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Fly fishing tips by Walter Wiese

Missouri River Jet Boat Fishing Trips

Missouri River Jet Boat Fishing Trips

The “Land of Giants” stretch of the Missouri River where we run our Missouri River jet boat fishing trips is a unique Montana fishery in which a short tailwater downstream of Hauser Dam leads into Holter Reservoir. This stretch has no boat ramp at the top, meaning access is via hiking or motoring up from the reservoir below. Tailwaters create large fish and lots of them. Reservoirs create large fish and lots of them. When you combine a short tailwater and a lake immediately downstream, close enough its fish can run up into the tailwater to feed and back again over a matter of days, you get lots and lots of large trout.

Simply put, our Missouri River jet boat fishing trips provide the best opportunities for lots of large trout of any of our trips.

Missouri River Rainbow Trout and scenery

Introduction to Missouri River Jet Boat Fishing Trips

  • Season: Ice-out in March through November, with the best overall experience in March and early April and from mid-May through early July.
  • The Fishing: Primarily nymph fishing deep slots from the boat, but some streamer fishing, wade-fishing good seams, and dry fly fishing are also possible. The dry fly fishing is best in late June.
  • The Fish: Rainbow and brown trout that run BIG. The average rainbow runs 14 to 18 inches, the average brown a couple inches longer. 20-inch fish don’t raise any eyebrows and we see quite a few in the 22″ to 24″ class each season. The largest fish on average in our operations area live here.
  • The Boat: Because this area lacks a boat ramp at the upstream end, access requires an aluminum jet boat modified for fly fishing. We use a 2000 Tracker Pro Team 18 Jet, an inboard model with a 120hp engine.

To fish the “Land of Giants,” we launch the jet boat at Gates of the Mountains Marina north of Helena, Montana, then run southeast across Upper Holter Lake into the Missouri River proper. Once in the river, it’s a short 3-odd mile run up to the base of Holter Dam. Most days, we do most of our fishing in the bottom mile and a half of this stretch, since no-wake rules and heavier currents upstream make fishing close to the dam less efficient. That said, most days we do wind up fishing up close to the dam, sometimes anchoring up to fish deep boulder fields in this area.

The season here is very different than on most of our fisheries, which is one reason we run these trips. While it’s possible to wade-fish this area all through the winter, Missouri River jet boat fishing trips begin sometime in March when the ice goes off Holter Reservoir. The fishing can remain good all the way until the end of November, when the ice starts forming again. The largest numbers of fish are available from late March through mid-May, during the rainbow trout spawn, but this is also when the largest numbers of anglers are present. This water can be obscenely crowded at this time, with 20-30 guides and as many as 100 bank anglers present on a bad day. There’s fish enough for everyone, but if you’d rather have a less-crowded experience, fishing either right out of the gate in March or waiting until at least mid-May is better.

Typical high average missouri river rainbow trout

From mid-May through early July is peak season here, in our opinion. The trout are coming off the spawn and feeding aggressively, which causes them to get fat, healthy, and hard-fighting very quickly after the rigors of spawning, but they spread out some and get a little harder to catch. The crowds therefore drop sharply, with 10 guide boats and 20 or so bank anglers or less much more common than the hordes earlier in the season. This is much more manageable. The fishing gets more varied, too. Whereas during the spawn the best way to catch fish is to free-drift egg imitations and assorted pink mayfly nymphs and scuds (which are probably taken as eggs), on Missouri River jet boat fishing trips in late May we usually fish scuds and Blue-winged Olive nymphs, whereas in June we fish a lot of PMD imitations. In late June and early July, good dry fly fishing on PMD cripples and caddisflies is possible. We also do some streamer fishing, particularly with clients looking for a big brown trout or two.

By late July it’s back to nymphing. From now through early October the fishing is harder than it is earlier in the season, though crowds are almost nonexistent. Because of heavy aquatic weed growth down towards Holter Lake, we do most of our fishing up close to the dam.

When the weather turns in the fall, the brown trout begin running up from Holter Lake. While this is not the “massive numbers” fishery it is in the spring, this is the time to take a Missouri River jet boat fishing trip if you want to fish streamers for big brown trout. The browns continue chasing streamers all the way until Thanksgiving, at least, making this our best option for LATE season fishing, long after everything else has gotten too cold to fish consistently.

