In Pursuit of The Infamous Grayling at Yellowstone

 Many of us have a checklist of what species we want to catch on the fly or in general. The Arctic Grayling has been on my bucket list for the past few years.

I was in my 2nd week of my annual 5-week journey out West, setting up for a one-day trunk show at The Peak Fly Shop in Colorado Springs.   I started chatting with Bill Kirk, a fly tier at the fly shop.

While I was setting up my table display of my jewelry, I shared that I was heading to Yellowstone National Park to stay for a few weeks and my goal this year is to catch a Grayling. Bill stopped what he was doing and said, “So you want to catch a Grayling, eh?” and I said, “Yes! It’s been on my bucket list for some time I just haven’t caught one yet”.  Bill then asked me, “Are you willing to hike in a bit?  Do you have bear spray?”  I replied, “Yes, I am okay with a bit of a hike, but if under 4 miles one way and yes I have bear spray.”  He replies,   “Then in that case, I will share with you the place that will get you into Grayling, no doubt.”  He walked over to where they have their flies and picked up a fly and said, “You will need this fly, and I would suggest you take a few in different sizes”.  It was a size 10 and 12 parachute kicking hopper with skinny yellow rubber legs. Bill then said,  “There is a lake near the junction of Canyon and Norris called Cascade Lake.  I suggest you park at the Cascade Lake picnic parking area and start the trail from there. It’s the shortest distance to the lake and it’s about a 2.5 mile hike. There are three access points to hop on the trail, yet I prefer that picnic area.  It is a nice and easy trail to walk and popular with hikers and unfortunately Grizzlies, so do be aware and take your bear spray.”

I just smiled and stared at him in awe, as I just knew in my heart, that this was a gift from the Universe, and I was finally going to finally catch a Grayling.  My adventures so far on my 5-week journey had been so magical that even though I was 2-weeks into my trip that the magic was just going to continue.   I was on ‘Cloud 9’ the rest of the day.  We had a great day of sales, and at the end of the day we all were so thrilled, that we happily agreed to do it again next year.  It was my first “Trunk Show” and was very successful with little advertising.    I then decided I want to add a few more for next year’s travels to Yellowstone and back. 

The following day I headed out early, as I often do when I travel alone.  I really do enjoy traveling by myself.   I don’t have to work around anyone else’s schedule, snoring, late night TV viewing nor bathroom sharing…… LOL!  I prefer to get on the road between 6 -7AM.  I never watch TV in the hotels and often in bed by 9-10pm.  The next day was going to be a long day of driving to Billings MT from Colorado Springs.  The plan was to stop for the night, before I drive through the beautiful Beartooth Highway Mountain pass the following morning. 

 I got settled in that night and double checked the weather forecast for the next day and touched base with my son.  The forecast was looking beautiful for my drive through the Beartooth Mountains. Intention was to fish and drive yet arrive at my son’s place before dark.

Yes, I am the fortunate mother whom has a son who lives and works full-time in Yellowstone as a Government employee in the utilities/water division. Twist my arm, I have to go and visit my son every year in Yellowstone National Park, of all places.   I prefer not to drive at dark with all the nocturnal critters possibly wandering around, with no streetlights to assist. 

 It was a beautiful long days’ drive through the Beartooth with dozens of little Brookies and Cutthroats caught. I found some new places to fish, which was so picturesque, that any fish being caught there would be a bonus.    

It was 8pm when I arrived at my son’s place and joined in on the casual outdoor party.  I grabbed a beer and something to eat. It had been a long day so only stayed at the party for 2 hours. Feeling anxious to go to Cascade lake the following morning, I went straight to bed. 

My son shared it would take about an hour to drive to the junction of Canyon and Norris and to take a left where you see a gas station on the corner and the picnic spot is just a short distance down on the left. I found it pretty quickly and got all geared up and started the hike in. It took almost another hour to get to the lake.  Suffice to say, by the time you start fishing, you have put in quite a morning already.  The terrain is pretty level after the first little stretch down hill, so just about anyone could do this hike.  Yet keep in mind I am 56 years old and of average physical condition and I live at 600 ft elevation and this area is at 8000 ft.  So yes, I did stop about 3 times to catch my breath for a minute.  There are 7 little ‘bridges’ you have to walk over which gives you the option of getting your feet wet or crossing the log bridge.    I learned later it was Cascade Creek of which meanders the trail to the lake. 

One of 7 ‘bridges’ you cross along The Cascade Lake Trail

I was better than halfway to the lake and a lady was walking towards me and saw my gear and obviously knew I planned on fishing.  She said, “Oh you will have a great day of fishing. They are jumping like crazy out there!”   I smiled and said, “Thank You!”  While I am walking along, I get this vision in my head of the last time I saw fish jumping like crazy.  It was not a fond memory.  I was a kid with my father and a friend in Tennessee.  We rented a simple rowboat to go fishing, at this one particular lake they read about that was supposed to be great for fishing.  We rowed and rowed and fished and fished and caught zippo!  They were jumping like crazy and we just couldn’t figure out why they weren’t biting our worms.  If I only knew then what I know now……If only I was flyfishing then……what a hatch they were feasting on….

