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.
 
wbranch
"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."

Me too! I can get down most trails but I'd need a mule or a helicopter to get me out.







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wbranch
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.

Is that why Pelican is closed?
 
mt_flyfisher
"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."

Me too! I can get down most trails but I'd need a mule or a helicopter to get me out.







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Several years ago, some idiot tried to go down into the canyon by rope, in the winter when it was closed, and he had to be rescued - not by a mule or helicopter, but by a rescue team of individuals who put their own lives in danger to get him out. Personally, I wouldn’t blame them if they’d have left him there.

 
Harry3
I fished Slough Creek a few years ago back by the last campsite a mile or so down a dirt road. I didn't have bear spray so I didn't venture too far. Had a bison cross the creek about 30 yds from me. When I bought my license at the ranger station I asked about bears there and he said don't worry about it. Then proceeded to tell me about one.
 
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