Just about every rod/reel/line/leader combination you can think of up to and including seven-weight spey outfits have some utility in the Yellowstone area and Montana. That said, you can get by with a whole lot less. I will go into a great deal of detail on this page, but if you want to keep it simple and only bring one outfit and basic gear, use the basic list just below this introduction.
Note that I do not discuss flies on this page. Instead, check out the Flies & Hatches section of the website. The Intro to Flies & Hatches page includes a "basic" fly box, while the other pages under this tab have more details. You might also check the pages within the Guide to Area Waters section for even more detail on the flies that work on specific fisheries.
Wading gear is discussed on the Clothing page.
The following gear won't be ideal in all situations, but it can perform everything an angler needs to do in the Yellowstone Area on all waters at least acceptably well, throughout the year. If you're trying to stuff all of your fishing gear into one corner of a suitcase, this is what you should bring.
Below, I discuss the rods, reels, lines, leaders, and tippet material that can be used in the region in much greater detail. As I noted in the intro, just about any rod/reel/line combination you’d use anywhere for trout can be used as fly fishing tackle in the Yellowstone area and Montana. That said, a much smaller range of items are generally useful. I spend much more time talking about rods, since there’s a much greater variety of rods that make sense than reels, lines, and other items.
Rods are discussed from short/light to long/heavy. The four rods marked with three asterisks *** are the most generally useful in the region. There’s nothing you can’t do efficiently and enjoyably if you come prepared with all four.
Brand names and the amount of money you spend on a given rod are far less important than taking the time to research and demo cast a variety of rods to find those that you enjoy fishing with and that suit your personal casting stroke. Make sure to match all rods with lines that suit them, and practice casting regularly before you fly fish Yellowstone and Montana, if you don't fish much back where you're from. The middle of your vacation is not the right time to get to know your rod or (worse) discover that it doesn't suit your casting style or abilities.
For what it's worth, I do almost all of my personal fishing with the following rods: A 7'6" two-weight (tiny creeks), a 7'9" four-weight (larger but rough creeks), an 8'9" five-weight (larger meadow streams), a 9' six-weight (virtually all fishing on large rivers during the summer), a 10' six-weight (nymph fishing for larger trout on many different rivers and streams), and a 9' seven-weight (streamer fishing, especially from a boat). I have something like twenty fly rods, but the above are the ones I actually use around here, and most visitors here for a week won't fish as wide a range of waters or use as many techniques as I do over the course of the entire season, so most people can get away with two or three rods, mixing and matching from the above categories.
Reels are the easy part. There is no reason to spend a fortune on a reel for fishing the Yellowstone area. If you already have a $600 reel, great. it won't be any more effective than a $150 or $200 reel and only barely more effective than a $50 reel. Just make sure to spool any reels you use when fishing Montana or the Yellowstone area with at least fifty yards of 20lb Dacron backing, just in case you do hook into a monster trout.
The key with any reel is to be sure the reel is in good repair. It should not have a bent rim, should lack any sharp edges (often caused by dropping the reel on rocks) that might damage lines, should have a spool that locks into its frame correctly and does not freespool, and should be free from grit. A smooth drag is important, but this need not be a strong drag. LIGHTLY oil the spindle and any exposed gearing with a commercial reel lubricant or a product such as Gunslick gun lubricant. Use just a tiny drop of this product.
Beyond the above considerations, which all but the most bargain-basement Walmart-special reels should possess, here are the features I look for in my personal reels. None of the following are absolutely required, though they're nice to have. All reels I use in the region can be purchased at retail for $200 or less.
That's all! I use large-arbor and normal-arbor reels, those with exposed disc drags, enclosed disc drags, and click drags. If you already have decent-quality reels, the specifics of your reel are likewise just as unimportant.
Most anglers worry too much about their rods and reels and not enough about their lines. While the lines required or even just nice to have when you're fly fishing in the Yellowstone area are not complicated, they need to be correct and in good repair.
For the vast majority of anglers visiting this region, premium weight-forward floating fly lines that match your rods are all that are needed, and work better than fancier or more-esoteric lines. I do stress the "premium" aspect, however. With the exception of bargain store-level broomsticks costing $75 or less, all rods nowadays are "good enough." Even the cheapest fly reel will work fine for a while. Cheap lines will screw up your casting. I strongly encourage you to spend at least $50 on each of your fly lines, and nowadays most good fly lines are more like $75. It's money well spent.
Other lines of less (but some) utility are the following.
