World-famous for its big name rivers, which aren't very beginner-friendly in a general sense, the Yellowstone area is also an exceptionally good place for beginners, due to easy access as well as several different types of fisheries where the fish are beginner-friendly, each of which is better for a certain type/age of beginner and/or at a certain time of year. Below, I give general descriptions and beginner-specific tactics for each of these beginner-friendly options.
My biases, as well as those of other members of the Parks' Fly Shop staff, are on full display here. Simply put, we believe that the best way to get started in fly fishing is to go out and catch something, no matter how small and easy these fish are. It's possible to learn the techniques of fly fishing just about anywhere. You could learn casting and line management by fishing in a flooded street, if you wanted to. We believe it's better to get some positive reinforcement from the fish. It gives me panic attacks just thinking about taking rookies somewhere even experts have to work hard for their strikes, especially since beginners usually flub their first ten or fifteen strikes, then lose the next five or ten fish after that before landing one. In places where strikes are few and far between, such a fishery would get really frustrating. As such, the following options are all easy fisheries.
That said, it's always best to go with an experienced angler, whether a friend or a guide. On that note...
By far the best way to get a start in fly fishing is to go out with a guide. Casting lessons help a little bit, but being able to cast doesn't actually make you a good angler. Some of the worst "experienced" anglers we have ever guided have actually been certified casting instructors. Why? Because they spent all their time practicing casting in a pond or even a swimming pool, rather than fishing in real-world conditions. Nothing is as good as actually getting out on the stream with somebody who knows the water on a professional basis.
All guide services in the region take large numbers of beginners fishing each year. Probably 20% of my clients are complete rookies. Some of my competitors will have lower percentages of beginners, but we all are glad to take them. If you are looking to get into fly fishing on your visit to the Yellowstone area, I suggest booking a trip with a dedicated fly shop or independent fly fishing outfitter/guide service, rather than an "all in one" vacation service. The latter are indeed cheaper. You get what you pay for. One operation in the area charges almost nothing for trips, and claims to be the only operation in the area that is good at teaching beginners. Frankly, this is a crock. They will put as many people as they can with a single inexperienced "guide" and let them flail a single poor-quality spot on the river out their back door, even when water conditions are unfishable due to the spring melt. We have guided anglers who first went with this company, and all of them to a person have said that they learned more in the first five minutes with us than during their entire trip with the general tourist company.
Sorry for the soapbox here, but really: if you're going to get a fishing guide, get a real one, even if you choose a business other than Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing.
The many brook trout streams in Yellowstone Park, particularly the flatter streams flowing through meadows or open woodlands rather than tight canyons or brush, are ideal for beginners in one way: they're full of small, hyper-aggressive fish that will strike just about anything they see. If you put a beginner on one of these streams in high summer, he/she will catch fish, provided you're not fishing a stretch near the road that has effectively been fished out.
That's also the problem. These creeks are so full of little, hungry trout that you do not have to do anything right to get strikes. These are the sorts of fisheries where the trout will rise to sticks, bird feathers, bits of grass, or flies skated across the water so they resemble swimming muskrats. This is a great confidence boost, but it can lead to bad habits forming (i.e. dragging flies, incautious approaches to the stream, sloppy/rough casting).
Considering the above, the creeks are great choices for young kids, since they are almost certain to get enough action to hold their attention. They're also good for people who just want to try fly fishing but may or may not take up the sport, for much the same reason. In addition, they make sense as "intro" waters where anglers can work on casting, presentation, recognizing holding water, and recognizing strikes, before moving on later the same day to harder water, such as a larger freestone stream as described in the next section.
Tactics on these streams are covered in detail on the Small Streams page. Click the tab for "Small Brook Trout Creeks" for tactics. Beginners should use four-weights or five-weights, rather than the light rods an experienced angler might prefer, and should always use dropper nymphs as well as dry flies, since heavier rods are easier to cast in the wind that sometimes sweeps these creeks and nymphs offer higher hooking percentages than dries.
Freestone streams with trout populations comprised primarily of trout besides brookies are the next step up from brook trout creeks, and in many respects are better choices for interested beginners. The right streams are fast-flowing and often rather broken, which prompts their trout to be aggressive but requires new anglers to learn accuracy, line management, and how to recognize where trout live. Since the fish are hungry and not too picky, once the beginner begins getting these things right, they should start catching fish consistently. In a sense, these waters are more rewarding than brook trout creeks, because they are a bit harder, but the right waters are still not hard.
