Parks' Fly Shop: fly fishing yellowstone streams, fly fishing creeks, how to fly fish small streams, montana streams, mountain creek fly fishing

Introduction to Fly Fishing the Yellowstone Area's Small Streams

The Yellowstone area's small streams and creeks are not famous and their trout are usually small, with a 12-incher a big one anywhere on an average day, but there are hundreds of miles of these, 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 some near the road, usually offer visiting anglers something in short supply on easy-to-reach sections of the region's larger, more famous rivers: solitude.

For anglers who like small water, the region's abundant public access, from Yellowstone Park to the vast national forests in which many of the streams outside the park run, is an added benefit. As long as you're not climbing over a fence to fish a given body of water, or there isn't a post painted orange glaring at you (this qualifies as a "NO TRESPASSING" sign in Montana), you're probably good to go.

Even if you're here to fish famous water, I suggest you take some time off to fish a little creek. They're often very good on late summer afternoons when larger rivers might be tough, especially when they flow in canyons or under trees. They're also just pretty and fun to fish, especially using dry flies.

Each small stream is unique, but for purposes of this guide I've cut them into three categories. Creeks dominated by brook trout tend to be the easiest and fish comparably no matter their character, while otherwise creeks that are slow-moving and/or flow in meadows tend to fish quite differently than rough and tumble mountain streams. Click the tabs below for details on each type of stream.


Small Brook Trout Creeks

Introduction

Brook trout were stocked heavily in previously-fishless headwater streams in Yellowstone Park during the late 1800s, particularly those located in the Yellowstone, Gardner, and Madison drainages upstream from waterfalls that blocked upstream migration of native fish. They were also stocked in a handful of streams outside the park. Most of the latter are hard to reach due to private land. Inside the park, they offer easy fishing for small, abundant, pretty fish. The number of such streams is declining, however. The Park Service is now gradually poisoning out brookies from any body of water where it is feasible to do so and replacing them with native fish, either Yellowstone or westslope cutthroat or grayling, or even both cutthroat and grayling, since the high-elevation waters where brook trout were once stocked are expected to provide cold, clean water even after climate change ravages lower-elevation waters. This is necessary for the threatened cutts and fluvial Arctic grayling to survive. At any rate, those streams that still hold brookies are great choices if you want to catch scads of small, easy fish.

To be clear, in this area, the non-native brook trout tend to overpopulate and stunt themselves so that they run even smaller than their brethren in their native range in the eastern United States. An eight-incher is a big one in any creek where they dominate, and a ten-incher is a full-on trophy. They get so overpopulated in most area creeks that fishing to them is simply a matter of flopping a reasonable fly on the water and waiting for one to hook itself. For this reason, they're great for kids and beginners of all ages who just want to catch something. They're terrible for those who love a challenge.

Note that keeping a few (or a lot) of brook trout to eat won't hurt anything. Gut them, cut their heads off, bread them, and fry them whole. Small-stream brookies are the only trout anyone on the Parks' Fly Shop staff kills and eats.

Description and Access

Most brook trout streams in Yellowstone Park are relatively gentle riffle-pool streams at elevations over 7000 feet. Some are wooded, some flow in meadows. A few are primarily fast-flowing pocket water streams. There are also short chunks of the others that follow this pattern, usually where they cut down off the park's central plateau. Most outside the park are small, steep, fast, and brushy, making them challenging to fish and rather akin to Appalachian "brush tunnels."

Inside Yellowstone Park, most brookie creeks are paralleled or at least crossed by official trails. Many of the rest are crossed by roads and then have angler trails following them. Outside the park, a few creeks are accessible at road crossing or are followed at some distance by Forest Service trails, but many are located on private land or through National Forest land that is hard to access due to private land between the road and the forest.

Except for streams on private land, which will be hard to access legally (landowners around here seldom give anglers permission to fish their land), your best bet on all streams is to walk a bit. The only possible exception is the steepest, roughest streams in Yellowstone Park. Even on these, walking will help. The easier the walk and the gentler the stream, the longer a walk you should aim to take. The steeper and rougher the walk and the slicker the rocks on the stream bank, the shorter a walk is required. Generally, a mile does wonders. Two miles will either send hordes of fish charging your fly or move you so far off the road that you won't find anything but fingerlings, depending on the size of the stream.

