Yellowstone Park offers the best walk-wade fishing in the country for anglers who like to hike. It's that simple. Learn about fishing in Yellowstone Park with this guide.
Yellowstone National Park offers a vast range of fly fishing waters with excellent wade-fishing access. These waters range from mighty Yellowstone Lake, the largest alpine lake in North America, on down to tiny creeks even a child can step over.
While there are certainly some big trout in Yellowstone Park, where fishing in Yellowstone Park truly excels is in the variety of fly fishing opportunities it offers for small and medium-sized trout and grayling, say fish averaging anywhere from “tiny” on up to 16-18 inches, depending on the water. Five trout species (two subspecies of native cutthroat, rainbow, brown, brook, and lake), Arctic grayling, and whitefish are all available here, most of them in a wide variety of water types available through most or all of the Yellowstone fishing season.
From our home base in Livingston, waters across the northern and western parts of Yellowstone Park make sense. We focus virtually all of our guiding on waters in these parts of the park. The waters covered in this section of the site (see the secondary menu to your left on computer or at the bottom of the page on phone) are all in these parts of the park.
Crowds and How to Avoid Them
What Yellowstone does not offer is uncrowded fishing in easy-access areas. With the exception of a few minuscule creeks, all near-road fisheries with easy footing get fished very hard, whether they’re any good or not. Even marginal brook trout waters near campgrounds and bridges often have four or five anglers in view at a time. We’ve even seen multiple groups fishing a completely fishless roadside lake at the same time. Just imagine how crowded the roadside fisheries that hold large trout can get.
Crowds on hike-in waters are usually much more manageable, especially when you hike in to smaller or rougher streams. There’s a three-part equation that determines how crowded a body of water in Yellowstone is likely to be:
- How close to the road is it?
- How rough are the streambanks and wading?
- How big are the fish?
The closer to the road, the easier the wading/walking, and the larger the fish (provided fish numbers are decent), the more crowded a body of water will be.
Crowds by Season
Another factor is season. In general, crowds are going to be higher anywhere that’s likely to fish well between June 10 and approximately September 20. Some fisheries fall under the radar before June 10, and almost all that do not hold famous fall runs of brown trout get much less crowded after September 20, especially in October.
In general, the very busiest periods are the 4th of July through about August 15 and the two weeks after Labor Day. The post-Labor Day crowds are comprised of people who think “I’ll come after Labor Day after the crowds leave.” The real (albeit slight) dip occurs in late August, after kids have gone back to school but after these “beat the crowds” crowds have arrived. The post-Labor Day crowds do tend to stick a bit closer to the road than crowds earlier in the season, however, since the fall crew slants older and creakier.
Yellowstone Park Licenses, Seasons, and Regulations
Yellowstone Park is its own separate entity and no state licenses, regulations, or seasons apply here.
YNP licenses are now available both in-person and online. They can be purchased at any ranger station or visitor center within the park, as well as many fly shops and other businesses in Yellowstone border communities, Livingston, and Bozeman. Online, they’re available at Recreation.gov.
We do not sell Yellowstone permits ourselves since we don’t have a physical storefront, but they’re easy enough to get. Permits are available in 3-day, 7-day, and season-long increments. We won’t bother giving precise pricing, since like everything else permit fees do tend to increase from year to year. Yellowstone permits do tend to run quite a bit cheaper than state licenses.
Visitors also need to pay Yellowstone Park entrance fees except when traveling US-191 along the Gallatin River just inside the park’s western border.
Yellowstone Park Fishing Season and Hours
The Yellowstone Park fishing season currently runs from the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend in late May through the first Sunday in November. This season may be changing in upcoming years to a longer one, which would thrill us. Legal fishing hours are sunrise to sunset.
There are many, many, many exceptions to the Memorial Day-November fishing season. Some waters are always closed until July 1. Others are closed until early July to protect nesting birds or into early August to keep anglers from getting eaten by bears.
Regulations sometimes change on a year-to-year or even day-to-day basis depending on animal activity or fisheries work. Some streams are technically open but impossible to access because the land around them is closed. It’s a Zen thing: it’s legal to fish as long as you’re not there. Suffice it to say that it’s important to check current regulations when you arrive.
In addition to legal seasons, both the spring runoff and the onset of cold weather after about September 20 play a huge role in what it makes sense to fish. Good fishing by season is discussed on the individual pages for each water, but here are some general comments:
- In May and most of June, waters with geothermal (geyser and hot spring) inflows are the best and often only clear and fishable streams and rivers. These waters are mostly in the Madison Drainage in the west-central part of the park.
- Lakes begin fishing well whenever they lose their ice and become accessible; some lakes are not ice-free on the opener, or would require wading through waist-deep snow to reach. Most lakes fish best from this point through July 15 or so.
- Streams in the northern part of the park drop out of the spring runoff between June 10 and July 10, depending on the stream in question and the preceding winter’s snowpack. Most years, most waters are fishable by July 4.
