Intro to Yellowstone Park Waters
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 Yellowstone 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 on this page are those on which we guide, though much of the information provided here applies more generally to other parts of the park, as well.
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.
The remainder of this page has a lot of information. To keep things organized, we broke it up into collapsing blocks. Tap or click the headings below to open each section. The first headings provide some general information on fishing in the park, while the bottom tabs provide detailed info on fishing specific bodies of water in the park. There’s as much info in each of these tabs as there is on the other “Our Fisheries” pages section of our website.
Yellowstone Park is its own separate entity and no state licenses, regulations, or seasons apply here.
As of this writing Yellowstone Park fishing licenses are available only in paper format. 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. 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 runs from the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend in late May through the first Sunday in November. Legal hours are sunrise to sunset. Fishing hours used to be 5:00AM to 10:00PM, and it’s a shame things changed. That late evening and false dawn fishing used to be spectacular.
There are many, many, many exceptions to the Memorial Day-November fishing season. Some waters are always closed until July 15. 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 in the individual entries for each water in the Water-by-Water Guide below, 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 most of the time 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 book 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.
Hike-In Fishing in Yellowstone
Because angler crowds in Yellowstone Park are heavy, Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing explicitly focuses on hiking on our trips within the park boundaries. In fact we do not fish roadside fisheries from mid-June through September except when clients insist on doing so. A hike of a half-mile often shed most crowds, especially on small streams or where the hike or streambanks are rugged. A two-mile hike even on big trout waters will usually make other anglers an unpleasant surprise rather than a certainty, though there are a couple famous hike-in areas where even a five-mile walk won’t shed everybody.
We encourage all anglers fit enough to do so to hit the trails in Yellowstone Park rather than fishing near the roads whenever water conditions allow. At some points early and late in the season, there aren’t many good hike-in fisheries that have dropped out of the spring runoff yet, so hiking might not make sense then. From early-mid June all the way through late September, hiking is the way to go.
This is true for anglers going on guided trips or fishing on their own. While there are several world-famous roadside fisheries in Yellowstone Park that produce solid trout without much difficulty, did you really drive all the way to Yellowstone to fish for hook-scarred and lethargic trout 25 yards or less from other anglers? A big part of fishing in Yellowstone is the experience of fishing in this magical place. Roadside waters seldom feel magical.
There are of course many anglers who are either too young or too old to hike very far, or those who have physical limitations. We suggest these anglers take float trips in Montana instead of fishing inside the park. The crowds beside the road can be absolutely miserable.
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.
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 don’t accept reservations). 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 page to start planning your lodging, or get in touch..
Intro to the Gardner River
The Gardner River is a small and generally steep river that offers a huge range of fishing opportunities over its short length. The river begins near the park’s north boundary southwest of the town of Gardner, then flows first south, then west, then north, and finally slightly northwest to join the Yellowstone right on the park boundary on the eastern outskirts of Gardiner. Yes, the names of river and town are spelled differently.
Over its roughly 20-mile length, the Gardner drops about 4000 vertical feet, most of it in the last twelve miles. It jumps over many small waterfalls in the steepest part of its course. These waterfalls, a large hot spring that joins 3 miles upstream of the Gardner’s mouth, and the changing geography and even meteorology through which the river flows explain the massive changes in the fishing the river offers despite its short length.
Gardner River: Description and Access
In its upper reaches, beginning in the remote backcountry near Joseph Peak and continuing down to the confluence with Indian Creek near the campground of the same name, the Gardner is a brook trout stream flowing through a broad sagebrush valley. Sometimes the river (here just a creek) flows in undercut bends and pools, sometimes it’s a little quicker and rockier. All of this water is at least half a mile off the road, and some much more. Fishing traffic is heavier than you might think, because this is great beginner water stuffed with tiny and aggressive trout.
With the addition of Panther and then Indian and Obsidian Creeks, the Gardner curves east and begins picking up speed. From Sheepeater Picnic Area across the highway from Indian Creek Campground all the way to the Yellowstone, the Gardner is a small fast-flowing river that often flows in deep or shallow canyons in a course choked with boulders. Numerous waterfalls and rapids break the river’s course, broken here and there by short meadows and deep ledge pools. The meadows and ledge pools closest to the road receive the most pressure, but usually don’t produce the most fish.
About 3mi upstream from its confluence with the Yellowstone, the Gardner receives a major input from Boiling River, a large hot spring. The river is more fertile below this point and slightly larger, but it also gets a bit warm in late July and August, and can be very weedy in low-snowpack years.
In its upper reaches, from the headwaters down to Indian Creek, the Gardner requires a relatively flat but usually off-trail hike to access. There’s some poor roadside fishing between Indian Creek and Sheepeater Cliffs. From Sheepeater to the Mammoth-Tower Road Bridge, the Gardner lives in a deep canyon requiring an aggressive off-trail hike to access. The hike is a bit mellower from the bridge downstream to Boiling River. From Boiling River almost the rest of the way to the Yellowstone, the Gardner runs right next to the Northeast Entrance Road, though many areas feature steep banks and treacherous footing that keep crowds low. Often the side opposite the road receives almost no pressure at all, because the Gardner in this stretch is difficult to cross even late in the season and impossible to cross early in the season.
Gardner River Angling
The Gardner enjoys spawning runs of rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout. The rainbows actually run both in the spring before the park opens to fishing and in late fall just before season’s end. These run-up fish average dramatically larger than the resident fish. Browns to ten pounds have been caught here, though of course these fish are exceptionally rare. Run-up fish of all species average 14-18 inches.
- Rainbow: Rainbow make up the majority of the catch from Osprey Falls to the Yellowstone and are also present from Sheepeater Cliffs to Osprey Falls. They average 8-12 inches below Osprey Falls and 6-10 inches above.
- Brown: Brown trout are present below Osprey Falls and make up a sizable portion of the catch (sometimes a majority) from near the “High Bridge” east of Mammoth down to the Yellowstone. They average 8-12 inches but resident fish can reach 16 inches and some very large late fall migrants are possible.
- Brook: Brook trout are the sole fish species in the Gardner’s headwaters. They are gradually displaced by rainbows between Sheepeater Cliffs and Osprey Falls and disappear completely near Boiling River. They average 5 to 8 inches and an 11-incher is a big one; these are kid-friendly beginner fish where they dominate.
- Yellowstone Cutthroat and Cutt-Bows: There are not many resident cutthroat in the Gardner, though they are present below Boiling River. We often go several fishing days without catching one. Most of them run 8-12 inches, but an occasional post-spawn fish from the Yellowstone reaches or exceeds 18 inches.
- Whitefish: The Gardner has strong whitefish populations from the lower end of Sheepeater Canyon below Osprey Falls down to the Yellowstone, especially in the vicinity of Boiling River. Most run 8-14 inches, but a few monsters in the 22-inch class make you think you’ve got a lunker brown until you see them.
- Suckers: Enormous redhorse suckers are present but uncommon between the High Bridge and the Yellowstone year-round. Seasonal spawning runs in June below Boiling River can actually displace the trout from good holding water for a week or so. These suckers reach 4lbs but almost never take flies.
The Gardner River can be divided in two by Osprey Falls, one of the park’s tallest waterfalls located in the backcountry southeast of Bunsen Peak, smack in the middle of Sheepeater Canyon. While there are other cascade-type waterfalls upstream and heavy rapids downstream, Osprey is the only falls that’s a complete fish barrier.
Above Osprey Falls, it’s a small river or creek primarily populated by eager brook trout. Attractor dry-dropper combos are all you need provided you aren’t fishing beside the road or on a stretch other hike-in anglers have hit that day. Downstream of Osprey Falls, the Gardner has a mixed bag of medium-sized trout with an occasional big one, and fishes best with nymphs.
Boiling River also splits the Gardner. Above Boiling River (including above Osprey Falls), the Gardner is best in midsummer and slopes off sharply due to runoff at the front end of the season and due to cold water at the back end. This is particularly true above Osprey Falls, where the good fishing is really confined to July and August. Downstream of Boiling River, warming and clearing provided by the hot spring can lead to good nymph fishing tight to the rocks early in the season whenever there’s a foot or more of visibility, but hurts mid-late summer fishing by warming the water too much. The Gardner never gets as warm as waters in the Madison Drainage, but it is usually too warm after lunch in August and in drought years even in late July.
Fly choice seldom needs to be complicated on the Gardner. Above Osprey Falls, literally any high-floating dry fly in size 12-14 trailing a #16 beadhead nymph of your choice will usually work provided someone else hasn’t fished the same spot recently. In an average season guiding beginners on this water, we probably use fewer than ten fly patterns.
Below Osprey Falls, the Gardner is a nymph river much more than a dry fly river. Combining a stonefly nymph and some sort of attractor nymph (or in season a caddis pupa, mayfly nymph, or egg pattern) can put you into fish all season long. Since the Gardner is fast and turbulent, heavily-weighted flies and Euro-nymphing techniques are more effective than using strike indicators, and casts should seldom be more than a couple rod-lengths (though we like long rods here: we have ten-footers for clients and Walter uses an 11’6″ Euro-nymphing rod).
Dry fly fishing below Osprey Falls is less consistent than nymphing but still decent at midsummer and during hatches. Attractor dry flies like Chubby Chernobyls, Trudes, and so forth trailing dropper nymphs are best in midsummer, while later in the summer high-floating hoppers should replace the attractors. Salmonfly and Golden Stonefly hatches can be very good below Osprey Falls, but are fragmentary. They begin sometime in late June below Boiling River and can continue into early August in remote and shady parts of Sheepeater Canyon. Summer hatches primarily consist of tan caddis, but attractor dries in the right size usually work just as well. Fall hatches consist of BWO and Drake Mackerals, of which the former are far more common. A Purple Hazy Cripple or Parachute Adams is usually close enough.
Even during the October brown trout run, nymphs are usually better than streamers. Egg patterns often work quite well, but so do smaller attractors. I suspect this is because few anglers show the browns small annoyances, and they get skittish towards the big ones.
