The Yellowstone River – Beyond Paradise Valley

June 16, 2009 by Caroline Leave a reply »

loweryellowstoneranch-013Descending out of the northern mountains and forests of the country’s first National Park, the Yellowstone River leads a legacy of American history. Since the days of Lewis and Clark, this river has created legendary lore; some of which centers around the river’s bountiful wild trout.

The modern world has touched many miles of this great river, however much of it remains as it was 200 years ago when the first explorers passed through. The more familiar sections fall within Paradise Valley, which lies between Yankee Jim Canyon and Livingston, Montana. Not too far beyond the hallowed Paradise Valley, the river begins to flow in an easterly direction and changes character ever slightly. The fantastic and largely unknown water of the Middle Yellowstone River downstream of Livingston is perhaps one of the finest large freestone fisheries in the west. Most importantly, it has remained a wild river, flowing undamed its entire length and earning the title of the longest undamed watershed in the lower 48 states. By the time the river reaches Springdale, the valley has widened greatly and the river’s cottonwood bottoms are framed by picturesque vistas of the Absaroka and Crazy Mountain ranges. Welcome to Big Sky Country.


The native trout of the river is the Yellowstone cutthroat, which thrives in the upper reaches in Yellowstone National Park. Beyond the Park, a healthy mixture of native cutthroats, whitefish, wild rainbows and browns flourish. As the mighty “Stone” pulls away from the town of Livingston, trout populations do slightly decrease yet average sizes increase. This occurrence is common on many rivers of the West and is due to available food, winter habitat and drought conditions that often can send water temperatures soaring in the summer. Down river through Big Timber, trout populations remain good but dramatically decrease as the river flows towards Laurel and eventually turns over to a warm water environment in Billings. Anglers who become familiar with these lower stretches can have wonderful float or wade excursions that harbor the potential for trophy wild trout as well as a solitary experience only an hour or two from populous communities. In and around Big Timber, this section can nurture some of the larger specimens of brown trout throughout the entire river with some reaching 23″-27″.


Unlike the great tailwater fisheries in the west, freestone rivers (especially those in the Northern Rockies) go through radical changes throughout the year. The Middle Yellowstone River begins a typical season in late winter with midges and baetis, setting the stage for the awakening. As early as March, the fishing season can begin to pop with the trout slowly beginning to feed more aggressively as river conditions improve. With weather permitting, April can bring some of the best angling of the year, offering excellent dry fly fishing with BWO’s and stone flies as well as great streamer fishing. Generally by May the adjacent ranges begin to melt and the river can be difficult. As this happens, there is still fairly good fishing to be had and if the right scenario unfolds, the famous Mother’s Day caddis emergence will overshadow the entire season.

Summer brings all the delightful hatches that are common in the region – stoneflies, mayflies, and caddis. The Yellowstone River is a premier drift boat fishery and has remained an icon for the Western angler – imagine beautiful tight loops above a wooden boat in Big Sky Country. As the river flows begin to drop, the traffic increases. Much of the boat traffic is confined to Paradise Valley, making the middle sections near Big Timber a nice option. Below Springdale, the grass-lined banks can offer up fantastic terrestrial fishing with ants and grasshoppers as the summer insect hatches cease and waters warm. Take note that seasonal drought and heat waves can harm the fishery and requires us all to adapt and become aware of closures. If and when water temps rise into the upper 60’s, extra care should be taken with the trout; if it exceeds 70, fishing should wait until cooler periods.

The autumn brings renewing coolness and sometimes moisture that can recharge small tributaries and springs. Arguably the finest season for trout in this region, the autumn gets the fish moving again and looking for food. Fall baetis, mahoganys and October caddis make up the surface menu with large streamers and shooting heads covering the bottom. The brown trout of the river flourish late in the fall but provide world class streamer fishing for resident trophy trout.

Enjoy the bounty this area of the Yellowstone River can provide, but most importantly experience the river for what it has to offer. All waters have a special charm and it is up to the angler to unlock the secrets.

Check out the Yellowstone River Ranch, Paradise Valley Estate, or The Langford Ranch (on the Yellowstone River), all now for sale.

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