Fly Fishing the Yellowstone River in YNP

It’s been more than twenty years since I caught much on the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park.  That’s since the 1990’s when the Park declared war on lake trout in Yellowstone Lake.  The very lake trout the Park is accused of stocking in the late 1800’s and 1920’s.

 

I’m the first to agree that non-natives shouldn’t be where they don’t belong.  But if they’ve been there for more than two generations and the ecosystem is ok – leave it be.  Nearby Heart Lake has lake trout and cutthroats living in harmony.  Fifteen miles away on Lewis Lake, brown trout and lake trout thrive and just south in Grand Teton National Park all the lakes have lake trout and cutthroat trout living together.

 

The first time I fished the Yellowstone River was 1982 at Buffalo Ford (now called Nez Perce).  There were thousands of huge Yellowstone cutthroats swimming by my feet.  I went on to fish the Yellowstone River hundreds of times and the fishing remained incredible until the mid-1990’s.  That’s when the Park began gillnetting and poisoning Yellowstone Lake in an attempt to kill the lake trout.

 

I’m not much to criticize but attempting to eradicate a certain species of fish from the depths of a massive lake the size of Yellowstone Lake with gillnets and poison in one of our most loved National Parks – not cool.  One can only imagine how many Yellowstone cutthroats, birds, mammals and amphibians were affected and killed as well.

 

Since the fishing on the Yellowstone River declined I return every few years hoping to find the beautiful river back to the way I once knew it.  So far I haven’t been so lucky.  It’s been so disappointing that getting Granny to load the Explorer with me early this morning for yet another trip to Yellowstone was nearly impossible.  Fortunately she accompanied me but she brought a book instead of her waders.

 

We arrived at Nez Perce on the Yellowstone at 11 AM.  Without my rod I walked the bank with my polarized glasses scanning for fish.  Seriously, twenty years ago you’d of seen hundreds but today it took me about a half hour to find one.  But I found one.

 

It turned out to be a large Yellowstone Cutthroat.  I grabbed my Winston Boron III 5-weight and tied on an October caddis pattern.  To my surprise on my first cast the fish left his lie and swam ten feet and devoured the fly.

 

Cutthroats in general get a bad rap when it comes to their fight.  Yellowstone cutthroats however in this ice cold water can put on a show.  Add in the size of these beauties and on a 4- or a 5-weight they can be a handful.  Soon I landed my first big Yellowstone cutthroat in years.

 

The cutties were by no means abundant.  I walked further upstream and saw not a fish nor a rise.  We hopped in the car and drove upstream towards LeHardy’s Rapids.  Here there were at least twenty cutthroats scattered over a 100 yard stretch.  Still nothing like old times but they were here.

 

These fish weren’t as cooperative as the one that took the caddis downstream.  For this next one I returned to the car for my new 4-weight Winston Air.  Then I must have changed flies six times and also dropped my tippet to 5X.  Finally I fooled my second big cutthroat on a beetle pattern that I acquired for yellowfishing on Sterkfontein Dam in South Africa a few falls ago.  When fish get selective don’t be hesitant to toss a fly at them they’ve never seen!

 

I went on to catch three nice Yellowstone cutthroats before we headed out in late afternoon.  Though the fishing was no means spectacular like I enjoyed as a kid, it was better than I’ve experienced in twenty years.  We can only hope that these amazing native Yellowstone trout are on their way back.

 

I hate to end on a downer but while on the Yellowstone River I chatted with another angler who like me, hates the idea of Yellowstone Park netting and poisoning our waters.  He informed me that two of my old favorite haunts, Grebe Lake for grayling and the Upper Gibbon River are now being aggressively poisoned to kill rainbow trout and grayling.  I’m sad to say it’s true.  What’s next Yellowstone?

 

I’m skeptical of killing a healthy trout fishery under any circumstance.  Especially ones I, and many of us have cherished all of our lives!