Easy-access portions of the Gardner get fished pretty hard. Basically anywhere within a mile or so of a road that resembles a meadow qualifies, as do the dozen or so deep ledge pools between the High Bridge and the river’s mouth. Pocket water with steep banks sees much less pressure, and virtually none more than a mile from the road. Pressure is particularly heavy in early July when the lower Gardner is typically in good fishing condition a week or so before other nearby options and again in early October, when the browns are running but the weather is still pleasant. Heavy pressure also occurs when other nearby options get muddy due to thunderstorms. The Gardner can blow out massively, too, but the drainage is short and steep enough that it seldom stays dirty more than 12 hours.
Top 10 Flies
- Bead, Hare, and Copper Nymph, #12-14
- Brown Girdle Bug, #6
- Tan/brown TJ Hooker, #10
- 20-Incher, #10
- Minch’s Golden Stonefly Nymph, #10
- Red Gussied Lightning Bug, #16
- Copper Jumbo John, #12
- Pink Y2k Egg, #16
- Coachman Trude, #12
- Purple Hazy Cripple, #16
Intro to the Yellowstone River in YNP
The Yellowstone River begins south of Yellowstone Park in the deep wilderness of the Two Ocean Plateau. It enters the park near its southeast corner 30mi from the nearest road, then enters Yellowstone Lake. It emerges from the lake at Fishing Bridge as a mature trout stream.
The section from a closure zone extending a mile north of the lake on down to Chittenden Bridge at the head of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has a small resident population of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, but hosts a salmon-style downstream migration of spawning trout from the lake. Formerly “numberless,” this migration was decimated in the late 1990s and early 2000s by the combination of illegally-introduced lake trout in Yellowstone Lake and whirling disease. The cutthroat population fell by 97% before rebounding since 2010 due to aggressive lake trout netting efforts by the Park Service.
The section downstream of the lake is still basically a “New Zealand-style” spot and stalk fishery. The stretch from the lake to Chittenden Bridge (except for closed areas within this reach) opens July 15 and is best in the three weeks thereafter. We do actually guide here once in a blue moon when we have repeat skilled clients eager to chase one to a handful of trout that regularly run 20-24 inches, but this is not a good fishery when we don’t know what clients are capable of since even skilled anglers typically catch from 1 to 5 fish per day. It’s also 2.5hr or so from our base in Livingston. We can get similar fish on the Missouri River at Land of Giants much more consistently at about the same drive time.
The situation changes utterly just below Chittenden Bridge, where the Yellowstone leaps over Upper Falls and Lower Falls and cuts its way into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where 1500-foot canyon walls hem the river and strong resident trout populations exist. Though the canyon walls get lower in places, they never quite disappear all the way to Gardiner, a distance of over 30 miles. The first ten miles are in the deeper, narrower Grand Canyon while the remainder are in the slightly more open Black Canyon.
The dividing line between the two canyons is pretty arbitrary. For our purposes, it’s the mouth of the Lamar River. Above this point, the primary component of the river’s flow is water leaving Yellowstone Lake, since the Yellowstone is joined by only a handful of small and medium-sized creeks between the Lake and the Falls and in the Grand Canyon. This means that the Grand Canyon warms slower in early summer than waters downstream, but clears faster, and stays consistently warm until later in the fall. It’s almost a tailwater in this respect, though Yellowstone Lake is a natural lake rather than a reservoir. Moreover, the Lamar often gets filthy muddy for days and days after summer rains, muddying the Black Canyon downstream, but the Grand Canyon seldom gets muddy for more than a few hours or a single day, since its mud sources are limited to the volcanic ash deposits along a few sections of its wall.
The river is narrower in both canyons than above the falls, but it’s much faster and deeper. There are significant numbers of class-IV and class-V rapids whitewater aficionados would love to get on legally and which they occasionally run illegally in both canyons, as well as a third fall in the middle of the Black Canyon, Knowles Falls, which marks the upstream limit for brown trout. For the angler willing and able to hike and scramble over and around rocks and deadfall, every piece of this water that isn’t made inaccessible by sheer canyon walls is prime.
Portions of the lower Grand Canyon and one stretch of the upper Black Canyon are probably our favorite waters to fish and guide in Yellowstone Park. There are places that produce bigger trout or more trout, or that offer a higher percentage of trout on dry flies, and smaller creeks offer more solitude, but no other water in the region offers such a good combination of solid numbers of decent-sized cutthroat trout willing to eat dry flies (and nymphs and streamers) coupled with solitude. There’s one problem: all of the good water in the canyons is physically demanding, both to access and to fish.
Yellowstone River Canyons: Description and Access
The river here is narrow, fast, and deep. The banks are often sheer, and when they’re not they are covered in boulders and often downed trees burned in the 1988 fires. There are a few places where the river slows for brief stretches of a quarter mile and where gravel beaches come down to the water’s edge, but these areas are rare. Make no mistake, this is canyon water, and there are probably more places you can’t fish safely than where you can. The river bottom in most places is either gravel or cobble, with significant numbers of boulder fields. The only areas with significant quantities of sand and silt are eddies that have not been scoured recently, where the current deposits part of its particulate load during the spring.
Mud can be an issue in this stretch of river at any time of the season. In the Grand Canyon, the culprit is volcanic ash from the steep hillsides sloughing off into the river after summer downpours. This usually clears after a day or so. In the Black Canyon, it’s mud from rains high up the Lamar River or its tributary Soda Butte Creek. This mud can last two or three days when we’re in the midst of a storm cycle. The spring runoff leads to high water in the Grand Canyon, but only a short round of muddy water. Basically the instant the river begins to drop here, falling back into the channel it scoured as it rose, it becomes clear enough to fish. The spring runoff lasts at least a week longer in the Black Canyon, on average. In dry years, it may be more like two weeks. The runoff is also far more severe in the Black Canyon; it’s possible for the Lamar to double the Yellowstone’s flow for a week or so at the peak of its runoff.
Overall, the Grand Canyon is narrower and has higher canyon walls than the Black Canyon, but they both have areas with sheer stone walls that cannot be passed at water level. The last such stretch of canyon walls is actually within sight of the bottom the canyon, just upstream from the town of Gardiner at the park’s north entrance. Therefore, on even the mellower hikes into the Black Canyon, which are fairly flat albeit hot hikes across sagebrush flats, you will wind up huffing and puffing up and down steep banks when you come to such obstacles while fishing.
Access is difficult. Most of the canyon stretch is difficult or dangerous to wade, meaning you’ll seldom go in deeper than your knees on purpose. Much of the fishing is done from the bank. There is only a single ford in this entire stretch, Colter Ford, located about a mile upstream from the Tower Falls Trail river access. This ford does not become wadeable until at least mid-September, and even then it is neither obvious nor easy. Other crossing points are limited to the following bridges.
The Northeast Entrance Road (the sole road access to this stretch) crosses the river just east of Tower Junction. There is a good amount of water on both sides of the bridge, both upstream and down, but of course the water within about half a mile of the bridge receives more pressure than the rest of both canyons combined. The Hellroaring Trail crosses the river a mile and 600 vertical feet from the trailhead. There’s trail access from here upstream on the south bank and in both directions on the north bank. Trails and angler tracks follow both sides of the river from the Blacktail Trail footbridge, which is a four-mile hike with 800 feet of vertical just to get to the river.
There are several trails into each canyon. In the Grand Canyon, the Glacial Boulder Trail gives access to the area known as Seven Mile Hole, the Agate Creek Trail descends to the mouth of Agate Creek, an angler’s trail descends from the Specimen Ridge Trail through a notch in the canyon wall, and the Tower Falls Trail descends to the mouth of Tower Creek. Of these, the Tower Falls Trail is easiest at some 275 vertical feet in .4 mile. There are also a couple “scramble” accesses I don’t suggest doing without going with someone familiar with them. Trails into the Black Canyon include an angler track to the mouth of the Lamar River, an angler track from the south end of the Northeast Entrance Road bridge, the Hellroaring Trail, the Blacktail Trail, a bushwhack from the Rescue Creek Trail, and the Yellowstone River Trail. For more information on these trails, contact us or consult Fishing Yellowstone National Park, by Richard Parks, which is an angling guide focused on access rather than fishing tips (use this site for those).
There are a couple of closed zones in the canyons, but they are not typically of concern to most anglers. Check the regulations to be sure. Anglers should also note that the river briefly leaves the Park for approximately a half-mile around the mouth of Bear Creek in the lower Black Canyon. A Montana permit is required to fish this section of river.
Yellowstone River Canyons Angling
- Yellowstone cutthroat: Cutts are the most common fish throughout both canyons. In the Grand Canyon they generally run 8 to 16 inches. In the Black Canyon they run 10 to 18 inches, with a few over 20 inches.
- Rainbow-cutthroat hybrid: “Cutt-bows” are present throughout both canyons but become more common the further downstream you get. They can be hard to tell from rainbows or cutthroats. Look for a fish with the spotting pattern of a rainbow (and sometimes the stripe) but the red throat slashes of a cutthroat. Hybrids average the same size as cutthroats, but can get very large: We have seen a couple in the 5lb class from both the upper and lower Black Canyon.
- Rainbow: Uncommon in the Grand Canyon, common in the Black Canyon particularly below Knowles Falls near the downstream end. Rare Grand Canyon fish tend to run 8-14 inches. Black Canyon fish run 8 to 18 inches on average and occasionally get big. Rainbows in the Grand Canyon must be killed.
- Whitefish: Absent upstream of the Hellroaring Creek confluence and rare from there downstream to Knowles Falls, but common below, which is why nymphing will produce trout above the falls but mostly whitefish below. They average 8 to 14 inches.
- Brown: Browns are absent above Knowles Falls and rare except within a mile or two of the town of Gardiner. They run 10 to 18 inches, with occasional very large fish possible particularly in the fall. A Gardiner local got a 27″ brown from the lower Black Canyon a few years ago (just the one of them, bear that in mind).
