Bring the Right Gear and Clothing and You're on the Right Track. Come Unprepared, or Prepared to Fish Somewhere Else, and You... Aren't
Coming prepared for the fishing and the weather is critical for success, especially if you’re not going with a guide and/or don’t want to have to break out your credit card too often while you’re here. This page includes everything you should plan to have, starting with the basics.
You might also be interested in our guided trip packing list, though that page is specifically tailored to guided trips. The info on this page is more thorough.
The Basic Gear List
Here is everything you really need to have to fish the region, with the exceptions of flies, licenses and and a place to lay your head at night. One item I’ll note right off: BEAR SPRAY. You should always carry bear spray when fishing on foot, even right next to the road. I have a client who was charged by a grizzly 50 yards from his rental cabin right next to US-89 a few years ago. Since then, I’m never on foot without spray.
- Fly Rods: nine-foot six-weight with a floating line in good repair. If you can bring a second rod, make it a four-weight or five-weight more than eight feet long.
- Fly Reels: Whatever you’ve got that fits your rod(s) and line(s) and 50 yards of backing.
- Fly Lines: On most rods, standard floating weight-forward lines are all that you need. For light rods (4wt and lighter), DT lines also work fine. Sink-tip and full-sink lines are seldom necessary, though a full-sink line can be useful in lakes.
- Leaders: 7.5′ and 9′ standard nylon leaders between 2X and 5X. Heavier leaders are most common in June and July and with large nymphs and streamers. Light leaders are common with small dries and on spring creeks, and from autumn through April. Also bring a 7′ fast-sinking polyleader for your six-weight rod if you don’t have a sink-tip line.
- Tippet: 1X through 5X unless fishing spring creeks, then add 6X and 7X. Standard mono is usually fine, rather than fluorocarbon.
- Floatant: Standard gel-type floatants like Aquel are best for general use. Liquids like Fly Agra are helpful with large non-foam stoneflies and hoppers in July and August. Powders are useful only with tiny flies.
- Indicators: 3/4″ Thingmabobber or Airlok or Oros.
- Shot: Tin shot in #1, BB, and AB. Lead shot is not legal in YNP and is a bad idea elsewhere.
- Basic Fly Fishing Tools: Think forceps, nippers, and reading glasses/cheaters if you need them
- Net: It should have a hoop at least 14″ long and as wide as possible. Deep rubber baskets or nylon catch & release mesh are best.
- Polarized Sunglasses: brown lenses are best. If you have multiple pairs, gray and yellow pairs will cover both bright sun and overcast or flat light.
- Fishing Pack or Vest
- Quality Breathable Raincoat or Wading Jacket
- Wading boots with rubber soles (studs not required and must be removable if you’ll be going in a boat) or shoes you don’t mind getting wet (for float trips or wade-fishing meadow streams ONLY)
- Waders or wet-wading gear depending on the season. We usually wet-wade mid-June through mid-September, especially on boat trips.
- Clothing appropriate to the season: lightweight quick-dry long-sleeve shirt and pants all year, and more and more interchangeable layers the further you get from July 20.
- Ball cap or other light hat in summer
- Additional warmer hat(s) the rest of the year
- Fingerless gloves from April through early June and September through early October, full gloves from late fall through early April.
- Sunscreen, bug dope (June through August), lip balm, painkillers, allergy medicine, prescriptions, etc.
- Reusable water bottles if possible: I suggest 3 quarts of water per fishing day (plus more before and after) per person when hiking in the summer.
- Hiking boots & spare socks if fishing more than 1–2mi off-road.
- First aid kit if hiking.
- Map(s) if hiking.
- Backpack if hiking.
Overly-Detailed Gear Discussion
Want to bring the whole kit? Here are more suggestions. If you read every placard at museums or the zoo and never skip an article in a magazine, you’ll want to keep reading. If you just want the basics, you can probably skip the rest of this page.
You can find a use for everything from zero-weight fairy wands to spey rods around here if you want to carry a whole gear closet. Here are the top seven rods (in order of importance) that will allow you to do virtually everything well:
- Nine-Foot Six-Weight: This is the only rod that will allow you to do everything acceptably well, and it’s also the best rod for waters near Livingston when you’re throwing large dry flies, fishing from a boat, fishing most lakes, throwing streamers, and for most nymph-fishing. They’ll also help deal with the wind common to our waters.
