Backcountry fishing in Yellowstone National Park | Montana Angler

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By Brian McGeehan at Montana Angler Fly Fishing

No fly-fishing trip to Montana is complete without a visit to Yellowstone National Park. The world’s first national park, established by an act of the U.S. Congress in 1872, is as iconic for its wild trout populations as it is for its geysers, bison and grizzly bears. Anglers visiting Yellowstone have a broad variety of waters to fish, with backcountry outings offering some of the most exceptional fishing in the park.

The Yellowstone backcountry encompasses an incredible diversity of fishing opportunities within its 3,468 square miles, including alpine lakes, spring creeks, broad rivers and tumbling streams. The Yellowstone River alone provides countless angling opportunities as it flows from its headwaters in the Thorofare region to Yellowstone Lake, the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet in North America. It then plunges over a pair of massive waterfalls on its way through two distinct canyons before exiting the park near its confluence with the Gardner River.

For all of Yellowstone’s diversity, the truth is most anglers never venture more than a few hundred yards from the most popular access points and pullouts. For anglers seeking solitude and an escape from the crowds, hitting the trails to experience fly fishing in Yellowstone’s backcountry is well worth the effort.

First things first, Yellowstone National Park is managed by the National Park Service and has its own set of rules, regulations and requirements separate from the surrounding states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. To fish in Yellowstone, you’ll need to procure a Yellowstone Park fishing license and abide by all park fishing regulations.

Yellowstone is home to two species of native cutthroat trout — the Yellowstone cutthroat trout and the westslope cutthroat trout. Yellowstone cutthroat trout and westslope cutthroat trout are widely distributed in waters throughout the park. A third cutthroat, the Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout, is considered a subspecies of the Yellowstone cutthroat trout and is covered with hundreds of small spots over the entirety of its body. Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout are found in the Snake River drainage which flows south toward Grand Teton National Park.

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Yellowstone National Park is a reservoir for native Snake River fine-spotted and Yellowstone cutthroat trout

In addition, park waters host the native Arctic grayling as well as populations of non-native rainbow, brown, brook and lake trout. Be aware that park policies may require you to keep some of these non-native species caught in certain waters. Lake trout have been a particular concern in recent years after establishing themselves in Yellowstone Lake where they prey on native cutthroat populations. Efforts to remove lake trout from Yellowstone Lake have begun to bear fruit in recent years and cutthroat populations are on the rebound. If you are required to keep a fish in Yellowstone, consider it an act of conservation.

Many of Yellowstone’s backcountry fishing experiences can be had in a day, or even a few hours. A short hike over the first ridgeline or around the next bend in the road is often all it takes to find a degree of solitude and rising trout. Other fisheries in the park require time and effort to reach. If you are going to spend the night, a backcountry camping permit is required.

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Some of the more remote areas of Yellowstone National Park require a multi-day backpacking trip. There are also some great options to hike for the day. Even spending 30 minutes on the trail or simply cross country can result in a quite experience away from the roads.


Some of the more remote areas of Yellowstone National Park require a multi-day backpacking trip. There are also some great options to hike for the day. Even spending 30 minutes on the trail or simply cross country can result in a quite experience away from the roads.

When camping in the backcountry, be aware that Yellowstone in home to the densest concentration of grizzly bears in the Lower 48. Bear spray and proper food storage are requisite.

A standard 5- or 6-weight fly rod and reel are ideal for most backcountry fishing in Yellowstone. Four-piece rods make great sense for anglers packing into remote locations. A backpack with the rest of your fishing gear, a rain jacket and food and water are all the rest needed for a day in the backcountry.

Yellowstone’s remote trout are rarely picky and the native cutthroat trout are fondly regarded for their willingness to rise to dry flies, but that doesn’t mean fish won’t be discerning on some waters. Patterns like the Parachute Adams, Stimulator and Elk Hair Caddis should be present in every angler’s fly box and will take fish throughout the season. On popular backcountry waters such as Slough Creek expect to tippet down and change flies to draw strikes.

Also be prepared for seasonal hatches that can produce exceptional fishing. Pale Morning Duns and Baetis mayflies hatch early on the Firehole River and its tributaries. Golden stoneflies and Salmonflies hatch on waters in the park in June and July. When green and gray drakes make an appearance, trout rise with vigor. Check in at the Montana Angler fly shop on Main Street in Bozeman for the latest on what’s hatching and the best patterns for your trip.