- Brook: Brook trout are found throughout the canyon but are rare. All are fish that have gone walkabout from tributaries where they are common. Most are under 9 inches but I have caught one in the lower Black Canyon that went 16 inches.
The Yellowstone River canyons are excellent fisheries for anglers with some fly fishing experience, and even expert anglers can find much enjoyment here. They also make good areas for beginners provided they are accompanied by someone with experience. Overall, fish numbers are higher in the Grand Canyon, where the average size is smaller. There are bigger but fewer fish in the Black Canyon. An average trout anywhere in either canyon will be a ten to fourteen-inch cutthroat, with plentiful fish in the 16-18 inch range. The fish will just run towards the smaller end of that spectrum in the Grand Canyon, particularly around Tower Falls where there can be scads of small fish at certain times. There are more rainbows and rainbow-cutthroat hybrids the further downstream one goes. Brook trout are possible anywhere but are more common near the mouths of tributary streams such as Tower and Blacktail Creek, both of which have large brookie populations. Brook trout in the Yellowstone are likely to be small.
The river below the falls opens with the general Park season on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and occasionally it will be nymphable then, especially if the winter has been dry or the spring cold. Most years, however, the river becomes clear enough to fish with nymphs or streamers between June 15 and the end of June, though it will still be very high. Until the Salmonfly and Golden Stone emergences, which are phenomenal and long-lasting, the best fishing is had with Woolly Buggers and stonefly nymphs with smaller nymph droppers. The Salmonflies and Golden Stones usually begin hatching near thermal areas between June 20 and July 4, with the heaviest emergences between July 4 and July 20. If conditions are right they may remain in certain parts of the canyon (especially downstream of cold tributaries) through the first week of August, though usually they are gone by the end of July. Caddis, Yellow Sallies, and some mayflies begin hatching at the same time and continue to hatch in decreasing numbers until mid-August. In late August or early September the first fall Blue-winged Olives emerge, and these can provide excellent fishing until sometime in late October, particularly in the middle of the afternoon on snowy days. There are also some Epeorus mayflies in August and Drake Mackeral mayflies in September.
Unless there’s a heavy hatch underway, the most consistent fishing from mid-July until early September is to be found by fishing attractor or hopper patterns with nymph droppers. Grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, and even Mormon crickets are plentiful in the canyon, and in more remote areas the largest fish in the river will come up for the largest terrestrials in your box. Size-4 hoppers, in some cases. Even where pressure is heavy, a #12 hopper with an attractor nymph dropper usually works great. Streamer fishing can be good all season, if the fish aren’t eating stoneflies, attractors, or grasshoppers, but it becomes the most important tactic in September and remains good through mid-late October provided no prolonged cold snaps drop water temperatures below 42 degrees.
Early in the season, the primary structure is created by boulders along the banks and small bankside eddies. At this time, virtually all fish will be found within ten feet of the bank save in the largest eddies, and most will be closer still. Later in the summer, as the spring melt recedes, more offshore structure begins to form, with runs and boulder fields beginning to comprise the most important structure. In some places riffle corners at bends and near islands also come into play. Late in the season the river takes on a much more complicated character, with what were raging torrents in July now becoming deep pools, plunges, and other “classic” trout stream habitat.
Regardless of season, this is one place where we always fish 6 weight rods. Not only do they make casting big, wind-resistant dries much easier, they allow you to fish streamers with less false casting and make it possible to put much more pressure on big fish, important given the fire hydrant-like flows present in some parts of the canyons. The canyons are a place where you always want to have a dozen #4-10 streamers in your box. Seven or eight should be Woolly Buggers in various sizes and colors, while the others should be Zonkers, white Marabou Muddlers, and Slumpbusters or squirrel leeches. Make sure to bring a sinking mini-tip leader or a full-on sinktip line to use with the streamers, as these work much better at getting them down on short drifts than tin split shot or beadheads.
Top 10 Flies
- Tan/Pink Chubby Chernobyl, #6-12
- Pink Bob Hopper, #14
- Turck’s Tarantula, #8-12
- Chocolate Bully Bugger, #10-12 (don’t hesitate to use this fly as a dropper under the Chubby!)
- Olive Conehead Woolly Bugger, #4-8
- Brown Girdle Bug, #6-12
- Purple Hazy Cripple, #16-18
- Bead, Hare, and Copper, #12-14
- Olive Montana Prince, #12-16
- Tunghead 20-Incher, #10-12
We strongly suggest getting good waterproof maps when planning to visit this water without a guide. National Geographic puts out a good series that divides Yellowstone into four quarters. The two northern quarters cover some portion of this water.
- Yellowstone Lake Outlet Streamflow Gauge: The instant this gauge begins dropping at the tail end of spring runoff, there’s a good chance the Grand Canyon will be a fishable gray-green in color.
- Lamar River Streamflow Gauge: High flows in June and July or spikes at other times of year are good signs the Black Canyon will be muddy. The Lamar gauge is right above the Lamar’s mouth.
Intro to the Lamar River System
The Lamar River and its primary tributaries Soda Butte Creek and Slough Creek (actually a small river in its own right) comprise the most popular and most productive hatch-matching dry fly water in Yellowstone Park from July through mid-September. In their most-productive reaches, these are all easy-access meadow streams that are either within sight of roads or a straightforward hike from it. Large cutthroat trout, lots of them, consistent dry fly fishing, and easy access all combine to make these waters the most heavily-pressured waters in the region. Lower Soda Butte Creek in particular is probably the single most heavily-pressured (really overpressured) water in the Montana-Idaho-Wyoming tri-state region. At times it can almost resemble Eastern-style combat fishing.
Except for rugged areas of the Lamar and Slough Creek where the footing is bad, particularly rugged hike-in areas, solitude is not on the menu in the Lamar Drainage. It is YCFF company policy to only guide rugged hike-in portions of the Lamar and Slough Creek in the Lamar Drainage, as well as a few tributaries that need not be named. We will not guide roadside areas except at client insistence.
The crowds are a shame, because otherwise, these are ideal trout waters. The scenery, with steep glacier-carved mountains as backdrop to lush meadows grazed by bison and haunted by the Lower 48’s largest populations of grizzly bears and wolves, is stupendous. The streams themselves are beautiful classic riffle-pool trout streams. When you get an unscarred trout here, it is fat, beautiful, and in exceptional condition. The hatches, particularly those of Green Drakes, Little Green Drakes (probably Drunella flavilinea or D. coloradensis to Latin speakers), Pale Morning Duns, Blue-winged Olives, and Drake Mackerals, run almost like clockwork during high summer, and when they don’t, the terrestrial fishing (especially with ants) is gangbusters.
The Lamar Drainage is not ideal for beginners and novices. The flat water on Slough Creek, in particular, will prove frustrating to them. Even Soda Butte Creek’s trout are now growing somewhat educated due to the overwhelming pressure. There are many other river systems in the Yellowstone area where newcomers to fly fishing (especially those who aren’t being guided) will have a lot more fun. If beginners do want to fish the Lamar Drainage, they should stick to the faster sections of all three primary streams in the drainage, where small, aggressive trout are abundant but there’s still a chance at a big one. The small hike-in tributaries to the Lamar or to Soda Butte or Slough are also better options for beginners than the main streams themselves.
Besides crowding, there’s one other problem in the Lamar Drainage: MUD! Both the Lamar and Soda Butte Creek experience awful mud during spring runoff and after summer storms. Slough Creek never gets so muddy, but runoff does make it far too high to fish for the first month of the park season most years, and when the Lamar and Soda Butte get muddy following storms, everyone who would have fished these streams instead goes to Slough, making for horrific crowding and hard fishing. On the other hand, once the water clears the fishing is gangbusters for a day or two.
Because of the spring melt and cold water temperatures in the autumn, the best fishing in the Lamar Drainage is during high summer. Once the water clears and drops enough for insect hatches to begin in earnest, usually in the first ten days of July, the most consistent fishing is usually for the first month or so. The insects get smaller and the fish spookier through the summer, with a brief resurgence of large insects in September. Fishing is usually not great except on warm afternoons after the middle of September, and Slough Creek in particular is often very hard even earlier. Anglers who want to fish any of these three waters should not plan to do so before early July at the earliest or after late September. Sometimes the fishing is better earlier or later, but it can’t be counted on.
The Lamar System is the heart of Yellowstone bear country and wolf country. Wolf and bear watchers often crowd the roads, but you’re just as likely to run into a bear or wolf when you’re fishing. It is not uncommon to surprise bears even on crowded Soda Butte Creek. Bison are also a potential hazard, especially in the Lamar Valley and on lower Soda Butte Creek. Anytime you have short sight lines in this drainage, make lots of noise, carry bear spray, and don’t be dumb and try to weave between the buffalo to get to a good-looking pool that doesn’t have any anglers on it.
Note on Crowding
We are not joking when we say the Lamar Drainage can be extraordinarily crowded, particularly near the road on any of the three major streams in the system and in the First Meadow of Slough Creek, the easiest and most-famous hike-in destination. Here are some notes on proper etiquette.
- Unless invited, it is never proper to join another angler or group of anglers in the pool they are fishing. Ideally, leave an empty pool between yourself and parties both upstream and down, so that everyone can move a little without having to leapfrog.
- If you’re unsure if you’re far enough from others, give at least 100 yards between your group and the next. If you can’t give 100 yards to the next group, the stream is too crowded for you to join anglers who were there before you.
- Avoid walking on high banks as much as possible. Trails frequently line these banks, but they are trampled by people who don’t know any better. Under high, undercut banks is where trout reside, while anglers fishing to them stand on the flatter, shallower bank to avoid spooking the trout by their shadow and silhouette. There are easy fords at every bend on these streams, so it’s easy to cross from shallow bank to shallow bank to avoid spooking the fish under cutbanks.