Introduction to the “Land of Giants” Stretch of the Missouri River

The “Land of the Giants” stretch of the Missouri begins about 15 miles northeast of Helena, Montana, at the base of Hauser Dam. The river twists its way through a couple short canyons before expanding into Upper Holter Reservoir. This is a stunningly beautiful stretch of river. We launch for this trip at the south end of the “Gates of the Mountains,” so named by Lewis & Clark back in 1805. This narrow, deep limestone canyon has played host to a lot of history, from the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949 which claimed the lives of many wildlands firefighters, an event immortalized in the book Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean, who’s far more famous for his other book, A River Runs Through It, which you may have heard of…

The run across Upper Holter Reservoir is pretty in and of itself. The lake is shallow and in a wide bowl-shaped valley. It’s typically home to a wide range of bird species, including oddballs like Caspian Terns. It’s also home to a lot of trout; if the wind is calm (which it often isn’t), we’ll often fish the lake as well as the river upstream.

missouri river land of giants canyon scenery

Once into the Missouri River itself, the canyon walls close in, falling sheer into the river and occasionally shedding a boulder. The boulders are why we need to run jet boats here; hitting a car-sized rock with a prop motor would ruin everyone’s day. We’ll often see deer, ospreys, eagles, and a range of songbirds here in the river canyon, occasionally joined by black bear.

In the lower 1.5mi of the Land of Giants, the river flows wide and fairly shallow, though the current is often swift. Upstream of the small meadow near tributary Beaver Creek, the canyon walls close in, the river narrows and deepens, and flows get faster and faster as you approach Hauser Dam. This upper reach of the river is deep, fast, and turbulent, and is arguably the prettiest water on the trip, though also the hardest to fish.

Fishing the Land of Giants

This stretch of the Missouri is home to a vast amount of trout food, ranging from tiny mayflies and midges on up to crayfish, sculpins, and–believe it or not–perch. Because of the smorgasbord, even the largest rainbows can sometimes demand flies as small as #22. The vast amount of subsurface food also explains why dry fly fishing is seldom good here. Basically, dry fly fishing requires high water temperatures and heavy hatches. Occasionally you’ll find small pods of trout rising to midges of BWO, but the PMD and caddis hatches of late June and July are much better opportunities for dry fly fishing. Otherwise, expect to fish nymphs and streamers.

Early in the season when the water’s cold and high, most fish are caught nymphing deep with eggs, pink mayflies, and pink scuds. All of these flies are probably taken as rainbow trout eggs. The deep, walking-speed seams in the middle of the river are best at this time. Out of the boat, we usually free drift, cutting the engine and drifting with your strike indicator through good runs, then jetting back up to the top and repeating the performance. For shore-bound anglers or when our clients want to get out to fish on foot, the best tactic is to make a 15-25 foot cast slightly upstream, then stack mends as the flies drift past and downstream, feeding line into the drift as long as possible before pulling in the slack and starting over. This takes some practice, but it’s an extremely effective tactic whenever the trout are stacked in a few deep midriver seams.

large june missouri river rainbow trout

As the water begins to drop and especially warm in May, the deep bouldery slots can still be top spots, but some fish begin moving into cobble-bottomed riffles to eat scuds, sowbugs, and BWO nymphs. Streamer fishing can also be effective, particularly if you’re interested in capping off a day of solid 14-20″ rainbows with one big brown trout. Perch-pattern streamers are often just the ticket in late May and early June, and may produce walleye as well as trout. Instead of midriver areas, we’ll often target smaller targets along the bank or behind midriver rocks at this time. Sometimes we’ll drift. Sometimes we’ll anchor up or even use the trolling motor to hold in good areas. Bank fishing is less effective except in a few specific areas at this time, since the fish are more spread-out than earlier.

In June and especially in July, the fish shift to faster and often shallower areas, such as boulder fields and riffles. Nymphing deep in the morning, shallower in midday, and often hanging tiny nymphs below dries is often the ticket at this time of year. Except when fishing dry flies, we’ll usually do all fishing from the boat at this time, but anchoring up to pound specific boulder piles or riffles is often the name of the game.

For the remainder of the season, the fish move back out into the middle for the most part, often in fast, turbulent seams up close to Hauser Dam. Sometimes we’ll target these fish on the drift, sometimes anchored.

Except when fishing streamers, when bigger is often better, fly size here should be on the small size. While we get some fish in spring on “gob of protein,” flies like #10-12 Caviar Scuds and AMEX Czech Nymphs, #16-18 is better the rest of the year. #20-22 are occasionally required in late summer and early fall. Except in spring, when pink attractor nymphs of various sorts are good, these flies should generally match the food the trout are focused on: BWO and scuds in late May, PMD nymphs and caddis pupae in June and July, midges much of the time. Since “LoG” often isn’t crystal clear, small bugs with hints of flash are often excellent choices. Hatch-matching dry flies are better than attractors. Last Chance Cripples are excellent mayflies, while the Corn-Fed Caddis is a top caddisfly.

Stillwater River Fishing Trips

Stillwater River Fishing Trips

I won’t bury the lede: The Stillwater River offers the best dry-dropper fishing for numbers of trout of any body of water within our operations area. Full stop.

