Fall fly-fishing in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the best-kept secret in Montana – perhaps in the entire West. While nearby Montana communities attract droves of fishermen and women looking to cast a fly line and catch the perfect fish, simply embarking on a short walk outside Yellowstone National Park’s north entrance town of Gardiner can provide a solitary fishing experience – except for the occasional wildlife sighting. Cottonwood trees line the mighty Yellowstone River, the longest free-flowing river in the continental United States, and turn a fiery gold due to changing daylight and cooling temperatures. The occasional bugle of a bull elk bugle can be heard in the distance. In the midst, migrating geese and sandhill cranes soaring overhead cast shadows on the seemingly endless high-mountain-desert landscape. This beauty doesn’t even account for the main draw for anglers in fall – which is, of course, the overall fly-fishing experience.
Gardiner offers world-class fishing in every direction. The town offers plenty of accommodations ranging from camping to motels to vacation rentals to quaint bed and breakfasts for visitors to rest their heads after heading to regional streams and rivers. The location’s small-town feel filled with with both professional fly fishing companies and the insight of generous and well-tuned locals differentiates Gardiner from other fishing destinations. Fall is considered a shoulder season in this tourist community, which means less crowding at popular fly fishing sites and less pressure on fish. The cooler temperatures bode well for those looking to cast their line at times other than the heat of mid-day. Fall also signals the start of a legendary brown-trout spawning season in the region that can allows anglers to catch the big brown trout of a lifetime. The sightseeing is also amazing, with large herds of elk, deer, pronghorn, and other animals moving out of the high country of Yellowstone National Park and into the lower-lying regions of the surrounding ecosystem.
According to local fly-fishing guides, pale-morning duns, blue-winged olives, hoppers, and terrestrial fly patterns work well as well as streamers to attract fish including aggressive brown trout. These flies can either be brought with you or purchased from a local fly-fishing company prior to departure. Fly types change regularly throughout the season so don’t be afraid to ask local anglers about which patterns and weights are working best. A Montana fishing license is required for those fishing outside Yellowstone’s borders and can be purchased from local businesses. A Yellowstone National Park fishing license is required for fishing inside the park. Visit Yellowstone’s website to learn how to purchase a fishing license and to learn which areas are open to fishing during your visit. Always remember to learn which fish you’re able to keep and to be gentle with fish if you’re catching and releasing, limiting the amount of time they are kept out of the water.
How to Start Fishing
Fishing in fall isn’t limited to those already familiar with angling in western streams and larger waters. Many Gardiner and Paradise Valley companies offer casting lessons for families and beginners. For those who’ve refined their angling, hire a guide to either row you down the Yellowstone River outside national park borders or to hike or horseback ride to lesser- known locations. Fly-fishing is unique in that a fly rod and reel are used to cast a weighted line and specialized lure to attract fish using hand-tied flies that resemble invertebrates or other natural bait. The technique requires the angler to make the bait look as natural as possible and then setting the hook in the fish’s mouth before successfully reeling it in.
The sport takes forethought and patience, but the rewards – whether or not a fish is caught – are undoubtedly worth the effort. Try fly fishing in fall at no other location than Gardiner, “Nature’s Favorite Entrance to Yellowstone National Park!”
Chelsea DeWeese is a writer based in her hometown of Gardiner, Mont., at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
Cover, second and third images courtesy of Yellowstone National Park. All others courtesy of Nicole Harkness/Gardiner, Mont.