Yellowstone backcountry angling can be broken up into sections delineated by the park’s fishing regulations. Consider the following descriptions a starting point from which to embark on your own Yellowstone backcountry fly-fishing adventure.

The Northeast Region of the park includes the Lamar River and the excellent Cache Creek, Soda Butte Creek and its main tributary Pebble Creek, and Slough Creek which flows through a series of meadows north to the park boundary. The Northeast Region includes both the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone. Trailheads accessible from Canyon Village and the Tower-Roosevelt area provide access into the depth of both canyons where cutthroat trout fishing is exceptional. The Northeast Region also includes the notable Trout and McBride lakes, which hold native Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Anglers geared up for a multi-day fishing adventure descend a remote river deep in Yellowstone's backcountry. When backpacking make sure to reserve campsites in advance through the YNP backcountry permit office.

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Anglers geared up for a multi-day fishing adventure descend a remote river deep in Yellowstone's backcountry. When backpacking make sure to reserve campsites in advance through the YNP backcountry permit office.


The Southeast Region of the park encompasses Yellowstone Lake and the Thorofare where the Yellowstone River rises east of Two Ocean Plateau. There’s no easy way to get to the Thorofare. The options to explore Yellowstone’s headwaters are backpacking in via the Continental Divide Trail from East Entrance Road or from the Heart Lake Trailhead on U.S. Highway 191. Anglers may also arrange a backcountry shuttle for boat access to remote locations on Yellowstone Lake. Numerous tributary streams flowing into the lake are highly regarded fisheries for trophy cutthroat trout.

The Southwest Region of the park includes the Snake River and Bechler River drainages and the trifecta of Heart, Lewis and Shoshone lakes. Lake trout are present in all three lakes and are best targeted by anglers using a watercraft. The Heart Lake Trailhead provides access trails to the three lakes and the Snake River. Anglers eager to explore the waters of the Bechler River and its tributaries, the Fall River and Boundary Creek, can access the area from Cave Falls Road or the Bechler Ranger Station along the park’s Idaho border. This section of Yellowstone is known as “Cascade Corner” for the high density of waterfalls in the area which add to the angling experience.

The Northwest Region of the park is a highly active thermal area and features the Firehole, Gallatin, Gibbon, Gardner and Madison rivers. Access to the Firehole River in Firehole Canyon can be achieved from Firehole Canyon Road. The upper reaches of the Gibbon River are productive brown trout water and can be reached from the Grand Loop Road near Norris. On the western boundary of the park, the Gallatin River’s headwaters can be reached from U.S. Highway 191. Excellent fishing for rainbow and brown trout can be had in the meadows where the river turns away from the highway.

The Firehole is one of the world's most unique fisheries. Although much of the river is easily accessed from roads, there are some reaches that require a short hike which often results in seeing significantly less angling pressure. Just make sure to avoid bison and other critters!

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The Firehole is one of the world's most unique fisheries. Although much of the river is easily accessed from roads, there are some reaches that require a short hike which often results in seeing significantly less angling pressure. Just make sure to avoid bison and other critters!

As with any backcountry fly fishing, Yellowstone backcountry anglers should carefully consider where, how and with whom they share information regarding specifics. Much of the best fishing in Yellowstone National Park can be found in the backcountry, and there’s a reason it remains so exceptional. Enjoy your time in the backcountry and consider holding what you learn there close so that it may be enjoyed by future generations.

Brian McGeehan is a Pennsylvania native and has been guiding Western rivers in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado for 20 seasons. He is a licensed Montana outfitter and owner of Montana Angler Fly Fishing based in Bozeman, MT.
 
Boulders
I fish YNP for many years, great fishing opportunities.
 
JeremyW
I may head there in Sept. I only fished the firehole, and a nearby tail water...
 
Boulders
Sept is a great time to fish YNP. (plus the crowds are down).
While at the Firehole, park at Fountain Flats, hike up to Sentinel Creek towards buffalo meadow (1/2 hr) the Sentinel Creek is about 3-4 wide. Staying low, blindly cast hoppers for browns and brookies.
 
wbranch
Back in the mid 1960's I made many trips to YNP. The cutthroat season didn't open until July 15. Back then one didn't need to venture very far from the road to catch 20 or more cutts in an afternoon. I remember one day where I probably landed 50 pre & post spawn cutthroat. Many plump and 16" - 18". My biggest fear then was to be attacked and eaten by a grizzly bear. I was told by rangers to never fish past dusk in any off the road places because that is when the bears came out to eat.
 

