Article A North Yellowstone Fly Fishing Primer

Longs for Cutts

Active Member
Most of the press written about the north end of Yellowstone Park concerns the fine dry-fly rivers in the Parks northeast corner. These creeks and rivers in the Lamar drainage are at their best in late July and August, and every word written about them is justified. The lack of attention paid to many other waters in the region is not. Here, organized by season, is a synopsis of all of the fishing opportunities in the northern part of our oldest National Park. All of the streams and lakes I mention below eventually find their way into the Yellowstone, and many of them are steep, hard-flowing streams that are physically difficult to fish. They are also extremely productive, and because many require hikes into the backcountry, they are seldom as crowded as other Park waters.

Early Season: Memorial Day Weekend until Late June

Most of the fishing pressure in Yellowstone National Park immediately after the general season opener, on Memorial Day Saturday, is centered on the Firehole River and other streams in the Madison drainage, in the western part of the Park. Though later in the season all of my own attention will shift to the north end of the Park, early in the year the Firehole, Madison, and Gibbon deserve the attention they receive. Though their valleys are actually higher in elevation than those in the Yellowstone drainage, the surrounding mountains are lower, and they are fed by hot springs and geyser outflow, meaning they suffer less discoloration and drastic level changes as a result of runoff than the streams that are my primary subject here.

On the flipside, there are some opportunities in the Parks northern end at the beginning of the season, and because most pressure is aimed at streams an hour or more away, there are seldom crowds present. Probably the most consistent producers here early in the season are the lakes. Since most are at 7000 feet or below, the ice tends to go out on all at roughly the beginning of the season. There are lakes to suit the temperaments of most anglers, from brook trout ponds alongside the road where small fish rise eagerly to backcountry ponds where large cutthroat reside.

Joffe Lake is the archetypal example of the former sort of lakes. This small pond, located near Mammoth, is home to brook trout between 6 and 12 inches. It is a place where I often take beginning fly anglers, because its fish are ravenous feeders and can usually be fooled. They will eat most anything small enough to get their mouths around, but I especially prefer small soft hackles and woolly buggers, and a Gardiner, Montana-local streamer named after the lake, the Joffe Jewel. Grizzly Lake fishes similarly to Joffe, though it is much larger and is a hike-in destination.

Fawn Lake and Blacktail Ponds present a somewhat different story. Both are home to larger than average brook trout, and both are not good places to take kids or beginning anglers, since each presents a fairly serious danger. The former is a hike of 5 strenuous miles into the Gallatin Mountains, an area literally infested with grizzly bears. The last time I went to the lake my partner and I saw three grizzlies (and several wolves, elk, and bison), for example, the last of which rose out of the sage no more than 50 yards away. This is not a hike that should be attempted alone or without bear spray. Blacktail Ponds --really one pond with two pools connected by narrow point-- has slightly smaller fish, averaging 12 inches, but they sit right below the northern leg of the Parks Grand Loop Road. On the other hand, the pond is bordered by a peat swamp, into which its possible to fall up to ones crotch and get stuck without a buddy to pull one out. For this reason, its best to fish this pond from a belly boat. Also note that its often closed due to nesting rare birds, a closure not announced in the Parks regulations booklet. Inquire locally to learn if this closure is in effect when you visit.

By the middle of June, the situation in the northern part of the Park starts to change. While the Lamar drainage remains a group of raging brown torrents due to snowmelt, some smaller streams and possibly even the Yellowstone and Gardner Rivers begin to come into shape, accompanied by several smaller streams. Ill discuss these small streams first. When these creeks --the streams in the upper Gardner drainage and several tributaries of the Yellowstone-- become fishable is dependant upon snowpack. If its low, Blacktail Creek might be fishable as soon as the 10th of June. More likely, both Blacktail and its neighbor Lava Creek will become fishable about the 20th of June. The streams of the upper Gardner River drainage, chief among them the upper Gardner itself and Winter Creek usually come in at about the same time. These creeks are all home to 6-12 inch brook trout, while the Gardner also has a few rainbows of about the same size. Large attractor dries like Trudes and Wulffs, with smaller beadhead nymphs such as Princes on droppers are your best bets on these streams. In the Swan Lake Outlet, really a group of small spring holes in a swamp east of the road on Swan Lake Flat, small streamers and midges will be more productive, and more careful presentations are required. A few larger brook trout inhabit these fertile waters.

