Yellowstone Fly Fishing Tips: Fly fishing the lamar river, fly fishing slough creek, fly fishing soda butte creek, lamar river hatch chart, lamar river Drainage, lamar river system

Introduction to Fly Fishing the Lamar River Drainage

The Lamar River and its primary tributaries Soda Butte Creek and Slough Creek (actually a small river in its own right) comprise the most popular and most productive hatch-matching dry fly water in Yellowstone Park from July through mid-September. In their most-productive reaches, these are all easy-access meadow streams that are either within sight of roads or a straightforward hike from it. Large cutthroat trout, lots of them, consistent dry fly fishing, and easy access all combine to make these waters the most heavily-pressured waters in the region. Lower Soda Butte Creek in particular is probably the single most heavily-pressured (really overpressured) water in the Montana-Idaho-Wyoming tri-state region. At times it can almost resemble Eastern-style combat fishing. Except for rugged, particularly rugged hike-in areas of the Lamar and Slough Creek where the footing is bad, solitude is not on the menu in the Lamar Drainage.

This fact is a shame, because otherwise, these are ideal trout waters. The scenery, with steep glacier-carved mountains as backdrop to lush meadows grazed by bison and haunted by the Lower 48's largest populations of grizzly bears and wolves, is stupendous. The streams themselves are beautiful classic riffle-pool trout streams. When you get an unscarred trout here, it is fat, beautiful, and in exceptional condition. The hatches, particularly those of Green Drakes, Little Green Drakes (probably Drunella flavilinea or D. coloradensis to Latin speakers), Pale Morning Duns, Blue-winged Olives, and Drake Mackerals, run almost like clockwork during high summer, and when they don't, the terrestrial fishing (especially with ants) is gangbusters.

Besides those seeking solitude, the Lamar Drainage is not ideal for beginners and novices. The flat water on Slough Creek, in particular, will prove frustrating to them. Even Soda Butte Creek's trout are now growing somewhat educated due to the heavy pressure. There are many other river systems in the Yellowstone area where newcomers to fly fishing (especially those who aren't being guided) will have a lot more fun. If beginners do want to fish the Lamar Drainage, they should stick to the faster sections of all three primary streams in the Drainage, where small, aggressive trout are abundant but there's still a chance at a big one. The small hike-in tributaries to the upper Lamar River, Pebble Creek in its canyon, and the Buffalo Fork of Slough Creek are also better options for beginners than the main streams themselves.

Besides crowding, there's one other problem in the Lamar Drainage: MUD! Both the Lamar and Soda Butte Creek experience awful mud during spring runoff and after summer storms. Slough Creek never gets so muddy, but runoff does make it far too high to fish for the first month of the park season most years, and when the Lamar and Soda Butte get muddy following storms, everyone who would have fished these streams instead goes to Slough, making for horrific crowding and hard fishing. On the other hand, once the water clears the fishing is gangbusters for a day or two.

Because of the spring melt and cold water temperatures in the autumn, the best fishing in the Lamar Drainage is during high summer. Once the water clears and drops enough for insect hatches to begin in earnest, usually in the first ten days of July, the most consistent fishing is usually for the first month or so. The insects get smaller and the fish spookier through the summer, with a brief resurgence of large insects in September. Fishing is usually not great except on warm afternoons after the middle of September, and Slough Creek in particular is often very hard even earlier. Anglers who want to fish any of these three waters should not plan to do so before early July at the earliest or after late September. Sometimes the fishing is better earlier or later, but it can't be counted on, so if hitting the Lamar or its tribs is a chief goal, fish during this period.

Besides the main streams, the Lamar Drainage is joined by many small hike-in streams upstream from its confluence with Soda Butte Creek. These are great destinations for backpackers even though their average trout are small. Soda Butte is joined by the aforementioned Pebble Creek, which is another good hike-in option. Trout Lake, a short hike from Soda Butte, offers some of Yellowstone Park's largest and spookiest trout. I got my largest-ever Yellowstone Park rainbow here in 2009. Off Slough Creek, the Buffalo Fork offers remote canyon fishing for small trout, while McBride Lake offers uncrowded opportunities for large cruising cutthroat.

A Note on Crowding...

