Waters We Fish
Livingston, Montana: the cultural epicenter of trout fishing in the West. Walk ten minutes from our store and you’ll be standing at the banks of the Yellowstone River. A short drive out of town will take you along some of the most storied waters in all of fly fishing: go south to fish Paradise Valley and Yellowstone National Park, head west for the Gallatin and Madison Rivers, or take a drive east for the Boulder River and other waters. Drive a bit further and you’re within striking distance of the Henry’s Fork, the Missouri, Big Hole, and so much more. That doesn’t include the thousands of miles of small mountain streams, high country lakes, and other, lesser-known waterways. It truly is a paradise for anglers.
Dan Bailey's has been serving anglers and recreational river users of this area since 1938. Now, as Dan Bailey’s Outdoor Co, we continue the legacy of providing the best products and information you need to explore and enjoy our remarkable region.
Below are some of our favorite local waters. Read current fishing reports here (updated every week!). Come by our shop at 209 West Park St. for the gear you need and the latest info, or give us a call at 406.222.1673.
Flowing northward out of Yellowstone National Park through Paradise Valley to Livingston, Montana and beyond the world famous Yellowstone River is the main focus of our fishing day in and day out, all year long. A free-flowing river (the longest in the lower 48 states) the Yellowstone combines blue-ribbon fishing, truly spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife viewing opportunities and a plethora of bug life that all provide an exceptional fishing experience.
Whether you are here to take in highlight events like river-blanketing caddis hatches, the emergence of giant salmon flies, the multitude of mayfly species present, summer invasions of hoppers or the adrenaline rush of fall streamer fishing, the Yellowstone brings all the components of experiencing a big western river together.
The river boasts resident rainbow and brown trout, as well as other native species such as whitefish. The main attraction, however, is the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout. You’ll find these native fish in greater numbers the higher upstream you go, but you can reliably catch them all through Paradise Valley. These vibrantly colored fish have inhabited these waters since time immemorial, eagerly take a dry fly, and put up a good fight. They are one of our favorite species to catch here.
During the lower flows of summer and fall, there is plenty of walk-wade access to the Yellowstone. Given the size of the river, it is best fished from a boat. This allows you to cover more water and cast to more fish. It also lets you kick back and enjoy the incredible scenery! There are a number of boat ramps from Gardiner downstream past Livingston to Big Timber, and plenty of trip options. A guided float trip is an excellent way to see the Yellowstone River at its best!
While the Yellowstone River is a year-round fishery, it truly shines from the end of runoff (typically late June) to the peak of summer (mid- to late August) and again the fall. Spring fishing can be very good, especially during the early season Mother’s Day Caddis hatch, provided the river isn’t too muddy at that time. Winter fishing can be productive, but consistent ice jams, shore ice, and the famous Paradise Valley winds generally have us fishing lower on the river or at one of the spring creeks just outside of town.
Given that it is an undammed, free-flowing river, the Yellowstone is more susceptible to weather events and runoff than our tailwaters on the Madison River and Missouri River. Heavy summer rains in Yellowstone Park often push a plug of muddy water through for a day or so, and runoff is a factor limiting fishing opportunities in the spring. Spring runoff depends entirely on winter snowpack, but is generally finished by the 4th of July at the latest.
Madison River (Lower)
The Lower Madison River flows out of Ennis Dam to Three Forks, where it combines with the Jefferson River and Gallatin River to form the Missouri River. The Lower (as locals call it) is approximately 50 miles west of Livingston, 20 miles out of Bozeman. This river is a great resource for us as it offers great access, epic hatches, and the chance at large trout.
One of the most well-known hatches on the Lower Madison is the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch. This is one of the best places for the Mother’s Day Caddis in the region, and the hatch kicks off our dry fly season in the spring. March Browns, BWOs, various stoneflies, summer caddis, hoppers and winter midges make this a year-round dry fly fishery. The Lower has a very good population of crayfish, and is well known for the use of cray patterns. Streamer fishing can be very effective in the spring and fall.
