There are a number of reasons to visit Yellowstone National Park in the fall:
big bull elk bugling like their futures depended on it.
grizzlies looking to get fat for hibernation.
wolves rejuvenated by the cool, crisp air.
and perhaps most appealing, smaller crowds.
But there is another reason, at least for fly fishers.
Each year, typically starting in early August, brown trout make a migration from Hebgen Lake into the Madison River of Yellowstone National Park.
“It typically takes a really cool frost or a good rain to get them moving,” said Craig Mathews, founder of the Blue Ribbon Flies shop in West Yellowstone. “If it is overcast, even snowing, the fishing can be dynamite.”
Mathews has been fishing the Madison every fall for big browns since 1970. The wonders of fall in Yellowstone make the fishing even better.
“It is definitely a special time of year. With the water steaming and the elk bugling,” Mathews said. “You stand there and can’t help but think: ‘Where else in the world can I fish in a place like this?’ ”
And the fishing isn’t bad either. Mathews said that while most of the browns heading up the Madison looking for a partner and a place to spawn run in the 17- to 23-inch range, each year browns of about 30 inches are landed before the river is closed on the first Sunday in November.
Anglers making the fall trip generally make two mistakes, according to Mathews.
“On those days when we have inclement weather we get tremendous blue-wing hatches, and the big fish are up feeding on the surface,” he said. “Most people are throwing streamers and miss the boat. Some of the best dry fly fishing in the country is occurring and they just keep throwing streamers.”
Another common error is overlooking the rainbow trout, which have also been found migrating into the Madison from Hebgen Lake.
“A lot of people are unaware of the rainbows. They have really come on strong the last couple of years,” he said. “They are big and beautiful fish that love to run and jump. They are some of the prettiest rainbows in the world.”
Many people think the rainbows follow the browns up the Madison to feast on eggs released during spawning, but Mathews said they also may show some indications of making the journey for another reason.
“Some biologists seem to feel there may be a fall spawning rainbow around Christmas or slightly before,” he said. “Some of the fish you catch late in the season are all colored up. The jury is still out, however.”
Anglers focused on landing rainbows tend to swing soft hackles. Of course, ‘bows may also show up to fishers using blue wing patterns and even streamers.
The fish will run all the way up the Madison and into its two tributaries — the Firehole up to the falls and the Gibbon up to the falls. In addition to the early November closure date, anglers are limited to catch and release only and barbless hooks.