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Boulders
I always carry bear spray and I have a bell on my backpack. I did have a brief encounter with a wolf on Gardiner River. Whlie releasing a fish, on a hill 50 yds from I observed a wolf, we enchange glances I when reached for my camera he took off. I continued my fishing upstream, when rounding streaam bend I saw a freshly killed mule deer. An abrupt stop, retreat with caution and heighten senses was the right move.
 
salmo
I fished Yellowstone 81-83. I hit the salmon fly hatch on the Madison, Henry’s Fork, October spawners, grayling, pre-spawn cutthroat, beaver pond brookies, Armstrongs, floated the Yellowstone River. Fished with Craig Matthews and the late Nick Nicklas. Then came marriage, children, college tuition and the like. Then like magic I went back with my 36 year old son this August. Still incredible. Better yet because of the company. I feel blessed to have been able to see it, hear it, touch it, smell it and fish it.
 

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MJMFlyfisher
Nice article and brings back a lot of memories! I was fresh out of college in 1994 and not wanting to grow up yet so I loaded the old 85' Subaru wagon and pointed it west. Got a job as a guide at Hubbard's Yellowstone Lodge just north of the NW entrance of the park in the Paradise Valley.
Spent a lot of time exploring some of the waters mentioned here plus all the surrounding waters. Amazing when I look back as I was in serious bear country and didn't carry spray or anything. I can't remember if I was just young and dumb and used to being in the eastern woods without a worry or what!?
I had a couple surprise run ins with Bison and one gigantic bull moose on Cascade Lake but no bears (Except the one I almost ran over coming back through the park from the Madison after midnight one night)
The Park, the Yellowstone, the Madison, Henry's Fork, the spring creeks etc. Man I miss that place.

Had one epic day on the 2nd meadow of Slough one day with a client from Chicago. He had...and I quote, "The greatest day of my life" and time started slipping away on us. Fish after fish and he finally tossed me a rod tube and said you're off the clock. Lets fish! LOL
As the sun dipped low we soon realized that we had about a 6-8 mile hike out.(Can't remember exactly how far but it was a haul) YIKES>
We didn't get back to the trailhead until dark, and then another 2hrs back to the lodge? This was pre cell phone days.
Yeah......... they were expecting us for a late dinner. WHOOPS!
That one almost cost me my job but the client bailed me out. :)

Such great memories!
 
L
From my experience last summer if you're at the upper end of the 2nd meadow were slough picks up some gradient again your over 8 miles back to the road. We had a technical and slow start to the day, but our afternoon was on fire. Was such a great day that we didn't even bother fishing the next morning by our campsite in Shoshone NF outside Cooke City before heading east.
 
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T
I only fished Yellowstone backcountry one time, in about 1974. A buddy and I hiked about 3 miles on an easy trail, and camped where the ranger said we should. We fished a big stream and a smaller tributary and had good fishing on both. In the 3 days or so we were there, we only saw one other fisherman, a guy chucking spinners on the other side of the creek, and he just there for about half an hour. We talked to a couple backpacking through, and a ranger, and those were the only people we saw in that time.

On an EASY hiking trail, close enough to the road that we could hear the traffic, at a place with excellent fishing, and stunning scenery. And yet there were traffic jams on the roads every time someone saw a crittur. The great majority of people don't get out of the car and go for a walk.

I don't know if it's still like that. There are now YouTube videos of hiking on the trail we went on.
 
mt_flyfisher
Nice article and brings back a lot of memories! I was fresh out of college in 1994 and not wanting to grow up yet so I loaded the old 85' Subaru wagon and pointed it west. Got a job as a guide at Hubbard's Yellowstone Lodge just north of the NW entrance of the park in the Paradise Valley.
Spent a lot of time exploring some of the waters mentioned here plus all the surrounding waters. Amazing when I look back as I was in serious bear country and didn't carry spray or anything. I can't remember if I was just young and dumb and used to being in the eastern woods without a worry or what!?
I had a couple surprise run ins with Bison and one gigantic bull moose on Cascade Lake but no bears (Except the one I almost ran over coming back through the park from the Madison after midnight one night)
The Park, the Yellowstone, the Madison, Henry's Fork, the spring creeks etc. Man I miss that place.

