Montana’s crown jewel

By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist

As a veteran fly-fishing guide (translation: someone too lazy to survive in the corporate world) I’m constantly asked what my favorite Montana river is. When I first started guiding in the 1990s I often thought about my answer—taking into account things like average fish size, biggest waves, or the nearest bar for meeting co-eds—today my answer is simple: the Yellowstone River.

From its source in the wilderness south of Yellowstone National Park to where it meets the Missouri River in North Dakota, it’s the Lower 48’s longest free flowing, undammed river. Home to its namesake species of native cutthroat trout and arguably the most accessible river in the West, any serious angler has or desires to fish the mighty “Roche Juane”—the original name given to it by French trappers and traders.

Oh yeah, and the next few weeks the river is in prime shape to give up its trout. Here’s some information to enjoy it that much more.

Safety first. We all want to be on the river as soon as possible and a big lure of the Yellowstone is it has the longest runoff cycle of all Montana streams. The river rises as the mountain snowpack in Yellowstone National Park begins to melt in May and by late June the river begins to drop and the fishing potential increases.

As the river becomes fishable its flows are still high and fast. If you’re on foot, fish with a partner or be very cautious when wading. During this post-runoff stage the water along the banks is the place to fish anyway as the trout are holding near bank-side structure feeding on stonefly and salmonfly nymphs.

Montana’s longest and largest salmonfly hatch. The Yellowstone River is home to Montana’s largest habitat for salmon- and stoneflies. These river-dwelling insects hatch en mass as runoff subsides and the trout respond by binge feeding for days to weeks during the insects’ emergence.

From the water near Livingston, upstream to Yellowstone Lake in the park, it’s not uncommon to have two to three weeks of big dry-fly fishing using salmonflies or golden stoneflies. These hatches typically start in late June, which means local fly shops and guides now have salmonflies on the brain. When fishing this hatch use shorter, stouter leaders and focus on fishing the banks.

Accessibility. From its source to where it enters Montana, the river is accessible via public lands. Once it exits the park, multiple Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks access sites provide opportunity to float or walk-and-wade the river. Camping is also allowed at many of these access sites.

Once the river nears Columbus access points are fewer and farther apart, but are available about every 10 to 15 miles.

Fish species. The river is home to native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, native Rocky Mountain whitefish, brown and rainbow trout, and a few other non-game fish. The Yellowstone cutthroat is a subspecies of cutthroat trout found only in the Yellowstone River drainage. Anglers from around the world travel here just to catch this subspecies.

If you choose to target these beautiful trout, spend your time on the water above Emigrant. If you do catch one, practice proper catch-and-release techniques as these fish are too special to catch just once.

Anglers and floaters need to relearn the river yearly. Since a dam does not impede the river, its course often changes from year to year. As the high flows of runoff carve out new channels or close off existing ones, the river is always changing.

Your first float or wading experience after runoff can feel like an exploratory mission. Despite the river’s relative popularity, I’ve walked and floated through channels where I know I was the first to fish the water in months.

The Greater Yellowstone region is home to the planet’s highest concentration of trout waters. For the next week or so choosing where to fish can seem overwhelming: walk-and-wade the beautiful Gallatin Canyon, fish the riffles of the majestic Upper Madison, or get the heart pumping on the big and bold Yellowstone.

For this washed-up veteran the choice is easy.

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, he is co-director of the Montana Fishing Guide School, and co-owns a guide service on the Missouri River.