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Category: Fly Fishing Tips

Fly fishing tips by Walter Wiese

Top Fall Fisheries in Yellowstone Country

Top Fall Fisheries in Yellowstone Country

The top fisheries in Yellowstone Country change a lot with the onset of cold fall weather. It’s now snowing in the high country. I think that qualifies as “cold fall weather.”

Where people are fishing…

Many anglers continue to fish the same rivers and streams from now (late September) until late October that they did through the summer season. For the most part, streams like the Lamar, Soda Butte Creek, Slough Creek, large portions of the Gardner River, most small streams, and even good-sized chunks of the mighty Yellowstone are no longer the top fisheries in Yellowstone and the surrounding area.

Except in the events of a warmup lasting close to a week, I suggest avoiding the following streams:

  • Lamar River, including its tributaries Slough and Soda Butte Creeks
  • All streams or portions of streams above 7000 feet elevation except the Firehole River
  • The Gardner River upstream from the Glen Creek Confluence (in lower Sheepeater Canyon)
  • Small streams feeding the Yellowstone River in Montana, except possibly Mill Creek, which is larger than most
  • The Yellowstone River in Montana between the rest stop near mile marker 24 and Mallard’s Rest fishing access, except the few long, deep sections in this reach.
  • The Yellowstone River in YNP between the mouth of the Lamar River and near the Blacktail Deer Creek confluence.

Where people should be fishing…

The top fisheries in Yellowstone and adjacent areas of Montana this time of year possess one (or several) of the following features: fall-run brown trout, geothermal (hot spring or geyser) runoff), low elevation, and large overall size. Deeper, slower water is also preferable.

So which streams possess the features that make them top fisheries in Yellowstone and Montana near the park boundaries this time of year (and beyond)? Here’s a list, including how long they produce into the fall, what time of day and during which weather conditions they fish well, what kind of fishing to expect, and best tactics and flies. Top fisheries in Yellowstone are listed more or less in their distance from Gardiner, Montana, where Parks’ Fly Shop is located.

  • Yellowstone River, Upper River Outside YNP and Lower Black Canyon inside YNP: Because of its size, low elevation, often deep and slow water, and a few geothermal inputs, the Yellowstone near Gardiner ranks as one our our top fisheries in Yellowstone and nearby, particularly for anglers looking to fish dry flies for cutthroats. The big brown trout fishing is also good in places. If you’re targeting big browns, fish deep water downstream of gravel spawning areas with streamers, stonefly nymphs, and egg flies from early October until early November. The dry fly fishing for mostly cutthroats is best from now until mid-October. Some ant and hopper action is still possible, but BWO mayfly hatches are the best bet through October into November, joined then by midges. The best dry fly fishing will be in the afternoons, with the window getting narrower and narrower as time passes. The morning fishing is strictly for larger fish even now.
  • Gardner River, High Bridge to Gardiner: The Gardner River offers great action nymphing from Boiling River down to Gardiner using Euro-nymphing techniques. It’s definitely one of the top fisheries in Yellowstone for this tactic through the year, but it’s even better in the fall. Fish a medium-sized stonefly with a slender, flashy, mayfly nymph or smaller attractor nymph. Egg flies are also good choices. In the deeper sections all the way from the High Bridge down to Gardiner, you can also indicator nymph. Below Boiling River, look for BWO hatches. Below Boiling River, good fishing continues all the way until the end of the park season at sundown on the first Sunday in November, though above Boiling River is no longer one of the top fisheries in Yellowstone after mid-October. Throughout this section, avoid fishing or walking through shallow gravel areas after October 15 to avoid disturbing spawning brown trout. There are plenty of pre-spawn fish in the deep areas right through the end of the season that are fair game. The Gardner is best in the afternoons this time of year.
  • Firehole River: The Firehole is the top fishery in Yellowstone throughout the fall for anglers looking for consistent hatches and the chance at all-day fishing. On warmer days through mid-October, look for the blond White Miller (Nectopsyche) caddis hatching. In uglier weather and later in the fall, look for tiny (#18-24) BWO mayflies. Sometimes the two hatches are mixed. If there’s no hatch, swing soft hackles in the riffles or nymph the deep geyser rock ledges with slender mayfly nymphs. Another option is to fish big nymphs and egg flies in the deep, turbulent areas below Firehole Falls, hoping for fall-run brown and rainbow trout migrating up from Hebgen Lake off the park’s west boundary. The Firehole can fish well all day.

