A Fisherman's Guide to the Beartooth

Beartooth Scenic Byway
Photo by Sean Jansen

The drive out of Red Lodge does nothing but go up. With each mile gained in elevation, the oxygen deprivation distracts your driving as does the granite splendor you behold at every turn. Even in July the snow stays on the ground at this elevation and skiers, sunny skies, swaying wildflowers, and tourists alike indulge in this rugged high beauty and marvel at the ingenuity of the highway. The construction happens to slither its way by many bodies of water, both in the forms of creeks and lakes. Few think to cast at 10,000 feet, but for those who see potential in a landscape mostly frozen nine months a year, here is a fly fisherman’s guide to the Beartooth Highway.

Fishing creek
Photo by Sean Jansen


The first fishing off the highway presents itself a few miles from Red Lodge. Rock Creek cascades down from the Beartooth Plateau, a large and high backcountry plateau east of the highway. A small creek, making it hardly as popular as other fisheries in Montana, but that’s the point. An angler can cast without the worry of meeting another angler and find small to medium-sized trout in the pools. The fishery can be challenging as it isn’t the easiest. Most of your effort will lead to a fish that won’t break the ruler, but the kaleidoscope of color that each trout brought to hand is worthy of a few casts. A night camping near the creek is possible at the many tent sites along its banks, and can be a fun experience both for the solo angler and the angling family.

Fish in the net
Photo by Sean Jansen


Before the next fishable body of water from the highway, a full disclaimer needs to be addressed: the highway isn’t solely in Montana, as it shares much of its pavement with Wyoming. Though the highway does curve back into Montana, leading down to Cooke City and into Yellowstone National Park, both a Montana and Wyoming fishing license are required to fish this highway. That being said, the fishing is equally as good no matter where you cast and Gardner Lake is just over the border. 

A large dirt turnout on the eastern side of the highway gives you the first view and access of the lake. Though it will take a fun and easy hike down to the shores of the lake, the hike back up at nearly 10,000 feet of elevation will be a different story. Once in the basin, the casting will be very distracting with the surreal beauty that surrounds you; wildflowers paint the alpine tundra, marmot scurry about, and trout splash your fly while you miss the hook set gazing at the snow-lined peak just up from shore. One can fish the shores of this somewhat small lake and circle it chasing trout sipping dry flies, or the adventurous angler can continue down trail and follow the ten-mile or so loop of the Beartooth Loop Trail.

Photo by Sean Jansen


Shortly after Gardner Lake is Beartooth Pass. With a large dirt turnout and an elevation sign marking 10,947 feet. Stepping out of the car and taking in the view of the infamous Bear’s Tooth and seeing the numerous lakes that dot the landscape really paint the possibility of what the fishing can behold on the highway and beyond. Meandering down the pass, the next body of water is Island Lake. A short drive off highway on a paved road leads you to the boat ramp and the campground. The fishing on this lake can be both incredible and annoying. Fish often swirl the surface in the summer months all day but don’t manage to hit your fly. All the while, mosquitoes attack in organized form. But when things do line up, an angler has the opportunity of catching multiple species of trout in an alpine setting and with minimal trees for easy casting.

Having a small boat or kayak is an upgrade from the handicap of shore and can give access to remote stretches many anglers don’t get to. It also allows the angler to fish much deeper water where larger fish typically hide. Beyond the depths, the outflow on the opposite side of the lake coming down from Night Lake holds trout sitting at the creek mouth sipping on anything that comes floating by.

Fishing on the beartooth
Photo by Sean Jansen


On the way out of Island Lake, one must stop at Top of the World Store. It’s a great place to pick up a cold refreshment or any last minute items if you are camping. It also has trinkets and souvenirs for anyone who wants a memoir or bumper sticker from their venture on the pass. Lastly, it is also a great place to pick up a Wyoming fishing license if you haven’t already.

Just behind the store is Little Bear Creek. Though the name is somewhat appropriate for its size and the necessity to carry bear spray anywhere you fish off the highway, it does hold numerous cutthroat and brook trout for the angler that values quantity over quality. On nearly every cast in late summer, an eager trout will hit any type of popular dry fly that lands in the slow-moving pools. There is easy access directly off the highway or you can hike and follow the stream to corners of un-fished water. The creek does eventually flow to the next major and most popular lake of the highway.

Photo by Sean Jansen


Another turn off the highway on a paved road leads you to the lake, picnic area, and campground. A highlight for many passing anglers and visitors is this lake for its scenic and reflective vista of Beartooth Butte. Below it lies a mosquito-laden lake that hosts a very healthy population of trout. Anywhere on the lake can be successful for the fly fisherman, but near the inflow of Little Bear Creek and the outflow cascading down out of the lake are the hot spots with trout eagerly waiting for a presentation of any popular dry fly or slowly stripped streamer.

Bear in the Beartooth
Photo by Sean Jansen


Shortly after Beartooth Lake, the road descends sharply. On the west side of the highway is a quick pull off where a view of Pilot and Index Peaks are clear. The sharp and jagged peaks demand the viewer's attention. However, at their footsteps flows a trout-filled stream with fish at every pullout.The Clark’s Fork screams down from the high alpine across the border in Montana and flows southeast then north into the famed Yellowstone River. Named after William Clark from the Lewis and Clark expedition, it is only appropriate that the angler devotes some time casting on this incredible fishery. Much lower in elevation, the river meanders its way through coniferous forest creating pockets, pools and riffles. Any skill-level of angler can luck into a fish of a lifetime, complete with amazing scenery to enhance the inevitable photograph thereof.

Fishing gear
Photo by Sean Jansen


For the most part, the fish will barely break the ruler stick in size. That being said, a three to five weight rod will be more than enough. The same weighted reel with a floating line are perfect for the alpine lakes and steams. Anything from 7x to 5x tippet are a must for the crystal clear water to help disguise the fly. The flies will vary depend oning on if you want to fish sub-surface or with dry flies. For steamers and nymphs, small wooly buggers and leeches will work great along with bead heads, scuds, san juan worms, and callibaetis. For dry flies, the popular elk hair caddis, grasshoppers, beetles, ants, and mosquitoes will be productive.

Fish in shallows
Photo by Sean Jansen


Timing is also everything. The pass typically opens Memorial Day and closes in mid October due to snow. But at first opening, everything will still be frozen. Towards the end of the season, the weather can swoop in without warning. So late June through late August are the most consistent with thawed lakes, good weather, and hungry fish. 

The list on this guide just begins to cover what is fishable on this highway. Mentioned are the most accessible and reliable for the angler to have a full day with a few trout at hand. With half a million acres of national forest and miles upon miles of trail all adjacent to many creeks and lakes boasting numerous species of fish, the po - tential is endless. The dangers are apparent and the effort to get there can seem exhaust - ing with high altitude and unpredictable weather. Ultimately, even with the short season blocking this fishery, it makes any angler to salivate nine months of the year, hoping and praying the ice melts in time to cast again soon in this rugged and commanding alpine environment.

Beartooth beautiful view
Photo by Sean Jansen

Leave a Comment Here

wayne C hutchinson (not verified) , Thu, 03/18/2021 - 23:24
visited Montana and wyoming many times. been over beartooth twice and plan on doing so this year. thanks for the fishing tips
Ron Jobbes (not verified) , Mon, 08/23/2021 - 14:46
My dads roots start in Red Lodge. Grandma and Grandpa met at Fox Hall in Roberts. and about 30 years later I was born in Butte.
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