This is another river, of several, which is very easy to approach in its most fishable and fishworthy stretches. It runs beside a major north-south roadway for most of its length. That is U.S. 191 from West Yellowstone to Three Forks, although we do not go so far afield. Our coverage ends at Gallatin Gateway, because the river below here, although it still contains trout and some very large trout, runs almost entirely through private property. The stream was the first river in Montana to be declared by the courts as navigable, therefore the banks below the high-water line, and the streambed, are public.
The Gallatin rises in two branches on the north face of Three Rivers Peak in Yellowstone Park. In a short distance, these two feed into Gallatin Lake, out of which the river emerges, still above 9,500 feet and very cold. It first comes into view at Milepost 22 (from West Yellowstone) where it is joined by the waters of Fan Creek from the north. Divide Creek from the south, and just a bit further on, by Bacon Rind Creek from the west. These three more than double the flow and quickly make the Gallatin into a mountain trout stream. Though it runs through a pastoral valley for many miles, it is not a meadow stream. It is composed almost entirely of riffles and runs; there are few pools in the next thirty miles and few large fish. It is mostly a panfish stream here and a pure pleasure to fish. There are few places in these thirty miles where the angler cannot cast across without strain. It can also be waded without difficulty, the round, smooth, but not slick, gravel-rubble bottom requires only felt soles, and few places cannot be waded in hippers.
This is quite a cool stream and because of the lake and characteristics of the watershed, is stable in temperature and comfortable for the trout, rainbows and cutthroat in this upper section. It is only moderately mineral rich and well supplied with oxygen. The mayfly and caddis that dwell in its singing riffles are small and not overly plentiful. The trout often look to the surface for terrestrial food in summer.
From where it first comes into sight until it enters the Gallatin Canyon it is seldom out of sight and, though it grows larger, it never changes its character. It is an open, pleasant, riffle-loaded little river that stimulates but never really challenges. In the Canyon and beyond, it is an entirely different stream.
This section is not for hard work or hard fishing. On those days when you wish to pleasantly relax and enjoy the out-of-doors, some lovely, restful scenery, and fish a friendly stream with light tackle, hike yourself to the Gallatin at Milepost 22 and beyond.
This section is much favored by animals, which do not interfere with the fishermen but do add interest to the landscape by creating a wilderness aspect even though the highway is right beside you.
To fish this stretch, take along a big lunch, perhaps a pleasant libation, and park along any stretch that suits your mood for the day. You can fish up with the dry fly or terrestrials and back down with small wets or nymphs. The trout are not many nor large but they are friendly and willing, and you will have a relaxing, pleasant day on one of the friendliest rivers in the West. It's open countenance is just as it seems, it holds no secrets from you. The fish are where you think they are and you fish it as you think you should. No stream can be more honest than that.
The canyon section is a big, rough, brawling mountain river, surging toward its junction with the Madison and Jefferson. It is boulder filled and boisterous, difficult to fish and to wade. There are occasional short channels or runs, but by and large this is pocket water. Many of its strong riffles lack the depth to be good holding water, but one will find fish in them at times. When they are in such shallow stretches, they are there to feed, but they are not there often nor for long periods.
This type water begins about Milepost 49 and continues for the next fifteen miles. The gradient is generally steep, but there are some benches that cause a long (200- to 300-yard) flat-water stretch with a fast chute at the head and another at the foot. These rare spots provide some dry fly fishing that at times is excellent. Even when the fish are not feeding or insects hatching, one can still do well at the end and around the sides of the upper fast-water tongue, and in the "tail of the flat,".
There is much pocket water which can be successfully fished with the dry fly, and down here in the canyon, the fish are larger. But there is not much running room, so most times a leader of 3X is sufficient with the high-floating dry or the hopper pattern. This is stone fly water and day-in, day-out, the big black nymph imitations will produce the larger trout, though not the greatest number. Here one wants a sink tip line, or even a full floater, because of the boulders. Also, one needs a short leader, two feet or so, and a heavily weighted nymph. One fishes as short a cast as possible, holds the rod tip up and "steers" the fly alongside or through the pocket. The trout in such water hit the nymph with a smash. The leader must not be finer than IX, and OX is better.
