Yellowstone on Fire!

The Yellowstone River starts high up in the Absaroka Mountains of Northwest Wyoming.  The river flows 692 miles from it’s headwaters till it joins the Mighty Missouri River just east of the Montana/North Dakota border.   Several different Indian tribes are named in the local lore of the river which is the longest free flowing river left in the lower 48.  The origins of the rivers name comes from several of these tribes and was translated by French Fur trappers into the modern day name of Yellowstone.   The Minnetree Indians called it the Mi toe a-da-zi which meant Yellow River rock, they got the name from the Yellow colored rocks that they saw in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, located inside modern day Yellowstone National Park.  The Crow Indians, who used the Yellowstone River drainage prior to the white man’s exploitation of the west called the river E-chee-dick-karsh-ah-shey, or the Elk river.  As the French trappers made their way into Yellowstone country they referred to the river as the Roche Juane or Yellow Rock.  Lewis and Clark arrived at the mouth of the Yellowstone on Friday April 26th 1805, where Captain Lewis dispatched Joseph Fields to trek up the river to observe the land and it’s offerings.  The Lewis and Clark exploration made a full observation of the river on their return trip back to the East Coast.  The Yellowstone has provided many travelers a path to the West and was home to several key forts that allowed for the westward expansion to take place as the settlers moved scarily between the forts in fear the Indian tribes would ambush and take their possessions and their lives.   The Yellowstone has a long and storied history which provides some great stories from the past as well as making stories for anglers year after year.

Fishing inside of Yellowstone Park would merit it’s own page on this site, but I do not spend much time guiding on the river inside the park.  There are much better sources of information about the park which I would be happy to steer anyone to if they are interested.  For this description I will provide information on almost 200 miles of the river outside the park.   The Yellowstone is a large river that averages anywhere from 75 feet to 300 feet in width, which makes it an ideal river for fishing from a boat.  There are plenty of good wade fishing opportunities as well and I will discuss these areas as we travel from the Park boundary to the confluence with the Stillwater River in Columbus Montana.   I spent the first 6 years of my time in Montana without access to a boat so there are plenty of wade fishing opportunities to keep anglers on the Yellowstone.  I will also mention some information about hatches, but the Yellowstone drains a large area and dates of emergence for many insects change year to year due to the drastic changes in flows that are dependent on the snow packs of winter and spring moisture.   We have seen the river clear as early as June 2nd or as late and August 2nd so the dates can be very different from year to year.  Trip planning for the Yellowstone can be a little difficult but if you hit the river at the right time it can provide some of the finest fishing in the state.

So here we go, off on the tour down the Yellowstone River from Gardner Montana to Columbus.

Gardner Montana to the Mouth of Yankee Jim Canyon:

As the river leaves Yellowstone Park it is carrying a lot of steam and the water through Gardner is fast moving and deep.  There is some great wade fishing from shore and anglers should just leave the waders in the car and hop scotch along the rock lined banks, which drop off very quickly.   This pocket water provides some great dry fly fishing for Cutthroats, Rainbows and Browns using a wide variety high floating dry flies.  The cutthroats are the most prominent of the fish species on this upper section of the Yellowstone and they love to eat dry flies.  Floating the upper river takes skilled oarsman-ship to safely navigate the fast water that lies between the slow deep pools.   The first put in is at the Queen of the waters access site, which is a hand carry launch.  There is no access for drift boats or crafts that can’t be carried by a few good friends.  The water through Gardiner also has some very good rapids that can be dangerous depending on flows.  The next access point for boats is at the McConnell fishing access site which is run by the U.S. Forest Service.  The boat ramps on the upper river are trailer accessible but they do get a lot sand in them from high water so you need to use caution when backing your rig to the water so that you don’t bury your rig trying to put the boat in the water.  Commercial use of several of the access points above Yankee Jim is limited because of Forest Service management so some boat ramps will not have as much outfitted traffic on the upper river.  The next access point below McConnell is at Brogan’s Landing located just below the Devil’s Slide in Corwin Springs.   This is a FW&P access that has a very steep hill leading to the parking area near the bottom.  There is some good wade fishing just upstream of the access but wading anglers should use caution with the fast water that gets very deep very fast.  Just downstream of the Brogan’s Access is another Forest Service access called Cinnabar, it is located on the opposite side of the river from the Highway and you must cross over the Corwin Springs bridge to get to the boat ramp.  From Corwin Springs the river travels about 6 miles to the top of Yankee Jim Canyon.   If you are floating above Yankee Jim Canyon you will want to be sure and check out the Forest Service Boat ramp at Joe Brown before you use one of the access points upstream.  The take out at Joe Brown is not one to miss because you will then find yourself navigating the turbid waters of Yankee Jim Canyon.  The Joe Brown access is located on the inside of a river right hand bend and the water goes by the take out very fast, you have to be ready for the ramp and depending on water flows you may need to drop anchor and then bail out of the boat to make the ramp.  The float from McConnell to Joe Brown is a nice day float if the water is high and when the flows are low in the fall a float from Brogan’s to Joe Brown is much more appropriate.

