An Intimidating River in Yellowstone by Mike Cline

June 26, 2013

An Intimidating River in Yellowstone by Mike Cline

The first few weeks of the every Yellowstone season expose the angler to just a few of the park’s famous waters.  The streams of the northeast corner are generally in spate and cold.  The Yellowstone, which drains a significant portion of the eastern side of the park is either blown in the canyons or closed until mid-July to protect spawning cutthroats.  The Snake, Lewis and Bechler rivers are equally poor choices in early June.  In late May and early June, anglers visiting Yellowstone are focused on four rivers—the Firehole, the Madison, the Gibbon and for the adventurous, the Gardner. Which one is the most intimidating, especially for anglers new to the park?  Each of these rivers presents the angler with unique challenges and rewards.  The Gardner is the most challenging during the opening weeks of the season.  Its high gradient lower reaches hold a lot of sizable browns, rainbows and cutthroats, but accessibility requires near gymnastic skill in navigating steep, rocky slopes, exceptionally slippery boulders and fast, fast current.  The reward comes with the knowledge that this is one of the most productive salmon fly streams in the park with a consistent hatch every June-July.  Early in the season, big stonefly nymphs produce lots of big trout. But thankfully, many anglers do not tackle the Gardner in June nor does the Gardner garner the notoriety of its brethren.  On the other hand the premier streams, the Firehole, Madison and Gibbon are storied- and for good reason.

The Firehole in June is an easy river to fish.  High fish density, prolific hatches and easy, easy accessibility make the Firehole a popular destination.  The challenge comes from the crowds.  Finding any type of isolation takes some planning. The reward is clear.  Lots and lots of 10-14” rainbows and browns on dry flies, soft hackles or buggers no matter how inept you are. The Madison in the park on the other hand is a bit more challenging.  Much larger than the Firehole, average fish size in the Madison is larger, but fish density in June is much less.  Although access is great, wading the Madison, especially in the sections holding the most fish can be a challenge.  For the angler new to the Madison, it seems that half the river is just too far out of reach.  Hatches are consistent and when you can get a fly in front of feeding fish or in good holding water, anglers can generally succeed on the Madison.  That leaves the Gibbon, the river I think is the most intimidating river in the park in June, especially for anglers new to the park.

The Gibbon flows 25 miles from Grebe Lake to Madison Junction at the confluence of the Firehole.  In total, it is four miles longer than the Firehole, but contributes only 30% of the Madison’s flow at Madison Junction.  Like the Firehole, the Gibbon was barren of fish above its major falls—Gibbon Falls—when the park was created.  Above the falls, it was stocked with Rainbow, Brook and Brown trout.  Grayling, stocked in Grebe and Wolf Lakes, are occasionally caught in the river.  Below Gibbon Falls, Grayling, Cutthroat and Whitefish were prevalent when the park was created, but the Grayling and Cutthroats were rapidly displaced by Rainbows and Browns stocked in the Madison in Montana.  The Gibbon also has the distinction of being the destination for a novel stocking attempt.  In 1893, US Bureau of Fisheries personnel stocked 250 smallmouth bass fingerlings in the Gibbon.  Obviously it didn’t succeed, but one can imagine what catching smallmouth in Elk Park might be like.

The upper reaches of the Gibbon above Norris are very brushy, rarely fished and contain for the most part tiny rainbows and brook trout.  However, once the river enters the meadows at Norris, the fish gain a bit more size and browns start to appear. Geothermal influences from the Norris Geyser Basin and downstream thermal features warm the river much like but not as much as the Firehole. Fish density and hatches are good enough to guarantee consistent catches.  The meadows—Norris, Elk Park and the upper Gibbon—don’t fish much different than the Firehole, it’s just a smaller version. Once the river leaves the upper Gibbon meadow the gradient increases significantly as it flows approximately 10 miles through a fairly steep sided canyon.  At the 4 mile point it encounters Gibbon Falls (84 feet high) which acts as an upstream barrier to fish migration. Four miles before reaching Madison Junction, the Gibbon again becomes a meadow stream reminiscent of the Firehole.  The canyon stretch is fast pocket water with excellent populations of resident 10-13” Browns and increasing numbers of rainbows below the falls.  It’s not difficult to find a lonely section of the Gibbon in June. What keeps the anglers away?

