Fishing Yellowstone Lake
With summer approaching, I can’t help but think about an experience on Yellowstone Lake fishing for trout a couple summers ago. Although hunting in Yellowstone is not allowed, fishing is under certain regulations. An angler may fish at many locations in the park if they have a Yellowstone Park specific fishing license, and use either artificial flies or lures.
Among the locations a person can fish at is Yellowstone Lake; the largest body of water in the park and in the state of Wyoming. The lake is actually the opening of the Yellowstone caldera and possesses a significant amount of geothermal activity. The lake is nearly 400ft deep and has about 100 miles of shoreline; it is a significant body of water, especially for a mountain lake. The lake’s surface sits at an elevation of 7,730 ft above sea level and it is the largest freshwater lake above 7000 ft in North America. The mountain environment means that severe weather including thunderstorms, strong wind and snow can be seen even in the summer months.
The lake is in a picturesque setting, surrounded by pines and mountain ranges. The area is full of wildlife including elk, bison, grizzly and black bears. It is not uncommon for a moose or bear to end up on one of the lake’s islands by traveling over the ice during the winter months.
Rocky Mountain Elk are an example of some of the wildlife that may be encountered near the shores of Yellowstone Lake. These bulls needed to cool off in the lake during a hot July day.
One can’t help but wonder what it was like when John Colter first laid eyes on Yellowstone Lake in the early 1800’s and discover such a unique and special location. Early expeditions near the lake describe catching Cutthroats as fast as a person could reel them in. With such an abundant source of food and a beautiful setting, it would seem tempting to settle in the remote location.
This map is from the Washburn, Doane and Langford expedition of 1870.
A great way to experience Yellowstone Lake is by chartering a boat and trolling for trout. Cutthroat trout are the only native trout to Yellowstone and Yellowstone Lake, but Lake trout exist as an invasive species. All Lake Trout must be kept and all Cutthroats must be released. The Lake trout were estimated to be introduced around 1994 either on accident or by releasing fish caught in nearby aquatic bodies. They have been very destructive to the local ecosystem, and have demonstrated how devastating an invasive species can be. The National Park Service has gone to great lengths in recent years to try and eliminate the Lake Trout population in Yellowstone Lake. Recent efforts to gill net have had a significant impact on the eradication of Lake Trout, but there is still a large population of Lake Trout remaining. The Lake Trout feed on the Cutthroats’ eggs during spawning and the offspring. The Lake Trout also do not spawn in the tributary streams and rivers of Yellowstone Lake where many other species depend on the Cutthroats as a food source.
The Lake Trout (top) is an invasive species introduced to Yellowstone Lake causing significant harm to the population of native Cutthroats (bottom).
A trip on Yellowstone Lake normally starts near Lake Lodge on the West Thumb marina. A call to the park service and setting up a reservation is necessary to secure a boat for an hour, half day or a day. Anglers also need to purchase a fishing permit from the park service; a person can buy a 3 day, 1 week or 1 year permit at reasonable rates. A Wyoming fishing license is not honored in the park since it is under federal jurisdiction.
The park service has setup several boats and guides specifically for experiencing angling on the lake. The guide will typically take a group out for a half day or full day trip. After leaving the west Thumb Marina, an approximately 20 minute voyage is necessary to reach a good fishing location. Our guide during a recent trip took us out to the east and north sides of one of the lake’s Islands. After dropping in two trolling lines plus a third on a downrigger, it took about 5 minutes to land our first cutthroat. Soon after the first Cutthroat, we brought in a nice medium sized Lake Trout which was kept on board. Throughout the day we had regular hits on our lures with a pretty even split between Lake and Cutthroats. All the Cutthroats had an average size larger than that of the Lake Trout; which leads one to believe that the Lake Trout are reducing the population of young Cutthroats by feeding on the spawn.
This was the largest fish caught during the day on Yellowstone Lake; a very nice Cutthroat. The Cutthroats that are caught tend to be relatively large since they have the best chance of surviving against the Lake Trout. This fish was released back to the lake soon after the photo was taken.
The National Park Service has gone to great lengths to try and eradicate the invasive Lake Trout and preserve the native Cutthroats and hopefully their efforts payoff. A reduction in the native species is detrimental to many other species of wildlife that depend on the Cutthroat population. Although a person might think that there would be little difference between how the two species of trout effect the Lake’s ecosystem, they do not realize the subtle differences which have major impacts. The simple fact that Lake Trout spawn in deep water and remain in the lake as opposed to the Cutthroats which migrate to neighboring streams has major impacts on animals that feed on the trout. The success of the Park’s Service efforts to eliminate the Lake Trout is a critical component to the future of the Lake. The restoration of the Cutthroat Trout population is for the benefit of both sportsman and the vitality of the local environment.
Although the Lake Trout are detrimental to Yellowstone Lake, the requirement to keep them is a bonus for lake fishermen. There is not a much better way to conclude a day of fishing than with a dinner of fresh Lake trout. Yellowstone Lake Lodge will cook a catch of Lake trout for anglers if they bring them by at dinner and have the patience to wait for preparation. During my most recent trip, the chef did an excellent job of preparing the fish. I can’t describe the ingredients used in the same language of one versed in the world of cuisine, but I have never had a better tasting dish of Trout. Although my method of wrapping trout in tinfoil and placing over an open campfire satisfies while in the backcountry, it does not parallel to the flavor created by a true professional.
If interested in scheduling a trip of your own, the marina is located near the West Thumb, a few minutes from Yellowstone Lake Lodge. Call them at 1.866.439.7375 or 307.344.7311, or visit http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/fishing.htm. With the weather getting nicer, I think I will be making another visit very soon.