The Yellowstone River is a tributary of the Missouri River, approximately 671 miles (1,080 km) long, in the western United States. Considered the principal tributary of the upper Missouri, the river and its tributaries drain a wide area stretching from the Rocky Mountains in the vicinity of the Yellowstone National Park across the mountains and high plains of southern Montana and northern Wyoming. It is the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states.
It rises in northwestern Wyoming near Younts Peak at the Continental Divide in southwestern Park County. It flows northward through Yellowstone National Park, feeding and draining Yellowstone Lake, then dropping over the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls at the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone within the confines of the park. After passing through the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone downstream of the Grand Canyon, the river flows northward into Montana between the Absaroka Range and the Gallatin Range in Paradise Valley. The river emerges from the mountains near the town of Livingston, where it turns eastward and northeastward, flowing across the northern Great Plains past the city of Billings.
East of Billings, it is joined by the Bighorn River. Further downriver, it is joined by the Tongue near Miles City, and then by the Powder in eastern Montana. It forms part of Lake Sakakawea as it flows into the Missouri River just above Williston. At the confluence with the Missouri, the Yellowstone is actually the larger river.
The river was explored in 1806 by William Clark during the return voyage of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the Clark's Fork of the river was named for him. The Clark's Fork collects drainage from the south side of the Beartooth Mountains, runs eastward through Wyoming, and then turns north to run through Clark, Wyoming, Belfry, Montana, Bridger, Montana, and several other towns before joining up with the main river near Billings, Montana. Clark's Fork (of the Yellowstone) should not be confused with the Clark Fork River, which is a tributary of the Columbia River.
The Yellowstone River was an important artery of transportation for Native Americans as well as for white settlers by riverboat in the 19th century. In Montana, it has been used extensively for irrigation since the 1860s. In its upper reaches, within Yellowstone Park and the mountains of Montana, it is a popular destination for fly fishing.
Angling the Yellowstone
The Yellowstone River is one of the great trout streams of the world. The Yellowstone is the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states, and there is excellent trout water from its tributaries high inside Yellowstone Park, downstream through Gardiner, the Paradise Valley, Livingston, and on to well below Big Timber, a stretch of nearly two hundred river miles. Guides float many different stretches of the prime water between Gardiner and Big Timber, depending on fishing conditions and water levels. The Yellowstone is a big river varying in width from 75 to 300 feet. Only in low water can one wade across the river, so the best access is by boat. The most scenic portion of the Yellowstone is through "Paradise Valley" and this is also some of the very best fishing. The water closer to Livingston holds the most trout, where you will find a pleasant mix of browns, rainbows and our native cutthroats. Rocky Mountain whitefish are abundant, and provide plenty of action and fun on days when trout are tougher to catch.
Yellowstone Lake down to Yellowstone Falls
Inside Yellowstone National Park is some of the most gorgeous flat water fishing for pure Yellowstone cutthroats you'll experience anywhere. A portion of this stretch (through Hayden Valley) is closed all year, but the rest is easily accessible and easily wadable. No floating is allowed. Wonderful hatches occur just after the opener, on July 15th. PMDs, Green Drakes, Gray Drakes, caddis and even salmonflies are found at that time. The river can be crowded at popular access points like Buffalo Ford, but if you like to hike a bit, there are many good spots where you can get away from the crowds.
The Yellowstone Canyon and Black Canyon
The canyon reaches inside Yellowstone National Park are accessible only by hiking or horseback. This is some terrific fishing at times, especially during the salmonfly hatch in early to mid-July. Good access points are at Canyon Village, Tower, and Gardiner with a couple of other trailhead access points in between. If you are in good shape and like to combine some hiking and fishing, this is great water to explore. The scenery is magnificent. The river here is usually quite swift, with sheer canyon walls in spots. Wading can be dangerous in these sections, so be careful. The payoff are big fat cutthroats and some very nice rainbows. Below Knowles Falls, about four miles upstream from Gardiner, you'll find browns and whitefish in addition to the rainbows and cutthroat trout.