I hope this rundown of top fisheries in Yellowstone helps readers plan their late-season fishing.

Top Guided Trips for June

Top Guided Trips for June

Are we still running guided fly fishing trips despite the high water? ABSOLUTELY! True, we have to drive a bit farther than we do later in the summer, but this is actually prime time for the water that is clear and fishable. Here are the top three options this time of year, in order.

1. Private Lake Foot/Float Trips

June often offers the best fishing of the season on area private lakes. Beginners can do well using slow presentations fishing deep with strike indicators, while experts can often enjoy sight-fishing using small nymphs and even dry flies. The private lakes offer the largest trout on average of any of our trips, with most fish running 14 to 18 inches and a real possibility of fish to 24 inches.

The private lakes must be reserved in advance and require additional “trespass” fees payable to the landowner, but no fishing licenses are required and we charge slightly less for these trips than for others, so the overall cost is comparable.

We guide on two private ranch properties. The Story Ranch Lakes are located about 30 miles from Gardiner. You should expect to meet your guide near the turnoff to the property. Burns Lake is much farther away, more like 90 miles from Gardiner, but it offers better dry fly fishing and slightly larger fish overall. To fish Burns, you’ll meet your guide in Livingston and drive on from there.

2. Lower Madison River Float Trips

The Yellowstone’s a chocolate stew and not good or safe to float-fish right now (stick to whitewater rafting near Gardiner), but the lower Madison is excellent in June, since it’s protected from the worst effects of runoff by a series of upriver dams. It stays clear and low enough to fish all through runoff and is our closest float river during June. It typically produces decent numbers of smaller trout on dry flies in June, with a few big ones on top. Dry fly fishing is best on cloudy days. If there’s no insect activity, you should expect to fish a mix of nymphs and streamers, targeting fewer but larger trout. There are rainbows, browns, and westslope cutthroats here, and some of the browns get big.

Advanced anglers will do better than beginners here, but by sticking to subsurface techniques most beginners will stick a few fish, too.

Our Madison River guides all live in Livingston, so to fish this water you should expect to drive to Livingston (50 minutes) and then continue on with the guide to the Madison about another hour away. It’s a long drive, but no longer than the drive to the Firehole, considering all the construction.

3. Walk-Wade Trips in Yellowstone Park

June is prime time on the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers in Yellowstone Park, with good hatches on the Firehole and attractor dry-dropper fishing on the Gibbon. We’ll often combine these waters in a day of fishing. Both beginners and experienced anglers do well on these streams, though there aren’t many big fish.

About June 10, Cascade Lake becomes accessible and is a great choice for anglers who want to take an easy (though muddy) 2.5-mile hike for good chances at lots of small, pretty cutthroat trout and the rare Arctic grayling. Cascade’s a good choice in the morning and early afternoon, and we usually combine it with the Gibbon or another stream that must not be named online after lunch. Cascade’s a good choice for anglers of any skill level.

Other lakes are also good in June. Trout Lake is a big fish bet suited only for advanced anglers who want to take a crack at BIG cutthroat trout, but a couple small lakes near Mammoth are great for small, aggressive brook trout. These are our only June fisheries suitable for anglers without much time, and are good for beginners.

By late June, more walk-wade options start falling into play: the Gardner River, various small streams, possibly the Yellowstone River… Late June is a long way off, so it’s best to wait on talking about these.