All lines should match your rod and casting stroke. What do I mean? You should be able to cast effectively, efficiently, and enjoyably using the rod/line combination. A rod/line combination that works great with one angler's casting stroke will fall in a puddle for another caster. A rod/line combination that works great at 75 feet might not work at all at 15. With the exception of lines for switch and spey rods, lines you plan to use on foot while large rivers in the spring and fall, and lines for lake-fishing, it is critical that your lines perform best at short to moderate ranges. By "short" I mean you might not cast more than a foot or two of fly line. I might fish all day on a small stream without casting more than a leader and fifteen feet of fly line. That's short range. Moderate ranges cover anything out to forty or at most fifty feet. The only way to be sure your rod/line combination works right at these ranges for you is to practice.
As important as having a quality line that matches your rod is making sure it is in good repair. Before you fish Yellowstone or Montana, be sure to check the following and either fix any problems or replace the line, if needed.
Once your line is in good shape, here are tips on how to keep it that way:
Most anglers fishing Yellowstone or Montana for the first time make the following mistakes: they don't bring a wide enough variety of leaders, and they tend to use leaders that are too light and often too long for the water conditions and flies they are using. If you've never fished freestone waters in the west, big or small, the following information will therefore prove very useful.
Sinking polyleaders and leaders for sink-tip or full-sink lines are easy, so I'll cover them first. If you lack a sink-tip line, make sure to have a polyleader or two. Choose five to seven-foot polyleaders. The fastest and second-fastest sink rates in the "trout" size are most appropriate. To the exposed monofilament tip of these, add a split ring or tiny swivel. Then add 18" to two feet of tippet material to complete a basic streamer leader. If you're using a sink-tip or full-sink line, attach 18" of 20lb Maxima Ultragreen to the leader, then add a swivel or tippet ring. To the opposite end of this attachment point, add 18" to two feet of whatever tippet is required.
The following list goes over different water types and what lengths and diameters of leaders you should expect to fish, if you're using a floating line. The general rule is that the lower, clearer, and slower the water, and the smaller the flies and spookier the fish, the longer and thinner the leader you should use. The more obstructions or snags, the dirtier the water, and the larger and more wind-resistant the flies, the more likely you will need to slant towards a heavier and shorter leader. Streamers and big nymphs require heavier and usually shorter leaders than smaller nymphs and all but the largest and most wind-resistant dry flies. Fish size does not much factor into this equation, unless you're continuously breaking off big fish.
In determining what diameter leader to start with, a good rule of thumb is to divide the fly size you're using by four, then use the "X rating" this equation produces when the fish are not spooky and/or the flies are large. When the equation does not produce a whole number, go down to the next-smaller size. Slide down a size or even two sizes for spooky fish in clear water, but go no smaller, since using a too-slender tippet can hurt your casting efficiency.
Your basic leaders should always be standard monofilament leaders, rather than fluorocarbon. There is no reason to purchase fluorocarbon leaders! If fishing conditions require fluoro tippets, simply cut the standard mono tippet off and replace it with fluorocarbon from one of your spare tippet spools (see next section). Doing this will save you $$$ and works just as well as a leader made entirely from fluoro.
Both standard monofilament and fluorocarbon tippet make sense when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, though monofilament is far more important overall and can serve as your only material, if you're on a budget.
If you do bring both mono and fluoro, plan to use the fluoro only when you use nymphs, streamers, and other subsurface flies. Never use fluoro with dry flies as this material sinks a bit and will sink small dries. The conditions under which you may want to use fluoro are:
The above conditions are more common on spring creeks, tailwaters, weedy lakes, and when you're targeting fall-run browns or spring-run rainbows. For practical purposes, these are the only conditions under which I use or even carry fluoro, so if none of the above apply, use mono.
Depending on the point in the season, you may need to carrry anywhere from 0X on down to 7X in mono and 2X through 7X in fluoro to cover all your bases. In general, the fewest tippet sizes need be carried on freestone streams immediately following runoff, and the most need to be carried when water conditions are crystal clear. Except immediately after runoff, I expect to use 0X and 1X only for repairing damaged leaders, while I expect to use 6X and 7X only on flat water where big, spooky fish are the quarry.
If you like fishing big, articulated streamers, also plan to bring 8lb to 12lb Maxima Ultragreen or similar stiff mono leader material for use as tippet with these heavy, oversized flies. When you're using "normal" streamers up to and including weighted Woolly Buggers and sculpins to size-2, standard 2X mono or fluoro will work fine.
Do not generally add tippet to new packaged tapered leaders until you've tied on a few flies, had a few tangles, etc. and have thus chewed back at least a foot into the leader. The only exception is when fish are eating tiny dry flies in flat water and are exceptionally spooky, in which case additional tippet may be required to achieve a good drift.
The indicators, shot, tools, and so on that you should have when fishing the Yellowstone area and Montana are no different than you need elsewhere. See the list at the top of this page for suggestions. Just make sure to pack any sharp-edged tools as well as any fly floatants in your checked luggage if you're flying.
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.