The Gardner and Yellowstone are different stories. When each becomes fishable is again dependent on snowpack levels, with the Yellowstone between the Falls and the mouth of the Lamar typically the first large river in the northern part of the Park to come into play. Note that this stretch of the river opens with the general Park opener, unlike the water above the Falls, which does not open until the 15th of July. Ive fished and guided in this canyon as early as the first week of June, but that was during a drought year. Most of the time, Ill start thinking about this stretch of river between the 10th and 20th of June. This is the most difficult section of the river to access and also that with the steepest gradient. Even the easiest access point to this stretch of river requires a half mile hike including almost 300 feet of vertical, but from the point where outflow from Yellowstone Lake begins to outpace the runoff from dirty tributary creeks, the hike is almost always worth it. Provided theres a foot or more of visibility, streamers or large stonefly nymphs (#4-8) with smaller beadhead droppers (#10-12) can produce excellent catches of Yellowstone Cutthroats, with an occasional rainbow, cutt-bow, or brookie thrown in. Most of the native cutts run between 8 and 14 inches, but plenty of larger fish up to about 17 inches are available, with a very occasional 20-incher thrown in as well. The other species run smaller.

The fishing is similar on the lower Gardner, though the character of the river and the fish are not. While both rivers are fast and steep, the Yellowstone flows in broad, deep runs, while the Gardner is primarily pocket water, with a handful of deep ledge pools. The Gardner has a few cutthroats, especially in early summer when fish from the Yellowstone run up to spawn, but it has more rainbows than the river into which it runs, as well as browns, a handful of brook trout and a few enormous whitefish. Later in the year, both streams develop some midstream current breaks, and even early in the year the Yellowstone in its Grand Canyon features a few big eddy pools, but the Gardner drops so quickly and carries so much snowmelt from the 10,900 foot Gallatin Mountains looming in the west that the only water slow enough to fish early in the year is within a foot or two of the bank.

One other lake comes into play in mid-June, the only water in the northern part of the Park that can be expected to be crowded early in the year. This is Trout Lake, which opens on the 15th of June. Trout Lake is home to the largest resident fish in the northern part of the Park, and quite possibly the largest rainbows in all of Yellowstone. Fish to 30 inches and ten pounds are caught here often enough so that its obvious there are always one or two in the lake. More realistically, one can expect cutthroat and a few rainbows and hybrids averaging between 14 and 20 inches, with a few larger and smaller fish thrown in for good measure. These fish are pounded hard by experienced anglers from the opener until late summer, so they are seldom easy to catch. Long leaders and fine tippets are required when fishing midges under indicators, which is one possible tactic. Fishing leeches and damsel nymphs on a slow creep with a sinking line is another. The hike to this lake is only about a half mile, though it does include a rather serious climb, so carrying a float tube is a good option. One thing to note about the lake is that the cutthroat will be spawning in the lakes inlet when the season opens. The inlet itself is closed, and the fish gathered near the edge of the closure zone should be left alone, even if others are harassing them.

Summer: Late June until Late August

Late June is really when the rivers and creeks mentioned above come into their own, joined by the Yellowstone below the mouth of the Lamar through its Black Canyon and all the way to Livingston, 50 miles past the Park boundary. Though the hatches seldom begins until after the beginning of July, by late June the Salmonfly and Golden Stonefly nymphs begin migrating towards the bank prior to their emergence, which can produce great nymphing even if the rivers are still dirty with snowmelt. Just keep your flies tight to the bank and right on the bottom.

The actual Salmonfly emergence itself can be expected to begin on the Yellowstone any time between the 25th of June and the 20th of July, depending on snowpack. Most years, the hatch begins on about the 4th of July near the town of Emigrant, 30 miles downriver, and reaches the Yellowstone Park boundary on about the 10th. It then progresses upriver through the Black and Grand Canyons through about the 20th. The rest of the big summer hatches on the Yellowstone and Gardner begin at about the same time, with Green Drakes, Pale Morning Duns, various caddis, Golden Stones, Yellow Sallies, and a variety of other insects all beginning to hatch at the same time as the Salmonflies or shortly thereafter.

The importance of the Salmonfly hatch cannot be overstated. For reference, consider that half the biomass in the Yellowstone is comprised of Salmonflies and Golden Stones. This means that the trout feed more aggressively at this time of year than any other. Below Knowles Falls, in the Black Canyon six miles upstream from the town of Gardiner, at the Parks north entrance, browns and whitefish join the cutthroats, rainbows, and brookies that inhabit the entire stretch up to the Lower Falls, and the river gets larger and slightly slower and more fertile. While the average fish in this stretch remains a 10 to 14-inch cutthroat, the browns and rainbows can get much larger. While the largest fish are most readily available in the fall, on streamers and big nymphs, fish to five or six pounds are caught during the Salmonfly hatch every year, on the surface. Preferred Salmonfly patterns change from year to year, but perennial favorites are Matts Stone nymphs and Parks Salmonflies (the original Improved Sofa Pillow) on top, both in sizes 2-8. By now the Gardner has usually fallen enough that its midstream pockets become fishable, and it too has great Salmonfly and Golden Stone emergences. Since the stream is so rough, a good tactic is to fish a Parks Salmonfly slightly wet, imitating a drowned Salmonfly.

