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The three forks region of southwestern Montana, where the headwaters of the Missouri River form from the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers, was the axis around which the Lewis and Clark expedition revolved. It was here in August 1805 that the luckiest event of the expedition took place. Sacagawea, the quiet Shoshone teenager who had accompanied the party as an interpreter, was discovered to be the sister of a powerful chief, Cameahwait. Suspicious of the Americans at first, Cameahwait was so joyful at seeing Sacagawea five years after her kidnapping by Hidatsa raiders that he overcame all his doubts. Cameahwait would prove to be a good friend to the explorers, helping them find their way across the last and greatest barrier to the Pacific: the Rocky Mountains.

Almost a year later, as they neared Three Forks country on their homeward journey in early July 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark decided to split their command and investigate the mountain waterways more closely. Lewis explored the Marias River while Clark and his party spent 20 days traveling down “La Roche Jaune,” or Yellowstone River.


“…The distance from the three forks of the Easterly fork of Galletines river (from whence it may be navigated down with small canoes) to the river Rochejhone is 18 Miles…”–William Clark, July 15, 1806

On the westward journey in 1805, the Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison rivers had been part of the path to discovery for Lewis and Clark; heading east, the wayfarers saw them as friendly and familiar waypoints. Today the rivers are legends among flyfishermen: the Gallatin for its pocket water and scenery, the Madison for giant rainbows and explosive stone fly hatches, and the Jefferson as a premier brown-trout water.

Excellent access is available all along the headwater rivers and their tributaries. On the Madison alone, in the more than one hundred miles between Three Forks and where the river exits Yellowstone National Park, there are more than a dozen public access sites. Long stretches of the Madison are wadeable from these points, and Montana law says that anyone with an over-the-counter license can move along its blue-ribbon fisheries up to the high-water line.

Huge rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout call the river home. At the time Clark camped at the headwaters, somewhere on the Madison a feeding orgy was underway as salmonflies were hatching.

When these big bugs are on the water, the fishing can be mind-boggling. Imagine casting a fly that is attacked by three or four large trout at once. The hatch constantly moves upstream and the best action is at the “head” of emergence.

Most salmonfly-fishing addicts tilt the odds of finding the front of the hatch by working long sections of the river in drift boats, casting to the banks. Unless you can bring your own craft, hiring a guide with a boat is the smart way to go. Guides are on the river virtually every day and they know where the fishing is red-hot.

The Gallatin River also is an excellent trout fishery and flows through country where mountain views might distract you from the fishing. Above the valley floor at nearly every point on the compass you can see five mountain ranges and much of the 1.8 million-acre Gallatin National Forest.

Established in 1899, the Gallatin is part of the Greater Yellowstone Area, the largest intact ecosystem in the continental United States. The forest offers excellent public-land hunting for elk and mountain goats and good hunting for mule deer and bighorn sheep. Big, rugged and unforgiving, it is not country for the physically unfit or faint of heart. Be prepared: After Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, the Gallatin nurtures the largest concentration of grizzly bears in the Lower 48.

–Contact: Bozeman Angler, 800-886-9111,; Gallatin National Forest, 406-587-6701; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, 406-994-4042,


“The indian woman [Sacagawea] who has been of great service to me as a pilot through this country recommends a gap in the mountain more south which I shall cross.”–William Clark, July 13, 1806

Three Forks country awed Clark and his band. Sacagawea led them on a Shoshone trail over what is now called the Bozeman Pass and down to the banks of the great eastward bend of the Yellowstone River. Here Clark expected to find cottonwood trees from which he could craft dugout canoes. To his surprise, no suitable trees were found at first. But wildlife was plentiful in the lush green valley, and no doubt the shining river that flowed from distant mountains in the south was full of fish.

Clark was tantalizingly close to the wonders that would become Yellowstone National Park. Today, Clark would also have seen the town of Livingston, which sits at the mouth of the Paradise Valley, one of those rare places that lives up to its name. The fertile paradise is flanked to the west by the steep ragged peaks of the Absoroka Beartooth Wilderness and to the east by the craggy Gallatin range.

The mountain stage is stunning, but the river is the show. In mid-July, as Clark must have experienced it, the upper Yellowstone displays herself in all her glory. The longest undammed river in the United States is in prime condition–on the heavy side, but clear. It is an ideal scenario for hooking one of the 5,000 trout that lurk in each mile. Here there are browns weighing up to 10 pounds and rainbows to 6 pounds, while 14-inch cutthroats huddle in the reaches closer to the park.

