Of Grand Rivers and Geysers – Flyfishing Yellowstone National Park

A littel more than two years ago me and my girlfriend started planning our holidays for 2015 and our choice were the United States, in special the New England States… But in addition to this holiday plans there was a dream on my mind, that had started with my first book on flyfishing, which had an extra chapter about the dream-destinations for flyfishing all over the world: I wanted to fish the waters of the Yellowstone National Park!

Also this plan was negotiated with the home superior and planned with my fishing buddy Andy with one (or maybe more) beer. And that’s why we waved farewell to my girlfriend at the End of Septmeber 2015 at Boston Airport and proceeded to Salt Lake City, from where drove to West Yellowstone, Montana, with our rented SUV.

Already the drive up north was a journey through the promised land of U.S. – flyfishing for me. We passed great Rivers like the famous Henry’s Fork ant the Snake River – I cant imagine more prestigious names concerning flyfishing and the number of flyshops was increasing rapidly the further we came north towards West Yellowstone. In this little village lies the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. And the quote I chose as the headline I found at the McDOnalds restaurant there … what else do I have to say?

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is mainly situated in the state of Wyoming. Only a small part of approximately 3% lies in Montana and really small piece is situated in Idaho. The total area of the park is 8.987 km² and therefor it is one of the largest National Parks in the United States. My home state, Upper Austria, has a size of about 12.000 km² – just in comparison.

The first adventurers, that immigrated from Europe, began to explore todays Area of the Park in the early 19th century. The first official expeditions to the park took place in 1870. As the myth goes, explorers gathered around a campfire at the junction of two pristine rivers, overshadowed by the towering cliffs of the Madison Plateau. They discussed what they had seen during their exploration and realized that this land of fire and ice and wild animals needed to be preserved. Thus, the legend goes, the idea of Yellowstone National Park was born. United States Congress established Yellowstone National Park in 1872. On March 1st, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law. The world’s first national park was born.

In complete contrast to National Parks in Austria I know, is Yellowstone a place, where people and visitors are welcome. Fishing is allowed nearly in all the waters of the park with only a few exceptions according to conservation purposes. The – somehow martial – North Entrances headline says it best: „For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People“.

A very sympathetic attitude, as I think, because it does not lock people out of the park but encourages interest and love for this beautiful piece of nature, which is the most important prerequisite of further conservation of these wonders. This spirit is perceptible all over the park.

The fishing

About the fishing in the park you can say, that in general it is not easy and you should not be under any illusion, that there will take place a “catching frenzy” under normal conditions. At the end of September and beginning of October the grand hatches are over and after a long fishing season the fish are “well educated”. All around the season, that starts on Memorial Day Weekend (last Monday in May), you will face high fishing pressure, as the waters of Yellowstone are famous and well known.

In late autumn small, smaller, tiny was the way to successful fishing. Very rarely the bigger Stonefly Nymphs were taken. Also dries had to be fished in sizes #20 and smaller.

I very strongly recommend anyone to book a guide at one of the many flyshops or guiding businesses in advance, at least for a part of the stay. At first sight the costs are shockingly high (about $ 500,00 per day), but worth every Cent. I assume, that fishing of your own accord can be very disappointing if have not planned your trip really meticulously. Flyshops or rather their very competent employees will always and very freely give you good advice in all questions or recommend the right flypattern but if you can’t rely on the knowledge of an experienced guide on the water, you will have to face at least some more or less unproductive hours of fishing. It already helps a lot if you can trust in what you are doing, to avoid phases of experimentation and frustration when the fishing is slow.

As an experienced “Austrian” you will – nevertheless – be surprised about the habbits in U.S. because all the fishermen we met at the water, were really friendly and ready to help. Guides who had other clients would shout at you and tell you which pattern would work at the moment (“Hey, we’re swingin’ wets…”) and other fishermen would urge to some their winning patterns, even if you didn’t ask. Any time we had a longer chat with one of the locals, who always asked where we were from, they were proud and astonished about the fact that “You guys really came here from Europe just to fish here?”. And subsequently we were offered loads of advice about fishing, that – surpisingly – proofed to be right. In Austria I would have done the total opposite of what a local tells me – but that would be a story of its own…

The tackle you should bring is not really special, as rods of 9ft in class #5 or #6 will do the job. Floating lines are also perfect, so that new acquisitions of tackle are not easily arguable by the means of this fishing trip to the home superior. If you absolutely want to take a second rod with you, you might pack a lighter one for dryfly fishing in class #4 if you come earlier in the season.

