Guided Trips

FISHING REPORT AND SYNOPSIS: 12/4/2018

After a brief warmup and another borderline high water event, the streams of the Smokies are once again receding and getting cold. The spawn is winding down for the year so please avoid walking in/around gravel areas in the tailouts of pools and riffles. Those eggs need to survive for another generation to be born. When temperatures rise a few degrees, trout will become active and eat nymphs and streamers well. On cold days, don't expect too much although you might find a large post spawn brown trout.

The tailwaters are all flowing high and keeping us mostly limited to streamers. The Clinch might offer some high water nymphing, especially once they start to dial back the flows. Unfortunately it will be at least another couple of weeks before that happens it seems. The Caney Fork is fishing ok on high water but nothing to write home about. I floated last week and we did not do particularly well. We did find a bunch of crappie which seemed unusual at best. The good news? Water temperatures here are coming down and Center Hill Lake surface temperatures are falling rapidly as well. Shad kills should be in our future for sometime this month and of course January and February and perhaps later into the spring. This fishing is very inconsistent day to day, but when you hit it right you might have the best fishing of your life.

Musky streams are up and down with the rains. We hope to get in a few musky floats soon. As always, check back here for updates as conditions change.

Photo of the Month: Fall on the Tellico

Photo of the Month: Fall on the Tellico

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River in Yellowstone on a Cold Rainy Day

If I had to pick one river that draws me back to Yellowstone National Park time and again it would be the Gibbon. Primarily featuring gorgeous meadow water, the Gibbon River also has some canyon sections, water falls, lake run fish, and huge resident brown trout. The Gibbon River is also a stream facing significant challenges and unfortunately may not long be a stream worth fishing. Despite those challenges, fly fishing the Gibbon River still provides some of my favorite fly fishing in Yellowstone. In my most recent Yellowstone trip, I had a chance to spend a little time on this wonderful stream. Before that story, here is a bit about fly fishing the Gibbon River as well as challenges facing this incredibly unique fishery.

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River: Lower Meadows

The Gibbon River can be split into several distinct sections. The lowest and probably most famous water is from Madison Junction upstream to Gibbon Falls. This section hosts tremendous numbers of large rainbow and brown trout from Hebgen Lake from fall through early spring of each year. The brown trout head upstream from the lake through the Madison River on a spawning journey that eventually finds them in either the Firehole River or the Gibbon River. Rainbow trout move into the system as well for the same reasons. While many anglers make the journey to Yellowstone in October to fish for these incredible trout, I prefer fishing areas upstream from this section simply for the challenge that they present.

Fly fishing the Gibbon River Gibbon Falls
Gibbon Falls - ©2018 David Knapp Photography

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River: Canyon and Gibbon Meadows

The next section of the Gibbon River is the canyon from Gibbon Falls upstream to Gibbon Meadows. This canyon section provides some great fishing both early and late in the season. Fish are not very large on average although a few larger fish are present. In Gibbon Meadows, the river slows down and meanders slowly across a wide landscape. A few large trout may be found here, but few anglers are up to the challenge of stalking them.

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River: Elk Park to Grebe Lake

Upstream from Gibbon Meadows is another short canyon stretch which ends near Norris in another meadow section. Elk Park provides more meandering meadow water and is also some of my favorite water on the river. Meandering behind the Norris Geyser Basin, the Gibbon leaves the road for a couple of miles before returning and providing easy access near Norris Campground. If you want to fly fish the Gibbon River in its upper reaches, stay at this campground. Above Norris, the Gibbon enters another canyon leading upstream to Virginia Cascades. Above this scenic waterfall is another beautiful little meadow known as Virginia Meadows. This water previously had some fantastic fishing for wild brook trout although I've also caught cuttbows here with more rainbow heritage than cutthroat. Those fish are no longer there, however.

Above Virginia Meadows, the river and its tributaries flow through heavy brush as it descends from Grebe Wolf, and Ice Lakes. This entire section was recently treated by the National Park Service. While well intentioned, the Yellowstone National Park fisheries department is following shaky science at best with their efforts on the Gibbon River.

Gibbon River Restoration Efforts

Restoring native species is an admirable endeavor under most scenarios. Unfortunately, the National Park Service is following a rather broad definition of "restoration" for restoring the upper Gibbon River. According to their own environmental assessment in the planning stages, the upper Gibbon River never contained west slope cutthroat trout nor did it contain grayling. Unfortunately, the National Park Service has decided to prioritize one invasive over another. Long term, the plan calls for the total elimination of "non-native" species all the way downstream to Gibbon Falls. That means that my favorite stream will no longer be worthy of a visit. 