Had one epic day on the 2nd meadow of Slough one day with a client from Chicago. He had...and I quote, "The greatest day of my life" and time started slipping away on us. Fish after fish and he finally tossed me a rod tube and said you're off the clock. Lets fish! LOL
As the sun dipped low we soon realized that we had about a 6-8 mile hike out.(Can't remember exactly how far but it was a haul) YIKES>
We didn't get back to the trailhead until dark, and then another 2hrs back to the lodge? This was pre cell phone days.
Yeah......... they were expecting us for a late dinner. WHOOPS!
That one almost cost me my job but the client bailed me out. :)

Such great memories!
In year’s past I ventured a few miles off the beaten path inside and outside YNP without carrying bear spray. I was younger and less bear-aware than I am now, but I can’t imagine doing that today.

I‘m fortunate (okay, lucky) to have never had a threatening bear encounter, but there have been number of others (including fly fishermen) in the past few years that have had dangerous bear encounters, including some being seriously mauled or killed by grizzlies in the Yellowstone area.

p,s. Some of these encounters have been in or near the Tom Miner basin and not far from Hubbard’s Lodge, where there is a heavy concentration if grizzlies, particularly in the fall.
 
salmo
The only grizzly that my son and I saw was dining on a bison carcass. We saw it from a great distance. We we fortunate to get a glimpse.
 
MJMFlyfisher
In year’s past I ventured a few miles off the beaten path inside and outside YNP without carrying bear spray. I was younger and less bear-aware than I am now, but I can’t imagine doing that today.

I‘m fortunate (okay, lucky) to have never had a threatening bear encounter, but there have been number of others (including fly fishermen) in the past few years that have had dangerous bear encounters, including some being seriously mauled or killed by grizzlies in the Yellowstone area.

p,s. Some of these encounters have been in or near the Tom Miner basin and not far from Hubbard’s Lodge, where there is a heavy concentration if grizzlies, particularly in the fall.
Yeah I don't know why we didn't give bears much of a thought!? We would bushwhack through the willows along Tom Miner Creek for cutties in a pair of shorts and a smile! LOL
Id never consider doing that again! That basin at least back then had the highest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48 outside of a national park.
I think it was the same week after I headed home for the season in 1995 that the neighbor across the road from the lodge entrance was mauled pretty badly.
Our guide's bunkhouse was a couple miles up the valley and tucked down in fairly tight to the creek itself.
It just screamed bear country.
We were on a pack horse trip up to Rams Horn Lake one day and had the whole train of horses and mules spook because of cutting a bear track.
Myself and the wrangler were the only two who didn't hit the dirt!
What a place though for a PA guy to experience!
I remember the very first morning waking up in the bunkhouse and brushing my teeth looking out the bathroom window at a small group of Bighorn rams in the back yard.
Elk bugling what seemed like all summer.....and sometimes all night. (I was surprised by that)
 
dc410
I’d have to say that in the concept of grizzlies and landscapes . . . They are where they are. If you happen to be there in that same landscape with them, it’ll leave a lasting memory in your mind for sure!
 
mt_flyfisher
Yeah I don't know why we didn't give bears much of a thought!? We would bushwhack through the willows along Tom Miner Creek for cutties in a pair of shorts and a smile! LOL
Id never consider doing that again! That basin at least back then had the highest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48 outside of a national park.
I think it was the same week after I headed home for the season in 1995 that the neighbor across the road from the lodge entrance was mauled pretty badly.
Our guide's bunkhouse was a couple miles up the valley and tucked down in fairly tight to the creek itself.
It just screamed bear country.
We were on a pack horse trip up to Rams Horn Lake one day and had the whole train of horses and mules spook because of cutting a bear track.
Myself and the wrangler were the only two who didn't hit the dirt!
What a place though for a PA guy to experience!
I remember the very first morning waking up in the bunkhouse and brushing my teeth looking out the bathroom window at a small group of Bighorn rams in the back yard.
Elk bugling what seemed like all summer.....and sometimes all night. (I was surprised by that)

Here’s an incident that happened in Tom Miner last fall. (Click on watch on YouTube)


There may even be more bears in the Tom Miner now than there were back in the 90’s when you were there, @MJMFlyfisher. A couple of my friends who go up there pretty often in the fall when the bears are out in the fields eating caraway roots have seen as many as 18 grizzlies in a single evening.