- Streams with substantial geothermal inputs get too warm to fish well or ethically sometime between June 20 and July 10 depending on the specific stream, winter snowpack, and the onset of hot/bright summer weather. Their tributaries and headwaters usually remain cold enough to fish well and ethically.
- The widest variety of flowing waters are available from mid-July through mid-August, from tiny creeks to the mighty Yellowstone.
- Most small streams begin declining around mid-August. This is particularly true of meadow streams and/or those containing brook trout.
- The widest variety of larger streams and rivers are available in mid-September, since by this time geothermally-influenced streams are now cool enough to fish again.
- Smaller rivers in the northern part of the park become too cold and low to fish well during cold weather by mid-September and are too cold more often than not after October 1.
- In October and early November, the best streams are those that are larger (Yellowstone), hold fall-run brown trout, or have substantial geothermal inputs. The best waters feature all three factors.
Yellowstone Park Regulations (Some General Comments)
It’s important to read the current regulations and to note any short-term bear or fisheries closures when you arrive, so we won’t go into full details on the regulations. Here are some bullet points:
- All fishing in Yellowstone Park requires barbless hooks (smashing the barb when you tie on a fly is fine).
- Lead shot or lead weight on flies is not permitted. Extra weight must be non-toxic (tin shot, brass or tungsten beads, etc.).
- Got a spin-fisher in your party? Some waters are fly fishing only. One treble hook per lure is allowed but removing one point of the treble is encouraged. Multi-hook lures like Rapalas must have one of their hooks completely removed. No soft plastic lures, natural or artifical bait, or added scents are permitted.
- Regulations place a strong emphasis on protecting native fish. All native fish including whitefish are catch and release only throughout the park. Non-native trout must be killed in a few places and are allowed to be killed most other places (this last bit is a bone of some contention; killing spawning brown trout in a river where less than one in ten of the fish is a cutthroat and no natural barriers exist to prevent this from ever changing is absurd but allowed).
- Protecting the park from aquatic invasive species is a big deal. Felt-soled wading gear is not permitted, wading gear should be cleaned when moving from drainage to drainage, and any watercraft including float tubes must be inspected before launching.
- Watercraft are only permitted on lakes and the Lewis River between Lewis and Shoshone Lakes (outside the scope of this page). Motors are only allowed on Yellowstone and Lewis Lakes. A boating permit including the above inspection is required.
- Travel in geothermal areas is heavily restricted. Basically if there are geysers anywhere nearby, you must stay in the river or official trails. Even long-established game trails and angler trails are now off-limits. This severely reduces the places you can fish on some rivers, especially the Firehole.
Staying Safe While Fishing in Yellowstone Park
Yellowstone can be a dangerous place to fish. There are lots of animals, lots of hot springs, and since the vast majority of Yellowstone Park is at 6000 feet or higher, changes in weather can be sudden. Since we suggest hiking specifically to get away from people, dangers are magnified. Here are a few tips on staying safe.
Fishing around Bears, Bison, and Elk (Oh My!)
Yellowstone Park has the largest populations of large game animals and predators anywhere in the continental United States, and they have right of way. Park regulations require visitors to stay at least 25 yards from all wildlife and 100 yards from bears and wolves. You’re required to make way for animals. If they move closer, you move away.
Situational awareness is one key in avoiding unpleasant animal encounters. Simply not doing stupid things is another.
In terms of situational awareness, keep your eyes and ears open. This can be hard to do when the trout are rising. It is quite common for animals to move in on you quite quickly. Bison in particular seem to materialize nearby. When a buffalo decides to walk where you’re fishing, it’s going to do it no matter if you’re standing in the way or not. Particularly in bear-heavy areas like Slough Creek, I often feel like a soldier walking point in Vietnam: my head’s on a swivel and I keep my hand on my weapon, by which I mean bear spray.
Speaking of bear spray: carry it all times when fishing in Yellowstone Park. It’s far more effective than any firearm, and gives any animal you deploy it on a second chance, whereas a firearm does not. Let me put it this way: fishing guides in Yellowstone must carry bear spray when operating commercially, but we’re not allowed to carry guns. This should make clear the effectiveness of bear spray.
Stupidity runs rampant in Yellowstone around animals. Even with all the videos on YouTube showing people being gored by bison, attacked by mama elk or rutting bull elk, and so forth, it still happens. Don’t feed the animals, not even the squirrels (rabies is rampant). Don’t try to get selfies with them. Don’t put your kid on a buffalo for a ride (this has happened). Don’t get out of your car ten feet from fighting bull elk. Don’t approach a mama elk who just gave birth (they defend calves by charging). There are very few rattlesnakes in Yellowstone, but it’s still idiotic to pick up snakes you see while hiking, then use them to scare tourists. If it sounds like we’ve seen all these things, it’s because we have. We got the teenage boys who grabbed the snake and their mom arrested in 2003. They would probably have gotten a warning or small fine if their mom hadn’t flipped off the rangers and sped out of the parking lot when they approached her.