At Parks’ Fly Shop, we mostly float the Yellowstone River. We do offer Montana float fishing trips on three other rivers, though: the Lower Madison, Boulder, and Stillwater Rivers. The Lower Madison is our go-to float river in late May and June when the Yellowstone is muddy, Boulder River float fishing trips are possible in early May, June, and July, and the Stillwater is a great option from early July into September and sometimes through the fall. In this series of blog posts, Walter will discuss our float fishing trips on these rivers.

This is the third and final entry in this series, covering Stillwater River fishing trips. The first entry covered the Boulder River. The second covered the Lower Madison River.

Visit this page for more information on our float trips.

Angler with Stillwater River rainbow trout
July rainbow from the lower Stillwater. Notice how high the water is in the background. The river was at 1600cfs in this photo.

 

Introduction to Stillwater River Fishing Trips

  • Season: Late June or early July through August in low water years. In normal or wet years, the Stillwater can remain floatable until late October or later. Flows need to be above 450cfs for the lower float section to remain floatable.
  • The Fishing: While we do some streamer fishing and hatch-matching on Stillwater River fishing trips, the vast majority of the fishing is with grasshoppers or large attractor dries with fast-sinking attractor nymph droppers.
  • The Fish: While there’s an outside chance of Yellowstone cutthroat and brook trout, particularly on the upper float stretches between Nye and Absarokee, the vast majority of the trout here are rainbow and brown trout. Most fish run 8 to 14 inches, but we’ll usually see a few up to 18 inches. In late summer and fall, there’s potential for fish to 24 inches or more in the lower couple miles of the Stillwater that have come upstream from the Yellowstone. Almost all fish on the Stillwater are fat, healthy, and fight well for their size.
  • The Boat: The Stillwater River is a fast, turbulent, rocky, shallow river with numerous small rapids and several very big ones. As such, all Stillwater River fishing trips use the raft. Depending on client interests and goals as well as water levels, we may also get out to do some wade fishing.

I have never had even an “average numbers” day here. On most trips, two clients of intermediate or better skill can expect at least 100+ strikes between them, and fifty fish in the boat is common. That said, unless we hit an uncrowded day in July, the larger rainbows in the lower couple miles of river are crushing hoppers in August, or we hit the fall-run brown trout just right in late September or October, most trout will run 8 to 14 inches. Depending on the float we choose, we sometimes float a couple miles of the Yellowstone downstream of the Stillwater’s confluence with it. Larger fish on average can be found on this portion of Stillwater River fishing trips, allowing for days where we get our numbers early and then finish up trying for a couple big ones.

The Stillwater River offers one to five good float-fishing stretches depending on flows and how we opt to fish. Basically, if flows are high and we opt to stop to wade fish a lot, there are more possible trips, whereas if we opt to fish from the boat when flows are low, only the lower portion of the Stillwater out into the Yellowstone makes sense. Because the Stillwater is a long way from Gardiner (and even from Livingston), we usually opt to fish the first float upstream of Absarokee when flows are high and the lower float(s) downstream of Absarokee when flows are low.

The Stillwater is fast, rocky, and turbulent, which means casts must be accurate and line management must be good. Therefore float-fishing is tough for beginners and novices. That said, when flows are low, we can “run and gun” on Stillwater River fishing trips and use the boat as transportation and do most of our fishing wading. Such trips are suitable for novice anglers, though not really beginners.

The Stillwater enters the Yellowstone near Columbus, Montana, about 75 miles east of Livingston. The Stillwater River float that takes out on the Yellowstone in Columbus itself begins another 15 miles up the road, and other floats are father away yet. Thus you should plan for a 2+ hour drive to fish the Stillwater if you’re staying in Gardiner, roughly 45 minutes to meet your guide in Livinston, roughly an hour to Columbus, and roughly fifteen minutes to the launch. For this reason, staying in Livingston (or even Bozeman), Big Timber, Columbus, or Absarokee make MUCH better sense than staying in Gardiner, though the trip can work from Gardiner if you’re willing to hit the road at 6:00AM or thereabouts. Clients staying anywhere in YNP besides Mammoth should expect A LOT of windshield time.

The travel time is the only issue we don’t guide here much more. Walter is making it one of the pillars of his personal business for 2021, but that business is centered on Livingston rather than Gardiner, which makes it a lot easier.

Stillwater River rainbow trout
Stillwater trout are fat and healthy regardless of size (and this is a pretty good one).

Introduction to the Stillwater River

The Stillwater River begins in the Beartooth Mountains north of Yellowstone National Park, just over the “hill” (really 11,000-12,000+ foot mountains) from the headwaters of Slough Creek. It starts off flowing north from the mountains, then gradually curves northeast and finally east-northeast before joining the Yellowstone upstream of Columbus. Its total journey is more than 60 miles. Approximately the lower 35 miles of the Stillwater are floatable, from Buffalo Jump FAS near Nye downstream to the Yellowstone.The remote headwaters offer good fishing for small trout, mostly brookies, but require significant hiking and rock-scrambling to reach.

