Yellowstone Fly Fishing Tips: Tackle for Fly Fishing the Yellowstone Area, Yellowstone Fly Fishing Tackle, Montana Fly Fishing Tackle

Tackle for Yellowstone Park and Southern Montana

Just about every rod/reel/line/leader combination you can think of up to and including seven-weight spey outfits have some utility in the Yellowstone area and Montana. That said, you can get by with a whole lot less. I will go into a great deal of detail on this page, but if you want to keep it simple and only bring one outfit and basic gear, use the basic list just below this introduction.

Note that I do not discuss flies on this page. Instead, check out the Flies & Hatches section of the website. The Intro to Flies & Hatches page includes a "basic" fly box, while the other pages under this tab have more details. You might also check the pages within the Guide to Area Waters section for even more detail on the flies that work on specific fisheries.

Wading gear is discussed on the Clothing page.


The Basic Tackle List

The following gear won't be ideal in all situations, but it can perform everything an angler needs to do in the Yellowstone Area on all waters at least acceptably well, throughout the year. If you're trying to stuff all of your fishing gear into one corner of a suitcase, this is what you should bring.

  • Rod: Nine-foot six-weight
  • Reel: Standard or large-arbor with a smooth drag and palming rim, large enough to hold the line and 50+ yards of backing. This is the place to save money if need be.
  • Line: Weight-forward floating line to match rod. Color does not matter. The line must float well and be in good repair, free of cracks, nicks, dirt, etc.
  • Standard Leaders: 7.5' to 12' general purpose monofilament trout leaders ranging from 1X to 6X. 9' 3X and 4X leaders are the most popular in the region, but leader choice varies a great deal according to season, fly size and type, and the specific water in question. Ask your friendly Montana or Yellowstone fly shop which leaders are suitable.
  • Sinking Leaders or Fly Line: Either extra-fast sinking polyleaders in the five to seven-foot range or a sink-tip fly line with a sink rate of around five inches per second is suitable for streamer fishing.
  • Tippet Material: Standard monofilament in 1X through 6X (2X through 5X most common) and, optionally, fluorocarbon in 2X through 7X. If you like fishing large, articulated streamers, use 8lb to 12lb Maxima Ultragreen.
  • Dry Fly Floatant: Choose gel-type silicone-based floatants over powder-type floatants on most waters and with most flies. Tiny CDC flies float better with powders. The largest dry flies imitating Salmonflies and grasshoppers often perform best with a liquid silicone-based floatant such as Flyagra or Parks' Fly Shop's Magic Sauce rather than the standard gels.
  • Indicators: 1/2" and 3/4" Thingmabobber or Airlok-type are most popular and generally useful, but small pinch-on or yarn indicators are useful for shallow-water fishing with small flies.
  • Shot: Sizes 4 through AB non-toxic shot for Yellowstone Park, where lead shot is not legal. I suggest non-toxic shot on all waters. Lead shot in sizes B and BB may be useful on the Yellowstone or Missouri Rivers if you choose to use lead. Sink putty, twist-ons, and similar gimmicks do not work very well and I do not like them.
  • Basic fly fishing tools (nippers, forceps, knot tool if required, etc.)
  • Hook hone or file. Our stream bottoms have many hard rocks that dull hook points quickly, and the large flies commonly required on many waters will not penetrate if their hooks are dull.
  • Net with a basket at least 14" long. Deep nets with rubber or catch and release mesh baskets are preferred.

In-Depth Discussion of Tackle

Below, I discuss the rods, reels, lines, leaders, and tippet material that can be used in the region in much greater detail. As I noted in the intro, just about any rod/reel/line combination you’d use anywhere for trout can be used as fly fishing tackle in the Yellowstone area and Montana. That said, a much smaller range of items are generally useful. I spend much more time talking about rods, since there’s a much greater variety of rods that make sense than reels, lines, and other items.


Rods

Rods are discussed from short/light to long/heavy. The four rods marked with three asterisks *** are the most generally useful in the region. There’s nothing you can’t do efficiently and enjoyably if you come prepared with all four.

Brand names and the amount of money you spend on a given rod are far less important than taking the time to research and demo cast a variety of rods to find those that you enjoy fishing with and that suit your personal casting stroke. Make sure to match all rods with lines that suit them, and practice casting regularly before you fly fish Yellowstone and Montana, if you don't fish much back where you're from. The middle of your vacation is not the right time to get to know your rod or (worse) discover that it doesn't suit your casting style or abilities.