- Long Four Weight: For most delicate situations (spring creeks, Lamar in late summer, Firehole) and most smaller trout (open small streams, most stretches of the Gibbon River), a four-weight from 8’6″ to 9′ long can’t be beat.
- Nine-Foot Five-Weight: For windy days on delicate water, for fishing small dries on big water early and late in the season, and on small lakes. Many people consider a 9′ 5wt the ideal rod overall, but they are too light for the big nymphs, fluffy giant dries, and streamers we often fish around here in July.
- Short 3–5wt Rod: A short and light (but not too light) rod is ideal on smaller streams in the trees and brush. You can bring a 0–2wt if you have one, but these rods can’t handle the occasional big fish you find in many of these creeks or wind. I use a 7’9″ 4-weight.
- Euro-Nymphing Rod: Heavier Euro-nymphing rods are ideal on the Gardner River and also work well in rocky sections of the Lamar, Gibbon, and Firehole. I use a 10’6″ four-weight. I don’t suggest going any lighter due to the heavy flows of the waters I just mentioned and the fact that you’ll often be using big, heavily-weighted stonefly nymphs rather than typical tiny Euro nymphs.
- Nine-Foot Seven-Weight: For throwing streamers from a boat and on larger lakes only.
- Ten-foot Six or Seven Weight: For targeting fall-run brown trout only.
In practical terms, you only need the six-weight and a long four or five weight to do virtually everything. One more rod to suit your own fishing styles isn’t a bad bet. I tend to fish a 9′ 6wt all year near Gardiner, a 9′ or 8’9″ 5wt in spring and fall in the boat and in the summer while wading larger streams, a 7’9″ 4wt when fishing small streams, and my Euro rod when targeting fall-run browns on the Gardner in October
Sure. Most of our wide-open streams fish well with a Tenkara rod. I’ve even had clients use long ones (Tenkara USA Amago) on the Yellowstone River, both on foot and on float trips near Livingston. I personally carry a 10′ 10″ model in my vest pocket as a backup rod when wade-fishing in the fall, in case I run into BWO hatches for which my Euro-nymphing rod isn’t suitable. Use heavy mono lines instead of fly line-style lines to cut down on wind drag.
Note that many of our small streams are densely overgrown and thus not really Tenkara-friendly. You’ll want to stick to slightly larger meadow-type creeks and rivers.
Save some money when it comes to reels. There’s no reason to get a high-dollar reel when fishing the Yellowstone area. Any standard single-action (not old-fashioned automatic) entry-level to mid-level reel from a reputable brand will work fine provided it can hold 50 yards of backing and has a smooth drag. Not a powerful one. Just smooth. I generally use mid-grade Orvis and Redington reels, some more than 20 years old.
For all area fishing except large lakes in high summer, floating lines work fine. I generally use weight forward (WF) lines with 5wt and heavier rods and double taper (DT) lines on 5wts and lighter, but this is largely a matter of personal preference. Select high-quality lines that match well with your rod and your casting stroke—I can’t tell you the best combination that will work for you.
If you like streamer fishing, you can also bring a sink-tip line for rods 6wt and heavier. Use a dedicated streamer-tip line (such as the Orvis Bank Shot) with a fast sink rate. That said, most of the time polyleaders suffice in Yellowstone Park and on most Montana rivers. I carry and suggest carrying 7ft “trout” weight polyleaders in 4 inch-per-second and 7ips sink rates (or whatever sink rate the leader manufacturer you like sells in these ranges). If you expect to do much lake fishing, for example in June, a 12ft intermediate or slow-sink polyleader is also not a bad idea, but you won’t need these in rivers.
Proper Line Care is just as important as the right line. Here’s how to get your lines in top shape:
- Inspect the line’s coating for any cracks or dings. The most problematic are places where the line is cracked all the way around, so that it hinges. Small dings that do not go all the way around can be sealed with a UV-cure resin such as UV Knot Sense. Those that do go all around must be removed. If they’re in the first couple feet of fly line, just cut back the fly line and re-secure your leader. More than a couple feet up the fly line, you really need to replace the line.
- Check the line-leader connection. Whether you use a traditional nail or needle knot, a factory-made loop as common in most new lines, or some other connection, this area is prone to fraying and cracking. If there are any problems, cut off the old connection and replace it.