If youre not in the mood to join the Salmonfly circus, a good option is Slough Creek. Its at its best later in July, but even early in the month this rivers fabled Green Drake emergences begin. Since it usually still has some color, its fish tend to be a little less spooky early in July than late. Between the 10th and 15th of July, the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek usually become fishable. These streams feature the same hatches as Slough Creek, save that they lack the Brown Drakes that hatch on Slough in late July: PMDs, Green Drakes, several caddis, and, later in the summer, Flavs. The Lamar also has a short canyon stretch, which is home to a brief Salmonfly hatch of its own.

The Lamar drainage, into which Slough and Soda Butte feed, feature the most dependable hatches in the northern part of the Park. The various mayflies tend to hatch between 10:00 and 2:00 in July and August, with caddis emerging just before dusk, often accompanied by spinner falls and occasionally a new emergence of PMDs. Look especially hard for Green Drakes and Flavs. These are both big, robust mayflies, tending towards a more grayish shade here than elsewhere in their range, and even a handful are enough to bring good rises. Often PMDs hatch at the same time, which can mask the hatches of the larger insects. Often Ill fish a PMD nymph such as a Flashback Pheasant Tail behind a Soda Fountain Parachute Green Drake or Flav on top. Unlike most streams across the north end of Yellowstone, these hatches continue in the Lamar drainage through most of the summer, with only the hottest days sometimes thinning the hatches.

Except early in the morning or during late afternoon, I seldom fish nymphs in the Lamar drainage, and even during these periods I prefer to fish a dry-dropper rig. This is largely because terrestrials work well when not much is hatching. The Lamar is justly famed for its terrestrial fishing, and the other streams are just as good. Most anglers prefer large hoppers, and these are likely to bring the largest fish --which measure up to about 20 or 21 inches on Soda Butte Creek and a few inches larger on the Lamar and Slough, but the fish soon come to recognize many of the largest hoppers as fakes. Therefore I prefer smaller hoppers in sizes 8 to 12. My favorites are Letorts and various Chernobyl-style foam patterns, both in shades ranging from light tan to dark brown, and in combinations thereof. When fish turn away from these patterns, as they tend to do late in the summer due to the large numbers of anglers that fish these rivers with hopper patterns, a small foam beetle or ant will usually bring strikes

When the cutts and hybrids in the Lamar drainage turn away from hoppers, odds are theyll still take them in the Yellowstone and the Gardner. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is almost never muddy during the middle of summer. Except after thunderstorms muddy the Lamar drainage and subsequently the Yellowstone in the Black Canyon, or more briefly when thunderstorms send mud down the slopes of Mt. Everts into the last four miles of the Gardner, these rough and tumble stretches of river continue to fish well throughout the summer. For three weeks to a month after the Salmonfly hatch they have good evening caddis hatches, and Golden Stones and Yellow Sallies hatch sporadically during the same time frame, but by far the most dependable patterns are large attractors and terrestrials, in sizes 6 to 14, with #14-16 attractor nymphs such as BH Princes, Four Feathers, and Copper Johns hanging below on 18" to 24 droppers. Though I certainly carry other dries, I can commonly fish from late July until late August on the Gardner and Yellowstone with only the listed nymphs, and the following four dries: Trudes, Turck's Tarantulas, Yellow Stimulators, and Chernobyl Ants. It's good to cover a lot of water when fishing these attractor rigs, pounding pockets and likely current lines, looking for aggressive fish.

This time of the year, late July and the first few weeks of August, is unfortunately the most crowded time of year in Yellowstone, including its northern end. Soda Butte, the Lamar, and Slough Creek will be crowded, especially during the midday mayfly hatches, even up through Slough Creek's Second Meadow. The Yellowstone in the Grand and Black Canyons is usually not quite so crowded, but anglers do know about the easier access points, and the Gardner is likewise not unknown to visiting anglers. Though visitors used to the more crowded areas of the country, or even the Rockies (the Madison, for example) will find the crowds on these rivers perfectly manageable, it is nice to get away from others completely. To do this, one must visit the small creeks, especially those in the backcountry. By mid-July, all of them: Lava Creek, Hellroaring, Tower, the upper Gardner, Bear Creek (which enters the Yellowstone just outside the Park boundary), and many others all offer cutthroats, rainbows, or brook trout, or some combination thereof. On occasion small caddis or stonefly hatches occur on these streams, but most of the time a #12-14 Trude or the small hopper of your choice is all that is needed. I don't even bother to carry nymphs when I grab my three weight to fish these streams. This is not to say they all offer small fish. Though you really shouldn't expect huge trout out of small pocketwater creeks, at times you might be surprised by an occasional 16-incher.

