Day Trip – Gardner River

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

You can thank Johnson Gardner, 1830’s fur trapper for the name of the Gardner River. It is one of my favorite streams in Yellowstone. I’ve written about it before. We are having a different kind of year out here in Montana. Streams went into runoff in fits and starts in late May but now its mid-June and we’re on the downside of the curve. The Yellowstone opener on Memorial Day saw more rivers in fishable shape than anyone can remember. Although, if reasonably clear, the Gardner can fish well on the opener, but there’s always that 2-3 week runoff period that mucks it up.

This year is somewhat of an exception. The guides at Park’s Fly Shop in Gardiner, Montana tell me the river, especially the lower section has fished well most days since the opener. By the way, the town of Gardiner was named after the river, but someone missed spelled the name early in the town’s history and the misspelling eventually became official. If you really know what you are doing, the Gardner can be fished when its running over 300 CFS, but I much prefer flows under 300. This was my first trip to the Gardner this season, mid-June. Although flows just dipped below 300 the day before, I was ready for high water in the lower section I fish on a regular basis.

Hemmed in on all sides

Hemmed in on all sides

The Gardner, especially the lower section, is not typical, not easy and most of all takes some commitment to do it justice. First and foremost, the Gardner is a high gradient river. It rises at 8000 feet MSL on the slopes of Joseph Peak and flows some 25 miles to the Yellowstone River at Gardiner, Montana. (5200 feet MSL). For the angler, there are three distinct river sections, each with its own unique characteristics. The two lower sections below Osprey Falls, a 150 foot high natural fish migration barrier, amount to only about 1/3rd of the river’s length. They are divided by Boiling River, a hot spring that emerges right on the banks of the Gardner just below Mammoth. Above the spring, the Gardner remains cold in the spring and cool in the summer and fall. Below the spring, the nutrient rich thermal water makes the last 3.5 miles of the Gardner insect rich and warms it up in the spring and late fall.  Above Osprey Falls, the river becomes inaccessible for several miles as it flows through Sheepeater Canyon. Above the canyon, endless miles of meandering meadow stream is available to the angler willing to satisfy themselves on prolific 6-8” brook trout. Below the falls, the river holds native whitefish and Yellowstone cutthroat and introduced brown and rainbow trout. In the lower Gardner, when the tug comes, you never know what’s going to be on the other end of the line. I even hooked a very large native Longnose Sucker once but failed to land it in the swift water.

No idle strolls up this river

No idle strolls up this river

Access to the river is remarkably good. The upper meadows section is accessible from the Indian Creek Campground on the Grand Loop Road. Indian Creek and the Gardner meet here before dropping into Sheepeater Canyon. The farther upstream you go from the campground the more remote and alone you’ll be on this pretty stretch of meadow water. The lower section below Boiling River is very close to the road, so close I think that at times the river gets ignored by anglers who might think it’s too easy and fished out. Such is not the case. Just below Boiling River a nice trail parallels the river, but this section is short and loaded with tourists. The esthetics just aren’t right. But once the river drops into the precipitous Gardner Canyon gone are any semblance of a pleasant stroll along a bubbling creek. Here the river drops over 400 feet is just a few miles and is hemmed in by steep, rocky banks, junipers, willows, ribes and thorny wild roses. Derelict trees, dislodged by high water liter the river and become major obstacles to movement along the stream bed. The canyon runs through typical dry sagebush and grass riddled with prickly pear cactus. The lower Gardner is also a rocky (emphatic understatement) river. Rocks of all sizes, shapes and slipperiness abound. If you can learn to navigate this environment, the fishing can be outstanding.

How long have they been there?

How long have they been there?