About 10 minutes after my quick conversation with the lady hiker, I walked into this big open meadow and could see the lake in the distance.  It was surrounded with pine trees in the background and it was so serenely beautiful.  I saw a few other anglers scattered around the edge and a few hikers.   I stood in awe of what the lady had shared with me about all the fish jumping.  They were literally jumping all over, but I noticed it was best to wade in a bit, to reach them better.

As I approached the shores edge, I noticed it was quite shallow for at least 25 ft so I found an easy access spot and walked in the water.  It wasn’t that cold and was quite comfy for a wet wade.   As I was slowly working my way in, I noticed the lake bottom felt like thick muck in some areas.  I learned quickly where to stand to avoid getting stuck in the mud.  I noticed it was 9:30am so I wasted no time at getting my fly in the water.    It was amazing to see all these fish jumping all around me. I wished I had taken a picture or a video of what I was experiencing.

 I casted into the chaos of the jumping fish and got a hit right away.  Missed him but as I was stripping in, another went for it and I hooked him.  It was a 12” Yellowstone Cutthroat.  Such a beautiful species!   

The fishing was on fire! I was catching fish on about every other cast, and many times 5 in a row.  In about 3.5 hours, I landed about 35 Yellowstone Cutthroats ranging from 8” to 15”.  I don’t normally count pass 12, as I loose count, but that day I would try my best to keep track, out of my own curiosity.  It was a truly magical day, but no Grayling were caught.   

 Many anglers there were talking about this lake having Grayling and that was why they were there.  I was among others pursuing the infamous Grayling.   I shared the type of fly I was using with a few anglers as they were noticing I was catching fish left and right. A few spoke up and asked me what fly I was using as I was catching so many. While they didn’t have this  particular hopper, they had other small hoppers and it started working for them.  I was missing about the same amount as I was catching too.  It felt like a dream as it was such a great day of fishing in a beautiful and magical place with what appeared to me the magic fly. 

My largest Yellowstone Cutthroat out of Cascade Lake

I got out at one point and started talking with another angler.  He said he fishes this lake a lot and said the Grayling tend to hang out a bit more in the center section of the lake and he uses a little nymph and a strike indicator.   I watched him catch 2 Grayling in 15 minutes and assisted in netting one of them. At this point, I just knew I was eventually going to catch one.

 The fishing really slowed down by 1 pm and I noticed other anglers had come and gone over the 3.5 hours.   I started my hike back to the car, feeling grateful for an amazing day of fishing.  Feeling geeked to return and try my luck again for a Grayling I started counting all the so called ‘bridges’ I had to cross on my hike back to pass the time, while constantly looking around for bear.

I was approaching my car and noticed it was the last car in the whole picnic area.   A ranger was waiting and asked me how my day went.   I shared with him about my most fabulous day. When I came up for air, he smiled and said he was happy I had a great day, and as soon as I leave, they will be putting the blockade up and shutting down the picnic area for a few days. He said there has been a lot of bear activity here and the only way to drive the bears away is closing the picnic area down for a little while, so they can move on.   I was somewhat surprised but understood. He shared the next entrance just down the road is where I can park if I chose to come back.   I recalled that there were 3 access points to Cascade Lake, and grateful that I could still go back.   Once I got all my gear packed away, I sat down in the driver’s seat and let out a big exhale.  I was tired but also excited.  Drank more water and had a granola bar and drove back to my son’s place.  I shared with him of my glorious day of fishing and texted my husband and talked this place up like it was a magical dream. 

The following morning, I was so sore, that I chose not to go back and to give my body a break for the day.  I tried numerous places in and out of the park and got completely skunked.  Some were familiar spots and others were new, but I only saw a handful of fish and no takers. A very frustrating day when the day before was incredible fishing.   I truly hate being skunked and was adamant I was going back to Cascade Lake because I knew there was plenty of good fishing there and I still needed to catch my Grayling.

The next morning, I felt better and got up at 5:30am, made my latte and a nice breakfast, packed my cooler and hopped in the car for the hour drive.  It is such a beautiful drive in the early morning through the Old Faithful region with all the thermal hot springs steaming in the cool brisk chilly morning air.

I arrived in the small parking lot to Cascade Lake and noticed two young anglers were all rigged up and locking up their truck and heading out on the trail. I got out and rigged in about 10 minutes and started hiking in.  It was a comforting feeling that those guys were slightly ahead of me because of learning of the recent Grizzly sightings. There is a fresh post on the sign, at the head of the trail, forewarning everyone of recent sightings of a Mother Bear and her cub. I remembered to make noise and looked around me in all directions frequently.  I learned later that day that those 2 guys had a grizzly cross their path.  They said it looked at them as it stood on the path about 100 ft in front of them, yet it just continued on its merry way.  I wished in some ways to have seen it, yet also grateful I didn’t.  It’s a mixed bag of feelings, if you know what I mean.