Jeff Currier Global Fly Fishing

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4 Responses to “Fly Fishing the Yellowstone River in YNP”

  1. Janet Holmes a Court September 14, 2017 at 8:23 pm #

    Well done Jeff for bringing it to everyone’s attention
    As you know I visit each August
    We used always go to Yellowstone to fish from the first visit in ’92 but as the fish numbers dropped so did our visits. Please send an address I can email

  2. Jim Fisher September 14, 2017 at 8:30 pm #

    Make sure you send this post to Moyer, he will love it!
    Good to see you at the Onefly. I had my worst showing ever, as did The Boys. I guess we are getting old.
    Take care, Fish

  3. Clint Brumitt October 10, 2017 at 10:15 pm #

    Jeff,
    You seem to be equating the poor cutthroat fishing on the Yellowstone R. to the gillnet operation of removing Lake Trout from Yellowstone Lake. I have fish the park and Buffalo Ford but not nearly as much as you. The one fact that I have read about the decision to remove the Lake Trout is they were serious prey on the Cutthroat.
    Spawning surveys on the tributary streams that the Cutthroat used, showed a decrease of up to 90%.
    It seems that the act of removing the Lake Trout was to save the Cutthroat. The fact that the fishing was poor just shows how much the population of “cutties” had been impacted.

  4. Jeff November 4, 2017 at 1:05 pm #

    Thanks for your comment Clint.

    I’ve avoided stirring things up about the Parks trout killing but now that they are killing off the Upper Gibbon River and Grebe Lake I’m ready to stir. It breaks my heart, it’s disturbing and careless that they have decided to gillnet and poison some of the best trout water on the planet.

    I’ll tell what I learned the last 20 years.

    The park in fact stocked the lake trout in the 1920’s – not an illegal “bucket biologist” as they originally claimed. Therefore, the two species of fish lived in harmony for all those years prior to the 90’s.

    I know from hands on experience that the fishing for the cutthroats was remarkable right up until they started the gill netting. A friend volunteered to help the first gill netting season. Let’s just say that year the netting was done carelessly and an astronomical number of cutthroats were killed. It was that very next season that I noticed the decline in fish numbers. Not the year before the netting started when the park “re-discovered” their own lake trout population.

    Only ten miles south of Yellowstone is Heart Lake. Another 20 miles south in Grand Teton National Park you have Jackson Lake, Jenny Lake, Lee Lake and a few others. All these continue (I was on Jenny five days ago) to produce both superb lake trout fishing and cutthroat fishing.

    I’m a catch and release guy 99% but whack a delicious lake trout when I get the chance. Honestly, I’ve seen far more insect life in their bellies than fish. Furthermore, when I do find the rare fish in the stomach it’s often a sucker, chub or whitefish. Although they eat trout also, I have never pulled out a trout. This is likely due to the fact that those baitfish flourish on bottom where lake trout live while cutthroats enjoy close to the surface.

    Do I wish the lake trout weren’t in Yellowstone Lake? Yes.

    Do I think lake trout can be removed completely from this massive lake? No

    So let’s quit the netting.

    More recent news, the Park is now poisoning the lake bottom as a new strategy to kill lake trout fry. Imagine all the other species that suffer in this process starting with the number one food of cutthroat trout – aquatic invertebrates!

    The nonnatives of Yellowstone have been in the park for 100 years. It’s some of the best trout fishing left in the world. Should the park be destroying this? When do we face the fact that we humans are the most destructive nonnatives in Yellowstone? Has the park considered drought as part of the issue? How about Global Warming? More visitors to the park than ever before? The list of likely issues is long. Let’s not put it all on one of America’s prized gamefish – the lake trout.

    I hope everyone understands my displeasure and my sadness on this. I think the Park is doing the wrong thing and unfortunately they are just beginning.

    Again, thanks Clint for the comment. Let’s hope the river continues to bounce back but as the park continues its trout killing process we must continue to worry.

    I would love to hear more thoughts on this issue.

    Everyone following the comments here should enjoy my Heart Lake blogs. Here’s the link:

    https://www.jeffcurrier.com/heart-lake-yellowstone-park-day-1/

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