For anglers who are familiar with rowing whitewater you can take the thrill ride down Yankee

The heart of Yankee Jim Canyon!

Jim Canyon.  The float from Joe Brown to the next take out at Carbella is about a 4 mile float with some pretty decent whitewater that has proved it’s merit and taken several lives over the years.   You must be very experienced on the oars and familiar with the lines to safely make it through the canyon.  Drift boats are not recommended in this stretch, but they do make it through each year.  I would not recommend attempting the float through Yankee Jim unless you are with someone who has run it before.

This upper section of the Yellowstone is a fun fishery with lots of opportunities to fish dry flies.  Fish populations are high and the cutthroats are very eager to come to a dry fly.  This section provides some of the most consistent fishing on the entire river and the dry fly action last well into October.  The fish will eat dry flies much later on the upper river than they will on the rest of the river.  There is a nice mix of Rainbows, Browns and whitefish on this section of river but the cutthroats are the most prevalent fish in this section.  Fly patterns do not need to be match the hatch type of patterns, it is more important that your fly floats well.  I prefer attractor patterns such as Royal Wulffs, PMX’s and Trudes as well as Chernobly hoppers and foam ant patterns.   There are some large fish in this upper section and fishing streamers can also produce some very nice fish.

My personal guide time is limited on the upper river due to the Forest Service restrictions on commercial use as well as the amount of drive time it takes to get to the upper river.  Special arrangements can be made to float the upper river depending on flows and how adventurous the anglers are.

Carbella to Mallard’s Rest:

This is the famous Paradise Valley section of the river which is flanked on the East by the Absorokee Mountains and on the West by the Gallatin Range.  This is quintessential Montana with dramatic mountains in your view throughout the day.  Most of the water in this section of river is mild and provides a good place for people to learn to row as well as learn to fly fish.  You can get away with some mistakes both on the oars and with the rod in your hand.  Cutthroats are still the prominent fish on the very upper reaches of the Paradise Valley section of river with Browns and Rainbow numbers increasing as you make you way down the valley.  Hatches are very good throughout this section of river and we see some very nice fish taken each year from this stretch.  All methods of angling have their place on this section during the year with dry flies being best from the time the river clears until early October.   Streamers produce well during high water and low light periods and nymphs will take fish any day of the year.   The whitefish population on this section of river is second to none so nymph fishing can be an exercise in fighting fish on many days.   Many guides refer to nymphing this section of river as the “Whitefish Rodeo” because some days it seams impossible to get the nymphs to the trout.   It is a great place to take a new angler because they can have a lot of success and learn what they are doing right or wrong.   Whitefish get a bad rap, but when the fishing is tough during the heat of the summer you can usually count on them to keep your rod bent.

