Parks' Fly Shop: Guide to Fly Fishing Soutwest Montana and Yellowstone area lakes

Introduction to Fly Fishing Yellowstone Area Lakes

Yellowstone region lakes and ponds come in many sizes, from intimate puddles up to 77,000+ acre Yellowstone Lake, the largest alpine lake in North America. For angling purposes they can be divided broadly into four categories, though of course each lake will fish at least slightly differently from any other. These categories are: fishless lakes, large public lakes (1000+ acres), small public lakes (<1000 acres), and private lakes. While most rivers and streams in Yellowstone country hold fish, over half of all lakes do not. Some lakes are so shallow they freeze in winter, some lack suitable spawning habitat (usually inlet or outlet streams), some lack suitable water chemistry, and some feature some combination of these factors. For this reason, it's important to be sure the lake you plan to fish actually has any fish in it. Many times we've seen anglers merrily casting away in water where not a single trout swims. Yellowstone area lakes that do hold fish are often great places to get away from other anglers, since the rivers are what most people come here to fish. Better yet, most lakes have some of their best fishing early in the season, when many rivers are unfishable or before they really fish well.

Click the tabs below the link table to learn more about a particular type of lake. Because we try to discuss a huge range of fisheries here, it's hard to go into specifics, so for specific recommendations for a particular lake or even questions on which lakes are right for you, contact us.

Large Public Lakes

The large public lakes in the region, including Yellowstone, Lewis, Shoshone, Hebgen, and Quake Lakes, are generally home to the trout with the largest average size. There are two reasons for this. First, large lakes offer the deepest water and other hiding places where the living is relatively easy, allowing the fish to apply most of their food to adding body mass rather than holding position, as is required of river trout, or cruising, looking for food, as is required of small lake trout. Second, these lakes are usually home to abundant bait fish, which carry more fat and protein than the insects, crustaceans, and the like which make up the bulk of the food supply in smaller lakes. In Yellowstone country these lakes are usually quite imposing, and can feature high waves and steep shorelines, making a boat a great idea, if not strictly necessary.

Description and Access

Access to the Yellowstone area's large lakes is generally good, with roads right along at least portions of the shorelines. Heart Lake and Shoshone Lake, in Yellowstone Park, are notable exceptions. Access to these lakes is via a long hike for either lake or by paddling/rowing up the Lewis Channel for Shoshone only. For all, a boat is extremely helpful, as it will allow you to cover much more water, get away from other anglers, investigate offshore structure, and in the case of Hebgen Lake, explore stretches of bank that are otherwise private. Appropriate boats for Lewis, Quake, and Hebgen range all the way from float tubes up to big powerboats, but the other lakes should not be handled except by deep-hulled boats resistant to swamping. Be careful on all, as heavy winds are possible, likely on Yellowstone. All the large public lakes in the Yellowstone area are alpine in character, with mountains either rising directly from the water or not too far from the shores, and all have pine forests running right down to the beach, in some cases along with marshland or meadows. These lakes are deep and cold, with the ice going out from between the beginning of May to the middle of June, depending on the lake and the year.

Angling

The large lakes in the Yellowstone region can fish quite differently from one another. Hebgen Lake is best-known for its late summer and early fall "gulper" fishing, which involves fishing dries and emergers for large, cruising trout in the morning and perhaps early afternoon. Lewis Lake is known for its lake and brown trout, and slowly stripping large baitfish patterns is the best tactic. In general, all fish best right after iceout, and it's best on all to expect to cover a lot of water until the fish are found. Hatches will include midges and Callibaetis, with the former possible all season long while the latter are most common in the summer. The damselflies common to many smaller, weedier lakes are less common on the big lakes, as are scuds. The big Traveling Sedge important on smaller lakes is not important on big lakes, with the occasional exception of Lewis, due to its weedier shorelines. On all lakes, good places to check out are points, shelves, dropoffs, and inlets and outlets.

Quality of Fishing By Period: X=high, x=moderate, x?= variable, blank=poor or closed
Jan. Feb. March April May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
      x? X X x? x? x? X x?  

Large Area Lake Hatch Charts and Fly Pattern Recommendations
  Timeframe: X=major importance, x=minor importance, blank=unimportant
Insects Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May. June July Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Damselflies         x X X x x      
Callibaetis         x X X X x      
Trico (Hebgen, Quake)             x X x      
Gray Drake (Yellowstone)             x x        
Gray Caddis (Yellowstone, Lewis)           x x x        
Traveling Sedge (Lewis)           x X x        
Midges (note: some quite large)       x X X x x x x    
Terrestrials             x x x      
Other Trout Foods Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May. June July Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Leeches       x x x x x x x    
Scuds       x x x x x x x    
Chironomids (big midge larvae)         X X x x x x    
Small, bright nymphs           x X X X x    
Large baitfish-type streamers         X X x x X X x  
Smaller Woolly Buggers       X X x x x x X x  

