The Other Yellowstone
October 04, 2010
Sure, you can fight the crowds and spend a ton of money to fish in Yellowstone National Park. But why would you do that, when the fishing is even better in these downstream locales? (April 2006)
Sure, an excursion to Yellowstone National Park or Paradise Valley has its attractions, but here's the trade-off: You could end up shelling out a hefty share of cash in exchange for park fees, jam-packed lodging, over-pressured fish, and lots of crowded looks from other anglers. Sound reasonable? Not really. So how about venturing beyond the pale this year? Leave those park boundaries and claims of paradise behind and say hello to the other Yellowstone.
Coming out of a long and tedious winter semester, I made a personal commitment to give my schoolbooks a rest and start sampling some of Montana's great early season fishing. Glancing at a map, I was reminded that Interstate 90 provides a straight shot across the whole of south-central Montana, paralleling the Yellowstone River and providing access to a few tributaries packed with trout along the way. The "Big Stretch," as some call it, receives little pressure despite plenty of easy access along the 80 miles of roadway between Columbus and Big Timber. The only problem for me -- an over-eager college kid with a bad case of cabin fever -- was figuring out where to begin.
With drift boat in tow I started my way west. My plan was to spend a few days wade-fishing a famous Yellowstone tributary, the Stillwater River, and then inquire at local fly shops as to the condition of my other potential destinations. Even if the Boulder was running high or the Yellowstone off-color, I could hop on the highway and in under an hour be knee deep in the Shields River, casting dries to wild cutthroat in the shadows of the Crazy Mountains.
Less than 45 minutes from my home in Billings, I took the exit off Interstate 90 into Columbus, and headed south along Highway 78, a two-lane that parallels the Stillwater for much of its lower section.
Somewhat of a misnomer, the Stillwater River is anything but still. Boiling out of the Beartooth Mountains to the south, the Stillwater loses several thousand feet of elevation before leaving wilderness and reaching the valley below. Its descent begins to slow around Nye, Mont., and from there on down the fishing only gets better.
All Stillwater public access points are well marked and visible from the road, and most allow camping for up to seven days. The 12 miles between Fireman's Point and Absaroka Access are the most popular with fishermen and fish, but to sample the best of what the area has to offer an angler would want to venture farther upstream along County Road 420, to the Cliff Swallow, Castle Rock or Moraine accesses, where awesome scenery and abundant angling opportunities combine to help create awe-inspiring experiences. For those who partake of this piscatorial bliss, the only question usually remaining is, "Where are all the people?"
The whole of the Stillwater can be waded. Except during high water months, floating is difficult due to many large rocks and boulders peppering the riverbed. Rafting can open up water that is inaccessible to wade fishermen, but with the Stillwater's gradient being so steep, the good water is often passed by in a boat moving 5 miles an hour or better.
Instead, take your pick of access points and make sure to walk two or three hundred yards upstream or downstream before making a cast. If the water is low enough, it often pays to wade the river to the other side: Experienced anglers know any efforts to fish new water on a gin-clear freestone stream will be rewarded.
Like all other Yellowstone tributaries, the Stillwater is open to anglers all year. Visit Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks' Web site for any special regulations. Their fishing guide Web page gives excellent information for any body of water in the state at http://fwp.state.mt.us/fishing/guide/.
The headwaters of the Boulder and Stillwater rivers originate a scant 15 miles from each other among the craggy peaks of the Beartooth Mountains. For this reason they are quite similar in regards to insect life and species present. The only difference is that there are far fewer people who fish Boulder, a Blue-Ribbon tributary.
A fast river even in the fall, the Boulder flows between, over and around house-sized chunks of granite while descending more than 6,000 feet before dumping into the Yellowstone.
There are some stretches in which the river loses its intensity, but the first segment, between the headwaters and Two Mile Bridge, is not one of them. A case study of a river in a hurry, this section is more popular with kayakers than fishermen. However, it does afford one advantage: anglers will have an easier time searching for good water since the road closely parallels this length of the river and affords nearly 22 miles of uninterrupted access.
The next section, between Two Mile Bridge and Natural Bridge, flows at a gentler rate through sub-alpine meadows. Here the river flattens out and features plenty of riffles, runs and deep holes. During the summer this stretch affords the best fishing since the grassy banks afford good hopper fishing.
After flowing under a geologic marvel called Natural Bridge, the river dumps out into a broad glacial valley and carries on for 30 miles through agricultural land before joining with the Yellowstone. This section features fewer access points, but anglers can walk in from any of several bridges crossing the river.
Regardless of what section anglers choose to fish, they should definitely make time to see Natural Bridge National Monument. It is a unique site, to say the least, where 1,500 cubic feet of white water suddenly disappears into a massive wall of igneous rock.
There are several maintained trails in the Natural Bridge area affording different views of this magnificent geologic feature. Visiting anglers should walk the south trail to read the interpretive signs and get a good view of the 100-foot waterfall. Then cross the wooden bridge and walk the north trail downstream. It is well worth the stroll since some of the largest cutthroats in the river reside in this section.
There are few places where the scenery can make dedicated fly-fishers forget about their quarry. The Shields River Valley is one such place.
Bordered to the east by the sweeping, snow-painted peaks of the Crazies and to the west by the regal Bridger range, the Shields flows like a silver ribbon through the valley floor below.
Taking in the charming demeanor of the river, it is easy to understand what drew William Clark to explore several miles of the river while stopped for an af
ternoon at its junction with the Yellowstone. Clark christened the river after John Shields, a skilled gunsmith and carpenter who was of great service to the Lewis and Clark expedition. And unlike most other bodies of water named by the expedition, the river held its moniker through the last two centuries, a tribute to the hardscrabble group of outdoorsmen who explored the area more than 200 years ago.
