What, you’ve never fished in Yellowstone National Park? Shame on you! Here’s a short article on fly fishing in the Park, due to be published in the spring. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions as you plan your visit to the world’s first national park.
Fly Fishing in Yellowstone National Park
Fishing in Yellowstone is so much more than just fishing. Yes, the world’s first national park is full of trout-stuffed rivers and lakes, many more than I can possibly mention. But the spectacular scenery and wildlife make a visit to “America’s Serengeti” an out-of-this-world fishing experience. After all, where else do your fishing photos have a bison or an erupting geyser in the background? When I think about distilling fly fishing in the park, certain “key experiences” stand out. These are the “right place, right time” fishing days that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. But this is just a sampler, and others might have a different list entirely. Several good guide books cover fishing in Yellowstone. A visit or call to a fly shop near the park is a good plan to get up to date intel on these and the myriad of other options.
Early June – Swinging Soft Hackles on the Firehole River:
When the park fishing season begins on Memorial Day weekend, many of the streams are still high and muddy, filled with melting snow. The upper Firehole River is often an exception, and its water will usually be clear enough to fish. The Firehole’s brown and rainbow trout seem particularly interested in soft hackles swinging across its relatively placid currents, perhaps imitating caddis pupa swimming to the surface. A cast down and across, a mend to help the fly sink, a swing through the riffle, and hold on. You will want to use stouter tippet than you might otherwise, as takes can be aggressive. You might think of it as swinging very small streamers, and it can be deadly. The Firehole also hosts emergences of multiple caddis and mayfly species, but it’s the early season swinging that is an annual pilgrimage for many, and fishing amongst the river’s many geothermal features is just plain cool. The river tends to warm up to unfishable temperatures in the mid-summer but becomes a great option again in the fall. As the season progresses into June, the lower canyon stretch can have good dry fly fishing with big stoneflies during the salmonfly and goldenstone emergences.
Mid-June – Salmonflies in the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River:
If fishing huge dries to substantial native Yellowstone Cutthroat sounds fun, and you’re in decent shape physically, then the Yellowstone River’s Black Canyon might just be for you. Downstream of the iconic Grand Canyon and its two big waterfalls, the Black Canyon can be accessed via a couple of trailheads along the main loop road between Mammoth and Tower Junction. The hikes down to the river are short but very steep, and climbing back out to your vehicle can be difficult. Time it right and when you reach the river you’ll see the giant salmonflies flying clumsily about. You might also see somewhat smaller, but still hefty goldenstones, especially later in June. Much of the fishing is in pockets and eddies along the rocky shores, and you might need to do a bit of rock scrambling to get in position. You’ll want to slap your big dry fly in each hole as you work upstream or downstream. No delicacy necessary here. If no fish come up from the depths to inhale your fly within a few casts, move on to the next spot and repeat. Attach a big stonefly nymph as a dropper a couple of feet below the dry to really clean up. Small streamers jigged through the pockets can also be productive, so if you aren’t seeing the big flyers, try a wooly bugger or the like. The timing of the salmonfly hatch can vary a bit year to year, but a local fly shop can tell you if “it’s on!”
Mid-June to Mid-September – Big Cutthroat Eating Dries on the Lamar River (and Soda Butte and Slough Creeks):
The northeast portion of the park is cutthroat heaven. The Lamar and its tributaries host arguably the country’s best fishing for big native cutties. The Lamar Valley is a wildlife spectacle, and you’ll almost certainly be sharing it with herds of bison. Cutthroat trout love dry flies, especially
attractors and terrestrials (hoppers, crickets, ants…). Drift a Royal Wulff or a Morrish Hopper through the head of a pool and along the banks and you’re more than likely to experience the notoriously slow rise of a chunky and colorful Yellowstone Cutthroat (try not to set the hook too soon!). In the afternoon, if you’re lucky, you’ll see big Green Drake mayflies emerging. The hatch might only last an hour or two, but the dry fly fishing can be epic. If the fish aren’t loving your dries, you can often get some nice fish swinging smaller streamers. The Lamar River meanders through the valley, sometimes close to the road, and elsewhere a bit of a slog through the flat meadows. Soda Butte Creek fishes like a smaller Lamar and contains some surprisingly large fish. Want to test your abilities (and patience)? Give Slough Creek a try. The water is generally slow and clear and the cutthroat large but picky. The true Slough Creek experience is watching a nice sized cruising cutthroat inspect and refuse every pattern you try until you ultimately entice it to eat. If you’re willing to hike a bit, you can head to one of Slough Creek’s upper meadows, where the fish tend to be smaller but less pressured. If the fish aren’t loving your dries, you can often get some nice fish swinging smaller streamers.
September and October – Swinging Streamers for Big Lake-Run Browns on the Madison River
The relatively short stretch of the Madison River inside the park, from the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers, holds plenty of nice resident rainbow and brown trout all season. The Madison also has good caddis and mayfly hatches through the season But your best bet at catching a trophy is during the fall, when big browns preparing to spawn swim upstream from Hebgen Lake, just outside the park boundary. Targeting them with big streamers is the main gig. You might swing a huge fly all day for just one fish. But what a fish…! The spawning run is not a secret and the best-known holes can get crowded. But follow the west entrance road along the Madison and you should be able to find a spot to swing away. With luck, you could catch the fish of a lifetime. Send us a photo!
Season and Regulations:
The Yellowstone National Park fishing season runs from Memorial Day weekend through the first Sunday in November. A park fishing license is required and can be purchased online. The park is artificials only, with a few waters fly fishing only, notably the Firehole and Madison Rivers. No lead is allowed, barbs must be pinched, and no felt-soled wading boots are permitted. Be sure to pick up and read the regulations, as many waters have special regulations and seasons. Read up on wildlife safety and carry and know how to use bear spray. Yellowstone National Park is one of the world’s few remaining wild places, and fishing there is a treat and a blessing!