I am not joking when I say the Lamar Drainage can be extraordinarily crowded, particularly near the road on any of the three major streams in the system and in the First Meadow of Slough Creek, the easiest and most-famous hike-in destination. Here are some notes on proper etiquette.

  1. Unless invited, it is never proper to join another angler or group of anglers in the pool they are fishing. Ideally, leave an empty pool between yourself and parties both upstream and down, so that everyone can move a little without having to leapfrog.
  2. If you're unsure if you're far enough from others, give at least 100 yards between your group and the next.
  3. Avoid walking on high banks as much as possible. Trails frequently line these banks, but they are trampled by people who don't know any better. Under high, undercut banks is where trout reside, while anglers fishing to them stand on the flatter, shallower bank to avoid spooking the trout by their shadow and silhouette. There are easy fords at every bend on these streams, so it's easy to cross from shallow bank to shallow bank to avoid spooking the fish under cutbanks.

Green Drakes or Gray Drakes?

There are not many true Gray Drakes in the Lamar Drainage. There are a few, yes, but these swimming mayflies are relatively unimportant. The bugs everybody calls Gray Drakes are in fact one of three or four species of Green Drakes, that in Yellowstone waters tend to look more gray than they do in many other places. If you see large (#10-12) grayish-olive (or olive-gray) insects with dark gray wings, you're looking at a full-size Green Drake. If you're seeing similar insects that are one or two sizes smaller, you're looking at a Little Green Drake. They all tend to hatch in riffles and at the heads of pools, and attract aggressive rises from trout. These collectively are the most important insects in the Lamar Drainage, with one species or another hatching in at least small numbers every day from the end of runoff until late September, sometimes alongside other species of bugs. The trout sometimes don't key on them, particularly on Slough Creek where the fish are much spookier than elsewhere in the Lamar Drainage, but they usually do. Even if there are more of a smaller mayfly hatching, don't hesitate to fish a (gray-colored) Green Drake imitation ahead of a smaller bug. Even if there is only a handful of Drakes popping, it will amaze you how often the fish will choose the larger fly.


Lamar River Mainstem

Introduction

The Lamar is the Yellowstone's largest tributary within Yellowstone Park, and one of its largest overall, a fact which earned it the name "East Fork of the Yellowstone" on some maps back in the 1800s. Indeed, the Lamar can actually be larger than the mainstem Yellowstone at their confluence at the heigh of spring runoff, though the Yellowstone is far larger in the fall. The Lamar is generally less crowded than its tributaries, due to three factors: it's less consistent, with fish that have a maddening habit of migrating from pool to pool even during the middle of the season, much of it is further from the road, both in the backcountry or simply a mile or so across the broad Lamar Valley, and it features much more rough water many anglers are not fit enough to handle.

The Lamar River has the most moods of any of the streams in its system. In its headwaters it tumbles headlong as a pocket water canyon stream, in its six-mile meadow it flows placidly through S-bends and beneath undercut grassy banks as a classic riffle-and-pool river where buffalo stand watching passing anglers, and at last it dives into a rugged canyon choked with boulders larger than cars and punctuated by whitewater plunges and the luscious green plunge pools below each one. Each section has its own charm, and all are home to plentiful cutthroat and cutthroat-rainbow hybrid trout, with a handful of pure rainbows thrown in for good measure.

Description and Access

As noted above, the Lamar is a river of contrasts save in one respect: runoff lasts a long time and is severe, and the chocolate stew of runoff is echoed after every thunderstorm. A popular local saying is that an elk can pee in the wrong spot on the upper Lamar and turn the rest of the river muddy for days. This saying is more accurate than you'd expect.

Above Soda Butte Creek, you have to hit the trail. The Lamar River Trail parallels the river all the way from a mile above the Lamar-Soda Butte confluence to the river's headwaters. In many places the trail is a half-mile or so from the river on a high bench, but it is not difficult to cut down to the river using game tracks. The river is generally flatter here than in the lower canyon near the Yellowstone, and the canyon is not as deep. The river generally flows in either a riffle-pool character or as pocket water, with the latter becoming more common the higher you go. The upper Lamar and its tributaries make good sense for backcountry anglers, as the trail is mellow and there are numerous backcountry campsites.

