When managed by the Army during its early years, it was a duty assignment; to the fleeing Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce people, it was an escape route; and for a U.S. president, it was a dream and our first national park. For me, in the mid-1950s, it was my entrance into fly-fishing, fine shotguns, bird dogs, campfires, life in the wild country and the hunting and fishing opportunities that are as vast as the West itself.
Yellowstone National Park offers the angler mile after mile of fishable water in an environment of protection and management to a degree unheard of at the time of the park’s birth. Open country, mountains, waterfalls, geothermal ponds, geysers, forests, streams, rivers and wildlife are all part of the Yellowstone.
This is the environment encountered while fishing the streams and rivers of Yellowstone National Park. It is here that flows the Madison River and its tributaries, one of which is the Firehole River. To quote author and flyfisherman Charlie Brooks, “It’s the strangest trout stream on earth.” And, strange it is.
The Firehole is born as it leaves the small Madison Lake at 8,200 feet. This tiny, cold, winding brook trout stream can also hold a few pan-sized browns as it grows in size and volume nearing the famous Old Faithful geyser.
From that point on, the Firehole flows by geothermal features that empty water into the river increasing its temperature. At times, the temperatures have been measured as high as 86 degrees. Water from geothermal features contains dissolved chemicals and minerals. Despite these levels, rainbow trout live and spawn in these waters and the area boasts multiple insect hatches, even in midwinter.
Brook trout were first introduced to the upper Firehole in 1889, while brown trout, the river’s most plentiful trout today, were first stocked in 1890. Rainbow trout were not introduced until 1923. Mountain whitefish are native to the Firehole below Firehole Falls never having been stocked in the park.
During the early days of the park, anglers would fish near Fishing Cone. Then, after catching a trout, dip their fish in the cone, cooking them in the boiling water. But then, all things change; all fishing there has been closed for many years near and around the cone.
In 1955, all stocking programs in the park were discontinued. Today’s Firehole trout are completely wild populations. In 1968, because of the increasing fishing pressure, the river was declared a fly-fishing-only river.
In today’s world, fishing the Firehole is much easier and much more pleasant with paved roads almost the entire length of the river and walking is limited to only short distances, such as where the river enters Fountain Flats. This is a flat and an easy walk, even in waders.
This part of the Firehole is currently closed to fishing from Old Faithful to just below Biscuit Basin Bridge in order to protect the many thermal features located in this area. Old timers say the fishing was never good along this part of the river.
Just before the Biscuit Bridge, the Little Firehole and Iron Spring Creek join the Firehole. These two streams add much-needed cool water to the river. The Little Firehole River is much too cold for the Firehole trout except during very warm springs and summers.
Biscuit Basin consists of about a mile of winding meadow stream, deep in places and, with an abundance of bottom dropoffs, small weedbeds and undercut banks providing holding and feeding areas for trout. The trout here are almost half and half rainbows and browns; the river’s brookies need much cooler water.
All along the flat stretches of the Firehole, the trout know what an angler looks like after seeing at least one or more each day of the season.
“In areas like Biscuit Basin, Muleshoe Bend, Goose Lake Meadows and Ojo Caliente Bend, all of your fly-fishing skills will be needed,” says Charley Bentworth, a resident of West Yellowstone, Montana and a regular visitor to the Firehole. “Trout here have seen flies and fishermen since their spawn and, at least for the larger trout, presentation and choice of flies is important.”
Find where Muleshoe Bend makes a tight loop and you will find a half-mile of excellent dry-fly water with some large trout, and of course, many smaller ones. It’s always best in this area to watch for a hatch before getting your feet wet. There have been times where trout will rise to falling snowflakes thinking they are insect hatches.
The stretch from there to the Upper Iron Bridge, about three-eighths of a mile, is quite good to excellent for a dry fly or emergent nymph. Below the bridge, a long riffle and run reaches to the upper end of Muleshoe Bend. Watch for regular hatches of the smaller insects in this area and match as close as you can.
The long riffle at the lower end of Muleshoe and continuing through Midway Geyser Basin is a stretch of river ideal for the beginner or children. Located right beside the road, it is loaded with insect life, mostly small, and the rough but not too uneven bottom offers good footing. Faster water and many riffles take some of the pressure off a “perfect” presentation. Good parking and easy access is also a major advantage.
The loop of Muleshoe Bend is usually a half-mile of excellent dry-fly water with some good fish, as long as there is a hatch or hatches in progress.
Here is one tip that has been repeated many times: Match the hatches. Matching these hatches may actually be the key to fishing the Firehole River.
As the river enters Goose Lake Meadows, the water will be cooling after the 200-degree water issued from Excelsior Springs and becomes one of the top areas for careful dry-fly presentations. More than one angler on fishing this part of the river will be using hoppers fished with a long leader and a careful mend.
Below the chute under Lower Iron Bridge, there is a fishy looking curve in the river. This is mostly full of weeds, and although at one time could brag of holding the most trout in the river has warmed and will now top 88 degrees in August. If this is the case, try fishing up Sentinel Creek where the water is cooler and the fish seem to congregate. Needless to say, give this area your best. Why? The clear water makes the trout here quite a challenge. But don’t let this discourage you, many flyfishermen will hone their skills on this part of the river — some are rewarded with a true bragging-sized trout.
Moving downriver is the Ojo Caliente Bend and this area is not worth the energy involved in casting. Another weedy and deeper part of the Firehole the main trout food here, over 50 percent, is the tiny black snails. Don’t waste your time trying to tie a snail pattern. The insect species hatching here are also very small. Most anglers in the know move on to the Fountain Flats and break out dry flies.
Just below Ojo Caliente Bend, the river enters Fountain Flats and becomes a top wading stream in the park. Cooler water than in the bend makes this area ideal for the nymph angler. I know I have harped on dry-fly areas, but midway through the flats the river seems to have been created for the dry-fly angler. A large dragonfly type is found here and only a few other similar bottom types in the Firehole drainage. The nymph is in the water two years from egg to hatching adult and is tan to dark brown. It hatches into a fiery red-orange adult nearly 3 inches long. If you want to fish a large fly, this is the spot. It is not uncommon for fishermen in this meadow to be in the company of herds of resting elk and bison. With all the animals, predators are also common here, especially the coyote. Watch for them sneaking along the distant tree line.
The Yellowstone is bear country, and there is no guarantee of your safety. Bears and other large game animals often use trails, streams and lakeshores for travel. Entry into some areas may be restricted; check with a ranger for specific bear management information. Traveling alone in bear country is not recommended. Make enough noise to make your presence known to bears. If you should encounter a bear, give it plenty of room, detour if possible, or wait for the bear to move on. If a bear should charge or attack and the situation allows, climb a tree, or stand your ground if you have “bear spray.” If all fails, try playing dead. Do not run; this may excite the bear. Carefully read all bear country guidelines and regulations and be prepared for any situation.
Fishing the Firehole River is a fly-fishing experience that every angler entering the park should experience. Ask yourself — how many times will I get to fish over a live volcano?