead of pulling 3 feet of slack out, you can eat up nearly 6 feet in one motion.
Where to float. The upper Yellowstone from Gardiner to Joe Brown is packed with native cutthroat. While this section is probably the most difficult to row a drift boat (with a couple of Class II waves) it's perhaps the easiest fishing. If you happen to miss a strike, there are plenty of second chances.
Lose the beadhead dropper unless you plan to target tons of whitefish. Instead, stay on top with two drys or fish a Pat's Rubber Legs dropper to stay into trout. Smaller hoppers work best here.
From Pine Creek to U.S. Route 89 bridge is the Yellowstone's bread-and-butter hopper water, with a good mix of quantity and quality fish. There are lots of riffle corners, good riprap banks, and solid shots at fish 20 inches or better.
Pine Creek to Carter's is considered the most scenic float, with the jagged Absaroka Range up close and personal.
Floating "down low" (anywhere from U.S. Route 89 bridge to Columbus) is for experienced anglers only because of the low fish count. If you miss a fish, it could be more than an hour before you get another chance. Without excellent drifts, your fly likely won't get hit, since the fish are larger and cold to rookie mistakes.
If you plan to fish this section, consider hiring a guide, since the good spots are few and far between. Competent guides know where to fish hard and where to push through.
No matter when you choose to fish the Yellowstone, with the right attitude you'll always have a memorable and pleasurable time. Although it's far too easy to get caught up in counting fish or measuring them against your rod, in the end it's all about enjoying yourself. Fishing the Yellowstone enables you to forget your problems and focus on something else. When you step into a drift boat, leave your ego on shore, and open yourself up to the simple pleasures the 'Stone has to offer: incredible views, good company, the open freedom of a big sky, wild trout, and the eagles and ospreys.
Unlock what's built up in your mind and release it all in a single overhead cast. Forget about the hatches and let something emerge within you.
James Anderson is a fly-fishing photographer and guide for George Anderson's Yellowstone Angler. He lives in Livingston, Montana, with his wife Amory and their dog Mace.