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Fishing authors have described Yellowstone National Park (YNP) as “a fly fisher’s paradise,” “an angler’s heaven on earth,” “a fisherman’s nirvana.” Bold statements indeed, but not without foundation. Consider this: Yellowstone contains within its boundaries close to 1,000 miles of legendary trout streams such as the Lamar, Gardner, Firehole, Gibbon, Madison, and of course, the Yellowstone. In all, according to the YNP web site (www.nps.gov/yell/), there are 1,000 streams in the park with 2,650 miles of running water.
Most of these waters are easily accessible to visiting anglers. In fact, most are next to, or within a stone’s throw of, the two-lane highways that carry park visitors past the park’s many natural attractions. And yes, the Yellowstone fishery is well managed: You can find outstanding fishing here for brown, rainbow, brook and cutthroat trout.
So, what’s the downside? Seems like there is always a downside, even in paradise. In Yellowstone, it’s the lack of solitude. This past summer, 75,000 of the park’s three million visitors purchased a park fishing license. Most of the fishing, as I’ve already noted, is within sight of a highway, and it’s rare to find yourself alone on any river here. I’m not saying you’ll be elbow to elbow with other anglers, but if you move up or down a stream more than a few hundred yards, you will most likely find other fishermen.
Unfortunately, in Yellowstone, you can’t just drive up an unimproved road to get away from the crowds. There are very few such roads, and those that do exist are accessible only to park employees. Visiting vehicles are, for the most part, confined to the designated paved roads. Also, watercraft are not allowed on the rivers in the park. So a guided or on-your-own float trip to less crowded waters is impossible.
Not to worry, even in an area as crowded with tourists and fishermen as Yellowstone is in summer and fall, there are ways to enjoy some solitude along with your fishing here. Every one of the major fishing rivers in Yellowstone Park has tributaries feeding it – and most provide excellent fishing away from the roadside crowds. My personal favorite section of the park for fishing is the northeast corner, reached via the Cooke City entrance. I prefer this part of the park because Yellowstone’s major attractions – the geysers, hot springs and historic hotels and lodges – are located farther to the west and south. So, although there is considerable vehicle traffic in the northeast corner, tourists tend to simply pass though on their way deeper into the park. Though still crowded by most standards, the northeast section gets less stop-and-go traffic.
In this northeast section is the Lamar River Valley. Two fair-sized fishing streams feed the Lamar – Slough Creek and Soda Butte Creek. Both of these streams are worth a visit.
Slough Creek is no “secret” to anglers. Many consider it the best fishing water in the park, if not in the entire US. So you won’t find complete solitude on the Slough – far from it. But the creek is off the beaten vehicle path, so only those willing to do some hiking upstream, or those on horseback, (guided horseback trips to Slough Creek are available, see below), get up the creek to the best fishing. Angling pressure is way lower than on the major roadside rivers.
Slough Creek is home to a healthy population of wild cutthroat trout in a captivatingly beautiful setting. A bit more than 15 miles of Slough Creek flows through the park. Beginning in the high mountains near the town of Cooke City, it flows down into the Lamar Valley, where it feeds into the Lamar River. Much of the landscape is open meadows on flat benches, with stretches of rushing water tumbling between the meadows.
These meadow benches see most of the angling pressure. The walk up the creek from the trailhead to what is called First Meadow takes less than an hour. Second Meadow is a three-hour trek, if you can keep up a steady pace.
Most anglers report that First Meadow holds larger fish, mostly cutthroat with a few rainbows and cutt-bow hybrids. The last study I read showed the average cutty taken in First Meadow measured 15 inches, with a catch rate of five fish per hour. In the upper, Second Meadow, the fish, almost all cutthroat, were smaller on average but the catch rate was higher. Below the First Meadow (near the campground), the creek runs through a canyon toward the Lamar. The trout run smaller here (about 12 inches), and are easier to catch than they are in either of the meadows.
Fishing the meadow stretches of Slough Creek takes skill. Just as the angler can see the fish in the clear, relatively slow-moving water, the fish can also see the angler. A stealthy approach and long leaders with a 6X or 7X tippet are recommended.
The best fishing is mid-June to early July, just after the stream clears from runoff. The dry fly angler will find terrestrial patterns — ants, beetles, hoppers — are normally the best choice. Pale Morning Duns are also popular through the summer, and a big Green Drake hatch takes place in August.
Soda Butte Creek, also in the park’s northeast corner, has its beginnings in the mountains around Cooke City. It is subject to heavy but relatively brief runoff. The best fishing is within the boundaries of Yellowstone Park. From the point the creek enters the park to Ice Box Canyon, fishing is decent but the trout are small (eight to 10 inches). The creek is tough to access and fish as it flows through Ice Box, a deep, narrow two-mile canyon, but then it flows into Round Prairie and the fishing gets easier and better. At this point, Pebble Creek, another tributary worth exploring, adds to Soda Butte’s water volume.
Soda Butte Creek continues mostly eastward for four miles, flowing through Junction Meadow before it meets the Lamar River. In Junction Meadow, the trout average 12 to 14 inches, with some reaching 16 to 22 inches. July into September is the best time to fish this section. Green Drakes, Blue Winged Olives and caddis are all popular dry flies in the summer.
Again, this is Yellowstone Park. It is almost a sure bet you will not find yourself alone on either Soda Butte or Slough creeks. But it is likely the pressure will be less than you would experience on one of the major rivers.
To reach the northeast section of the park, fly to Billings, Montana, which has major commercial air service, then drive north through Red Lodge, up and over the magnificent Beartooth Highway. The park entrance is just past Cooke City. Fishing licenses and detailed maps are available at the entrance.
There are many outfitters licensed to guide in Yellowstone. They typically furnish the camp, tents, food and meals, horses, saddles and tack, wrangler/guides and cook. Most do the camp chores. All you need is your personal fishing gear and fishing license. I’ve named several outfitters below. These guys can take you on walk-in day trips or on multi-day horseback pack trips.
Beartooth Plateau Outfitters is one option. Their website lists Slough Creek, Cache Creek, Pebble Creek and the Lamar River as destinations. Beartooth offers full-service, backcountry, horseback pack trips.
Medicine Lake Outfitters is another full-service pack trip outfitter. They’ve been guiding in this area for more than 30 years. They offer guided fishing daytrips on horseback.
Yellowstone Wilderness Outfitters is a third option. They offer both horsepacking trips to Slough Creek and daytrips elsewhere in the park.
Yellowstone’s general fishing season is open from the last Saturday in May through the first Sunday in November. These dates may vary on certain streams. The park requires a special fishing license, available at all park entrances. Fishing in Yellowstone is under tight management, so read the regulations carefully before setting out. You can download a pdf of the regulations at: www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/fishdates.htm.
(Postscript: If you plan to go to Yellowstone, lodging and supplies are available in Red Lodge; Cooke City; and in the park. Be sure to make lodging reservations as far in advance as possible, Cenis warns.)