Flyfishing Yellowstone National Park

Fishing in nature's splendor

Flyfishing in Yellowstone National Park has been one of life’s recently discovered pleasures for me.

Wandering along Slough Creek, the sun on my back, bison browsing nearby, a horde of squawking raven’s dive bombing a golden eagle above, and not another person in sight, I want to pinch myself to make sure I’m not imagining my good fortune.  And that is before I even make my first cast.

grizzly bear flyfishing yellowstone national park, montana living
I come from New Zealand, a place renowned for its spectacular scenery and world-renowned trout fishing.  Despite this, and my passion for the outdoors, flyfishing didn’t capture my interest and imagination until my recent move to the Paradise Valley. 

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The northern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, this is a place where flyfishing is so engrained in the culture and landscape that to escape some involvement with it seems improbable.

Nowhere is the seductive nature of flyfishing more potent than within the borders of Yellowstone National Park.  An icon of the North American wilderness, it has a rich cultural and natural history, and its many species of charismatic megafauna add a unique aspect to the whole experience.  Yellowstone has several thousand miles of running water and a fishing tradition that stretches back to pre-European times.  
Anne Johnson, Yellowstone’s archaeologist, says evidence of native American fishing has been found in several sites near Yellowstone Lake.

The remains of fish bones and net weights at these sites have been dated from 1000 B.C. to 900 A.D.  Rosemary Sucec, Yellowstone’s cultural anthropologist, says Shoshone and Kiowa oral traditions indicate these tribes also used fish as a resource.  A Shoshone oral tradition tells of a fish basket being accidentally overturned and unleashing a torrent of water in several directions.

two flyfishers in river, fly fishing yellowstone national park, montana living

This was said to have formed Yellowstone Lake, and created the Snake and Yellowstone river systems.  
The evidence indicates native Americans caught cutthroat trout, and certainly they had less choice of fish species than the contemporary angler.  The original 12 native species of the area have been joined by six non-natives, the result of a 70-year campaign to make the waters of Yellowstone more sporting.

There is now a choice of seven sport fish with rainbow, brown, brook and lake trout having been added to the existing native fish, the cutthroat trout, arctic grayling and mountain whitefish.

Cascade Lake’s fish population is the result of a stocking program, and this is where I made my first decent cast, and caught my first fish.  The lake has two species of native fish, cutthroat trout and the less common arctic grayling, the latter introduced from a hatchery in the neighboring Grebe Lake during the 1930s.  In the shadow of the Washburn Range, Cascade Lake is a two-mile hike through lodgepole forests, alpine meadows and the remnants of forest burned by the 1988 wildfires.

lamar valley, fly fishing yellowstone national park, montana living

Fishing the mountain lakes of the park is an exercise in solitude, and a different experience to the park’s busier roadside river runs.  Cascade Lake’s 36 acres provide plenty of elbow room, but because of the hike, you may well have it to yourself.   
Over time the park’s fish management focus switched from controlling wildlife (fish stocking stopped in 1955) to regulating the fishing.

Fishing in the park continues to be a popular pastime. Park visitor services say that 45,000 fishing permits were sold in 2005. This is somewhat less than the 100,000 to 150,000 free permits given out per year before 1993, when the fee system started. 

Although it seems like the fee system may have had some impact on reducing numbers, people who have fished the waters of the park still shake their heads, reminiscing about the old days before the crowds.  And nowhere is the popularity of park fishing more obvious than the Lamar Valley.

The sheer numbers of people fishing intimidated me on my first foray to the waters of Soda Butte creek, an unimposing (but fish laden) tributary of the Lamar River.  Where would I fish?  What were the conventions for interacting with other anglers?  What was a pretender like me doing in a fishing Mecca like this anyway?

Yet even here, if you are prepared to walk away from the road, you can find a quiet spot, and we found ours about five minutes from the pull-out.  Using grey and brown drake flies, black ants and a parachute hopper, I managed to haul in 20 cutthroat trout in three hours. I felt dizzy with success. 

A month before, we had watched an elk kill less than a quarter mile from my fishing spot. The wolves, which had taken it down, and scrounging coyotes, were chased off by a grizzly bear that passed within yards of where I now stood.  Remembering this, my solitude suddenly seemed less peaceful, my heightened senses amplifying every surrounding noise and movement. 

The Lamar is famous for its abundant wildlife and if you are standing silently in a quiet stretch of river, having a close encounter with one of them is not unusual.  Being noisy is a recommended wildlife deterrent, so I began to sing loudly, continuing my solitary recital until my husband’s return.  What I didn’t know then, was that the one recorded fishing death in Soda Butte was the result of drowning rather than a wildlife encounter.

Despite its popularity, fishing in Yellowstone National Park is still a high-quality experience available to all comers.  In my opinion the way to most appreciate the experience is to avoid being preoccupied with the number of fish caught. 