I typically fish the last mile of the river below the Rescue Creek Bridge. The walk to the river mouth takes about 20 minutes, and at dawn is usually punctuated by some encounter with Pronghorns, elk or mule deer. As I wrote before, the history of this particular area of the Gardner goes back to the early days of park history. In mid-June, dawn comes early to this park of Montana and I made it to the mouth of the river before the sun illuminated Electric Peak just a few miles to the north. A lone Pronghorn buck was a bit obstinate as it somewhat blocked my normal route and didn’t seem all that interested in moving away from me. As I diverted around him I stumbled on an old pair of shed mule deer antlers, probably untouched since they fell off. This is terrain that gets very little human attention. The Yellowstone was still in runoff, but at 8000 CFS, it hadn’t backed up the mouth of the Gardner very much. I was ready to start with some large stonefly nymphs and committed to really giving a new fly line a work out. The line was SA’s Mastery Textured Nymph Indicator in a five weight. Foregoing the typical indicator and relying on a section of bright orange line was going to require some concentration.

Gardner day trip 4I tied on two large stone fly nymphs on about seven feet of leader—6’ furled and a 1’ 3X tippet. The lower Gardner requires commitment because you are going to lose a fair number of flies to snags (both in the river and in the ubiquitous juniper trees overhanging the river. When the river is flowing at just under 300 CFS, there’s a very limited corridor to move up or down the river. At best you might find places where you can move out into the river a few feet, but for the most part, this 30-40 foot wide torrent is off limits. You have to navigate the rocks, trees, willows, roses and other plants as you inch your way upstream. If you need to leave the river to bypass an impassible barrier, you are usually scrambling up a steep, loose sand and rock bank littered with cactus and other thorny things.

But once you commit to this, the Gardner’s pocket water is fun fishing. When you are in the canyon, the noise of the river isolates you from everything. The average size trout in the Gardner is about 10-14”, but there are times when much bigger fish frequent the Gardner Canyon water. In late-June-early July, bigger fish leave the Yellowstone and follow the salmon fly hatch upriver. In late September and October, large spawning browns move into the river. The real challenge in the Gardner is landing bigger fish. Once hooked, if you can’t keep the fish upstream and under control, they will eventually get below you in fast water and break off as you can’t move around to control them. It is part of the commitment, you know you’re going to lose some fish in the fast water.

Fresh Pteronarcys californica

Fresh Pteronarcys californica

This mid-June morning proved to be a good day. It took about 4 hours to cover the last mile of the river from the mouth working my way toward the Rescue Creek Bridge. Although the temperature was in the 40s when I started, it had risen to 66 by the time I made it back to the car. I landed at least 20 fish and probably missed just as many. Mostly browns, but a few rainbows, cuttbows and whitefish. Nice variety. The highlight of the day was the revelation that the salmon fly hatch wasn’t far off. There were a few fresh nymph husks on the rocks. There had to be a few adults about.

I was about a third of the way upriver when I tossed the nymphs into a soft pocket behind a large rock. A fish rocketed up and hit the large black nymph before it could sink. The fish were looking up. On a whim, I tied on a large Prom Queen just to see if the fish were serious. They were. Even without adult Salmon Flies about, the Gardner’s trout were smashing three inch long dry flies anywhere I could get a reasonable drift in quiet water along the edges of the river or behind large boulders. I fished the Prom Queens all the way back to the bridge. Ironically, one might not think a fly line designed for nymph fishing would be suitable for dry flies, but the SA nymph indicator line floats like a cork and rolled over the large Prom Queens superbly.

Gardner day trip 6A 12 inch rainbow was probably the best fish of the day as I was able to keep it upstream as it jumped repeatedly trying to throw the hook. It might not be a large fish by Montana standards, but given the commitment it takes to fish the lower Gardner River in June it was a nice reward. The lower Gardner gets a bit easier in Summer and Fall as flows drop to an average of 200-100 CFS. Summer and early fall on the Gardner is hopper time as the dry grassy benches above the river breed enormous numbers of grasshoppers every season. As fall rolls around, I’ll venture back to the lower Gardner to trying to tangle with the large browns that can prove almost impossible to land in the swift water. As I said at the beginning, the lower Gardner River, so close to the road, but so deep in the canyon is one of my favorite places to fish.

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