By far the Lamar's most famous section is the meadow stretch between the mouth of Soda Butte Creek and the head of its lower canyon. This section flows through a bowl-shaped valley green with waist-high grass and sagebrush, with the ridges on either side topped by pines, aspens, and, into late summer, snow. Trapper Osborne Russell called this meadow "Paradise Valley" in his journal from the 1830s, and most people and most of Yellowstone's animals agree. There's a bison herd year-round, as well as pronghorn, mule deer, black and grizzly bears, and several wolf packs. In the winter the area is prime habitat for elk that come down from higher country in search of food. The river in this stretch is placid, flowing in long riffles and pools, and most banks are undercut. Nowhere is the road more than a mile from the river in this stretch, and fishing pressure is heavy, especially immediately below Soda Butte Creek and immediately above the canyon, where the road is only a few yards from the river. Access is a no-brainer. A blind man could get to the river from the road without trouble, provided he didn't walk into a buffalo on the way.

The river is generally visible from the road in its lower canyon, anywhere from right next to it to a half-mile or so away. Access is difficult in places, however, because the canyon is no joke. The upper portion is especially strenuous to reach. It is in a tight gorge and the river drops one foot in five, and an angler must leap to and from and crawl across and among the enormous boulders that choke the streambed. For anglers who want to get away from others but still catch large fish, this canyon is the best option in the Lamar System.

Angling

Angling Quality
Angling quality chart for the Lamar River through the season
The Fish
  • Yellowstone cutthroat: Cutthroats dominate the fish population in the Lamar. Upstream of Soda Butte Creek, the fish average 8-14 inches and max out at 20 inches, with the smaller average size the further upstream you travel. In the meadows downstream of the Soda Butte Creek, they average 12-20 inches and reach 22 inches. In the canyon water from the end of the meadow to the Yellowstone, they average 8-14 inches but can still reach 20.
  • Cutthroat-rainbow hybrid: Cuttbows are most common downstream of the Northeast Entrance Road Bridge. Upstream, fish you are certain are hybridized must be killed (though it is very hard to tell). They average the same size as the cutthroats but get bigger, up to 24 inches in the canyon section (though these fish are rare trophies).
  • Rainbow: All rainbow trout must be killed upstream of the Northeast Entrance Road Bridge and as such there are few left upstream of it. There are only small numbers downstream. They average 12-16 inches but can reach 24 inches. Like the big hybrids, these are once-a-year-at-best fish.
  • There are no brown trout in the Lamar or its tributaries! The copper-colored trout you catch there are dark male cutthroats!
The Fishing

The entire Lamar offers dry fly fishing at its finest. Its trout are large, often rising, and just picky enough to make things interesting. Because its trout are smart (especially in the meadow section), the Lamar is a poor place to take beginners fishing unless they're accompanied by a guide. Even then, there are many better options.

The Lamar is never clear enough to fish with dry flies until at least the beginning of July. Once in a blue moon it is nymphable around the 20th of June, but even this is highly unusual. More typically, the river drops into good shape between the first and tenth of July. Most of the time the best fishing is found from the middle of July until the beginning of September, and again on September afternoons when the Drake Mackerals and BWO hatch. An exception is the lower canyon, where the Salmonfly emergence around the 5th-20th of July is the start and the peak of the angling year. Late fall fishing is dependent on warm, calm weather. Hope for midge and BWO hatches.

Mud can screw up the fishing at any time. Mud from the headwaters of Soda Butte Creek reaches the Lamar within a few hours of a storm, while mud from the headwaters of the river takes about a day to reach the top of the Lamar Valley at the mouth of Soda Butte. If a storm hits both Soda Butte and the upper Lamar, the river will likely just be clearing from the Soda Butte mud when the upper Lamar mud hits. When storms are severe, the mud can last three days, and two is common. This isn't a matter of "it's kind of murky." The river looks like a red brick crayon turned into liquid, with no visibility whatsoever and and no chance the trout are eating.

