The Yellowstone Park is one of the River Journal
series. While the book does give in depth coverage to the Yellowstone
and Madison Rivers we have excluded those since both are well covered
in the Great Rivers section under
Yellowstone River and Madison River.
The waters of Yellowstone National Park are the best inland trout habitat
in our country, and this is extendible to saying that they are among the
world's best. Nearly everything required for ideal trout residence has
been preserved here by the national park concept: near perfect water
quality, heathy riparian zones, good food production and ample spawning
and habitation conditions.
All Park waters host trout very near their holding capacity, a tribute to
quality, but another misconception is that Park waters are rich in basic
nutrients required to build a broad and varied food chain. This is false,
regardless of numerous works claiming it is the case, because nearly all
the Park is underlain by notoriously insolvent volcanic rhyolites.
Thermal features, common contributors to Park surface waters,
supply nutrients, but not necessarily the calcium bicarbonate needed
to build organic structures. Why, then, are good numbers of salmoides
with large individuals present in Park waters? Simply because all other
aspects needed are present. . . . Let's take a look at these waters which
are among the very best on the face of this earth for trout.
Snake River Drainage
The Snake River drainage contains a larger variety of waters than any of
those in the Park. Three of the Park's major lakes (Heart, Lewis and
Shoshone) are here as are three of its larger rivers (Heart, Lewis and Snake).
The brown trout population of the drainage within the Park exceeds that of
all other Park drainages combined. To the east on Two Ocean Plateau is
a possible passage site of the past where cutthroat trout moved from the
Pacific drainage to the Atlantic drainage. This is Two Ocean Creek, just
south of the Park, which splits on the Continental Divide to flow to either
drainage. Besides the major waters, prime small waters including Crawfish
Creek, Moose Creek, Outlet Creek, Pocket Lake, Polecat Creek, and
Shoshone Creek grace the drainage and offer near solitude.
The Snake River begins just south of Yellowstone National Park and drains
the west slope of the Two Ocean Plateau. After entering the Park, it runs
northwesterly while dropping almost one thousand feet in ten miles. It slows
in a large sloping meadow as it approaches its confluence with Heart River.
Here it arcs around Big Game Ridge to flow southerly to a canyon with
deep pools, swift runs and rapids holding good cutthroat trout. After
exiting the canyon below the Heart River confluence, the Snake River
flows in a broad westerly arc more frequently visited by anglers and
sightseers. This country is accessed from the South Entrance Ranger
Station, near which the river is usually forded. The Snake River is a
major runoff stream, and its season depends on snowfall and spring
weather. Normally it becomes fishable by mid-July . . . Whitefish make
up at least half of the resident salmonids, but are a credible sportfish.
They take small dry and wet flies, fight well, but not enduringly like
co-inhabitant cutthroat trout. Pools are the best holding water, and
little cover other than boulders and sweepers is present. Riffles and
runs hold mayflies with Beatis (blue winged olives)
and Epeorus (slate-cream dun) species being most
numerous. Rhyacophila caddis are abundant, and a representation
of giant stoneflies is present.
Two species of char, as well as trout, inhabit the Snake River. Rare lake
and brook trout are swept down from Lewis Lake above . . . In terms of
use for the fly fisher, brown trout have been most successful. They have
made wide-spread migrations downstream as far as Jackson Lake. They
and brook trout have spread into tributaries such as Polecat Creek. They
also grow to large sizes.
Of Park rivers the Lewis alone flows from one major lake (Shoshone Lake)
and through another (Lewis Lake). So different is Lewis River between
Shoshone and Lewis lakes from the rest of its reach that anglers call it
Lewis River Channel, or "The Channel". Thus, I discuss it in relation
to Shoshone Lake, but immediately below Lewis Lake, is a reach of the
Lewis river that has excellent cover for trout, so that in the summer well
placed terrestrial patterns bring strikes. Riffles provide aquatic insects,
and from mid-June through September caddis, blue winged olive and
pale morning dun patterns will bring action. But the major angling
attraction here is the run of brown trout that migrates out of Lewis
Lake beginning in late September. These hit best on streamer and
Lewis Lake is more approachable and therefore more heavily fished than
Shoshone. These facts are not reasons for writing it off, for Lewis Lake
contains an excellent population of brown trout and lake trout. Trout here
may not rival those is Shoshone Lake in to numbers but they do in size,
particularly the lake trout which have individuals exceeding thirty pounds.
