Bozeman’s Backyard Stream
Things weren’t going so good in Gallatin Gateway, Montana; in a three week span I was struck by lightening, attacked by a crazed weasel, informed by a state trooper that my roommates had become prime suspects in a murder case, and, to top it off, I plowed my pickup truck through a herd of black angus cattle while flying along an old, dusty dirt road at 65 miles an hour.
Lacking a safe home, two girlfriends took pity and let me and my Labrador retrievers, Moose and Shadow, camp on their couch after exiting murderers row. Their generousity was a godsend—it allowed 14 uninterrupted days probing various sections of southwest Montana’s Gallatin River, with flyrod in hand, before I headed out to Missoula for lengthy stints on the Clark Fork, Blackfoot and Bitterroot rivers. Fourteen days may sound like a lot of time to spend on the Gallatin, but it’s only a precious few hours when regarding all that the river and its tasty East Fork (100-plus miles of trout water) have to offer.
That boast may strike some anglers with surprise because the Gallatin is often overlooked by southwest Montana residents. They cite sections that get hammered by those who pass the river on their entrance to or exodus from Yellowstone National Park. The Gallatin is also chastised for its lack of large trout—it just doesn’t pump them out like its well-known neighbors, the Madison and Yellowstone rivers. Hey, I prefer to catch large, mature trout as much as, if not more than, the next guy in line (one book reviewer labeled me “a big trout snob” to which I say, there are far worse things to be called), but to overlook the Gallatin just because it doesn’t commonly produce 20-inch browns and rainbows simply plays into the hands of those who admire the river—don’t kid yourself, the Gallatin is a treat to fish.
It is true, the average Gallatin rainbow, brown or cutthroat stretches between eight and 13 inches, with only a few larger specimens thrown in on the side. However, the Gallatin is certainly one of the most beautiful streams in the West and its insect hatches are varied and prolific. If, for instance, an angler hits the Gallatin during it’s early summer caddisfly blizzard, when eager trout froth the surface like pen-raised fish swallowing feed pellets, well, then, those big trout on the Madison and Yellowstone may not seem as important as they once did. With that said, let me danlge this carrot: there are sections of the Gallatin and even particular holes throughout the river that consistently produce large trout. Care to read more?
In my mind, the Gallatin is best divided into three sections, each offering varied opportunity and water type. The upper Gallatin, which stretches from its headwaters in Yellowstone National Park to the entrance of Gallatin Canyon at Big Sky, is a beautiful stretch of water; it carves through massive meadows in Yellowstone, then cuts through a short canyon before busting out into another meadow section at Big Sky. Through the meadows the Gallatin is lined by willows that are often occupied by moose and bison — keep an eye out for them, they are dangerous and, believe me, it’s not flattering to be seen running across a meadow in neoprene waders with a bull moose or a two-ton bison hot on your tail while foreign tourists snap photos like National Geographic wannabies.
The upper section, which offers excellent public access, is characterized by deep pools, undercut banks, short, shallow riffles and some tasty medium-depth runs. In width it is quite small, ranging from just a few yards wide near its headwaters to 25 or 30 yards wide near Big Sky. Again, eight to 13-inch rainbows dominate here, but there are some sizable browns to be had and even a few native cutthroats call the area home. One place to concentrate on large browns is in the meadow section just below the mouth of Fan Creek, which rests within Yellowstone Park (a park license is required to fish there). According to biologists who shock the river each year, a few big browns in the five-pound range hang out in that section, tucked beneath undercut banks. Another hog-hole exists near Big Sky where giant rainbows occasionally drop out of private ponds into the river.
To learn more about that opportunity, stop in at Gallatin River Guides or East Slope Anglers in Big Sky. They can direct you to that water — if I gave detailed directions here, they’d hang a rope over a limb and string me up. One of the upper section’s greatest appeals is water quality—even when the river runs high and fast, it offers decent visibility. That is not the case below the mouth of Taylor’s Fork, which dumps piles of sediment into the Gallatin. Always remember, if the Gallatin’s lower sections are out of shape you may save the day by heading upstream and fishing above Taylor’s Fork.
