Cutthroats Of Yellowstone’s Canyons

Each summer thousands upon thousands of Americans make the trek to Yellowstone. While many may visit the nation’s oldest national park just to catch the scenery or camp, a considerable number come to fish.

And why not? Yellowstone boasts famous headwaters such as the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers along with scores of backcountry lakes. Brook, rainbow and lake trout fin the pristine waters along with the elusive arctic grayling. However, many anglers are attracted to the park primarily by the prospect of tangling with its crimson-jawed cutthroat trout.

The author shows off a cutthroat trout caught near Seven-Mile Hole in Yellowstone National Park.

For the adventuresome, there’s no better place to tie into Yellowstone’s native cutts than the Grand Canyon and the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Although it takes some work to access these waters, the payoff (in scenery as well as fishing) makes the effort worthwhile.

High Priority Stops
The first of these canyons is well known to virtually every tourist that’s ever set foot in the park. Artist’ Point and the Lower Falls overlook are high priority stops for tour buses and minivans. Everyone becomes acquainted with the aesthetic grandeur of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Few meet its cutthroats.

For an adventurous angler, fishing in the canyon can be as spectacular as the scenery. The cutts aren’t quite as large as those found upstream, but there’s plenty of feisty fish in the 12-inch to 15-inch class lurking beneath the boulders in the canyon. And, they’re usually easy to entice. Fly fishermen do well working small dark nymphs along the bottom. Or, if you happen to stumble into a hatch, try Wulff patterns in small sizes or the venerable Elk Hair Caddis.

Hardware-tossers also can have exceptional days in the Grand Canyon. I’ve fished with a variety of lures, and to be bluntly honest, it just doesn’t seem to matter too much what you throw in, as long as you put it in the right place. Brightly colored spinners and spoons draw the most action in hues of gold, silver, red, orange and copper.

However, no lure is effective if you simply toss it into the swift water and retrieve. Canyon cutts don’t like to buck the boisterous current, so they school up behind big boulders or rest in calm areas where currents smash together. They also like to cruise the gentler waters just along the riverbank. Drop your spinner or spoon at the edge of a boulder and watch out. I’ve had at least one-half dozen hungry cutts lunging at my lure on a single cast.

Best Access: Seven-Mile Hole
Access to the canyon is feasible at just a couple locations. The best is the Seven-Mile Hole, which is reached via the Glacial Boulder trailhead near Canyon. It’s just over five miles to the Hole and a steep climb back out. Take plenty of water… and an oxygen bottle.

The other trail into the canyon drops one near the mouth of the canyon at Deep Creek after about a 5-mile hike. This trail is a spur of the Specimen Ridge Trail, which is found on the south side of the highway just a few miles east of Tower Junction.

Less popular with tourists, but fancied by serious fishermen, is the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone. Trout up to 18 inches fin the 20 miles of canyon water and a fair number of anglers make the hike to test them each summer. Although cutthroats predominate, rainbows, brookies and whitefish are found as well.

It’s a hike to the Black Canyon, with a choice of two well used, easy to find trails. The Garnet Hill Trail is just a short distance west of Tower Junction. The second route, the Blacktail Trail, begins roughly nine miles east of Mammoth.

No matter what trail you choose, your hike will take you through some country notable for more than fishing. This portion of the park provides prime winter range for Yellowstone’s large mammals, including elk, bison and mule deer. Nicknamed “bull alley” by photographers and naturalists, the hillsides and benches south of the Black Canyon probably concentrate more naturally wintering bull elk than any other location on the planet.

Try The Black Canyon
You might not see any elk on a summer’s hike to the river, but you should find some trout. Angler surveys for the Black Canyon typically achieve ratings of good to excellent for the number of fish caught and the overall fishing experience.

Swift runs and rapids are the canyon norm, along with a fair number of deep holes. Spin-casting techniques similar to those used in the Grand Canyon are effective, and flycasters have a number of options. Stonefly nymphs are found in the canyon year-round; matching them in gold or black patterns is usually the best way to find action. Dry flies can also produce well during salmonfly hatches, which occur sporadically from June to September.

No matter when or how you fish, the canyons are unforgettable. And did I mention the bonus? After hoofing it in and out of Yellowstone canyon you’re guaranteed a good night’s sleep!

For a fine selection of Fly Fishing gear, click here.

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