Preserving the Iconic Yellowstone River
February 21, 2018
At the time of my first trip to the Yellowstone region, I was managing two fly shops for a fly-fishing retailer in Pennsylvania, and had just finished publishing the second edition of my book Fly-Fishing Guide to the Upper Delaware River. You might call it love at first sight, because after just a few days, I fell in love with the Yellowstone. Two years later, my wife and I had new jobs and a new home in Paradise Valley.
The Yellowstone has everything I want in a trout river. It rises high in Wyoming's portion of the Absaroka Mountains, flows into Yellowstone National Park and through one of the largest alpine lakes in the world, before cascading down two of the most famous, awe-inspiring waterfalls on the planet. It exits the park near Gardiner, Montana, crashes through the Yankee Jim Canyon, then continues north, gliding through Paradise Valley to Livingston, Montana. The reliable trout fishing ends near Laurel, Montana. Its 692-mile journey to the Missouri River makes the Yellowstone the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states.
Yes, it's a large river, but some sections are wadable throughout much of the year. It's still populated with native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, but there's a lot of variety, too. If you're fishing the river in the park, you'll catch nearly all cutthroat. Between the park and Yankee Jim Canyon, it's a mix of cutts, cuttbows, and rainbows with a few browns. The Paradise Valley stretch to Livingston is mostly rainbows with a mix of cutthroat and browns. Below Livingston, the cutts diminish and the numbers of browns increase. And all through its course, the river is populated by the trouts' native, silvery cousin—Rocky Mountain whitefish.
The scenery is spectacular. The fish are wild, and the Yellowstone shares its name with America's first national park. It embodies everything that's still wild and pure about the American West. It's heaven.
Fly fishers have been making pilgrimages to this river for more than 100 years. They've been taking trout since they first arrived, and occasionally introducing unwanted, destructive things such as invasive weeds, whirling disease, and proliferative kidney disease (PKD). In this same taking vein, and much to the Yellowstone's misfortune, cutthroat trout aren't the only golden bounty found here. Miners flock here too, looking for the type of gold that drives men to madness.
Montana outfitter Dan Rooster Leavens plays a cutthroat (the same one from the cover of this issue) near LeHardy's Rapids on the Yellowstone River. Brian Grossenbacher photo
In A Trout and Salmon Fisherman for Seventy-Five Years (Scribner's, 1948), legendary fly fisherman Edward Ringwood Hewitt recounts his first fishing trip to the Yellowstone River in the late 19th century when he was 15 years old. "In those days, the river teemed with trout, some of which I caught on a fly . . . These trout seemed to run in size from two to four and a half pounds. These trout were, of course, cutthroats as the rainbow and brown trout were then unknown in this part of the country."
Paul Schullery, in his book Cowboy Trout (Montana Historical Society Press, 2006), places the date of Hewitt's boyhood visit somewhere in 1881 or 1882, more than 75 years after the beginning of Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery and nearly a decade before the last major conflict between the United States and Native Americans at Wounded Knee.
But the days of unspoiled cutthroat trout fishing in the Yellowstone didn't last long. When Hewitt revisited Yellowstone National Park in 1914, he caught brown trout near Mammoth Hot Springs. And if men had put them there, you can be pretty sure that they were also in the Yellowstone. But today's Yellowstone River anglers still catch wild descendants of Hewitt's native cutthroat trout. And that ecological continuity is rare in the modern world.
Seasons on the 'Stone
It surprises many of my Eastern friends who equate Montana winters with Alaska, but winter on the Yellowstone is one of my favorite times. The fishing is usually best from February through the beginning of spring runoff (May). December and January are often cold, and the river generally freezes over. Your best bet this time of year is to tie flies or visit one of the Paradise Valley spring creeks, tributaries of the Yellowstone. All three of these rod-limited, pay-to-fish spring creeks—Armstrong's, Nelson's, DePuy's—remain ice free all year. Standard spring creek nymphs like scuds, small nymphs (generally, size 16 and smaller) such as Pheasant Tails, and olive or tan caddis larvae work well. Small leeches as well as eggs and worms also catch fish.
Midge hatches can instigate surface feeding at any time. CDC emergers fished in the film take rising trout, and red and black Zebra Midges are great subsurface.
When warm Chinook winds begin to blow through Paradise Valley and the ice breaks up on the Yellowstone, it's time to revisit the river. Finesse is usually unimportant. Stout 3X or 4X tippet for foam drys and dropper nymphs is fine. Stonefly nymphs (#10-12), including Pat's Rubberlegs are standard, as are Prince Nymphs (#10-16) of every conceivable color and shape. I'm particularly fond of Mike Mercer's Psycho Prince in yellow or blue.