Lamar River System: Description and Access
The Lamar, Soda Butte, and Slough Creek all predominately exhibit a riffle-pool character with occasional stretches of timber and short, steep canyon sections. Slough Creek is the slowest of the three, but has two short and torrential canyons. Soda Butte is probably the steepest on average, but its one canyon section is short and uninteresting from a fishing perspective, anyway. The Lamar slots somewhere in the middle in its meadow sections but also has a much longer section of steep and broken water. We actually guide more in this portion of the Lamar than elsewhere.
The Lamar begins in the high Absaroka mountains along Yellowstone Park’s eastern border. It flows generally west towards the Yellowstone. Its remote upper reaches are frequented by backpackers and more and more anglers. The hike is straightforward, up the Lamar River Trail. Sometimes the trail is near the river, sometimes up on a bench about a mile away. The Lamar comes in sight of the Northeast Entrance Road at the Soda Butte Creek Confluence. Hereafter it is never more than a mile from the road and often only a few steps from it for its remaining 12-mile run to the Yellowstone.
The first eight miles of this stretch is in the broad Lamar Valley, while the remainder is in a canyon. The first half of the canyon is much tighter and steeper than the remainder, but cliff bands are present all the way from the top of the canyon to the bottom, and the river’s course is everywhere fast and rocky. As you might imagine, crowds are heavier in the meadow, though nowadays there are almost always a few people in the canyons as well, despite poor footing.
Soda Butte Creek begins with the junction of several small streams northeast of the park’s Northeast Entrance, between Cooke City and Silver Gate. It is never more than 500 yards from the road for its entire course. From the park gate down to the top of Ice Box Canyon Soda Butte flows in a mix of dense forest and small meadows, though it maintains a riffle-pool character. Ice Box Canyon is a sheer-walled and nasty canyon so named for the ice that covers its shadowy walls into July some years. Access to this canyon is basically impossible, though the fish in this cold and infertile canyon are mostly 6-inchers (or their spawning parents) anyway. From the bottom of Ice Box Canyon, the creek’s remaining run to the Lamar cuts through two meadows ( 1-mile Round Prairie and the 4-mile so-called Junction Meadow) separated by half a mile of rapids. The vast majority of the pressure occurs in the meadows, but nowhere on Soda Butte except the recesses of Ice Box Canyon is ever devoid of heavy angling crowds, anymore. In July it’s not uncommon to find one to three cars in every pullout from the park entrance all the way to the Lamar.
Slough Creek begins north of the Yellowstone Park boundary and flows generally south-southwest before joining the Lamar about 2/3 of the way down the latter’s canyon. About twelve miles of river (Slough is almost as big as the Lamar where they meet) stretch from the park boundary to the Lamar, comprising four meadows and a short slow-moving wooded stretch all separated by stretches of fast water ranging from 100 yards to about a mile in length.
From the park boundary to the end of the Slough Creek Campground Road, all in the backcountry, run the Third, Second, and First Meadow and Slough Creek Canyon. The Third and Second Meadow are separated by only small rapids and a screen of trees. The Second and First Meadow are separated by a half-mile of fast water with a couple good pools in the middle. The First Meadow and the Lower Meadow are separated by the Slough Creek Canyon, about a mile of steep and aggressive pocket water with a couple almost-waterfalls in it, followed by a half mile of slower riffle-pool water in the trees, and then several hundred yards of pocket water as the canyon spreads out into the Lower Meadow. At the bottom of the Lower Meadow, a bit under a half-mile of steep pocket water separates the meadow from the Lamar.
The water between the park boundary and the Slough Creek Campground all requires hiking. The Slough Creek Trail starts before you reach the campground on the campground road and offers access to the First, Second, and Third Meadows. The First Meadow is 2.5mi from the trailhead, the Second Meadow a bit under 5mi, and the Third Meadow about 8mi. Numerous backcountry campsites dot the Second and Third Meadow, and a private ranch actually sits just outside the park boundary between the Third Meadow and Frenchy’s Meadow to the north. The Slough Creek Trail is an extremely popular backcountry destination for hikers and anglers alike. This is a place you can hike 8 miles one way and still not shed the crowds. In fact the upper end of the First Meadow and the Second Meadow are usually less crowded than the Third Meadow. The fast water stretches between the upper meadows are usually much less crowded, but not empty.
To access most of the Slough Creek Canyon, drive to the end of the campground road and take the unsigned trail up the creek. The trail gets rougher and fainter as you go before disappearing completely in the upper end of the canyon where house-sized boulders and heavy rapids dominate. The footing in the canyon is terrible, but it’s also my favorite stretch of Slough to fish since it offers lots of small fish and a few big ones, plus low (but not nonexistent) competition. I (Walter) have seen bears on more trips into the Slough Creek Canyon than I haven’t. I carry two cans of bear spray whenever I visit this area.
Slough Creek’s Lower Meadow is accessed from the campground road. The upper half of this water as well as the short run of pocket water through the campground is more or less adjacent to the road. The lower portion of the Lower Meadow as well as the short pitch down into the Lamar cuts diagonally away from the road to the Lamar. The Lamar and campground road make the two short sides of a right triangle, Slough Creek makes the hypotenuse. Many angler trails cut from the campground road to Slough Creek and run along it.
Lamar River System Angling
- Yellowstone Cutthroat: Yellowstone cutts are the dominant trout in the Lamar System. All other must now be killed. It is very unlikely that you will catch anything else these days. The average cutthroat ranges from 12-18 inches in most of the Lamar River and meadow portions of its tributaries. Rough sections of tributaries and all smaller tributaries are more likely to run 6 to 9 inches as these are nursery areas. Occasional very large fish are possible just about anywhere but are most common in lower Slough Creek and canyon sections of the Lamar; we’ve seen a couple 24-inchers in these areas.
- Other Trout: Rainbow or heavily-hybridized cutthroats are still theoretically possible in most of the Lamar Drainage, but they are now rare. If you are certain a trout is a rainbow or hybrid, it must be killed.
Beside the crowds, four factors govern the fishing in the Lamar Drainage: mud from the intense and long-lasting spring runoff as well as summer thunderstorms, consistent summer and early fall mayfly hatches, consistent late summer terrestrial fishing, and the onset of cold weather in the fall.
The spring runoff lasts longer here than anywhere else in our operations area. Slough Creek occasionally has not even started the runoff when the park season opens. This is most likely in years with cold springs when Memorial Day falls early. If Slough happens to be fishable on the opening weekend, DO IT! The best fishing of the season is likely to happen opening weekend. Strip large Woolly Buggers and sculpin patterns in the meadows, and cover water quickly.
Otherwise, the streams in the Lamar System are out of play until at least June 20 and more commonly July 4. It is not unusual for good fishing to begin as late as July 10-15, and perhaps one year in ten it’s sometime after July 15. Runoff is no joke here. The Lamar is a placid meadow river in late summer and fall, but it rages in June. The Lamar carries 1/10 the water the Yellowstone at their confluence does in September, but it can actually carry more water in June. This is due to the high mountains bounding the Lamar Drainage that can receive 500 inches of snow in the winter. Cooke City at Soda Butte Creek’s head is a popular backcountry ski destination well into June, most years.
Once the runoff recedes, the Lamar and Soda Butte Creeks can get muddy at the drop of a hat. Both have steep clay banks in their headwaters that run mud into the rivers after even light sprinkles. Keep an eye on the stream gauges in the Links section. When big spikes in flow occur, the Lamar and Soda Butte turn to a disgusting red-brown color that carries so much sediment the waves in the riffles scarcely break. The fishing can be very good during rainstorms and for a few hours when each stream clears, but fishing is out of the question when they are muddy. Slough Creek is much more resistant to mud, but everybody who arrives planning to fish Soda Butte or the Lamar then heads over to Slough Creek and jams the Lower Meadow like an eastern stream on stocking day. I don’t exaggerate here. People will fish 25 feet from strangers on lower Slough when the Lamar and Soda Butte are muddy. No, nobody does any good in such crowds.
When the water is clear in midsummer, mayfly hatches typically drive the fishing. Hatches are most consistent on Soda Butte Creek and least consistent on Slough, but good hatches occur everywhere. Hatches begin sometime between 9:00AM and noon and typically end before 2:00. They’re even important in rough water stretches. By far the most important insects are several species of Green Drakes (not Gray Drakes, see the note below) from size 10 to 14-16. The trout key on these larger-than-average mayflies that hatch almost every day. In rough areas and on Soda Butte Creek it’s even possible to fish high-floating Green Drake patterns as attractor dries, though this tactic worked much better 15-20 years ago than it does now.
The drakes are usually joined by PMD in July and early August. Often there are more PMDs than drakes, but the trout except perhaps on Slough tend to prefer the drakes. Fishing a PMD emerger or nymph behind a dry drake is often a good tactic, though when the drake hatches are good swapping the PMD of any kind with a CDC drake emerger fished wet usually works better.
Other good July hatches are evening tan caddis hatches and Yellow Sally and Little Olive stoneflies. The tan caddis usually hatch from sunset until dark, which is unfortunately after fishing ends at official sunset. Yellow Sallies and Olive Stones are most common in rockier sections of Slough Creek and Soda Butte Creek. They typically only bring fish up for a week or so each July. Salmonflies and Golden Stones hatch sporadically in rough sections of Slough Creek and more heavily in the Lamar River Canyon. These are very short-duration hatches, a matter of a couple days most years, but if you hit the Lamar Canyon right in early July you can get a 50+ fish day.
There’s also a smattering of other mayflies of one type of another that hatches through the summer, but they usually fall into “pale” categories that can be matched with PMD imitations and “dark” categories that look like drakes. In any case, there are usually more PMD and drakes.
In August, full-size drakes decline and are mostly replaced except on the upper Lamar and upper Soda Butte by Little Green Drakes (Flavs, maybe?). These are generally a #14. PMD hatch with them for a while before petering out and being replaced by very early BWO. These BWO are basically straight gray, rather than olive as the name “Blue-winged Olive” would suggest. The more-consistent August fishing (and late July fishing when hatches aren’t happening) occurs with terrestrials.
