Trip Report Montana 2019 (very photo-heavy report)


Active Member
I drew a permit to camp up Slough Creek in Yellowstone from June 26-28 this year, which is a bit early in the season for that stream (and wasn't my first or second choice of dates), but I planned a trip around it anyway. A friend flew down from Alaska to join me. I really didn't have things together when it was time to leave, since I was rushing to finish a big house project, so we ended up leaving Bellevue around 7 pm and drive all the way to the North Fork Couer d'Alene that night, arriving around 2am. We got to start fishing fairly early (around 8) anyway, only to find that the water was still cool enough that being up so early was pointless.

Fishing picked up as the water warmed toward noon, and we had plenty of fun with Westslope Cutthroat up to around 14" or so before we had to leave around 2pm.

There wasn't really any noteworthy hatch to get the fish rising, although they took attractor dry flies eagerly enough when presented. The main bugs on the water were little green stoneflies, I think Alloperla. Those were pretty common throughout the trip.

We had another long drive ahead to camp for the night near Gardiner, MT, just outside of Yellowstone. The next morning we did the backcountry check-in at one of the park offices (and were mercifully spared the training video by the ranger who could see we knew what we were doing) and hiked in to Slough Creek. At the first pool where the trail reaches the river (about a mile and a half from the road), we found some dry fly action as clouds from a passing storm got the BWOs moving. The fish were small here, but it seemed like a promising start.

Five miles from the trailhead we made camp and headed out for some evening streamer fishing nearby in the "2nd Meadow Above." We missed several fish in the first pool, then moved upstream hopeful that we'd have some really fast action. No more strikes came in the next few pools, and then a furious storm chased us back to camp. I hoped the storm was the reason for the slowdown in action.

The next day we spent the morning hiking another five miles up to the "3rd Meadow Above," where we would spend the next 2 days. We were out fishing before lunchtime, and I caught the first fish of the day after my friend spotted it and tried a few swings without luck. This was my first Yellowstone Cutthroat over 10 inches long and the inaugural fish for my new Sage setup. I have to brag about this one because I got resoundingly outfished for the rest of the next two days.

Fishing turned out to be trickier than our first casts the previous night had us hoping. Many of the promising pools seemed completely dead. It turns out most of the fish were spawning or staging near spawning areas, so we would go several pools with no action at all and then find a concentration of mostly stingy, tight-lipped fish.

We were fishing exclusively streamers after some failed experiments with nymphs, and I was missing a ridiculous proportion of my strikes. I was using a variety of articulated streamers from Kelly Galloup's fly shop (or at least of his designs), all with the back hook pinched off to comply with the park's single-hook rule. These Cutthroat were persistently striking short and failing to get on the front hook. My friend was doing a lot better with a sculpzilla, which is designed with its one hook near the very back of the fly, and I started catching some fish after switching to one as well. Next time I'm streamer fishing in Yellowstone I'm going to tie some flies designed for short-striking fish.

Despite the frustration over missing fish, I had a great time walking through meadows that looked like manicured lawns ringed by snow-capped mountains and dotted with bison, deer, and elk.

The next day we hit a different part of the "Third Meadow Above," and the action slowed even more but the scenery remained great.

Over the course of two days we covered that entire meadow, up to the park boundary. The next day, we got an early start and hiked out the ten miles pretty quickly. I learned about half-way through that blisters can really sneak up on a guy after a couple days with wet feet; I called for a stop to put on some moleskin because I was starting to notice a bit of pressure, only to find that about half my ankle was already rubbed off. Oops. For the next several days of the trip, picture me limping around.

After lunch back in Gardiner we drove down through the park to the Gibbon, to fish reach where I got skunked last year in the most maddening way. With just an hour or so to fish on that previous trip, I had raised a good fish to a dry fly and missed the hookset because it landed in a bony part of the mouth; then I missed several more fish in a row. When it was time to hang up my fly, I realized that the first miss had bent out the hook, and I had no hope at all. I wanted payback this time, and I quickly got it as a nice brown took my soft-hackle at the exact scene of last year's crime.

The meadow reaches of Yellowstone streams are always a stunning place, especially when it's getting toward evening and the sun's low.

We caught quite a few fish, mostly small, and failed to fool quite a few more that were rising toward evening to a mixed bag of caddisflies and mayflies. One small brown wasn't going to get photographed, but after release in the shallows it jumped all the way out of the water and posed just-so on a gravel bar.

We camped outside the park near West Yellowstone for the night and spent the next day on the Firehole, which really exudes what Yellowstone is all about: wide-open meadows, geysers spewing steam, bison wandering around, and ridiculous crowds of people.

However, it was pretty easy to escape the crowds with a little bushwhacking, and sacrificing backcast room gave us a nice quiet piece of stream to spend most of the day on.

