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Flowing Free on the Yellowstone
Throughout my fishing ventures I’ve yet to find a river anywhere else in the world that conjures up the vivid imagery and breadth of emotions for me that the Yellowstone River does. The Yellowstone draws its water from Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park where the bubbling springs from geyser cauldrons provide essential nutrients for the plant life that feed the teeming aquatic insect population. These headwaters feed over two-hundred miles of pristine trout fishing habitat that flow through some of the most beautiful valleys from the Yellowstone Lake outlet to east of Billings where it becomes more of a warm water fishery with Smallmouth, Pike and Goldeye. Cutting a swath through nearly two thirds of the state Montana, the Yellowstone flows freely until it reaches its confluence with the Missouri near Buford, North Dakota. With no dams or man made impediments to stop the river’s flow, this rugged and wild character earns the Yellowstone River the crown of the Longest Free Flowing River in the Lower Forty Eight States.
The untamed nature of the river coupled with the countless creeks and tributaries adding to its waters help to make the Yellowstone River one of the most perplexing pieces of water in the State of Montana to predict when it comes to fishing. Therein lays the draw for countless fishermen that travel to fish it every year from all over the world; and for a lucky few it’s only a few miles away. Spending my childhood and most of my adult life in Bozeman, Montana, it’s been more than a little difficult to pick a river and call it my home water – the Madison and Gallatin both close to town are fantastic fisheries that would make any fisherman anywhere else ecstatic to be dubbed their “home water”. There’s always been a draw to the Yellowstone for me though that can’t be entirely summed up in words. When dumping a boat in at any number of points along the river and dipping that first toe into its cold crisp waters, I truly feel at home. Anyone calling Livingston home might argue the validity of a Bozemanite calling the Yellowstone his or her home water, and they’d have a point, but over the years I’ve spent more days on the Yellowstone and its tributaries on foot and in boat than any other river in Montana, so I call it home.
The appeal for the Yellowstone is as personal and varied as opinions on religion and politics, although not nearly as hotly debated. For some it’s the landscape that the river flows through, for others it’s the quality of the fishing and the chance at a fish of a lifetime that you could encounter on every trip out, and for others it’s the fact that despite all of today’s technology and sophisticated measures for predicting everything, predicting the fishing on the Yellowstone evades even the most seasoned of river veterans. If someone ever tells you that they have the Yellowstone “completely figured out” kindly laugh at them and move along, they aren’t worth talking to, trust me.
One aspect of the Yellowstone that only adds to its lore amongst die hard fishermen is the prospect of picking up a thirty plus inch, ten plus pound brown trout like one of the ones hanging on the wall at Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop in Livingston. If you take the time to stop by this landmark fly shop and admire the trophy browns and rainbows hanging up on the wall caught on the likes of Muddler Minnows, Black Ghosts, and Light and Dark Spruce Flies you can journey back to yester year when fish were measured in pounds, not inches. The sort of mysticism amongst flyrodders associated with that thirty inch mark enshrouds the entire Yellowstone River. Especially its deep runs, plummeting drop offs, and pools that run longer than a city block that smell of fish that could swallow a fourteen inch rainbow whole! Thus the whole river becomes an opportunity at winning the proverbial fishing lotto. All you have to do is keep buying your tickets and putting in your time, hoping all the while that you will eventually get a shot at one of those beasts of the deep. After all, we know they exist, we see pictures of them on the internet, scattered around local fly shops and are whispered about through innuendo and fishing stories. For most of us though, that fish escapes our grasp, but then again, that’s why most of us keep on coming back time and time again to play the game.
The multiple personalities found on different sections of the Yellowstone help to make it one of the most characteristically diverse rivers around. From the Park boundary near Gardiner, MT to just downstream of Emigrant the river is a Cutthroat Mecca providing some of the finest and most prolific summertime attractor dry fly fishing for native Yellowstone Cutts anywhere. Slightly downstream, from roughly Mallards Rest to Springdale, the gradient of the river drops and the pace picks up as fishermen find water where the population of Rainbows and Browns becomes more predominant. The last stretch of decent trout water downstream from Springdale to just east of Columbus takes on a character all of its own passing through grain fields, high country forests and luscious banks holding big juicy grasshoppers. Each stretch has its own unique attributes, both scenery and fishing wise, that make them so different that if you didn’t know it was all the Yellowstone you might swear you were on two or three different rivers.
It is this utter unpredictability and sense of adventure on every trip to the Yellowstone that has captured my fishing soul and won’t let it go. Despite the number of times my hopes and dreams of a spectacular fishing day are dashed by weather or conditions out of my control, I keep coming back like a dog returning home with his tail stuck between his legs. The days when the fishing is at its best are so incredibly good that it’s hard to describe them. They can happen any time of the year and depending on the season it can be fish that won’t stop chasing streamers or heads up feeding on caddis for endless miles or floating down every grassy bank loaded with big browns and rainbows engulfing grasshoppers. Those days can be few and far between, but on the Yellowstone when things align and you experience how good it can be, you will never want to leave and you will return time and time again in search of that seemingly unachievable high.
Kris Kumlien is the General Manager at Montana Troutfitters and can be found rambling on about anything to do with fishing at www.troutfitters.com