Guide to Fly Fishing Yellowstone Area Small Creeks

Fishing Yellowstone Area Small Streams


Yellowstone's small streams and creeks are not famous and with only a few exceptions their trout are small, but there are hundreds of miles of them, ranging in character from rough-and-tumble creeks tumbling vertically down mountains through boulder gardens to classic riffle-pool trout streams to undercut, meandering meadow streams where even the eight-inchers bolt if you throw a shadow on the water. These streams, even those close to the road, usually offer visiting anglers something in short supply on easy-to-reach sections of Yellowstone's larger, more famous rivers: solitude.

Description and Access

Small creeks in the Yellowstone area vary wildly in character and quality of access. From Pebble Creek, which has its own campground and both a canyon where small trout live and, upstream, meadows where there are larger trout, to tributaries of the Snake in the southern part of the Park where no more than a dozen anglers fish per season, no one description suits Yellowstone small streams.

In general, most small creeks in the Yellowstone area share character with the larger streams they feed, so breaking down small creeks by river system for descriptive purposes makes the most sense. Creeks in the Yellowstone drainage that are open to fishing are typically steep, pocket water streams with cutthroat in their lower reaches and all the way to their headwaters if no waterfalls are present, or rainbow and especially brook trout above falls if they are present. Many Yellowstone tributaries between the Lake and Canyon are closed to angling, and the rest have seasonal closures. Tributaries above Yellowstone Lake, deep in the backcountry, may have a few large cutts up from the lake, but most have small resident fish populations. Most Yellowstone tributaries in the canyons and outside the Park receive at least some spawning cutthroat in late spring, so they should be avoided until at least late July to avoid disturbing these spawners. Most Yellowstone tribs inside the park must be reached by trail, or have a single road crossing which allows access up or downstream. Some Yellowstone tribs outside the park must be accessed via trail, but many are paralleled by gravel roads, though often private land is an issue.

Small streams in the Lamar drainage usually have cutthroat trout as their sole residents, with Buffalo Creek in the Slough Creek drainage the exception, with rainbows and a few cutts. These streams vary wildly in size and character, much like the Lamar itself. Most are three or more miles into the backcountry, with Pebble Creek and the headwaters of Soda Butte the notable exceptions.

Gardner-drainage creeks are populated almost exclusively by brook trout. Most tributaries enter the river above Osprey Falls and were therefore fishless until the main stem Gardner was stocked with brookies. Lava Creek enters below Osprey Falls, and below its own pair of falls has the full complement of trout found in the lower Gardner. A few large browns may continue up Lava Creek from the main Gardner in the fall, but this is unusual. Most Gardner tributaries are meadow streams with a riffle-pool character, though Lava Creek is faster as are portions of some of the others. Access ranges from difficult to impossible for portions of Lava Creek burned in the 1988 fires and deep in its narrow canyon to easy, for creeks near the Indian Creek campground and Sheepeater picnic area.

Creeks in the Gibbon drainage are generally small and not worth the visiting angler's time, with Canyon Creek the sole exception. Access is moderate, and brook, brown, and rainbow trout are present. Whitefish and grayling are possible but unlikely. The Madison river has no significant tributaries that meet it inside Yellowstone Park, but there are several tributaries accessible via bridges and trails in the western part of the Park that meet Hebgen Lake, an impoundment of the Madison just outside the Park. Some of these offer spawning runs from the lake as well as some fairly significant resident fish. The terrain is often boggy and bears are a problem, but the going is usually flat.

The Firehole drainage offers the most "technical" small-stream fishing in the Yellowstone area except the private Paradise Valley spring creeks. The meadow streams in this drainage all receive a run of larger Firehole River fish in July and August, fish seeking to escape the excessive summer water temperatures in the geothermally-heated Firehole. Access generally requires an easy hike. Nez Perce Creek is the largest and best of the Firehole tribs, but it receives fewer run-up fish due to poor habitat and high temperatures in its lower reaches. Above its hot springs, it is a fine meadow stream in its own right.

The Gallatin drainage offers several fine cutthroat creeks, most of which have a riffle-pool character. Most require a short hike, though several flow under the road or on the other side of the river opposite the road. Some of these creeks, particularly Fan Creek, have cutthroat featuring mostly westslope subspecies genes, making them an interesting quarry despite their small size. Reintroduction efforts are in progress in some of these watersheds.

The Bechler and Snake systems are extremely remote and vary from pocket water to riffle-pool meadow streams. Fish size is dependant upon character. All require a hike of several to many miles.