Clients staying in Gardiner should expect to leave from Parks’ Fly Shop for Yellowstone Park fishing trips, while if clients are staying in the park, our guide will meet you near our fishing destination or near your lodgings, if you’re staying on the way to the fishing.

Interested? Give us a call or stop in!

Other Rivers We Float

Other Rivers We Float

Did you know that Parks’ Fly Shop now offers guided float trips on many rivers in southern Montana beside the Yellowstone? We now have no excuse to cancel a trip due to muddy water, since some stretch of one of these rivers is always fishable. Note that we operate on some of these rivers through my (Walter’s) outfitting license, rather than Richard’s. Here’s a rundown, with rivers listed in approximate travel time from Gardiner.


Lower Gallatin River

Location: About 20 miles west of Bozeman, a little over an hour and a half from Gardiner.

Best Base Towns: Bozeman, Livingston, Big Sky, Ennis.

Season: Primarily September and October.

The lower Gallatin is a seldom-floated, pretty prairie river that holds small numbers of seriously large trout, many of them migrants up from the upper Missouri downstream. While not a “core” river, this is a good one to check out if you’ve floated the “standards” and want to see some pretty country with a shot at a few big fish, all without driving far from Bozeman.

Boulder River

Location: About 30 miles southeast of Livingston, 1hr 55min from Gardiner.

Best Base Towns: Big Timber, Livingston, Columbus, Bozeman, Gardiner, Mammoth

Season: “Windows” of clear water during the May-June runoff, then for about a month beginning in late June or early July.

The Boulder is a small, fast, turbulent river choked in its namesake boulders, blessed and cursed with terrible boat launches. It can therefore only be floated in whitewater rafts, and even then only for a short period of time when flows range from 2000 down to 800cfs, usually for about a month after the end of runoff. Since it lacks dirt along its banks and comes out of the mountains quickly, runoff is not as intense as on the Yellowstone, starts later, and ends sooner. We expect the Boulder to fish around June 25 to July 1 this year, about a week earlier than the Yellowstone, and there’s a good chance we’ll see short windows of “clearish” water in late May and early June, due to a forecast cold snap.

Fishing the Boulder is a fast, furious affair, with streamers and dry-dropper rigs the ticket for fooling its high populations of rainbows and browns averaging 12-18 inches but occasionally getting huge. If you’re visiting in July and can handle traversing rugged boat ramps and helping us load and unload the raft, plan to spend a day here in addition to on the Yellowstone.

Lower Madison River

Location: About 30 miles southwest of Bozeman, about two hours from Gardiner.

Best Base Towns: Bozeman, Ennis, Livingston, Big Sky, West Yellowstone, Old Faithful.

Season: April through June or early July and again from Labor Day through October.

The lower Madison is our closest float river that never gets completely blown out due to spring runoff. It is a shallow, riffled river that gets awfully warm in midsummer, but is great in spring and fall. While rainbows in the 12-14″ class predominate, there are also some huge browns. Almost unique among area fisheries, there are vast populations of crayfish here, so nymphing with a crayfish imitation is often the most effective technique.

This is our best option for springtime floats. Let me be clear, we now can offer floats during the Yellowstone’s spring runoff in May and June.

Jefferson River

Location: About 50 miles west of Bozeman, 2hr 10min from Gardiner.

Best Base Towns: Three Forks, Twin Bridges, Bozeman, Ennis, Livingston

Season: April and Early May, a week or so in late June, and September-October

The Jefferson is getting a ways away from Gardiner, but if you’re staying in Bozeman it’s a great bet for a scenic canyon float offering chances at a few monster browns on nymphs, streamers, crayfish, and in the fall grasshoppers. This river gets less pressure than any other near Bozeman except for the lower Gallatin, but can turn out some great fish amid excellent scenery. It’s just not a good one for those who want to rack up the numbers on dries.

Missouri River Near Toston, MT

Location: About 30 miles north of Three Forks, about 2hr 15min from Gardiner.

Best Base Towns: Three Forks, Helena, Bozeman, Ennis, Livingston.