Access on the Lower Madison is plentiful. The river runs along Highway 84 from the Warm Spring boat launch to Black’s Ford, making it a very popular float for both anglers and recreationalists. Floating straight through takes roughly four hours, but that can easily be extended by stopping to fish the numerous buckets, runs, and “secret sweet spots.” There are plenty of pullouts and legal access along the highway, and the river offers easy wading.
Bear Trap Canyon is the jewel of the Lower Madison. This stretch of river begins at Ennis Dam and ends at the Warm Springs access. While the trail along the river is quite popular with hikers, bikers, and runners, it offers those willing to walk an opportunity to find solace and some incredible water. There are numerous rock gardens through the canyon, offering cover and habitat for large browns and rainbows.
Since the Lower Madison is a tailwater, we utilize this river during the spring runoff when the Yellowstone is high and muddy. Water temps stay reasonably consistent until mid summer. At this point in the year we tend to fish elsewhere, as water temps consistently rise to unhealthy levels for trout and the river gets crowded with recreational floaters. FWP typically puts a “hoot owl restriction” on fishing hours during late summer. Fall through early summer, this river is a gem.
The Gallatin River is one of the most immediately recognizable rivers in the state of Montana, and arguably in the entire Rocky Mountain West. This is in large part to the Gallatin River being prominently featured in A River Runs Through It. Millions have enjoyed its scenery simply by driving along the river as well. It’s located about 35 miles from Livingston along Highway 191, the main artery connecting Bozeman to Big Sky, West Yellowstone and Yellowstone National Park.
Due to this being an important north-south highway, access to the river through the Canyon is stellar. There are highway pull-outs every few miles that allow legal and easy access to the river. Upstream of Big Sky the accesses spread out, but there are still plenty of them.
The Gallatin River isn’t known for large fish, but it does offer good fishing. You’ll find rainbows and browns predominantly, as well as more cutthroat the further upstream you fish. Notable hatches include Spruce Moths during mid-summer, Salmonflies in early July, and decent midge fishing in the winter.
The season on the Gallatin River is basically year-round. The river upstream of Big Sky stays icy all winter long, but from Big Sky to the mouth of the canyon is a favorite winter fishery. Access below the canyon through the valley becomes much more difficult, and the water temps generally get too high by mid-summer in this stretch.
Being an undammed, freestone river the Gallatin is affected by runoff in late spring. But pre and post-runoff fishing is very good in the canyon. While Dan Bailey’s doesn’t book guided trips on the Gallatin River, it is one of the places everyone needs to fish at least once.
Thirty miles east of Livingston the Boulder River is an opportunity to fish water a little less traveled while not giving up quality fishing. A freestone stream tumbling down out of the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness, the Boulder River provides a very good option for a day trip away from Livingston to fish for rainbows, browns and cutthroat trout.
There are a few scattered fishing access sites on the lower Boulder River that grant access to the river, but finding access from the Boulder Forks Access to Natural Bridge is very hard, basically non-existent. Continue driving through, and you’ll be rewarded on the upper river.
Once you get into National Forest land, the Boulder River has a lot of access. The road has a bad rep, but drive carefully and even in a standard car you shouldn’t have too many issues. The higher up you go, the less pressure you’ll see and the more gullible fish become. Since it is a long way there are plenty of spots to find an overnight campsite.
The best season on the Boulder River is post-runoff (early July) on into fall. It’s smaller water, so it can be affected by low flows in late summer. You’ll find hatches of stoneflies, caddis, and various mayflies. The river holds mostly browns and rainbows, but you’ll find increasing numbers of cutthroat trout the higher up you go.
Paradise Valley is home to some of the most well-known spring creeks in the world: Depuy’s, Armstrong’s and Nelson’s. These creeks are aquifer-fed, meaning they offer consistent water temps and flows year-round and are not affected by runoff like our freestone rivers. This also means that they host an abundance of insect life for absolutely phenomenal hatches.
Given the slow water, small size, and gin-clear visibility of these creeks, the trout are very picky. Like, pull-your-hair-out picky. As in, sometimes fishing one fish all day, changing flies every few minutes, before you get him to eat. The technical aspect of these creeks is what draws people to them, as well as the chance at catching a truly large trout.
