The Yellowstone River: Grandiose indeed

By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

I learned early in life that declaring my love for something resulted in both good and bad ramifications. In the fourth grade, when I declared my love for Jennifer McKendry to my entire classroom, a better decision could have been made. Today, declaring my affection for the Yellowstone River is a safer bet than announcing it to a classroom of 10 year olds.

My attraction to the Yellowstone began in middle school – a torturous time for many of us. So it’s fitting a river as mysterious, powerful, and ever changing as the Yellowstone became my first fly-fishing love. Beginning just south of Yellowstone National Park on a plateau that divides the Atlantic and Pacific drainages – appropriately named Two Ocean Plateau – the Yellowstone flows for nearly 700 miles before joining the Missouri River. Throughout that run, hyperbole intended, it’s nothing short of spectacular.

The water. The Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing, undammed river in the lower 48, and is only about 30 miles from being the longest undammed river in the U.S. Because of this free-flowing nature, the river truly is a living thing. Its course changes often as new channels are created and old channels run dry.

The natives. It’s home to my favorite species of trout, the Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Native to the Yellowstone River drainage, this buttery, golden colored trout inhabits only streams with superb water quality. They have an affinity for eating off the surface, which if you enjoy casting dry flies you’ll greatly appreciate. However, despite their relative abundance in certain areas of the Yellowstone drainage and the river’s tributaries, they are a delicate species. Because Yellowstone cutthroat and rainbow trout both spawn in the spring, cutthroat numbers have declined due to interbreeding.

The trophy-size browns. If an angler has monster fish on the brain, the Yellowstone River is one of those places in Montana where they can target the trout of a lifetime. Each season a handful of anglers catch brown trout in the five-pound-plus range and one or two catch an eight-pound trout. Trophy fish like these take dedication: early mornings and long hours of fishing heavy flies with little reward … then it happens. If you ask five veteran Montana anglers what river is the best for gigantic brown trout, at least three would serve up the Yellowstone.

The abundance. The river has more miles of trouty water than any stream in our region, and perhaps even the lower 48. From deep canyons to pocket water, to valley bottoms with long riffles, variety is the name of the game on the Yellowstone. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has also done a fantastic job in ensuring there is ample access – it’s hard to travel more than 15 miles on the river with a public access point.

The consistency. Trout tend to eat similar flies year in and year out. I’ve been guiding the Yellowstone for nearly twenty years, and the flies in my box have only been modified, not replaced: big, bushy dry flies, rubber-legged nymphs, large streamers and Wooly Buggers, and the occasional beadhead nymph. Open up any dedicated Yellowstone River angler’s fly box and you’ll find the following flies: Girdle Bugs or Pat’s Rubberlegs in black/brown in sizes 8, 10, and 12; black and yellow foam ants or hoppers in sizes 8 and 10; tan and white Bow River Buggers in sizes 4 and 6; Beadhead Princes in size 12; any dry fly with peacock hurl in size 14; and elk hair caddis in size 16.

The raw beauty. The river and its backdrop are just downright beautiful. Surrounded by mountains and banked by cottonwoods, the Yellowstone is a sight regardless of the fishing. It flows near four mountain ranges: the Gallatins, the Abasarokas, the Crazies, and the Beartooths. Few rivers can boast that.

Like I did with Ms. McKendry in the fourth grade, declaring my love for the Yellowstone is a little risky. With this declaration comes added responsibility – each time I’m on the river I try to leave it better than I found it. It can be a challenge with a river as mighty as the Yellowstone, but even a river this large begins as a tiny drop high up on Two Ocean Plateau.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher, Montana On The Fly, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing. Along with his wife, owns Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and with a partner operates a guide service on the Missouri River.