Ants are the star of the show in the Lamar Drainage. Have a range of tiny black ants, slightly larger cinnamon ants, and ants with red heads and black abdomens in #16-20. It’s a good idea to carry all except the tiny black ants in traditional “fur” versions, downwing flying versions, and parachute versions. You only need to carry the tiny ant in the traditional version. Foam ants can also work, particularly if you wish to fish a tiny dropper nymph underneath. Hoppers can work in the Lamar Drainage, but fish in the meadows tend to get hoppered to death. Stick to tiny oddball hoppers except in the Lamar Canyon, where on occasion great big ones and Mormon crickets can work.
By late August nights start getting cool and mayfly hatches shift into the afternoon, often starting no earlier than 3:00 by Labor Day, after many people have given up. Morning dry fly fishing switches over to midges, if there’s any dry fly fishing at all. Look for fish rising slowly and lazily in the sun-warmed tailouts of pools. #20 black CDC midges are usually the ticket for these fish. Midge pupae also become good choices at this time, possibly displacing the slender #16-20 mayfly nymphs that usually work well as dropper nymphs under large drake patterns or hoppers when you’re prospecting.
In late August, larger rusty tan “Drake Mackerals,” begin to hatch. They almost always pop in the afternoon and can get the trout as excited as the earlier Green Drakes, though these hatches probably aren’t as consistent as the Green Drakes.
Scattered BWO and Drake Mackeral hatches can continue into October, but after September 15-20 the fishing gets spotty in the Lamar Drainage due to cold nights chilling these relatively small high-elevation streams. It’s not uncommon to find ice in backwaters on late September mornings. This cooling drastically slows down fishing in October. In effect, the Lamar Drainage shifts into winter sometime in early October, with water temps in the 30s or at best low 40s. Since many other areas fish better at this time, it’s best to go elsewhere after the first hard cold snap.
Of course the crowds are lower once the fishing gets slow, alas.
Green Drakes or Gray Drakes?
There are not many true Gray Drakes in the Lamar Drainage. There are a few, yes, but these swimming mayflies are relatively unimportant. The bugs everybody calls Gray Drakes are in fact one of three or four species of Green Drakes that in Yellowstone waters tend to look more gray than they do in many other places. If you see large (#10-12) grayish-olive (or olive-gray) insects with dark gray wings, you’re looking at a full-size Green Drake. If you’re seeing similar insects that are one or two sizes smaller, you’re looking at a Little Green Drake.
They all tend to hatch in riffles and at the heads of pools, and attract aggressive rises from trout. These collectively are the most important insects in the Lamar Drainage, with one species or another hatching in at least small numbers every day from the end of runoff until late September, sometimes alongside other species of bugs. The trout sometimes don’t key on them, particularly on Slough Creek where the fish are much spookier than elsewhere in the Lamar Drainage, but they usually do. Even if there are more of a smaller mayfly hatching, don’t hesitate to fish a (gray-colored) Green Drake imitation ahead of a smaller bug. Even if there is only a handful of Drakes popping, it will amaze you how often the fish will choose the larger fly.
Top 10 Flies
- Furimsky’s Foam Gray Drake, #14
- PMD Sparkle Dun, #18
- Pink Bob Hopper, #14
- Bicolor Fur Ant, #16-20
- Cinnamon Flying Ant, #16
- Lamar Midge, #18-20
- CDC PMD Emerger, #18
- Gray CDC Emerging Dun, #12-16
- Gray Glass Caddis, #14
- Jujubaetis, #20
- Lamar River Stream Gauge: This gauge is near the Lamar’s mouth, so it is a bit “behind the times” in terms of showing flow spikes due to rain.
- Soda Butte Creek Stream Gauge: This gauge is at the park’s northeast entrance near Soda Butte’s headwaters. It therefore responds very quickly to rain on Soda Butte’s headwaters to tell you when the mud’s a’coming.
Intro to the Madison River System in YNP
The Madison River begins in the shadow of National Park Mountain at Madison Junction, where the Firehole River and Gibbon River come together. The Firehole provides about 60% of the upper Madison’s water. All three rivers (the Gibbon is just a big creek) provide excellent early and late season fishing in Yellowstone Park. In fact they’re typically the only rivers in Yellowstone fishable from the late-May opener until about the middle of June. All three fall off sharply in late June or early July at the latest and remain in the doldrums until late August or September. This too is a rarity.
Why the disparity in seasons for this water? Geyser Basin runoff. Significant portions of the Gibbon’s water and close to half of the Firehole’s water comes out of the ground near the Boiling Point. This is spring water, crystal clear and loaded with minerals. It just happens to be hot rather than cold. This hot, clear water effectively offsets the cold and dirty snowmelt that enters the Gibbon and Firehole from small mountain tributaries in May-June and and the cold but clear water from late fall rain and snow storms. On the other hand, in high summer it makes most of the Firehole and Gibbon and all of the Madison too warm for good fishing or fish health. The Firehole in particular is perhaps the warmest trout river in the world in July and early August. It can briefly touch 80 degrees, and is usually in the mid-70s in the afternoons!
As you might imagine, virtually all of the Madison System’s pressure inside Yellowstone Park takes place before the beginning of July and again after Labor Day. The headwaters of the Firehole above a closed zone centered on Old Faithful (Old Faithful is technically a Firehole tributary) remain cool enough to fish through the summer, as does the Gibbon above Norris Geyser Basin. These are both small creeks in these areas. Otherwise summer fishing is limited to tributary creeks, though some of these also get too warm. The Madison near the point where it exits the park north of the West Entrance can start fishing again around August 20 if nights are cool.
The mainstem Madison, all of the Firehole, and the Gibbon downstream of its falls are FLY FISHING ONLY. They are the only waters in Yellowstone Park so designated.
Madison River System: Description and Access
All rivers in the Madison system are easy to access in their most-popular sections. They also all tend to run rather tea-colored due to tannin staining from the immense stands of evergreens (mostly lodgepole pine) in the headwaters of both the Firehole and Gibbon and most of their small tributary creeks. They also tend to show a lot of “scum” on the surface, especially the Firehole. While this scum looks almost like laundry detergent, it’s from the immense mineral loads created by the hot spring basins. Touch the water and you’ll understand how mineral-rich these waters are – the water actually feels soapy or greasy. You wouldn’t want to drink it…
Otherwise, the waters in this system are very different from a description standpoint. The Gibbon in particular differs hugely from the Firehole and much of the Madison. As such, there are separate sections on description and access for each stream.
Firehole River Description and Access
The Firehole heads at fishless Madison Lake west of Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone’s southwest corner. It then flows basically north to Madison Junction. In its headwaters the Firehole is a remote backcountry creek, the lower portion of which can be accessed via an easy trail open to bicycles (a rarity in the park). For the remainder of its journey, the Firehole is paralleled by roads at a distance of a few feet to perhaps a mile. It is mostly fifty feet to a couple hundred yards from the road. Where it is further from the road, obvious flat and heavily-traveled trails (some official and some not) provide access. These include service roads, including another one open to bicycling. From around June 5 through the rest of the month and again in September and early October, it’s hard to find a section of the Firehole downstream of Old Faithful to fish out of sight of other anglers, even as far off-road as it’s possible to get.
From its headwaters to the Old Faithful closure, the Firehole is a fast-flowing stream in the woods. At Kepler Cascades it cuts down into a narrow and nasty canyon for about a mile to the start of the Old Faithful closure at a road bridge. When the river reappears and reopens at another bridge adjacent to Biscuit (geyser) Basin, it has doubled in size due to the inflow from Upper Geyser Basin centered on Old Faithful. It soon gains inflow from Iron Spring Creek and the Little Firehole River, which join 100 yards up from the Little Firehole’s own confluence with the Firehole. From this point down to the start of the Firehole Canyon, the Firehole is a meadow river, really a giant spring creek due to the geyser inflows. It’s rich and weedy, full of vast numbers of only a handful of types of insects on which the abundant trout feed.
In this meadow section, the Firehole flows with riffle-pool character over a generally shallow and broad bed of lava rock and geyser deposit. Often the “riffles” are actually shallow and broken rock shelves, but they function just like gravel and cobble-bottomed riffles so long as you fish the deeper spots among the shelves. Occasionally long pools intrude for 25 yards up to a mile or so. These pools typically hold larger but less-numerous and spookier trout. Even in fast-flowing areas it’s important to watch your step. Sudden extinct hot spring holes (and some cold springs) appear almost at random and the bottom may drop from 18″ under the water surface to effectively bottomless. Numerous geysers, mud pots, and hot springs line the Firehole’s course through this stretch, by far the most famous stretch of the river and the one that receives 99% of the pressure. The Park Service is getting very aggressive about preventing anglers from walking in hot spring areas, even those with established game and angler trails. The future of accessing large swathes of the Firehole is thus very much up in the air.
At Firehole Cascades, the Firehole leaps another waterfall and becomes a canyon river for its remaining run to Madison Junction. This stretch is paralleled by the one-way Firehole Canyon Drive. Often the drive is feet from a vertical drop into the river canyon, but access is tough due to steep canyon walls and deep, fast water. By far the best fishing in the canyon takes place downstream of Firehole Falls, below which run-up fish from Hebgen Lake on the Madison west of the park can reach. Between Firehole Cascades and Firehole Falls, the river is in a narrow gorge with only a few access trails, and the fish populations are isolated from either heading down to the lake or fleeing into cold tributary creeks during the hot summer months, so fish counts are poor.
Gibbon River Description and Access
The Gibbon River begins at Grebe Lake in the north-central part of the park and flows predominately southwest on its journey to join the Firehole. For the first half of this distance, it’s a small stream flowing through a mix of pine woods and small meadows. From Grebe Lake on to Wolf Lake and then down to Little Gibbon Falls at the head of Virginia Meadows, it’s a remote backcountry creek choked with downed trees. From Little Gibbon Falls to Virginia Cascades, it’s still a small creek but it’s much more accessible, paralleled in the upper reaches by the flat Wolf Lake Trail and in the lower reaches by the Virginia Cascades Drive. At Virginia Cascades, the Gibbon jumps into a short and hard-to-access canyon away from the road, and it’s again choked in trees (and also swamp!) down to the head of Norris Meadow, which is where it starts becoming a serious stream where the Norris-Canyon road segment crosses it.
