YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – Mike Cox has a superstition about fishing.
If you want to catch a fish, you can have only one expression on your face — a smile.
So on a recent afternoon, Cox stood on the shore of Yellowstone Lake with a rod in hand and a big grin across his face.
Superstition aside, it’d be hard not to smile while fishing in Yellowstone National Park.
When it comes to fishing, it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic place.
Yellowstone’s rivers and streams snake through wide valleys, where the water seems to glisten perfectly and mountains offer a beautiful backdrop as fly-fishermen flick their rods.
“Yellowstone has a reputation of being a world-class trout fishery,” said Al Nash, spokesman for Yellowstone National Park. “This is certainly a place that draws people who have heard far and wide that this is a special place to wet a line.”
What makes Yellowstone so special is that it’s a large protected habitat, said Richard Parks, owner of Parks’ Fly Shop in Gardiner, and that makes for some pretty excellent fishing.
“What you’re talking about here is habitat that is not overrun by people,” Parks said.
The Yellowstone and Missouri rivers have their headwaters in the park, as does the Snake River. The Green River, which is part of the Colorado River system, starts just outside Yellowstone.
“Yellowstone is a very large area of protected ground at the headwaters of the continent,” he said.
Some 3 million people visit Yellowstone National Park each year, and about 50,000 of those fish while they’re there.
Cox, along with his wife Roberta, spent four days in Yellowstone recently and spent much of that time fishing.
“The fishing was great,” said Roberta Cox of California, “but really just being in the park and seeing everything the park has to offer is spectacular.”
The couple spent their first day in the park fishing along the northwest shore of Yellowstone Lake. The fishing was so great they came back the next day.
“Yesterday was excellent,” Mike Cox said. “Today’s a different day.”
Do some research
Before finding a fishing spot, the Coxes asked around about good places to go.
“It always pays off to go to the local fly store,” Mike Cox said.
“We were at Tower Falls, and the manager at the gift shop told us where to go,” Roberta Cox said.
A little research ahead of a fishing trip to Yellowstone can make the trip even better, Parks said.
“Do a little research upfront,” Parks said. “Think through what they want out of their trip.”
Many local fly shops offer fishing reports and other information on their website.
Inexperienced anglers or those unfamiliar with the area can benefit by spending a day with a guide early in their trip.
“We can shorten up that learning curve a whole lot,” Parks said.
The Coxes made their first visit to Yellowstone several years ago. That time around they went out with a guide on a boat.
“That kind of helped us on this trip,” Mike Cox said.
Yellowstone has countless places to fish, but by far the most popular are those that are visible from the road.
“Being willing to walk is a huge advantage,” Parks said. “The popular places get pretty jammed.”
And don’t assume that just because someone else is fishing in a spot that it’s a good spot.
“You’re almost always better off fishing water that is yours as opposed to following somebody else or butting in on somebody else that’s already there,” Parks said.
‘More places than could fit into a book’
Nate Schweber, who grew up in Missoula, graduated from the University of Montana and now lives in New York, published a Yellowstone fly-fishing guide in 2012.
He spent the summer of 2011 fishing in Yellowstone as research for his book, “Fly Fishing Yellowstone National Park: An Insider’s Guide to the 50 Best Places”
“I took $1,000 and bought a pickup truck sight unseen from a guy in Bozeman,” he said.
Schweber then used that truck to tour around the park, talking to experts and fishing in all the best places.
“A lot of guide books are written by expert fishermen, of which I am not one,” he said. “It’s just that one guy, that one author talking about all these different places to fish.’
Schweber took a different approach.
“For each spot in the park, I found a person or a couple people for whom that spot was their favorite spot in the park,” he said.
Schweber’s publisher, Stackpole Books, wanted him to limit the book to the 50 best places, but narrowing the park’s offering down to 50 was tricky.
Yellowstone has tons of lakes and miles and miles of streams, he said.
“There are more places than could fit into a book,” he said.
Schweber’s favorite thing about fishing in Yellowstone is that it feels like stepping back in time.
“I can’t think of any other place on earth where you can stand in the middle of a herd of bison ... and catch a native cutthroat trout on a dry fly on a beautiful summer day,” he said.
Yellowstone has been working hard to keep that population of native cutthroat trout.
When Yellowstone became a national park, more than 40 percent of its rivers and lakes didn’t contain fish, according to the National Park Service. Early park managers stocked those waterways with nonnative fish. By the mid-20th century, more than 310 million fish had been stocked in the park.
Those nonnative fish compete with Yellowstone’s native fish for food and habitat and also hybridize with the native fish.
Sometime in the 1980s, somebody illegally dumped a bucket of lake trout in Yellowstone Lake.
Up until then, cutthroat trout were the only trout in Yellowstone Lake, Schweber said.
Since then, the lake trout have decimated the cutthroat population in the lake and its tributaries.
“Lake trout evolved in the Great Lakes,” Schweber said. “They get huge.”
Lake trout prey on smaller fish, including cutthroat trout. Lake trout also spawn on the lake bottom and don’t have to swim up rivers and streams where they’re accessible to bears, birds and other predators.
The issue of lake trout comes up frequently in Schweber’s book. However, even in the two years since his book was published, biologists have made great strides in eliminating lake trout.
Permits and regulations
Before anglers can fish in the park, they must purchase a fishing permit.
“Yellowstone was created before the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, so you have to get a Yellowstone fishing permit,” Nash explained.
A three-day permit is $18, a seven-day permit is $25 and a season permit is $40. Anglers 15 and younger can fish without a permit.
Yellowstone also has specific fishing regulations.
“They should plan on having a lot of regulations unlike what they’re used to,” Parks said.
Some of the park’s waterways are open only to fly- fishing. Hooks must be barbless and bait isn’t allowed.
All native fish must be released unharmed.
Nonnative fish must be killed in a few locations in the park, including Yellowstone Lake and sections of the Lamar River, Slough and Soda Butte creeks.
Permits and fishing regulation books are available throughout the park and at outfitters outside the park.
The Coxes enjoyed their first day of fishing Yellowstone Lake, when the fish seemed to bite at every cast. The second day, they weren’t as lucky, but it wasn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon.
“Even if we don’t catch anything, it’s just nice being out here,” Roberta Cox said.