Last Chance in Yellowstone

Written by: Toby Swank

YNP Fall
Fall fishing on the Upper Madison in Yellowstone National Park.
photo by Toby Swank

The fishing season in Yellowstone National Park is winding down and will officially close this Sunday, November 8. This date is probably more relevant now than ever, as the popularity of fishing for fall-run trout heading up to the Madison River headwaters draws more and more anglers every year.

I try to get to the headwaters of the Madison at least once every fall in pursuit of Walter. Walter spends most of the year in the depths of Hebgen Lake, but comes within reach of a fly rod once the air gets crisp and the aspen trees are bare. Walter is there in the upper reaches of the Madison and can be caught on a fly this weekend and every weekend from mid-September on through the end of the season in YNP.

Success on the Madison, Gibbon, and lower Firehole depends on a variety of factors, most of which we really can’t do anything about. Gear is always important, but planning, weather, and a little luck probably have more to do with hooking some nice fish than anything else. Show up early, find a run with some fish in it, and work the water carefully until the sun gets up. Start with swinging a small streamer or large soft hackle through the juicy part of a deep hole. If the fish are happy, there is a good chance of finding the trout of the year in any of these holes just about everyday. But, an early rise and some scouting in the days beforehand will greatly increase the odds of this whole drama playing out

When choosing my gear for a day of fall fishing in YNP, I like to keep it simple and versatile. I opt for a 966 Helios, since I will most certainly end up indicator-fishing or sight-nymphing as the sun comes up. The 9-1/2-foot rod gives me a little more length than the standard 9-footer, which helps in swinging wets and streamers and makes for a much easier mend on long upstream drifts later in the morning. The “added value” of the recoil snake guides will be greatly appreciated on about the third cast of the day when the mercury is holding at around 15 degrees. Ice on the guides is hardly an issue when it comes to these guides.

These fish are primarily moving up the Madison to spawn, so their motivation to eat a fly changes. Common “match the hatch” thinking is not required. For swinging flies, a size 8-12 soft-hackle Hare’s Ear is usually a good place to start, but just about any color will do the trick at some point in the season. Swinging flies on floating lines requires more angler confidence than anything else, so I always pick the fly that grabs my attention first on that day. Nymphing is definitely more effective for numbers, and you’ll find success with stonefly nymphs, Pheasant Tails, and the odd egg pattern. Barbless hooks and non-toxic weight are the law in YNP, so plan ahead.

Fall in YNP is an amazing time of year, for a variety of reasons. Where else can you be standing in a river fishing for trout alongside bugling elk and snorting bison, all the while suffering from the creepy feeling that there’s probably a Grizzly Bear closer to you than you realize?

 Toby Swank is the proprietor of Fins & Feathers of Bozeman, in Bozeman, Montana.

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