  • 0 to 3-Weight Rods Under Eight Feet Long: Such rods are popular elsewhere in the United States with anglers used to fishing the tiniest mountain creeks for the tiniest trout. Such locations are the only places such rods make any sense around here, as well.
  • 3 to 5-Weight Rods Under Eight Feet Long: Rods in this category are useful in fishing a much wider range of rough mountain streams lined with trees and brush than lighter rods in the same short lengths, since these rods are heavy enough to cast medium-sized dry flies, fight larger fish, and power at least short casts through a little wind. They're still special-purpose rods that most visitors won't need.
  • 3 to 5-Weight Rods Between Eight and Ten Feet Long:*** Rods in this category are very useful on larger meadow streams, smaller rivers, and spring creeks where anglers can expect to fish relatively small flies and tippets for spooky trout, yet will need to cast into wind from time to time, mend and otherwise manipulate the line at medium to long range, and deal with an occasional large trout. Most spring creeks, the Lamar River and its major tributaries Slough and Soda Butte Creek, the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers, and portions of the Madison all fall into this category. Four and five-weights are generally more useful than threes, and nine-foot rods are the best length for rods in this "slot." A nine-foot five weight can serve as your all-around dry fly rod on all area waters provided you are a solid caster, but it is too small to serve as a good nymph/streamer rod on large rivers.
  • Nine-Foot 6-Weight Rods:*** Nine-foot six-weights are as close to a "do it all" rod as you can bring. They are a bit long and especially a bit heavy for dry fly fishing for small trout on small streams and a bit light for fishing giant streamers, but otherwise they can do everything without holding you back. They are particularly suited to large rivers like the Yellowstone, Madison, and Missouri, regardless of whether you're fishing from a boat or on foot, on days when you can expect to use a variety of tactics and sizes of flies. They are particularly good for fishing the large, wind-resistant dry flies so effective and important in the region. Overall, I use (and have clients use) nine-foot six-weights more than all other rods combined.
  • 6-Weight Rods Between Nine and Ten Feet Long:*** Six weights over nine feet in length are superior to nine-footers for only two things, but they are BY FAR the best rods for these purposes. First, the long reach (providing good line control) and strong backbone (helping you to fight big fish and cast awkward nymph/weight/indicator rigs) of long six-weights make them ideal are nymph-fishing larger rivers and rough streams where large trout are present. The Yellowstone, Madison, Missouri, and Gallatin all fall into this category, as do the lower Gardner, Firehole, and Gibbon in the fall. This is true whether you're fishing on foot or from a boat. Second, they are the best rods you can choose if you're fishing from a float tube, because the long reach helps you're casting when you are low to the water. I use my ten-foot six-weight more than any other rod during the March-May and September-November timeframes, when I am targeting large trout.
  • Ten-foot 7-Weight Rods: Some guides prefer seven-weights for the same job as the six-weights I discuss in the previous entry. I am not one of them. That said, if you have a long seven-weight and not a long six-weight, by all means use the seven-weight instead.
  • 7 to 8-Weight Single-Handed Rods Shorter Than Ten Feet:*** Nine-foot rods heavier than six-weights are required only using the largest, heaviest nymphs and streamers for the largest trout on the largest rivers and lakes, basically the Missouri, Yellowstone, and Madison River, in that order of importance, as well as Yellowstone, Hebgen, and other lakes larger than 1,000 acres in size. If you won't be doing any of these things, there's no reason to bring such a rod. If you do like fishing giant articulated streamers and similar flies, no lighter rod will do the job as well as a nine-foot seven-weight, or even an eight-weight if you don't have a seven. Seven-weights can also be used when fishing large, buoyant dry flies on large rivers. For practical purposes this means Salmonflies and giant grasshoppers on the Yellowstone and Madison. Nine-foot six-weights are more pleasant to use for this purpose, however.
  • 5 to 7-Weight Switch and Spey Rods: Switch and spey rods are useful for nymph and streamer fishing large rivers like the Yellowstone, Madison, and Missouri while on foot, primarily in spring and fall when the trout may be far off the banks and challenging to reach with standard rods. There's no reason to buy such a rod for just these purposes, but if you already have one, by all means bring it along.
  • Tenkara: Tenkara rods are becoming more and more popular, though they are definitely special-purpose tools. Longer and heavier rods are definitely suggested, to deal with wind, rough water, larger fish, and larger flies. The smallest streams are actually harder to fish Tenkara-style than are medium-sized streams and rough rivers, since these are often very brushy and require extreme short range casts (as in a matter of a handful of feet).