The Gibbon’s main coldwater tributary Solfatara Creek joins adjacent to Norris Campground in Norris Meadow and almost doubles the Gibbon’s size. Heavy pressure occurs adjacent to the Norris Campground, which is the easiest-access portion of the Gibbon to this point. The Gibbon snakes through Norris Meadow, then departs it shortly after it’s crossed by the Norris-Mammoth Road segment. Here the Gibbon makes a long arc around Norris Geyser Basin, far from the road. Access here is limited to a couple unofficial trails that start either from the upstream end (up on a hill overlooking the geyser basin), or from the first of the Gibbon’s major meadows, Elk Park.
From Elk Park to Madison Junction, the Gibbon is generally paralleled by the Norris-Madison road segment, though after a change in the road alignment in 2009 that moved the road away from the stream, a 2mi section of the Gibbon upstream of Gibbon Falls is on the other side of a large hill choked in downed timber and so effectively in the backcountry. There’s no official trail here, but there are obvious angler trails that followed the old road grade which has been “restored” to natural condition, even though this restoration is arguably as jarring as the road was.
Norris Geyser Basin warms and broadens the Gibbon substantially. From this point down, the Gibbon is too warm to fish well in midsummer, though it never gets as warm as the Firehole and may fish in the mornings in early July and late August.
Elk Park is a 2mi meadow of which the first mile is upstream away from the road and the second mile is beside the road. Elk Park is separated from Gibbon Meadows by the 1mi Gibbon River Rapids, which are actually shallow lava rock ledges over which the river flows steeply. Gibbon Meadows is an even larger meadow. There’s little fish habitat in the rapids. The meadows are a different story. The river flows in many snaking bends through the meadows, and it’s generally very slow and deep. Access is easy, but fishing is hard because of the slow, clear, fertile water. These meadows fish like spring creeks.
At the bottom of Gibbon Meadows, the Gibbon starts cutting into the Gibbon River Canyon. From here most of the way to Madison Junction the Gibbon flows in a mix of pocket water and riffle-pool water, interrupted by Gibbon Falls and the short steep-walled canyon section immediately downstream of the falls. As noted already, 2mi of this water is out of sight of the road and requires hiking to access. Note that the upstream end of this water requires walking on the reclaimed road bed (now covered in grass and lodgepole seedlings) on the east side of the river, while at the downstream side you must walk on the west side of the river. There’s a mandatory stream crossing about half a mile from the top of this roadless segment, a crossing that’s difficult or impossible for the first few weeks of the season. The rest of this section is easy to access except for the dense new-growth lodgepole and occasional hot springs. Even the area immediately below the falls can be accessed after about June 10 by hiking up from a picnic area downstream of the falls.
One more meadow opens up at the bottom of the Gibbon River Canyon, and the Gibbon stays in this glass-smooth meadow down to its confluence with the Firehole.
Upper Madison River Description and Access
The Madison in YNP runs first west alongside the West Entrance Road, usually in sight of it, for most of its run in Yellowstone Park. It then cuts northwest out of sight of the road for its last couple miles to the park boundary and Hebgen Lake (a reservoir on the Madison) that backs up the river to about a mile west of the park boundary. The Madison in the park can be divided into four approximate segments, of which all but the last run close to West Entrance Road.
In its first segment, which begins where the Firehole and Gibbon combine, the Madison is a braiding, slow-moving meadow river with easy footing but difficult trout. This is in effect a large spring creek. The banks are generally grassy, with a few patches of burned-over lodgepole pine forest.
The meadow portion of the Madison gradually shades over into the Madison River Canyon. While there are short stretches of pocket water and many large boulders in the middle of the river here, most of them covered in log jams, this is still not a fast-flowing stretch of river. There are riffles and pools, but the footing is still manageable for most anglers and there’s no raging whitewater. This section of the Madison is still effectively a spring creek, just not a slow and glassy one. There’s a short section that’s closed to angling at the bottom of the canyon to protect breeding swans, which are often visible.
The West Entrance Road crosses the Madison at Seven-Mile Bridge, so-called because of its distance from the West Entrance. About half a mile below this bridge the Madison gains its third character. From here down almost to the West Entrance the Madison is extremely broad, shallow, and riffly. Fish populations are limited to small fish in this stretch. There just isn’t enough habitat. Portions of the lower end of this stretch are out of sight of the road, but you aren’t missing much.
In sight of the West Entrance, a gravel road cuts off the main road northward to the river. From the point the road hits the river, the Madison cuts northwest in a series of deep runs and pools with grassy banks. These are the Barns Pools and Beaver Meadows and represent the Madison’s last character inside (and briefly outside) Yellowstone Park. This river character extends down to Baker’s Hole Campground just west of the park boundary north of West Yellowstone. Access is by walking downstream from the end of the Barns Pools road just mentioned or up from the campground. Make sure to have a Montana license if fishing the middle section of this portion of the Madison, because the river crisscrosses the park boundary line in many snaking curves. Good angler trails follow this portion of the Madison, and at least in the fall when the browns are running, pressure is heavy even as far from the road as you can get.
Madison River System Angling
Most of the Madison River System in YNP was originally fishless due to waterfalls. While fish native to the basins are being introduced above waterfalls so these areas may serve as refuges for threatened species as other areas warm due to the climate change, non-native trout still dominate in the Madison System, unlike elsewhere in YNP. Rainbows and browns are therefore widely protected with catch and release regs, which they do not enjoy elsewhere.
- Rainbow: Rainbow are the most common fish in the Firehole downstream of Old Faithful and the Madison. They are also found in most Firehole and Gibbon tributary streams, in small numbers in the Firehole from Kepler Cascades to Old Faithful and the Gibbon between Virginia Cascades and Elk Park, and significant numbers downstream of Gibbon Falls. Resident fish generally average 6-12 inches and reach 20 inches. Run-up fish from Hebgen Lake average 15-20 inches and reach 24 inches.
- Brown: Browns are common in the Firehole downstream of Kepler Cascades, in the Madison, and in some Firehole tributary streams. They are the dominant fish in the Gibbon River between Norris Meadow and Madison Junction as well as lower Gibbon tributaries. Resident fish average 6-10 inches in most fast water stretches and 10-18 inches in most meadow stretches, regardless of river segment. Run-up fish from Hebgen Lake average 16-22 inches and reach enormous size.
- Westslope Cutthroat: Westslope cutthroat are dominant in the Gibbon from Grebe Lake to Virginia Cascades and should see increasing population growth from Virginia Cascades to Norris Geyser Basin after recent introductions. Future introductions will likely spread populations further. Westies were the native fish of the Madison System downstream of assorted waterfalls prior to being wiped out by the 1950s.
- Brook: Formerly the dominant fish of much of the upper Gibbon, Brook trout were recently eradicated from the stretch from Little Gibbon Falls to Virginia Cascades. They are now the dominant fish only from Virginia Cascades to Norris Meadow in the Gibbon, in the Upper Firehole down to Old Faithful, and in a few tributary streams. They average 5 to 9 inches.
- Whitefish: Whitefish are found throughout the system downstream of Firehole and Gibbon Falls. They are most common in the Madison near the West Entrance, which has few resident trout (but many big seasonal migrants). Whitefish average 12-18 inches in the Madison near the boundary and 8-12 inches elsewhere.
- Arctic Grayling: Grayling are found in the Gibbon from Grebe Lake down to Norris Geyser Basin. They dominate in Grebe and Wolf Lake but are less common in flowing water, but are still catchable. They average 6-10 inches and might reach 14 inches.
- Yellowstone Cutthroat: Small numbers of Yellowstone cutthroat are found in the upper Little Firehole River and may trickle down occasionally to the Firehole at Biscuit Basin. They average 10 inches. They may also be eradicated and replaced with Westslopes, since the Yellowstone cutthroat is not native to the Madison System.
As noted several times, the Madison System in YNP is primarily a May-June and September-October fishery. Otherwise, the small stream headwaters of the Firehole and Gibbon are the main fisheries in summer, as are tributaries of both streams that are even smaller. Some Firehole tribs receive “refugee” fish from the Firehole itself. These fish tend to run 14-18 inches and are some of the spookiest trout in the region. They’re big fish in skinny water, and they don’t like it. Otherwise, small streams throughout the Madison System fish similarly to small streams described in the “Small Streams” section below.
During the good seasons, fishing tactics can be addressed in three cases by water type and one case by the trout you’re targeting: Riffle-pool water, long pools, pocket or canyon water, and fall-run fish.
When fishing the warm, weedy, knee to waist-deep riffle-pool water that dominates on the Firehole and much of the Madison, swinging soft-hackled wet flies is by far the dominant tactic. This works well at all times, but is especially good when caddis hatches are underway or imminent. Look for occasional splashy rises to indicate caddis hatches. On the Firehole, the White Miller or Nectopsyche caddis is dominant. This caddis is “blond.” and very active, with long antennae that need not be imitated. Fish a soft hackle matching this caddis along with another, usually a soft hackle Pheasant Tail with a glass beadhead works well. When trout are rising aggressively, swap one of the soft hackles for a buoyant dry caddis. PMD and BWO may also hatch in the riffles, but are less important than the caddis. It also makes sense to nymph the deep geyser rock ledges that break up the riffle-pool areas, especially in late June and early September when the light is high but the water is low.
The long, dead-slow pools are best during hatches. On the Gibbon these are typically mayflies, of which the assorted drakes get the fish the most excited. On the Firehole and Madison, caddis or smaller mayflies (BWO or PMD) are more important than big mayflies. Absent a hatch, nymph the heads of pools or strip streamers. The long, slow pools always fish better during hatches, and their fish are much spookier than fish in faster areas.
