The alarm went off echoing throughout the rain fly of my tent, like the thunder that rattled overnight. Despite my restless sleep from Yellowstone’s choir of storms, coffee was poured, fly rods were set up, and the odometer on the car was set. The goal was simple: to fish every major body of water in Yellowstone National Park in a single day. Following six rivers, one creek, and one massive lake. To fish and document, the journey during a 18-hour day was a challenge I had not foreseen any other angler attempt. But with the six o’clock departure from my campsite at Indian Creek Campground, heading south to the Gibbon River along the Grand Loop Road, was sure to be an adventure nonetheless.
Fog boasted the morning sunrise. Inhibiting the views of anything beyond a quarter mile. Though there was an orange glow to the fog, the earth darkened in color bringing out the most vivid colors from the greens of the grasses, the browns of the tree trunks, and the wild descriptive shades of the various wildflowers in full bloom. The distraction of colors and the solitude of the road led me to believe in the reasoning for the screeching stop to witness a bison cross the first river of casts on the Gibbon. The only catch, however, was a photo taken of the bison doing what its been doing for most of its life, disturbed only by the swarms of tourists. Not of a hooked trout, the main target focus of the day for both my fly rod and camera.
The fog began to clear with the rising of the sun and arrival of further people in route to Madison Junction. Here the creation of the Madison River is formed via the Gibbon the Firehole Rivers. The river I had followed down to create the Madison and river I will follow shortly after a few casts into the reed thickened and elk bugled Madison. The caddis pupa got the rise on the first fish of the trip with a beautifully stunned brown trout, hiding in a deep bucket behind the riffles. A quick release into the cooled river and the odometer kept clocking as I made my way over to the Firehole River.
I mostly chose the route to start where I did and go counter clockwise along the park for the impact I new I was to have on the fish. The Gibbon and Firehole Rivers flow near geyser basins, making the water very warm in summer months. So I wanted to be sure to hit these rivers first thing in the morning when the water was still cool from the overnight temperatures and not at peak sunlight. Hooking into these fish could be deadly at the water temperatures the rivers hit in the afternoon. Much like going for a summer run in the desert. All the while craving a piping hot cup of coffee. Just doesn’t make sense.
So by 11 am, I had receded my casts on the Firehole after landing a few mistaken brown trout with a beaded stonefly in the slow water near Old Faithful. Then began making my way up and over the Continental Divide. The divide is simply a mountain range that splits our nation and continent into two. Waters that flow of the western side of the divide will eventuate into the Pacific Ocean. Waters off the east, into the Atlantic.
Yellowstone sits cradled atop and on either side of this divide boasting fisheries a plenty. With fishing on the western side of it to start the day, I slithered my way up and over to the eastern side and into the caldera of the Yellowstone super volcano.
The traffic led me to believe why I didn’t make it to Yellowstone Lake until 1 in the afternoon, but the mother grizzly bear and cub right off the side of the road created a traffic jam making the freeways of Los Angeles look like a breeze to get through. But with a cold beverage and a sandwich, I sat on the lakeshore and just listened and watched the waves slap the shore, keeping me company on this special day.
Another inspiration for the trip was my 31st birthday. I always try and do something outrageous for each trip around the sun, and figured a trip around Yellowstone was just the fit. But with any birthday, you always hope that something spectacular happens, and this day was sure to surprise with the next few casts.
Finishing up my lunch, my eyes wandered beyond the last bite of my sandwich to see a very large tail, cruising its way near the lakeshore like a bonefish on a salt flat. I stopped chewing and watched the 20-inch cutthroat continue searching the shallows in the crystal clear, sand bottomed Yellowstone Lake. I tied on a tan and red streamer and made my casts in a fan like motion from the lakeshore. Cast out, count to ten, then slowly strip in.