So what are the right waters? Rough sections of famous streams (Yellowstone, Lamar, Slough Creek), fast sections of smaller and less-famous rivers like the Gibbon and Gardner, and larger mountain streams that aren't famous. In general, suitable waters are turbulent, fast-flowing, and broken, which allows for short casts but requires the casts to be accurate, and they should lack prominent summer hatches to force the fish to feed opportunistically on whatever flies float by. By no means should beginners fish larger meadow-type streams, especially famous ones like the heavily-fished portions of Slough Creek.
Tactics for beginners generally follow those described on the other relevant pages in the Guide to Area Waters section of the site. It is doubly important for beginners to get away from crowded areas to find fresh and unpressured (aka stupider) fish. Larger rivers where nymphs under indicators and streamers are sometimes required, like the Yellowstone in its canyons, are best-fished by beginners in high summer, when beginners can get away with dry-dropper rigs that will be easier to cast than the heavier/messier subsurface rigs.
Small hike-in lakes are good choices for those who have had casting lessons already but have not actually fished before. The best lakes are those holding small cutthroat, grayling, and/or brook trout. Make sure you're taking a beginner to one of the high-elevation small-fish lakes, as lakes that often produce large fish will be challenging to impossible for beginners due to spooky fish. The small-fish lakes typically require a fair amount of casting distance, but they can otherwise be very easy to fish.
Beginners should concentrate on tactics using nymphs and perhaps small leeches suspended under strike indicators, rather than stripping leeches or fishing dry flies. Indicator fishing these lakes is the least-complicated technique that works well, and allows for long-duration presentations, giving the beginner plenty of time to get a grip on their line and otherwise get set before the fish take.
This is one option (along with the next) in which it is really important not only for the beginner to go with someone who knows a little about fly fishing, but someone familiar with the water in question, whether a guide or someone else. Otherwise, it's very unlikely that the beginner would catch anything.
The ranch lakes are appealing since they become fishable by beginners (with reasonable chances of success) no later than early April, much earlier than other options. Moreover they are suitable for sedentary anglers or those with limited mobility. In addition, in spring and early summer, it's possible to fish the lakes with indicator rigs a short distance from the boat, or only a little farther away in the limited situations when the lakes fish better on foot. Most adult beginners should be able to accomplish this without trouble, particularly if they are being guided or otherwise in a boat with an experienced angler. The guide can simply anchor the boat and offer detailed casting instruction while the beginners are fishing.
There is one very big flipside: the private lakes are not "numbers" fisheries, and as such they are unsuited to kids or impatient adults. Average numbers of trout for beginners over a day of fishing are under five landed, with perhaps three times that many strikes. This is not going to keep kids interested, particularly since the fishing itself is not as interesting as it is on foot, when constant movement, jumping from rock to rock, wading, and spotting frogs, bugs, and other critters can break up any boredom if the fish aren't biting.
The best beginner technique on the lakes is unquestionably suspending subsurface flies under indicators and either twitching them or drifting with the wind, if the wind is mild. The specific flies depend on the season. Check the Lakes page for more details.
Beginner fly fishing on river float trips can be good, provided conditions are suitable for fishing somewhat off the shoreline using nymphing techniques and casts need not be accurate. If conditions call for "banging banks" and hitting small targets accurately with dry flies, as on most rough water rivers and on the entire Yellowstone when it's high, beginners will struggle.
Nymphing works for beginners because the guide can position the boat so that beginners need not cast as often as dry fly or streamer fishers, and their casts need not be accurate. In essence, the guide or oarsman is doing a lot of the work. This is good and bad. This is less taxing for beginners, but they don't learn as much. In addition, when fishing is slow, fishing with indicators is rather boring. Since this technique tends to produce fewer but larger fish for beginners than fishing on foot, this is a potential issue, particularly for kids.
Walter Wiese is licensed to operate on all waters in Montana under general regulations, Yellowstone Park, and the Madison River in Montana. He is Montana Outfitter #22001, Yellowstone Park CUA holder 426SSF, and Madison River SRP Holder #297.
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Website, text, and graphics by Walter J. Wiese. Photos generally by Walter J. Wiese unless noted.