By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
I’m often asked what my favorite river or place to fish is. It’s both an easy question to answer (“The river I’m fishing at the time”) and a hard one (“the Yellowstone, because it is a wild, temperamental freestone river”). However, if I’m forced to narrow the list, it’s an easy task.
New Zealand is the land of heli-fishing, hobbits, and brown trout so wary they all have nicknames. Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia have diversity, big trout, asados, and Malbec served in half-gallon glasses.
Alaska’s landscape is as grand as it gets, and its waters hold a variety of species of big fish. But Montana’s waters still delight the most traveled angler, and here I’m giving a serious shout-out to the Gallatin River as the greatest fly-fishing river in the world. Here’s why:
Wild, free flowing and beautiful. The Gallatin begins in Yellowstone National Park and flows unimpeded for nearly 100 miles before it joins the Jefferson and Madison to create the Missouri River. During runoff it flows fast and high – this is not a quiet, dam-controlled river. In the first 60 miles, mountains frame the river, and the last 40 miles are dominated by cottonwoods and expansive views of the Gallatin Valley.
Wild or native fish. Native westslope cutthroat trout, as well as wild rainbow and brown trout, can be caught on any good drift. The river is also home to native Rocky Mountain whitefish. These four species ensure an angler a good chance of reward, but if not, the scenery is a substitute if the fishing is slow.
Accessibility. The river flows through Yellowstone and Gallatin National Forest for most of its run, allowing for an array of public access. Once the river leaves Gallatin Canyon, access points are more spread out, but Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has done an excellent job of providing several fishing-access sites.
A year-round fishery. The Gallatin is not a large river, and therefore fishing it on foot is most effective. Coupled with accessibility and not requiring a boat, the river can be easily fished any month of the year. Around the Big Sky area several springs create ice-free water even during the coldest winters, and for locals the perfect day is skiing in the morning and fishing in the afternoon. Many consider this the best day ever.
Variety of water and habitats. The upper reaches near the source have willow-lined banks, some of which are deeply undercut, offering a safe haven for some surprisingly large brown trout. Here, anglers willing to hike can be rewarded. The canyon section near Big Sky is chocked with sections of pocket water, deep pools and fishy runs. As the river leaves the canyon near Storm Castle and heads to Gallatin Gateway, riffled corners and longer runs dominate. From Manhattan to the river’s mouth north of Three Forks, the river becomes a broad prairie stream with many channels and the potential for a few trophy trout.
Hatches. A dry-fly angler will find delight in the Gallatin. Midges are abundant in February and March. Blue-winged olives may appear in March along with some early season black stoneflies. Late April and early May will see caddis in the valley sections, but cloudy water during spring runoff may prevent fishing. As soon as runoff wanes, salmon and stoneflies hatch providing exciting fishing with large dry flies. Summer brings caddis, spruce moths and tricos, and late summer means fishing with grasshoppers, ants and beetles.
Just when you think the river has hatched itself out, fall mayflies like blue winged olives, pseudo-mayflies, and October caddis appear. Even if the fish are not rising to the surface, abundant hatches result in feeding fish.
I’ve traveled and fished throughout the world, but believe Montana is the best destination for fly fishing – and in The Treasure State, the Gallatin tops the list. However, my declaration of the greatest fly fishing river in the world is not without bias – I fished the river as a boy and today am fortunate to take my daughter fishing in its clear and cold water.
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.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.