The section from Buffalo Jump FAS to Moraine FAS has the shortest season, only about three weeks in length. The season is slightly longer from Moraine to Cliff Swallow FAS and longer yet from Cliff Swallow to Jeffrey’s Landing FAS. Only the 14-odd miles downstream from Jeffrey’s Landing is typically floatable after late July or early August. This lower section begins at the confluence with Rosebud Creek, which is almost as large as the Stillwater itself and runs higher than the Stillwater later into the summer.

In effect, the best sections for Stillwater River fish trips split by season and flow. When flows are higher than about 2000cfs as measured at the gauge at Absarokee, the fishing is better upstream of the Rosebud. When flows are between 2000 and 1000cfs, fishing is good throughout, though float-fishing can get tough due to exposed rocks upstream from Cliff Swallow FAS. Once flows drop below 1000cfs, floating above Jeffrey’s Landing gets gradually more difficult and then basically impossible by the time flows hit 750. From 750 down to 450, the Stillwater is only floatable downstream of Jeffrey’s Landing and even this section often requires the guide and sometimes even requires clients to get out and help drag the boat over shallow areas. In addition, a nasty rapid called Beartooth Drop is easily floatable above 1000cfs but below that may demand clients wade around it while the guide rows an empty raft over the drop.

In dry years, the lower portion of the river gets too low for us to run Stillwater River fishing trips during the last ten days of August. In normal years, late September is pretty safe. In wet years, or even when fall rains help raise flows, we can continue fishing the lower Stillwater off-and-on through October. For reference, 2019 saw the lower Stillwater good to go except for a week or so through fall, while 2020 (a much drier year) saw it get too low intermittently around September 10 and then get too low for good around October 1.

Angler and Stillwater River
Trevor acting goofy at the Swinging Bridge launch, where we put in for half-day floats on the lower Stillwater.

The Stillwater remains a good wade fishery no matter how low flows get, though since public access points are somewhat limited, we do not run Stillwater River fishing trips after flows get too low to float, or at least use the boat for transportation.

The entire Stillwater River is fast-flowing and rocky. Even the “gentle” stretches near Absarokee and in the last mile or so feature short pools punctuated by heavy riffles and runs. Much of the river is almost continuous pocket water, especially when flows are high. There’s a suspicion that the river’s name is therefore a joke. In many respects, the Stillwater resembles a larger version of the Boulder. One difference is that the Stillwater has longer stretches or riprapped banks, primarily in its lower reaches.

Despite its fast-flowing and rocky nature, the portions of the river on which we run floats primarily flows through a broad and very pretty valley lined with cottonwoods, hay meadows, and homes. As the river approaches the Yellowstone, it begins cutting down through rock ledges, which make for the heaviest rapids on the lower river (the upper river is also wild) and also makes for a few “cliffy” stretches where one bank at least fishes like the river is down in a canyon.

The Stillwater River features excellent insect populations, both aquatic insects in the river and terrestrial insects in the hay meadows and bushes. Stoneflies are probably the most important aquatic insect, no surprise given the river’s fast and rocky nature. Salmonflies are uncommon, but Golden Stoneflies, Nocturnal Stones, and Yellow Sallies are numerous. The Nocturnal Stones (Midnight Stones) often hatch late into September, which is one reason large attractor-hoppers like Chubby Chernobyls and big Bob Hoppers work so well. In July and early August, tan caddis and PMD can also bring up good numbers of fish, while in September Tan Drakes and BWO may interest the fish. In regards to terrestrials, while you can fish ants with success on the Stillwater, there’s seldom any need to do so. The fish love hoppers in August and September on Stillwater River fishing trips.

It is uncommon to see more than one or two other guides per day on the Stillwater. This is due to the distance from Livingston and Bozeman. Simply put, most guides (and many clients) would rather not drive so far. That said, the Stillwater enters the Yellowstone only 45 miles from Billings, Montana’s largest city, and both Columbus and Absarokee are good-sized towns either on or only a few minutes from the Stillwater. In addition, Red Lodge is less than an hour away and is a popular summer resort community. This means that wade anglers are common sights near the public access points. Kayakers aren’t unusual no matter the water level, and recreational rafters are numerous on the weekends downstream from Jeffrey’s Landing when flows are about above 1000cfs. This said, total river traffic is a fraction what it is on the Yellowstone and Madison.

Lower Stillwater River brown trout
Lower Stillwater River brown trout.