After the river drops into shape after runoff, it is almost never necessary to fish nymphs by themselves. Under a hopper, yes, but not dredging. Except in the canyon sections, your first concern should be looking for a hatch. Green Drakes, PMD, Little Green Drakes, and caddis are common in summer. Except for the caddis, these hatches tend to occur from sometime in mid-late morning through early afternoon, with the caddis and perhaps a secondary mayfly emergence or spinner fall in late evening. There are also Yellow Sallies, Salmonflies, Golden Stones, and Midnight Stones in the canyon areas, and assorted other mayflies of lesser importance everywhere on the Lamar. In late summer and early fall the fish can really get on #18 black midges. If the fish are rising slowly and lazily on late August or September mornings, in the tailouts, odds are they are taking these midges.

Large terrestrials and attractor dries like Chubby Chernobyls can work well on the Lamar if there is no hatch, and they are probably your best choice in the roughest portions of the canyons. Both grasshopper-style and cricket/cicada patterns work well during the summer months. Some years the black crickets are best, some years the tan/cream/gold hoppers. Don't hesitate to fish these in large sizes, up to #6. In the canyons, fishing either a Chubby Chernobyl or a hopper or cricket along with an attractor nymph dropper will probably get you fish all day during the summer months. In the meadows, you may have to go more technical. Try a mayfly nymph or Gray Glass Caddis as a dropper under your big hopper, or put on a small ant or beetle. Often the fish will be attracted to the hopper or other large terrestrial, refuese it, then eat the smaller fly hanging behind.

One terrestrial worth noting for the Lamar but not really its tributaries is the Mormon cricket. Particularly in the lower end of the meadow and the canyons, imitations of this insect can draw tremendous strikes in late August and early September. The effectiveness of Mormon cricket patterns does vary from year to year, however.

As noted above, the best fall fishing depends on hatches of BWO and Drake Mackerals, which tend to hatch in the afternoon though they may pop as early as 9:00AM following a warm night.

As often as possible when dry fly fishing, target a spotted fish or a rise, rather than casting blind. Blind-casting works better here than on the upper Yellowstone or Slough Creek, both of which are slower and glassier than the Lamar, but if you merely cover water you'd be amazed at how many fish you're missing. Take your time and keep your eyes open. Sight-fishing is most important in the meadow sections, but it also works in the canyon. My first "big" fish in Yellowstone Park (really only about 16-17 inches) ate a stonefly nymph in the Lamar Canyon after I spotted it holding in a little plunge pool. This happened back in the 1990s on my second-ever visit to the area.

Another note about the Lamar: its fish are known as flaky, for good reason. One day you might be fishing a banner Green Drake hatch over dozens of large rising trout, while the next day the same hatch in the same spot will see only ten-inchers rising, and not many of them. Lamar trout sometimes migrate randomly, so when confronted by a situation like this, get moving. Odds are the next pool will hold all of yesterday's fish.

Hatch Chart
Hatch chart for the Lamar River

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. Furimsky's Foam Gray Drake, #14
  2. PMD Sparkle Dun, #16-18
  3. Pink Bob Hopper, #14
  4. Card's Cicada, #10-12
  5. Bicolor Ant, #16-18
  6. Slough Creek Cripple, #10-14
  7. Gray CDC Emerging Dun, #12-14
  8. Gray Glass Caddis, #14
  9. Lamar Midge, #18-20
  10. Gold Chubby Chernobyl, #8-12

Soda Butte Creek

Introduction

Soda Butte Creek is the Lamar's cute little sister. It is almost as large as the Lamar where they meet, but its valley is smaller, the pools are shorter, its two canyons not as unapproachable, its Drake hatches more consistent, and its fish less flaky. In its most popular sections, it's never farther than 500 yards from the road. Instead of the bowl-shaped valley of the Lamar, Soda Butte's is vee-shaped, with sheer peaks of two branches of the Absaroka Mountains jutting up without foothills to the east and west. Despite the grandiose surroundings, the creek itself generally has a gentle demeanor. Except for a short, extremely narrow gorge and a short section of steep pocket water, Soda Butte flows in a series of short riffles and short pools, with a few yards of pocket water thrown in here and there for good measure. It heads northeast of Cooke City, outside the Park, and its headwaters are damaged by mine wastes from a series of defunct gold mines. This is a danger that does not appear to an angler fishing the creek inside the Park, but it is a concern.

Runoff does not last quite as long here as it does on the Lamar, but this is offset by Soda Butte's even worse reaction to storms. Because it is a short drainage, a thunderstorm at its headwaters will turn the entire creek muddy within half a day. On the plus side, it clears quickly from such storms, usually within a day as opposed to three or four for the Lamar.