I walked into the water at the same spot as the other day and was greeted by dozens of jumping fish once again.  I started catching fish immediately and I started my counting.  It felt like a dream!  I caught a doozy of a Cutthroat that I just had to get a photo.  Those darns trout are so slippery and hard to photograph when fishing alone. 

One of my Graylings I caught at Cascade Lake

About an hour into my day, I was still catching and releasing left and right and then as I was stripping in, I saw I had finally hooked a Graying.  I was so excited I shouted out, “I got a Grayling!”  I got a few congratulations from the other anglers near me, as they all were there for the same reason, and a few had already caught one that day.   I tried to take a snapshot of my first one, but it slipped out of my hand.  I was ticked, yet the optimistic side of me said I would still catch another for that photo opt.  I ended up catching 6 Graylings that day and about 44 Cutthroats.  Yes, I had a 50 fish day in 3.5 hours.  It was one of those Top 10 days of my life feelings.

One of the few Graylings caught at Cascade Lake

The next day I had to go to Bozeman for the FFI Fly Fishing Show and work my booth for 3 days.  I picked up my husband at the airport and we wrapped up the working weekend and headed back down to Yellowstone.

 The very next morning we got up early and got our coffee, breakfast and coolers packed and started our hour drive to the Cascade Lake parking lot.  My husband had been hearing about all these fish I had caught and the Graylings for days on end.  We hiked about an hour to the lake, and as soon as I got to the lakes edge, I noticed there were only a handful of fish jumping. Compared to what I had experienced the week before, I was a bit concerned to say the least.  We started fishing and it took a while to get our first fish.   We finally caught a few, but it wasn’t’ anything like what it was the week before.  I suggested we work our way counterclockwise around the lake to see if it would improve.  I recalled seeing anglers catching from all around the perimeter the week before.  We fished for 3.5 to 4 hours and only caught about 15 fish each and no Graylings.

They were starting to refuse my magic fly.  We tried a few others and got a few but it was starting to become a guessing a game at what they wanted.  So many refusals.   My husband was teasing me that I trained them all last week to not go after this fly anymore.  While we caught a number of fish that anyone else would be thrilled to catch in a short time frame, I was comparing it to my 35 to 50 fish days, so it still felt like a rough day of fishing to me. 

We returned to the lake the following 2 days and our luck improved yet nothing like the days I had the week before.  They were biting on the magic fly again for only the first hour then snubbed their noses at it.  We kept trying different flies and still were catching fish, so I was a bit relieved. 

This hike in and out was a bit more grueling to my husband as he had just flown out here and hadn’t had time to acclimate to the 8000 ft elevation.  While he wanted to go back one more time, he was feeling some sore muscles from the past two days and so we took a day off.  We didn’t even fish that day.  We became tourists and saw a few other things within the park that we hadn’t seen yet. 

 It was a Friday and our last chance to fish Cascade Lake together. We were driving to Billings through the Beartooth Highway pass on Saturday to fish and he was catching a flight home Sunday morning.  I was returning to Yellowstone to fish for another week before I had a show to do the following Saturday.   Bob grumbled at getting up so early to get there in time to catch the hatch, yet he went because of my new addiction to this place and our love of fly fishing.  It wasn’t as good of a day and we only caught about 7 each. The hatch had shifted to an October Caddis but we weren’t prepared for them. We also saw a Calibaetis Mayfly hatch.

  A pair of loons entertained us everyday.  The beauty and the scenery with the wildlife is part of the reason we fly fish.  Every day we saw the wildflowers scattered about the trail and many varieties of butterflies and dragonflies.  There was a crow or raven that was always squawking in the woods behind us.  We saw deer, elk, bison and moose but luckily no bears.

Young Moose along the ridge on the Cascade Lake Trail
A female elk and her calf along the Cascade Lake Trail

My husband and I fished it 4 times together and he landed 6 Graylings and I fished it a total of 9 times over a 2-week period and landed 8 Graylings.  I had been there so many times that I witnessed the changes in the feeding patterns of the fish with the different insects hatching.  The last day I went out I fished for 4 hours and only caught 1 small Cutthroat. It was on a small foam hopper pattern given to me by a teenager that was having some luck with this fly pattern. He and his father were there for the same reason as nearly everyone else; to catch a Grayling! His fly was something like what I use back home for bluegills.  I counted the so-called ‘bridges’ on my walk back.  You usually had a choice if you wanted to test your balance or walk through the shallow puddles.  It also helped pass the time and let you know about how much longer you had to walk.

I shared my experience with so many friends and people I have met that love to fish.  That is why I chose to share it all with you.  Some will question why I would share with everybody.  The truth is I love adventure and love to fish and want more people to experience the same.  It is a public place and so why keep it a secret. 

  • Are you able to get to Yellowstone National Park?
  • Are you willing to hike back in 2.5 miles at 8000 ft elevation?
  • Are you afraid of crossing paths with a bear in this bear active area?
  • Do you have the magic fly?
  • Are you able to be there in mid-to late July when all this magic took place?

Those are the 5 requirements to having a day like me.  If you can meet them, then you deserve to have an awesome day at Cascade Lake in Yellowstone National Park.