Fall: Late August through the first Sunday in November

Late August and early September are a period of change in the North Yellowstone area. While most days resemble those of the rest of August, and Flavs and terrestrials still bring strikes most of the time in the Lamar drainage, with attractors and terrestrials continuing to work on the Yellowstone, Gardner, and various small streams, conditions can be very different. Several primary summer hatches have by now already faded to memory, including most of the Green Drakes and Pale Morning Duns, and virtually all of the caddis. The fall hatches begin to replace these insects as early as the 25th of August. Chief among these are the Blue Wing Olives. While later in the season these flies will hatch at any time, in August they only hatch on the coldest, blustery days.

By now even the rough-and-tumble Yellowstone has become clear, and develops a wider variety of slow, conflicting currents, meaning the 1X tippets of June must be replaced by 4X or 5X. 6X or even 7X is needed in the Lamar drainage, especially on glassy Slough Creek. Presentations must be careful and approaches stealthy even at the best of times, when the cutts in the Yellowstone are chasing hoppers or those in Soda Butte are chasing Flavs, but when the fish are on Blue-Wing Olives, they can be even pickier.

The Gardner below its hot springs, Boiling River, just north of Mammoth Hot Springs, is usually too warm in late summer and the first week or two of September to fish well. Above, it may see Blue Wing Olives itself, though terrestrials remain the primary dry fly option. I rarely fish dries on the Gardner after the 20th of August, however, for a very tangible reason --runner browns don't rise.

The Madison and Lewis drainages are the most well-known areas within the boundaries of Yellowstone Park to pursue browns in the Park, and their reputations have merit. Spawning runs from Hebgen lake enter the Madison and lower Firehole and Gibbon, and spawners from Lewis and Shoshone Lakes enter the Lewis Channel and the upper Lewis proper. As lake-run fish, these browns tend to be large, fat, and powerful, and whole subcultures have grown up around fishing for them. The Gardner-spawning browns live in the Yellowstone most of the year, and migrate up to 60 miles before even reaching the Gardner, so they are usually not as large or as powerful as those that migrate shorter distances and spend the rest of their time in the less-strenuous environment of a lake, and there are fewer of them. On the other hand, instead of migrating primarily from late September until the end of the season, Gardner-running browns can enter as early as mid-August, and continue to enter until the end of the season.

Nymphs are your best option for runner browns entering in late August and through September, as these early fish tend to be dour. Sometimes surprisingly small nymphs can work. My most productive fly two seasons ago was a #14 caddis larva pattern, for example. I usually trail these smaller nymphs behind a more traditional large stonefly.

As fall progresses, subsurface patterns become more important throughout the north end of the Park. By the middle of the month the dry fly fishing in the Lamar drainage begins to collapse, with the Flav and Green Drake hatches fading to nothing as the weather begins to cool. The Blue Wing Olives (and midges) continue to hatch into October. During this period, nymphs tend to produce better than dries, save during heavy hatches. By late October, the Lamar drainage begins to get too cold to produce well except on the warmest days, especially because by then frequent gushes of snow melt from early season storms chill and muddy all the area rivers, with high drainages such as Soda Butte Creek most heavily affected. Beetles and ants will still draw occasional strikes into early October, but hoppers tend to draw less interest by late September. They hang on slightly longer on the Yellowstone, Gardner, and the lower reaches of tributary streams, but even here nymphs, streamers, and --when hatching-- Blue Wing Olives will produce better.

Fall is my favorite time to fish streamers, even on streams where I fish dry flies alone for weeks on end during the summer. The Yellowstone, especially, is an excellent streamer river. In late September the river upstream from the mouth of the Lamar carries perhaps an eighth as much water as it does in June, meaning that there are many more well-defined pools and streamer runs in the fall than early in the year. Stripping a large P-Bugger or other streamer pattern on a short sink-tip can bring large numbers of fish.