Soda Butte probably sounds like an ideal body of water from the above description, except for the mud. In many respects that is true. In one respect, it absolutely is not. One thing anyone contemplating fishing Soda Butte must understand is that it is the most-crowded body of water in Yellowstone Park, and perhaps within a 500-mile radius. This is no exaggeration. If the creek is clear enough, low enough, and warm enough to be worth fishing, you will not find solitude here. Nowadays this is true even in the upper creek just inside the park boundary, where the trout are smaller and not as numerous. In addition, the crowding means that its trout are the most-scarred in the region, missing fins or portions of their jaws, with damaged lips and sores, and often sporting broken-off flies in their mouths or fins. If this doesn't sound okay to you, you need to fish elsewhere.

Description and Access

As noted above, Soda Butte generally lacks the extremes of its sister stream, the Lamar. Good fishing once began and will soon (as of winter 2018) begin again about where it enters Yellowstone Park. More on this in the Angling section below. From here to Ice Box Canyon, Soda Butte is a fairly steep riffle-pool stream with numerous undercut bends amid dense stands of fir and spruce trees, with occasional pocket meadows. Numerous small springs and seeps line this stretch, probably fueled by groundwater from the immense amounts of snow the region receives (25-35 feet a year on average), and by melt off the surrounding mountains, which the snow never quite leaves. Numerous snags choke the stream, piling into huge logjams at every bend. The stream is typically about 20 feet wide, ice-cold, and easily waded after mid-July. That said, working along the banks can be rugged enough that this section is not as approachable for anglers of limited mobility as the water downstream of Ice Box Canyon.

At Icebox Canyon the stream changes character utterly, but only for a mile or two. This gorge is so narrow and deep that ice lines its walls all summer in some years. You cannot see the bottom from the road, even though the road is less that 15 feet from the edge of the canyon wall in some places. There is a pair of small waterfalls in the canyon, but I've never seen them because travel within the canyon is almost impossible save at the bottom, above the confluence with tiny Amphitheatre Creek.

Immediately below Amphitheatre Creek, Soda Butte enters the aptly named Round Prairie, the first of the two meadow stretches that receive the vast majority of Soda Butte's angling pressure and are home to most of its large trout. Halfway down Round Prairie Soda Butte picks up Pebble Creek, which significantly enlarges it. At the bottom of the meadow, near Trout Lake, there is a short stretch of steep pocket water where Soda Butte cuts through a small hill, but the stream soon emerges into the Junction Meadow. This is the flattest, most open section of the creek. The creek meanders four miles through Junction Meadow to the Lamar, changing its channel with almost every spring runoff. This section of the creek is world famous. The bottom half of the meadow, from near the Soda Butte geyser cone down, in particular, can be jam-packed with anglers to the extent that it's not possible to find a place to fish without getting much too close to others.

Access to Soda Butte is easy. Just choose one of the many pullouts and wander over to the creek, which is nowhere more than 500 yards from the road and usually less than 200 yards from it, though in its upper reaches it is often screened by trees. At times there might be buffalo in the way, or, up in the trees, black bears or moose. Only the short Ice Box Canyon is a real obstacle to fishing, but this canyon is also primarily a nursery area home to 4-10" fish, so the lack of access here is no problem. Footing is likewise easy except for the logjams and brushy banks in upper sections, and for the occasional deep hole hidden by grass that marks an old channel. Despite these minor obstructions, Soda Butte is probably the single easiest large stream in Yellowstone Park to navigate for anglers of limited mobility.

Angling

Angling Quality
Chart of angling quality through the season on Soda Butte Creek
The Fish
  • Yellowstone cutthroat: Cutthroats are the dominant and really only fish in Soda Butte nowadays. Above Ice Box Canyon, they average 8-14 inches but reach 20. In the rough sections from Ice Box down, they average 6-8 inches as these are nursery areas. In the meadows downstream of Ice Box Canyon, they average 12-18 inches and occasionally break 22.
  • Cutthroat-rainbow hybrid: Rare and getting rarer. All obvious hybrids must be killed (if you're not sure, release them). There are probably none left upstream of Ice Box Canyon. Downstream, they average in the same size bracket as the cutthroats.
  • Rainbow: Rainbow trout must be killed throughout Soda Butte. You are unlikely to see any. If you do, it will only be in the Junction Meadow within a couple miles of the Lamar.
  • Brook: Brookies invaded the headwaters of Soda Butte in the 1990s but were poisoned out from 2015-2017. There are probably none left (cross your fingers).
  • There are no brown trout in Soda Butte or elsewhere in the Lamar Drainage! The copper-colored trout you catch there are dark male cutthroats!
The Fishing