Firehole River, Sentinel Creek to Madison Junction

The Place: The six mile stretch of the Firehole River above Madison Junction opens on Memorial Day weekend, and marks the start of the park’s fishing season.  Along the river there are pockets of lodgepole pine and remnants of burnt trees from the 1988 wildfires, which burned roughly a third of the park’s forests.  For the wildlife watcher there is a chance you will see bald eagles, coyotes, elk and bison, as well a numerous species of water fowl.  The highway runs right next to the river, which makes for easy access to numerous fishing spots.

Best Fishing: Good spring time and early summer fishing venue as it is not running off color, and is relatively clear compared to most other streams and creeks in the park.  Fly fishing only.

Fish Species: Predominantly rainbow trout with some brown trout  

Flies of choice: Beadhead Prince nymph, Elk Hair Caddis, Pale Morning Dun

Lamar River — Soda Butte Creek to the Yellowstone River

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The Place: The lower 14 miles of the Lamar is separated into three distinctly different sections.  From Soda Butte the Lamar River meanders down the Lamar Valley through meadows of grasses and sagebrush, bordered by willow trees and a scattering of aspen groves.  The valley, flanked on both sides by towering mountain ranges, is populated by numerous species of wildlife including all of the parks big predators.  Here the river is relatively slow moving and is characterized by gravel bars.

The Lamar then drops into a canyon with steeper sided walls.  The river here is less gravel and instead larger rocks and boulders create pools and punctuate the faster flowing water.   

The last five miles, below the bridge to the confluence of the Yellowstone River is pool/drop style.  Large boulders and big pools tend to hold fish in this section of the river.

Access is easy with the highway running fairly close to the river for the entire 14-mile section.

Best Fishing: Mid to late July, when the river clears, it is a great place to fish.  Earlier than this it is still muddy from the spring run-off and by late September the fishing gets a little trickier.

Fish Species: Cutthroats and Rainbows

Flies of choice:  Yuk Bugs, Green Drake, Big Blue Dun, Gray Wulff


Soda Butte Creek, Pebble Creek to Lamar River

The Place: A small  creek, Soda Butte has a lot of deep cut banks and fast runs, and you will usually be casting across the current to the far bank. 

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The presentation conditions are challenging with cross currents sometimes making it hard to get a good drift where the fish are holding.  The high grasses flanking the creek can create little pockets of solitude where you cannot see the road or even other anglers. The creek is easily accessed from the many pull-outs on the Northeast entrance road.

Best Fishing: Due to the spring runoff the creek is unfishable until sometime in July, but holds well into fall. 

Fish Species: Predominantly cutthroat trout.

Fly of choice: Terrestrials, Blue Duns, Green Drake patterns 

Slough Creek

The Place: Slough Creek is in the northeast corner of the park and runs through a series of meadows in a broad, glacial valley.

The first meadow is a two-mile hike from the trail-head and the trail, a working wagon road, traverses grasslands, Douglas fir forests and aspen groves.  It would not be unusual to find yourself sharing the trail with horse parties, and horse-drawn wagons heading towards Silver Tip Ranch. Theoretically there may be less anglers the further you get from the trail head, but don’t expect a totally solitary experience.

The creek is approximately 30-feet wide, flanked on either side by high grass and runs crystal clear during the summer and fall. Slough Creek is in bear country so it is prudent to carry bear spray if you are planning a fishing trip into this neck of the woods.

Best Fishing: Generally the creek drops and clears by the beginning of July and is fishable until the end of the season.

Fish Species: Exclusively cutthroat trout

Flies of Choice: Hopper patterns, Small Beetle, Black Ant


Cascade Lake

The Place: This 36 acre lake is south of the Washburn Range at the base of Observation Peak.

hike to cascade lake, fly fishing yellowstone national park, montana living

The trail winds through lodgepole pine forests, meadows of wildflowers and remnants of forest where the 1988 wild fires burned down to the lake edge. Fishing is particularly good at the far end of the lake from the trail, near the lily pads.  Although the lake bottom is a little slimy, wading is still possible, and provides some respite on a hot summer’s day.

If you are interested in mixing the fishing with a longer hike, fish for the morning at Cascade Lake then continue walking though to Grebe Lake, do a spot of fishing there and hike out to the Grebe Lake trail head.  To do this you would need either two vehicles or a shuttle driver.

Best Fishing: Typically sometime between mid-June and mid-July.

Fish Species: cutthroat trout and artic grayling

Flies of choice: Woolly Bugger, Olive Scud, Bead-head Hare’s Ear, Prince

Lower Gardiner River

The Place: This section of the Gardiner is narrow and low volume, but provides fast moving water with good long runs.  It can be a hot and dry in nature, with a bouldery, and sometimes steep, riverbank.  This rocky, dry environment makes it a physically demanding place to fish. The Gardiner River is easily accessed from the north entrance road.

Best Fishing: Spring run off keeps the river discolored until late June.  The fishing is good during the salmon fly hatch in early July, and the fish hold through into fall when brown trout spawn in the Gardiner.

Fish Species: Cutthroat, brown, rainbow and brook trout as well as whitefish.

Flies of choice: Caddis, Stimulator patterns, Hoppers



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