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.
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.
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.
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!