Angling

Angling Quality
Angling quality chart for the Yellowstone-area brook trout creeks through the season
The Fish

All meadow streams where brook trout comprise the majority of the population have small trout, and except where pressure is heavy near the road, they have lots of them. You might not see a fish over 8 inches in a day of fishing, but you might see 75 in the 6-inch class.

The Fishing

Fishing for brook trout in small streams is easy, provided you have gotten away from easy access points. Fish a 6' or 7.5' 3X or 4X leader, tie on an attractor dry, or in August a small hopper, and hang a flashy attractor nymph a foot underneath it if you like. On brushier streams, you'll do better to dispense with the dropper for better casting accuracy. You can also swing soft hackles if you like this technique. Fish the obvious structure: riffles dumping into pools, deep pockets behind rocks or logs, etc. Bigger fish (this being a relative term) will tend to be in smaller bits of holding water such as under small foam patches, while numbers will be found in the big, obvious places.

If you are sure you are fishing a stream that does not give a realistic chance of catching trout of other species, and you are an experienced angler, you can get away with very light tackle on brook trout creeks, especially those sheltered from the wind. I use a 7'6" 2-weight. That said, if there's any chance of a larger fish, you're better off with a 4-5 weight. I once lost a brown over 16 inches in a tiny trickle feeding a larger river where I knew the browns were beginning to run, just because I didn't think any of the browns ran into the trickle, only because the 2-weight I was fishing didn't have enough backbone to fight such a fish.

One thing to note is that brook trout creeks often fall apart very early in autumn, as their residents run far upstream into headwater trickles to spawn. If you're fishing a brookie creek anytime after about August 25 and not seeing anything other than fry, odds are the fish have all run way upstream and won't be seen again until the next season.

Hatch Chart
Hatch chart for Yellowstone-area brook trout creeks

If you wish to print a full-size version of this hatch chart, those covering other insects and food items important when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, and all other charts on this site, please visit this link.

Top 10 Flies

  1. Coachman Trude, #12-14
  2. BH Prince, #16
  3. Pink Bob Hopper, #14
  4. Royal Wulff Cripple, #12-16
  5. Purple Hazy Cripple, #14
  6. Trina's Bubbleback, #16
  7. Olive MT Prince, #14-16
  8. Yellow Stimulator, #14
  9. Any high-viz, high-float ant pattern, #14
  10. Parachute Adams, #12-16

Meadow-Type Streams

Introduction

Meadow-type streams that hold fish other than brook trout, streams flowing between high, usually grassy banks, with a riffle-pool character predominating, are generally found inside Yellowstone Park or on private land. Inside the park, they're most common in the Lamar, Madison, and Gallatin basins, with only one open creek meeting this description in the Yellowstone basin. They generally hold either cutthroat trout or some combination of browns and rainbows, depending on the drainage. There may be a smattering of brook trout in such creeks, but where they do not dominate, such creeks fish very differently than those where they do. To put it simply, they can be hard, even though their trout are small. That said, they're also rewarding.

Description and Access

Any small stream flowing through grassy areas with a relatively slow character and a population that doesn't center on brook trout can fit in this category, no matter how small it is. There is one tiny westslope cutthroat creek in the park that is no more than a foot across in many places, for example. Most are five to fifteen feet wide, a few bigger. Many of the more-famous and larger streams which earn their own pages in this guide also qualify as meadow streams. They're just big/famous enough to get their own pages.

Access can be easy or it can be hard, depending on where such streams run. Most require relatively short and easy hikes, though there are plenty that rank among the most difficult streams in Yellowstone to access, being way back in the backcountry off-trail. Some such streams probably don't get fished at all in an average season. Once there, however, the nature of meadow streams makes them suitable for anglers who may not have the best balance, since such streams are flatter, slower, gentler, and have banks and bottoms that aren't as slick as many streams.

