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Backcountry Yellowstone

Backcountry Yellowstone

Don't let Yellowstone National Park's 3 million visitors spoil your idea of high-elevation trout fishing. There's a virtual fishing paradise just a short hike away from all those crowds.

Its big rivers blown out with run-off, YNP offered respite in backcountry streams. Photo by Mark D. Williams

By Mark D. Williams

If you have fished in Yellowstone National Park, chances are you have stood in Buffalo Ford on the Yellowstone, cast tiny mayfly patterns on the Madison, or gazed at geysers along the Firehole. When you come to this trout mecca, you simply have to fish the big-name rivers, right?

Three million visitors descend upon the park each year, and if you fish famous Buffalo Ford on any day after July 15, when the season opens on the Yellowstone River, you'd think all 3 million of them are standing right beside you. On stretches of the famous rivers in the park, the anglers often outnumber the trout.

You would think that with over 2.2 million acres and 1,000 miles of rivers, there wouldn't be any crowded water. But most anglers fish near access points, road crossings, parking lots, campgrounds, bridges, anywhere a river parallels road.

It's strange, but if you walk just a bit, you won't see other anglers. Sure, go see the sights, fight the traffic, even fish the legendary waters, but if you want to experience Yellowstone's true fishing gems, visit its small streams.

Finding small streams makes the Yellowstone National Park experience fuller, more fun. Take a look at a YNP map and you will see a multitude of little blue squiggly lines. Those are streams. And yet if you read any book on the park, you'll rarely see anything written about these streams, the same ones I've found that are 10 to 20 feet wide, pocked with deep pools, and holding tons of fish. All of those blue squiggly map lines represent potential day trips, half-day excursions, chances to catch 20, 30, 40 fish a day.

Imagine that those blue lines represent a new world - a fishing canvas on which you get to choose the hues and brushstrokes - and this masterpiece will be all yours.


There tend to be surprises along these streams. I found a thermal hole along Little Firehole with the bones of a bull elk in it. I've seen eagles, moose, bears (black and grizzly), and have had other surprises while fishing Yellowstone's backcountry creeks.

If you don't mind catching 22 inches of trout (two 11-inch trout added together), then stuff the daypack, grab a lightweight rod, and start hiking.

My brother-in-law Kenny and I did just that when we took his son Chase and our nephew Bryan on a two-week trip to Yellowstone. The drive was long - even longer with a pair of 14-year-old boys. After the drive up, we vowed to never again hear the plinkety-plink of a Nintendo Game Boy!

It was early July and all the rivers we wanted to fish were still high with ruin-off. We had little choice but to put these teenagers on the fickle Firehole or mercurial Madison or take them hiking into the backcountry.

The sky looked a little too sky-blue, the clouds a bit too puffy, to be real. It reminded me of a bad oil painting at a starving artist sidewalk sale. Those artists are on to something. We watched Bryan cast to four or five cutthroats holding over a sandbar, oblivious to his splashy casts and long shadow. In an hour, he caught four cutts from the little meadow creek, each one a wholesome 12 inches and more colorful than a painter's palette.

He hooked up again as we watched, his 4-weight rod bent over like Grandpa's back, the kaleidoscope of a fish twisting and jumping against the fake blue sky. Chase came over to admire his cousin's catch, and the teens reluctantly posed for a picture.

We ate a snack that day beside Cascade Creek, a lazy meandering feeder stream to the mighty Yellowstone River. Cascade is typical of the park's under-fished streams, but since all the big rivers in the park were blown out from melting snow, we turned Plan B into one of the best days of angling we've ever had.

We saw nary a soul on the banks of clear brooks that flow through verdant valleys, and we watched others racing through canyons that no other human shared with us.

We fished Nez Perce Creek on a sunny day, angled next to backcountry hot springs, walked entirely too close to a grazing bison, hooked and released entirely too many trout. Sure, they were only 10 to 14 inches long, but no one was catching trout on the big rivers. The water was too high, the pressure too much.

We drove past serious anglers wading in dangerously high waters. We drove past a rainbow of license plates on SUVs crowded into parking lots. We left those swift waters behind for isolation and steady dry-fly fishing (and catching) on twisting meadow pools and runs of Obsidian Creek and the upper Gibbon River.

We braved rain, wind and mosquitoes on marshy Duck Creek, 20 feet wide and 3 feet deep. Never heard of it? Maybe only Yellowstone River itself holds larger fish in the park. Check the angling surveys.