- Clean and dry the first 30 feet of fly line. Commercial fly fishing products or even gentle dish or unscented hand soap diluted with plenty of water and a cotton rag can be used to do so. I suggest light cleaning with a damp rag or simple fly fishing product like Cortland’s line cleaning pads every couple of days, with more-thorough cleanings after fishing algae-stained water, spilling anything on your line, or before each season.
- Stretch the first 30 feet of line. While commercial products can be used for this, you can also simply strip line off the reel, then have a friend walk away with one end of the line until it tightens and stretches. When you’re done, reel it back onto the spool evenly to prevent any new kinks from forming.
- Once you’ve done all of the above, the line should cast well, mend well, and float well. Check the flotation in particular. It’s not unusual for the first six inches or foot of a fly line to sink even when it’s in good shape, but if the line wants to sink more than a few feet back from the tip (taking into account turbulent surface currents and so on), odds are it is worn out and should be replaced.
Here’s how to keep them in good shape:
- Keep the line out of direct sunlight except when you’re actually fishing with it.
- Keep the line out of heat and humidity when not in use.
- Never leave a wet line (or reel) in a waterproof or near-waterproof pouch or box. This can cause mildew. Wait until it’s dry to put it away.
- Keep the line free from any reactive solvents. In the fly fishing world, this usually means sunscreen, insect repellent, and certain fly flotants that contain petroleum products. If you do get such products on your line, rinse it (in the river) immediately.
- Keep the line free from grit. In particular be sure to rinse any sand or mud off your reel (it will get on the line), and try to avoid stepping on your line regardless of whether you’re in a boat or on foot.
- Take care not to get your line trapped in between your reel and your spool. This is most common when using cheap fly reels with poor fit and finish, but it can happen even on good machined reels especially once these reels have earned a few dings and other battle scars.
- Avoid jerking or pulling on tangles in your line or in the leader when the leader is wrapped around the fly line. Doing so is the leading cause of cracked fly line coatings. Instead carefully clip such tangles apart using fine scissors or fly fishing nippers. Particularly tight knots can often be loosened slightly by inserting a hook into the tangle, making cutting the knot apart easier.
Leaders for fishing the Livingston area range from 4 to 15 feet in length and 12lb Maxima down to 7X fluorocarbon tippets. There’s no reason to buy or tie leaders at either extreme. Instead, start with basic commercial leaders in 7.5′ and 9′ lengths. 7.5′ leaders should be carried in 2X through 4X. 9′ leaders should be carried in 2X through 5X. Alterations can be made with tippet material if required.
Here are some guidelines about where to use which size leaders:
- Rough, Shallow Rivers and Streams: Except when nymphing the deepest holes (as for fall-run browns), use 7.5-foot 2X to 4X leaders depending on fly size and water clarity. For nymphing for browns, use 9-foot 2X or 3X leaders regardless of fly size or clarity.
- Meadow/Gentle Streams with Smaller, Dumber Fish: 7.5-foot 3X or 4X leaders are generally all you need.
- Meadow Streams with Larger, Spookier Fish, and Spring Creeks: 9-foot to 15-foot leaders are required, with late summer and early fall generally seeing the spookiest fish and smallest dry flies and therefore the longest leaders. Tippet diamaters should run from 3X to 7X with 4X and 5X most important on meadow streams like the Lamar and its tributaries and 6X most important on spring creeks. The Paradise Valley spring creeks generally require the longest leaders of all, commonly 12+ feet.
- Large, Deep Rivers (i.e. Yellowstone, Lower Madison): Leaders should run 7.5 to 9 feet and 1X to 5X, with the heaviest leaders most important immediately after runoff (when fishing both dries and nymphs) and the lightest leaders most important from early fall through early spring.
- Lakes: Most lakes require 9′ 3X to 5X leaders throughout the season, with fly size and the amount of weed growth the key determining factors.
In determining what diameter leader to start with, a good rule of thumb is to divide the fly size you’re using by four, then use the “X rating” this equation produces when the fish are not spooky and/or the flies are large. When the equation does not produce a whole number, go down to the next-smaller size. Slide down a tippet size for spooky fish in clear water, but go no smaller, since using a too-slender tippet can hurt your casting efficiency. Here are a couple examples. A #16 fly calls for a 4X tippet most of the time, but might demand 5X if the fish are spooky. A #4 fly might be fished on 1X, but 2X is probably better given the large fly size. A #10 fly usually calls for 3X rather than 2X, since you can’t buy “2.5X” tippet.
