Casting in Paradise

Flyfishing the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley
By Rod Walinchus & Tom Travis
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The Yellowstone river is still the longest free-flowing undammed waterway in the lower forty-eight states. Its long, 678-mile, course begins in the high country of a pristine wilderness in the northwestern mountains of Wyoming and flows first north then east, to meet the Missouri near Williston, North Dakota. Along the way it flows through Yellowstone National Park and the Gallatin National Forest.

The river is for the most part a cold-water fishery, with its trout the most important species.

The beginning of the Paradise Valley section has no equal in sheer scenic beauty, a quality that is easily overlooked when fishing. It is very common that floating anglers are so excited about fishing or so caught up in the act of fishing that when they finally do look up at the landscape, they express something akin to astonishment. The landscape is beautiful: the Absarokas towering to the east are a dramatic backdrop to some super fishing opportunities. The valley begins to widen at the upper reach of this stretch, and as one travels downstream the valley continues to broaden and is encircled by mountains on all sides. The river moves through some scenic property with evidence of old homesteads.

The area is rich in western lore. Many of the families that who settled the area still hold ranches in this part of the valley. This was still a very wild place in the late nineteenth century, and was considered Indian territory: the Crow tribe laid claim to the land. In the late 1860s, gold was discovered at Emigrant Gulch, which precipitated many conflicts as people sought their fortunes. The Boettler brothers were among the first to attempt to mine the goldfields and settle in the valley. After a few skirmishes with the Crows, they established one of the first ranches in the valley, at Emigrant. The Battle of the Little Big Horn opened this area for settlement when the Crow tribe was relocated. The 1870s saw many ranches springing up throughout the valley, many of which still belong to the founding families.

The ancestors of today's wild cutthroat bore witness to the many conflicts that occurred here and were probably washed with both Native American and European blood. The cutthroat trout is part of the history of this section; it moved downstream from the park waters and established itself as a native fish prior to the time white men first appeared in the area. The Yellowstone cutthroat trout had many common names: cutthroat trout, native trout, redthroat trout, mountain trout, and the most common black-spotted trout. If one reads some of the old journals or historical accounts of the area, these names are referred to, and there are many people who to this day refer to the Yellowstone cutthroat trout as the black-spotted trout.

This was the only trout species in this section of river until the introduction of brown trout and rainbow trout. At present the cutthroat trout numbers have been reduced, and special regulations are in effect in an attempt to bolster the population. Overharvesting is but one of the factors that have led to this decline. Cutthroats have always been a food source for the people who populated the valley, and until recently were the trout of choice for the people who take trout to eat. The catch-and-release regulation for all cutthroat trout is making a difference, but time is needed for the species to significantly reestablish itself. There probably will never be the number of cutthroats in this section as once existed here, but progress is being made by conservation groups. The good news to the angler is that cutthroats comprise a high number of the fish caught in this area, and they make fly fishing here a rewarding experience.

Water Characteristics

As the river exits Yankee Jim Canyon it appears to broaden (probably an effect of the valley broadening), slow somewhat, and then straighten to a degree. The water has less character than in the Gardner stretch because it doesn't twist and turn as much to form the riffle corners that are synonymous with good numbers of fish. The water here is certainly shallower than the depths of the canyon itself, and a lot more wadeable. Because of the distance between access points, most anglers float this section and do the majority of their fishing from a boat, occasionally getting out to cover some of the more interesting water. There are some very good banks in this stretch that hold good numbers of fish, especially some of the high banks with adjacent deep water. Any bank that has some deep water and some structure and holding areas will produce fish, and some of the slower, deep banks seem to be the preferred habitat of cutthroats.

This section has a few areas with small islands breaking the water up and adding character by means of riffle corners, current edges, and current confluences. These areas are quite a distance apart, with the major grouping toward the end of the section. Plan on spending some time fishing these areas, because they hold quite a few fish and it's always a pleasure to get out of the boat to stretch, wade around, have the opportunity to systematically work the water and even hunt around the shore for petrified wood or agates. Rock hounds will find this area very interesting and may possibly add some unique pieces to their collections.

The bottom configuration consists of large rocks, bowling-ball-sized stones, cobble, and pea gravel. The banks in many places are lined with willows and provide good cover for fish lying in wait for a salmon fly or other insect. The salmon fly hatch is decent in this section, so it's always a good idea to hit these banks early in the season. If the water is high it is a good idea to look for fish on the off-bank the nondominant side where the current is a bit slower. Otherwise, look for the dominant bank with current and some depth, and fish while floating. If pods of fish are spotted working the surface, the angler could get out of the boat and work back up to them.

There are a few creeks that dump into the river, and their mouths provide attractive areas to find fish: Big Creek, Dry Creek, Sixmile Creek, Fridley Creek, and Emigrant Creek all flow into the river, at least when irrigators haven't pulled all the water out. There is only one area where some care needs to be exercised, and that is about midway into the float there is an area that has some underwater hazards, but they are clearly marked with a sign. Also, look for an irrigation ditch off the river on the left side: it resembles a channel, and some anglers have mistakenly floated down this ditch, only to be surprised by a small dam. It does put a damper on a day's floating. Otherwise, there is no water that can be considered difficult or dangerous in this section, and any type of craft, from canoes to drift boats, will have no trouble navigating it.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 5 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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