The upper most access point on the Paradise Valley section of the river is the Carbella Access.   There is a good cement boat ramp that does have some sand after high water but the BLM usually removes the sand once the river starts to drop.  Cutthroats are plentiful and the dry fly

River Otter keeping his eye on the competition!

fishing can be spectacular on this area of the river.  Since this access is located at the mouth of Yankee Jim Canyon you can expect to see some breezy conditions in the am as the cold air and warm air mix.   The wind usually lays down a short distance from the ramp, but it is Montana so some days the wind never stops.   The next access below Carbella is at the Fish Wildlife and Parks access at Point of Rocks, about 4 miles downstream.  The boat ramp at Point of rocks is a bit rugged but very usable.  During high water you put in right at the access point and as the water drops you will have to cross the small channel onto a gravel bar to put your boat in the water.   The section from Carbella to Point of Rocks is very busy during the Salmonfly hatch because this is usually where the bugs are on the river when it clears.   Keep this in mind if you hear of Salmonflies on the Yellowstone.  If you are willing to brave the crowds you can have some good big bug fishing on this section.

Below Point of Rocks your next access point is about 4 miles downstream at the 26 mile marker on Highway 89.   The 26 mile ramp is a horrible ramp that is not improved, it is merely a gap in the willows that you can back a trailer into the water.   It is a very usable ramp but be careful backing your trailer to the water, you don’t want to put your truck tires over the edge.   For the wading anglers this is  a good point to access the river.  There are two small islands upstream of the ramp that provide some nice spots to wade, except when the water is high.  Carbella to 26 mile is a good day float that is popular.   The next ramp below 26 mile is the Emigrant boat ramp.   This is a nice 5 mile section of water that has a few obstacles to be aware of.  The first obstacle on the float is an irrigation ditch that draws off the river about 2 miles downstream of the 26 mile ramp.  It is a well marked channel on the left hand side of the river.  You do not want to take this channel, even though it looks inviting.  There is a large diversion dam in the channel that makes a solid 10 foot drop and it is very dangerous.   There are steel beams in the river and it is very well marked with a sign and buoys.   The other obstacle in this float is located another mile downstream when the river meets back up with the old river road on the right hand side of the river.   There is a fancy new rip rap bank that had to be constructed to keep the river from taking the road and just downstream of the rip rap there is a couple of rocks that can flip a boat if you don’t avoid them.  You need to stay river left in the channel to avoid the rocks.  Other than these two obstacles this is a pretty mellow float.   I usually float from Point of Rocks to Emigrant for a day float during high water.  It is a good 12 to 14 mile float so in lower water it can be a little long.

The next ramp below Emigrant is the Grey Owl Fishing access site, which is about a two mile float from Emigrant.   Grey Owl is the starting point for the famous “Bird Float”.   The Bird float

Brown trout on the Bird!

consist of floating from Grey Owl to Mallards Rest, thus the name.  This is the most scenic in the Valley as the Absorkee range stands tall during the entire length of the float.   This section is very mellow and provides some very good fishing, it is popular with recreational floaters so you will see plenty of canoes, rafts and sight seeing floaters on this section.  It does fish very well in high water years, in low water years it can be a tough stretch because of the slow gradient.  Between the Grey Owl and Mallards Rest ramps there are two other access points as well.   The Mill Creek bridge (Paradise) access has a few campsites and there is some decent fishing for wade fishing anglers on the West side of the river above the bridge.  There is not an official boat ramp at Paradise but some folks like the smell of fiberglass in the morning and put their boats in on the East bank of the river just above the bridge.   There is a road that leads all the way down to the river but I would caution anyone who thinks they can back their trailer to the water.   The two track road is rough and most vehicles need to be winched back up the hill if they back down to the river.  Those that put a boat in at the bridge usually kick their boats off the trailer and hand line it to the water while leaving fiberglass and gel coat on the rocks.  About 3 miles downstream of the Paradise Access is the Loch Leven access which has a very good ramp as well as campsites and a picnic area.   The picnic area provides a nice spot for wading anglers.   A couple miles from Loch Leven is the Mallard Boat ramp.   This is the bottom end of the Bird float as well as the place that the gradient of the river makes a drastic change.  There are many nice campsites and a very good boat ramp at the Mallards access site.   The high hillside leading to the access point gives artist a great landscape and you will often see them set up with their Easel turning paint and canvas into art.

