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Fishing Yellowstone

Fishing Yellowstone

With a bit of research and boot leather, you can escape the crowds that invade Yellowstone National Park each summer and catch trout that rarely ever see humans.

Roughly 3 million people visit Yellowstone National Park each year. While that number may seem staggering, the reality is that its piscatorial treasures are often underestimated and usually overlooked. Surveys taken from the early to the mid 1990s indicate that 78 percent of the park's visitors spend no more than a day and one-half in Yellowstone. Of those, 36 percent stay less than 10 hours.

"You get people who just drive up through the Tetons, go by Lewis River Falls, see the falls, see the moose, go to Old Faithful, watch the geyser go off, buy a bumper sticker for the car, get a T-shirt for the kids, grab something to eat and hit the next exit," a park ranger explained. "And they've seen it all!" he added with a laugh

While this bit of news may be interpreted as a sad commentary about the world's fast-paced, results-oriented mindset, the other side of it is that those willing to break stride and breathe more deeply of the air can find a Yellowstone that the other 78 percent never know exists.

That prospect is even greater for those who like to fish.

Fewer than three of every 100 people who enter the park buy a fishing permit, and not all of those bother to go fishing. And more than 97 percent of the caught fish are released to fight another day.

The difference between those who have found Yellowstone's secrets and those who have not is a simple matter of taking the time to address personal tastes. The four examples listed below speak to a wide range of fishing experiences from curbside hotspots to remote backcountry excursions on horseback over several days. Somewhere in the mix is a fishing experience tailor-made for you.


Easy access across a flat, wide valley will take anglers of average physical ability to the meandering Lamar River. Photo by Daniel D. Lamoreux

"The Madison is definitely a good river for all (fly-fishing) aspects," said Brian Worley, shop manager and guide for Madison River Outfitters in West Yellowstone. Worley says that all skill levels and styles of angling - everything from dry-fly action to fishing nymphs to working streamers - have a place here.

Access is really easy: From the West Entrance all the way to Madison Junction, practically the entire river is served by parking spaces and turnouts that allow you to start casting within mere steps of your vehicle.

Rainbows, browns and whitefish are all in this river system. Dan Mahony, a U.S. Park Service fisheries biologist, said that the browns and whitefish are doing quite well, and that on occasion a grayling may also be landed.

Data compiled through the use of Volunteer Angler Report catch cards indicated a slight improvement in ratings for the year 2000 over that experienced in 1999. The landing rate (fish/hour) averaged 0.79 with a mean length for fish landed measuring 13.2 inches; 72 percent of anglers reported landing one or more fish, and 80 percent indicated satisfaction with their overall experience.

"There are not many fish over 20 inches," explained Worley. "This is definitely not a big-fish river. You fish the Madison for beautiful scenery and beautiful trout. There are other places for (big fish)."

For those who enjoy stretching their legs a little, the Lamar River offers easy access across a flat, wide valley that is well within the physical limitations of the average fisherman.

"The Lamar River is different than the Madison. It's a slower, meandering river," Worley said. "Almost a meandering slough in some places. It's got plenty of undercut banks and some long pools, making it more of a dry-fly river."

Officials sampled the Lamar extensively through the 1980s and '90s. "It was not affected by the fires at all," Mahony said. "If anything, younger fish started to grow faster. There are a lot of nice fish in there. This river is always in the top 10 for angler use." Cutthroat trout, rainbow trout and some hybridized fish (cuttbows) can also be found.

Catch card data showed an increase in use from 1999-2000, but even with this added interest, the river was used by less than 7 percent of the park's fishermen.

The landing rate remains at about one fish per hour with a mean length of 12.8 inches; 90 percent of anglers reported landing one or more fish, and 88 percent reported satisfaction with their overall experience.

You may also be treated to the sighting of grizzly bears, wolves, elk and bison. In Worley's estimation, "It's worth fishing this river just to see the Lamar Valley!"

Those with a flair for the less traveled path should seriously consider entering the park through the back door. Less than 1 percent of Yellowstone anglers make use of the Bechler River. The others don't have a clue what they're missing.

Sited at the far southwest corner of the park, the Bechler River can be accessed by car only through Idaho. It's possible to drive right up to the river's banks near Cave Falls; however, the best fishing comes only to those willing to hike.

Park at the Bechler River Ranger Station, grab your gear and head north on the Bechler Meadows Trail. The journey covers about 4 miles of easy to moderate hiking into Bechler Meadows, a remote and beautiful fishing destination.

Mahony indicated that the river primarily contains a hybrid population, with some fish reaching into the 3-pound range. "There are a lot of fairly small rainbows," he said. "The larger fish are hybrids. And if you go seven to eight miles in, getting into the canyon areas and the waterfalls, there are pockets for cutthroats."

Experienced anglers tend to do well on this river. Fish can be easily spooked, as the banks running through meadows are devoid of trees for hiding human silhouettes. Accurate casting, long leaders and light tippets are necessary.

The 2000 season actually saw less use than the previous year, with only 0.4 percent of the park's fishermen taking advantage of this opportunity. At the same time, the other stats improved: 92 percent of anglers who gave it a go landed one or more fish with a mean length of 11.2 inches. The landing rate was 1.86 fish per hour, and 83 percent of those making the hike were satisfied with their overall


The Yellowstone River north of Yellowstone Lake is the most popular fishing location for visiting anglers, but if you truly want an opportunity to see a different side of this destination, then look to the Yellowstone River south of the lake.

