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Chasing Native Fishes in the Upper Yellowstone River Region in Montana.
I live in Michigan and fish mostly in the eastern U.S. for brook trout and browns. Every few years I travel “out West” to fish in more rugged areas of mountains and sprawling forests. Last September I visited the upper Yellowstone River region in Montana. My aim was to pursue the local fishes that I can’t get back home – especially cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish, and grayling – and simply enjoy the awesome wilderness.
During the week, I fished with a guide on a river float trip, waded a spring creek on a private ranch, and sampled several streams in Yellowstone National Park, about 50 miles south of Livingston where I was based.
Fishing was interesting and entertaining, if not blockbuster. The late summer weather may have been too good, cloudless with temperatures of 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit every day. The sun’s brilliance was magnified by the elevation, which is about 6,000 feet with mountains peaking at over 11,000 feet. This region is at the 45th parallel of latitude – halfway between the equator and north pole and coincidentally, 1,500 miles due west from where I fish at 45 latitude in Michigan.
Preparing for the trip, I learned that I should watch out for a few things that never cross my mind back home—grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, and forest fires. While there, I saw numerous large mammals albeit no grizzlies, didn’t see any snakes, and saw and smelled forest fires, mostly in the distance.
Guided Float on the Yellowstone River
The famous Yellowstone River begins near Yellowstone National Park and flows undammed for nearly 700 miles northeastward through Montana until feeding into the Missouri River. To kick off my visit, I booked a 5-hour guided float trip on the main branch using Yellowstone Anglers in Livingston.
I let the flyshop know ahead of time that I was interested in catching local indigenous fishes in these waters, rather than “imports” such as brown and rainbow trout (first stocked many decades ago, these import species are now firmly established). The flyshop rep warned me that browns are the only big fish in this stretch, so they are often the focus of guided trips. But the shop was more than happy to set me up for the smaller local fish. My guide Larry chose a suitable stretch of the river, the Tom Miner area upstream toward Yellowstone Park.
We launched in the driftboat at 8 AM. The river here is broad, deep, swift, and generally not wadeable except close to shore. Larry handed me a rod rigged with a surface grasshopper pattern trailing a beadhead nymph dropper two feet below, and I fished with this the entire float. Action began as soon as we got out on the water and was almost nonstop throughout. As we drifted steadily down the river, I had 50 or more takes, mostly on the nymph and mostly mountain whitefish. Mixed in with the whitefish were a dozen or so cutthroats, a couple rainbows, and a weird hybrid “cuttbow.” The frantic fishing slowed only after “high noon,” near the end of the float.
While some consider the whitefish less desirable than trout, I found this salmonid very entertaining on this first experience with them. They were numerous, eager to take the fly, and energetic fighters once hooked, thrusting and pulling all the way into the boat. Larry said he does not consider whitefish to be competitors to trout since he could see that each has its own slot in the river system.
The fish average 12-15 inches in length, feed near the bottom but will rise to a surface fly, and require clear, clean water like trout. They spawn in the fall, which was already on their minds this day as the river was abuzz with them. Mountain whitefish are reported to be tasty dining, especially when smoked. Their reputation as a sport fish is beginning to change as anglers come to see them as a freshwater equivalent of bonefish, the popular saltwater gamefish (both fish are silvery and torpedo-shaped). More on the whitefish in Montana is at this link
Compared to the eagerly slurping whitefish, the cutthroats had a stealthy and sometimes frustrating way of taking a surface fly. They would slowly drift up to inspect the hopper closely, as if they were reading the fine print on a can of beans. The simple sight of a chunky cutt coming up to the fly turns on the “I got one!” juices, but as often as not, the fish slowly dissolve back into the depths after following a while without striking. Other times, a trailing cutthroat would suddenly slash at the fly just when I concluded it was not interested, leading to a missed hookup.
Larry was a helpful guide readily adapting the boat position to my (modest) flycasting ability, and letting me pick my own casts as I learned to read the big water (looking for current slicks, bubble streams, boulders, deep water against shore, etc.). He also served as a wildlife guide, for example pointing out eagles perched along the river ready to pounce on fish, and describing a large wolf pack living on Dome Mountain in the distance.
I asked if I should watch out for rattlesnakes when I was on my own, and he said absolutely, but they make a lot of noise and you usually have time to move away. He told a funny story of another guide who had to use an oar to fight off a 6-foot rattlesnake that for some reason swam out into the river to try to climb into his boat. Regarding grizzlies, Larry said bear spray is a necessity in the bush, though he’s never had to use his in some 15 years prowling this wilderness. (Bear attack statistics are here)
Streams in Yellowstone National Park
The park was established in 1872 as the world’s first national park and it’s easy to see why – it’s a jaw-dropping 2.2 million acres of mountains, forests, canyons, rivers, streams, lakes, and the famous geysers, a true wilderness crawling with wildlife. Human interest also is stunning, with 3 million visitors annually from around the world.
