Written by: B. Pierce, Montana Angler
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 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.
Within its 3,468 square miles, Yellowstone backcountry encompasses an incredible diversity of fishing opportunities, 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 that 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—which 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. These gorgeous cutthroats are found in the Snake River drainage which flows south toward Grand Teton National Park.
In addition, park waters host 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.
Much of Yellowstone’s backcountry fishing can be experienced 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.
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.
Gear and Flies
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. At the Montana Angler fly shop in Bozeman, we always have the latest info on what’s hatching and the best patterns for your trip.
The Four Corners
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.
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.
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.
B. Pierce writes often for Montana Angler, an Orvis-Endorsed Fly-Fishing Expedition in Bozeman, Montana.
More resources from Montana Angler:
- Fishing Yellowstone Park In August
- Fishing The Salmonfly Hatch in Yellowstone Park
- Fishing Yellowstone National Park in June
- September Fishing in Yellowstone National Park
- 5 Tips For Late Summer Fishing In Yellowstone Park
- Fly Fishing Yellowstone National Park On Opening Day in Late May
- Fishing Yellowstone Park: A Seasonal Primer
- Fly-Fishing Yellowstone National Park in October
- Fishing Yellowstone Park in July