Fishing Overview: Yellowstone National Park

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Fly-fishing in Yellowstone National Park
Fly-fishing in Yellowstone National Park (Steven Schauer/Digital Vision/Getty)

Yellowstone National Park Highlights

  • The Upper Gibbon River is a favorite section of stream for seven- to 17-inch rainbows, plus the occasional but rapidly dwindling grayling. Access the river from along the Norris-Canyon Road, or catch up with it along the Wolf Lake Trail above Virginia Falls.
  • Though you are bound to share the area with other anglers, good-sized cutthroats are known to populate the upper reaches of Slough Creek in the park's northeast. Follow the Slough Creek Trail as far up as you care to, even out of the park. Go later in the season to avoid insects and crowds.
  • Escape flocks of anglers, and get a bit of a workout hiking into the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, where wide stretches of river and prolific hatches support a healthy cutthroat and rainbow population. The best stretches are pretty remote, so plan on making a multi-day trip.
  • Between Biscuit Basin and the Midway Geyser Basin, it's easy to access the Firehole River from the road. This is a heavily fished area, so the resident rainbows and browns are rather wily. Catch more in the early fall when the water temperature drops.
  • It's a truism that most veteran rangers are anglers, and furthermore that most love to talk about the park to anyone who is not wearing a Hawaiian shirt and demanding to know where the bears are. Chat up the folks in the backcountry office for tips on where they're biting and obscure places to cast.

You won't hear many arguments against the belief that Yellowstone National Park offers the finest public trout fishing in the world. Within the park's 3,400 square miles are over 800 miles of broad rivers, smaller backcountry streams, and 175 lakes! So it's safe to say there's enough great fishing for anglers at any level. Experienced anglers often seek the calm waters of Firehole River or the Gibbon River where advanced fishing skills are necessary. Less experienced anglers can fulfill their trout goal at Yellowstone Lake or the Buffalo Ford stretch of the Yellowstone River.

Here's a quick rundown of how to navigate Yellowstone's many fabulous fishing waters:

Yellowstone Lake
Those seeking consistent action for cutthroat in the 15- to 17-inch range head to the legendary Yellowstone Lake, located smack in the middle of the park. This 89,000-acre lake has a lake depth average of 140 feet, with most of the trout feeding near the shore. Check out the inlet streams, especially during spawning time in June.

Shoshone Lake
At over 80,000 acres, Shoshone is the second largest lake in the park. It's accessible by trail or boat or canoe from Lewis Lake (see below). Shoshone boasts large brown and lake trout along with some good-sized brook and cutthroat trout. Best fishing ops here are in fall.

Lewis Lake
The third largest lake in the park, Lewis hosts mainly brown trout, and is also sprinkled with lake and brook trout. There's roadside access, as well as a boat launching ramp—an important element since best fishing results often happen from a boat.

Other Lakes
Accessible via a short hike from the park's northeast corner of the park, Trout Lake offers just that. Grebe Lake has grayling and rainbow trout, as does Wolf Lake. Blacktail Lake has brook and cutthroat trout. Try Heart Lake for cutthroat trout, lake trout, and mountain whitefish.

Rivers
Yellowstone anglers aren't humming "Cry me a river," but "It's raining fish." The park's rivers are among the top trout waters in the country. Classic western trout waters include the Firehole, Madison, Lamar, and of course the fabulous Yellowstone.

Yellowstone River
Located from the southeast corner of the park throughout its length, Yellowstone is renowned for cutthroats averaging 16 to 18 inches and 1 to 2 pounds. These are good fly-fishing targets because they're not discriminating eaters. By the most popular stretch of the Yellowstone, by Sulphur Caldron, the fishing is a dream come true. Here you'll find the Buffalo Ford access, where catches of 50 to 60 trout a day regularly occur! This section opens July 15.

The Yellowstone River continues to offer superior trout fishing after it leaves the park. Paradise Valley is a favorite stretch for many fly-fishers.

Lamar River
Before joining the Yellowstone near Tower, the Lamar flows for 66 miles. It's one of the last streams to clear from spring runoff, and it muddies easily after heavy rains. For best results, fish here in late summer. Recommended are the Little Lamar River, Cache, South Cache, Soda Butte, Amphitheater, Flint, Cold, Calfee, and Miller creeks. Be aware that the Lamar can be moody, so move around until you find fish.

Firehole River
This river can be very demanding for all but the most experienced fly-fishers. However, unlike most of the other park streams, which aren't in peak fishing form until late June or July, the Firehole is in gear when the park opens in late May. That's due to the Firehole's being fed by thermal springs, thus the waters seldom rise or become unfishable.

Gibbon River
Accessible by road along most of its length, the Gibbon flows for 38 miles from Grebe Lake to its confluence with the Firehole at Madison Junction. Be aware that from Gibbon Falls downstream to the Firehole, the river is restricted to fly-fishing. The upper river, from Grebe to Elk Park at Norris Geyser Basin, has small brook trout and rarely-caught grayling. Fishing is best at this river early summer and early fall.

Other Rivers
The Gardner, in the northwestern corner of the park, offers great trout fishing. Madison River, long recognized as a major trout stream, is mostly recommended for fishermen with experience. The Bechler, a tributary of the Falls River, is a fun fishing and backpacking site. So named for its waterfalls and cascades, Falls River is an excellent fly-fishing stream. The Snake River winds through the park's southern section. It contains cutthroat trout and whitefish, but access is mostly limited to long hikes.

The park can send you a complete packet of info. Ask for a list of area fishing and outdoor guides.

Fishing & Boating Permits
In Yellowstone, bald eagles, osprey, and other wildlife have the first crack at catching fish for dinner. Fishing regulations have been designed to permit visitors to enjoy angling for wild trout and yet not compete with these animals for food. Some waters are closed to fishing; some are restricted to fly-fishing, and others are catch-and-release only. Take-home limits for species and size-and-number restrictions vary for different areas.

A current Yellowstone fishing permit is required and must be carried by all persons 12 years of age and older who are fishing in Yellowstone Park. Contact a ranger for more information.

The park has implemented a non-toxic fishing program. Fishing tackle such as leaded split-shot sinkers, weighted jigs (lead molded to a hook), and soft lead-weighted ribbon for nymph fishing are no longer allowed. Only non-toxic alternatives are allowed to accompany these types of fishing tackle.

A permit is required for all vessels (motorized and non-motorized including float tubes) and must be obtained in person at any of the following locations: South Entrance, Lewis Lake Campground, Grant Village Visitor Center, Bridge Bay Ranger Station, and Lake Ranger Station. At Canyon and Mammoth Visitor Centers, only non-motorized boating permits are available. A Coast Guard-approved wearable personal flotation device is required.

Outboards and rowboats may be rented (first come, first served) from AmFac Parks & Resorts at Bridge Bay Marina on Yellowstone Lake. Guided fishing boats are also available and may be reserved in advance by contacting AmFac at 307-344-7311.

Grand Teton National Park's boat permit will be honored as a one-time, 7-day permit or can be applied toward a Yellowstone annual permit.

All vessels are prohibited on park rivers and streams except the channel between Lewis and Shoshone Lakes, where only hand-propelled vessels are permitted.


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