It's possible to find fish rising in late winter, but spring provides Blue-winged Olives (Baetis spp.), Western March Browns (Rhithrogena spp.), and more consistent dry-fly action.
The epic Mother's Day Caddis hatch concludes the pre-runoff fishing. This prolific Brachycentrus caddis creates a trout feeding frenzy with drys, nymphs, and wets until the river swells with snowmelt. Salmonflies appear near the end of runoff, but it may be difficult to fish large dry flies due to high water.
After runoff—historically sometime in early July—the Yellowstone begins its prime season. Many fly fishers use tandems of variously colored Chubby Chernobyl dry flies and nymph droppers. Prolific hatches of Golden Stoneflies and Yellow Sallies make these foam drys irresistible to ravenous fish that have been unpressured for over a month. Western Green Drakes (Drunella spp.), size 10-16 caddis (black, brown, tan, and olive of various species), and PMDs (E. dorothea infrequens) also appear in the summer.
By August, wind and ranchers mowing hay push swarms of grasshoppers to the water, and it's time to switch to hopper dry flies. Size 12-16 attractor drys like Purple Haze, Adams, and Humpys round out basic fly pattern selections for summer and fall on the Yellowstone.
Streamers can also be deadly for autumn, prespawn browns, though throwing them early morning or evening can fool any species. But these hatches and fly selections are only basic guidelines. Weather and water levels have become less dependable in recent years, affecting the river's fishing.
The Yellowstone's greatest water-flow challenge isn't necessarily the amount of snow the watershed receives, but the timing of the snowmelt.
Historically, runoff began at lower elevations sometime in May, and continued through the high country in June, gradually diminishing to fishable flows sometime in early to mid-July. Cold water in "normal" years continued into August and early September. But due to a changing climate, runoff often now starts much earlier in the year. May runoff at higher elevations is becoming common, and recent years we have even seen significant runoff in April. This leaves trout vulnerable during Montana's dry, hot summers.The new 34-room Sage Lodge near Emigrant Peak is situated on a former stock pond. The lodge and four satellite cabins are set well back from the river to protect its mile of river frontage from continued development. Sage Lodge photo
Low water forces the fish into reduced habitat areas, which makes them more susceptible to disease and predators. Severe flooding in the 1990s has also created a wider, shallower Yellowstone River. Erosion from these high-water events has caused many riverside landowners to install rip-rap (large boulders) along the banks to protect their properties from erosion. This rip-rap constrains and channelizes the river, removing the floodplains and the meandering nature of the river from the ecosystem. A huge increase in seasonal trophy homes throughout Paradise Valley is also pressuring the river's aquifer.
Whitefish as Canaries
The summer of 2016 was unusually warm and dry in southwest Montana. Below-average snowpack created reduced river flows and temperatures that were already stressing trout when summer arrived. August brought historic low flows, within 280 cfs of the lowest recorded for that month. It was a particularly hot day when my wife and I took our English mastiff puppy, Olive, to the river's Loch Leven access to play fetch. On her third retrieve, Olive brought back a 12-inch whitefish.
"Weird," I thought, but then I took a look upriver. There were more dead fish. A lot more. Yellowstone whitefish were dying in unprecedented numbers. On August 19, 2016, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) completely closed a 183-mile section of the Yellowstone (and its tributaries) to all water-based recreation from the Yellowstone National Park boundary to the Highway 212 bridge in Laurel, Montana. FWP biologists ultimately concluded that the whitefish were suffering from an outbreak of the Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae parasite, which can cause proliferative kidney disease in fish (PKD).
One of humanity's greatest character flaws is our desire to witness catastrophe, whether it's slowing down on a highway to stare at a traffic accident or being glued to The Weather Channel as people's lives are destroyed by hurricanes. Media outlets know this and use disastrous stories to lock in viewers. But the other side of this coin is much less interesting. And when a story is ultimately found to be less serious than initially imagined, the media move on to the next crisis. That's exactly what happened with the Yellowstone River 2016 fish kill.
Media outlets from NBC's Nightly News to The New York Times shouted that a catastrophe was unfolding on the Yellowstone. Thousands of fish were dying. It didn't matter if they were trout or whitefish, but the truth is that nearly all of them were whitefish. It was a sad thing to behold. I love these native fish. But fly fishers don't travel to Montana to catch whitefish. They want trout.