The Gallatin Canyon The Gallatin’s canyon section is a boulder-strewn masterpiece that extends from Big Sky downstream to William’s Bridge. It’s “canyon” title was bestowed for good reason — the river slices between heavily-timbered mountains when it is not carving under brilliantly-colored rock cliffs. Through its canyon reach the Gallatin is highly accessible via Highway 85 (also called Gallatin Road), which parallels the river for most of its course. The canyon section is where I spent most of my time when living 75 yards from the river, renting from those aforementioned delinquents and their crazy uncle. Under the watchful eye of Storm Castle Peak, I drilled the water near House Rock and Rock Haven, plus the mouths of Squaw Creek and Spanish Creek, on a near-daily basis for 10 months. During that time, I encountered many prime hatches, each offering delightful opportunity. However, my favorite emergence—the one that gets me all fired up—is a caddis swarm that arrives sometime in late June or early July just as high water recedes.
On one occasion, I picked up a trout-bum friend, Robert Eddins, and we drove upstream into the canyon. When we stopped the truck and peered at the river, we could see trout tearing up the surface, scarfing little black caddisflies along the far bank. We clambered out of the Ford, strung our flyrods, then stumbled down a rock bank to the river. It was there that we asked this question: How best to wade a raging torrent? After two unsuccessful attempts we reached the far bank, having jogged downstream with the current and multiple solicitations from the higher being. I took a moment, offered a sincere thanks for being alive, then started up the bank. An hour later I sat down on a rock and lit a cigar as Robert let out another scream of delight. Despite the frantic fishing, I had to sit down, take a few minutes, and examine the entire scene; we were surrounded by beautiful, timber-covered mountains; the river was alive with distinctly-colored, wild rainbow and brown trout; I was chillin’ with a good friend who I would likely not see again soon; and the fish were cooperating beyond our expectations—I mean it was a trout every cast for both of us and there isn’t an ounce of exaggeration in that statement. At that moment, I couldn’t think of a better place to be.
During that two-hour caddis binge, Robert and I each landed, perhaps, 25 or 30 trout, none exceeding 16 inches. But that was OK; each trout staged impressive battles against our four-weight flyrods. The action was so fast, Robert lost his observation skills at a least opportune time. Get this: Robert lowered his waders around his knees and was relieving himself when I peered upstream and noticed a recreational raft, filled Girlscounts, bobbing quietly down the river, just above Robert’s perch. I should have warned Robert of his admirers, but I simply could not. The raft came even with Robert and that’s when I witnessed one of the quickest re-clothing acts of all time. Robert glared downstream at me while offering a a sheepish grin to those passerbys. When the raft ranged out of sight, Robert offered, “I’ll get you back.” I said, “Whatever you say, Flasher.”
Through the canyon section, anglers do not find many large trout, but there are squadrons of 10 to 14-inchers as indicated by Robert’s and my success. In fact, throughout the upper section and the canyon reach, biologists estimate between 1,200 and 3,000 trout a mile. So why only a few big fish, you ask? According to biologists, the Gallatin’s lack of large trout is derived from environmental conditions—the Gallatin, a true freestone stream, runs too darn cold to facilitate fast growth. In fact, according to biologists, a 13-inch fish in the Gallatin is five to seven years old. Biologists cite “overwinter survival” rather than “overharvest” as the river’s downfall. However, those who have fished the river for many years recall days when every deep hole held a trout as long as an arm. Whether my ex-roommate used dynamite or a flyrod to secure those trout is unclear, but this is known: local anglers cite a generous kill-limit and poaching, rather than overwinter survival, as true factors for the Gallatin’s lack of large trout. I can not offer an educated biological opinion, but an archaic five-fish limit does seem to shoot down a trout’s chances to achieve large size. How, I ask, can a fish expect to reach 13 inches, let alone 16 or even 18 inches, when it has little chance of surviving its second or third season? Local anglers continue to push Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for a catch-and-release section, but their urging, it seems, falls on deaf ears.