We had great luck tackling the small streams of the park, and despite our best efforts to screw up, Lady Luck was on our side. We fished for four hours on Obsidian Creek, leaving the Suburban parked at a small turnout with all kinds of cars and RVs passing by, only to come back and find that we had left the tailgate wide open. The vehicle merely contained a few thousand dollars worth of equipment and, more importantly, our two-week supply of food. We saw our error from a quarter-mile away. It was the longest walk we've ever made. We were astonished to find everything right where we had left it. And we were able to con the teenagers into thinking it was their fault the gate was left open.

So despite the heavy run-off and persistent bad weather, we caught lots of fish. We got to see streams and forests few folks ever see. It was fun to sit back and watch the boys fish, to witness how much better they had become since we had first put a fly rod in their hands.

Dealing With Bears

While grizzly and black bears reside in the park, the odds are slim you will see one, much less witness one up close. Avoidance is the best precaution.


Grizzlies are big, ornery and have a distinctive hump on their back. They are faster than you are -- bet on it. Black bears can range in color from cinnamon to blonde to black. Fully grown, they are smaller than grizzly bears.


Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Make noise. Sing, talk loudly, wear a cowbell as you hike. Bears don't want to encounter you any more than you want to encounter them.

Never approach a bear. They may appear to be cute and cuddly, but bears are dangerous animals.

Don't feed the bears.

Avoid early and late walks along a stream. This is when bears move to water and use the trails the most.

Keep a lookout. Bears use the same trails you do. Watch ahead, and have the last person keep an eye out behind.

Avoid bears with food or cubs. If you see a bear with cubs or a bear with a carcass, exit the area immediately without drawing attention.

How to react to a close-up bear. For black bears, yell, be aggressive, throw rocks, and make yourself appear bigger by waving your arms. If you can't extract yourself from a meeting with a grizzly, be submissive. (Easier written than done!) Lay on your stomach and cover your head with your hands, or curl into a ball and protect your face and head. Do not act aggressively toward a grizzly; do not run or climb a tree. -- Mark D. Williams


Small streams are excellent teachers. The pupils catch a lot of trout, so their tactics and casts are rewarded. We'd chuckle when Chase would get into predator mode. He would zone out, lean forward, and for hours on end he'd cast and move, his eyes always peeled for rises and subtle movement. Small streams are just not as intimidating as the larger rivers. This works for children, for women and for those of us men who secretly know we could be better anglers.

We had difficulty convincing the teens that they needed to be afraid of grizzlies, that bison can outrun them, not to walk too close to the thermal areas, to brush their teeth and so on. When you are in these less-frequented areas, you have a good chance of encountering wildlife. But at that age, young men have a certain cockiness that defies description or counsel.

We fished streams so clear the water was invisible and we did so in the middle of the prettiest country in the West. Each small stream was a little different from the previous one but still felt familiar. The small streams ranged from serpentine meadow streams to fast pocket waters to riffle-run mini-famous rivers.

We hoped that our explorations of the wilderness that these small streams coursed through showed the boys a genuine affection for the outdoors (even as we craned our necks silently watching out for their safety at every sound we heard crackling in the forest).

So there we were, the four of us, not on a big stream, but sitting in a meadow by a little stream, a step-across stream with undercut banks and bend pools, snacking on summer sausage and cold water, laughing loud enough that the wolves could hear us. Earlier in the morning, on our easy hike along the small stream, while we were catching fish after fish, we ended up at a lake. The fishing in the lake was poor, but we got to see something few people ever see.

A huge bird, an eagle, appeared out of nowhere like a stealth bomber and swooped down on the lake. Her talons were out. She hit the water then rose quickly, holding one of the 14-inch trout we were trying to catch. Slack-jawed, none of us said a word.

We finished our lunch, put the trash in our packs and got back to fishing. The fake sky looked like one of us could reach up and scratch it with a fingernail, and for a moment, as if we were posing for our own postcard, everything in the world seemed just a bit more real.

Cascade Creek - Meadow stream full of cutts in the north-central part of the park. Take the Howard Eaton Trail one-half mile west of Canyon Junction. The stream more or less parallels the trail. Cascade Lake lies at trail's end, about five miles in.

Fan Creek - West side of park, 20-plus miles north of West Yellowstone. Reach this Gallatin feeder from Fawn Pass Trail onto the Sportsman Lake Trail. Fan Creek is a great place to see moose or bear. Fan Creek is a smallish meadow stream but holds some nice cutts and rainbows with a few solid browns.

Yellowstone Tips

Yellowstone fish aren't all that much smaller than other places, and some do grow to good proportions. It all depends on where you fish: The main stem of the Gibbon River doesn't produce big fish; feeders to the Firehole have fish that move up to escape the heat of summer; and streams such as Soda Butte, Cache, Slough and Duck creeks hold some big trout.


Hatches are of less importance on streams than the major rivers, but don't totally discount them. These fish see few anglers and are, therefore, not as skittish as fish in other parts of the park (except when it's shallow and clear as on Slough Creek).