Fishing the Stillwater River

Except when the river is still up in the bushes, when we’re fishing with novice clients, or when we’re trying for bigger brown trout, dry-dropper tactis are our bread and butter on the Stillwater. In July this means a big Chubby Chernobyl or the locally-loved Jack Cabe (sort of a tan-winged, oversized Trude, pictured below) trailing a heavy Yellow Sally nymph or caddis pupa. In August and early September, we’ll usually fish Big Bob Hoppers with slender but heavy jig-style nymphs that can either represent small stoneflies or mayflies.

Jack Cabe fly pattern

Match-the-hatch fishing is limited on our Stillwater River fishing trips, but we’ll often fish some sort of small attractor dry suggestive of the insects we’re seeing on the dropper instead of the nymph, especially when the fish are rising well. Good choices in this category are Clacka Caddis in July and early August or Purple or Copper Hazy Cripples in late August and September. During hopper season, we’ll sometimes go double hopper (that’s a hopper with a hopper dropper, in case you were wondering. Only two hoppers at a time to stay legal in Montana, though.)

When we’re trying for larger fish, we’ll oven throw medium-sized streamers for a while. This is most likely on the lower river in the fall. Zonkers and Woolly Buggers are good bets. No need to get fancy.

Nymphing is not really on the table most of the time here. There’s only three circumstances when we’re likely to nymph:

  1. When we have beginner-novice clients.
  2. When we are floating for the first week or so after runoff when the river is raging high and not clear.
  3. On the lower river when we’re targeting fall run browns in late September and October.

More than any one fly, the real ticket here is accuracy. The fish relate very strongly to structure, particularly in July and early August when the water is still rather high. Expect your guide to harangue you if you’re not hitting your spots. If you do hit your spots, you might catch more trout on a day on the Stillwater than you ever have in a day of fishing.

Did I pique your interest?

Stillwater River, angler, and rainbow trout
This rainbow came no more than 200 yards upstream from the Yellowstone confluence.
Drag Sculpin Fly Tying Video

Drag Sculpin Fly Tying Video

The Drag Sculpin is representative of the class of large 3-4″ sculpin-style streamer patterns guides on the Yellowstone River often have clients use under strike indicators when shooting for larger brown trout, fish averaging 16 to 20 inches and potentially reaching or exceeding 24 inches. While such flies can be stripped like any big streamer, fishing them under indicators allows even novice clients who can’t properly cast and retrieve large streamers effectively to have shots at large trout. All that such clients need to do is mend consistently with slight amounts of drag between the mends.

The olive variation given here is without question the most consistent color for large streamers in the area, but other good baitfish colors also work: black, gold/tan, white, brown over yellow, etc.

Full recipe and fishing tips at Walter’s blog at https://fishstories.ycflyfishing.com/

Lower Madison River Float Fishing Trips

Lower Madison River Float Fishing Trips

At Parks’ Fly Shop, we mostly float the Yellowstone River. We do offer Montana float fishing trips on three other rivers, though: the Lower Madison, Boulder, and Stillwater Rivers. The Lower Madison is our go-to float river in late May and June when the Yellowstone is muddy, Boulder River float fishing trips are possible in early May, June, and July, and the Stillwater is a great option from July into September and sometimes through the fall. In this next series of blog posts, Walter will discuss our float fishing trips on these rivers.

This is the second entry in this series, covering Lower Madison River float fishing trips. The first entry covered the Boulder River.

Visit this page for more information on our float trips.

Introduction to Lower Madison River Float Fishing Trips

  • Season: Late April through late June or early July, whenever water temperatures exceed 70 degrees, and again in September and October after things cool off again.
  • The Fishing: Nymphing dominates. We either dredge deep with crayfish and dropper nymphs in the deepest holes, or run very shallow with caddis pupae and mayfly nymphs. Some dry-dropper fishing is possible, particularly during caddis hatches.
  • The Fish: The fish have a split population here. There are a few monster rainbows and browns, plus a whole lot of 6-12″ rainbows, browns, and westslope cutthroats.
  • The Boat: Since this is a gentle stretch of river with great boat ramps, all fishing on the Lower Madison is via drift boat

The key thing to note about the Lower Madison is this: it is clear (enough) to float in May and June, when all other area float rivers are too high to fish. In fact, it often sees its best fishing (including heavy hatches) when everything else is blown out and in the trees. As such, virtually all of our trips on the Lower Madison take place in May and June, when it is at its best and everything else is at its worst. If you book a float trip for the latter half of May or the first three weeks of June, odds are it take place here except during drought years or unusual cold snaps.

Our Lower Madison River float fishing trips take place from Warm Springs Access at the bottom of Beartrap Canyon down to the Madison’s junction with the Jefferson and Gallatin to form the Missouri at Three Forks. The vast majority of trips take place on the upper portion of this stretch. Full-days run between Warm Springs and Black’s Ford or Warm Springs and Grey Cliff accesses, depending on water flows, while half-days run from Warm Springs to Damselfly.