For what it's worth, I do almost all of my personal fishing with the following rods: A 7'6" two-weight (tiny creeks), a 7'9" four-weight (larger but rough creeks), an 8'9" five-weight (larger meadow streams), a 9' six-weight (virtually all fishing on large rivers during the summer), a 10' six-weight (nymph fishing for larger trout on many different rivers and streams), and a 9' seven-weight (streamer fishing, especially from a boat). I have something like twenty fly rods, but the above are the ones I actually use around here, and most visitors here for a week won't fish as wide a range of waters or use as many techniques as I do over the course of the entire season, so most people can get away with two or three rods, mixing and matching from the above categories.


Reels

Reels are the easy part. There is no reason to spend a fortune on a reel for fishing the Yellowstone area. If you already have a $600 reel, great. it won't be any more effective than a $150 or $200 reel and only barely more effective than a $50 reel. Just make sure to spool any reels you use when fishing Montana or the Yellowstone area with at least fifty yards of 20lb Dacron backing, just in case you do hook into a monster trout.

The key with any reel is to be sure the reel is in good repair. It should not have a bent rim, should lack any sharp edges (often caused by dropping the reel on rocks) that might damage lines, should have a spool that locks into its frame correctly and does not freespool, and should be free from grit. A smooth drag is important, but this need not be a strong drag. LIGHTLY oil the spindle and any exposed gearing with a commercial reel lubricant or a product such as Gunslick gun lubricant. Use just a tiny drop of this product.

Beyond the above considerations, which all but the most bargain-basement Walmart-special reels should possess, here are the features I look for in my personal reels. None of the following are absolutely required, though they're nice to have. All reels I use in the region can be purchased at retail for $200 or less.

  1. Machined aluminum construction (helps durability)
  2. Palming rim. These are critical in adding drag when playing a fish, if required. Google "how to palm a fly reel" if you don't know how.
  3. Spool does not flex in its frame when the reel is cranked under pressure. This is most commonly a problem on reels marketed as being among the lightest in their class, including some very high-dollar models.

That's all! I use large-arbor and normal-arbor reels, those with exposed disc drags, enclosed disc drags, and click drags. If you already have decent-quality reels, the specifics of your reel are likewise just as unimportant.


Lines

Most anglers worry too much about their rods and reels and not enough about their lines. While the lines required or even just nice to have when you're fly fishing in the Yellowstone area are not complicated, they need to be correct and in good repair.

For the vast majority of anglers visiting this region, premium weight-forward floating fly lines that match your rods are all that are needed, and work better than fancier or more-esoteric lines. I do stress the "premium" aspect, however. With the exception of bargain store-level broomsticks costing $75 or less, all rods nowadays are "good enough." Even the cheapest fly reel will work fine for a while. Cheap lines will screw up your casting. I strongly encourage you to spend at least $50 on each of your fly lines, and nowadays most good fly lines are more like $75. It's money well spent.

Other lines of less (but some) utility are the following.

  • Double-Taper Floating Lines: Double-taper lines can substitute for WF lines in most situations, but are particularly useful for short-range fishing for spooky trout, as is often required on spring creeks, the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison Rivers, and in the Lamar River Drainage. They are much less useful at longer ranges and on bigger, rougher water. For practical purposes, I use DT lines on four-weight and lighter rods and WF lines on four-weight and heavier rods (I use both on four-weights).
  • Sink-Tip Lines: Standard sink-tips in the ten-foot range and type-IV to type-VI sink rates are useful for fishing streamers in a wide range of locations. You can also use shorter fast-sink streamer tips, particularly if you'll be fishing from a boat. If you don't have a sink-tip line, don't fret. Just buy a super fast-sinking five to seven-foot polyleader to use with your floating line; they work almost as well as true sink-tip lines.
  • Full-Sink Lines: Full-sinking lines are only useful if you will be fishing lakes, and even on lakes they are less important than you might think. Both intermediate and medium-sink density-compensated lines can work well. BUT... start with a floating line everywhere except Yellowstone Lake.
  • Switch and Spey Lines: Switch lines should be multi-purpose lines with which you can cast nymph/shot/indicator rigs or streamers. The most popular spey lines here use light Skagit heads, but Skandi-type heads are also popular, particularly on the Missouri. Short polyleaders work fine for a sinking portion.

All lines should match your rod and casting stroke. What do I mean? You should be able to cast effectively, efficiently, and enjoyably using the rod/line combination. A rod/line combination that works great with one angler's casting stroke will fall in a puddle for another caster. A rod/line combination that works great at 75 feet might not work at all at 15. With the exception of lines for switch and spey rods, lines you plan to use on foot while large rivers in the spring and fall, and lines for lake-fishing, it is critical that your lines perform best at short to moderate ranges. By "short" I mean you might not cast more than a foot or two of fly line. I might fish all day on a small stream without casting more than a leader and fifteen feet of fly line. That's short range. Moderate ranges cover anything out to forty or at most fifty feet. The only way to be sure your rod/line combination works right at these ranges for you is to practice.

