“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing,” wrote Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It. This statement rings true for many anglers for whom fly-fishing is a lifestyle rather than a leisure activity. In the US, all fly-fishers at some point feel the urge to make the trek to the Mecca of fly-fishing: the rivers along the western edges of Yellowstone National Park, which run through Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
This region of the Western United States is home to many legendary fly-fishing rivers such as the Gallatin, Madison, Firehole and Henry's Fork. The world renowned Henry's Fork is the waterway that Dan Gates, a Salt Lake City-based fly-fishing guide, considers his home river. “This river has a certain way of luring people in and never letting go”.
"The Henry’s Fork — the river I grew up on — it changes people’s lives. People go up there to fish it and they’ll never leave because it has such a powerful hold." Gates grew up in Idaho and has been fishing the West Yellowstone region since he was 10 years old.
From spring through autumn, people from all over the world flock to Yellowstone National Park to experience its natural wonders. Yellowstone is probably best known for its timely geyser, Old Faithful. But park visitors can also butt heads with bison (not literally, of course), watch elk graze on the plains, and maybe even see a wolf in the wild.
Along the rivers of West Yellowstone the animals that visitors most want to see are the abundant trout — brown, cutthroat and rainbow, which can all be found here. "They call it the 'Golden Trout Circle,'" says Gates. "There are just so many amazing rivers."
The gateway to all of this natural beauty for many travellers is Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City, Utah. Getting to the Golden Trout Circle is about a four-hour drive from Utah's capital when taking the most direct approach. Choosing the scenic route will add one to two hours more. According to Gates, "a lot of tourists fly into Salt Lake and then do a week-long tour into Jackson and Yellowstone in the summertime."
For the travelling fishermen who don't want to lug all of their fishing gear with their luggage, there are plenty of fly shops in the Intermountain West where they can get fully outfitted. If you're flying into SLC, there is a nearby fly shop downtown, where anglers can stock up on the essentials, called Western Rivers Flyfisher. But it might be a better idea to wait to stop at fly shops closer to the West Yellowstone area where you can chat with the locals and get some insight on the river conditions. Jimmy's All Season Angler in Idaho Falls is about 30 minutes from Henry's Fork River, regularly hosts classes and demonstrations on fly casting and fly tying.
On the drive towards Yellowstone you'll pass through a town called Island Park in Idaho — home to Trout Hunter, a combination fly shop, restaurant and lodge. If you want a fly shop actually located in West Yellowstone, Wyoming, Blue Ribbon Flies is a good place to start.
Both Blue Ribbon Flies and Trout Hunter offer guide services, which Gates recommends. "If you’re experienced, you get to learn some of the more advanced insider techniques that are going to help you for each river. For a beginner, the guides are going to teach you the fastest way to catch a fish and enjoy your time on the river. It's the best way to maximise your time."
Visitors will have to decide how to spend their downtime when not fishing or enjoying their natural surroundings. There are quite a few places in the West Yellowstone area that offer lodging along with a fly shop like Trout Hunter. There are also some great hotel options. But keep in mind that this is cowboy country, so there aren't going to be any five-star luxury suites to return to after a long day on the river. If roughing it doesn't bother you, consider packing or renting some camping gear. There are plenty of campgrounds around Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park can be quite busy from Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) into autumn. Visiting the area in the off-season definitely has its advantages — you basically have the place to yourself. For Gates, "fly fishing there in the fall, in the Firehole River with the geysers going off next to you, the elk bugling and no one else around — it’s so incredible. You can’t compare it to anything else".
Header image: Sunset Rainbow at Henrys Fork © Dan Gates
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Written by Billy Yang
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About the author: BillyYangBilly Yang
Billy Yang is a freelance journalist specialising in travel and food writing. His passion for journalism stems from the idea that everyone has an interesting story to tell and it is a reporter’s job to find those stories and helps share them. More of his work can be found at billyxyang.com.