Most of the Lewis Lake east shoreline is skirted by the South Entrance - West
Thumb Highway. Thus, this shoreline is accessible to wading and float tubing
anglers who take brown or lake trout by presenting leech or streamer patterns
on sinking or sink-tip lines regardless of weather conditions. Winds commonly
limit summertime angling to early morning and evening hours for those presenting
speckled dun and midge imitations. Wind and waves also make Lewis Lake,
like Shoshone and Yellowstone lakes, extremely dangerous.
Lewis River Channel and Shoshone Lake
Shoshone Lake is the second largest lake in Yellowstone National Park.
This beautiful lake of abut twelve square miles in surface area, nestles in a
bulge of the Continental Divide. It is also the largest lake not touch by a
road in the conterminous United States of America! Development by man
here is the ranger stations at the outlet, on Windy Point halfway down the
north shore and a system of primitive campsites. Backpackers reach the
lake from Old Faithful, Belcher Ranger Station, Norris Pass and trailheads
above Lewis Lake. By far the most attractive access for the angler is to
traverse northwest across Lewis Lake, by canoe or boat from the campground,
to the mouth of the Lewis River Channel. As the east shore slips away it is as
if one goes back about one hundred years.
Shoshone Lake hold excellent angling if one follows a seasonal game plan.
It goes like this. Ice out occurs about the first of June. [The lake is at nearly
8,000 feet elevation.] Trout are usually quite active through June, particularly
around submerged weed beds which host fresh water shrimp, snails and
aquatic insects. [You can expect to catch lake trout, brown trout, brook
trout and cutthroat.]
After June, Shoshone Lake warms, and most fish seek cool, deep waters.
This reduces angling success significantly, so I recommend that you investigate
other water from after the Fourth of July to around Labor Day . . . Now,
brown trout migrate toward the outlet bay to enter Lewis River Channel to
spawn. Large colorful streamers and sinking or sink-tip lines are required
at these times. So is a stout constitution as the bluebird days of late September
and early October can be punctuated by the first autumn snows and temperatures
that can plunge to below zero degrees Fahrenheit.
The autumn brown trout is only one aspect of fishing Lewis river Channel.
Throughout spring and summer it offers excellent fishing for brown and
Heart Lake Drainage
Tucked away in the east lap of Mount Sheridan and just over the Continental
Divide from Yellowstone Lake is the most pristine large fishery in Yellowstone
National Park. This is the Heart Lake drainage, a treasure by any standard.
If you walk the four and a half miles from the Heart Lake tailhead on the
South Entrance - West Thumb highway to the top of Paycheck Pass, Heart
Lake Basin will be within your view.
In this drainage the only alternation is a network of trails, primitive
campgrounds and the picturesque ranger station at the northwest
corner of the lake.
Heart Lake and its tributaries are richer in dissolved nutrients than the other
oligotrophic lake systems in the Park. Whether this is the reason for a larger
variety of resident fish in the Heart Lake system than other Park waters is
vague . . . Like the Yellowstone drainage to the north, Heart Lake Basin
was devoid of trout in historic times. Heart Lake historically hosted the Snake
River cutthroat. The Yellowstone cutthroat is also native to Heart Lake. . .All
cutthroat are spring spawners, so the present cutthroats are probably crosses
of the two subspecies. Whatever their origin, cutthroats of Heart Lake Basin
are a wonderful sport fish. Excepting that they roll on the surface rather than
jumping, their fight is like that of brown trout. Specimens here, in the outlet
immediately below the lake and occasionally in Beaver Creek range upwards
to eight pounds. These fish are protected by a catch and release regulation
which helps ensure their presence for future generations.
