Streamer Fishing the Yellowstone River: Tips and Tricks

Streamer Fishing the Yellowstone River: Tips and Tricks

Streamer Fishing the Yellowstone River in its Black and Grand Canyons

Streamer cutthroat
June streamer eater from the lower Grand Canyon

A lot of folks are surprised to learn our single most effective tactic in the Yellowstone’s Black and Grand Canyons, both for numbers of fish and larger fish, all through the season, is stripping streamers aggressively. Cutthroat trout love chasing streamers, whether these fish are six inches long or twenty. They tend to like very specific flies and presentations, however. The following article provides some tips on streamer fishing the Yellowstone River.

Fish Six and Seven-Weight Rods

Your five-weight dry fly rod won’t cut it with the big, weighted streamers and sink-tip lines (or sinking polyleaders) that are usually necessary. In fact, we usually use six-weight rods at all times on the Yellowstone, whether we’re streamer fishing the Yellowstone River or throwing dries or nymphs.

Fish Short, Fast-sinking Sink-tips or Polyleaders

There’s no need for subtlety here. A short sink-tip line or sinking polyleader that sinks between five and seven inches per second is what you’re after. Yes, it lands with a clunk and sinks too fast in slow, shallow water. When streamer fishing the Yellowstone River, you’re going to be fishing deep, often fast water where you don’t get long presentations. Fish a tip that helps get your flies down fast.

polyleader in package
RIO Trout Versileader packaging. This is the polyleader we prefer.

Fish Heavy Tippets

Regardless of the time of year or clarity of the water, you should fish heavy tippets when streamer fishing the Yellowstone River. I generally use 1X or 2X mono to my first, larger fly, and 2X or 3X to the dropper. Always drop down a size between the first fly and the second.

Fly Choice: Keep it Simple

There is seldom any reason to make complicated fly choices. Articulated streamers with more than one intact hook are banned in Yellowstone Park (alas), as are lead-headed flies. This means many contemporary and popular flies are out. My choices are pretty simple: Woolly Buggers, Slumpbusters, and Muddlers, for the most part, with all save the Muddlers weighted with cones, tungsten or large brass beads, or brass dumbbell eyes. Here’s a sample fly list that will cover 95% of your bases through the season, listed in approximate order of importance:

  • Chocolate Brown Minch’s Bully Bugger (ostrich-bodied leech-like beadhead Bugger), #10-12
  • Olive Conehead Flash-a-Bugger, #4-6
  • Black Conehead Flash-a-Bugger, #4-6
  • Gold Minch’s Bully Bugger, #10-12
  • Tan Wiese’s PT-Bugger (sculpin-hued Bugger with dumbbell eyes), #4-6
  • Muddler Minnow, #8-12
  • Olive Slumpbuster, #6
  • Golden Brown Slumpbuster, #6
  • Gold Tung Minnow (marabou-winged sculpin pattern), #6
  • Hornberg, #8

Last season, I don’t think I had a client use anything besides the flies listed above when streamer fishing the Yellowstone River in its canyons. Other stretches are a different matter.

minch's bully bugger
Minch’s Bully Bugger

Double Up Your Streamers

Fish two streamers in tandem. Usually this means securing your larger streamer to your main leader, then running a smaller one on a dropper from the first hook. This might seem like the mouse chasing the cat. In reality, the first fly gets the trout’s attention and causes it to chase, while the second offers a smaller, less-threatening meal. Unless the fish are really aggressive, more will take the second fly. They often don’t do so fishing the smaller bug by itself.

Strip Your Streamers Aggressively

While swinging can certainly work, and is often important for getting your flies down regardless of whether a fish eats while the fly is swinging or not, it’s not the main retrieve you should be using. Instead, use an aggressive strip, with significant pauses between each strip. I can’t stress this enough. Most strips are “wimpy.” Jerk the line abruptly at least a foot, and perhaps as much as eighteen inches, so that the fly moves sharply up and towards you, then stops and falls. The fly should have a significant “jigging” action in the water, one reason weighted flies are so important. The abrupt strip is what makes the fish chase, but they usually eat when the fly drops.

When Stripping isn’t Possible, Use Your Rod Tip

When there’s no room to strip your flies, either because they’ve gotten too close to you or because you cast into a small slow spot, provide action with your rod tip. These twitches can be of smaller magnitude than your strips, since at short range more of the motion you impart will transfer down the line to the fly.

Note that most retrieves will include both stripping and twitching: stripping through the main part of the retrieve, then twitching when the fly is getting close to your and/or when the fly is in a good spot such as just above or below a rock.

Retrieve All the Way to the Drop-Off

Cutthroats love to chase streamers for long distances, and they’ll often follow them almost to shore, before either eating just before the first sharp dropoff or turning away. For this reason, it’s important to retrieve all the way into shallow water. A good rule of thumb (when the water is clear, at least) is to retrieve all the way until the general emerald green color of the river transitions to a shade wherein it’s easy for you to see the true color of the rocks. The last foot or two over the transition is the place to twitch rather than strip, just in case a following fish wants a change in retrieve to make it strike.

streamer fishing on the Yellowstone
Pay close attention to his fly line. The line-polyleader transition is only about three feet from the end of the fly line, meaning the fly is only about twelve feet from him. Nonetheless, he’s still working the fly, right along the boulder line under the rod tip in fact.

Watch Your Flies!

I can’t stress this enough. Streamer fishing the Yellowstone River is visual, often as visual as dry fly fishing. Watch to see how your flies are moving: where they are in the water column, whether they’re moving across the current or up or down stream. Watch the fish. Are they chasing long distances? Not moving much at all? Are they flashing at your fly but “missing it?” Usually the latter actually means they’re spooking at the last moment and perhaps you should go with a drabber or smaller fly.

When it comes to strikes, this is often visual too. If you feel a pluck or even just weight on your line, great. This should not be your main strike trigger. Instead, you should look for the fish flashing or opening their mouths. Since many of the strikes are at short range, this is easier than it might sound.

Change Everything Else, before You Change Your Flies

Cast upstream, across stream, or downstream. Change your retrieve speed. Change how long your strips are. Twitch the rod tip rather than stripping. Swap to a heavier or lighter fly or tip, so your fly rides differently in the water column. The fly is usually the last of your worries. Every fly I gave in the list above will typically get some strikes when streamer fishing the Yellowstone River. The real trick is making the fly behave how the trout want it. Once you get it right, you’ll often be into a bunch of fish when five minutes before you couldn’t buy a strike.

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