Because it’s wide, slow, shallow, gentle, and usually demands short-range nymphing tactics, the Lower Madison is an excellent choice for beginner clients, while also offering enough to interest experienced clients.

The Lower Madison River is located around 30 minutes west of Bozeman, Montana, making for a two-hour drive from Gardiner, Montana. All of our guides who work on the lower Madison are based in Livingston, Montana, about 1hr from the Lower Madison. If you are staying in Gardiner or Livingston (or between the two towns), expect to meet your guide in Livingston.

Madison River trips require additional commercial licensing beyond the standard Montana or YNP commercial use authorizations. Our Lower Madison River Float Fishing trips operate under Walter Wiese’s permit, #297. Note that Lower Madison River float fishing trips are limited.

Introduction to the Lower Madison River

The Lower Madison River begins at Warm Springs Access near Norris, Montana, where the Madison emerges from Beartrap Canyon. The river runs generally north from this point through public and private meadowlands before ending at Three Forks.

Unlike the upper Madison, which is at its best in high summer, the Lower Madison is best in May and June and is terrible in midsummer. The dominant factor why this is the case is Ennis Dam located a few miles upstream. This dam slows the runoff and clears out the river, moderating flows in the late spring and early summer. This is a good deed done by the dam. The bad deed is that Ennis Lake is shallow, only eight or ten feet deep, which means that instead of acting as a cooling factor like most reservoirs, it instead acts like a heat trap. The water coming out of the dam routinely pushes 70 degrees in July and August. Downstream, below the deep and shady Beartrap Canyon (where we do not have and cannot get permits to float), the wide, shallow Lower Madison routinely runs in the high 70s in midsummer and is therefore always closed to fishing from 2pm to midnight from July 15 through August 15. Really, it should close July 4 and remain closed until September 1.

The Lower Madison is wide, shallow, and weedy, often running 100 yards wide but no more than 2-3 feet deep all the way across. Most of the time the river runs as shallow riffles and runs, with occasional larger pools and a few almost-rapids. The faster, deeper water is primarily found between Warm Springs Access and Canaday Access, as the canyon walls fall away. Occasional islands are present throughout the Lower Madison, but there are more from near Greycliff Access on down.

Lower Madison River rainbow trout
This rainbow came from a shallow bucket downstream of Canaday Access. It ate a caddis pupa fished beneath a dry fly.

The shallow, riffly, weedy nature of the Lower Madison make for massive insect populations, but limited good holding water. Except for the obvious runs and riprapped banks, the best structure throughout this stretch is composed of midriver “buckets” where winter ice and odd currents dig out holes, often immediately downstream of weed beds. These holes hold almost all larger brown trout. Particularly during high water periods, numerous rainbow and cutthroat trout (the latter found mostly within a mile or so of the confluence with Cherry Creek) can be found near the banks as on other Montana float rivers, though these are typically smaller fish.

Important insects on the Lower Madison include several species of caddis (various species from May through early July), especially the olive-brown Mother’s day caddis which hatches in May and early June, Yellow Sally stoneflies, PMD (June-July), BWO (April-May and October-November), and Gray and Green Drake (June) mayflies. Unlike most waters in the area, crayfish are abundant here as well, so instead of a large nymph or streamer, we’ll often fish a crayfish imitation in conjunction with a smaller nymph, especially when shooting for big fish rather than numbers. Aquatic and terrestrial worms are often present in the river, especially during high water periods, so San Juan Worms are also good bets.

Besides the warm water, the other obstacle on the lower Madison is the crowds. There can be vast numbers of guide boats on the water here, and once the water warms into the mid-60s, typically in mid-June, hordes of recreational floaters descend, many of whom think nothing of floating right over where anglers happen to be fishing. Both issues argue for an early start to get ahead of the crowds.

Fishing the Lower Madison River

Three main tactics dominate on the Lower Madison, depending on weather/water conditions and whether we’re shooting for big fish or numbers. These are:

  1. Fishing the deepest structure with crayfish-nymph combos: This tactic is how we target the largest fish at any time, though overall trout numbers will be low. It’s also the most consistent tactic during high water.
  2. Fishing shallower buckets and the shoreline with “short leash” nymph tactics: In this tactic, we fish two smaller nymphs, often only a couple feet below our bobber, and target shallower structure near the shore or in shallow midriver buckets. We may also stop and wade-fish shallow side channels when using this technique. This typically produces the most trout, but size will be small except when it’s cloudy and the fish are quite active. Often this tactic transitions over to the next one when the fish are rising well.
  3. Fishing double-dry or dry-dropper combinations in shallower buckets, side channels, and near the shore: This tactic is most like our preferred techniques elsewhere. It is most effective during heavy insect emergences or occasionally during hopper time in late August and early September when the water is cool enough. Cloudy weather is required to produce trout over about 12 inches with this tactic. When using this tactic, we’ll often stop the boat since good numbers of rising fish can be spot-specific. Your guide may have you get out of the boat to wade-fish or simply walk the boat slowly through good spots.

