Border of Yellowstone Park to Headwaters of the Missouri, 90 miles.
Favorite Stretch: Taylors Fork to Spanish Creek.
Fish Species: Rainbow, Brown, Westslope Cutthroat, Grayling.
Prime Hatches: Salmonflies, caddis, terrestrials.
Most popular lodging: Bucks T4; Sacajawea Hotel.
Best meal under $10: Anything at The Corral and Steakhouse.
Beginning as a trickle in Yellowstone Park, in some of the most beautiful high-country in Montana, the Gallatin tumbles down the west-side of Ramshorn Peak and flows for nearly 90 miles until it joins the Jefferson and the Madison to create the Missouri River near Three Forks. In these 90 miles of free flowing trout water anglers will fish in a deep canyon, underneath massive cottonwoods, and amongst ancient Native American buffalo jumps. The Gallatin could very well be Montana’s most user friendly river as access abounds, cooperative and enthusiastic fish habitat most of its reach, and the Gallatin Valley of Montana is home to state’s highest per capita of angling services.
Bozeman is the nearest airport, but the towns of Big Sky and Gallatin Gateway offer services to anglers. Highway 191 parallels the river for most of its run from the source in Yellowstone to the middle of Gallatin Valley. Anglers will have many options for lodging, food, and fly shops and outfitters. Despite the popularity and relative ease of getting to the Gallatin it remains an enjoyable place to fish and most anglers can typically find a piece all their own with plenty of feeding trout.
From the water in Yellowstone Park to Spanish Creek, near the mouth of the canyon stretch (a reach of water nearly 40 miles long) the fish populations hover around 2,500 to 3,000 fish per mile. In this swifter water the fish are not large, but what they lack in size they certainly make up for in spunk and desire to feed. Below Spanish Creek to Cameron Bridge fish numbers are similar to the canyon stretch, but below Cameron Bridge the numbers of fish decrease dramatically but the potential for a big brown trout increases. A few miles downstream of Manhattan the East Fork of the Gallatin, commonly called the East Gallatin, joins the Gallatin and the river offers solitude and few fish from the confluence to the headwaters of the Missouri.
The prime to for the Gallatin in the canyon, or above Spanish Creek, is late June through September. The river is very cold, nearly too cold to find actively feeding trout, from November through March. In April and May anglers will find the occasional Blue Winged Olive hatching and on warmer days some caddis. But it is not until mid and late June when the salmonflies hatch in massive numbers do anglers flock to the Gallatin. The river below the canyon has a little longer season than upriver, but the winter months still will produce the occasional whitefish and the predominate ice-in-the-guides.
Many anglers may recognize the scenery on the Gallatin as most of the fishing scenes in Robert Redford’s “A River Runs Through It” were filmed on the Gallatin. Despite McLean’s story actually taking place on the Blackfoot River two hundred miles west, Redford felt the Gallatin’s scenery and fishing was more dramatic. He certainly choose a picturesque canyon and a river with lots of drama built into its swift currents and tight canyon walls. For anglers, especially during the summer months, that is a downside of the Gallatin as the river is buzzing with whitewater rafters and kayakers. Fortunately anglers and whitewater enthusiasts are coexisting peacefully. Most conflict is also avoided as the bulk of the whitewater occurs in a 10 mile section near the Moose Creek Campgroud.
The bulk of the angling pressure occurs on the river between Cameron Bridge and Big Sky. However, during the peak flows of runoff the Taylor Fork’s of the Gallatin, about 20 miles upstream of Big Sky can dump in muddy water. The Gallatin above the Taylor Fork is typically clear, cold but clear, and early summer anglers will pack these few miles. Additionally much of the water above the Taylor’s Fork is in Yellowstone National Park, so be sure to have your Yellowstone National Park fishing permit.
Once runoff subsides the canyon offers great action for plenty of spunky small to medium sized fish. For anglers wanting fish over 15-inches they should target the water from Spanish Creek to the headwaters of the Missouri. Access becomes more difficult in the Gallatin Valley and anglers wishing to fish most of the river will need to ask for permission—something that is becoming more and more difficult as new residents move into the area, bringing with them a more selfish attitude to sharing Montana’s great resources.
Wade fishing is the primary means of fishing the Gallatin, and it has to be for nearly 60 miles of its run as fishing from a boat is prohibited on the water from its source to the confluence of the East Gallatin. This keeps a lot of the pressure dispersed on the Gallatin, especially downstream of Gallatin Gateway. Once the river is floatable few anglers venture that farm downstream, which is often a mystery as to many local anglers—how come a river that is so popular just twenty miles upstream sees so few anglers merely twenty miles downstream. Perhaps those few intrepid anglers who regularly fish the Gallatin below Cameron Bridge and down to the headwaters of the Missouri are good at keeping a good thing quiet.
The area around the Gallatin—Big Sky, Bozeman, and the Gallatin Valley—seems to have been created specifically to cater to fly fishers. With more fly shops, outfitters, and fishing lodges than any other location in Montana, anglers choosing to fish the Gallatin will have more time decipher the plethora of information than finding it. It is clear when one enters the Bozeman area, via car or plane, they have come to the epicenter of Montana’s commercial fly fishing industry.