From Gardiner to Yankee Jim Canyon
This section of the Yellowstone holds a good population of medium-sized rainbow and cutthroat trout, with a few big browns as well. The first half of this section from Gardiner to the bridge at Corwin Springs is mostly fast water, with some class II and III white water. From Corwin Springs to Yankee Jim Canyon, the river flattens out substantially and gives the angler more time to cast to fish along the banks. The last pullout before the canyon is Joe Brown Access.
Yankee Jim Canyon
Yankee Jim Canyon is the Yellowstone's best white water, with several major rapids. Steep canyon walls make it a difficult stretch to fish. Because of the potential danger floating the Canyon (more than one drift boat has been demolished here), many commercial fishing guides do not float this stretch. Recreational floats, in big rafts, through this section are fun and available from outfitters in Gardiner.
Tom Miner Bridge to Emigrant
From the Tom Miner Bridge (or the Carbella access just downstream) down to Point of Rocks, there is some excellent water, lots of fast pocket water with several nice pools. Once the river reaches the Point of Rocks, the gradient decreases substantially and you get into slower, longer pools. The lower end of this stretch (below the access at mile marker 26) can be slow going in an upstream wind.
Emigrant to Mallard's Rest
Just downstream from Emigrant is one of our best access points, Grey Owl. From here down to Mallard's Rest there is a pleasant mix of big pools, great banks to fish and lots of big browns and rainbows.
Mallard's Rest to Carter's Bridge
This section of river provides some of the most spectacular scenery on the Yellowstone, along with some of the best fishing. You'll find one good pool after another, and more holding water for trout than the upriver sections. This is the stretch of the river where the spring creeks flow into the Yellowstone. Rainbows dominate this stretch, but there are some very nice browns here also. You can have some wonderful wade fishing in this stretch. The Absaroka Mountains provide a gorgeous backdrop to the east, with the Gallatin Mountains to the west. Beautiful scenery, and easy rowing make this Paradise Valley
section very popular with anglers and recreational floaters. It is in this section of the river where the famous Paradise Valley spring creeks
such as DePuy Spring Creek
enter the Yellowstone.
Carter's Bridge to Highway 89 Bridge
Because the Yellowstone flows right through Livingston between these points, this is known as the "town stretch". Especially given the upstream presence of the spring creeks for spawning, this reach of fast water is ideal habitat for rainbows, and they make up most of the population here. The use of a drift boat is the best way to access this stretch, especially to get to some of the good runs on the opposite side of the river. There are several good spots to gain access if you walking and wading. Carter's Bridge, 9th St. Island, and Mayor's Landing are the best access points.
Highway 89 Bridge to Big Timber
This section starts about five miles to the east of Livingston, just off Interstate 90, where Highway 89 turns north, toward White Sulphur Springs. This lower river, from here on down through Big Timber is similar to the water around Livingston, but the riffles and pools are farther apart so there is more unproductive water. The fish populations are not as high as in the upper river and water through town, but there are some very large rainbows and browns to be caught in this stretch. Fishing and floating pressure is much lighter though, and you often have the river to yourself. The fishing guides love these lower stretches, from Springdale to Big Timber and below, especially later in the summer when the hoppers are out in full force. Wind gusting across these hayfields blows a lot of hoppers in the river and creates some explosive and exciting action from big fish. Good access points are at Highway 89 Bridge, Sheep Mountain, the Pig Farm, Springdale, Grey Bear, and finally Otter Creek asccess just below Big Timber.
- Walinchus, Rod; Travis, Tom (1995). Fly Fishing The Yellowstone River. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing.
- Hughes, Dave (1992). The Yellowstone River and its Angling. Portland, OR: Frank Amato Publications.
- Graetz, Rick; Graetz, Susie (2002). Montana's Yellowstone River - From the Teton Wilderness to the Missouri. Helena, MT: Northern Rockies Publishing.
- Mathews, Craig; Molinero, Clayton (1997). The Yellowstone Fly-Fishing Guide-A authoritative guide to the waters of Yellowstone National Park. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.
- Brooks, Charles E. (1984). Fishing Yellowstone Waters. Clinton, NJ: New Win Publishing Inc..
- Holt, John (1996). Montana Fly-Fishing Guide-East. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.