In pocket or canyon water, especially below Firehole Falls and in the Gibbon Canyon, attractor dry-dropper combos usually work very well. Fish larger Chubby Chernobyl-style flies and nymphs as large as #12 while the water is still high and dirty, then gradually shift down to attractor dries in the #12 range with #16 droppers. Salmonfly and Golden Stonefly hatches can bring up fish intermittently in the Firehole Canyon from the season opener until mid June and in the Gibbon and Madison Canyons in mid-June.
The canyon type of water typically fishes best in June, though it can produce in the fall as well. Cover water quickly and make short, accurate casts and drifts. Downstream of Gibbon and Firehole Falls an occasional large fish is possible early in the season, usually a run-up trout that overwintered in the comparatively warm rivers rather than heading back to frozen Hebgen Lake before it warms up. Otherwise, most trout caught in this water is under 12 inches except below the Gibbon and Firehole Falls after October 1. This water type is more consistent than those mentioned above, though.
Brown trout begin trickling into the Madison near the West Entrance in late August. Intermittent pulses of rainbows join them. Numbers of runners intensify and the fish spread all the way to Gibbon and Firehole Falls as the fall progresses. Heavy numbers and heavy angling pressure occurs in the fall. The Madison, Lower Firehole, and Lower Gibbon are really the only areas within our area of operations in YNP that are likely to be truly crowded after the first week of October. Crowds stay heavy during pleasant weather until the end of the season, which makes dreadful weather (rain, snow, cold, wind) offer the best fishing.
To target these fish early in the fall, stick to the heavy runs and heads of pools on the Madison near the West Gate. Fish nymph combos. As the fall progresses and the fish spread out, large riffle-pool areas further up the Madison can produce with large wet flies, and streamers join the nymph rigs in the heavier water. Dry flies seldom work for these fish, but seldom isn’t never. By October 10 at the latest, run-up fish fish can be found at least intermittently in pocket water areas. Nymphs and eggs are best for these fish.
Top 10 Flies
- Glasshead Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail, #16
- White Miller Soft Hackle, #14
- CDC & Elk White Miller, #14
- Purple Hazy Cripple #18
- Grey Baetis Sparkle Dun, #18-22
- Coachman Trude, #12 (rough water)
- Beadhead Prince, #16
- Brown Girdle Bug, #6
- Bead, Hare, & Copper, #12
- Olive Conehead Woolly Bugger, #6
- Firehole at Old Faithful Stream Gauge: This gauge is more representative of the Firehole upstream of Old Faithful where it’s fishable summer-long.
- Lower Firehole Stream Gauge: This gauge is near the Firehole’s confluence with the Gibbon and is more representative of the Firehole downstream of Biscuit Basin. This gauge is below all geyser and tributary inflows, though. The Firehole will run slightly clearer and warmer in early June and slightly cooler close to Old Faithful from late June onward.
- Gibbon River Stream Gauge: This gauge is downtream of most of the Gibbon’s warm water inputs.
- Madison River Stream Gauge
- Old Faithful Weather
- Norris Weather
- West Yellowstone Weather
Intro to Yellowstone Small Streams
Yellowstone offers a huge range of small streams, some rough and tumble mountain creeks full of aggressive brook trout smaller than your hand that make great quarry for first-time fly fishers and others gentle meadow streams that hold large brown trout just as wary as those in big rivers, along with dozens or hundreds of streams that fall somewhere in between.
These myriad creeks are typically far less crowded than larger streams, and while their trout are usually a bit smaller than those in major streams, this isn’t always the case. Lamar River tributaries often hold large cutthroat trout well into August, a month after their spawning season ends, while at the same time many tributaries of the Firehole host this river’s largest trout, which flee the larger river’s hot water temperatures in July and August.
If you don’t care about fish size, basically any flowing water that doesn’t completely dry up in late summer and isn’t primarily fed by geyser basins holds trout. The smallest streams that we fish are small enough to step over, in places. These tiny waters seldom hold trout longer than your hand, but this is still an extraordinarily large fish in a creek that literally holds less water than runs down the side of the road in a thunderstorm. If you like these “little blue lines,” you almost never have to worry about seeing other anglers. Bring a 1-weight fly rod and some small dries, and you’ll be in Nirvana.
All river systems in our operations area in the park offer good small stream fishing, as well as river systems beyond our operations area. A full account of Yellowstone small streams would fill a book, and it’d also ruin a few little gems. As long as they’re open to fishing (a few aren’t) and aren’t predominately composed of geyser discharge, almost all small streams in Yellowstone are worth checking out. The information below will give you general info to explore Yellowstone small streams on your own, though I will mention a few prominent small streams along the way. So grab a good set of park maps and start planning.
YNP Small Streams: Description and Access
Most small streams in Yellowstone resemble the larger streams into which they run near their confluences. Hellroaring Creek enters the Yellowstone’s Black Canyon in a small canyon of its own. The Little Firehole River is a meadow creek for several hundred yards upstream from the Firehole, as is Soda Butte Creek (Lamar System) tributary Pebble Creek.
These characters often but not always change once the creeks move some distance away from their parent streams. The Little Firehole flows from a small canyon with a waterfall near its upper end. Pebble Creek likewise exits a canyon less than half a mile from its confluence with Soda Butte. Hellroaring Creek remains a fast-flowing stream throughout its run through Yellowstone Park, however, though it has small meadows in its headwaters beyond the park boundary and several miles from the Yellowstone.
With the exception of a few meadow tributary creeks, particularly small brook trout streams that feed the upper Gardner River and most of the Firehole’s tributaries, most small streams in Yellowstone Park have at least some rough footing, and most have considerable stretches that are fast, bouldery, and turbulent. They’re mountain creeks in spots, in other words. Sometimes these spots aren’t where you’d expect them, though. Pebble Creek is a meadow stream in its headwaters, then a fast-flowing and rugged canyon creek, and finally a meadow creek again, for example.
Maps are your friends in figuring out a stream’s character away from the road. Where the contour lines stack up, it’s a good sign a creek is fast and turbulent. Except in extreme headwaters areas way up in the mountains, this doesn’t say anything at all about the quality of the fishing. Many steep and rough small streams hold larger fish than meadow sections of other streams.
Maps are helpful in another way: finding your way on the creeks you’re fishing. Many small streams are crossed by roads or trails, but few are paralleled by roads or trails. The roads and to a lesser extent the trails typically follow large streams and rivers, since these usually provide easier alignments. So accessing small streams often begins at bridges (road or trail) or fords (trails). Simply fish upstream or down. Larger streams often get fished pretty hard within a quarter-mile or a half-mile of bridges or other developments like campgrounds or picnic areas, particularly when road crossings occur in meadows where the streams look gentle and inviting. Tiny creeks that are steep, fast, and/or brushy may not get fished much even right at bridges.
In general, pressure is heaviest on streams that hold occasional large fish, that offer easy access, and where roads do follow along streams. Steep mountain streams that never come within sight of the road might not see more than a few anglers a season. Simply navigating such streams has a lot to do with that. Canyon creeks you can jump across in burned-over timber canyons are crisscrossed by downed trees, covered by bushes, have banks to steep to climb and flows too fast to wade. For many anglers, simply getting around such streams is too difficult or doesn’t seem worth the effort. Be realistic in your own physical capabilities. Getting trapped with a broken leg in a nasty creek canyon that was too rough for you is a recipe for disaster.
YNP Small Stream Angling
Fish populations in YNP small streams are highly varied. In most cases fish species will match that of the river or larger stream into which the creek flows up to the first waterfall on the creek, if any falls are present, though there are some exceptions. Fish size is likewise highly varied. In most creeks hosting brook trout, a hand-sized fish is a very good one, but many streams host spawning runs or an occasional “slumming” trout from their parent rivers that might be just as big as the largest fish in that parent river.
In general, most tributaries of the Gardner River hold small brook trout. Most tributaries of the Firehole and Gibbon hold browns, rainbows, and brook trout (the latter especially in upstream reaches). Yellowstone tributaries hold cutthroat and sometimes rainbow and cutt-bow trout in their lower reaches and often brook trout in headwaters reaches if waterfalls are present. Lamar tributaries generally hold cutthroats, but some still hold remnant rainbow populations the park is trying to get rid of. There are some oddballs, however. One Yellowstone River tributary holds nonnative westslope cutthroat rather than the native Yellowstone cutthroat, and a Firehole tributary holds Yellowstone cutthroat when there were no trout at all in the creek to start with.
Small streams in Yellowstone Park all have very short seasons. Three factors explain why:
- Spring runoff is a major factor on most YNP small streams. The only exceptions are creeks that originate or at least take a lot of their water from lakes.
- Low flows in late summer can make many meadow streams and a few of the smallest steep mountain creeks either so small they’re impossible to fish ethically, with all their fish gathered into the few deep holes, or simply make the fish so spooky that they aren’t worth the trouble. 6″ spooky trout are specialty fish, to put it mildly.
- Brook trout in small streams that lack waterfalls or other fish barriers often migrate several miles into remote headwaters areas to spawn starting in mid-August. It’s hard to justify hiking four or five miles for 6-8″ fish, even if they are pretty.
- Winter begins to bite on small streams no later than mid-September, sending fish to hunker down in deep pools with lockjaw for the long, hard winter.
The first streams to drop into fishable shape are those draining from small lakes. Unfortunately, there aren’t many such creeks in Yellowstone. Fast on their heels come many brook trout streams near Indian Creek Campground, as well as meadow streams draining the park’s central plateau rather than high mountains. Few mountain streams are ever low enough to fish prior to July 1, and some small streams of all kinds might not be quite ready before about July 15.
In years with good snowpack and summer rains, brook trout creeks can start getting shaky anytime after August 15, or even earlier the closer to the road you fish. In drought years, small meadow creeks holding other species can get too low even earlier. Larger meadow creeks draining the park’s central plateau, especially those with a small amount of geyser basin water, as well as mountain creeks at lower elevation (such as Hellroaring Creek feeding the Yellowstone) tend to hold on the longest, and can fish well on late September afternoons. A very small number of meadow streams with geyser discharge may fish in October, but there are so few of these that we don’t feel comfortable mentioning specifics.