The other sport fish in Heart Lake (whitefish are also present, but not commonly
caught) is the lake trout. Lake trout are the biggest fish in Yellowstone National
Park, and in depths of Heart Lake they reach their largest. In 1931 a 42-pound
individual was taken here, and specimens between ten and thirty pounds are
Fall River Drainage
Fall river's drainage borders those of the Firehole and the Madison Rivers
across the Continental Divide. The four major streams in the drainage
(Belcher and Fall rivers, Boundary and Mountain Ash creek) begin on the
Madison and Pitchstone plateaus and carve canyons across Cascade
Corner which hosts the highest concentration of waterfalls in the Park.
Below, each stream slows in Fall River Basin as if pondering the remaining
journey. Then in the south west corner of the Basin, they unite for the
passage into Idaho and on to the Henry's Fork.
Like the Lewis River above its canyon and the Madison river drainage above
Firehole Falls and Gibbon Falls, much of the Fall river drainage was devoid
of trout until recently. Quite possibly, but unproven, Cave Falls just inside
the Park and Sheep Falls just outside may have been the historic upstream
barriers for salmonids. No official records exists of nineteenth century planting,
yet trout, apparently cutthroat, were found in Basin waters in a 1919 survey,
and after that Yellowstone cutthroat were officially planted. Rainbow trout
were unofficially introduced later, probably before the early 1930s.
Both . . .resulted in a powerful and hardy hybrid trout superficially identical
to that which flourishes in the Henry's Fork drainage. [Cut-bows.]
Bechler River and Boundary Creek
Bechler River is contained entirely with the Park, and is without major
development. Bechler's beauty begins where the Gregg, Phillips, Littles
and Ferris forks converge near Three River Junction between the Madison
and Pitchstone plateaus. Only the Gregg has a trout population.
Below the three River area are five miles through Bechler Canyon of rough
and tumble waters, beautiful to behold but relatively inhospitable for trout.
The angling season in the canyon begins around the first of July in normal
runoff years when giant and golden stoneflies emerge. Few anglers venture
to the canyon this time of time, because of excellent angling on more
approachable waters. By August and September, however, many persons
including anglers pass along the trail in the canyon. Soon after the stonefly
emergence in Bechler Canyon, and from all waters of easing gradient in
Fall River Basin, another important emergence occurs in canyon and
timbered reach of meadow below Colonnade Falls. This is the brown
drake emergence, and it is the most prolific in basic, possibly excepting
that of the pale morning dun (ephemeralla infrequens).
Fall River and Mountain Ash Creek
About a mile south of Ashton, Idaho an almost insignificant looking country
road runs east from U.S. Highway 20. This is the Ashton-Flagg Ranch Road,
also known as the Grassy Lake Road, and for the angler seeking a Yellowstone
Park angling experience it is as important as any road within the Park. . . .and
the road, which ends on the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Highway between
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, provides access to Fall River.
Fall River in its meadow reach and lower Mountain Ash Creek produce large
trout. These consist of cutthroad, rain trout and their hybrids, but in the past
few decades brook trout have reached these waters. Brook trout from the
lake escape early in the year via its intermittent outlet to Fall River. Occasionally
they grow to trophy sizes downstream in Fall River and Mountain Ash Creek.
All streams in Fall River Basin are runoff courses, Fall River included. Thus
the early season beginning varies, but usually can be relied on by the first week
of July. The first significant aquatic insect to emerge is the pale morning dun.
The next . . .is that of the giant and golden stoneflies. As the large stonefly
emergence dwindles of the green and brown drake occur. As July progresses
to a conclusion, terrestrial insects become a dominate food form for trout.
When one goes west a few hundred yards on the South Boundary Trail from
the Fish Lake access, a trial branching to the north is encountered. This is the
Fall River Cutoff which crosses the namesake river and leads to Mountain
Ash Creek, certainly one of the most beautiful and unforgettable trout
streams in Yellowstone National Park. Within its low gradient downstream
reaches are trophy sized cutthroat, rainbow and hybrid trout, and within its
upper reaches are small colorful trout, picturesque canyons, cascades and
one of the most unusual waterfalls in the Rocky Mountains. This is Union
Falls, formed by the confluence of two branches of Mountain Ash Creek.