Fish Species Abundance
Cutthroat Yellowstone cutthroat abundant in Yellowstone, Lamar, Snake, Bechler, Gallatin drainages, rare elsewhere.  Some Gallatin tributaries have trout with high percentages of westslope cutthroat subspecies genes, making them the easternmost remaining bastion of this subspecies.
Rainbow-Cutthroat Hybrid Common in most Yellowstone tributaries, uncommon to common in Lamar, Snake, and Bechler drainages.
Rainbow Common in Yellowstone, Lamar, Bechler, Firehole, Gallatin drainages; especially common in creeks outside YNP.
Brook Abundant in many streams in all drainages.
Brown Abundant in Firehole and Gibbon drainages, rare in Yellowstone drainage except one creek we're not telling you about, absent most other areas.
Whitefish Possible but rare in any river system where whitefish are present.
Grayling Rare in upper Gibbon River drainage and Cascade Creek (Yellowstone tributary).

Except for the Paradise Valley spring creeks (covered separately) and the Firehole tributaries during refugee season, most small streams in the Yellowstone area require simple tactics and only a few flies. I could probably catch 75-80% of an average season's trout if limited only to a Coachman Trude, size 14, for example. There are two reasons for this. First more small streams are found in the Gardner and Yellowstone drainages than elsewhere. Those in the Gardner drainage are populated by feisty, unsophisticated brook trout. There are large numbers of brookies in the Yellowstone tribs as well, but even the streams populated by cutthroats are steep, meaning a high-floating dry fly will draw a trout's attention most of the time.

The Lamar and Firehole drainages are the primary areas where hatches may make trout somewhat selective. Chief among these hatches are Green Drakes, which are present to varying degrees in all Lamar tributaries. Pale Morning Duns and Nectopsyche caddis are the most important hatches on Firehole tributaries, and since these are tiny meadow streams, beetles and ants will often draw more fish than more generic attractors. Tiny Pheasant Tails are also a good choice.

On other small streams, terrestrials other than grasshoppers are usually unnecessary save near heavy evergreen cover, where spruce moths can be very important, especially in August. Spruce moths should be size 12-14, while grasshoppers useful on small streams are usually #10-14, tied on 2xl-3xl hooks. Choose high-floating hoppers such as Letorts, Elk Hair Hoppers, and foam hoppers with prominent wings, as these are more visible in broken water.

On the Firehole tribs, 12-15 foot leaders tapered to 5X-6X are necessary, and anglers must be careful to make cautious approaches, often on hands and knees. On most other creeks, leaders need only be 6-8 feet in length and tapered to 4X-5X, and approaches need not be particularly stealthy. On the other hand, good line management and accurate casts are needed, since often the trout in pocket water creeks will be in holding areas no larger than a shoebox, with fast currents on either side.

In general, Yellowstone area tributary streams that don't have run-up fish in midsummer have trout averaging six to ten inches, with some to twelve or thirteen. This makes them excellent choices for light dry fly rods and teaching children and beginners how to fly fish, or for anyone who wants low-pressure angling in beautiful locations. The Firehole tribs are, as noted, exceptions. Run-up fish in these creeks will range from ten to twenty-four inches, though most will be under seventeen.

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.
Yellowstone Drainage       x? X X X X x? x?    
Lamar Drainage       x? X X X x? x?      
Gardner Drainage     x? X X X X x? x? x?    
Gibbon & Madison Drainage     x? x? X X X X x? x?    
Firehole Drainage   x? x? X X X X X x? x?    
Gallatin Drainage       x? X X X X x? x?    
Snake Drainage       x? X X X x? x? x?    
Falls Drainage       x? x? X X X x? x?    

Small Stream 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.
Western Green Drake       X X X x x        
Caddis, Various       x X x x          
Small Stoneflies       x x x            
Spruce Moth         X X x x        
Beetles & Ants     x x X X X x x      
Grasshoppers       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.
Attractor Dries x x X X X X X X X x x x
Attractor Nymphs X X X X x x x x X X X X

Small Stream Top Flies
Coachman Trude, #12-16
BH Prince, #14-16
Yellow Stimulator, #12-16
Elk Hair Caddis, #12-16
Purple Haze, #12-16
Parachute Adams or Adams Wulff, #10-16
MFC Para Spruce Moth, #14
Coachman Clacka Caddis, #14
Pine Grain GFA #12
BH Pheasant Tail, #14-18

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