Most small stream trout in Yellowstone Park are unsophisticated towards the fly you’re using, and both brook trout (almost all of them) and almost any trout in fast-flowing and turbulent creeks can also be forgiving towards drag, splatting flies down, and other “mistakes.” That’s not to say such creeks are easy to fish. Trees and brush in your back cast, obstacles laying across the stream, and small targets often no larger than a skillet or shoe box mean that there can still be challenges involved. It’s just that these challenges are in getting the fly in the right spot in the first place, not in fly choice or how the fly behaves once it’s in the water.
The forgiving nature of most small stream trout in YNP places a premium on fishing an area before someone else has that day, and just getting on less-fished water in general. Small streams that receive heavy pressure, for example the brook trout creeks adjacent to the Indian Creek Campground, often get fished out by late July. Even a four-inch brook trout is going to stop eating during daylight when it gets caught a dozen times, or it will die from poor handling.
So long as you get away from areas that get fished hard, fly choice is easy on brook trout creeks and fast/broken mountain creeks. Opt for #10-16 attractor dry flies or hoppers that you can see. If particular insects are hatching, it may be necessary to match their size, but seldom even their silhouette, much less color or precise stage of emergence. When the vegetation, downed trees, and so forth allow, add a #16 beadhead nymph dropper. Often very short droppers of 6″ or so work well on small streams, when on rivers longer is often better, not least because shallow dry/dropper rigs are much easier to cast accurately.
There are some exceptions to the above, in particular meadow streams holding trout other than brookies. Fish in these water may be relatively easy soon after they clear, but as flows drop and the creeks get clearer in late summer, the fish get spooky towards angler approach, to shadows, to flies or fly lines slapping on the water, etc. Basically, fish in small flat water are osprey and otter bait in late summer, and they know it. Get sneaky, and on many creeks the same attractor dry fly or terrestrial flies useful early in the season still work.
Fly choice can get more complicated on streams feeding the Lamar (or Soda Butte) and the Firehole. These streams hold cutthroats or rainbows and browns, respectively, and these fish can get spooky both towards shadows and so forth as mentioned above and towards fly choice.
This is particularly true of Firehole tributaries. These receive July and August runs of “refugee” trout from the Firehole escaping the river’s high summer water temperatures. Almost all of the Firehole’s larger trout run up one creek or another, and these are nervous Nellie fish in waters that can be almost too narrow for them to turn around in. 30-40 foot casts across grass with 15-foot leaders tapered to 6X and tiny ant, beetle, mayfly, or midge patterns may be required to fool these fish. They are the exceptions, though.
Hatches in small streams in YNP are seldom critical. When they are critical, hatches are identical to those on the parent rivers into which the creeks feed, though they may be shifted towards midseason a bit. On Firehole tributaries, PMDs and White Miller caddis hatches occur in July, for example.
Intro to Yellowstone Park Lakes & Ponds
Yellowstone has an infinite variety of lakes and ponds, from mighty Yellowstone Lake on down to tiny swampy sloughs. While many lakes and ponds in the park provide good fishing, there’s a key fact that park visitors should know right away: 90% or more of all individual lakes and ponds in Yellowstone Park are fishless! This includes the vast majority of ponds and lakes near the road, including some impressively large bodies of water: Swan Lake and North and South Twin Lakes just between Mammoth and Norris, for example.
There are three factors that determine whether or not a lake in Yellowstone Park holds trout:
- Whether it has consistent inlet and/or outlet streams in which trout can spawn. I can think of only one lake that lacks both that still holds trout.
- Whether it has areas of sufficient depth to avoid freezing out in winter or drying up in drought years. The aforementioned Swan Lake is several hundred acres in size but never more than a few feet deep, so it freezes solid every winter.
- Whether geysers and hot springs are doing strange and terrible things to the water chemistry.
If a lake is deep enough to avoid freezing, has inlet or outlet streams, and is either large enough that geyser basins aren’t an issue or lacks them entirely, it will have fish. Most lakes in the park fail one or all of the above factors and are thus just glorified puddles from a fishing perspective, even if they may be scenic and host tons of waterfowl and shore birds (and hatching mosquitoes that look from a distance like rising fish) in summer.
This web page is no place for a full accounting of Yellowstone’s stillwaters and whether or not they hold fish. Instead, check out Fishing Yellowstone National Park, Third Edition, by Richard Parks. While it lacks much info on fishing tactics and is getting rather outdated, this book is the most accurate I’ve found as to whether a given body of water actually has any fish or not. Note that non-native fish removal and restoration of natives has changed the specific fish species present in some lakes since this book was published in 2007.
Yellowstone Lakes & Ponds: Description and Access
Access to Yellowstone Park lakes varies as much as the lakes themselves. Yellowstone Lake and Lewis Lake, the largest and third-largest in the park, respectively, have abundant roadside access and allow power boats, while Shoshone Lake, the park’s second-largest, is completely in the backcountry and must be accessed by hiking or canoeing across Lewis Lake and up the 4-mile segment of the Lewis River between the two.
The above examples are all outside our operations area, but illustrative of the point. Within our ops area, fishable lakes are smaller, from a couple acres on up to several hundred acres in size. Most require hikes of half a mile (Trout Lake) to 3-5 miles (Grebe Lake), but two ponds and one swampy Slough within a few miles of Mammoth Hot Springs are drive-up fisheries.
All lakes within Yellowstone Park may be fished with belly boats or other human-propelled craft, provided you have a Yellowstone Park boating permit and have had the boat inspected by the Park Service for invasive species. Of course, hiking into a lake several miles off the road with a belly boat (to say nothing of a canoe) is not in the cards for many people.
While some popular lakes have firm banks all around or almost entirely around, most lakes have a mix of firm banks and bottomless mucky swamp that it is possible to get trapped in. Take care when walking or wading around lakes to avoid getting stuck in the muck. If there’s an established trail, usually the footing is fine, though in early June when the ground is still soaked from the spring snowmelt, some trails can be lying about how muddy they are.
Yellowstone Lakes & Ponds Angling
As is the case with small streams, most lakes and ponds hold the fish species common to their parent rivers. For the few lakes largely isolated from larger bodies of water, the fish present are almost always those found in the closest water body.
Fish size in most lakes is slightly larger on average than in the streams nearby or feeding/draining the lake, though a few lakes with poor but not nonexistent spawning habitat may have MUCH larger trout of the same species. A couple brook trout lakes host brook trout in the 14-20″ class but drain into tiny creeks where a nine-incher is a lunker.
Three hike-in lakes in Yellowstone Park hold Arctic grayling. These are Cascade, Grebe, and Wolf. As of this writing, that’s also their 1-2-3 ranking in terms of angling quality. Historically Grebe was better than Cascade, but a recent fisheries project poisoned Grebe and replaced the non-native rainbow and lacustrine strain of grayling with a native-to-the-drainage strain of grayling and westslope cutthroat. In 2020 the lake was supposedly producing solid westslopes and grayling, but not yet at its former abundance.
With the exception of Blacktail Pond, which opens in early July, and McBride Lake, which is inaccessible prior to mid-late July due to a need to ford Slough Creek to access the lake, all lakes in Yellowstone typically fish best for the month after they become accessible. Many lakes are either still frozen or simply impossible to reach due to deep snow on the trails in the season’s first week or two. All lakes are ready to go by approximately June 10. and usually are fishing great by mid-month.
The fishing gradually tails off as the water warms in July, though smaller lakes at high elevation can produce somewhat all summer. Fishing improves on all lakes after mid-September and is typically decent in October.
There are two general categories of lakes in Yellowstone in terms of fish and fishing. There are lakes with a lot of small and aggressive trout and grayling, and there are lakes with far fewer trout that are much larger and more difficult to catch. Spawning habitat is the major factor here. These two divergent types of lakes generally require very different tactics.
On the “small dumb fish” lakes, the best tactic is to suspend either a small leech or damselfly nymph plus a small nymph or soft hackle or two nymphs or soft hackles under an indicator. Cast out along drop-offs and weed-beds and let the flies settle. Twitch the flies by giving the line a pull sufficient to move the indicator six inches to two feet. Vary the distance you move the bobber as well as the frequency you do so before switching flies. This is a great beginner tactic as well as hyper-productive.
In these lakes, rising fish are often seen. Either strip your soft hackles or nymphs just under the surface for hard strikes or fish one unweighted nymph or soft hackle below a small attractor dry fly. Chironomid or Callibaetis mayflies may be bringing rising trout, but the fish seldom care which dry fly you have on provided it’s the right approximate size and in front of their cruising pattern.
In lakes with larger, spookier fish, the same basic tactics may work, though if the fish are rising you will need to fish a more precise fly. Because fish numbers are lower, another good tactic is to creep along the bank with either two nymphs or a dry-dropper combo in your hand ready to cast. Scuds are good choices instead of conventional nymphs on occasion. When you spot a cruising fish, cast in front of the fish far enough that the flies reach the fish’s level just as the fish reaches the flies. This is easier said than done, but it’s often the most effective tactic. The fish need only open its mouth to eat. I got a 24-inch rainbow using this tactic once, in popular Trout Lake near Soda Butte Creek.
Another tactic on lakes with fewer fish is to fish leeches veeeeeeerrrrrryyyyy slowly on a crawl near the bottom. This requires a sinking line and can be done either from shore or by trolling from a float tube. Again, the goal here is to make the trout extend the least energy for a meal. This tactic is most effective for late fall brook trout.
Top 10 Flies
- Black Sparkle Bugger, #12
- Olive Mohair Leech, #12-14
- Joffe Jewel, #10-12
- Black Stillwater Softy, #16-18
- Unweighted Prince Nymph, #16
- Olive-Brown BLM Nymph, #16-18
- Rickard’s Stillwater Nymph, #12
- Driscoll’s Midge, #14-16
- Parachute Adams, #14-18
- Griffith’s Gnat, #14-18