August 26, 2021
Our first national park is also among our fishiest. Yellowstone National Park's location at the very headwaters of America's empire of wild trout makes nearly any water here worth fishing as long as it's wide and deep enough to twitch a Woolly Bugger.
The diversity of fishing inside Yellowstone is on par with its abundance. You can hike to high-mountain lakes where your only company is likely to be bears and ospreys, or you can join the masses on the most popular reaches of the Madison and Firehole rivers that flow along the parks' busiest travel routes.
You can cast big spoons for lake trout in Yellowstone Lake or drift tiny mayfly imitations on shallow beaver-dam ponds for hand-sized cutthroats.
The one thing you can't do here is fish with lead. That means no lead split-shot sinkers, no lead-weighted nymphs and no leadhead jigs.
Other regulations prohibit felt-soled wading boots, barbed hooks, treble hooks, bait of any kind and "inorganic baits," such as rubber worms or plastic twister tails and scented plastics in general.
The regulations, as well as place- and species-specific limits and closures, are designed to protect the park's native cutthroat trout, arctic grayling and mountain whitefish, and the fragile aquatic ecosystems on which they depend. The regulations are further designed to pressure non-native trout species such as rainbow, brown, brook and lake trout, which compete with native fish for resources.
Know and respect the regs, as you're likely to be checked by a Park Service ranger.
Permits are required for all anglers 16 and older and cost $18 for three days, $25 for seven days and $40 for a season. Younger anglers either have to fish with a permitted adult or they can obtain their own free fishing permits.
No single article has enough room detail all the glorious Yellowstone waters that are waiting venturesome anglers, so here are three must-fish spots, each with its own unique character, species composition and angling strategy.
But realize that we could just have easily expanded the list to five or 10 or more. There's that much great water here. Our featured spots will keep you busy, but if you run across other promising water, by all means give it a shot.
SLOUGH CREEK/LAMAR RIVER
While these two mid-sized streams fish fairly differently, they're located so close to one another and offer a nice juxtaposition that we'll consider them together. They're both in the northeastern corner of the park, closer to the entrance at Gardiner, Mont., than any other quality water. They're also both in the park's Native Trout Conservation Area, which requires anglers to kill any non-native rainbow, brown or brook trout they catch.
Let's start with the Lamar. Watch the weather, because rain and snowmelt in the headwaters of this river will blow it out with mud. But the lower river, and especially its confluence with the Yellowstone River, can be red-hot for big cutthroats. Park at the Lamar River Trailhead parking lot and walk downstream, looking for places to work your way down the basalt slot canyons to the water. When the water is clear, you can find some epic stonefly hatches here.
Slough Creek, which also flows into the Yellowstone, is perhaps the most legendary smaller stream in Yellowstone. It holds big cutthroats that have masters degrees in fly refusal. The pressure and conditions let fish be very selective here, so if you manage to hook a Slough Creek cutt, consider that a victory.
The lower meadowed section inside the park gets tons of pressure, but the more you hike, the better the fishing. And you can hike a long way up Slough Creek, all the way to the park’s northern boundary. Beyond that, you need a permit to fish, and you can expect to find plenty of horseback anglers on outfitted trips up there. But the meadow section inside the park is geared for experienced fly fishers who carry their camps on their backs.
Park off the North Entrance Road at the Slough Creek Campground and hike about 1 1/2 miles to the first pool, called the "VIP Pool," where you'll see arm-long trout finning in the depths. Everybody casts to these fish, but you're better off holding fire and hiking another half-mile to the first meadow, or even another four miles to the second meadow. Plan on overnighting if you fish any higher up the Slough than the second meadow.
Your best bet is to fish here just after snowmelt has worked through, so mid-July is about prime. Bring Green Drake and Pale Morning Dun mayfly patterns, but size down your offerings and be hyper-careful to have a drag-free drift. You might get into some good hopper fishing in late August.
- Must-Have Patterns: Olive PMDs (size 18-20), Madame X Caddis (size 16-18), Dave's Hoppers (size 12-14), Fat Frank Hoppers (size 10-14), Moorish Hoppers (size 10).
- Fly Rigs: A 9-foot 5-weight does well here, though 4-weights are king of the upper creek. Go with longer (12-foot) 5x tippets.
- Top Spots: VIP Pool, Third Meadow.
You'll recognize this slow, sinuous stream from Yellowstone Park postcards. It's generally pictured with steam rising from its water and bison grazing along its banks. Its name—and that steam—is from thermal pools that feed the Firehole and keep it relatively warm even in the winter.
The Firehole, which joins with the Gibbon River to create the storied Madison River, is often defined as a spring creek.