Mallard’s Rest to Highway 89 Bridge:

This is where the Yellowstone leaves the Paradise Valley and picks up steam.   Floating this section requires diligence on the oars as well as more skill from the angler.   The river channel changes each year in this stretch and new obstacles can spring up from week to week.  This section fishes best once the water has started to drop and warm.   The cutthroats start to dwindle as the rainbows become more prevalent due to the faster water.   Hatches can be very good, especially in the back eddies that the faster currents and rip rap banks create.  Nymphing is usually productive and the streamer addict that likes to pound the banks will love fishing all the slow pockets along the fast banks.   There are many good spots to pull the boat over and wade fish in this section but access for anglers without a boat is limited a bit to the areas through the town of Livingston.

Mallard’s rest is the access point where you will first notice the change in gradient of the Yellowstone river.  As you round the bend from the access point you will notice the water picking up steam.   The three mile float from Mallard’s to Pine Creek takes only about an hour and the river channel has been changing in this section each year.  About a mile a half from the Mallard’s ramp the river splits into two channels and then splits again.  Each year these channels have been changing more and more so you should inquire locally about which is the best channel to take.   The Pine Creek access is the next ramp downstream of Mallards and it is a good ramp with plenty of parking.   The float from Pine Creek to Carter’s Bridge is a very nice float that fishes best during lower flows.   When the water is high there are limited places to fish due to the narrow channel and fast gradient.   This is the section where all three of the Paradise Valley Spring Creeks empty into the Yellowstone so many anglers like to float to the mouths of these creeks to fish.   It’s a great float but you should be experienced on the oars to float this section.   Carter’s Bridge puts you at the gap in the mountains before you get into the town of Livingston Montana.   As you make you way through the gap you will be faced with several channels to take.  Most of the channels are fine to take but if you are not familiar with this section I would

Winter time at Pine Creek

recommend staying with the most water.  As you approach town there are two channels that funnel the river around a very large island.   You can take either channel but if you take the right hand channel you must float all the way to the Mayor’s Landing Ramp located on the eastern edge of Livingston.   The left hand channel will take you past the Saw mill and under the interstate to the 9th street boat ramp.   The ramp at 9th street is a nice concrete ramp but you have to use a bit of caution when backing your trailer to the water because the ramp is located close to the street.   The two channels meet back up about a half mile from the 9th street bridge and then carry you another mile to the Mayor’s Landing Boat ramp.  There is some good wade fishing access at and downstream of the 9th street boat ramp.   Sacajawea Park flanks the north side of the river and provides access from a walking path along the rip rap bank.   There is also a nice kids pond in town that gives up some nice fish to the youth of Livingston each year.  There are a couple of obstacles getting from where the channels meet back up to the Mayor’s Landing boat ramp.  Just downstream of the park there is a river wide shelf of rocks that make for a challenging bit of rowing to get through when the water drops.   Stay to the far right and avoid the big rock in the middle of the drop.   Once you make it through this shelf you will have a half mile or so until another drop in the left hand channel.  It is easy to get through all of it but if you mess up you can wreck a boat here.

Mayor’s Landing is a popular ramp with room to back two boats into the water at once.  This is a great afternoon put in spot if you have just a few hours to float.  The float from Mayor’s to Highway 89 is about 5 miles long with lots of great water to fish.  There are many obstacles in this section so if you are rowing you will want to keep you eye’s on the river ahead and be ready to pull hard in the tight spots.   There are a couple of areas that the river channels up in this section and they change each year as well as when the water drops.   Rainbows are very plentiful in this section with some very large browns coming out as well, the two biggest browns I have seen in the past few years came from the run just downstream of the Mayor’s Landing access.

Highway 89 to Grey Bear:

Once the river leaves Livingston the river starts to break out into the plains.  The Northern edge of the Absorkee Mountains flanks the river on the south side of the river and Crazy mountains flank the view to the north.   The river still carries a lot of steam in this section so experience on the oars is a must.  This section typically fishes best as the water starts to drop so that the volume of the flow is less.   Dry land and irrigated crops start to line the banks more as you head east so this is where the hopper and terrestrial fishing is typically most productive.   We do see hatches on this lower end of the river but the terrestrial fishing is really what draws anglers to this section of the river.   Streamer fishing is also very popular on the lower river due to the large fish that love the deep water on the lower river.