Angling

Angling Quality
Chart of angling quality through the season on Yellowstone-area meadow streams
The Fish

Most meadow-type small streams hold the most common trout found in the larger streams into which they feed. In the Madison drainage in YNP, this means rainbow and brown trout, with brookies where water is colder. In the Yellowstone drainage, it usually means cutt-bows or cutthroats below the first falls, then whatever fish were stocked upstream. In the Lamar, it means cutthroats. Average size depends on the length of the growing season and whether or not fish enter these streams to spawn or to escape high water temperatures. The smallest trickles will have fish averaging under nine inches. An average Lamar-basin meadow stream might have 8-12" fish and some 16-inchers. The Firehole's tributaries, where fish flee to escape high water temps, can turn out fish over 4lbs on occasion.

The Fishing

Most meadow-type small streams in the area become fishable sometime between the middle of June and early July, a bit earlier than rough and tumble mountain creeks. They are usually best in midsummer, and can get quite low and challenging in late summer and fall.

Most such streams experience some mayfly, caddis, and small stonefly hatches, and it's typically a good idea to approximate these hatches when they occur with attractor patterns resembling the insect in question: the same silhouette and size, if not the same color. Classic patterns like Parachute Adams and Elk Hair Caddis are good, as are newer alternatives like Purple Hazes and assorted lower-riding caddis patterns. Terrestrials are crucial, and possibly as early as late June or early July. Smaller terrestrials, beetles and ants generally, are usually better than hoppers. Hang a small nymph under these if you can cast the dropper rig accurately enough to avoid hanging up in the grass. Small, generic patterns with hints of flash (but not overwhelming amounts) work well.

Use a certain degree of stealth when fishing meadow streams. The slower, flatter, lower, and clearer they are, the more stealth you need. Where small streams can harbor large fish (those feeding the Firehole in midsummer in particular), you might need to utilize hands-and-knees approaches, 15-foot leaders, drab clothing, and other such New Zealand-style tactics. On streams where the trout are small, just make sure to stay back from the banks a bit and make fairly long casts for the size of the water, and avoid slapping your casts.

Leaders and tippets should be finer and more delicate than those used on most small streams. Nine-foot leaders with 4X or 5X tippet are typically required. As noted above, sometimes you need to get extreme, particularly if there might be large fish present. While you might be tempted to use a short rod, don't. 8'6" or 9' rods are best on most meadow creeks regardless of size, as they make it much easier to reach over grass, keep line out of the water, etc.

Hatch Chart
Yellowstone-area meadow stream hatch charts

If you wish to print a full-size version of this hatch chart, those covering other insects and food items important when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, and all other charts on this site, please visit this link.

Top 10 Flies

  1. Parachute Ant, #16
  2. Foam Beetle, #16
  3. Purple Hazy Cripple, #14-18
  4. Parachute Adams, #14-18
  5. Tan Caddis Cripple, #16
  6. Tan Bob Hopper, #14
  7. Coachman Clacka Caddis, #16
  8. BH Prince, #16-18
  9. BH Flashback Pheasant Tail, #16-18
  10. Copper John, #16-18

Introduction

When you picture a mountain creek, what do you see? I envision a steep, frothing stream flowing around boulders, flowing loudly enough that it sounds like white noise, with the structure composed of slow spots behind rocks and logs. This is classic "pocket water," if you are familiar with the term. Yellowstone and the vicinity has an infinite number of such streams. They can be physical to fish, but if you're up for it, they offer some of the best fishing available in late summer.

Unlike the other categories of small streams, many are located outside Yellowstone Park or skirt its borders. This is because of the way in which the Yellowstone cuts steeply down through the Black and Grand Canyons as it leaves the park. For creeks born high in the mountains to reach the river outside the park, they too have to cut steeply down. There are plenty of such streams feeding the Yellowstone within the park as well, as well as a few feeding other drainages.

Description and Access

Steep mountain streams descend quickly from the mountains, flowing around boulders and logs, often dropping in small plunges. They often run in canyons big and small. So long as these conditions are met, mountain creeks can be any size. I have favorites that are 30 feet across in place, many that are 10-15 feet across, and a couple that are more like 3 feet across.

