Yellowstone National Park Fly Fishing near Big Sky and Bozeman Montana
Is this heaven? No, it’s the northeast corner of Yellowstone
By Patrick Straub
GRG Owner and Outfitter and Chief Paper Towel Dispenser Filler-Upper
I’ve caught tigerfish on Africa’s Zambezi River, giant trevally on Providence Atoll in the Seychelles, permit in the Caribbean, and trout in Patagonia. But if the fishing gods struck me down and sentenced me to only one more fishing day of my life, the choice of location is simple: Yellowstone National Park’s northeast corner.
I’ve always been a Yellowstone cutthroat junkie. As a grade schooler I’d fish Soda Butte Creek. As a high schooler I’d dream about making out with girlfriends on the banks of the Lamar River. In college I began guiding these waters, and now in fatherhood, my daughters have a knack for enticing Yellowstone cutthroat trout to a dry fly.
There are four distinct fisheries in the park’s northeast corner. The Yellowstone River is large, voracious and intimidating. The Lamar is a multi-personality river with a meadow featuring textbook riffles and runs, and two inaccessible canyons where supposedly large trout live. Slough Creek is crystal clear and home to the world’s most selective, yet consistently largest, Yellowstone cutthroat trout. And finally, the gem that is Soda Butte Creek.
The Yellowstone River tumbles out of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone near Tower Junction and flows to Gardiner, where it enters Montana. Accessing the river here is difficult, requiring long hikes or scrambles down steep banks. However, anglers are rewarded for their efforts with unpressured trout willing to eat large dry flies. Gear selection is simple—good hiking or wading shoes, plenty of drinking water, 7.5-foot 2X leaders with 3X tippet, and plenty of your favorite dry-fly patterns.
The Lamar River—named after Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II, a corrupt Interior Secretary and Supreme Court justice who opposed voting rights for African Americans—is a hit-or-miss fishery. It features two distinct sections: the river downstream of the Lamar Valley, and the river in the Lamar Valley to its confluence with Soda Butte Creek. Downstream of the valley it’s primarily canyon water featuring large boulders, and fast and deep pocket water. Home to rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout, this water is relatively un-fished compared to the valley section.
The river in Lamar Valley is riffle and pool water, and home to gobs of cutthroat willing to eat well-presented dry flies. However, the moods, and movements, of these fish change daily. Anglers can have great success on one day in one riffle and return the next day, or a few days later, and get skunked. The Lamar has been this way for over 50 years and it will surely remain this way for another 50.
Slough Creek begins in Montana off the western slopes of Sugarloaf and Cutoff mountains. From its confluence with the Lamar River, Slough Creek consists of four meadows, each separated by short sections of fast and tight pocket water. The trout become consistently easier to catch the further you get from the first meadow, yet the hike becomes longer and longer.
If you have time, plan an overnight trip and camp at one of the several backcountry campsites along the trail. This is a must-do experience for any angler considering themselves a serious fly fisher. Bring plenty of dry flies—a favorite is a small black ant—and your favorite brand of 5X tippet. Master your reach cast and bring your camera, the meadows of Slough Creek are a place with no comparison.
Soda Butte Creek, aptly named after a geothermal feature near its banks, for years was the sleeper stream of the northeast corner waters. Because it’s the smallest of the area’s waters, anglers traditionally bypassed it, but Soda Butte Creek has been discovered. Remember that some good things come in small packages, and with a massive winter snowpack, Soda Butte Creek will have plenty of water through the fall. In fact, expect many of the trout residing in the Lamar River to migrate to the lower reaches of Soda Butte Creek.
Soda Butte has two meadow sections and plenty of canyon water. Large dry flies entice most of the fish to the surface, but if the trout are reluctant to rise, tie on your favorite size-16 nymph dropped about 18 inches from your favorite dry fly—that should do the trick.
When I fish these waters today, it’s like stepping back in time. I can’t cover nearly as much water as I could 20 years ago, nor can I make it to the second meadow of Slough Creek in less than 30 minutes like I could, but the fish and the scenery are as spectacular as ever.
Pat Straub is a 20-year veteran guide on Yellowstone National Park waters and has fished the world-over. The co-founder of the Montana Fishing Guide School, he’s the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.