Soda Butte Creek fishes much like the Lamar, save that its headwater section is close to a road instead of in trackless wilderness and its pools and riffles are not as long. Insect hatches are generally the same as those on the Lamar save that there are no appreciable Salmonfly or Golden Stone populations in Soda Butte. The hatches are also slightly more consistent on Soda Butte. Fish can be as "flaky" as those in the Lamar, but seldom are, at least in the most-popular section of the creek, the Junction (or Lower) Meadow. In addition to the grasshoppers, ants, beetles, and bees you should have in your box on the Lamar, it's critical to have a few Spruce Moth imitations in your box on Soda Butte, especially if you're fishing upstream of the Junction Meadow. Some years, so many of these terrestrial insects get in Soda Butte that the fish become selective to them, as they would to a mayfly spinner fall. After the Gallatin River, Soda Butte Creek sees the heaviest falls of these insects in the region.

The fish in Soda Butte vary markedly in size. In the crowded Junction Meadow, an average fish is between twelve and eighteen inches long, with a few fish to 22 inches or (once a season or so) even more. In Ice Box Canyon and the pocket water stretch between Round Prairie and the Junction Meadow you'd be hard pressed to find a ten-incher. Round Prairie fish average ten to sixteen inches, with a few to twenty. Above Ice Box there is a wide range of fish sizes, but most fish run between eight and eleven inches, with the largest fish you're likely to see on an average day around fourteen and a handful to eighteen.

Here's a note about the stretch of Soda Butte from its headwaters outside the park down to Ice Box Canyon, which I noted briefly above. In recent years the upper creek was poisoned to remove invasive brook trout. They weren't a problem, but the goal was to make sure of this moving forward. The native cutthroats were shocked out while the poisoning took place, then put back in, but many of these fish were killed by this stressful process. Some supplemental stocking took place to restore populations, but they're still not where they were. Odds are that by 2020 or so the fishing should be as good as it ever was in the upper portion of the creek, but for right now you're better off below Ice Box.

One factor to note about Soda Butte is that the rapid elevation loss and change in climate from its headwaters (7700 feet in an alpine forest) to its mouth (6400 feet in an open meadow) dramatically impact insect emergence dates and times. While large Western Green Drakes (#10-12) usually hatch in July in the Lower Meadow around 10:00AM-2:00PM, up in the trees above Ice Box Canyon they're more likely on August afternoons. Different portions of the creek likewise fish differently at different times of the year. The upper creek is usually at its best in August, while the Junction Meadow is usually best in July and the middle of September.

Hatch Chart
Soda Butte Creek 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. Furimsky's Foam Gray Drake, #14
  2. PMD Sparkle Dun, #16-18
  3. Pink Bob Hopper, #14
  4. Cinnamon Ant, #16-18
  5. Bicolor Ant, #16-18
  6. Slough Creek Cripple, #10-14
  7. Gray CDC Emerging Dun, #12-14
  8. Gray Glass Caddis, #14
  9. Lamar Midge, #18-20
  10. March Brown Sparkle Dun, #12 (taken as a Drake Mackeral)

Slough Creek

Introduction

Many anglers do not pronounce Slough Creek's name right. It's proper name, pronounced "sloo" is apt, considering the river's resemblance in its lower reaches to the backwaters of many major rivers. The most popular mispronunciation, "slow," is likewise apt. The meadows on Slough Creek are long, and the river in them is slow, and makes for spooky fish. Except for a canyon stretch upstream of the Slough Creek Campground, all of the popular water on Slough is divided into meadows, There are five altogether, Frenchie's at the creek's headwaters, the Third, Second, and First, from the Park boundary to the head of the canyon (eight, five, and two and a half miles from the Slough Creek trailhead, respectively), all separated by short stretches of trees and steeper sections of creek, and last the Lower Meadow, the bottom of which is known to some as the VIP Pool, which ends at the quarter-mile canyon stretch where Slough dumps into the Lamar. These meadows feature excellent hatches of a variety of mayflies and even better terrestrial fishing. Slough is probably the most famous of the three streams in the Lamar drainage, and for good reason: its fish are very large and very wary.

