Greater Yellowstone

On the Water
Yellowstone Lake

Look at a map of Greater Yellowstone and you will find the headwaters of several of America's major river systems. To the north, the Yellowstone and the three forks of Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin begin their run to the Missouri. Heading east, the Shoshone and Wind Rivers strike out toward the Big Horn, ultimately reaching the Yellowstone and Missouri as well. On the west, the Snake starts its circuitous route to the Columbia and the Pacific. Southward, the Green River tumbles toward canyon country and the massive Colorado River basin.

No wonder the Greater Yellowstone is a fisherman's paradise. Or that paddlers enjoy every variation of water— from a tranquil lakes to roaring Class V whitewater.


An avid fisherman could spend a lifetime exploring the many branches of the Yellowstone River system and be well on his way to attaining nirvana. The native trout, known as Yellowstone cutthroats, originally inhabited waters only on the western side of the Continental Divide. But several thousand years ago, a few hardy specimens managed to cross the Divide at Two Ocean Pass. The rest is history— at least until white men arrived. By 1891, with native cutthroat stocks dwindling in much of the watershed, Park superintendent Captain Boutelle introduced the idea of stocking. The results today are populations of brook, brown, and rainbow trout living alongside the cutthroats.

Anglers heading to Yellowstone during the warmer months may be rewarded with several hatches. More than a dozen species of mayfly emerge during this period. Our friends tell us they use the Sparkle Dun for great success across most of the mayflie hatches and the Pheasant Tail Nymph for Baetis and Pale Morning Dun hatches. About 10 species of Caddis also emerge in this area. as well as a number of stoneflies— though during the peak of summer grasshopper imitations are about as good as it gets.

The fishing possibilities in this region are endless. I've selected a few highlights within and north of Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone Lake: Yellowstone Lake is the most popular fishery in the park and a great spot for less experienced anglers. Native cutthroat run 15 to 17 inches, and virtually the entire lake has an outstanding reputation. Easiest access is from roads along the north shore. The east and south sections can be reached via hiking trails. The two arms extending south and southeast are more isolated and rate among the most productive waters.

Yellowstone River in the Park: Ranking as one of the nation's premier trout streams, the Yellowstone River attracts thousands of anglers each season. Careful management has boosted the cutthroat population over the past few decades. The trout dine on a profusion of insects, and lucky fishermen may arrive during hatches of mayflies, caddis and stoneflies. The Buffalo Ford/Sulphur Caldron area downstream (north) from the lake is the most heavily fished, but doesn't open until mid-summer. For angling amid backcountry solitude, trek into the Thoroughfare, the wild land upstream from the lake.

Paradise Valley: North of the park, the Yellowstone River enters Paradise Valley. One of the most scenic spots in the Rockies, the valley has gone through an influx of Hollywood and business moguls, Ted Turner and his riverside ranch being among the most recognized. But this area remains about as close as you can come to Heaven on Earth for trout aficionados. River access has caused some friction in recent years, but anglers will find quite a few superb access points between Gardner and Livingston.

Madison River: The Madison runs over 100 miles from the edge of the park to Three Forks, where it merges with the Gallatin and Jefferson. A very popular stream, its wily trout have a reputation for challenging even the most sophisticated anglers. Hordes descend during the salmonfly hatch in late June or early July. Access is easy in the upper reaches where the river parallels the road. Downstream, the river enters Bear Trap Canyon, one of its most scenic stretches and good angling.

Gallatin River: The icy waters of the Gallatin hold good populations of rainbows, plus browns and cutthroats. Over 200 insect species inhabit the river and it is one of the best rivers in Greater Yellowstone for terrestrials. Ants, beetles, crickets and grasshoppers are blown off the grassy banks and snapped up by hungry trout. The river runs along the highway from the park to Bozeman, making access relatively simple. On one early morning drive, we spotted a bald eagle cruising low over the river, evidently looking for his own catch before the fishermen arrived.

Gibbon River: The Gibbon flows through meadows between the park's Norris and Madison Junctions, with Gibbon Falls forming a barrier to migrating trout about half way. Above the falls, in Elk and Gibbon Meadows, patient fishermen can stalk brooks, browns and rainbows. Spawning browns and rainbows attract anglers below the falls during October.

Heart Lake: If you want to strap your flyrod to your backpack, Heart Lake is a good backcountry destination in the southeast section of the park. The lake covers over 2,000 acres and can be combined with trips to the Snake River.

The Beartooths: The high plateau of the Beartooth Mountains is dotted with alpine lakes, most above 8,550 feet. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness encompasses more than 900 lakes, a third of which hold trout. The Beartooths are superb backcountry for losing yourself in, and fishermen get a double dose of pleasure. Nowhere will you find a better place to outwit golden trout than the Beartooths fishery. The goldens of Lightning Lake are pure-strain and stubborn. Along the Beaten Path crossing the Beartooths, good fishing is found in the East Rosebud drainage, Rainbow and the lakes above it, the Snow Lakes above Elk Lake, Cairn Lake and throughout the Clarks Ford drainage.


In one of his most recognizable shots, Ansel Adams snapped a long bow in the Snake River, with the sun setting over the distant Tetons. His photograph captures the beauty and serenity which floaters find as they drift through the wilds of Greater Yellowstone. The Snake is only one end of the scale, however. At the other lies daredevil thrills, where the rivers carve canyons churning with whitewater. The following descriptions run the gamut.

The Snake River: The Snake River winds 50 miles through Grand Teton National Park. With smooth water, bald eagles and osprey nesting along the shore, and the magnificence of the Tetons, this stretch arguably holds some of the best family floating in the world. The river is more challenging that it looks, but local operators can take you and the kids on a full-day outing or a sunset paddle.

The Shoshone River: The Shoshone is another good choice if the kids are clamoring for whitewater excitement. The river flows out of the Absaroka Mountains for an easy run toward Cody, Wyoming. A nine and a half mile stretch from Wapiti to Buffalo Bill Reservoir makes a good day trip. Rapids top out at a comfortable Class II.

The Yellowstone River: While paddling on rivers in Yellowstone Park is strictly forbidden (an issue that has been simmering with local boaters for years) the namesake river offers exceptional paddling opportunities as it exits the park to the north. A favorite day trip is the run from Gardner to Yankee Jim Canyon, about a 12-mile stretch with numerous playful Class II runs. If you continue through Yankee Jim canyon, prepare for some Class III water at House Rock rapids (which can be easily portaged). Below the Canyon, miles of tranquil water wind through the Paradise Valley— on any of these well-marked stretches it is highly recommended that you bring along a fishing rod.

Bear Trap Canyon: The Madison River cuts a huge cleft north of Yellowstone National Park. The granite walls of Bear Trap Canyon rise 1,500 feet above a river tumbling through nine miles of rapids. Professional outfitters can take you on a four to five hour rollercoaster ride. Only experienced river runners should try it on their own. I ran into one local fellow who claimed to have kayaked Bear Trap every month of the year - including a freezing December run of two hours.

Clarks Fork: The Wild and Scenic Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River is for passionate kayakers only. Even at low water, paddlers hurdle through steep gorges filled with Class V rapids. At high water, the river is impassable. The river earned its wild and scenic designation for a 20-mile stretch through the Box, a challenge only a handful of world-class kayakers take on.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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