All the rest, you may need and don’t own anyway – mainly the right fly patterns in the right sizes – you can buy in one of the many flyshops in all the villages around the park. For me the very small sizes of the flies were a big surprise and I had to buy the patterns in the states.

Madison River

Besides the Yellowstone River, that gave the park its name, the Madison is one of the best known and most popular rivers in the United States and Montana. The Madison begins at the confluence of the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers. At this confluence the participants of the Washburn Expedition developed the plan of establishing a national park after the ideas of judge Cornelius Hedges, as the myth goes. The Madison is often referred to as the “largest chalkstream in the world”, as it is in fact best described like this on its stretches in the park. Also the stretches below Earthquake Lake we fished were characterized by a wide riverbed, but had a steeper gradient and therefor a quicker current and so was not quite a chalkstream anymore.

As I recommended above we had not spared any expenses und had booked a guide in advance, as we had thought, that a little help at the beginning would ensure, that we could use our only five days effectively. The other reason for me was, to fish from a driftboat once. I can say, we did not regret this decision, because without the advice of our guides, we would not have been very successful. Our time was simply too short to do it “trial an error”. The driftboat also helps you to get away from the crowded places, where everyone fishes, which is also a way to success, but you would have to cross private land in most cases, which is not allowed everywhere. With a driftboat you don’t have to face this trouble.

As drifting is not allowed and also not necessary in the park because of easy access (no private land), our guides took us to a stretch of the Madison River outside the park, below Hebgen and Earthquake Lake. These stretches are as beautiful and the park itself.

That’s where we got in contact with the technique of nymphing from a driftboat that is very uncommon in Austria or Europe, but it was fast, thrilling and in the end of a learning curve also quite successful. I experienced this technique a little as a heresy, as you fish a two nymph rig under a really huge, buoy like, strike indicator on a relatively short leader. The upper fly was a simple stoneflypattern with rubberlegs and the lower fly was a little Serendipity, a little beadhead pattern, from my point of view tiny (size #18 I would guess…). Due to the fast current it would be impossible to realize a strike and set a hook without this rig – if you are not a jedi master with the gift of clairvoyance. That’s why I had to accept this rig in the end.

As it was already very late in the season in the Madison river no major hatches were to expect and the fishing had to be subsurface most of the time. But with this technique we could catch good rainbows, browns and whitefish from the driftboat and also while wading. Unfortunately I took only very few pictures, because the fishing was very demanding and I did not want to miss too much of the river and the boat wouldn’t stop.

Many locals or Americans came at the same time to Madison because of a very special event. Downstream of West Yellowstone lies Hebgen Lake, which has a good stock of Browntrout. These fish grow really big in the lake and start to migrate to their spawning grounds in the Madison and Firehole Rivers, to spawn. What would be impossible in Europe (except salmon fishing), is normal in the states as nearly everyone practices Catch and Release: Many fishermen fished especially for these big spawners on their way to their spawning grounds. Many of them would cast big streamers using 7 or 8 weight to the undercut banks of the rivers trying to catch one of the big “lakers”, that reach sizes of up to 5 kg. As we were in search of exciting trout fishing and didn’t want to throw streamers for hours to the opposite bank to – potentially – catch one big fish, we didn’t even try. Above that I was not willing, to overload my frustration tolerance, even before the taimen season in Austria…


Though we didn’t see very many of that species, it is allowed in some strechtes in and outside the park, to fish for trout with spinners, plugs and so on (single hook and without lead). We have seen a couple of driftboats, that fished with light spinning tackle. Which methods they would use, we could not see. We also can’t say anything about the effectiveness of the lures, because we concentrated on our own fishing, but the fact that there were some guys fishing lures, should mean, that it is successful.

