Fishing in Yellowstone National Park is part of me. Casting terrestrials below a steep bank of tall grass with bison groaning in the distance drew me to this place at 8 years old.
Geysers erupting at a moment’s notice, wide-open expanse with no development, and an abundance of water with native species of trout all in one place is something hard to describe. With my peripheries on full radar for anything that could approach and my bear spray dangling from my chest pack, my heart draws deeper to the wildness of this place year after year.
Here I sit 27 years later, prepping for another season in the park. I make my living here, casting, hiking, paddling, and guiding. In these 27 years of visiting and working, there are moments each year that make me want to scream, with both elation and frustration.
Visitation in the park has skyrocketed, fly fishing has soared in popularity, and the pressure is exponential: both for the fish and anglers. Don’t let the masses scare you away.
But with some simple and ethical practices, your time in Yellowstone can be as smooth as your casts to an awaiting cutthroat.
How to Fly Fish in Yellowstone National Park
The park isn’t a year-round fishery. The season for Yellowstone begins the Saturday of Memorial Day and runs to Halloween. Despite the season-opening dates, not all rivers and lakes are open to angling. For example, the Yellowstone River isn’t open until July 1, and that’s just one example of many exceptions to the rule.
It’s also important to know that you can only fish from sunrise to sunset, and absolutely no artificial lights or night fishing is allowed. Just be sure to check the regulations before you take to the water.
A park fishing license is required to fish in Yellowstone. The park license is $40 for a 3-day pass, $55 for a week, and $75 for the whole season. Although the park is in three states — Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho — only one park pass is required. You can get yours ahead of time online at Recreation.gov.
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. I’ve had days in Yellowstone where the day was projected to be 81 degrees and sunny, only to battle a 58-degree downpour.
Expect the worst and hope for the best. We will get snow every month of the year, and an afternoon rainstorm is a regular occurrence, depending on where you’re at in the park.
The record high temperature in the park is 99 degrees, whereas the coldest is 66 below zero. It’s important to remember that 99 degrees feels a whole lot hotter when you have heat coming from both the sky and the ground. The bulk of Yellowstone is high desert. You might be dry and hot at 10 a.m. and freezing by noon.
Bring water, layers, sunscreen, and a sense of humor.
Research the Waters
The main draw for angling in the park is targeting the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, 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. With each body of water representing its own set of rules for capture or release, avoid a penalty and do your homework. Read the Regulations.
Fish Identification in Yellowstone National Park
All native cutthroat must be released and handled with extreme care. Knowing your species is paramount, and should you blatantly cast without the knowledge of what you’re targeting, you could be looking at a hefty fine from the Park Rangers. You also might earn yourself some groans and rumbles from fellow anglers who did do their homework.
Let’s talk about a few species that are important to take note of: 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. If you catch a bass of any kind, remove it from the water and deliver it to a Park Ranger. Bass in the park is a bad sign, and we need to be tracking any evidence of their existence.
Targeting 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. Please, come help us get these invasives out of our waters.
Keep ’em wet. This is the number one thing I notice in the park each year that makes me cringe. Stop taking native fish out of the water for your damn Instagram. It is astounding the smothering and smiling I see. The likelihood of that fish dying skyrockets with each snap of a picture. Killing a native, protected fish for likes is just not OK. Stop it.
If you need a big ol’ grip-and-grin shot, head to the lake and catch a lake trout. They have to be removed anyway, and you can look like a real fish hero holding up a fatty with the Tetons in the background.
At the end of the day, is anyone really going to care that you caught a little fish on your social media? Well, maybe … but don’t kill a fish needlessly to do it.
Fish Handling Tips
Get your hands wet. This helps keep the mucus slime coat on a fish and prevent bacteria growth. Keep the fish submerged as much as possible. Imagine being pulled underwater for photos. You get the idea. Fish need to breathe. Keep them in their element and release them as soon as possible.
The river temperatures in summer can rise to deadly levels even for the fish that aren’t caught. The added pressure of angling doesn’t help with their survival chances.
A nice note about Yellowstone — the water is pretty pristine. Keep that water flowing over their gills at all times. Since the water is so clear, you can take a pretty picture with the fish partially submerged for your social media.
Fishing Gear, Vessels, and Tackle
To help stop the introduction of more invasive species, all felt-bottom wading boots are illegal in the park. In the same vein, should you want to bring your belly boat, small kayak, canoe, or boat onto Yellowstone, 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, as well as lead-weighted flies and split shots, are also prohibited. Lead is a contaminant 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 are a keystone species in the park. If the cutthroat were to go extinct, other species, including megafauna like grizzly bears, could also be threatened. 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 the park is the active thermal features. Near these thermal features 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.
For the most part, the park has closed these areas for fishing. 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. Just avoid the areas for your safety and the fish’s safety.
Must you fish these areas, do so only during the early hours when the water temps are the coolest. Another great idea is to plan your fishing trips to these parts of the park only in the early or late season, not the peak of the heat.
Also, pay attention to Yellowstone’s website and social media for updates on closures. They often close down rivers in midsummer should the water exceed certain temperatures that damage or threaten fish livelihood.
Yellowstone isn’t a petting zoo. The animals are wild and free and do whatever they want to do. If you see a bear, it isn’t in a holding pen. If 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 are fishing right off the road, a bear can and will walk anywhere it wants, including roads, buildings, and wilderness areas.
The park is busy, the roads are congested, and should a tourist see a squirrel, you’d better believe they will cause a traffic jam. It seems there is always someone needing to take 300 pictures of the same elk.
At the end of the day, it is our nation’s first National Park. 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. It’s not a little place, and with a bit of strategy, you can enjoy all the splendor it has to offer. You may have traveled across the state, country, or even the world to get to this place.
You shouldn’t waste your time being irritated. Paint a smile across your face and soak up everything that is fishing in Yellowstone National Park.
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. It is a spiritual and peaceful place away from all the connections to the outside world.
There isn’t any need to blast the mishandling of fish and casting near thermal features to tell the world about your irresponsible angling. There’s also no need to blast your music over the serenity that is all around you.
Live in the moment, follow the rules, and focus on your rod, the water lapping up against your legs, and that large native cutthroat trout contemplating eating your fly.