The dirty water phase of runoff is over sooner here than on Soda Butte or the Lamar, and frequently the Upper Meadows will be clear when the Lower Meadow is not, because the Buffalo Fork, a tributary which enters near the Slough Creek Campground, usually carries a higher sediment load, both in the spring and after storms. Runoff is usually more a matter of high, cold water than filthy muddy water. As such, the creek may be fishable on opening day, especially if the winter was dry and the spring cold. This is rare. Usually it's late June before Slough is truly fishable at all, and the end of the month or the 4th of July before it's good. Slough also responds better after rain than Soda Butte or the Lamar, making it the best bet in the Lamar drainage after a rain, though of course it is quite crowded at these times.

The First Meadow, the campground area, and portions of the Lower Meadow of Slough are frequently quite crowded. Because it's a popular backcountry camping destination and many outfitters run horseback overnight trips on it, even the Second and Third Meadows of Slough frequently have anglers in the obvious places. Please give others plenty of room, and if there's a hundred cars at the trailhead when you arrive in the morning, go fish somewhere else.

Description and Access

Except for the campground stretch, canyon between the campground and First Meadow, and the upper chunk of the Lower Meadow, fishing Slough Creek requires a hike. The walk down to the lower portion of the VIP Pools is not long, but getting to the First Meadow requires a hike of a bit over two miles, the first mile of which is up and over the top of a ridge. After this it's a relatively flat hike all the way to the top of the Third Meadow, eleven miles from the trailhead. This is an exceptionally beautiful hike. The trail is frequently used by grizzlies and wolves as well as people, so look out. The Slough Creek Campground Road offers access to the Lower Meadow, while a parking lot and picnic area at the north end of the campground itself is the jumping off point for the water near it and the canyon. The trailhead for the upper water is a couple hundred yards before you reach the campground.

The Upper Meadows of Slough are all about the same in terms of topography and flow. The major differences are that there are less people in the Second Meadow and sometimes less in the Third than either of the others, though that depends on how many horseback outfitters have brought parties in for the week. Consequently, fish in the First Meadow are warier than those in the Second and Third. The Third Meadow is the longest, the Second next, and the First the shortest. All three meadows feature long pools with short riffles at their heads. The bottom is mostly sand and fine gravel, and the creek is often exceptionally clear, which is both a blessing a curse for the angler.

The Lower Meadow resembles a larger version of Soda Butte at its head, with riffles dumping into pools every fifty yards or so, but downstream a bit farther the stream becomes almost still and glassy smooth. The bottom of the entire meadow tends more towards silt and sand than the Upper Meadows. The fast water where the creek tilts over and dumps into the Lamar and the section near the campground are pocket water. Near the campground and up into the canyon -which is a fairly nasty little gorge- there are a lot of deadfall trees.

"Creek" is something of a misnomer. Slough is much larger than any other stream called a creek in the region, larger than the Gibbon River in fact, and is impossible to cross early in the season. By the beginning of August at the latest it is possible, but you still have to look for shallow spots. The pocket water sections and areas downstream of the mouth of the Buffalo Fork are particularly tricky.

Angling

Angling Quality
Slough Creek angling quality through the season
The Fish
  • Yellowstone cutthroat: Cutthroats dominate the fish population in Slough, particularly in the famous hike-in water (First through Third Meadows) upstream of the canyon above the campground. They average 12-18 inches in the hike-in meadows and 12-20 inches in the Lower Meadow and 6-12 inches in the rough water stretches, but fish over 20 inches are possible everywhere.
  • Cutthroat-rainbow hybrid: Cuttbows are common in Slough Creek, particularly downstream of the cascades in the middle of the canyon between the Slough Creek Campground and the First Meadow upstream. They average 12-20 inches in the meadow stretches and 6-12 inches in the rough stretches. They can reach 24-26 inches, though fish over 22 are trophies.
  • Rainbow: Rainbows are common downstream of Slough Creek Campground but must be killed above it. There are quite a few in the canyon section above the campground that must be killed. In the rough water they average 6-10 inches. In the Lower Meadow, they average 12-20 inches and reach 24+ inches. These fish are not at all stupid, even the 12-inchers.
  • There are no brown trout in Slough Creek or elsewhere in the Lamar Drainage! The copper-colored trout you catch there are dark male cutthroats!
The Fishing

