100 Best: Yellowstone River, Upper
Location: Yellowstone National Park
Type of stream: Freestone
Angling methods: Fly, Spin
Species: Cutthroats, rainbows, browns, brook trout
Season: July 15—early Nov.
Supporting Services: Gardiner
Short take: Riotous whitewater, deep pools, smoking springs
Handicapped Access: None
Closest TU Chapter: Jackson Hole
I’ll have to admit it straight out. When I’m headed for Yellowstone National Park, its namesake river ranks close to the bottom of my list for two reasons. First of all, the park contains such a wealth of great trout streams … the Firehole, Madison, Gibbon, Lamar, Gardiner, Slough Creek, Pebble Creek, and Soda Butte Creek among them … that it’s difficult for me to justify spending time on those sections of the Yellowstone that are open to fishing.
Second, I’m lazy, and that’s to my disadvantage. Every time I cross the Yellowstone on US 212 as it heads toward the park’s northeast entrance, I look at the big deep green water swirling heavily around great boulders and swinging through muscular pools, and I wish I had the stamina to hike into it and fish. From the bridge down to Gardiner, the Yellowstone flows through Black Canyon. This is the wildest and remotest section of the river, and it’s frankly seldom fished. Why? You hike from the top of the canyon down into its bowls, a drop in elevation anywhere from 300 to 700 feet.
For those of spry shanks mare, the canyon is well worth fishing, particularly when salmon flies come off in late June. You’ll want a box loaded with them from #4 to #8. Leave your small stream rod in the car and take a nine-foot five-weight. A 4x tippet is fine. Fish the quietest water you can. This is native Yellowstone cutthroat country, and you’ll love their deliberate rises.
As for the rest of the Yellowstone in the park, my feeling is that for the time being it is best left unfished. Most of the river above the Upper Falls is thought of as a nursery area for native Yellowstone cutts. Their population is in serious decline throughout the park thanks in part to the ill-informed introduction of rainbows by the park service in the early years of the 20th century and to the ad hoc stocking of Yellowstone Lake with lake trout in the early 1960s. Giving these guys a break today is the best insurance that our kids and grandkids will be able to catch fish that are as indigenous to the park as its bison.