It's clear and shallow, and because of the hot springs that feed it, it hosts weeds and insect life that other Yellowstone streams don't. It's also very accessible; the Grand Loop and Old Faithful roads follow the river for much of its upper reach, and a number of short trails lead across gentle terrain to the water. Watch out for bison, which have become so accustomed to people that it’s easy to forget they're unpredictable wild animals.
Owing to its accessibility, the Firehole gets tons of pressure early and late in the season. It's among the first of the park's streams to clear of snowmelt, and June is all about caddisfly and mayfly patterns—the smaller the better. Fish see so many flies that light tippets, pinpoint casts and subtle patterns will catch fish. In high summer—mid-July through late August—the Firehole gets so warm that many of its fish head to cooler tributaries. But in September and October, fishing little beetle and ant imitations, along with smaller grasshopper patterns, will take fish for anglers who use stealth tactics and drift flies along weed lines and undercut banks.
If you're up for the hike, the best mid-summer spot on the Firehole is its canyon section, as the river tumbles down toward its union with the Gibbon. At the bottom of the falls, work the pools and short stretches that are interrupted by fallen timber to find larger and more eager fish than you'll find in the upper reach. In this timbered section, skate smaller Elk Hair Caddis and Stimulator patterns for aggressive surface takes.
Note that the Firehole, along with the lower Gibbon and Madison rivers, are managed by what's called the park's "Nonnative Trout Tolerance Area," which means that rainbow and brown trout must be released—along with all cutthroats—but anglers can keep up to five brookies.
- Must-Have Patterns: Quill Gordons (size 16-20), Pale Morning Duns (size 18), Stimulators (size 12-16), Chernobyl Ants (size 14-16), Joe’s Hoppers (size 12-16), non-lead Copper Johns and Prince Nymphs (size 16-20).
- Fly Rigs: 8 1/2- and 9-foot, 4-and 5-weight rods; floating line; 5x leaders.
- Top Spots: Biscuit Basin Trailhead, Fairy Falls Trail, Nez Perce Picnic Area and upstream of Firehole Falls.
Unlike alpine Glacier National Park, Yellowstone doesn't have extensive high country that's above timberline. Instead, much of the park is a timbered plateau, and even its higher lakes are rimmed with lodgepole pine. Heart Lake is one of its best sub-alpine lakes, far enough from the roads that it doesn't get much pressure but low enough in elevation to make it a productive trout factory.
The lake, tucked below Mount Sheridan in the southeastern corner of the park, is at the end of an 8-mile hike that's gentle enough that you can make it there and back in a long day. For more fishing and less hiking, plan to backpack in and stay. The reward is nice cutthroats that take a variety of surface flies and streamers, and bonus lake trout that hit spoons and spinners.
To get there, enter the park at Flagg Ranch or the South Entrance, park at the Heart Lake Trail Parking Loop just beyond Lewis Lake and hike east on the Heart Lake Trail. You’ll need a backcountry permit, but four designated campsites are located along the lake’s shore, and another is just off Trail Creek. This is boggy, buggy country, so expect to be swatting mosquitoes, but remember that all those bugs fuel an exceptional still-water trout fishery.
If you come in early July, not long after ice leaves the 7,500-foot lake, hit the mouths of Witch, Sheridan, Surprise and Trail creeks for spawning cutthroats. These are some of the biggest trout in the park and require special care and handling. Keep an eye out for for hungry grizzly and black bears that might be interested in eating your fish.
One of the best things about these fish is that they're not overly picky. Just about any big, bushy attractor dry fly will get some looks, and standard selections like Elk Hair Caddis, Parachute Adams and Royal Wulff dries will work, along with standard grasshopper and beetle imitations. If trout aren't rising to dries, try dropping a Prince or Hare's Ear nymph. And if you want to target bigger cutthroats as well as lake trout, go with minnow imitations like Clouser Minnows, big Woolly Buggers and sculpin patterns.
Heart Lake is home to some big lake trout—the lake record is over 40 pounds—so size up your flies or go with hardware, including the red-and-gold Jake’s Spin-a-Lure, Krocodile and Luhr Jensen spoons, and big lead-free spinners like Panther Martins or Mepps Aglias and Flying Cs.
- Must-Have Patterns: Goddard Caddis (size 12-16), Madame X Caddis (size 14-16), Parachute Adams (size 12-18), Stimulators (size 12-16), Prince Nymphs (size 14-18), Lightning Bug Nymphs (size 14), Woolly Buggers (size 4-10), sculpins (size 2-6), JJ Specials (size 2-4).
- Fly Rigs: 9-foot 5-weights with both floating and sinking line; 4x tippets.
- Spinning Rigs: Ultralight combos with 4- to 6-pound mono.
- Top Spots: The outlet of Witch Creek, the inlet of Trail Creek and the narrows between lobes of the lake.