Below Knowles Falls, in the lower Black Canyon, some of these can be larger fish. Most browns hang a right to run up the Gardner, but some may continue upriver, and the largest resident rainbows and cutthroats also prefer meaty food in the fall, though they continue to eat Blue Wing Olives sporadically until late November, after the season closes inside the Park and after everyone has switched to pursuing Yellowstone River-spawning browns outside the boundary.

Local anglers and most tourists alike switch to browns, with good reason. As October progresses, options besides pursuing browns in the Gardner or outside the Park begin to fade. By the 10th, most fishing in the Lamar drainage has shut down, and by the 15th the Yellowstone above the Lamar confluence and the Gardner upstream from Boiling River begin to go the same way. Occasional heavy snows can happen at any elevation by now, often muddying and chilling the lower Gardner and Yellowstone. When the river is not muddy, the Gardner is now at its second peak, the other being the Salmonfly hatch. Where the early the runner browns were dour, willing to strike only nymphs bumped right on their noses, they are now joined by fresh, aggressive fish, and become more aggressive themselves. Large streamers and even steelhead and salmon flies can work as well as nymphs. A few years ago, a friend took over a dozen runner browns on the last day of the season on traditional Spey Flies, for example. Fishing is similar on the Yellowstone outside the Park boundary, all the way to Livingston.

It is this late season fishing that offers the best chance for a big fish. While most early runners are larger than resident fish, typically ranging from 15 to 18 inches, there are few trophies. In October, most fish remain in the 15 to 20 inch class, with the middle of this range most represented, but the sky is, essentially, the limit. The Gardner record is over 9 pounds and 29 inches, and every year 25-27 inch fish are landed.

One interesting feature of the Gardner drainage is that it changes a lot, as the canyons through which it flows and the mountains that overhang the river are highly unstable. This means that the best runner pools and runs can change from year to year, and may sometimes be hard to find. Check locally for information on which stretches have been most productive, when you go.

The Park season closes the first Sunday in November, leaving the browns to spawn in peace. The Gardner and the lower Black Canyon of the Yellowstone continue to fish right up until this point, as do most lakes. The other streams are generally not worth fishing for the last three weeks or so, having shut down due to cold weather. Most local anglers suffer the same fate. With such a wide variety of water, by early November fly boxes are empty and family members start looking like strangers. By the last day, all streams across the north end are low and crystal clear, but fresh snow begins piling up in the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges, laying the beginnings of the snowpack that will provide next season's water.

Lodging, Guides, and Other Information.

I would first like to note that I am the webmaster as well as head guide for Parks' Fly Shop, in Gardiner, MT --the closest border community to most of the water mentioned in this article-- and have posted a full trip planner on our site. This planner includes a hatch guide, fly pattern information, and suggestions for tackle and clothing to bring. Rather than providing a sidebar with this information, I suggest you check out this planner, which is more thorough than anything I have room to provide here.

As mentioned, Gardiner is the closest border community to most of the north end. Cooke City is closer to the Lamar drainage, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is about 30-35 minutes from both towns. Both towns offer lodging, dining, and fly shops. In my opinion, the best motels are the Yellowstone River Motel, Absaroka Motor Lodge, and Best Western by Mammoth Hot Springs (which is actually 6 miles from the hot springs), in increasing order of expensiveness and fanciness. For Bed and Breakfasts, I suggest the Gardiner Guesthouse and Yellowstone Suites. The best restaurant in Gardiner is the Park Street Grill, by a wide margin. To be totally honest, I've had few dealings with any businesses in Cooke City, so my only suggestion for this town is that you find out which restaurant is serving Joan's Pies this year --you need to take an hour and have a slice or two, trust me.

For fully furnished rooms, I suggest the businesses in Gardiner mentioned above more than options within the Park. They're cheaper and are closer to other amenities such as grocery stores and fly shops. If you do wish to stay in the Park, I recommend Roosevelt Lodge. It is rustic, but it is also centrally located. For camping, the Park is a far better option than the for-profit or National Forest campgrounds just beyond the boundaries. Slough Creek Campground is probably the best, but it's also difficult to get into. Pebble Creek Campground is a long way from many of the streams mentioned in this piece, but it has the benefit of being within walking distance of two fine streams, Pebble and Soda Butte. Indian Creek Campground is within walking distance of even more streams, but all are small brookie creeks. Tower Campground is located alongside upper Tower Creek, and is within walking distance of a good trail down to the lower end of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I do not recommend Mammoth Campground. It is at a lower elevation than any of the others I've mentioned, so it can get dreadfully hot in the summer, and it is close to a mile and several hundred vertical feet above the nearest river, the Gardner.

If you have any questions about the fishing in the north end of the Park or any of the businesses described above, I'd be pleased to answer them. Contact me at [email protected]
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