The Rivers of Yellowstone Park

Publishers Note:
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.

Yellowstone's sole native trout: the cutthroat

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.

Snake River

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.

Lewis River

Lewis River Canyon from South Entrance-W.Thumb Hyw 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 nymph patterns.

Lewis Lake

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 lake trout.

Heart Lake Drainage

Heart Lake Basin holds prime bear habitat
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 still common.

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.

Sand Hill cranes are common Yellowstone residents

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 Wolf Lakes.

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.

Famous Muleshoe Bend, Firehole River

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

Duck Creek in early June

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 are present.

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 beautiful surroundings.

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.

Slough Creek in meadows below the campground

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.

Second meadow, Slough Creek

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

Yellowstone Park For a MAP of the Yellowstone Park Rivers, click here.
For the FLIES for the rivers of Yellowstone, click here.
To ORDER Yellowstone Park direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Yellowstone Park,, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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