Southwestern Montana: One of My Favorite Fishing Locations
Within the United States are a myriad of trout rivers and streams for trout fisherman to wet a line. Some places are for the beginner: the fish are smaller, easier to catch, and provide a good place to learn the basics of fly fishing. Others are trout havens for the experts—places where the big fish hide and size 22 midges and 10-foot 7x leaders are the norm.
But how about a place where beginners and experts both could learn and have fun? Enter Southwestern Montana. There is no place that I know of quite like Southern Montana and Northwestern Wyoming. Whether you are a novice or an seasoned veteran at fly fishing there is not just something but A LOT of something to do.
When I first visited Yellowstone, I was disappointed because approximately a third of the park was still reeling from the huge wildfires of 1988. Dead trees are all around in the park, but you soon forget about it when you get to other areas where the park’s natural beauty and fishing are unparalleled.
The list of rivers within a hundred mile radius of West Yellowstone, Montana reads like a WHO’S WHO of fabled trout rivers: the Madison, Yellowstone, Gallatin, Lamar, Gibbons, Henry's Fork. There are also the Beaverhead, Big Hole, and Ruby, but this article will concentrate on just a few of the rivers and streams in the Yellowstone area. I will let you know about some of the best fishing I have ever experienced: in and around Yellowstone National Park.
Before you start a trek to the nation’s first national park I suggest contacting or visiting several of West Yellowstone’s fly shops. The people in these shops are very friendly, knowledgeable, and quite eager to tell you where the fishing is hot and where it’s not. Pick up a copy of The Yellowstone Fly-Fishing Guide by Craig Matthews. I have known Craig for several years. He owns Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, and his book is the best "how, where, and what" fly fishing book I have ever read. Its very easy to read and breaks down each river and stream individually. Also, be sure you have a Montana fishing license and a Yellowstone fishing license--you will need both if you fish in the park.
If you’re a novice, you may want to try some of the above-mentioned rivers within Yellowstone National Park. Quite a few offer ample opportunities for beginners to learn basic fly fishing skills. Don't let the fear of crowds scare you away. There is so much water for the beginner inside Yellowstone that you can easily find an uncrowded river or stream.
In addition to offering a host of different types of water, there is a lot of room. The Gibbons and Lamar offer fishing very close to the road, and both have wide open spaces to practice casting and make mistakes without getting your back cast in the trees or your line tangled. Rainbows, cutts, and the occasional grayling can be caught on both of these rivers. The scenery is great on both rivers, and you will be able to fish amongst herds of elk and buffalo.
Beginners would also be well advised to also try some of the numerous small creeks in and around Yellowstone NP. Grayling Creek and Cougar Creek offer easy access from the road and easy wading. Although most creeks in the area do not offer a lot of back casting room, if you can throw an average roll cast, you can have a ball. These creeks are not "match the hatch" fisheries. Great dry fly fishing can be had with smaller humpies, stimulators, or elk hair caddises. Quite a few creeks in the area are loaded with rainbows and cutthroats. Granted, you will not catch a monster on the smaller streams, but it is possible to catch LOTS of smaller trout and the occasional 11-inch lunker can be found. This easy access and high-quality fishing will allow you to really practice your mending and presentation skills and do a good deal to boost your confidence—something even the veterans need!
Veterans, like novices, will have a tough time deciding which river to fish first—then which river to fish next. You can choose from the big and fast Yellowstone River (Buffalo Ford inside the park is my top pick on this river—monster cutthroats, sight casting, and an easy locale to wade this huge river!), or the Gallatin, which is narrow but fast and sometimes tricky by Montana standards, or the fast and sometimes deep and majestic Madison. The Madison, outside the park, is considered the fly fisher’s promised land because of all its different characteristics: deep runs, some still pocket water, boulders, big trout, great nymph and dry fly fishing (try just across the river from the Slide Inn).
If you’re up for a hike and some secluded fishing, try Slough Creek on the northeastern side of Yellowstone NP. It has some large trout and great fishing, but to reach the "first meadow" you have to hike an hour along a small trail infested with mosquitoes and biting flies (wear long sleeves and LOTS of insect repellent). There are "three meadows" and it’s only possible to fish up to the second one and come back in a day. To reach the third, it’s advisable to camp because of the distance and hiking involved. (See Carl Jones’s article on getting there by horseback.)
