Yellowstone covers an area larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Within its border lies a world of nearly infinite natural beauty and angling opportunity. An angler could spend a lifetime of summers exploring and mastering the roadside waters of Yellowstone Park alone. Rivers like the Madison, Gallatin, Gibbon, Firehole, Lamar, and Yellowstone all have relatively easy access. And that is just a small fraction of the over 200 fishable streams and 45 fishable lakes in the Park.
For some anglers and nature lovers it is the backcountry which draw them back to Yellowstone year after year. Part of the fun of fishing the backcountry is the sense of discovery that accompanies each new adventure. For this reason, we won’t name or describe any specific rivers or lakes here. We suggest that you pick up a detailed map of the Park, give it a good looking over, and remember that the majority of rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds in Yellowstone hold trout of some kind. Let your imagination run wild. Please remember though, your own safety is a priority in the backcountry. Yellowstone is a wild place, and many of the features that make it so special also make it fairly dangerous. The Park Service provides some excellent information and regulations on how to travel safely in the backcountry for those interested.
The Park Service regulates angling activity within Yellowstone very closely, in accordance with a number of management goals including native species preservation, overall ecosystem function, and concern over the spread of invasive species. As such, fishing regulations are rather complex. With few exceptions, the entire Park is NO LEAD, NO BARBS, and NO BAIT. It is the angler’s responsibility to learn and abide by all of the Park’s regulations, including the angling regulations, which can be found at most fishing shops, at all park entrances, and online. If you find something confusing in the regulations, don’t be afraid to ask.
The Park Service divides Yellowstone into four regions for the sake of angling regulations. Their delineated boundaries are based on fisheries, but also relate to the geography and geological history of the park. Some of the highlights and popular waters from each region are discussed in the following sections, ordered clockwise from our home base in West Yellowstone.
The Northwest Region is closest to our home base here in West Yellowstone, and is home to several major fisheries including the Firehole, Gibbon, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers.
The Firehole and Gibbon rivers meet at Madison Junction to form the Madison River. There is something about the Madison Junction that makes a person (angler or not) want to just sit and stay a while. Broad, grassy meadows spilling out along the placid river until they meet the steep forest and rock walled sides of the valley. Bison and elk graze along, and a trumpeter swan might float on by. It’s a bit of paradise on a warm summer day. The three rivers that meet there are unique in their own right, but also share the feature of being somewhat seasonal fisheries due to elevated mid-summer water temperatures, primarily due to the abundance of hot springs and other thermal features which drain into these waters. Norris, Upper, Midway, and Lower Geyser Basins as well as Biscuit Basin, and numerous other individual thermal features are all found here. It’s an awesome area to take breaks between fishing spots to take in a geyser eruption.
While all the warm water has its down side, the thermal activity is also what creates opportunity when the weather and water temperatures are a little too cold elsewhere. These rivers fish great early and late in the season.
The Madison in the Park has a “chalkstream” character for most of its length, with smooth flats divided by classic riffles, runs, and pools. It provides angling opportunity throughout the season, but is most noted for its early season hatches and late season migratory runs.
The Firehole is truly a unique river, offering good access, fine dry fly fishing opportunities, and an opportunity to fish alongside all the wonders of Yellowstone Park. Thermal features line the river, and animals such as elk and bison are seen in large numbers. The Firehole fishes best early and late in the season when water temperatures are below 68 degrees.
In contrast, to the Madison and Firehole, the Gallatin runs ice cold and fishes best exactly when the other rivers are at their warmest! The Gallatin extends from its headwaters in Yellowstone National Park to the confluence with the Madison and Jefferson Rivers near Three Forks. It flows predominantly north through terrain ranging from alpine meadows, to pocket water and riffles, and is easy to access and wade due to its approachable size and character. But don’t be fooled by the innocent appearance. The Gallatin can throw anglers a mighty curve ball from time to time, in addition to surprising you with occasional fish far out of proportion to the size of the stream.
When you drive over Dunraven Pass into Yellowstone’s northeast corner the views just open up and it can be hard to concentrate on keeping the car between the lines. This region is characterized by broad, open valleys, scenic vistas of the towering Beartooth Mountains, and wildlife galore. Huge glacial erratics dot the landscape, and Yellowstone’s unique geology is on full display. In early July the hillsides are painted in every color by abundant wildflowers. There are even petrified trees in this neck of the woods.
The region is home to fisheries including the Yellowstone, Lamar, and Gardner Rivers as well as Slough, and Soda Butte Creeks. Another stronghold for Yellowstone cutthroats, Park fisheries biologists have identified this entire region as a Native Trout Conservation Area. As such, it is very important to know and obey the angling regulations and know how to identify native and introduced species. Cutthroats should be handled and released quickly with the utmost care given to their survival.