Large Area Lake Top Flies

Gray & White Double Bunny, #2
Parachute Adams, #12-18
Griffiths Gnat, #14-18
Black and Silver Chironomid, #10-14
Red and Silver Chironomid, #10-14
Black Sparkle Bugger, #6-10
Callibaetis Nymph, #14
White Marabou Muddler, #4
Minch's Scud, #12-16
Pheasant Tail, Non-bead, #14-18



Small Public Lakes

Introduction

The small public lakes of the Yellowstone region, specifically those within Yellowstone Park, which I focus on here, offer very consistent early season fishing at a time when many rivers are either difficult to fish or out of play entirely due to runoff. These lakes, ranging in size from a handful of acres on up to close to a thousand acres, typically feature flatter banks and weedier character than large public lakes, and hold a greater variety of fish than large lakes, fish that can range in size from quite small to enormous, depending on factors such as fish species present, pressure, spawning habitat and amount of food. A chief dividing factor in how to approach these lakes is whether they are at medium elevation (lakes within Yellowstone Park) or high elevation (lakes on the Beartooth Plateau and in the high mountains surrounding the Park).

Description and Access

There are so many small public lakes in the Yellowstone area that trying to classify them according to surroundings, etc. or access is difficult. There are lakes 30 miles into the backcountry and lakes right next to major roads, as well as lakes in granite bowls high in the mountains and lakes in swampy marsh where you're as likely to see muskrats and various odd (for our region) ducks and other water birds. In general, the lakes in Yellowstone Park are easier to access than those in the surrounding mountains and on the Beartooth Plateau, but there are plenty of lakes in the park that are in the middle of nowhere and plenty in the mountains and on the plateau that can be driven to or reached via a short hike.

Angling

In general, small lakes are much more approachable than large lakes and offer more opportunities for the bank-bound angler, though a float tube or canoe is certainly helpful on many. Most small public lakes in the area have good midge, Callibaetis, and damselfly populations, so some dry fly activity is always possible, especially on summer evenings. The giant Traveling Sedge is also found on many small lakes. This insect hatches sporadically in the summer and early fall, usually late in the evening, and can really get the fish excited. Other common food items include scuds and leeches. Most small lakes lack the large baitfish populations of larger lakes, so big streamers usually aren't the tickets.

Small lakes can be divided roughly into two categories, those that have larger trout (usually cutthroats) and those that do not. Lakes with larger fish usually have much lower fish populations altogether, so the best tactic is to seek out cruising fish, either by sight-fishing directly to rising fish or those cruising the shallows in the morning picking off nymphs. Blind casting is usually unproductive and should be done only if trolling out of a float tube or if the wind is blowing hard enough to prevent you from seeing cruising fish. Small beadheads and scuds are the best choices for fishing for cruisers, but small attractor dries such as #16 Trudes or #14 Parachute Adams are also good bets. Fishing the windward side of the lake with small terrestrials in season can also work. These same flies can work well on the lakes that lack large fish. Typically, the best technique on these lakes is to blind cast. We like small Woolly Buggers or wet flies like peacock and grizzly Woolly Worms trailing small beadheads on these lakes. Fish them under an indicator with an occasional twitch. In any lake with brook trout, try a #10-12 Joffe Jewel or similar bright streamer, especially from mid-June onward. Long strips right along the bottom are the best bet with this fly, or any pattern imitating a leech.


Quality of Fishing By Period: X=high, x=moderate, x?= variable, blank=poor or closed
May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
x? X X X x x x x X X x x
Note: this refers only to lakes inside YNP. Beartooth lakes and those that are otherwise high in the mountains fish best in July and August, and may not be reachable until late June or after late September.

Small Public Lake Hatch Charts and Fly Pattern Recommendations
  Timeframe: X=major importance, x=minor importance, blank=unimportant
Insects May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Midges X X X x x x x x x x x  
Callibaetis x x X X X x x x x      
Damselflies   x X X X x x x        
Travelling Sedge     x X X x x          
Terrestrials (Beetles and Ants)     x x x x x x        
Other Trout Foods May 6/1 6/15 7/1 7/15 8/1 8/15 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 Nov.
Leeches X X x x x x x x x x x x
Scuds x x x x x x x x x x x x
Chironomids (big midge larvae) x x x                  
Small, bright nymphs x X X X X x x x x      
Small Woolly Buggers X X X x x x x x X X X X
Attractor Dries   x x x x              
Attractor Nymphs and Wet Flies X X X X X X X X X X X X
Small Streamers X X X x x       X X X x

Small Public Lake Top Flies
Brown & Grizzly Woolly Worm, #14-16
Pheasant Tail BLM Nymph, #16-20
Peacock & Black Soft Hackle, #12-14
Minch's Scud, #12-16
Joffe Jewel, #8-12
Skinny Bugger, #8-12
Sparkle Bugger, #8-12
Bully Bugger, Chocolate, #10
Parachute Adams, #12-18
Coachman Trude, #16

Private Lakes

Introduction

The small private lakes in the Yellowstone region offer excellent fishing for large trout in relative privacy. They do this through their locations at relatively low elevation, which gives them a longer growing season than similar small (<100 acre) lakes at high elevation, few of which hold large trout. These lakes are generally located in ranching country, and as such are located in open bowls with a few trees along their shores and perhaps some wetlands on their shallower sides. These lakes charge from $50-100 per day, and are at their best in May and June (when rivers are in runoff) and again in October.