"It's back there quite a ways," Mahony said, laughing. "There's a lot of fish of pretty good size. You're going to have fish of 14 to 18 inches and occasionally a 20-inch fish. That's fairly common back there."

Getting "back there" isn't as daunting a task as it sounds: The Rimrock Dude Ranch can help make it happen via horsepack trips.

Gary and Dee Fales are the second-generation owner/operators of this operation. Among those who have used their services is former President George Bush during his time as vice-president of the United States. But don't let the celebrity status scare you off. "We make our living (serving) those who save their pennies for this kind of a trip," explained Dee. "We don't key on celebrities. This kind of trip we like to set up for families."

Children are welcome on the trail. "Kids actually aren't bothered by the riding; they don't get as sore as adults," Fales said. "We did have a 7-year-old on a trip last year, but she was a tough little girl who was acclimated to riding." Fales prefers that children be at least 10 years of age before participating.

The trip into Upper Thorofare is about 22 miles. "We like to plan trips for seven to eight days, which allows two days going in, two days coming out," she said. "Less time makes the trip a forced march. It makes it a nicer vacation to take your time."

Vacation it is. Each group is provided with a guide, who manages the trip, a wrangler to handle the horses and a cook to prepare all meals. Other than personal gear, a sleeping bag and your fishing rod, everything you'll need is provided by the ranch. Mother Nature provides the wonder of the trip and the great fishing. "The fishing is very good," Fales said. "It's really easy for children."

In addition to the Yellowstone River, a trip into that area provides an opportunity to fish the Thorofare River, Bridger Lake and myriad small creeks throughout the watersheds. Members of the family who don't fly-fish also have the opportunity to try their hand with spinning gear.

Eagle Creek Pass and Deer Creek Pass are the doorways to this adventure, with the trip usually running a loop, coming in one and going out the other. Because of snowpack, trips are generally scheduled between the first week of July and the end of August.

If you'd like to try this kind of experience, schedule a year in advance to ensure booking dates to your liking. Fales also recommends doing some riding before venturing out.

"Even walking would help," she said. "Nothing can prepare you if you don't do it. You may have a couple tough days, but you'll come out looking like you were born on a horse!"

The Rimrock Dude Ranch can be contacted for further information by calling (307) 587-3970, or by sending e-mail to They also have a Web site that offers much more detail; its address is http://

A wealth of information is available concerning fishing opportunities throughout the Yellowstone Region including regulations, species identification, guide contacts and more at the Yellowstone National Park Web page located at

Updated fishing reports, hatch charts and guide service information is also available from the Madison River Outfitters on their Web site at or by calling 1-800-646-9644.

Yellowstone Regs
This summary represents the general regulations for fishing within Yellowstone National Park. Specific waters may have variations regarding tackle and bait restrictions, size and possession limits, and access restrictions. Check the most current regulations on each lake or stream prior to fishing.

The general fishing season begins on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and continues through and includes the first Sunday in November, and is open each day from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Anglers 12 years or older must have a Yellowstone fishing permit.

Anglers are restricted to only one rod or line, which must be held in hand, and only artificial lures and flies may be used. Leaded fishing tackle is not allowed.

Fishing is not allowed on any road bridge or boat dock, and the maximum number of fish which can be kept is five per day. The possession limits include all fish, whether fresh, stored in freezers/ice chests, or otherwise preserved.

Finding Solitude
Simply having the opportunity to fish Yellowstone Park may be your experience of a lifetime all by itself. But wouldn't you like to sweeten the pot and have a Yellowstone fishery all to yourself? If solitude in this grand country is to your liking, follow these tips for getting away from the crowd.

-- Avoid peak activity days, such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and any weekend. Not only will you be competing for space with vacation travelers at these times, local anglers who have the day off from work will be there too. Instead, go midweek.

-- Avoid peak activity times. While it's nice to be able to sleep in when you're on a break from the day-to-day, take advantage of the fact that everyone thinks the same about the comfort of their pillow on vacation. Instead, get up at daybreak and be the first one on the water. Likewise, watch the glorious sunset over bended pole while everyone else waits in line at a restaurant, and then settle for a late dinner.

-- Avoid peak locations. The Yellowstone River north of Yellowstone Lake receives about 13.1 percent of park-wide angler attention. While it may be the favorite of park fishermen, that doesn't necessarily translate into being the best fishery. Name recognition probably plays a big role in selection. Instead, forget the label and try some of the lesser-known waters.

While still relatively well known, Soda Butte Creek, the Gardner River and the Gallatin River each receive only from 1 percent to 3 percent of angler pressure, and yet about 90 percent of all anglers who fish them express satisfaction in their experiences.

-- Check out the relatively obscure waterways: the Lewis River, Indian Creek, the Snake River, Nez Perce Creek and Obsidian Creek. Angler satisfaction on these waters also ran into the 90th percentile.

The bottom line is that a bit of planning and imagination can result in a peaceful trip on a fishery that's briefly all your own.

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