As important as having a quality line that matches your rod is making sure it is in good repair. Before you fish Yellowstone or Montana, be sure to check the following and either fix any problems or replace the line, if needed.

  1. Inspect the line's coating for any cracks or dings. The most problematic are places where the line is cracked all the way around, so that it hinges. Small dings that do not go all the way around can be sealed with a UV-cure resin such as UV Knot Sense. Those that do go all around must be removed. If they're in the first couple feet of fly line, just cut back the fly line and re-secure your leader. More than a couple feet up the fly line, you really neeed to replace the line.
  2. Check the line-leader connection. Whether you use a traditional nail or needle knot, a factory-made loop as common in most new lines, or some connection, this area is prone to fraying and cracking. If there are any problems, cut off the old connection and replace it.
  3. Clean and dry the first 30 feet or so of fly line. Commercial fly fishing products or even gentle dish or unscented hand soap diluted with plenty of water and a cotton rag can be used to do so. I suggest light cleaning with a damp rag or simple fly fishing product like Cortland's line cleaning pads every couple of days, with more-thorough cleanings after fishing algae-stained water, spilling anything on your line, or before each season.
  4. Stretch the first 30 feet of line. While commercial products can be used for this, you can also simply strip line off the reel, then have a friend walk away with one end of the line until it tightens and stretches. When you're done, reel it back onto the spool evenly to prevent any new kinks from forming.
  5. Once you've done all of the above, the line should cast well, mend well, and float well. Check the floatation in particular. It's not unusual for the first six inches or foot of a fly line to sink even when it's in good shape, but if the line wants to sink more than a few feet back from the tip (taking into account turbulent surface currents and so on), odds are it is worn out and should be replaced.

Once your line is in good shape, here are tips on how to keep it that way:

  • Follow the steps given above from time to time. In particular, keep the line clean and check the line/leader connection for nicks/dings/chafing.
  • Keep the line out of direct sunlight except when you're actually fishing with it.
  • Keep the line out of heat and humidity when not in use.
  • Never leave a wet line (or reel) in a waterproof or near-waterproof pouch or box. This can cause mildew. Wait until it's dry to put it away.
  • Keep the line free from any reactive solvents. In the fly fishing world, this usually means sunscreen, insect repellant, and certain fly floatants that contain petroleum products. If you do get such products on your line, rinse it (in the river) immediately.
  • Keep the line free from grit. In particular be sure to rinse any sand or mud off your reel (it will get on the line), and try to avoid stepping on your line regardless of whether you're in a boat or on foot.
  • Take care not to get your line trapped in between your reel and your spool. This is most common when using cheap fly reels with poor fit and finish, but it can happen even on good machined reels especially once these reels have earned a few dings and other battle scars.
  • Avoid jerking or pulling on tangles in your line or in the leader when the leader is wrapped around the fly line. Doing so is the leading cause of cracked fly line coatings. Instead carefully clip such tangles apart using fine scissors or fly fishing nippers. Particularly tight knots can often be loosened slightly by inserting a hook into the tangle, making cutting the knot apart easier.

Leaders

Most anglers fishing Yellowstone or Montana for the first time make the following mistakes: they don't bring a wide enough variety of leaders, and they tend to use leaders that are too light and often too long for the water conditions and flies they are using. If you've never fished freestone waters in the west, big or small, the following information will therefore prove very useful.

Sinking polyleaders and leaders for sink-tip or full-sink lines are easy, so I'll cover them first. If you lack a sink-tip line, make sure to have a polyleader or two. Choose five to seven-foot polyleaders. The fastest and second-fastest sink rates in the "trout" size are most appropriate. To the exposed monofilament tip of these, add a split ring or tiny swivel. Then add 18" to two feet of tippet material to complete a basic streamer leader. If you're using a sink-tip or full-sink line, attach 18" of 20lb Maxima Ultragreen to the leader, then add a swivel or tippet ring. To the opposite end of this attachment point, add 18" to two feet of whatever tippet is required.

The following list goes over different water types and what lengths and diameters of leaders you should expect to fish, if you're using a floating line. The general rule is that the lower, clearer, and slower the water, and the smaller the flies and spookier the fish, the longer and thinner the leader you should use. The more obstructions or snags, the dirtier the water, and the larger and more wind-resistant the flies, the more likely you will need to slant towards a heavier and shorter leader. Streamers and big nymphs require heavier and usually shorter leaders than smaller nymphs and all but the largest and most wind-resistant dry flies. Fish size does not much factor into this equation, unless you're continuously breaking off big fish.

