Friday, September 9, 2011

Gallatin River: Top to Bottom

Montana's Gallatin River is my home water. I live along its banks, I've fished it in all seasons, in all types of weather, in high water, in low water, I've fished it through the good times and the bad. Yet until recently there was something I'd not done: fish its extreme upper and lower reaches.

For years I had been wanting to fish the lower river, from the confluence of the East Gallatin River and the mainstem, down to the confluence with the Missouri River. It is at this point, and this point only, that float fishing becomes an option on the Gallatin - legally speaking. Since I don't own a boat my opportunities to fish here have been fairly limited by poor public access and difficult wade fishing.

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of floating the lower Gallatin with a couple of friends. Word had it that floating this section of river in a drift boat is best accomplished at flows of 800cfs or higher. We risked it at 650cfs in a heavy aluminum boat and had no issues. We had the river to ourselves, we didn't see another boat, or wade angler the entire day - and this just a half hour from the Mecca of Bozeman.

I was surprised to find that I caught rainbows over browns, 3 to 1. An interesting occurrence here was the impressive number of "nocturnal" or "midnight" stonefly shucks present along the river banks. Despite this, and good numbers of hoppers along the river, the dry fly bite never really materialized. Over the past couple of weeks the river has dropped considerably and is now too bony for drift boats and rafts. Perhaps when irrigation demands ease up this fall, I'll have the chance to revisit this portion of the river.

Much as I've long pined to fish the lower Gallatin, so too have I wanted to explore the upper river above its confluence with Fan Creek. Here the river veers from Hwy 191, and leads to the high and wild country that comprises its headwaters. This reach of the river flows within Yellowstone National Park and is a high elevation meadow stream.

Over Labor Day Weekend I found myself working at the FFF Conclave in West Yellowtone, MT. This put me within easy striking distance of the Gallatin's upper reaches. The festivities wrapped up early Saturday afternoon and I wasted no time in driving to the Buffalo Pass trailhead. I was surprised to be the only vehicle in the parking lot. I checked the trailhead signboard for any notice of recent bear activity, there was none. I was solo and on edge. As I started up the trail I belted out a few practice rounds of my best precautionary, "HEY BEAR!" rendition and made sure my Counter Assault was at the ready.

A trout stream usually has a way of easing any anxiety I'm feeling, but it failed to work its magic on this day. I never could get into the zone and really focus on the fishing. Bear tracks and scat kept me alert and scanning my surroundings. I was covering a lot of water, fishing the best and skipping the rest. As I came around a bend in the river I glanced upstream to see what I had been fearing all along - a large grizzly feeding about 150 yards away. The bear saw me about the same time that I saw it. Fortunately it wanted nothing to do with me and quickly retreated into the timber.

I don't have much experience with grizzlies, and that's how I'd prefer to keep it. This was only the third one I've seen. I appreciate that grizzlies roam these mountains and I do my best to keep them from deterring my desire to explore the wild country they inhabit. But just knowing that you've dropped a notch on the food chain really has a way of changing a backcountry experience. In these parts the presence of grizzlies is felt, if not seen.

Common sense, coupled with mediocre fishing, suggested that I retreat to the truck. As I beat a quick path back toward the trailhead I periodically turned to look over my shoulder, vowing to someday return and fish here again... perhaps with a buddy who I can outrun.


  1. This was just a great read Will... A river that I do know, admirable WILD that lives within it... Throw in some bears... and your confidence goes down the drain as far as fishing goes and you become the weary trout... Talk about a drop in a food chain..
    Again Mr. Jordan,.. Good Post!
    Josh C.

  2. Will,

    I have been a longtime reader of the blog - just stumbling over it some time ago. With my move to Missoula in the last 3 months for work, I find myself evermore clinching to your words. I find myself experiencing the moments as I read them. This one, in particular, had me on the edge of my seat/couch cushion. Unfortunately, my ending was a bear following us and I, being quite a big, "adiposey" guy, was left behind for dessert. Dang you can run fast!

    Keep the outstanding stuff coming! Excellent stuff in the MSJ, too... it's a new, exciting read!


  3. Josh - Thanks. It sounds odd to say it, but the Gallatin is an underrated fishery - overshadowed by the Madison and Yellowstone. Hope your summer has gone well.

    Scott - Welcome to MT, Missoula is a great city! And thanks for the compliments on MSJ.

  4. Good Read! We were fishing high up in Colorado once, South Fork of the Fring Pan, bear tracks and scat everywhere. Never did see one like to think it was due to my constantly calling Hey Bear, where are you Bear! It didn't help with the tickle on the back side of my neck any! But we caught the heck out of Cutts, that helped some!

  5. Great water and can't wait to get back there in a few weeks!