I lost sight of that tailing trout but knew there had to be more in the area. My hopes were beginning to diminish with what I thought was to be another fishless body of water for the day. Time was winding down and I had three more rivers to hit to finish out the day and a couple hours of driving as well. Made one more cast and let it sink for 15 seconds this time. Once 15 struck, I made two strips when the lightning bolt hit. The fish bent my 5-weight to the handle and the line screamed out of the reel as if a marlin fell for a cedar plug. The body torquing, head shaking of the large cutthroat came to a close and the gorgeously spotted fish came to hand for a few brief seconds before its release.
Yellowstone Lake is the headwaters of the most genetically pure Yellowstone cutthroat trout. With fish numbers once at unfathomable levels, the species are now threatened. In the 90’s, a fisherman discovered an introduced species in the lake, a lake trout. At first they didn’t pose any threat to the native species, but after a little time, it was apparent that the lake trout were not only a direct threat to the cutthroat but were also predating on them.
Yellowstone’s cutthroat trout are considered a keystone species. Meaning that all life in the park depends on them for their own survival. So while the park service has declared that all cutthroat trout be released after hooking and all lake trout be killed, any encounter with these incredible fish should be cherished and handled appropriately.
With a newly inspired agenda, I made my way to the park’s namesake river, the Yellowstone. I had mapped out a section I wanted to hit where the Lamar and Yellowstone Rivers meet, but not after watching the river continue its life out of the Lake and slowly meandering its way through the slow non-fishable sections through to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and the falls.
It was a bit of a hike and a good striking distance away from the last river I wanted to hit for the day. I arrived at the spot, opened my car door, took three steps towards the back of my Subaru when, smack! Right into the back of my neck, a large salmonfly had made its landing. Before long I had salmonflies crawling all over my car and eventually a pattern had made it onto the end of my 3X tippet.
The fishing on the Yellowstone didn’t start off great with a slip on a rock led to an embarrassing face plant. An hour or so of casts into the roaring Yellowstone River without a single rise to the large salmonfly, elk hair caddis dropper, I needed to once again abandon the scene like the Gibbon and move onto the next river in order to at least achieve the goal of fishing the bodies of water intended for the day.
With what many anglers consider to be the crown jewel of the park, the Lamar River and its valley reminds me of something out of Jurassic Park. This wide valley littered with Bison and just a few large cottonwoods lining the river in certain spots making most of this river to be seemingly untouched. The bison control the river much like trying to cross the demilitarized zone separating the republics of Korea. You can walk to its riverbanks, only if the 2000-pound bison will allow.
Meaning the fishing is superb and trout healthy. With the sun finally beginning to lower on the horizon, peaking itself in and out of a looming thunderhead, I daintily tippy toed my way through the maze of bison to my own bend of the Lamar and began making casts with the grey drake and caddis dropper combo.
The fish count took the cake for the day so far with a rise nearly every ten casts or so. Some of the takes were frustrating with the sippable notient of a fine wine, while others were an explosive gesture more like taking a whiskey shot on your birthday. Each one well over the ruler stick and safely released back into the slightly mudded Lamar River.
With the sun setting and clouds turning their colors, a final sip of a cold beverage warmed the stomach on what seemed like an impossible day on paper. Fly rod in hand, I made my way dodging bison patties the size of trash can lids, and let the grasses brush up against my waders with the stunned grasshoppers jumping out of the way onto other blades of grass.
The goal was to hit Soda Butte Creek and the Gardner River back near camp where the night previous I had hooked into dozens of small brook trout, but the fact that in a single day I had fished the Gibbon, Madison, Firehole, Yellowstone, and Lamar Rivers with the incredible gift of the large cutthroat from Yellowstone Lake is a mention on the checklist well deserved marking off.
Leaning up against my car, watching the sun set and the darkness creep in, the orange glow on the horizon and large outlines of the bison grunting and foraging there way through the valley polished off the incredible birthday of mine driving 172.1 miles and fishing five rivers and one lake in Yellowstone National Park. A rainbow, brown, and Yellowstone cutthroat trout; grizzly bear and cub, osprey, eagle, bison, elk, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, and black bear all joined me on this incredible day in the park on my 31st spin around this planet.
Article and photos from Sean Jansen, an avid angler and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.