Access is often very good on these creeks, since many run right next to roads or under them, and they can fish quite well even when they are close to the road. That's because they are very physically-demanding and sometimes dangerous to fish, so pressure on many is light except perhaps in the few flat and easy places. The rocks are slick, the currents are fast, the banks are steep. Many creeks at low elevations have banks covered in rose bushes. If leaping from rock to rock and maybe falling in and busting yourself or your gear is not a tantalizing prospect, don't even think about it.

Angling

Angling Quality
Yellowstone-area mountain creek angling quality through the season
The Fish

Most mountain streams in the area hold some combination of cutt-bow, rainbow, cutthroat, and brook trout, in about that order of likelihood. Only a handful hold brown trout, and whitefish usually do not like streams with this character even if they may be physically present. Average size probably runs 6-12 inches, but there can always be surprises in such creeks, especially the larger ones that don't get fished too hard.

The Fishing

Most small streams remain too high to fish until at least early July, and sometimes as late as early August. Even if they're clear, they're often too high to fish effectively. If every midstream rock is covered up with flow like a fire hose, the fish will be hunkered on the bottom and won't eat your bugs. Unlike most other small streams, most remain good until at least the middle of September unless it gets cold. Unlike a whole gaggle of fisheries, they are usually better in the afternoons than the mornings, even in low-water years or during hot spells. This is particularly true of the steepest streams that flow in canyons or under trees, so that they are shaded most of the day.

Fly choice on such waters is simple. Fish medium-sized attractor dries that are buoyant and easy to see. Caddis-style patterns like Trudes or high-floating Tan Caddis imitations are usually best as caddis are the most common insects on these streams. Small grasshopper patterns or patterns like Turck's Tarantulas and Chubby Chernobyls that can be taken as hoppers are also good. Hang a flashy beadhead nymph a foot or eighteen inches under these flies if the fish are fussy. I usually skip it. High-floating ant and beetle patterns may also work well if the stream is overhung with vegetation.

Use short, stout leaders that can turn the large fish sometimes found in such streams against the heavy current. 7.5-foot 3X or at the lightest 4X leaders are usually good. Choose a rod based on the amount of overhead cover. I typically use a 7'9" 4-weight or a 8'4" 3-weight depending on the stream, with the shorter rod for smaller creeks.

Make short, accurate casts and fish very short drifts. Fish only one pocket with each cast. Large pockets, say the size of a dining room table or larger, may best be covered by casting halfway up for several drifts, then fishing the top end with several casts. Instead of casting farther, it's usually best to move your feet. I often fish less than ten feet away on rough mountain creeks, since such short casts give the best control. The trout in these creeks tend to eat whatever floats over their head if it is behaving like food. A fly that's dragging isn't behaving like food. More on your line management when preparing to fish a creek. It can be hard for newcomers to the west to figure this out, but once you do, you should catch a lot of fish.

You'll catch a lot unless you're following somebody, I should say. A good angler will catch, spook, or sting every fish that's eating in such creeks. This is no exaggeration. Don't follow another angler for at least several hours. If you're fishing with a buddy, leapfrog each other to be sure each of you gets fresh water and fish that haven't already been caught.

Hatch Chart
Yellowstone-area mountain creek hatch chart

If you wish to print a full-size version of this hatch chart, those covering other insects and food items important when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, and all other charts on this site, please visit this link.

Top 10 Flies

  1. Coachman Trude, #12-14
  2. Royal Wulff Cripple, #12-14
  3. Turck's Tarantula, #12
  4. Pink Bob Hopper, #14
  5. Brown Ant-Acid, #14
  6. Tan Butch Caddis, #14-16
  7. Widow or Parachute Spruce Moth, #14
  8. BH Prince, #16
  9. Silver Lighting Bug, #16
  10. Baby Golden Stone Nymph, #16

Parks' Fly Shop

PO Box 196 or 202 Second Street South

Gardiner, MT 59030

Phone: (406) 848-7314

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