In the park, the river holds almost exclusively native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. As you progress downstream toward Livingston, there are rainbows, browns, and of course Rocky Mountain whitefish. Paul Weamer photo
As it turns out, only a handful of trout died from the parasite. But no one wanted to report that good news after the crisis abated. I was still receiving phone calls at the fly shop eight months after the river reopened, asking if fly fishers were allowed to fish it.
Many guides believe the whitefish population was too high, a contributing factor to the kill. Disease often takes its toll when animal populations outgrow the holding capacity of their environment. I spoke to one guide who said it's been easier for his clients to catch trout through Paradise Valley now that the whities have been thinned a bit. And there are still plenty of whitefish. I've caught many since the kill, in all year classes.
The entire Yellowstone River re-opened September 23, 2016. Further testing has revealed that the Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae parasite is also present in the Big Hole, Big Horn, Boulder, East Gallatin, Gallatin, Jefferson, Madison, Shields, and Stillwater rivers. It's important to note that the presence of the parasite does not necessarily mean that fish will get sick.
Speakers at a meeting in Livingston organized to bring closure to the fish kill—were asked not to mention ranchers and their use of Yellowstone water for irrigation because, "We're all in this together, and one side shouldn't be singled out as a problem." But Montana's pathetically antiquated water laws must be addressed. When the river was completely closed due to nearly unprecedented low flows, ranchers weren't asked to change a thing. Their irrigation pivots continued to rain down Yellowstone River water into hayfields throughout the crisis.
Vitally important coldwater tributaries like Mill Creek are completely dewatered in their lowest sections every summer. Mill Creek is an important nursery for imperiled Yellowstone cutthroat, yet fishery health receives little consideration when it comes to deeded water rights.
Due in part to the Yellowstone PKD episode, but largely because the Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs tested positive for invasive aquatic mussels, Montana's legislature passed Senate Bill 363, which requires all resident and nonresident anglers to purchase an Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Pass. The pass ($2 for residents and $15 for nonresidents) is projected to generate over $3 million to help fight invasive species transmission.
Montana is also loudly preaching the same mantra we've been hearing (but not always following) since the days of whirling disease: clean, drain, dry. Clean all mud and plant debris from your boots, waders, and boats with hot water. Drain all standing water. And thoroughly dry all your fishing equipment before bringing it to a new watershed.
Hopefully, this aggressive approach will help curtail the threat of invasive species. But it won't address climate change or the water removed from the system by ranchers. And it doesn't address the Yellowstone's other great threat—gold mining.
Despite the fact that Montana has some of the world's finest wild trout water, our official nickname is "The Treasure State," not "The Trout State." In Montana, mining, ranching, and industry come first. The health of riverine ecosystems is a distant fourth in this fisherman's paradise. And mining concerns are still very much alive along the Yellowstone.
Two foreign-owned mining companies (Lucky Minerals and Crevice Mining Group) are vying to mine gold beside the Yellowstone River near Paradise Valley's Emigrant Peak and near Jardine just a half mile outside of the park's north gate. Mine proponents are spouting the same company lines you hear from all mining companies: It's safe, jobs are important, what we do on private property should not be regulated by the federal government, and so on. But it's 2017, not 1817. And it's incomprehensible madness to allow gold mines on the banks of the Yellowstone River just outside the boundaries of our nation's first national park.Prince Nymphs of all types work on the Yellowstone. The author is partial to yellow or blue Mercer's Psycho Prince. Paul Weamer photo
Thankfully, the river and Yellowstone National Park have concerned friends. Senator John Tester (D-Montana) introduced the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act on April 25, 2017 to protect more than 30,000 acres along the river and park boundaries from gold mine proposals.
Simms has produced a Save Our Yellowstone River shirt, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a vital conservation group founded in 1983, dedicated to protecting and preserving the lands, waters, and wildlife that surround Yellowstone National Park.
The new Sage Lodge is opening in 2018 in Paradise Valley. The Joshua Green Corporation, owner of the lodge and the fly rod company sharing the same name, has also joined the fight to preserve the river and the local tourism economy.
The river has influential allies and is gaining more every day. You can help, too. Call your senator in support of the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act. Visit the web sites of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (greateryellowstone.org) and the Greater Yellowstone Business Coalition (dontmineyellowstone.com) to learn more about the gold mine issue, and to donate time or money to help protect the Yellowstone. The descendants of Edward Ringwood Hewitt's beautiful Yellowstone cutthroat trout need your help.
Paul Weamer lives near Livingston, Montana, and works at Sweetwater Fly Shop. He is the author of several books and is a longtime Fly Fisherman contributor. His last feature in Fly Fisherman was "100 years: A century of fishing the Hendrickson hatch," which appeared in the June-July 2015 issue.