Yellowstone National Park, established 140 years ago by an act of Congress on March 1, 1872, was the world’s first national park. It’s where a uniquely American idea became a reality; many have called it the best idea we ever had. It’s also home to some of the best trout fishing in the lower 48 states that, like the park, is available to all of us.
Few other places lend themselves to a better family vacation. It has the greatest concentration of geothermal features—like Old Faithful—in the world, incredible landscapes, and an amazing diversity of wildlife, including grizzlies, wolves, elk, bison, moose, mountain lions, antelope and more. There are campgrounds, lodges and cabins available to suit all visitors’ needs. You can take a stage coach or trail ride, and there are endless miles of hiking trails of various lengths.
And then there’s the trout fishing! Yellowstone offers some of the best publicly accessible trout fishing in the U.S. You’ll find five species of trout along with mountain whitefish and arctic grayling, and there’s not a stocked one among them. There are rivers, creeks and lakes, large and small, to fit every angler’s taste and ability. Some are accessible right off the road, others a short walk from your vehicle and still others lie deep in the backcountry.
Rainbow, brook and brown trout were all introduced in late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the highly regarded and sought after Yellowstone Cutthroat is the park’s native trout. Lake trout, a recent and problematic addition to Yellowstone Lake, threaten the cutthroat’s future, and efforts to eradicate it are ongoing. If you catch a lake trout in Yellowstone Lake, you must kill it.
To learn more about Yellowstone’s general fishing seasons and regulations, including information about licenses ($15 for 3 days, $20 for 7 days) and permits, visit www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/fishing.htm
Yellowstone’s fishing season opens Memorial Day Weekend and runs through the first Sunday in November. All cutthroat trout must be released. You are allowed to keep a limited number of rainbows, brown and brook trout from specific waters, and barbless hooks are the rule. Use of any sort of lead is prohibited.
I’ve been fishing Yellowstone Park waters for 40 years, and I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I have some favorites. Here’s a rundown and a few tips:
The lake generally opens on June 15, but you can’t fish its tributaries or within a hundred yards of their entry into the lake until July 15 because of spawning cutthroats. My best day on the lake was with my friend, Tom Puchlerz, when we landed more than 100 cutthroats casting wooly-buggers. Fish the lake from shore, bring your own boat (permits are $10) or rent a boat at the marina. Take your trout to Yellowstone’s Lake Hotel and, for a modest fee, they’ll prepare it for you.
The river inside the park opens on July 15. My favorite areas are around Buffalo Ford, just a short walk from the parking area, and below Tower Falls, a moderately steep descent into Yellowstone’s Canyon. I’ve experienced wonderful fishing in July during the salmon fly hatch and later in the summer using Pale Morning Duns (PMD’s). Watch out for docile appearing bison along the aptly name Buffalo Ford stretch; bison harm more visitors than grizzly bears.
Fire Hole River
The Fire Hole opens Memorial Day. Its feisty rainbows and browns are “hot” and can provide great action. The Fire Hole is best early in the season and later in the fall when temperatures are cooler. During the heat of July and August, the action slows down. Disney hasn’t come close to matching the magic of the thermally heated swimming hole you’ll find along Firehole Canyon Drive. Your kids will remember it forever!
This classic piece of cutthroat water in the northeast section of the park opens July 15. There are three distinct meadows, the closest being just a couple mile walk from the trailhead parking lot. Noted angler and author AJ McClane called Slough Creek “one of the prettiest cutthroat streams in the Rockies.” There’s no better time to fish Slough than when the grasshoppers make their appearance in August and September.
The Gardner River opens on Memorial Day Weekend and is home to “Boiling River,” the most visited hot potting spot in Yellowstone. It’s just inside the park’s northern entrance. Kids ages 11 and under can fish the Gardner with worms. Fly fisherman can expect good action during the famed salmon fly hatch in late June and early July through late summer’s hopper season and well into October, when big browns ascend from the Yellowstone to spawn.
Yellowstone Park is an American birthright and represents the best of our democratic ideals. It was established by an act of Congress “for the enjoyment of the people.” There’s no better place to visit, camp and hike, see geysers, watch wildlife, and catch trout. And it belongs to all of us!
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