Season: July through early September (Multispecies, especially Carp), October-November (Trout).

This area on the upper Missouri River is home to Montana’s best spot & stalk fishing for carp, which average 4-12lbs and require sight-fishing tactics. There are also permanent populations of walleye, pike, and rainbow and brown trout averaging 20+ inches, plus seasonal migrations of brown trout in late autumn that can reach 30 inches or more. This is experts-only water regardless of target species, but it’s an uncrowded fishery that fishes consistently well for small numbers of the region’s largest fish from July into late fall, so long as you’re open-minded about species.

Upper Madison River

Location: About 75 miles southwest of Bozeman, 2.5hr from Gardiner.

Best Base Towns: Ennis, West Yellowstone, Big Sky, Old Faithful, Livingston.

Season: April through November.

Like the Lower Madison, the “Upper” never gets too muddy to fish during the spring melt. It’s Montana’s most popular fishing river, and produces great numbers of solid rainbows and browns. It’s too far to go in a day trip from Gardiner, however. Instead, it’s a good choice if you’re planning to fish with us in May, June, or October and are staying in the western part of Yellowstone Park, West Yellowstone, or Bozeman.

Stillwater River

Location: About 20 miles south of Columbus, 2.5hr from Gardiner.

Best Base Towns: Absarokee, Columbus, Red Lodge, Billings, Livingston

Season: April through November.

The Stillwater River is a larger cousin of the Boulder. It fishes similarly to it, but is high enough to float through the summer. While it’s getting to be a long way from Gardiner, it’s a good choice if you are spending any nights in Livingston, Billings, or Red Lodge, especially in August when the Boulder is too low and the lower Yellowstone can be too warm.

Lower Yellowstone River (Lest You Forget)

Location: From Livingston to Columbus, 1-2hr from Gardiner

Best Base Towns: Livingston, Big Timber, Bozeman, Gardiner, Mammoth

Season: Late March and April, mid-July through early November

While we tend to focus on the Yellowstone between Gardiner and Livingston, don’t forget we guide the entire “blue ribbon” portion of the Yellowstone, all way down to Columbus more than 60 miles east of Livingston. Except during the spring runoff, some portion of the Yellowstone is always clear and fishing well. Now that Rob Olson and I (Walter) are based in Livingston, getting on the Yellowstone when it’s muddy near Gardiner is simply a matter of driving to meet one of us in Livingston, rather than having us drive up to meet you at or near Gardiner. There’s now no reason to cancel a float trip on the Yellowstone due to mud!

3 Tips for Creating Imitations of Impaired Insects

3 Tips for Creating Imitations of Impaired Insects

In this previous post, I talk about reasons to fish imitations of impaired insects, including both aquatic insects that are struggling or dead and terrestrial insects that have fallen into the water. In this post, I give three easy tips for creating imitations of impaired insects. Since all terrestrial insects are by their nature impaired, since no grasshopper or ant or whatever chooses to drop into the water for a dip, I’ll focus on aquatic insect imitations.

1. Tie Patterns to Float Low in the Water

Imitations of impaired aquatic insects don’t float high and perky. They float low in the surface film or even slightly underneath it. All flies tied to suggest these insects should do the same. There are a lot of ways of accomplishing this.

For mayflies, caddisflies, and midges, tying flies that either have hackle only above the hook (parachute and paraloop flies), have the hackle trimmed underneath, as in my Hazy Cripple series and most other cripple-style patterns, or lack hackle entirely, as in the Sparkle Dun or No Hackle flies, is the easiest way of accomplishing this.

Here’s an Improved Sparkle Dun, for example:

With stoneflies, use predominately natural materials such as hair and synthetic materials such as acrylic yarn rather than foam, or tie patterns whose back ends lack foam so they ride underwater while the front half is above. The Parks’ Salmonfly is a good example, as is the more-popular Sunken Stone.

Here’s a Sunken Stone:

Image of Sunken Stone Fly Pattern Serving as an Example in a Blog Article.
Image courtesy Fly Tying New and Old.