For what it’s worth, there’s a reason we didn’t mention wolves in this warning except to note park regs about giving them space. They aren’t a threat. There has never been a documented wolf attack anywhere in the United States by a wild wolf, as opposed to a captive animal or wolf-dog, even in Alaska or Minnesota where there are thousands more wolves than there are here.
Fishing Around Geysers
Situational awareness around hot springs is important, too. This is especially true on the Firehole River, where much of the river’s course is lined with hot springs, mud pots, and geysers. Park regulations require staying on established trails in geyser basins, or walking in the river. This is sometimes easier said than done. Is the well-trodden path that you see anglers marching up an official trail? Good question. If there’s no sign, maybe not. Sometimes “staying in the river” entails either floating your hat or actually walking through a hot spring that’s physically in the river. Should you do either? Certainly not.
The primary danger in geyser basins isn’t a geyser going off and blasting you with hot water. It’s walking somewhere unsafe. Where the ground is solid, this means walking over a thin mineral crust suspended over near-boiling water. In areas with numerous small hot springs putting out small amounts of water, it means putting your foot in a hole the size of a paint bucket that’s full of either hot water or scalding mud. None of these are good ideas.
If you’re unsure of where it’s safe to walk, we use a simple test: where there’s buffalo crap, it’s safe to walk. It would be nice if the Park Service adopted a similar rule, rather than the seemingly arbitrary enforcement of the “established trails or walk in the river” rule.
Let’s get back to the situational awareness bit. Sometimes while fishing it’s possible to forget you’re fishing a few feet in front of a hot spring. Don’t. An errant step could be worth a lot more than casting to that spot a hair out of range. Many more people have hurt themselves in hot springs than have been hurt by all animals combined.
Staying Safe While Hiking and Wading Rough Water
Before coming to Yellowstone, it’s a good idea to walk, lift weights, and otherwise get in good shape. This will help you hike and fish longer and harder and also helps with the altitude. That said, fish and wade within your limits. If you don’t wade chest-deep fast water or hop from boulder to boulder back home, it’s not a good idea to do it in Yellowstone, either.
Balance is an often-neglected part of fitness that makes a difference when wading in fast, turbulent water, hopping from boulder to boulder, or walking on unstable slopes where gravel or dirt might slide under your feet. Yoga, assorted balance exercises, and doing things like standing on one foot with your eyes closed will help you on a visit to Yellowstone.
In general we suggest hiking with a fishing partner. No matter how fit you are, a bad step and broken leg in the backcountry could turn into one of those scenarious like that guy in Utah who had to cut off his leg with a pocket knife. If you do fish/hike alone, let someone know where you’re going. Cell service is intermittent but steadily improving in the park, so it doesn’t hurt to carry a phone.
Wading fast water with uneven bottoms is basically a requirement when fishing on foot in Yellowstone. Wading staffs are good ideas. So is having spare clothes in case of a dunking. The potential for falling in a cold river is one reason who hikes over a mile or so aren’t such a good idea in late fall. Fortunately, from mid-June through early September, usually a dunking in a Yellowstone river or lake feels good, even if your phone, fancy electronic key, and wallet might not agree. Local businesses don’t mind wet money.
Where to Stay When Fishing Yellowstone Park
Our home base in Livingston is a bit far from most areas within Yellowstone Park. We’re about 50 minutes from the north entrance and more like 2hr from some waters, and that’s before we start hiking. It makes sense for us to guide anywhere discussed below from time to time, but if you plan to fish the park more than one or two days on your trip, getting lodging closer to the action makes more sense. Lodging in and around Yellowstone fills quickly, even the campgrounds. You also can’t simply park your car and go to sleep or pitch a tent wherever you like.
We suggest getting reservations ASAP when you decide to fish out here or being ready to take an available campsite no later than 7:30AM (most in-park campgrounds have a few first-come, first-served spots, but not many). Looking at the park in terms of river drainages makes sense in determining where to stay:
- To Fish the Gardner River or Yellowstone River in its Grand and Black Canyons: We suggest staying in Gardiner outside the park or Mammoth, Roosevelt, or Canyon inside it. If you’re camping, Tower Falls, Mammoth, Slough Creek, or Canyon are good choices. This is the closest water to Livingston and Emigrant, as well.
- To Fish the Lamar System or the Yellowstone: We suggest staying in Cooke City, Mammoth, or Gardiner. Camping at Tower Falls, Mammoth, Slough Creek, Pebble Creek, or one of the Forest Service campgrounds northeast of Cooke City makes sense.
- To Fish the Madison System: We suggest staying in West Yellowstone, Old Faithful, or Canyon Village. Mammoth, Big Sky, and Gardiner make sense as well. Camping at Norris, Canyon, or Madison Junction are the best options.
- To Fish the Gallatin: We suggest staying in West Yellowstone or Big Sky.
- To Fish Small Streams and Lakes/Ponds: We suggest staying in one of the locations noted above for the drainage into which given creeks or ponds feed. There are good small streams and ponds through most of the park during the summer months, and most of them will be half-day sideshows to larger rivers, for most anglers.
Use our links pages to start planning your lodging, or get in touch.