  • Rough, Shallow Rivers and Streams: Except when nymphing the deepest holes (as for fall-run browns), use 7.5-foot 2X to 4X leaders depending on fly size and water clarity. For nymphing for browns, use 9-foot 2X or 3X leaders regardless of fly size or clarity.
  • Meadow/Gentle Streams with Smaller, Dumber Fish: 7.5-foot 3X or 4X leaders are generally all you need.
  • Meadow Streams with Larger, Spookier Fish, and Spring Creeks: 9-foot to 15-foot leaders are required, with late summer and early fall generally seeing the spookiest fish and smallest dry flies and therefore the longest leaders. Tippet diamaters should run from 3X to 7X with 4X and 5X most important on meadow streams like the Lamar and its tributaries and 6X most important on spring creeks. The Paradise Valley spring creeks generally require the longest leaders of all, commonly 12+ feet.
  • Large, Deep Freestone Rivers (i.e. Yellowstone, portions of the Madison, Gallatin): Leaders should run 7.5 to 9 feet and 1X to 5X, with the heaviest leaders most important immmediately after runoff (when fishing both dries and nymphs) and the lightest leaders most important from early fall through early spring.
  • Tailwater Rivers: Leaders should generally be 9 to 12 feet long and relatively light, with 3X to 5X most important. Fly size is generally the determining factor in which diameter to use.
  • Lakes: Most lakes require 9' 3X to 5X leaders throughout the season, with fly size and the amount of weed growth the key determining factors.

In determining what diameter leader to start with, a good rule of thumb is to divide the fly size you're using by four, then use the "X rating" this equation produces when the fish are not spooky and/or the flies are large. When the equation does not produce a whole number, go down to the next-smaller size. Slide down a size or even two sizes for spooky fish in clear water, but go no smaller, since using a too-slender tippet can hurt your casting efficiency.

Your basic leaders should always be standard monofilament leaders, rather than fluorocarbon. There is no reason to purchase fluorocarbon leaders! If fishing conditions require fluoro tippets, simply cut the standard mono tippet off and replace it with fluorocarbon from one of your spare tippet spools (see next section). Doing this will save you $$$ and works just as well as a leader made entirely from fluoro.


Tippet Spools

Both standard monofilament and fluorocarbon tippet make sense when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, though monofilament is far more important overall and can serve as your only material, if you're on a budget.

If you do bring both mono and fluoro, plan to use the fluoro only when you use nymphs, streamers, and other subsurface flies. Never use fluoro with dry flies as this material sinks a bit and will sink small dries. The conditions under which you may want to use fluoro are:

  • Spooky fish
  • Big fish
  • Many snags, weeds, or other obstructions on the bottom
  • Small nymphs, when you wish to maximize your tippet size

The above conditions are more common on spring creeks, tailwaters, weedy lakes, and when you're targeting fall-run browns or spring-run rainbows. For practical purposes, these are the only conditions under which I use or even carry fluoro, so if none of the above apply, use mono.

Depending on the point in the season, you may need to carrry anywhere from 0X on down to 7X in mono and 2X through 7X in fluoro to cover all your bases. In general, the fewest tippet sizes need be carried on freestone streams immediately following runoff, and the most need to be carried when water conditions are crystal clear. Except immediately after runoff, I expect to use 0X and 1X only for repairing damaged leaders, while I expect to use 6X and 7X only on flat water where big, spooky fish are the quarry.

If you like fishing big, articulated streamers, also plan to bring 8lb to 12lb Maxima Ultragreen or similar stiff mono leader material for use as tippet with these heavy, oversized flies. When you're using "normal" streamers up to and including weighted Woolly Buggers and sculpins to size-2, standard 2X mono or fluoro will work fine.

Do not generally add tippet to new packaged tapered leaders until you've tied on a few flies, had a few tangles, etc. and have thus chewed back at least a foot into the leader. The only exception is when fish are eating tiny dry flies in flat water and are exceptionally spooky, in which case additional tippet may be required to achieve a good drift.


Strike Indicators, Shot, Fly Floatant, Fly Fishing Tools, Etc.

The indicators, shot, tools, and so on that you should have when fishing the Yellowstone area and Montana are no different than you need elsewhere. See the list at the top of this page for suggestions. Just make sure to pack any sharp-edged tools as well as any fly floatants in your checked luggage if you're flying.


Parks' Fly Shop

PO Box 196 or 202 Second Street South

Gardiner, MT 59030

Phone: (406) 848-7314

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