At 260 feet in height it is the second highest major falls in Yellowstone.
Madison River Drainage
Which is the most heralded drainage from a fly fishing standpoint in Yellowstone
National Park? Undoubtedly the second largest in terms of surface area, that
of the Madison River. More books, articles and videos are devoted to this
drainage than any other in the Park, and for decades roads have almost entirely
paralleled the Madison, Firehole and Gibbon Rivers. Also, many smaller
quality trout streams of the drainage; Nez Perce, Duck, Maple, Little Firehole
and Iron Spring creeks are easily approached . . .But whereas the angler may
be crowded on the larger waters on the drainage, that person finds solitude
on the smaller.
Gibbon River and the Grayling Lakes
The Gibbon River, the second major source of the Madison River begins
as small headwater streams feeding Grebe Lake. Both Grebe and Wolf
lakes (and adjacent Cascade Lake) contain the only sustaining grayling
population in the Park. Rainbow trout are also present in Grebe and
Grayling are primarily insect feeders, so they are most active when damsel
flies, midges, caddisflies and mayflies emerge from the lakes. Rainbow
trout . . . flourish in Wolf and Grebe lakes. They can reach trophy sizes
here, and are fished for not only in the same manner as for grayling, but
also by presenting large streamer and leech patterns.
Below Wolf Lake, the Gibbon River drops into a narrow canyon, then
into Virginia Meadows where its gradient slows.
Into the Norris Meadows area above Solfatara Creek the Gibbon is a
relatively infertile stream. . . Plant life in the Gibbon also becomes richer
below Norris Geyser Basin and brown trout make their first upstream
appearance. Outstanding fishing is first realized in Elk Park, the meadows
just below the cascades of the Gibbon exiting Norris Geyser Basin. Here
are deep pools, undercut banks and aquatic vegetation. The successful
angler is one with a practiced approach.
Below Gibbon Meadows the river drops into Gibbon canyon which is
closely paralleled by the Norris-Madison Junction road. Downstream
is Gibbon Fall, the 80 foot high barrier to trout populations in the past.
Good angling is present in the pools, riffles and runs. Below where the
river heads into National Park Meadows, in which the meandering Gibbon
and Firehole meet to form the Madison, the most interesting angling begins.
As one would expect, large trout are present, but so are anglers as one of
the larger campgrounds in the Park and Madison Junction, a major highway
intersection, are nearby. Nevertheless success can usually be found here
if one concentrates angling in the evening hours.
The Firehole River
The Firehole, the major source of the Madison river, begins in bogs atop the
Madison Plateau. Technically the Firehole, because of being the major source,
is really the Madison river, But what a loss that change would be to the world
of rivers, for the name "Firehole" indicates a unique and singularly beautiful river.
As on many of the Park's streams, barriers like Firehole Falls prevented the
upstream spread of modern trout populations. So it was that in 1889 brook
trout were introduced into the Firehole River. However, the Firehole below
Upper Geyser Basin proved too warm for brook trout, so they either perished
or fled to cooler reaches above or into tributaries. In 1890 the more adaptive
brown trout were introduced into Nez Pierce Creek. Now they flourish in the
Firehole. In 1922 rainbow trout were introduced into the Little Firehole River.
They too flourished, but the choicest lies throughout are usually inhabited by
large, aggressive browns.
From Biscuit Basin down to its canyon the Firehole is a series of meadow
reaches intersperses by riffle and run water. Below the riffle downstream
of Biscuit Basic begins the most fabled reach of the Firehole, that flowing
through Midway and Lower Geyser basins. The first excellent water is the
right loop that Charlie Brooks dubbed Muleshoe Bend . . .I spend more
time in the picturesque waters below the Lower Iron Bridge, known as
Ojo Caliente Bend. It is an excellent place to fish particularly in the spring
before the river is too warm for the trout to be active.