Description and Access

As noted above, these lakes are mostly located at comparatively low elevation in ranching country. Indeed, most started off as stock ponds. Some lakes still serve stock, or at least are located on working ranches even if the cattle are now fenced away from the lakes for benefit of the more-lucrative fishing. As such, access to these lakes is excellent. Most are served by dirt or gravel roads and some have picnic tables, grills, and other amenities. They generally don't fish particularly well on foot, however, as their banks are often mucky or steep. Some lakes have boats available for angler use, but the primary way most visiting anglers fish the lakes is on guided trips. Reservations on the lakes are required, and can be quite tight. Lower Story Lake, the smallest lake on which Parks' Fly Shop guides, generally accomodates only one guided party. Reservations are particularly tight in late spring, when area float rivers are unfishable due to spring runoff. Fall is something of a sleeper bet, since cooling water temperatures make fish in the lakes get much more aggressive, but fewer anglers want to visit the lakes since the float rivers also fish excellent at this time.

Angling

Fish Species Abundance
Rainbow Abundant in all.
Brown Range from common to absent; even on lakes where they are present they are often hard to catch save in the fall.
Cutthroat & Hybrid Rare to absent, depending on the lake.
Brook Uncommon to absent, though where present they can get quite big.
Perch Found only in Vanessa's Lake, where they do a good job filling in the gaps between trout.
v

As noted, private lakes fish best in spring and fall. This is because their low elevation and often shallow bottoms mean they can get quite warm at midsummer. At the right times, these lakes can't be beat. They typically fish much like the small public lakes in the region, with small beadheads under attractor dries and small Woolly Buggers trailing another wet under an indicator probably the top two setups.

One area in which some lakes differ markedly from their high elevation public cousins is the importance of large midges aka chironomids. When fishing the bugger/indicator rig, the most common trailer on several lakes is a large (#8-12) red or black chironomid larva or buzzer, either with a bead or without. Usually the best tactic is to anchor off a likely looking weedbead, dropoff, point, or inlet/outlet and cover the area thoroughly with slow retrieves and several fly changes if no fish are taken. Only then should one move to a different spot. This allows all the fish cruising a given area time to return and inspect your flies before moving to a location with a different group of cruising fish. The only "wet" exception to this is when the wind is sweeping perfectly parallel to a bank, in which case drifting the boat slowly downcurrent while hitting likely bankside structure is a good choice. When fish are rising, anchoring and fishing to seen cruisers is a good bet. Important hatches on these lakes include large and small midges, damselflies, and Callibaetis. In early fall, grasshoppers and beetles can also be good choices.


Quality of Fishing By Period: X=high, x=moderate, x?= variable, blank=poor or closed
4/15 5/1 5/15 6/1 6/15 7/1   9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 11/1
x? x? X X X x? x? x? X X x?

Small Private Lake Hatch Charts and Fly Pattern Recommendations
  Timeframe: X=major importance, x=minor importance, blank=unimportant
Insects 4/15 5/1 5/15 6/1 6/15 7/1   9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 11/1
Midges x x x X X x x X X x  
Callibaetis     x X X x x        
Damselflies     x X X X x x      
Travelling Sedge         x x          
Terrestrials       x x x x x      
Other Trout Foods 4/15 5/1 5/15 6/1 6/15 7/1 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/15 11/1
Leeches X X X x x x x x x X X
Scuds X X X x x x x x x x x
Chironomids (big midge larvae) x X X X X X x x x x  
Small, bright nymphs   x x X X X x x x x  
Woolly Buggers X X X x x x x X X X X
Other Streamers x x x       x x X X X
Attractor Nymphs and Wet Flies x x x x x x x x x x x
Attractor Dries     x X X x x x      

Slough Creek Top Flies
Black and Silver Chironomid, #8-14
Red and Silver Chironomid, #8-14
Non-BH Prince, #12-16
San Juan Worm, Red, #8-14
Pheasant Tail BLM Nymph, #16-20
Minch's Scud, #12-16
Skinny Bugger, #8-12
Sparkle Bugger, #6-12
Parachute Adams, #12-18
Coachman Trude, #16

phone 406 848 7314, address 202 Second Street South PO Box 196 Gardiner, MT 59030 E-mail Walter Wiese E-mail Richard Parks link to PFS Youtube Channel link to PFS Facebook

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