Fishing in the park is terrific and well-known, attracting some 50,000 anglers each year. My plan was to hopscotch by auto for a few days among various small streams, avoiding the major rivers such as the Madison or Gallatin. In all, there are 1,000 streams in the park (and 3,000 waterfalls), so there are plenty to choose from. Among those I sampled were the Slough, Obsidian, upper Gardiner, Solfatara, and Blacktail Deer. I saw a ton of animals in the process, including buffalo, elk, bighorned sheep, antelope, mule deer, black bears, coyotes, etc.
Slough Creek features a good population of native cutthroat trout as the dominant fish. Such streams are governed by the tough park regulation: “ALL NONNATIVE FISH INCLUDING RAINBOW TROUT AND BROOK TROUT MUST BE KILLED IN THESE AREAS.” For fishing the Slough, the flyshop recommended small hopper and largish Adams patterns, and I waded upstream from the road using these on a very bright afternoon. Fishing hard, I picked up several small cutthroats, and missed hooking up with one large fish which rose 4 times on 6 casts but shied away at the last second each time. Luckily, I didn’t catch or have to dispatch any other species!
Other streams were designated “NONNATIVE TROUT TOLERANCE” in the park regulations, meaning these other trout species could be caught and released alive. I encountered fast action with brook trout and small rainbows on streams such as on the Obsidian and Gardiner using attractor dry flies and, especially, a small white-and-red wet fly that someone hand-ties back home in Michigan. While grayling was on my wish list for the trip, several folks told me they might be found in the Gibbon River but were rare this time of year, so I didn’t try.
In all, I came away from the park feeling that I could happily spend months or years getting better acquainted with these lively waters, once I got comfortable with handling bear spray in the bush and the human traffic on the (few) roads near main attractions. The park’s overview on fishing is found here.
Private Ranch Fishing – DePuy Spring Creek
Several folks recommended that I try one of the private spring creeks on ranches in the Livingston area. Somewhat unusual in the U.S., these waters require a rod fee to access and they restrict the number of anglers allowed. I booked a day on nearby DePuy Spring Creek, which offers 3 miles of spectacular water and limits the anglers to 16 per day. It was later in the season and I saw only two other anglers in the distance the afternoon I was there. And a third angler if you count the osprey I saw dive into the water and emerge with a wriggling trout.
Guides are available for these creeks, but since DePuy is easy water to wade and to read, I went out on my own. The fly shop in town advised that this is technical fishing and showed me small sulphurs, PMDs, and baetis nymphs, reminding me of the tricos I couldn’t see back home. Then one of the guys said “but you can always throw a woolly bugger,” and my mind was eased.
Like the Yellowstone River that it empties into, the gin-clear DePuy holds naturally reproducing cutthroat, rainbow, and brown trout, all of which reach good size in this rich water. To begin with, I tied on a greenish woolly bugger, planning to switch to more technical flies if pressed. One of my first casts bounced off a bush, plopped into the water, and was promptly nailed by an 18-inch brown. Two solid rainbows added to the fun as the afternoon progressed. The day was bright and hot, and the fish were wary with many window shoppers, even after I’d downsized to smaller flies.
Cheeseburger in Paradise
American party rock singer Jimmy Buffett (e.g., the beach anthem “Wasting Away In Margaritaville”) has family in the area and regularly visits to relax. Livingston is located near the Paradise Valley, and Buffett reportedly favored the hamburgers served at the small roadside café, Paradise Valley Pop Stand, as long as it was open. Local legend is that this was the inspiration for his hit song “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
Around Town in Livingston
Livingston (population 7,000) is a classic “old West” hometown set on the bank of the Yellowstone River. The local passion for fishing is evident from the town’s several fly shops and even fish sculptures along the main street. The town park has accessible areas of the river where it is possible to wade and fish the riffles.
The area also has a touch of glamour from the actors, writers, and artists who’ve taken up residence. This is due in part to Hollywood’s use of the region for movie locations. Among movies made here is Robert Redford’s 1992 flyfishing film “A River Runs Through It,” based on the outstanding Montana fishing memoir by Norman Maclean.
There are several very good restaurants for a town of its size. My plan was to try a different restaurant each evening and return to the best for my last night’s meal. My “winner” was the Livingston Bar and Grille, which edged out Second Street Bistro. This is cattle country and beef dishes are lovingly featured on most menus. General visitor information on Livingston is found here.