In fact it has to be wonderful experience to fish the great Yellowstone Lake with the suitable tackle (I think trolling must be the right thing to do there) and catch one of the really big laketrout there. By catching these fish you also help to protect the native Cutthroat Trout, which has nearly been extinct by the stocking of those Laketrout which originally are native to the Great Lakes and are an invasive species to YNP. This big and predatory species, which mostly feeds on fry of the native Cutthroat Trout, has depleted the Cutthroat stocks by nearly 90%. This means in some places of the park and the whole Yellowstone River drainage a nearly complete extinction of this typical native Species, the Cutthroat Trout.

Yellowstone River

The River, that gave the park its name, is in the same time the most impressive and most spectacular or most diverse water of the whole area. On the one side it flows slowly meandering through the meadows of the park and on the other side it is a raging mountain river. In the middle of the park lie the Great Falls, which belong to the most spectacular waterfalls, I have ever seen.

We fished this “Quintessence of a flywater” in several spots and they all had their own particular charm. It was also the Yellowstone that gave me – as far as I could judge only by the phenotype – my only two genuine Cutthroats, that have been one of the species, that were the target of the trip. That was, when I could say, that I finished the Hattrick by catching rainbows, whitefish and cutthroats.

We fished the Yellowstone a couple of miles below Yellowstone Lake as well as below the Great Falls and the Grand Canyon. It is a big river with a grand name, that fascinated us immensely. Unfortunately the fishing was a little slow due to the late season and therefore low air and water temperatures. We could not find any hatches or surface activity on the Yellowstone and also nymphs fished deep and slow didn’t produce a lot of action.

But anyway it was one of the best experiences of this trip to fish this beautiful river and catch a couple fish there.

Firehole River

One more river we fished more intensely was the Firehole. This river is the essence of Yellowstone National Park more than any other water in the park. The valley the Firehole runs through makes clear why the river was given its name. The river flows by most of the hot springs and runs also through the Old Faithful area, where most of the geysers and hot springs emerge. It’s a highlight on its own.

The Firehole is a relatively small stream that cannot be fished during the summer months of July and August because the water temperatures rise to high an many fish migrate so smaller and colder tributaries. During the rest of the season the Firehole offers good fishing and a thanks to the many hot springs, that emerge in the middle of or run into the riverbed, a prolific insect life, when other rivers have no hatches at all because of low temperatures. Tiny Mayflies and white moths were hatching, when we fished this little river and made difficult dryfly fishing possible. We fished patterns like the Missing Link in sizes 20 or smaller using tippets in 0,10 oder 0,12 mm, to get some strikes. Sometimes it was better to fish a small, unweighted Pheasant Tail Nymph in similar sizes just below the surface film to produce some strikes. The fish average 20cm and bigger ones are the rare exception and come only at great effort and persistence. Also in this river it would have been possible to catch one of the huge Browntrout that swim up from Hebgen lake, when you have enough patience for that.

Wildlife and Nature

As my fishing buddy Andy wanted to see the park also, the fishing came a little short in my opinion, but on the other hand it was great to see so much of the park and its wonders of nature in just five days.

Mating season of the Wapitis was beginning at that time of year and the females started to gather round the stronger males. Impressive herds of Bison were on their way through the and you felt like being part of the movie “Dances with Wolves”. Many Geysers and hot springs, Mommoth Springs, Old Faithful an the Morning Glory Pool, just to mention the best known names, have impressed us deeply.

As we not always lucky with the weather and the rivers were murky in most areas of the park, we could not fish all the waters we had planned to. Although – at least – we managed to see some of the most well known waters of the world. We fished only the ones I mentioned before, but we have seen Slough Creek, Gallatin River, Soda Butte Creek, Lamar River, Lewis River, Bechler River or Snake River … and they are waiting for us to return! The dream of fishing these famous waters, that started with my first book on flyfishing was – thankfully – not fulfilled on our journey. On the opposite, the beauty of this place has made the wish of coming back much stronger. I hope I will!