I think there are two factors that cause anglers to simply drive by the Gibbon.  In the canyon section for the most part, the road is just too close to the river and it just doesn’t look fishy.  It looks like thin, fast water. It looks difficult to wade.  In the canyon, the river is lined with Lodgepole pines and lots of deadfall.  There aren’t well worn angler trails as on other popular rivers.  It just looks too hard and unproductive as you drive through the canyon.  In the meadows, the river can seem just too far from the road.  (Although in the lower Gibbon Meadow you can’t get more than a 1/3 of a mile from the road, and it’s less than a mile to the remotest point in Norris Meadows).  Anglers know its looks fishy, but are intimidated by the possible exposure to Elk and Bison herds.  At times, the lower Gibbon Meadows can have 100s of Bison moving up and down the meadow and there’s a reason they call it Elk Park.  In June, when the water is always a bit higher, it’s just too easy to make excuses and drive by the Gibbon.  It’s a mistake.

As I said above, the meadows fish remarkably like the Firehole. Whether you want to toss dries at rising fish or swing buggers and soft hackles to entice fish off the banks, fishing the meadows of the Gibbon just takes leg work.  The meadows look and are fishy. Get away from the road, venture out into the meadows and fish.  The canyon stretches are different, they don’t look fishy and they look like it would take a lot of effort just to explore and fish.  Casting looks difficult along those tree lined banks.  But once you experience how much fun and productive the fast pocket water can be, you gain some confidence that no matter where you fish in the 10 miles of canyon water, you’re likely to connect with lots of fish. Wading the canyon water is relatively easy, but not really necessary.  In the canyon, because the Gibbon runs right along the edge of the Caldera, most of the river rock is rough volcanic material that provides great traction.  No slippery bowling balls here.  The river averages about 25 feet wide, so any decent caster can reach most all the water from the bank. However, skill at roll casting is a plus when you are backed up against the trees along the shore. On the Gibbon, leave the 5 and 6 weights home. A 3 or 4 weight rod is all that’s required.  My favorite go to setup is a 7’ fiberglass 3 weight with a double taper line.  Great roll casting setup and 10-12”fish fight like trophies.  One of things about the Gibbon in the canyon that is attractive is its June stoneflies which make #8-10 Stimulators the perfect fly to toss into the pocket water to draw aggressive strikes from hungry fish.  The real secret places on the Gibbon in the canyon are the short (3-5’) grassy undercut banks or deadfall that shelter the biggest fish in the river.  They are difficult to fish effectively with a dry fly, but a bugger carefully swung inches away can draw aggressive takes from some of the best fish of the day.  You have to search these lies out, as from 25 feet away, that short stretch of undercut bank, only 6 inches deep doesn’t look easy, but precise casting will reap rewards.

The Gibbon River in June is a good choice for the angler looking from some decent June fishing in Yellowstone, away from crowds.  No matter whether you are the dry fly purist, nymph chucker or bank bashing bugger type, the Gibbon in its meadows and the canyon has a lot to offer—easy access, consistent hatches and hungry fish.

Mike Cline is a local angler who started fly tying and fly fishing in Southern California in the early 1960s.  After 28 years in the U.S. Air Force Mike is semi-retired here in Bozeman and a regular shop customer.  He first fished the Firehole and Yellowstone in June 1972 when he was stationed in Great Falls and has been a regular in the park since leaving the Air Force in 1996.  When he’s not working, Mike is most likely on a river somewhere with his favorite fiberglass fly rod.

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