Fishing Montana: Lamar River Cutthroat Trout

Montana Narrative Montana: Simply Epic
by Tim Patterson May 18, 2009

Cutthroat trout.

Matador editor Tim Patterson goes fly-fishing outside Livingston, Montana in Yellowstone National Park.

This article has been created in partnership between Matador and our friends at the State of Montana.

My fingertips are bleeding, sliced raw by the sharp little teeth of wild cutthroat trout. The fly I’m using is all chewed-up too, a hopper pattern that’s been reduced to a little yarn and loose thread on the slim shank of a barbless hook. Dew is dry and the mountain sun has climbed high over the rim of the Lamar valley.

Still, the fish keep biting.

Fly-fishing can be an art, but my tactics are industrial. I’ve only got one leader, the thin piece of monofilament to which the fly is tied. That’s not enough line to allow for changing patterns, and with camp still five miles up-trail, there’s no time to bother about fancy casts.

Instead, when the trail curves close to the river I set my pack against a dry pine log, change leather hiking boots for rubber water shoes and pick my way to the middle of the stream.

There’s no one to help if I slip or turn an ankle, so I move carefully across the riverbed, concentrating on each cold braid of current.

All I hear and sense and smell and feel is water and air and the dull musical growl of river rocks tumbling downriver in summer snowmelt from the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Lamar River cut.

I’m utterly content and totally alone.

Firm-footed at the head of a riffle, I loosen a loop of line and let it drift downstream so that the fly sinks deep into the pool below.

Two red-tailed hawks wheel overhead.

Three times they cry before I begin my retrieve, stripping line home with smooth pulls, alert to the flash of gold on blue that marks the commencement of frantic communion with pure wild energy, beauty and fear.

The trout hits. Everything tightens. Heavy and confused, it turns in the current, then leaps clear.

I raise the rod-tip, taking in slack as fast as I can until the fish catches sight of me and shoots downstream in a panic once more.

When the fish is played out I hold her for a moment in still water by the riverbank. She’s a handsome cutthroat, nearly 18 inches long, the blood-orange slash under her jaw so vivid it seems to pulse.

Captivated, I unhook the fly and gradually loosen my grip on the fish.

As time shifts back to normal we both hold still, slowly returning to ourselves, recovering in this moment of release.

The trout finds her freedom and darts back into the flow.

I sit in the sun until my feet are dry. Then I put on my socks, lace up my boots, hoist my pack and set off down the trail, yelling “YO!” at intervals to let the bears know I’m coming.

Buffalo by Cache Creek.

The Lamar is a tributary of the Yellowstone River that forms a broad valley in the Northeast corner of the National Park.

A lot of people visit Yellowstone, but few venture far into the backcountry. The Lamar valley is one of the wildest areas of the region, home to herds of buffalo, the Druid wolf pack and several grizzly bears, including one notorious silver-tip known as the Tent Smasher.

Although I never encountered a bear, the presence of Ursus Horribilis permeated the atmosphere of my trip, making me jump each time a manic chipmunk skittered through the underbrush.

While hiking I kept a canister of pepper spray strapped to my belt like a sidearm. At camp I hung my food well away from my tent and lay still for a time before sleep, alert to the noises of the night.

Lamar valley.

The pine forests of this valley went up in smoke during the epic 1988 Yellowstone fire and are now in an early stage of rebirth, making the valley feel like an overgrown Christmas tree farm.

The regenerative landscape is perfect habitat for buffalo and grizzly bears, but mostly, the Lamar valley is perfect habitat for fly-fishermen. I honestly didn’t think trout fishing got this good outside Alaska or New Zealand.

The river is just the right size for fly-fishing, big enough to hold large trout, but small enough so that even novice fishermen will have a pretty good idea where the fish are holding.

The Park Service has set up designated backcountry campsites along the river, each complete with fire-pit and bear-bagging station. These campsites are set far enough from the trail to feel isolated – not that crowds will be a problem.

The only people I met in the backcountry were Park Rangers, who made sure I had the proper permits.

Near Livingston, MT

Notes on fishing the Lamar River:

The most logical way to approach the Lamar is by way of Livingston, Montana. Have a Moose Drool draft in the bar of the Murray Hotel then walk down the block to Dan Bailey’s fly-shop to buy whatever gear you need and pick up a Park fishing license.

The Coffee Crossing in downtown Livingston is the spot for a mean Espresso. I also need to give a shout-out to Mark’s In & Out Beef-Burger Stand, the perfect place to stock up on calories before hitting the backcountry.

From Livingston, drive South through the Paradise Valley to Yellowstone country and the entrance town of Gardiner. This is your last chance to buy any gear you forgot to purchase in Livingston. The entrance fee for the Park is $25 per vehicle.

Park Headquarters are located just down the road from Gardiner in Mammoth. This is the place to pick up your backcountry camping permit.

You’ll need to tell the ranger where you’ll be camping for each night in the backcountry. There are several sites on the Lamar, and when I went mid-week in July most were available.

Permits are free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis, but it’s also possible to reserve a site in advance for a fee of $20.

When you pick up your permit, the ranger will give you the low-down on
bear activity, fire danger and directions to the trailhead. It’s about a 40 minute drive from Mammoth to Soda Butte, where the Lamar trail begins.

Here is a link to Park Service information on fishing in Yellowstone. The fishing season in Yellowstone runs from Memorial Day to early November, but the best time to plan your trip is between July and September.


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