Below Ojo Caliente Bend the Fountain Flats reach is an early season nymphing
favorite because of the damsel and dragon fly nymphs. Also, stonefly adult patterns
drifted on the waters where can be effective in the spring.
Hebgen Lake Tributaries
Just north of the Madison river at Baker's Hole are Maple, Duck and Grayling
creeks which begin in the Park and end in the Grayling Arm of the Hebgen
Reservior. . . Each of these streams offers attractive angling.
. . . .[Cougar or Maple Creek] flowing out of the Park to meet Duck Creek
a bit to the west holds some excellent beaver ponds with brown and rainbow
trout up to trophy sizes, but they are wary as any on earth. In the creek that
ends in the sinks to the east . . .is an isolated and rarely fished population
of west slope cutthroat trout.
Duck Creek is formed almost two miles inside the Park by the combination
of Richards Creek from the south, Gniss Creek from the east and Campanula
Creek from the north. Its nearly three mile length with in Park is a superb
but difficult meadow reach holding trophy brook, rainbow and brown trout.
Delicate caddis patterns may work anytime. The meadows along Duck
Creek have recently been populated by buffalo from the Park's increasing
herd. Keep their presence in mind.
Campanula Creek hold trout only during the spawning periods and most of
Richards Creek and its source, Richards Pond is presently off limits. This
area is a critical grizzly bear migration route, so it is appropriate that it is
little disturbed during studies of their passage. To the east of Duck Creek
is a long reach of Gneiss Creek holding waters seldom fished. The brook,
brown and rainbow trout here rival, in size, those in Duck Creek below,
but they are not as wary.
As one travels Highway 191 past Duck Creek and the Highway 287 junction,
the road ascends. Just before it passes back into the Park a beautiful stream
crosses, then parallels on the east. This is Grayling Creek, but only cutthroat
Gallatin River Drainage
The streams that form the Gallatin River begin on Three Rivers Peak in
the Gallatin Range, flow into Gallatin Lake, then down a long sloping
meadow. Here trout first populate the river. When one travels north
on Highway 191 over the divide that separates Grayling Creek of the
Madison River drainage from the Gallatin River drainage, fishless Divide
Lake and its outlet are on the east. Then flowing from the southwest,
the Gallatin River, no more than a fair sized creek, comes into view.
About a half mile north, where Divide Creek meets the river, Big Horn
Pass Trail leaves the highway to parallel the river. This trail is the access
to the upper river, and by following it one can realize some excellent
headwater angling, mainly for cutthroat trout.
Almost two miles downstream of the Big Horn Pass trailhead is another
trail that also heads east. This is Fawn Pass Trail, and through its use one
can access meadows on Fan Creek and its major tributary, Fawn Creek.
Both these streams can be surprising exciting to fish, especially during the
summer terrestrial season, and the waters flowing from these and from
Bacon Rind Creek, flowing from the west, help to make the Gallatin
river a more interesting stream.
Below the Fan Creek confluence the Gallatin hosts more browns and
rainbows than it does above. . .Essentially, the Park reach of the Gallatin
is overshadowed by its waters in the canyon below. But for those who stop
and test the waters here, the result is willing browns and rainbows with
an occasional cutthroat, responding from a stream flowing through
Tributaries of the Yellowstone River
Lamar River Drainage
In the lower part of its reach through the Park the Yellowstone River is joined
by two important rivers. The furthest upstream, the Lamar, is the larger. Like
the Snake River on the other side of the Park, it flows through upstream formations
which erode to cloud its waters during persistent rains. This condition can last for
a few days and even hampers angling in the Yellowstone. . .Like the Snake River
angling on the Lamar diminishes in quality as one goes upstream from the reach
adjacent to the highway. For combining beauty and good angling Cache, Calfee
and Miller Creek are best. Anglers enjoy naming landmarks, and the Lamar
confluence with Soda Butte Creek is christened the Junction Pool. This landmark,
just off the northeast entrance highway, marks the upstream point of best
angling on the Lamar. Below are about twelve miles of river, almost evenly
divided between beautiful meadows and the lower canyon reach.