For those who like to stalk their trout, just a 30-minute drive south of West Yellowstone is the Henry's Fork of the Snake. Here the trout are big, smart, picky, very elusive, and exhibit all the characteristic that make this sport so addicting. In the spring and fall, a spot called the Henry's Fork Outlet, a small tributary flowing out of Henry's Lake, offers some great fishing for large trout. The water is too warm on the "outlet" during the summer, so don't waste your time during warmer months. You can access the outlet through property that the Nature Conservancy owns.
Finally, this article would not be complete without talking about the spring creeks just north of Yellowstone NP. For the veterans, the spring creeks around the town of Emigrant are the place to find out just how good you are—or how good you THINK you are!
Armstrong's, DePuy's, and Nelson’s Spring Creek are the fly-fishing meccas for very seasoned anglers. The gin-clear cold water and spooky trout make it a true challenge for trout fishers. Very fine tippets and tiny flies are the order for these demanding destinations. Matching the hatch is essential and simply blind casting in the streams will scare more fish than jumping in and swimming with them. With these spring creeks one needs to wait, watch, and analyze which fish are feeding, then make a good cast with a perfect presentation, then maybe, just maybe, the fish will strike. The fish in all the spring creeks are picky, picky, picky.
To get on one of these creeks you need a reservation! Most book up a year in advance, but cancellations do occur quite often and most of the owners limit their creeks to 8-10 rods a day. Any fly shop in Livingston can tell you how to go about getting on the spring creeks.
This space is not long enough to list half of the quality trout waters around Yellowstone National Park. If you ever have a chance to fish in the Yellowstone area, DO IT! I don't think you’ll be disappointed in the quality and quantity of fishing. No matter what your skill level is, there is a lot fine fly fishing awaiting you in and around Yellowstone.
by Scott Cash Thompson
Third Meadow of Slough Creek (Don't tell anyone!)
I had frequently heard people speak in hushed reverence about the third meadow of Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park, but always doubted that anyplace in a national park, especially Yellowstone with its millions of visitors, could be as good as the stories. After hearing another outrageous story, five of us decided to check it out. Besides if the stories were gross exaggerations, we could search for photo opportunities in the park.
We booked arrangements with Ronnie Wright and his Beartooth Outfitters in Cooke City, MT. After flying by private plane to Cody, Wyoming, we drove to Cooke City and met one of Ronnie's excellent cowboy guides. Early one morning we followed our guide through the remote northeast entrance of Yellowstone and drove for about 20 miles before turning off onto a dirt road. We drove to the end of the road and found a string of horses saddled and waiting for us.
It was a cool, overcast day in late July, and the three-hour ride into the third meadow was a real treat. As we rode through the first and second meadows we observed many fly fishers in the creek (or "crick" as our Montana guide pronounced it) and we became concerned that we had come a very long way just to find another place where the fish were being hammered. Our guide, Monte, assured us that the third meadow was different. "People just don't make the effort to go all the way in," he said.
When we finally arrived, we found ourselves in a long mountain meadow through which Slough Creek goosenecked. And we were the only ones there! We inhaled lunch, pulled on our waders, and spread out along the Creek. The water was clear and full of cutts cruising not far below the surface.
The first strike was on an elk hair caddis, and it only took a matter of seconds for everyone to get the message and make the switch. The strikes were not subtle, they were determined. Everyone was catching fish. At one point a large cutt came totally out of the water and took a caddis in mid-air. As the day progressed we had to switch to PMDs and to parachute Adams, and we had success with both. We didn't land all of them, but they certainly were fun while they were on. Even the small cutts seemed to slam into the flies.
Even though I was the least experienced angler in our group, I knew it couldn't always be that easy. But the fact was that if we just approached slowly, selected a target, and made a delicate presentation in front of the target, seemingly more often than not, we got a strike, and a high percentage of the strikes resulted in a fish on the line. It was a fabulous day, and it more than compensated for the two days that we got skunked on the Lamar and Soda Butte Creek.
The third meadow of Slough Creek is one of those places you want to keep for yourself, but the truth is it really isn't a secret. I had heard about it for years. So anyone who is willing to make the trek ought to be allowed in on the fun. Is it really legendary? I don't know. But it comes darn close.
Carl Jones, Austin