The Highway 89 put in is a nice ramp, but you need to be careful putting your boat in here.   The water goes from a few inches deep to about 10 feet in one step.  You can float your hat very easily at this ramp.   About a half mile from the put in the Shields river empties into the Yellowstone.   After a good rain the Shields can be pumping mud, which will turn the river into

Montana surfing on Mr. Bubbles

chocolate milk.   The next ramp below 89 is about 4 miles downstream at the Sheep Mountain Access point.   The Sheep Mountain Ramp can easily be missed if you don’t know where it is.   There is also some tough water to navigate at the Sheep Mountain ramp so you should know where the ramp is before you take out there.  After you pass the Sheep Mountain Ramp your next take out is at a local access called the Pig Farm.  Pig Farm is a ramp located on river right about 3 miles below Sheep Mountain.  It is just a gap in the bushes so you will need to know where it is before you call in your shuttle.   There is some decent wade fishing at the Pig Farm Access for those who don’t have a boat.   Another 3 miles below Pig Farm is the East End or 350 access point.  This boat ramp makes the 26 mile ramp look great.   It is just a slot in the rip rap that you can back your trailer into and it is primarily used as a put in rather than a take out.

350 provides a nice starting point for the end of the section of river.   You will travel about 4 miles before you hit the Springdale Boat ramp.   This is a very popular ramp with kayaker’s and the new breed of stand up river boards because of a great surfing wave called Mr. Bubbles.   You will see plenty of traffic on this section of river but the fishing can be very good.   The last take out on this section or river is at the Grey Bear Fishing access.   There is a nice sandy boat ramp at Grey Bear, but be sure and bring along your bug spray for taking out or putting in at this access.

This section is probably one of the most popular in the middle and later parts of the summer because of the hopper fishing that it provides.   The fish populations are still very good and there is a lot of great water that provides holding cover for the fish.   There are plenty of obstacles including Mr. Bubbles which keep boaters on their toes.

Grey Bear to Columbus:

This is the last great section of trout water before the Yellowstone makes the transition from a cold water fishery to a mix of cold-water and warm-water species.   The hopper fishing is the main attraction on this section of river and it can be very good on the right day.   The consistency of the fishing starts to swing on this lower end of the river because of warmer water temps.   You can have fantastic fishing on the lower river but the fish numbers do start to dwindle a bit the further downstream you go.   The cutthroats are few and far between on the lower river but they are usually large.   Rainbows and Brown’s make up most of the catch on the lower river.   You can have some good hatches of aquatic insects down here but most of the dry fly game is during the hopper fishing season.   This area dries out sooner than the areas around Livingston or in the Paradise Valley so this is where you will get the early start to the hopper fishing.   The gradient stays pretty fast throughout most of this section, but once the warm weather sets in the water temps can warm and the fishing can shut off.

Grey Bear is the last ramp I mentioned and it is about a 10 mile float to the next take out at Otter Creek.   The Otter Creek ramp is located on the North side of the river about two miles below the town of Big Timber.   The Boulder River dumps in just above the ramp and provides some cool clean water early in the year.   Big Timber is a great town with a fantastic eatery at the Grand Hotel.  If you are on this lower river you should really stop in for a meal, it’s some of the finest

Trout like Hoppers as much as I like the Grand Hotel!

dining Montana has to offer.  From Otter Creek you have another 10 mile float to the Greycliff fishing access site.   This is a nice float with a couple of wave trains that you need to be careful on.   The water does move fast on the lower river so use caution when rowing.  There are some very hot rainbows and large brown trout on this section that will eat hoppers and streamers when conditions are right.   The next float is from Greycliff to Bratten, and it is about a 9 mile float.   There are a couple of tricky spots on this float with the worst being about 4 miles downstream of Greycliff.  There is a large shelf that sticks out about 3/4 of the way across the river and in low water it can cause a lot of damage.  You will notice a few houses on river right that have a large metal dam built to keep their yards from falling into the river.  When you see the houses you will want to head river left to avoid the shelf.   From Bratten you have about a 5 mile float to the Indian Fort or Reed Point Boat ramp.   There are two more access points below Indian Fort at Twin Bridges and at the town of Columbus.   These floats can be good during the right conditions but they are a bit of a gamble and too far out of range for them to be really viable floats for my guest most of the time.


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