Personally, I’m a bit skeptical about why fly fishermen would ever want to fish there in the fall. The water in that small creek would be pretty low, there is thick brush is lining the stream banks, and there are numerous hungry grizzlies all around. Added to that, at least one of those fly fisherman carried a gun, when bear spray is generally a better alternative. Maybe those two guys were new young guides from Hubbard’s? 😊
 
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wbranch
Between 1966 & 1972 I spent entire summers in Montana. I primarily fished Armstrong & Nelson's spring creeks. For a little diversion we would take a week break and head over to YNP. Back then Pelican Creek, a cuttie spawning stream was open to fishing. It has been closed to all fishing for years. Probably to protect the cutthroat fishery. There were three meadows, each having better fishing the further you chose to hike, we never needed to hike beyond the first meadow. That was still probably a two mile hike. The cuttie season didn't open until July 15. We always tried to time our visit to as close to that date as possible. The fishing was as good as anyone could possibly imagine. We seldom fished more than six hours. We waded wet with one spool of 4X tippet and one small box of nymphs and dries. Three of us often landed 40 - 50 12"" - 18" cutthroat each. Some were had already spawned and were thin but others were still ripe with roe and full of spirit. We never saw a bear. However one time we came upon a cow moose with a calf on the trail about 80 yards away. We decided to go back to the car.

We also fished the main river near Buffalo Ford. That was equally as good, right along the road, and had cutthroat up to 21" eating PMD's.
 
joepa722
Great article. It is a shame that so many anglers are unwilling, unable, or afraid to venture a few miles off the beaten path for fishing in the park. It is another world. Heading back late August with adventures in the Yellowstone Canyon, Snake River, and North Fork of Shoshone in the plans.
 
albatross
Between 1966 & 1972 I spent entire summers in Montana. I primarily fished Armstrong & Nelson's spring creeks. For a little diversion we would take a week break and head over to YNP. Back then Pelican Creek, a cuttie spawning stream was open to fishing. It has been closed to all fishing for years. Probably to protect the cutthroat fishery. There were three meadows, each having better fishing the further you chose to hike, we never needed to hike beyond the first meadow. That was still probably a two mile hike. The cuttie season didn't open until July 15. We always tried to time our visit to as close to that date as possible. The fishing was as good as anyone could possibly imagine. We seldom fished more than six hours. We waded wet with one spool of 4X tippet and one small box of nymphs and dries. Three of us often landed 40 - 50 12"" - 18" cutthroat each. Some were had already spawned and were thin but others were still ripe with roe and full of spirit. We never saw a bear. However one time we came upon a cow moose with a calf on the trail about 80 yards away. We decided to go back to the car.

We also fished the main river near Buffalo Ford. That was equally as good, right along the road, and had cutthroat up to 21" eating PMD's.
Thanks @wbranch reminded me of my hike into Pelican in 1976 with my father. I was 14 and this experience hooked me on flyfishing for the rest of my life. I recall handing my flyrod to my dad who had never cast a fly. He cast and had the fly land in the middle of about 3 coils of fly line. Before he could pick it up, Wham taken by a cuttie.

Sadly Pelican is a victim of both Whirling Disease and the Lake Trout plague.
 
mt_flyfisher
I hiked into Pelican to fish a few times, probably in the 1980’s and 90’s, but we never went far, no more than several miles. You weren’t allowed to leave the trailhead until noon back then, which I understood was to allow time for the bears to leave the open valley. I don’t know if that was true or not, but bears were always on our mind when we hiked in there, and one time a bear crossed the trail ahead of us not more than a couple hundred yards from the trailhead, and another time I was there one of the Park rangers on horseback escorted a group of fishermen down the trail when a sow with cubs was too close to where they had been fishing.

During that same time period I hiked 5 miles into the canyon below the Yellowstone Falls a number of times. A few or those times we got there at the peak of the salmon fly hatch and the fishing was incredible. I think that I could still make that 5 mile hike into the canyon. I’m not so sure whether I could make the 5 miles to get back out.
 
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