Mid-July is the true beginning of the dry flyfishing season on the Yellowstone. Pale morning duns are rising mid-morning. So are sallies. And caddis flies emerge in the evenings. Had Clark been a flyfisherman, attractor patterns, simulators and Trudes would have been his first choices at that time of year.

There are more than a dozen public access sites on the Yellowstone upstream of Livingston. But the water there is deeper than in the Madison, which makes extensive wading more difficult. A drift boat is the best way to see and fish the river.

While you’re in Livingston, be sure to visit the Dan Bailey Fly Fishing Shop. Since 1938, the store has provided anglers with flies and advice on how to catch trout in Three Forks and Yellowstone River country.

–Contact: Dan Bailey Fly Fishing Shop, 800-356-4052,; Rod Zullo Fly Fishing, 406-586-6572; Livingston/Paradise Valley Tourism,


“…Arived at a remarkable rock situated in an extensive bottom…this rock I ascended and from its top had a most extensive view in every direction. This rock which I shall call Pompy’s Tower [after Sacagawea’s baby boy] is 200 feet high and 400 paces in secumpherance…”–William Clark, July 25, 1806

As the Clark party continued down the Yellowstone, they left the mountains and entered more arid, broken country, with bluffs and coulees that rose above the river. Pompeys Pillar, a few miles downriver from present-day Billings, impressed Clark.

On July 23, 1806, Clark killed “the fattest buck I ever saw” and for the duration of the trip he observed incredible numbers of deer along the river banks.

The same is true nowadays. From Livingston to the river’s confluence with the Missouri, the land that abuts the Yellowstone provides excellent deer hunting. Trophy whitetail bucks prowl the bottom itself, while huge muleys work the “breaks country” around the river.

Much of the land adjacent to the Yellowstone is irrigated farmland that’s privately owned. Getting permission to hunt can be problematic but not impossible, depending on your approach and the landowner’s affinity to hunting. Montana also provides access to tens of thousands of private acres along the watercourse through the state’s Block Management Program (BMP). Ring-necked pheasants, Hungarian partridges and sharptails are abundant here, so be sure to take a shotgun along with your deer rifle or fishing outfit when you visit in the fall.

In addition to BMP holdings, there are two island wildlife management areas in the Yellowstone downstream of Miles City: the 656-acre Elk Island Wildlife Management Area and the 562-acre Seven Sisters WMA. Both islands are fringed with cottonwoods and willows, and their brushy undergrowth provides excellent cover for whitetails that swim the river and feed in beet and alfalfa fields on either side of the Yellowstone.

In August, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks offices in Bozeman, Billings, Glasgow and Miles City publish tabloid descriptions of the various BMP properties and suggestions on how to hunt them. However, the application deadline for a nonresident combination license (deer, upland birds and fishing) is March 15 each year. As a consolation for procrastinators who miss the deadline, there are always over-the-counter doe tags. These are available throughout much of Region 7, where the islands and other prime deer-hunting territory lie.

If you’re a nonresident like Lewis and Clark were, you’ll have to deal with something they and their men didn’t have to: applying for hunting licenses and tags. Once you wade through the paperwork, though, you’ll no doubt decide that all the trouble was worth it.

–Contact: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Miles City, 406-232-0900.

Special thanks to Yamaha Motor Corporation for providing the Outdoor Life Lewis & Clark expedition with ATVs.

Places to see while you’re in Montana

L&C Trail Waypoints

1 Virginia City Preserved gold mining town and former capitol of the Montana territory,

2 Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park 19 miles south of Three Forks, 406-287-3541,

3 Missouri River Headwaters State Park Three Forks, 406-994-4042,

4 Museum of the Rockies Bozeman, 406-994-2251,

5 International Flyfisher Center and Museum Includes aquarium and education center; Livingston, 406-222-9369,

6 Yellowstone Art Museum Billings, 406-256-6804,

7 Pompeys Pillar National Monument Includes “Clark on the Yellowstone” Interpretive Center, 406-875-2233,

8 Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument Crow Agency, site of Custer’s Last Stand, 406-638-3224,

For more information on the Lewis & Clark Adventure, go to