The first two tactics above are much more likely for beginner and novice anglers, while advanced anglers fishing in late May and June are more likely to get some dry fly fishing in. With anglers willing to wade, we may do some “wet fly swing” fishing during caddis hatches, while in late April and early May and in the fall we may have advanced anglers strip big streamers on our Lower Madison River float fishing trips.

Boulder River Float Fishing Trips

Boulder River Float Fishing Trips

At Parks’ Fly Shop, we mostly float the Yellowstone River. We do offer Montana float fishing trips on three other rivers, though: the Lower Madison, Boulder, and Stillwater Rivers. The Lower Madison is our go-to float river in late May and June when the Yellowstone is muddy, Boulder River float fishing trips are possible in early May, June, and July, and the Stillwater is a great option from July into September and sometimes through the fall. In this next series of blog posts, Walter will discuss our float fishing trips on these rivers. First up is the Boulder. Visit this page for more information on our float trips.

angler with boulder river brown trout
Solid brown trout from the Boulder River in early July 2020. This fish ate a Lex’s Golden Stonefly Nymph, one of the top flies on Boulder River float fishing trips.

Introduction to Boulder River Float Fishing Trips

  • Season: Late April and Early May before the spring runoff hits, during short “runoff breaks” in May and June, and in July until flows drop to about 500cfs.
  • The Fishing: Fast-paced nymph and dry-dropper fishing from the boat, with some match the hatch opportunities in July both on foot and from the raft.
  • The Fish: Rainbow and brown trout averaging 8 to 16 inches but occasionally flirting with 20 inches, plus abundant and very large whitefish in the deep pools.
  • The Boat: Because the Boulder is shallow and rocky and many of its accesses are rough, all float fishing trips on the Boulder River utilize rafts.

Our Boulder River float fishing trips take place in the lower portion of the river below Natural Bridge Falls Recreation Area. This 20-odd mile stretch of river allows for two different full-day floats as well as a short section suitable for a half-day float provided we get out and do some walk-wade fishing as well. There are five float fishing access points on the river, plus the Otter takeout on the Yellowstone where some lower Boulder River float fishing trips take out.

Almost all sections of the Boulder are small, steep, fast, and bouldery. This makes accurate casting critical and makes the fishing very fast-paced. For this reason, it’s a poor choice for beginner and novice clients. It’s great for clients who can hit their spots and like fishing for numerous and healthy midsized trout that fight above their weight, with opportunities for a few solid but not enormous fish mixed in.

The Boulder River is located south of Big Timber, Montana, with most Boulder River float fishing trips starting around one hour from Livingston, Montana. This makes the float portions of the Boulder around 1hr 45min travel time from Gardiner.

Introduction to the Boulder River

The Boulder River and its numerous tributaries and forks rise north of Yellowstone ParkĀ  in the northwest Absaroka Mountains. The forks all come together near McLeod, Montana, then the Boulder flows north to join the Yellowstone near Big Timber. While good fishing exists on the upper Boulder in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest upstream from Natural Bridge Falls Recreation Area (a fantasic side trip where the river briefly flows underground before jetting from a cliff face as a tall waterfall), float fishing is impossible in the headwaters because of the river’s small size and numerous intense rapids.

Downstream of Natural Bridge, the Boulder slows and flows in numerous undercut bends resembling the Lamar River. Unfortunately, this section of river is located entirely on private land and the waterfall upstream makes it impossible to access.

At the East Boulder Road Bridge, flows begin to increase again and the river gains volume from the East Boulder River. Boulder River float fishing trips begin here and continue to the Boulder’s confluence with the Yellowstone. This upper portion is smaller and slower than lower portions, so it’s excellent for getting out and wade fishing.

At Boulder Forks near McLeod, the West Boulder joins and the river gets steep and fast again. It remains steep and fast all the way to the Yellowstone and public access is limited to bridges and small access points, so float-fishing is the best option. For the remainder of the trip to the Yellowstone, the Boulder is almost continuous class-I and class-II whitewater, with a few class-III waves thrown in when trees fall into the river and around nasty islands. While there are a few big pools and riffle corners that invite wade-fishing, for the most part the river flows fast over a bed choked in large boulders, each one of which invites a cast or two as the raft blows by.

image showing angler fishing the boulder river
Walter wade-fishing a riffle corner on the Boulder. We often get out to fish spots like this on foot, especially when the water is quite high or quite low and the fish tend to stack in the larger pools.