2. Include Nymphal or Pupal Shucks or Elements Suggestive of Egg-Laying

Impaired insects that are emerging often get trapped in their nymphal shucks, and through natural selection the trout have “learned” that these insects are easy prey and won’t fly away anytime soon. Likewise, insects that are egglaying have to dip their abdomens in the water and often get sucked under in doing so. The Sunken Stone pictured above features a brown egg sack suggestive of egglaying for just this reason, and is a good example of how to accomplish this for stoneflies.

Both egg sacks and nymphal/pupal shucks can be imitated by using a tuft of sparkly synthetic yarn in place of a tail. On mayflies, this shuck is usually brown, but olive or gray are good choices for some insects. The shuck should be paler than but otherwise match the general coloration of the nymph. On midges, gray is almost always a good color. On caddis, amber or ginger are good colors most of the time, one reason my Clacka Caddis has a ginger tail regardless of the overall color of the pattern. Tan and olive can also be good. Match the general color of the pupa.

Here’s my Clacka Caddis, in pink, an attractor color. Note the shuck, and also the fact that the hackle is trimmed underneath as I note above:

3. Tie Wings Either Spent or “Damaged.”

Dead insects or living ones with bent, broken, or otherwise damaged wings aren’t going to fly away. Match these features with “spent” wings tied to either side of the fly or a short “butt” wing. All species of common aquatic insects except stoneflies can be tied with butt-style wings. All insects can be tied with spent wings, though their orientation should be slightly different with mayflies vs caddis and stoneflies.

Here’s a good example of a wing butt for a mayfly or midge, as illustrated by the short bit of white yarn protruding from under the hackle on my Purple Hazy Cripple. Note also the trailing nymphal shuck. The hackle is trimmed short under the fly as well, though this is not obvious from the pic:

Purple Hazy Fly pattern to illustrate a point in a fly fishing article about tying mayfly wings to suggest crippled insects

The common feature of spent wings on all aquatic insect imitations is that they should be splayed out to the sides of the fly. With caddis, stoneflies, and midges, these should have a rearward orientation, with the wings protruding in a general “vee” shape. With caddis and midges, the wings should be at least roughly divided to either side of the fly at about a 45-degree angle. Here’s my version of a Caddis Cripple dry showing this feature, as well as clipped hackle to help the fly ride low:

With stoneflies, which normally carry their wings folded flat over their backs and only spread them to fly, there’s no need to “split” the wing, though you may if you like. Instead, simply splaying the wing completely over the top of the fly works fine. You can do this on an already-tied fly by mashing your thumb on top of the wing at its tie-in point to give it a crumpled appearance.

With mayflies, a truly spent fly, whether a drowned dun or an egg-layer that has dropped its eggs and died, lays with its wings at almost 90-degree angles to the sides. This is shown in all of the popular spinner patterns, as well as this image of the real thing:

spent mayfly showing wing orientation for a blog article on fly tying
Image courtesy Frosty Fly

That said, fishing imitations of spent mayflies underwater is very effective, and when spent mayflies are sucked under, their wings will splay backward somewhat. This can be matched by tying the wings back at 45 degrees as noted above for caddis and midges, or by using soft hackle that will naturally sweep back and pulsate in the current.


There are certainly other ways of matching impaired insects, but the above tips will put you on the right track, and are the three I use the most. Happy fishing and tying!

A Little Bird Told Me… (Mother’s Day Caddis Prognostication)

A Little Bird Told Me… (Mother’s Day Caddis Prognostication)

…That you should plan to fish the Yellowstone and/or lower Madison River next weekend, beginning Friday the 3rd of May.

Why? The current cooldown forecast through midweek will clear out the river and put the Mother’s Day Caddis hatches on hold. With temps forecast to rise back into the 60s by next Friday, the river will stay clear a few days and the caddis will go BOOM! My early prediction is that we are going to have a good hatch for at least a couple days.