Why? I travel to Yellowstone to fish for the wild brown trout of the Gibbon upstream of Gibbon Falls. In particular, the water around Norris Geyser Basin is specially suited to these beautiful fish. Once they are eliminated and replaced with cutthroat, this stream will be full of an inferior fish and one that is not even native. If it was a true native species restoration, I would have nothing to say even if I did not like losing the wild browns. Since it is not a true restoration, I have no problem saying that I think this is a worthless project that will ruin an amazing fishery.

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River for Large Resident Brown Trout

While everyone else is thinking about fishing the lower Gibbon River for lake run fish, I like hunting the giant brown trout that inhabit the upper watershed from Gibbon Falls upstream to Virginia Cascades. These fish are finicky, spooky, and everything else that you would want from large challenging trout. On my most recent trip to Yellowstone, I was able to spend a bit of time on this, my favorite river in Yellowstone.

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River on a Cold Rainy Day

Nasty weather always seems to bring out the aggression in brown trout. This is often the case on the Gibbon River. Under normal sunny weather, fish will tuck up under overhanging undercut banks and in any other piece of shade they can find. These brown trout did not get large by being stupid. However, under cloudy skies and rain or snow, these fish come out to hunt. Truth be told, my favorite time for fly fishing the Gibbon River is mid summer on a bright sunny day. Knowing that the fish are tucked up under those undercuts helps immensely in locating them. However, you just cannot beat a good stormy day to get the fish on the feed. 

On our trip to Yellowstone National Park, the weather took a turn for the worse within our first couple of days. Unseasonably cool weather prevailed, eventually producing the first good snowfall of the season at higher elevations. More on that in a future blog post. Somehow, my wife kindly agreed to let me fly fish the Gibbon River in this nasty weather. The rain wasn't falling when we started, but soon a cold fine rain began to soak our rain jackets. I knew I was on borrowed time since I did not want to make my wife miserable. Thus, I focused on some of the best and also most accessible water near Norris. 

Fishing through this section, things started out rather slow. In time I found out why. The National Park Service restoration efforts had been ongoing and many of the stream's trout appeared to be missing. In their place were pasty pellet head west-slope cutthroat straight from a hatchery somewhere. The brook trout were lacking compared with other visits to this stream. I'm still unclear on whether fish are being mechanically removed (via electroshocking) or what is going on through this section. 

Eventually, the YNP fisheries hopes to completely remove non-natives from this section according to my last information. I'm seriously hoping that they instead allow the brown, rainbow, and brook trout to coexist with the cutthroat. This is a contrived fishery after all and the Park Service should not be favoring one invasive over another. 

With the slow start, I knew I had two choices: either move faster to cover more water in my search for brown trout or slow down and really pick apart the water. When fishing this type of water, the worst thing you can typically do is to move too fast. Thus, I found myself slowing down. Often, this is a part of the process for me. As a Great Smoky Mountains angler and fly fishing guide, I'm accustomed to moving fast. Therefore, I always need to change my mindset and approach when fishing other water. This normally takes me an hour or so. 

Fly Fishing the Gibbon River: Success!!!

Finally, as I was working into some of the best water I would fish on this trip, it happened. I had cast up above a deep bend pool and allowed my fly to nearly dead drift deep into the slot at the head of the undercut. A couple of twitches kept it from snagging the bottom. Suddenly, my line simply stopped. When I set the hook, I fully expected to be stuck to a large pile of weeds on the bottom of the stream. That first head shake told me otherwise. My amazing wife grabbed the net and went for the fish. Because of the heavy tippets I use for this fishing, it didn't take long before I maneuvered the fish to the bank and she slipped the net under my largest brown trout of the trip. While not as large as some I have caught on this stream, it was still an amazing fish.

Large brown trout caught while fly fishing the Gibbon River in Yellowstone National Park
Gibbon River Brown Trout - ©2018 Leah Knapp

I fished a bit longer, catching a few more solid brown trout. However, it was getting colder and the rain heavier. My lovely wife was no longer having fun and that meant it was time to stop. 

Observations on the Gibbon River From My Trip

As I mentioned above, the Gibbon River was simply not the same stream as before. Fish numbers and size were down significantly. I do not know if the National Park Service has modified their approach on this stream. Perhaps they are attempting to mechanically remove the majority of fish in an effort to avoid using poison on such a large stream. Perhaps the change in regulations is hurting this stream. Unfortunately, in conjunction with their new management strategy, the National Park Service removed all limits on "non-native" fish in this section. That does not extend to the non-native cutthroat, clearly demonstrating the hypocrisy of the Yellowstone National Park administration in managing this formerly incredible trout stream. 

If this bothers you as well, I encourage you to contact both the Yellowstone National Park fisheries department as well as the overall Park administration. The Gibbon River will probably not be a good reason to visit Yellowstone National Park in the future unless things change. Before the removal efforts, myself and many others would travel there just to fish this stream. Now, I'm planning vacations to other destinations. There are still amazing places in Yellowstone, and I will be highlighting some of these from my trip this summer in future blog posts.

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