Spanish Peaks soaring over the Gallatin River

The Gallatin River starts high in the mountains within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park.  The river flows north for approximately 100 miles before joining the Madison and Jefferson rivers, near the town of Three Forks Montana.    The river has several unique sections of fishable water that all provide varied fish to pursue as well as very different water types.  The Gallatin is  the Red Headed Step Child of Southwestern Montana Rivers, but it is one of our best fisheries for the do it yourself angler.  The Gallatin does not get the press the other rivers do primarily because it has a healthy population of smaller fish in it than does the Yellowstone or Madison.   The Gallatin does give up a beast from time to time but on average the fish are smaller than those on some other rivers in the area.  With that being said however the Gallatin is a great fishery, especially because the access is second to none.   The majority of the river flows through either Yellowstone Park or National Forest land which provides a ton of great access.  Not only is much of the river flowing through federal land but there is U.S. Highway 191 that follows it for much of it’s path.  The canyon is a windy road with lots of pull offs and turnouts so anglers can access much of the river and still maintain site of their vehicle.  The Gallatin’s fish are plentiful and very eager to come to the fly,  what they lack in size they make up for with their desire to spit the hook.  They are very feisty fish because of the cold clean water that they call home.

The Upper Reaches from Headwaters to Yellowstone National Park Boundry:

The Gallatin’s headwaters are located inside Yellowstone National park with the first 20 or so miles only accessible by hiking.  The river finally runs into U.S. Highway 191 near it’s first major

Gallatin in the Backcountry

tributary of Fan Creek.  The back country section of the Gallatin, as well as Fan Creek offer some great fishing for anglers willing to put in the time and effort,  as well as the fear factor of being in heavy Grizzly country.   Both the headwaters of the Gallatin as well as Fan Creek have nice trails that will lead you to some good meadows that provide some really fun dry fly action.  The highlight of the backcountry fishing is later in the summer when the terrestrial insects are available to the fish.  The river continues to flow for approximately another 15 miles before it leaves Yellowstone National Park.  The river through the park holds Rainbows, Browns, West Slope Cutthroats as well as whitefish.   Hatches include caddis, stoneflies, midges, several species of Mayflies as well as lots of terrestrials later in the summer months.  Your fly selections don’t need to have flies for fish with PHD’s, the fish generally love to eat attractors and don’t get selective to specific match the hatch type bugs.  You do need a Yellowstone National Park license to fish this section of the Gallatin so make sure you have the appropriate license.

YNP Boundry to confluence with the West Fork near Big Sky Montana:

Once the Gallatin leaves the park the river becomes fairly shallow and filled with boulders.  This

Porcupine Wildlife Management Area

section probably see’s the least amount of pressure due to the lack of deeper water.  There are plenty of fish in this section but you will find yourself walking a good ways between really productive pools.  There is one major tributary that enters the Gallatin on this section of the Gallatin and it is called the Taylor’s Fork of the Gallatin.   The Taylor’s fork is a fun creek to fish if you want to get away from the highway.  There is a good dirt road that follows the Taylor’s Fork and it provides some nice fishing in a beautiful setting.   The Taylor’s Fork however can be the spoiler for fishing the Gallatin after a heavy rain event.  There are several dry hillsides in the Taylor’s Fork drainage that can turn the entire length of the Gallatin downstream of it’s confluence  into a dirty mess after a good rain.  Some of the best areas to fish the section of the Gallatin are located near the Red Canyon Campground area as well as the section that runs through the Porcupine Wildlife Management area near Big Sky.   The Porcupine area is located in the Meadow directly upstream of the turn into Big Sky and it provides some very nice water with a mix of shallow riffles and a few deep runs.