Speaking of rafts, all Boulder River float fishing trips require one. The river is far too shallow and rocky for drift boats to survive the trip, even when the water is high.

Unlike most rivers in the area, the Boulder never really gets too muddy to fish during the spring snowmelt. It does get too high. This occurs about a week after the Yellowstone blows out, usually between May 10 and 20. Even during the spring melt, short windows of good fishing occur during cooldowns that allow the river to drop. Most rivers in the region can fish well when the water is up in the bankside bushes. The Boulder can fish well when the river is up in the trees. Still, flows need to be under about 2700 cubic feet per second for floating to be safe. Even then, it’s important to watch out for recently-dropped trees in the river.

The Boulder really kicks into gear in an average year around June 25 to July 1, when flows drop below about 1500cfs and the fish begin eating dry flies. Prime flows continue until the river hits about 800cfs.

Though the fishing and especially the floating get more difficult once flows drop under 800, Boulder River float fishing trips continue until flows drop to a bit over 500cfs, with the section between the East Boulder Bridge and Boulder Forks and the section between the 8-Mile Bridge south of Big Timber and a takeout at a city park in Big Timber remaining floatable the longest. In a year that sees normal snowpack and summer precipitation, this usually occurs between July 20 and August 1.

Fishing the Boulder River

During the brief periods when Boulder River float fishing trips are possible during the high water of May and June, most fishing is with deep nymph rigs. When nymphing the Boulder, we almost always use a stonefly nymph with a smaller nymph on the dropper. Girdle Bugs, the “Bomb Series” nymphs, and Lex’s Golden Stones are our bread and butter stoneflies, while Iron Sallies, Princes, and assorted caddis pupae are good droppers. Because the river is full of snags, we like jig-style nymphs here. During the early season, we nymph-fish from the raft, but also get out and wade the best pools. During high water, we’ll often catch the majority of our trout from the pools.

Streamer fishing can also be quite good early on, especially when the water’s on the drop in late June. No need to get fancy here: medium-sized Woolly Buggers and Sparkle Minnows are usually the best flies. On Boulder River float fishing trips there’s no need for long sink-tips. A short poly leader is fine. Casts do need to be accurate, though.

The big draw on Boulder River float fishing trips is the July dry-dropper and dry fly fishing. Most fishing is dry-dropper. Sometimes we’ll go huge, with a #6-8 Chubby Chernobyl trailing a medium-sized Girdle Bug or similar generic stonefly nymph. The TJ Hooker is a great stonefly-streamer combo that works great under a Girdle Bug, since it works even when the guide has to dodge rocks or the clients have to twitch the nymph to keep it from hanging up in shallow spots. Learn to tie it here.

When the giant Chubby Chernobyl is too big, a slightly smaller attractor like a #10 Synth Double Wing, #12 Trude, smaller Chubby Chernobyl, or #10 Turck’s Tarantula is a good bet. We’ll trail these with caddis pupae, Prince nymphs, or the Iron Sally.

While the Boulder doesn’t have wall-to-wall hatches, most Boulder River float fishing trips in July will see the fish keying on emerging aquatic insects for at least a while each days. During the day, we see PMDs and Yellow Sally stoneflies. In late afternoon, tan caddis often hatch, especially when it’s cloudy. Because the river is so fast and turbulent, specialty hatch-matching dry flies designed to float well and be visible are required. Our favorite PMD on the Boulder is Galloups’ Found Link PMD, for example, even though we don’t use it a lot elsewhere. During hatches, we’ll usually fish a smaller Clacka Caddis or Trude attractor dry trailing the appropriate hatch-matcher.

Regardless of technique, most fishing when flows are from 1500 down to 800cfs will be from the boat, since these are prime levels for the fish to be scattered through the river. Once flows drop below 800cfs, we’ll start hopping out to wade-fish the deeper areas, since the river by this point is getting low enough that the fish are starting to move out of the long, shallow runs.

Flows getting too low for Boulder River float fishing trips? Not a problem! We also run wade-fishing trips on the East and West Boulder, which are small streams, and on the mainstem of the Boulder itself. These trips are best-suited to anglers either staying in Livingston or on their way headed eastward, because they’re really too far from Gardiner for Gardiner to make sense as a home base. That said, wade fishing trips in the Boulder Drainage are often MUCH less crowded than trips in Yellowstone Park, since this area is a bit off the beaten path. If you’re looking for a float trip once the Boulder gets too low, the Stillwater River is the Boulder’s “big sister” and fishes for at least six weeks later into the season. Watch the blog for my post introducing the Stillwater, which should come up in a couple weeks.

female angler with large boulder river brown trout