The better fishing is a little distance from, or out of sight of, the many parking spots. We're not talking of great distances here-a hundred yards or so out of sight of the road or any open area will find undisturbed water. Wear your felt-sole chest waders, cross over and fish the side away from the highway and you can find trout that do not see one angler a year.
The water here is not the friendly riffle water above Milepost 49. It is very strong and fast, it means you no harm but will not stand for poor footing or slippery soles. The bottom is rough and of stones piled on stones. But it is not dangerous if you mind your business and do not wade (move) and fish at the same time. Do one or the other but not both and you'll be all right.
If one locates at the Greek Creek area or at Karst's Ranch, you will have found that these divide the canyon stretch roughly in thirds. However, it is no more than a thirty-minute drive from either place to the halfway point between them, or between Karst's and West Yellowstone.
There are mountain sheep on the mountains and the canyon walls above the river and in May and sometimes June the sheep will come down along the river, giving one a rare glimpse of these creatures of the high places. One can also encounter moose or elk anywhere on this stream.
The canyon stretch requires that the fly-fisher do some thinking before and while fishing. The stretches of water, at first glance, may appear quite similar to one another, but closer examination will reveal that is not so and that these stretches are, in fact, quite variable. This means that a little study of how to fish each stretch before it is fished will increase one's chances.
Unless there is a hatch on, the dry fly fisher will have more success with the big general floaters. The Goofus Bug in size 10 or 12 is nearly always a good producer, more so here than in other places. Hoppers from June through September are a good choice, ants and a size 12 Colorado King or Elk Hair Caddis in August do a good job. It is presumed that the latter flies imitate the adult of the spruce budworm, which regularly infests the forests through which the river runs in the Canyon.
In June there is the salmonfly hatch and one can do yeoman work with the floating adult. As is true anywhere this hatch occurs, one must seek out the head of the hatch where the fish are feeding fully on the egg-laying flyers and not on the crawling nymphs. I like to locate this feeding area by driving slowly down the highway from well above, where there are no flyers yet, and continue until I see several in the air at one time. Since the road and river are often side by side and never far apart, this is the lazy man's way of doing things. Once parked, with rod in hand, go to the river and watch intently for feeding fish. If none are showing and you have chosen your stopping place correctly, you should find the fish feeding a little farther downstream. Move steadily down the bank, looking for flies in the air, especially on the water, and signs of feeding fish. When you see all three from where you stand, you have "found the place."
About six or so miles from Gallatin Gateway, the road comes out of the canyon, crossing from your right to your left under the bridge as you proceed downstream. The river now begins to change character completely. Gone are the boulder-lined pockets and surging currents. The land is much flatter and the river slows down and begins to be a stream of long runs and deep pools. There is still some faster water, generally where one pool ends and the next begins, but this is calmer, deeper water for the most part.
The fish in the deep pools are often quite large, though never plentiful. They are mostly taken on bait, though a big dragon nymph worked slowly with twitches along the bottom on a sinking line and short leader will bring up a big brown once in a while. A leech (ugh!) will also work if you can abide the brutes (artificial, of course).
Excellent dry fly fishing can be had if you know where to fish. The trout feeding on the surface here locate themselves differently than on any other stream of the area. They are nearly always found in the shallow tail of the faster runs-not in the deeper water near the head and not in the quieter water alongside the current tongue, but in the flat water just before the next run or pool begins. This water is choppy and it is difficult to see the fish take the fly, natural or artificial. But once you have found where the fish are, you can do well, and occasionally run into a lunker that has sneaked in among the yearlings.
The fishing in this farmland area, with its huge cottonwood and other deciduous trees, and plentiful vines and underbrush along the bank, is more like eastern trout fishing in some of its aspects, than it is western mountain trout fishing, and easterners find that they feel right at home here. And they find that eastern flies and methods do quite well, which makes them quite happy. And happy is what trout fishing is all about.
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