While the picture above might look like something from Applachia, I took it while doing one of my favorite things with my wife: fishing small streams in Yellowstone (and in the region). There are innumerable small creeks in Yellowstone Park and just outside its boundaries, and with a little effort it’s usually possible to fish these creeks without seeing other anglers.
This is easiest on creeks resembling this one: creeks five to fifteen feet wide, choked with boulders and snags, and lined and overhung with bushes and trees. This post provides some tips on fishing such creeks. Look for another in spring 2019 on fishing small meadow streams, which are almost literally a different kettle of fish. While most small streams primarily produce small trout, this isn’t always the case. I’ve caught cutthroat and brown trout to eighteen inches in creeks the size of the one above, and I’ve had clients catch rainbows in the same ballpark.
When to Fish Small Streams in Yellowstone
Getting here at the right time is key to fishing the smallest, boulder-strewn creeks. They have a short window in which they fish well. While a few creeks drop into shape in mid-late June, most drop into shape sometime in the first week or two of July, improve steadily through July, fish best in August, and then get too low and cold sometime in September. In other words, they are best during the period of hottest and often lowest water, during periods when lots of anglers are pounding bigger, famous water. This makes them a good refuge both for fish and for anglers who hate crowds.
Time of day is another consideration. There’s no reason to start early. Small creeks that tumble down fast from the mountains get cold at night, even in midsummer. Either have a lazy morning or fish elsewhere first thing, then fish the creeks from lunchtime until early evening.
Gearing Up: Tackle and Wading Gear
The right tackle and gear is critical when fishing small streams in Yellowstone, and it’s different than the gear that’s typical on most other waters in the area. Here’s the breakdown on what you should have.
Rods for small streams are different than those for most other waters in the area. This is especially true for streams overhung with trees and brush. The trees break the wind and there’s little need for long casts or aggressive mends. Moreover, getting a rod tip stuck in the overhanging branches is one of the great annoyances of fishing small creeks. For these reasons, use a short rod. I now never use one longer than eight feet. Seven to eight feet is usually the right range.
Choose a rod weight based on the size of the fish you expect to catch. If you’re sure there aren’t any fish larger than ten or twelve inches, use a 2-3 weight. If there’s a chance at bigger ones, use a 4-5 weight. Line weight usually isn’t a huge factor in playing trout, but on small creeks where you really don’t want a fish to run and wrap you around a rock or limb, choosing a heavier rod than you might expect gives you stopping power and power to horse in a fish.
Always choose a medium to medium-fast action rod for small streams. Since casts are short, using a fast-action rod built for long casts and fighting the wind will just mean you have to muscle the rod to get it to work.
For what it’s worth, the rod I use the most when fishing small streams in Yellowstone is a 7’9″ four-weight.
Reels for fishing small streams in Yellowstone can be as simple or complicated as you like. You’ll seldom, if ever, use it for anything other than storing line. I like a discontinued reel from Redington, the Drift, which is a cost-effective click-pawl reel made from machined aluminum, rare in cheaper reels. Small creeks are great places to break out workmanlike vintage reels like old Pflueger Medalists.
Lines should be standard-weighted trout lines, rather than the lines rated a half-size heavier (often marketed for fast-action or “modern” rods) that are more common nowadays. Look for “Trout” or “Delicate” or “Classic” lines. Since weight-forward lines and double-tapers are about the same in the first 30 feet, and you’ll seldom or never cast beyond this distance on small streams, choose whichever you like.
Leaders and Tippet: Use short, aggressively-tapered leaders. Such leaders will help you turn over your casts at short range, and are usually more accurate too. There’s no reason to go light or heavy on either leaders or tippets. I typically start with a 7.5′ 3X or 4X leader straight out of the package, dropping down a size for the dropper tippet if I fish a dropper. I have never used a tippet or leader lighter than 5X on any small, rough stream in the area, and I’ve been fishing such streams since 1993.
Other Tackle: Split shot, strike indicators, tippet rings, and other doodads are all usually unnecessary on small streams in the area, since most fishing is done with dry flies or dry-dropper. That said, there’s no reason not to take a couple small indicators in case the going is tough.
Gear, Packs, Etc.: Keep it simple and nimble when fishing small streams in Yellowstone. I usually carry two fly small fly boxes, a pair of forceps, a nipper, a hook hone, a spare leader, two or three spools of tippet, a water bottle, some snacks, and an ultralight rain jacket, all split between a pants pocket and a small pack. As always when fishing in Yellowstone, carry bear spray and wear polarized glasses.
Wading Gear: Since small streams fish best in the heat of summer, there’s no need for waders. Instead wear a pair of wading boots offering good ankle support and traction in the water. Note that Yellowstone Park now bans felt soles, and hard tungsten spikes don’t grip well on our rocks. This argues for Vibram or similar rubber soles or soft aluminum cleats or bars, rather than standard studs. Since hiking and scrambling through and around brush and boulders are usually required when “bluelining,” pick a light pair of boots resembling hiking boots. The SIMMS Intruders are made for this sort of thing, and they’re what I wear.
Gearing Up: Flies
When fishing small streams in Yellowstone, you seldom have to worry about picky fish. If they’re not biting, it’s either because the water is too cold or because somebody else has beat you to the punch. For this reason, it’s good to keep your fly choice simple.
Dry flies almost always produce on small streams, and they’re often all I fish. No dropper nymphs! Choose dries that float well, are easy to see, and roughly match several aquatic and terrestrial insects generally, rather than one or two specifically. Here are my top ten, roughly in order:
- Coachman Trude, sizes #12-14
- Coachman Clacka Caddis, sizes #12-14
- Royal Wulff Cripple, #12-14
- Pink Bob Hopper, #14
- Purple Hazy Cripple, #16
- Gold Chubby Chernobyl, #14
- Turck’s Tarantula, #12
- Cinnamon Flying Ant, #16
- Widow Moth, #14
- Purple Chubby Chernobyl, #16
As noted, there’s seldom much need to go subsurface on small, rough streams (meadow streams are another story). That said, I do carry a few nymphs and streamers. Here are my picks:
- BH Prince, #16
- Bead, Hare, and Copper, #14-16
- Olive MT Prince, #16
- Trina’s Bubble Back, #16
- Gold Bully Bugger, #12
That’s it for Part I. Look for Part II: Tactics, on Sunday the 30th of December, 2018.