Yellow Sweltsa stoneflies were the most common hatch throughout the day, and toward evening a couple different species of Leptocerid caddisflies (related to what they locally call "white millers", but I think not the same species) got the fish going. The first action came from small fish chasing egg-laying adults with very splashy rises at the surface, and they were really tough to catch. It was no more productive to fish a dead-drifted dry than to fish an empty line tip with no fly at all; the imitation had to be skittering to draw a rise. We caught a few that way, and the fish eventually switched to pupae and became vulnerable to soft-hackles.

The next day we left the park to fish some more remote waters. The first choice was still high and murky from some combination of snowmelt and recent thunderstorms.

After less than an hour flinging streamers into the murk, we moved to explore a spring-fed tributary instead. This was more like it.

We fished up this creek for a while, trying to sneak up and drop nymphs on groups of ultra-skittish brook trout laying on the bottom of the deepest pools. We succeeded several times.

We moved up that creek until we ran out of water for fish, then packed up and drove to the Madison for the evening. We hoped to catch the salmonfly hatch near Eight Mile Ford, but there was no sign of the giant bugs. Instead, there were millions of others, including swarms of caddis around every tree and even all the vehicles in the parking lot.

Despite all the bugs to get our hopes up, we struck out on the water. There were few to no rises, and fish just weren't hitting anything we tried. It's possible they had stuffed themselves earlier in the day. At least the Madison's dramatic scenery didn't disappoint.

It was also one of the best, and easiest, days I've had for bug collecting, as I pretty much filled my "bug jail" box before we even left the parking lot, and I stayed up well into the early morning hours photographing them.

PMD dun (Ephemerella dorothea infrequens):

Rhithrogena (Western March Brown, but not actually limited to March) spinner:

Here's the caddis that was all over everything:

I've been trying to up my photography game lately with some new customized gadgets, including photographing the bugs on gray surfaces for better color balancing and photographing every specimen on a 3-D printed platform holding a hook size chart and millimeter ruler, seen below demonstrating the smallest stonefly I've ever caught.

The next day, we hit the Firehole again in the morning, but conditions weren't in our favor and we missed a few strikes but caught no fish.

My friend had to catch a flight out of Bozeman in the evening, so we left the park via the Gallatin valley and spent some time fishing it in a couple different spots. It was still a bit high and cold from runoff, but I nymphed up a few small rainbows in the beautiful headwater meadows near the pass.

Farther down near Big Sky, we finally found salmonflies in the air in decent numbers. Fish weren't interested in imitations, but we had some action on small attractor dries. My friend helped catch a few salmonflies, so I had a lot of fun that night with the camera. I also sampled nymphs for the first time this trip, again to test out some new gadgets (including side-view aquaria with relatively natural-looking, 3-D printed bottoms).

Giant salmonfly:

Salmonfly nymph:

Western Green Drake nymphs, Drunella doddsii and Drunella grandis:

After the Gallatin I drove to the airport in Bozeman to trade in my fishing buddy for my wife, and the next few days were more about sightseeing than fishing. This included the origin of the Missouri River at the junction of the Madison with the Jefferson:

And the Yellowstone in Paradise Valley:

The first fishing came after a few days when we drove down the Madison, which provided dramatic views as always.

On this day, my third time fishing that river, I finally caught a fish too large to fling out of the water on hookset:

The next couple days were filled with hot springs, ghost towns, and a very scenic drive across the Gravelly Range that included some quality time watching a grizzly through the spotting scope. On the other side of that range, we got back to trout with the upper Ruby, which was running high and off-color but still produced some fun little rainbows.

From there we drove to Philipsburg, which we used as a base for the last fishing day of the trip, on Rock Creek.

Plenty of small-medium Cutthroat and Brown Trout fell for dry flies, but the big ones didn't come out to play.

Hatches were again a mixed bag, and I ended up netting a dun of something that looks like an eastern Hendrickson (Ephemerella subvaria) but probably belongs to one of the lesser-known species in the genus, maybe aurivillii. I'm still trying to figure this one out, but I ran across it more than once on this trip so it can't be too obscure.


Jim Ficklin

Genuine Montana Fossil
WFF Supporter
What a wonderful report & superb photography/photos. It was nice to see photos & mention of some of my old stomping grounds. P-Burg is a great little town. Thank you!


Active Member
Nice report and great pics. You might want to give a shout out to Wyoming, too, since 96% of YNP is in the Cowboy State.


Kimball Leighton

Active Member
The Montana Headwaters Security Act would protect Slough Creek and the first 17 miles of the Yellowstone River outside the park as Wild and Scenic Rivers, along with 35 other Montana rivers. If you fish Big Sky Country you owe it to yourself, the resource and the future to support to this timely proposal.


Active Member
True Scott, a lot of this was in Wyoming!

Kimball, that Headwaters Security Act looks like a great idea. I added my endorsement.

Greg S

New Member
Thank you for sharing! I'm leaving next week for month and will be crossing a lot of the areas that you were fishing. I appreciate your thoughtful presentation on the areas, fly's and really enjoyed the photo's.

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