The Lower Gallatin As the Gallatin exits its canyon, it enters a broad valley where sun hits the water more frequently. Due to that sun, plus nutrients that enter the stream from ranches that surround the river, the Gallatin runs warmer in this reach and produces some solid brown and rainbow trout. However, to find fish in this stretch, which runs from the canyon mouth downstream 45 miles to its confluence with the Missouri River near Three Forks, an angler must time their visit with good water conditions. This section fishes nicely from winter through mid-spring before high water forces anglers off the water. It again fishes well just as the river returns to shape, but at that time irrigators mercilessly suck the river dry in some places. I’ve caught trout below the canyon in all seasons, including a 16-inch brown during an hour-long stint when the mercury rested at mius-12 (I just wanted to see if it could be done. It can, but it’s not fun, I learned). Instead of battling that extreme cold, take your shots at the lower river just after runoff. At that time some incredibly large brown trout are landed below the East Gallatin confluence where the river can be plied with a drift boat or raft (above the East Gallatin it’s wade-fishing only). Robert once hooked a fish on the lower river that ate him alive—it took most of his flyline, plus a good portion of his backing, before breaking the leader. I met Robert that evening at the Mint in Belgrade and he asked, with conviction, “Thomas, do you know if there are any sturgeon or paddlefish in the Gallatin? I hooked a fish today that was absolutely enormous and I can’t believe it was a trout.” “What did they put in that drink,” I asked. Instead of slicing through meadows and cutting between mountains, the lower river broadens out, forms channels and winds through its broad valley. Especially below the East Fork confluence, the water runs deep and fast with plenty of downfall and debris hiding in its current. That section can be wade-fished, but it is best approached via drift boat or raft. While floating down-river, anglers tactfully probe the deep holes, undercut banks and areas surrounding those downfalls with large, weighted woolly buggers, sculpins and zonkers—there are hatches on the lower river, but those big browns are mostly fish eaters, so they clobber streamer patterns. When fishing the lower river, an angler must keep their aspirations in perspective – that section offers far fewer trout than upstream reaches and a day on the lower river certainly should not be judged by the number of trout brought to net. Just like the marines commercial that runs on TV and asserts, “We’re looking for a few good men,” an angler should be content with “A few good fish.”
A great day on the lower river might produce one or two brown trout over 20 inches. If you fish this section expecting more, you are only setting yourself up for disappointment. Most anglers choose not to exchange the upper-river opportunity, where they may cast over thousands of trout, for a chance to hook one or two legitimate hogs. Therefore, the lower river goes virtually untouched. The East Fork Gallatin Another stream to keep in mind when wandering through Gallatin River country is the East Fork Gallatin—it’s a sleeper that produces some hefty brown trout along with good numbers of rainbow trout. But, it’s being sabotaged by whirling disease. In addition, the river runs entirely through private property and permission to fish can be difficult to garner from local landowners. However, Montana’s stream access law allows anglers to probe the river below its high-water mark. Given several bridge crossings, anglers can wade-fish the East Gallatin or dump a small boat in and float from one crossing to the next. A warning: If you choose to float, be prepared to negotiate diversion dams and barbed-wire fences that stretch completely across the river.
The Hatches Whether floating or wade-fishing, the East Gallatin offers several good hatches to match. During winter, extending through April, midges are present. In March, April and May and again in October and November, Baetis mayflies bring trout to the top. Beginning in June, look for a variety of caddisfly species. Their presence continues through summer, especially in the evening. Craneflies are also an important insect during late spring and early summer. In late June, extending into early August, pale morning duns are present and trout willingly swallow PMD imitations, including sparkle duns, compara-duns, cripples and even a parachute Adams. During July and August, little golden stoneflies, which are also called yellow sallies, are present, especially in the fast, riffled sections. During late July, August, September and early October, grasshoppers, drifted along the cut banks, draw hearty strikes from sizable brown trout. If you are looking for a true challenge, try fishing the late summer Trico emergence. At that time, the East Gallatin’s trout form pods and they are incredibly skeptical of artificial flies. One thing to consider when contemplating the East Gallatin is water quality. During spring and early summer the river often resembles chocolate milk and is not worthy of your effort. Also, during summer, local thunderstorms may kick the stream out of shape for a few hours or a few days. Always check the river’s condition at a local flyshop before heading astream. If you do visit the East Gallatin and find it out of shape, simply turn your rig toward the Gallatin — a short drive places an angler on its banks. Like the East Gallatin, the main Gallatin offers prime hatches. Look for midge emergences during winter, extending into spring. Beginning in late April, Baetis show up and their presence continues through May. In June the big salmonflies (Pteronarcys californica) crawl from the bottom rocks and provide a smorgasbord for trout. Golden stoneflies (H. pacifica) are also present at that time, adding to the feast. In late June or early July, green drakes are found on the Gallatin and some of the best action begins at Big Sky and extends upstream into Yellowstone Park. At the same time, PMDs emerge throughout the river and, yes, trout pound them. Grasshoppers, ants and beetles are important terrestrial insects on the Gallatin and they draw takes beginning in late July. Their presence continues through early October. Baetis mayflies replace terrestrials in importance by October and they bring trout to the top through November. Regarding hatches and the time frames I’ve indicated here, remember, during any given year water and weather conditions may accelerate or postpone hatch timing. To avoid disappointment give a fly shop a call before visiting.