All of these spring creeks are pay-to-play with access being limited to a set number of anglers each day and each having to pay a rod fee. These fees vary during the course of the year, with swing season and winter being much more affordable than peak season. The peak days of summer often fill up a year in advance, so book your time early!
These spring creeks are our go-to for winter fishing, as the water stays warm and the fish stay active. The creeks are often much less busy, allowing you to book day-of most times.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is one of those places that should be on every angler’s bucket list. The fishing within the park is fantastic, and some of the most well known and recognizable places in the world to trout fish are within the confines of its borders.
Yellowstone National Park is a big place and so we typically focus on the Northeast Corner. This part of the park is located just down the road past the North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana. The rivers of the Lamar, Slough Creek, Soda Butte, Yellowstone, Gardner and many more offer enough water to keep the adventurous angler busy for years.
Much of the fishing in the Northeast Corner requires a hike. Since this is Yellowstone National Park, it’s even more important than anywhere else to be bear aware. Carry bear spray, know how to use it, make noise, and be very aware of your surroundings at all times. Carry a map, a compass, and have an idea where you are going. It’s the busiest national park in the country, but it’s still easy to get lost out there.
While some of the water runs right along the road and is highly accessible, we recommend getting away from trailheads and pullouts for the best fishing. Remember - the longer you walk, generally the better the fishing is. That’s not to say the fishing right off the road isn’t very good at times.
Hatches in Yellowstone National Park are some of the best in the region. From early season BWOs, to massive Salmonflies and Golden Stones, to PMDs, caddis, drakes and summer terrestrials, you can almost always find fish eating dry flies. Targeting Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout in their native waterways is something every angler should experience at some point in their lifetime.
Please note that the fishing regulations and season are different in Yellowstone National Park than any of the surrounding states. A unique Yellowstone fishing license is required, and can be purchased at any fly shop or online before your trip.
Small Waters and the High Country
Away from our high-profile rivers, with full parking lots and crowded boat ramps, lie true hidden gems: small water. There are thousands of miles of creeks and streams in the mountains, foothills, valleys and basically anywhere. If you see running waters, the odds are good that there are fish in it.
The fish in these small waters won’t be big, but they represent a unique challenge and one that can be highly rewarding. Most of these fish rise eagerly to dry flies and aren’t that picky. All you need is a small, light rod and a puck of attractors, terrestrials, and various dries. They also live in some of the most beautiful places in the state - and some of the most solitary.
One of the many joys in chasing these fish is just getting there. Many of these small waters require planning and a hike to get to. The harder it is to get there, the better the fishing will be. Also, the fewer people there will be, too. Due to the increased effort and decreased fish size, the small waters definitely attract fewer people than the larger, more well known rivers.
Here’s where it gets fun: finding where to go. ‘Cause we’re not going to tell you.
Half of the enjoyment of small water is the search and exploration aspect. Come into the shop, pick up a map, and find any blue line in the mountains. Wondering if there’s trout in it? Only one way to find out…
Another option in the mountains that comes into play for a short season in the summer is high country lakes. These can offer incredible fishing on both dries and subsurface flies, and add a fun element to any backpacking trip. There are hundreds of mountain lakes within a couple hours of Livingston, giving those willing to hike enough destinations for years to come.
Many of these have populations of Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout, stocked there by FWP. Some of them have more exotic denizens such as golden trout or grayling. Brook and rainbow trout are less common, but can be found. Fishing these lakes can be done with dry flies, leeches and small streamers, and small nymphs. Coming prepared with a few different options can ensure success in various conditions and hatches.
These lakes come into shape in late spring as the high country melts out, and generally are set to fish by early July. If you feel adventurous, head there earlier and try to time it with ice out. If you hit it right, it could be the best fishing you’ll ever have. If not, you’ll be cursing the day you ever read this as you post hole through waist-deep snow.
The high country offers an incredible bounty of beauty, adventure, and surprisingly good fishing. It’s well worth the steep trails, long days, and time spent off the beaten path.