Casting terrestrials below a steep bank of tall grass with bison groaning in the distance was the draw for me at 8 years of age. Geysers erupting at a moment’s notice, wide-open expanse with no development, and an abundance of water with large and native species of trout. With my peripheries on full radar for anything that could approach and my bear spray dangling from my chest pack, my heart draws to the wildness of this place year after year.
Fast-forward 26 years, and I now make my living in the park; casting, hiking, paddling, and guiding. In those 26 years of visiting and work, there are moments each year that make me want to scream. Visitation in the park has done nothing but go up. Fly fishing has skyrocketed with popularity. And with Yellowstone National Park turning 150 this year, the pressure should be exponential and fishing should tougher, both for the fish and anglers. But with some simple and ethical practices, your time in the park along with everyone else’s should be as smooth as your casts to native trout.
The Fly Fishing Season in Yellowstone:
The park isn’t a year-round fishery. The season for Yellowstone begins on the Saturday of Memorial Day and runs to Halloween. But because of the season opening dates, doesn’t mean all rivers and lakes are open to angling. For example, the Yellowstone River isn’t open until July 1st. Along with many other rivers and lakes. There is also fishing only from sunrise to sunset, no artificial lights or night fishing allowed.
Licenses Required to Fly Fish Yellowstone
A park fishing license is required to fish in Yellowstone. Since the park is in three states: Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, only one park pass is required. The park license is 40$ for a three day pass, 55$ for a week, and 75$ for the whole season. Available for purchase online at Recreation.gov.
Weather in Yellowstone:
There is a saying in Yellowstone, “We have two seasons, winter and July.” Without even trying to be funny, it’s accurate. Meteorologists haven’t a clue on what the weather is doing either. The record high temperature in the park is 99 degrees where the coldest on record is 66 below zero. Expect the worst and hope for the best. Snow can come at any month and an afternoon rainstorm is 5 days a week on a normal summer.
Research the Rivers in Yellowstone:
The main draw for angling in the park is targeting the native Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout. Endemic to the park and surrounding wilderness areas of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. But a chance at casting and landing one of these fish in their headwaters and namesake is the draw. Though the likelihood of catching other non-native species like rainbow, brown, and brook trout are very high. Regulation may require you to either release or kill the non-native fish depending on the drainage. Research is paramount and with new regulations for 2022 and each body of water representing their own set of rules for capture or release, avoid a penalty and do your homework.
The only exceptions to the rule are Lake trout and smallmouth bass. No matter where you are in the park, should you catch a Lake Trout or smallmouth bass, you must remove them from the water to help ensure the protection of the cutthroat. That being said, all native cutthroat must be released and handled with extreme care.
Should the growth be as expected, targeting the smallmouth bass in the Yellowstone and Gardner Rivers and the lake trout in Yellowstone, Lewis, and Shoshone Lakes is an effort that all anglers and biologists in Yellowstone welcome with open arms.
Fish Handling Etiquette in Yellowstone National Park:
This is the number one thing I notice in the park each year that makes me cringe. Stop taking fish out of the water for your damn Instagram! It is astounding the smothering and smiling I see where the likelihood of that fish passing skyrockets with each snap of a picture and live post that has to happen. Just stop! At the end of the day, no one is going to care that you caught a little fish on your social media and the worst part is the fish likely died because of it.
Get your hands wet. This helps to keep the mucus slime on the fish to keep it from bacteria growth and suffocating from your dry Instagram sticky fingers. Keep the fish submerged as mush as possible. The river temperatures in summer can rise to deadly levels even for the fish should they not be caught, so the added pressure of angling certainly doesn’t help with their mortality. Keep water flowing over their gills at all times. The water is clear, you can take a pretty picture with the fish partially submerged and still breathing for your social media.
Recommended Fly Fishing Gear:
To help stop the introduction of further invasive species, all felt bottom wading boots are illegal in the park. On the same vein, should you want to bring your belly boat, or small kayak or boat onto Yellowstone Lake, Shoshone or Lewis Lake, the only bodies of water where boating is allowed, you must also have them inspected and permitted. Floating on any of the rivers in the park is illegal.
Lead weighted beads and lead weighted flies and split shots are also prohibited. Lead is a contaminate and toxic to the environment. Should a fish ingest lead, it could lead to poisoning, causing death to both the fish as well as a litany of other species that prey on fish. An angler will find that the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout is a keystone specie in the park. Meaning that if the cutthroat were to go extinct, other species including the megafauna like grizzly bears could also be threatened or go extinct. Just don’t use lead.
Because of the catch and release nature of most of the fishing in the park, especially for the native cutthroat, all your hooks must be barbless or have the barb pinched down. This is a practice I wish all anglers both inside the park and around the world participated in. It minimizes the impact on the fish during catch and release so that it may live for another day and spawn.
Stay Away From the Thermal Areas:
The main draw for most tourism in Yellowstone are the active thermal features like Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. But near these as well as other thermal features around the park are rivers like the Firehole, Gibbon, Madison, and Yellowstone. All these rivers are fishable and can be excellent, just stay away from the thermal areas that these rivers flow near. There are hot spots along the shorelines where should you step on them, could cause you to fall through the surface and scald yourself. On a fishing note, should you hook a fish near these thermal features, the water is likely well above a survivable temperature for a fish to be caught and fought, therefore should just be avoided.
Must you fish these areas, do so at dawn in order to fish the waters at their coldest and try to only fish during the early season or late seasons. Pay attention to Yellowstone’s website and social media for updates on closures. They often close down rivers in mid summer should the water exceed certain temperatures that damage or threaten fish livelihood.
Yellowstone isn’t a petting zoo and the animals don’t have hours of the day where they are either released or put back into their cages. They are wild and free and do whatever the hell they want to do. If you see a bear, it isn’t in a holding pen. You see a wolf, it doesn’t have an invisible fence with a shock collar on it. It is wild and will approach you if it desires. Carry bear spray and know how to use it. Whether you backpacked into a remote section of stream or you are fishing right off of the road, a bear can and will walk anywhere it wants and that includes roads, buildings, and wilderness areas alike.
The park is busy, the roads will be congested with construction, and should a tourist see a squirrel, you better believe they will cause a traffic jam to take a picture of it. But at the end of the day, it is our nations first national park and it just had its 150th birthday. It boasts thousands of miles of fishable terrain that should you find the desire to cast into, can bless you with all the solitude you want and paint that smile on your face that you came across the country for.
Just please follow the rules, respect the other anglers of the park, and please, please, please, keep fish wet. Remember there is hardly any service in the park, a spiritual and peaceful place away from all the connections to the outside world. There isn’t any need to blast mishandling of fish and casting near thermal features to tell the world about your irresponsible angling. Just you, your rod, the water lapping up against your legs, and that large native cutthroat trout contemplating eating your fly.
Article and photos from Sean Jansen, an avid angler and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Follow along with his adventures at @jansen_journals.