Driving west on Interstate 90, travelers will want to take the White Sulfur Springs exit and head north on Highway 89. This paved road parallels the Shields until the river turns east into the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Though there are no designated public accesses along the Shields, numerous bridges cross the river, providing entry to anglers. Anglers should spend most of their time on the stretch of river between Wilsall and Clyde Park since it offers more access opportunities and better stream habitat.
Depending on where access is gained, it may be necessary to venture upstream or downstream to find deeper holding water, especially during July and August. Irrigation takes a heavy toll on the river; during these months some stretches may be drawn down too far to support trout populations. A short walk will often reward an angler with promising habitat.
Once deeper water is found, switch to stealth mode and focus on quiet, smooth presentations. The Shields is much like a spring creek in that finesse is a must. Clear, shallow water and brush-lined banks make for challenging casts, but these unassuming waters can reward persistent anglers with burly browns and rainbows, as well as wild cutthroat trout measuring an average of 13 inches.
In most places the Shields measures less than 20 yards across and can vary in depth from a few inches to a few feet in the deeper holes. Playing a large brown or rainbow in such habitat can test the mettle of any angler, and the Shields is no different in this regard. More than once I've battled a big brown away from his brushy bankside lair only to have him break me off after making a final charge around some sunken obstacle.
Anglers should have no fears regarding frustration, however. A deep breath of mountain air and a short look around will quickly remind them just how lucky they are to be in Big Sky Country.
SHIELDS RIVER CONSERVATION
Pick up any Montana fly-fishing guidebook and most likely you will find the Shields River listed somewhere in its pages. The Shields' legendary waters descend from a picturesque range known as the Crazy Mountains and flow over fragile riparian habitat before feeding into the Yellowstone River.
It is an important spawning tributary for brown and rainbow trout, and even sustains a genetically pure strain of Yellowstone cutthroat trout. The waters of the Shields River also sustain many large herds of cattle. Eight years ago the wear and tear caused by these bovines became overwhelmingly evident along the banks and gravel bars of the renowned trout stream.
When Yellowstone cutthroat trout conservation became a hot issue in 1998, Shields River ranching families were faced with the possibility of losing influence over watershed management decisions if Yellowstone cutthroats were to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. As national conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited began to push for measures to restore and protect the Shields, it became evident that Montanans had a difficult choice to make between beef and trout. To preserve autonomy for their ranching operations, landowners and other concerned citizens formed the Upper Shields Watershed Association to "preserve and enhance Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations throughout the Shields watershed while maintaining flexibility in ranch management decisions."
So far their efforts seem to be working, and not just for cutthroat trout. Rainbow, brown and brook trout, along with lesser-known fish species such as the longnosed dace and mottled sculpin, are benefiting from the association's efforts.
Fields and meadows abutting the river are now lush with wild grasses instead of invasive, water-guzzling weeds. Shorelines collapsed and laid bare by the weight of cattle coming to drink are now stabilized and wild vegetation overhangs in many areas. Banks once undercut by torrents of silt-laden runoff are now reinforced with rock and timber.
On another positive note, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks is considering the addition of a public fishing access site on 23 acres of donated land bordering the Shields River. Studies are being conducted to assess the impact of such a site. Plans are being developed to include "a small gravel parking lot to accommodate up to six vehicles, a latrine, boundary fencing and access trails to the river."
LOWER YELLOWSTONE RIVER
The lower Yellowstone is generally considered to start at the town of Livingston, where the river makes a sharp change in direction and begins an easterly flow that takes it 400 miles to its junction with the Missouri.
After leaving Paradise Valley the river takes on a flatter, gentler appearance while making its way through the high rolling plains of central and eastern Montana. However, visitors sacrifice little in the way of scenery when opting for this lesser known paradise, since the Crazy, Bridger and Beartooth mountains are never out of sight.
If scenery, solitude and great fishing are to be had on the Yellowstone, they will be found in the 100 miles between Livingston and Park City. Floating a relatively "popular" stretch this last spring, I had the pleasure of going the entire day without ever seeing another person, let alone another boat.
Riffles, runs and deep tailouts are not in short supply on this 100-mile section, and neither are the brown or rainbow trout. The only problem for visiting anglers is figuring out where to concentrate their efforts. Those with a boat have virtually the whole river to choose from, since there are no diversion dams or rapids to discourage floaters anywhere between Livingston and Billings. Walk-in anglers can also take their pick, but will be limited to one side of the river or the other since the Yellowstone is too fast and deep to wade across at any point.
Anglers, whether spin or fly, will want to come prepared for big fish and lots of wind. These two factors make 5-, 6- or 7-weight rods a necessity for flyfishermen. Spin anglers will want to bring plenty of heavy, easy-casting lures that will get down deep to where the big fish lie. Dark shades are best.
A stop into one of the local fly shops in Columbus, Big Timber or Livingston may prove fruitful, since the guides will know which sections are fishing best. Try Bud Lilly's Fly Shop in Livingston or The Otter's Den in Columbus. These shops offer full-service guide trips and shuttles, and are not shy about dispensing advice to visiting anglers.
The best time of year to fish the Lower 'Stone or any of its tributaries is the height of summer, when grasshoppers can turn the head of just about any trout. These terrestrials are prevalent along the whole of the lower Yellowstone due to the great amount of agriculture the river supports. Consequently, trout
recognize them as a major food source and will eagerly gulp an imitation. Target grassy, undercut banks and overhanging structure where trout are likely to be hanging.