Below Chittenden Bridge the mighty Yellowstone plunges over two spectacular waterfalls and begins its journey through the Grand and Black Canyons before exiting the Park at Gardiner. This section of river has very little easy access and is usually only fished by adventurous anglers who enjoy hiking as much as fishing.
The Lamar Valley is a favorite location for viewing wildlife as well as fishing, and the Lamar River offers both road and backcountry access to anglers. Native Yellowstone cutthroats and rainbows make up the majority of the fish population. Runoff often lasts until late July, making the Lamar the last river in the Park to become fishable each year. Even when runoff is complete the Lamar is often muddied by thunderstorms in its headwaters.
Slough Creek is another favorite of anglers in Yellowstone Park because of its surface oriented cutthroat trout, approachable size, and terrific scenery. It is a large meadow stream for most of its length with steep canyon stretches separating the meadow reaches. Some road access is available via the dirt road leading to Slough Creek Campground, but many anglers choose to hike from the trailhead near the campground upstream to the First, Second, or Third Meadow. Fishing is best starting when the runoff subsides and lasts until the first snows kill off the terrestrial insects that the trout feed on later in the season.
The Southeast Region includes the heart of Yellowstone Park’s massive volcanic caldera, Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, and, once upon a time, was the heart of angling in Yellowstone Park. Much of this region is protected in bear management areas, and several streams are permanently closed to fishing. The entire region is considered a Native Trout Conservation Area. The waters of this region remain the stronghold for one of the west’s iconic native species – the Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Once abundant beyond belief, overfishing in Yellowstone Lake and its tributaries led to serious declines in the cutthroat population by the late 1950s. The installation of catch and release regulations resulted in an incredible rebound in the cutthroat population, and the fishery experienced a golden age between the mid 1970s and late 1990s. It was then that things changed in a big way.
Much has been written about the decline of the fishery in the upper Yellowstone River and Yellowstone Lake following the 1994 discovery of non-native lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. Six years prior, in 1988, Yellowstone experienced historic wildfires, and whirling disease was discovered in Yellowstone Lake in 1998. It isn’t 100% clear how each of these factors influenced the decline of the cutthroat population, but the good news is that in recent years there appears to have been a modest upswing in cutthroat numbers. We urge those who fish this region to do so with tempered expectations for the present, reverence for the past, and hope for the future, and also to do all you can when angling to protect this precious fish population from overexploitation.
The Yellowstone river is the most prominent angling destination in this region. Rising in the mountains south of Yellowstone Park and flows through a pristine wilderness before flowing into Yellowstone Lake. The Thorofare Region, upstream of the lake, is one of the most remote in the lower 48 States. When the Yellowstone emerges from the lake near Fishing Bridge, it is already the largest river in our region aside from the Missouri.
The section of river from Yellowstone Lake down to Chittenden Bridge opens to fishing on July 15 to protect spawning Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Broad and flat, its appearance betrays the rivers true speed and power. Access is excellent as the road parallels the river for the entire stretch. Between fishing spots, you might see a grizzly roaming the far bank, stop for a picnic, explore the nearby thermal features, or observe the cutthroat trout negotiating the mighty LeHardy Rapids (sorry, no angling is allowed in that location).
The Southwest Region encompasses the area of Yellowstone Park that drains water west to the Pacific Ocean. The waters of this region are, generally speaking, more difficult to access. As such, anglers are left with plenty of room for backcountry exploration. The geology of this area lends itself to the formation of numerous and dramatic waterfalls, and hiking into remote waters is as much of an adventure for the scenic beauty as it is for the fishing.
Notable waters in this region include the headwaters of the Snake River, Lewis and Shoshone Lakes, and the Bechler and Fall rivers in the remote southwest corner of the park. The third largest lake in Yellowstone Park (after Yellowstone and Shoshone Lakes), Lewis Lake is the most easily accessible piece of water in the Southwest Region. The road follows along one shore of the lake for several miles, granting access to a unique stillwater fishery. Lewis Lake is clear, deep, and cold, and home to both brown and lake trout. Early and late season periods are the best times of year for fly anglers to visit this lake as more trout are frequenting the shallows when the surface water temperatures are most to their liking. This is particularly true if you want to try for a lake trout on fly, as they prefer vary cold water conditions, and go deep during the summer. We’ve encountered some of the typical stillwater insect emergences here, including callibaetis mayflies and caddis, but fishing streamers, buggers, and leech patterns on sinking lines is an important approach here during non-hatch periods. There are some areas which allow for shore based wade fishing, but float tubes, pontoon boats, or other craft can offer a significant advantage. If you’d like to use a boat here, be sure to follow all Park boating regulations, including obtaining necessary boating permits.