Slough Creek is probably the most famous of the three Lamar drainage streams, and there are several reasons why. In the meadows, the fish are larger on average than the others in the system (though the fish in the Lamar top out larger), the setting of the stream is beautiful, and the fishing is good. But only if you're an advanced angler. The meadows of Slough get fished very hard by very good anglers year in and year out and have been getting fished hard since the 1960s. This fact coupled with the complicated insect life and slow, braiding currents of these long meadows breeds selective trout.

In general, each of the Upper Meadows fish about the same as the others, with the prime differences being that presentations and flies need to be a bit more precise in the First Meadow, since these trout see more flies. In all three meadows, an average fish will run from twelve to eighteen inches, with fish to 22 inches possible though unlikely. Terrestrials are the bread and butter here, with ants and beetles outperforming hoppers in general, due to the fact that they see so many. There are also good Gray and Green Drake emergences (yes, true Gray Drakes) and spinner falls, along with PMDs and BWOs, in season. If the fish aren't looking up, sight-nymphing with a long leader, no indicator, and a small nymph like a Pheasant Tail or, in slower water, a midge pupa, is the answer. That or dynamite.

The Lower Meadow can fish well with the same flies, but the key differences are in the species makeup and the sophistication of the trout. There are as many rainbows and hybrids here as cutthroat, and trout of all three types are super wary. The reason the lower portion of this meadow is known as the VIP Pools is because only VIPs are able to catch fish there. Long, extremely fine leaders are the rule everywhere on Slough, but in the Lower Meadow you might as well not string up your rod after the first of August if you're fishing with less that a twelve- to fifteen-foot leader tapered to at most 5X, preferably with a fluorocarbon tippet. The fish in the Lower Meadow tend to be either small or large, with six-inch rainbows competing with twenty-inch hybrids. The largest fish you might find here probably goes six or eight pounds, but good luck catching it. More realistic hopes can be pinned on 22-inchers, but it takes an expert to fool these, or even the sixteen-inchers, for that matter.

The short gorge between the First and Second Meadow, the campground stretch and canyon, and the short pitch where Slough tilts into the Lamar are the only places on Slough where a novice angler has a reasonable shot. This is actually very good water for novices, especially those who like to rock-hop. I (Walter) guide on it often with anglers of this skill level. Attractor dries and terrestrials with nymph droppers work in this water, and in early July there are brief, relatively unknown Salmonfly and Golden Stone hatches. Green Drake and Yellow Sally hatches can be excellent, and since the water is rough, foam-bodied drake patterns can work even if there is no hatch. Note that this water is VERY rugged, and as such is not suited for anglers with any sort of limited mobility whatsoever. The average fish in these rough water sections average under 10 inches and dumb, which is why they're good for novices, but there are small numbers of fish over 18 inches that might surprise you.

Hatch Chart
Slough 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. Furimsky's Foam Gray Drake, #14
  2. PMD Sparkle Dun, #16-18
  3. Olive Woolly Bugger, #6
  4. Cinnamon Flying Ant, #16-18
  5. Parachute Bicolor Ant, #16-18
  6. Slough Creek Cripple, #10-14
  7. Gray CDC Emerging Dun, #12-14
  8. Purple Hazy Cripple, #16-20
  9. Lamar Midge, #18-20
  10. Gold Carnage Attractor, #10-12 (rough water only)

Parks' Fly Shop

PO Box 196 or 202 Second Street South

Gardiner, MT 59030

Phone: (406) 848-7314

Current Hours: 9AM-5PM Daily, 10AM-4PM Sundays, Occasional Closures

E-Mail the Shop (General Inquiries)

E-Mail Walter (Guided Trip Questions)

E-Mail Richard

Youtube Button
Visit MT tourist information
Tripadvisor Button
Facebook Button