Over the years the Park buffalo herd has increased to over four thousand animals.
One place where this increase seems obvious is the Lamar Valley, so observe
your surroundings. These powerful beasts damage more people in Yellowstone
Park each year than any other animal, including bears. Lamar Valley is also
a best location to observe timber wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995.
Soda Butte Creek is the third largest tributary to the Lamar River. . .
Soda Butte Creek is also one of the Park's most popular fisheries. The
best trout are concentrated below Icebox Canyon because of increased
water from Pebble Creek and Amphitheater Creek, both of which offer
good fishing for smaller trout. Caddisflies are the predominate aquatic
insect, but as summer progresses the grasses of adjacent meadows host
abundant terrestrial insects.
About a mile below the Pebble Creek confluence with Soda Butte Creek
is a small parking area on the north side of the highway. From here a trail
of just over a half mile leads to Trout Lake. . .During its season, which
begins in mid-June, Trout Lake can be fished from the bank or by float
tube. If you fish from a float tube, remember the Park requires a boat
permit and life preserver. . .the lure of trout to double figure poundage
[rainbows and cutthroat] brings anglers well into October.
About fifteen streams miles downstream from the Soda Butte Creek
confluence the most visited stream in the drainage enters the Lamar river.
This is Slough Creek, and it has attained international reputation. . .The
meadow below Slough Creek Campground holds about three miles of
intriguing stream down to the so-called VIP Pool. On clear, windless
morning, throughout this reach, one can see immense trout holding on
the bottom of pools. Slough Creek now is open only to catch and release
fly fishing . . .
Just below the campground, and across from the corral which serves the
Silvertip Ranch, is a trailhead which parking space. For anglers the tote
road that begins here is a stairway to heaven. The first meadow . . . holds
as much stream as the meadow below the campground, but cutthroats here
are less wary than their hybridized cousins below. They do no match the
hybrids in size, but fish exceeding three pounds are present.
If the "first meadow above" is an angler's paradise, then the second meadow
above the campground is beyond superlative. This meadow, two miles beyond
the first meadow above, is the largest meadow reach on Slough Creek. It extends
north of the Park, and throughout it the creek meanders through deep holes.
Abundant cutthroat trout range up to two feet in length here. You will never
forget the "second meadow above", a special destination in the world of angling.
Gardner River Drainage
The last major downstream tributary to the Yellowstone River in the Park is
the Gardner River. It is almost like two rivers. Above Osprey Falls the
drainage hosts mostly small brook trout and rainbow trout, both introduced
early in this century. The stream above Osprey Falls are the only waters in
the Park open to bait fishing. This is restricted to children up to age twelve.
Trout here respond well to any small fly, so for one who enjoys small streams,
the area is a delight.
Below Osprey Falls the Gardner River passes through a steep canyon not
hospitable to fishing. In the Mammoth-Tower Junction [roads] area crossing
it becomes friendlier and brown and rainbow trout are plentiful. [The Gardner
River is accessible from the campground between Mammoth and the town
on Gardner.] The most abundant aquatic insect is the giant stonefly which
emerges in early July. Thus at this time the choice of what to fish with is
obvious. If one prefers small dry flies on the lower river, adult caddis
patterns throughout the season and hoppers from midsummer to the first
of October are the best choices.
Beginning in mid-September, the event which makes the Gardner most attractive
occurs. This is the brown trout run from the Yellowstone River. Fish up
to several pounds participate and in the fast, rocky water offer a strong
challenge. Certain areas of the river are closed at this time of the year
to protect spawning, but in opened areas the angler can test his skills.
Large browns are frequently hooked, but not frequently landed. Charlie
Brooks, . . .in Fishing Yellowstone Waters, speaks
of anglers cleaned by hooked browns careening back to the Yellowstone
River. The luckless souls are left with broken leaders and feelings as
empty as their reels. I know the feeling, but the one or two good fish
landed makes an autumn trip to the Gardner a memorable experience.
~ Bruce Staples
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