Montana Fly Fishing 4 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Yellowstone River

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

July 25, 2017

Yellowstone River Livingston Montana

The longest river in Montana is the Yellowstone, which presents unique challenges to the angler considering a fishing vacation to this famous destination. Most of us are somewhat familiar with Yellowstone National Park, but our focus here will be on the trout rich Yellowstone in Montana.

The Yellowstone River contains a strong population of various trout species; including cutthroat, brown, and rainbow trout. Due to the length of this river, many anglers become frustrated in trying to determine what section should be their focal point in planning their trip. Hopefully this article can help point you in the right direction, one that has accessibility in mind.

About Yellowstone River

Fly Fishing Yellowstone River and the spring creeks of Paradise Valley in Montana with Greater Yellowstone Outfitters

Best Places to Fish the Yellowstone River in Montana

The landscape of this part of the country is spectacular and changes with each particular section. We will focus on the fishing aspect, bearing in mind just how beautiful this part of the country is. A good suggestion for each angler planning a trip here is to take your time in deciding on which section you want to visit. Are you equally as interested in the scenic value as well as the fishing? This is an example of a good question to ask yourself and will help lead you in the proper direction.

Our focus will be on the section that runs from the Carbella Access Site to Livingston. This section receives the heaviest fishing pressure but is very productive. We will focus on fishing this section of the Yellowstone River during the late summer months.

Late spring and early summer finds the Yellowstone murky and muddy, as the water clears up later in the summer making it more appealing to the senses.

This change in the water also sets the stage for a particular type of fly fishing that most enjoy. Speaking of the senses, on this section you will be greeted with the Absaroka Mountains to your east and the Gallatin Range to your west.

Yellowstone River Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of fishing access spots on the Yellow River in Montana

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Access on this section is not a challenge as the Carbella Access Site is at the beginning of this stretch. A widely used access point which is approximately 20 miles north of Gardiner and the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, you will find it accommodating and convenient. There is 20 camping spots available at this access point, and they do enforce a 14-day limit.

This is not your only access point, as there are plenty of Montana Fishing Access sites along the way as shown on the map above.  Click any of the map icons for directions to each access point.

Yellowstone River Float Trips

Due to the Yellowstone River’s width and depth, wade fishing is not recommended. While wading is possible, the preferred method is to fly fish the Yellowstone River by boat.

It increases your ability to reach portions of the water that simply can not be accessed when wading. Fortunately, there are numerous boat launches available which are also shown on the map above.

Best Time to Fish the Yellowstone River

While opinions vary on when the best fishing occurs on this portion of the Yellowstone River, a prime time that is widely agreed upon is the late summer months.

As the water clears, the fishing techniques change. This is not to take away from the earlier summer months but the water during the months of May through early July have a propensity to be muddy and murky.

As the water clears this leads to ideal hopper fishing. In particular, a region known as Paradise Valley is lined with hayfields and grass which is prime hopper fishing conditions. Plop a hopper, sizes 2-10, noisily along the bank and get ready for a nasty strike.

Before you head out be sure to check the current river conditions.  USGS stream gauges of interest are shown on the map above.  Click any gauge to view a graph of stream flows for the past 7 days as shown in the example below.

River Flow and Current Conditions

Yellowstone River near Livingston, MT

  • Temperature: 50.18 ° F
  • Streamflow: 6520 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 3.81 ft
Temperature GraphStreamflow GraphGage height Graph

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the Yellowstone River. For larger nymphs and streamers a 9-foot 6-wt with a sink tip fly line makes life easier. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 6X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Yellowstone River Fishing Reports

There are a number of area fly shops and on-line retailers that publish Yellowstone River fly fishing reports. A few to check out include:

Fishing Regulations

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has a user friendly website where the angler can visit and find out all the latest on regulations for this river. In addition, this is where you can go to purchase your non-resident fishing license. It is strongly suggested to check this site frequently before your trip to check for any updates and changes. 

Trip Planning Tips

If you will be flying into this region, there are a couple airports worth noting. Gardiner has a small public airport, and the city of Bozeman (which is a little over an hours drive from Gardiner) has a larger airport. Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport offers many fights in and out and is worth a strong consideration for your airline travel to this destination.

Lodging Near Yellowstone River

The city of Livingston is conveniently located on this stretch of water, and offers all the potential amenities that an angler could expect. From a convenience standpoint, you will be hard pressed to find a better spot to reserve your hotel room. A quick Google search of the area also reveals numerous camping opportunities. Given the proximity to Yellowstone National, local businesses are only happy to try and accommodate both the campers and the hotel stayers.

So Much Water to Explore

There is simply not enough space here to go into the details that this river justifies. With it being the largest river in Montana, and with all its sections and various personalities, it is one of this earth’s great spectacles. Those who have spent any time at all in this region speak volumes of its beauty and fishing.

In summary, as it is with any fishing trip, proper planning is the key to a fun and smooth fishing experience. Start your trip planning by reviewing each of the sections of this river, including of course the section represented here, and decide for yourself which one suits your desires. Then, you can explore your transportation options and housing needs in the local communities. The one advantage that this section of the Yellowstone River has over its counterparts is the close proximity of major towns such as Livingston and Bozeman. May your lines draw in the trout of your dreams as your senses take in all that is the state of Montana.

Looking for more places to fish in Montana? Check out our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Montana.