Discovering a Small-Stream Gem in Yellowstone National Park

Given the stream’s location, Cascade Creek might hold genetically unique Yellowstone cutthroats.

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from the new book, Catching Yellowstone’s Wild Trout: A Fly-fishing Guide and History, by Chris Hunt, the national digital director for Trout Unlimited. Hunt lives and works in Idaho Falls.

Written by: Chris Hunt

For years, I’ve driven over the tiny trickle that is Cascade Creek en route to Canyon and the tourist havens at the upper and lower Yellowstone Falls. To me, these features are the most photogenic in all of Yellowstone—Old Faithful is nice, and the drive around the north and west edges of Yellowstone Lake is pretty cool, but, for me anyway, the waterfalls of Yellowstone are my favorite.

And Yellowstone Falls is the waterfall to beat all waterfalls. It helps, too, when I’m showing the park to friends and family, that we get some perspective. We first stop at Gibbon Falls, a stunning roadside attraction that looks like a natural waterslide. Then we take the little side road to Virginia Cascade, which is breathtaking. And then we’ll brave the throngs of visitors at the brink of the lower falls, where the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone stretches out below us, and the emerald waters of the Yellowstone River suddenly drop over a 308- foot cliff right at our feet (that’s twice the height of Niagara Falls, if you’re scoring at home).

On the drive out, we’ll get a look at the lower falls from the downstream perspective—it’s one of the most amazing scenes on earth. All told, I imagine I’ve spent dozens of hours soaking in the beauty of the falls with others in tow who are seeing them for the first time. Their reactions of awe and appreciation simply thrill me.

The waterfalls of Yellowstone–(from left) Gibbon Falls, Virginia Cascades, Upper Yellowstone Falls, and Lower Yellowstone Falls–are spectacular.
Photos by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (CC4.0), cchadek (CC3.0), Tony Hisgett (CC2.0), and David L. Sifry (CC3.0)

But at heart, I’m a fly-fisher. And the sexy little creek that crosses under the road between Norris and Canyon, not too far from the mighty Yellowstone itself, always made me wonder. It’s a meadow stream that flows east from tiny Cascade Lake, makes a southerly turn and winds its way all the way to the Yellowstone, where it enters the river between the upper and lower Yellowstone Falls.

Until recently, I’d never fished it, despite nearly two decades of promising myself to do just that. And when I finally did, I reaped the rewards.

I parked at the Cascade Trailhead west of Canyon, assembled a supple, 2-weight glass rod, stuck a box full of small attractor patterns in my pocket, and wandered off to see if Cascade Creek was worth the twenty-year wait. Long story short, yes. It was.

The little stream meanders among willows and through obsidian bluffs that can give anglers a great elevated perspective. It sports deep bends, long runs and soft tailouts that riffle their way to the next run or the next bend. But, honestly, when I first got to the water, about a mile or so above where Cascade Creek flows under the highway, I was pretty sure I was going to spend an afternoon casting to six-inch trout. It’s tiny water that requires stealth and tight casts—most anglers aren’t too keen on working this hard to catch small trout.

Not far off the road, Cascade Creek is a lovely, meandering meadow stream.

And, yes, there are some small trout in Cascade Creek. But there are some larger trout, too. Sure, I caught my share of six-inch native Yellowstone cutthroat trout that afternoon, but I also caught a handful of foot-long cutties that put an appreciative bend in the fiberglass noodle I was using on the stream. It was early in the year, and the cutthroats, while not in full-on spring spawning regalia, were absolutely gorgeous. And every one of them hit dry flies with that typical cutthroat abandon—I don’t believe backcountry cutthroat trout possess a timid gene.

What I eventually realized about Cascade’s robust native cutthroats is that they might even be more special than the “native” moniker implies. Not only are they native fish that have likely been swimming in Cascade Creek since shortly after the last ice age, but they also could actually be somewhat genetically unique, given where Cascade enters the Yellowstone. There can’t be any spawning recruitment from downstream, because the lower Yellowstone Falls is the mother of all fish barriers. The only “fresh” genetic influence into Cascade would have to come from upstream, and those fish would have to survive the 108-foot drop over upper Yellowstone Falls. Possible, but unlikely.

The author had driven over the creek so many times, he assumed it was nothing special.

I’m no biologist, but I like the idea that Cascade Creek’s cutthroat trout aren’t just native—they’re especially native, and this little population of fish is found nowhere else on earth.

I worked my way back to the Norris-Canyon Road and eventually wandered back to the west to where I’d parked the car. As I walked, I got some curious stares from the passing motorists. It was as if they were asking, “He was fishing that? That tiny little stream? Are there even any fish in there?”

Let that be the lesson. In Yellowstone, nearly every small stream you see as it either parallels a road or crosses under one is potentially fishy. Just because you don’t see other anglers fishing these waters doesn’t mean they aren’t worth fishing. In fact, it usually means just the opposite.

5 thoughts on “Discovering a Small-Stream Gem in Yellowstone National Park”

  1. Yellowstone is certainly not a secret for fishermen, but should Orvis be hotspotting tiny streams that otherwise would escape angling pressure? Not judging; just asking.

    1. My takeaway from this story is not that you should run to Cascade Creek, but that you should be willing to explore every small stream that runs under the road, no matter where it is. If this post increased the number of anglers on Cascade Creek this summer by more than 10, I would be flabbergasted. The Park is a target-rich environment, and there are much more famous waters–with bigger fish–to attract anglers.

      1. Regardless, even if the message of this article is to convey that you should take time to explore smaller creeks and get back to maybe fly fishing basics, then why even include a stream name at all? I love fishing small creeks and find true adventure in “blue lining”. Regardless, when I share my experiences with fellow anglers we talk about the experience and time spent on the water, and they never ask me to flat out name a creek because they understand the value of having these escapes.

        You can convey a strong passion for small creek fishing without naming any rivers or creeks by simply listing a geographic location like northern Yellowstone, central Yellowstone, etc. Most small streams don’t see that much pressure and is a large reason why a lot of anglers tend to flock to them, especially when its something they have to work for. They are willing to forget about 16 inch trout if it means fishing a meadow to yourself with single dry fly for 8-12 inch browns.

        Not to mention, even if one person has already fished in front of you in a small creek, it can shutdown all of the water they have moved over, thus diminishing your fishing experience. I have fished a bunch of small water in Yellowstone and its quite amazing, a shame if everyone just started spilling the beans on everything for a few likes.

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