Some creeks and backcountry lakes are fishless, so do your homework and then let someone know where you are going. Never go alone.


Think dry flies, light leaders, stalking, kneeling, varied casts, staying low and dapping. -- Mark D. Williams


Duck Creek - West side of park, up Highway 191, then east on Duck Creek Road. Wide, winding, shallow stream, flows slowly through wide grassy fields. Most anglers bump nymphs up tight to the bank and on bottom to reach athletic big rainbows, browns and brook trout.

Obsidian Creek - At Indian Creek Campground south of Mammoth near the Gardner River. Small brook trout for sure but it's a great place to teach kids how to fish.

Cougar Creek - On the west side of the park, take Highway 191 north, then east on Cougar Creek Road. Met a mad moose here a few years ago just as I hooked up with a nice brown. I don't know what was the bigger surprise - suddenly seeing the moose so close or not hooking yet another little brookie like the ones I had

caught at every slack bend pool up until then.

Specimen Creek - Feeder stream to the Gallatin River. Take the Specimen Creek Trail from Highway 191 north of West Yellowstone. Catch rainbow and cutthroat hybrids in the two rugged forks of the creek.

Nez Perce Creek - Medium-size meadow stream that enters the Firehole River less than six miles south of Madison Junction. Fishing is good for brown trout and the occasional rainbow and brook trout. We've always seen bison in and around the stream. Concentrate on the water above the bridge to Spruce Creek. You can park at Fountain Flats Road and fish the 4.5 miles upstream or take the Mary Mountain Trail. Don't bother fishing Mary Lake; it's fishless.

Cache Creek - In the northeast section of the park, on the Northeast Entrance Highway. Take the Lamar River Trail or Cache Creek Trail. Underfished even though its confluence with the Lamar lies near the highway. Anglers can expect to catch rainbow and cutthroat.

Soda Butte Creek - In the northeast section of the park, this diverse stream parallels the Northeast Entrance Highway. Soda Butte Creek has lots of changing characteristics ranging from a bumpy run in its upper reaches to a wide, meadow stream as it meets the Lamar. The rainbows and cutts are above average in size.

Upper Gibbon - At Virginia Meadows, at the Norris-Canyon Road river crossing on the downstream side. The brook trout are small but plump. This is a good place to learn how to cast or fly-fish.

Others - Also check out Glen, Indian, Panther, Blacktail Deer, Hellroaring, Aster, Beaver (near Heart Lake) and Slough creeks.

Yellowstone's backcountry calls for 2- to 4-weight rods, but even a 5-weight will work fine. Leave the 6-weight in the car. Hip waders or just wading boots and neoprene socks work well.

Strap on a fanny pack with first aid, flies, tippet, lunch, water, polarized sunglasses, insect repellant, weather gear for rain and cold, and a bear whistle, bell or spray; if you carry spray, make sure it is a quality brand.

For flies, you'll want attractor patterns - Royal Wulff, Royal Trude, Elk Hair Caddis, Adams, X-Caddis, H & L Variant, Goofus Bug, and Irresistible - in sizes 12-16. Add some stonefly patterns for both salmonflies and golden stoneflies, as well as a couple each of Green and Gray Drakes (especially for Slough Creek and Fan Creek). You'll want grasshopper patterns for meadow streams.

You won't need to match the hatch in most situations, but it never hurts, especially on slow-moving streams. On larger flows that get occasional traffic like the Gallatin River and Slough Creek, you may have to cast a Flav or Pale Morning Dun or Drake. For the pools and undercut banks, running a beadhead through is a good idea. Stick with generic patterns - Prince Nymphs, Hare's Ears, Pheasant Tails.

It is a good idea to read all of the fishing regulations for Yellowstone National Park. The streams and lakes are under a dizzying web of restrictions. Some rivers are closed, others have closed sections, and opening dates vary. Few streams allow keeping cutthroats; brook, brown and rainbow trout are managed through size and creel limitations. Like I said, read the regulations!

Any person 12 years of age or older fishing in the park is required to have a signed YNP fishing permit. For anyone 16 years of age or older, a permit fee is charged ($20 per season or $10 per week). When supervised by an adult, children 11 years of age or younger may fish without a permit. At Obsidian, Panther and Indian creeks, and part of the Gardner River near Norris-Mammoth Crossing, kids 11 and younger may fish with bait.

Yellowstone's general fishing season begins the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend through the first Sunday in November, from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Exceptions to the general opening date almost always have to do with protection of spawning cutts.

Anglers may not use toxic weights, including anything with lead. Only non-toxic weights may be used.

For information, contact the chief ranger's office, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.

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