Fish your Park: Yellowstone National Park

A gaudy hopper pattern fooled this pretty Yellowstone cutthroat from the Lamar River.


Editor's note: This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and the formal creation of the uniquely American national park system. Trout Unlimited is celebrating with the National Park Service by sharing stories from staff, volunteers and other anglers who chase wild trout inside the protected lands of national parks from coast to coast. Check back often, as stories from our "Fish your park" series will appear regularly on the TU blog.

By Mark Taylor


There are times, such as when a big cutthroat trout has just risen to – but rejected – your fly just 15 feet away, when focus rises to a new level.


Perhaps, even, to a potentially dangerous level.


“There’s a huge bison watching you,” says my angling companion Mark Freeman, breaking me out of my cutthroat-induced trance.


There is really only one place in North America where that kind of statement is not entirely uncommon, and that’s where we are, fishing the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park.


Bison roam the stunningly beautiful Lamar Valley in astounding numbers, along with wolves, grizzlies, pronghorns, coyotes and countless other critters big and small.


If you fish here – on iconic waters such as Slough Creek, Soda Butte Creek, the Lamar, Madison and Yellowstone – you will have wild company.


Mark Taylor was so focused on fishing he didn't notice an approaching bison during a recent visit to the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park. (Mark Freeman photo.)


It’s a warm summer day and we are here a day after a trip on Yellowstone Lake itself, learning about the ambitious effort to restore native cutthroats in the lake system in the wake of a horrendous population crash caused by invasive lake trout.


That effort, in which TU is a partner, is making a difference, and cutthroat are returning to the lake’s feeder streams in decent numbers again.


Here, on the north side of the park, native cutthroats still have a decent foothold.


Judging by traffic and frequent bison jams, as they are called, wildlife viewing is the big draw for most of the visitors to the nation’s first national park.


Judging by the number of cars in the parking area near the junction of the Lamar and Soda Butte Creek, fishing is plenty popular, too.


And how can it not be?


Yellowstone cutthroat trout are beautiful, feisty, amazing creatures. They are usually pretty angler-friendly, too, as long as they aren’t too educated.


In short, they’re a lot like the native brook trout in the mountain streams I fish at home in the East.


Except bigger.


Matt Reilly (left) of Virginia and Mark Freeman of Oregon fish a stretch of the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park. (Mark Taylor photo.)


In Yellowstone, because the most accessible water gets a lot of pressure, finding fish that haven’t seen lots of flies usually requires some effort.


During a recon visit the prior evening, after the Yellowstone Lake trip, we’d seen dozens of anglers fishing in this area.


So we planned to get as far off the road as possible during our limited window of opportunity on this day.


We lace up our boots and head out on a trail toward a slightly-harder-to-reach section of the Lamar. Forty-five minutes of robust hiking, prairie dogs yipping as we walk through their towns, does the trick.


We leave the other anglers behind, able to share this amazing landscape only with bison, pronghorns and sandhill cranes.


I cast a gaudy hopper into the first good-looking riffle and watch as the fly bounces on the glittering surface. And then the fly is gone.


Instinctively, though I didn’t see a rise, I lift the rod. And I am tight to a 10-inch long cutthroat.


The subtle take turns out to be a pattern. The fish don’t smack the hoppers with abandon. When they do take them – and often they rise only to inspect the fly, slinking away after realizing it is a fake -- they sip them. And because they are holding in riffles, the fishing requires concentration.


Which is what leads to my oblivious encounter with the grunting bison.


Reluctantly I shift my focus to the big brown beast. It doesn’t take long for him to understand that I am not there to challenge him. I’m just another one of those harmless, two-legged, stick-waving interlopers.


He grunts and moves away.


And I go back to casting, trying to stay slightly more aware of my surroundings while, with every cast, gaining a clear and ever-clearer understanding about the pull of this amazing place.


Mark Taylor is the eastern communications director for Trout Unlimited. A resident of Virginia, he visited Yellowstone National Park in July after the annual Outdoor Writers Association of America conference, which was held in Billings, Mont.




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