Your basic leaders should always be standard monofilament leaders, rather than fluorocarbon. There is no reason to purchase fluorocarbon leaders! If fishing conditions require fluoro tippets, simply cut the standard mono tippet off and replace it with fluorocarbon from one of your spare tippet spools (see next section). Doing this will save you $$$ and works just as well as a leader made entirely from fluoro.
Both standard monofilament and fluorocarbon tippet make sense when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, though monofilament is far more important overall and can serve as your only material, if you’re on a budget.
If you do bring both mono and fluoro, plan to use the fluoro only when you use nymphs, streamers, and other subsurface flies. Never use fluoro with dry flies as this material sinks a bit and will drown small dries. The conditions under which you may want to use fluoro are:
- Spooky fish
- Big fish
- Many snags, weeds, or other obstructions on the bottom
- Small nymphs, when you wish to maximize your tippet size
The above conditions are more common on spring creeks, tailwaters, weedy lakes, and when you’re targeting fall-run browns or spring-run rainbows. For practical purposes, these are the only conditions under which I use or even carry fluoro, so if none of the above apply, use mono.
Depending on the point in the season, you may need to carry anywhere from 0X on down to 7X in mono and 2X through 7X in fluoro to cover all your bases. In general, the fewest tippet sizes need be carried on freestone streams immediately following runoff, and the most need to be carried when water conditions are crystal clear. Except immediately after runoff, I expect to use 0X and 1X only for repairing damaged leaders, while I expect to use 6X and 7X only on flat water where big, spooky fish are the quarry.
If you like fishing big, articulated streamers, also plan to bring 8lb to 12lb Maxima Ultragreen or similar stiff mono leader material for use as tippet with these heavy, oversized flies. When you’re using “normal” streamers up to and including weighted Woolly Buggers and sculpins to size-2, standard 1X–2X mono or fluoro will work fine.
Do not generally add tippet to new packaged tapered leaders until you’ve tied on a few flies, had a few tangles, etc. and have thus chewed back at least a foot into the leader. The only exception is when fish are eating tiny dry flies in flat water to trout that are exceptionally spooky, in which case additional tippet may be required to achieve a good drift.
Tools, Indicators, Shot, Etc.
The indicators, shot, tools, and so on that you should have when fishing the Yellowstone area and Montana are no different than you need elsewhere. See the list at the top of this page for suggestions. Just make sure to pack any sharp-edged tools as well as any fly floatants in your checked luggage if you’re flying.
I suggest carrying a net except on creeks containing nothing but small brook trout. Make sure your net is large enough to handle our trout. I suggest a 14-inch or longer hoop that’s as wide as you can get. I now use clear rubber net mesh, but soft nylon or poly “catch and release mesh” is also fine. Please don’t use hard nylon net baskets with wide holes, since these materials damage trout skin and gills.
Packs and Vests
The vest or pack you use at home is probably just fine. I use a high-capacity vest within a mile or so of the road and a backpack with a detachable chest pack when hiking in. Basically, if I’m hiking far enough to carry rather than wear my wading gear, I use the backpack/chest pack combo.
The key requirement on wading gear is that felt soles are not permitted in Yellowstone Park. Felt is permitted in Montana, so it’s fine to bring felt soles if you have Korkers or other interchangeable-sole boots.
In general, I suggest soft rubber soles over studs. If you opt for studs or other traction aids, they need to be removable if you plan to do any boat fishing (metal plus fiberglass or rubber boats is a bad combo). Aluminum or similar SOFT metal traction aids are far better than steel or tungsten carbide. Our rocks are very hard, so hard studs just slide like nails on a chalkboard, whereas a soft metal grabs.
Waders should be chest-high if possible if only to help as rain gear. Breathable models are far better than anything else. We typically wear waders almost all the time from mid-September through mid-June, then wet wade from mid-June through mid-September except during cold spells or on always-cold, high-elevation fisheries like Yellowstone Lake.
For wet-wading, you’ll want neoprene wet wading socks if possible, but a couple pairs of heavy hiking socks can do in a pinch. We suggest wearing wading boots rather than sandals or old sneakers when wet wading on almost all waters for improved traction and toe/ankle protection. You can get away with sandals when taking float trips. You can wear old sneakers on gentle meadow streams.