The Gallatin Canyon:

The West Fork of the Gallatin enters the main stem of the Gallatin at the stop light where you turn  into the Big Sky Ski and Summer Resort.  The West Fork almost doubles the size of the

Deep in the Canyon

Gallatin as it flows down through the dramatic Gallatin Canyon.  This is probably the most popular section of the river for anglers because of the access combined with the deep holes and pocket water that hold a lot of fish.   The water is very easy to read in this section of river and the fish will hold in the most likely of spots.  You will have to deal with raft traffic during the summer between the Moose Creek Campground downstream to the Storm Castle Bridge.  This is the whitewater section of the river which is home to the “Mad Mile” and “House Rock”.  If you are here with the family and want to give whitewater rafting a try this is one heck of a ride when the water is high.   The raft traffic doesn’t really affect the fishing but it does take away from some of the aesthetic value of being on the river.  Below the Storm Castle bridge you will see very little boat traffic.  The fishing in this section of river is wonderful but be careful when wading, the rocks are like “greased bowling balls” and even the most confident wader can take a spill.  I highly recommend a wading staff for anglers on the Gallatin.

The Gallatin Valley:

The river breaks out of the Gallatin Canyon and heads into the wide open Gallatin Valley.    As it leaves the confines of the Canyon the Gallatin takes a pretty drastic change in character.   The gradient of the river bed is reduced and with the openness of the valley the river can spread out.  Much of the river flows through private land once it hits the valley but there are still plenty of access points that will give you the opportunity to get on the water.   The first 10 to 15 miles

Another tree in the way

of the river in the valley offer good fishing year round but as we get later into the summer the demand for water from the agricultural community starts to draw down the flows to the point where the lower reaches of the river have very little water left.  There are many large irrigation headgates between the mouth of the Canyon and 4 corners which divert water to other parts of the valley.  In high water years this demand doesn’t create much of an issue but in drought years it can be very limiting to anglers.   From 4 corners to where the river meets up with the East Gallatin River you can have very limited opportunities due to the diversion of water.    Once the East Gallatin dumps into the Gallatin there is about another 15 miles of river before the Gallatin becomes a tributary of the Missouri River.  This section from Nixon Bridge to the confluence has only a couple of access points.  This is the only section of the Gallatin that you may fish from a boat on so most of the anglers who fish the lower river are in either rafts or drift boats.  The river above Nixon Bridge is closed to fishing from boats.  You may float the upper reaches of the Gallatin but you are required to pull the boat over and fish from the bank or wade out into the water.  The boat may only be used as transportation from spot to spot.

Overview :

The Gallatin is a wonderful fishery that offers many diverse types of fishing.  From the Westslopes of the headwaters to the big browns and rainbows near the rivers end there is a little bit of everything for the fly angler.  The Gallatin does get some very good hatches but most of

You have to want it to float the Gallatin!

the time you just need to match the size and shape of the bug with a very general attractor type fly.  The Gallatin is primarily a wade fisherman’s river and boat traffic will be limited to whitewater rafters in the canyon.   The only section of the river that is really reasonable for running a hard sided drift boat is the section from Nixon Bridge to the confluence.   A raft can get you down much of the river but I recommend you have very good skills on the oars as well as get current information from someone who has tried floating the section you might want to attempt.  The Gallatin in the Valley is infested with beavers that knock over trees all the time.  The river channel also changes from year to year and you should be fully prepared to portage your boat around log jams and downed trees.  Even if you get a report that a section is clear it may not be by the time you get on the water.  I have spent a lot of time floating the Gallatin in the valley and I usually carry a saw with me just in case there are downed trees.  There are also a couple of river wide diversion dams that can be very dangerous for floaters.

Hatches on the Gallatin:

The Gallatin has a wide variety of insect activity throughout the year.   The winter and spring months see good hatches of adult midges.  The midge hatches can be found throughout the winter months but many days you will not see fish looking towards the surface.  Starting in Late February we will start to see some more consistent midge hatches that will bring the fish up to the surface.   The best times to fish the late winter/early spring midge hatches are on cloudy in-climate weather days.  Bright sunny days will bring bugs to the surface but it will discourage the fish from coming out of the depths.  In early to mid March we will start to see a few small stoneflies start to hatch, Neumuera and capnia stones will be seen on the snow covered banks but we rarely see many fish that key in on these very small stonefly adults.  You will occasionally see a fish or two eating the small stones but it is not a hatch to count on by any means.  Depending on weather conditions we could see our next round of insect hatches start in late March or Early April.  The Gallatin gets nice hatches of both March Browns and Blue Winged Olives.  You will also, on occasion, see a larger stonefly adult hatch on the Gallatin that is similar to a Skwala.  There is some debate about it being a true Skwala,  but if it’s not it sure is a very close cousin.   The BWO’s and March Browns can be great hatches while the Skwala stones are very sparse and few fish take a liking to them.    The Baetis and March Browns can last throughout the month of April.  Again the best days will be cloudy and overcast for both insects.  One note to the March Browns is that they come off for only very short periods during the day.  An hour long March Brown hatch is a long period for the bugs to be on the water, but when they are the fish go ape for them.  As April comes to an end we start to see the warm weather and spring runoff.   Spring runoff generally gets started sometime between late April and the first week of May.  Every so often we will get a cold spell just after the Gallatin starts to rise and get dirty that will clear up the river enough for the fish to get on last meal in before the onslaught of spring runoff hits full force.  In a rare year that this happens we can have some great fishing with the “Mother’s Day” caddis hatch that hits the Gallatin.   We usually see the caddis hatch but most years the river is too dirty for the fishing to be worth while.

Spring Runoff on the Gallatin varies drastically from year to year.  I have seen the river clean and ready to fish as early as the first week in June and I have also seen it be as late as the middle of July before it clears and fishes.  On an average water year the river is usually fishable by the third or fourth week of June, however it is usually still very high and wading can still be very dangerous.  As soon as the river starts to clear we see nice hatches of Caddis, Goldenstones and Salmonflies.   The Salmonfly hatch on the Gallatin can be tremendous with lots of insects but in true Salmonfly fashion you can get your butt whooped if the fish eat to many nymphs.  Typically we don’t see the river clear enough to fish until the bugs reach the middle of the Canyon where all the whitewater rafting areas are.   The river is also still very high when the Salmonflies hit so wading is very limited and I always encourage people to wet wade rather than be in waders that will take you straight to the bottom if you were to fall off the bank.   Once the river starts to drop and clear we start to see our most productive fishing with dry flies on the Gallatin.  Typically from about the 4th of July all the way through the rest of the month you can count on nice hatches of Green Drakes, PMD’s, Caddis and Yellow Sallies.  This is also prime time for fishing large attractor dry flies, which I always recommend to folks for the fast water on the Gallatin.

Muddy water Green Drake

As July comes to a close the hatches will start to dwindle a bit, but the fish still love to eat on the surface.  As the hatches slow all you need to do is downsize your attractors and you will still get plenty of fish to come up to the surface.  Terrestrial action heats up in the Valley and in the meadows above Big Sky as the dryness of August arrives.  Fish will eat hoppers, ants and beetles in the Canyon but I typically head towards the Gallatin in the park if I want good terrestrial action.  As August rolls into September we also see another important terrestrial insect invade the Gallatin Canyon area of the river.  With the drought we experienced a few years back we saw a huge spike in Spruce Moths throughout the Gallatin Canyon.   The spruce moth has become a favorite hatch on the Gallatin because the fish eat them with reckless abandon.  We have had big water years the past three seasons and with wetter weather we have seen a decline in the spruce moth activity.  If we have another big water year we may see even fewer moths and this hatch could disappear from the menu for the fish on the Gallatin, only time will tell.  September and early october can see hatches of BWO’s once again as well as a large Green drake look a like called a hecuba.  These can provide some great end of the season dry fly activity before we head into late fall and winter fishing.  The winter fishing on the Gallatin can be great since many of the fish will move into the deeper pools.  The weather determines if we can get out in the winter, when the temps get above freezing you can have some very good fishing on the Gallatin.

This covers most of the insects that hatch on the Gallatin.  The time frame in which they hatch can change by several weeks each summer depending on what type of snow we had in the winter as well as how wet the summer months area.  Hatches can be fickle and just because the bugs hatched on the 12th of July last year doesn’t mean they will hatch again on the 12th the following year.


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