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Yellowstone National Park Fish Species

Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout swimming in river

Fishing in Yellowstone is a popular form of visitor recreation. Novice fisherman as well as seasoned anglers from around the world are drawn to Yellowstone to dip their line in its pristine waters and experience fishing like none other. I can personally attest, there aren’t many fisheries—or fishing experiences—quite like those you’ll find in Yellowstone Park.

Yellowstone National Park is home to 11 native species of fish and 5 nonnative species of fish—plus a hybrid subspecies. Yellowstone cutthroat trout are by far the most common native fish species in the park. Popular nonnative fish popular among anglers include giant Brown, Rainbow and Brook Trout.

Native fish species
Non-native fish species

artic grayling in yellowstone park

Arctic Grayling have a sail-like dorsal fin and large scales. They have distinguishing dark spots across the front of their body.
Artic Grayling are indigenous to the headwaters of Madison and Gallatin rivers, and below the first falls in Firehole and Gibbon river. However, the introduction of non-native species, including the brown trout and brown trout, and disruption of migratory waters due to the contruction of Hebgen Dam, displaced Grayling from their native habit and nearly decimated native populations.

Grayling have been reintroduced throughout the park and healthy populations can now be found in Cascade Lake, Wolf Lake, Grebe Lake, Ice lakes and Gibbon River. Limited populations are found in Madison and Firehole rivers.

Diet

Arctic Grayling feed on true flies, caddisflies, macroinvertebrates, and small crustaceans.

Range

Arctic Grayling are found in Cascade, Grebe, Wolf, Ice lakes and Gibbon river. Limited populations are found Madison and Firehole rivers.

yellowstone cutthroat trout spawning

Yellow Cutthroat Trout exhibit the typical red line along the jaw and spots like all cutthroats. They are distinguishable by their yellow-brown coloring, gray along the back, yellow sides and variable black spotting pattern.
Yellowstone Cutthroat trout are the most prolific and wide spread indigenous trout species in Yellowstone. They play an important role in the ecosystem of the park. Many animals, including bears, otters, mink and several bird species, depend on a healthy population of Yellowstone Cutthroat trout to survive.

Although the Yellowstone Cutthroat trout is not listed as an endangered species, their population and distribution in Yellowstone Park have declined due to fishing pressure, hybridization, loss of habitat and predation by non-native fish species. Yellowstone Cutthroats are classified by the state and federal wildlife agencies as a “sensitive” species and are catch and release only.

Diet

Yellowstone Cutthroat feed on mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, small aquatic animals, as well as native insects, frogs, minnows and fish eggs.

Range

Yellowstone Cutthroat are found throughout the Yellowstone River drainage system, the Snake River, and Falls River Drainages.

westslope cutthroat trout

Westslope Cutthroat trout exhibit the characteristic red slash along the jaw and dark spots common to all cutthroat.
The Westslope Cutthroat trout was once the most plentiful and distributed cutthroat species throughout the Yellowstone region. Today, they are found in less than 5% of their original territory. Hybridization with Rainbow and Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout and competition from non-native fish species nearly wiped out Westslope Cutthroat trout populations in Yellowstone Park in the early 1900s. Today they are on the rebound. Westslope Cutthroat trout are catch and release only.

It can be challenging to the untrained eye to distinguish Westslope Cutthroats from other cutthroat species, but Westslopes often have substantially more small spots near the tail than other subspecies. They also lack spots near the pectoral fin and have unique greenish gray coloring. They are distinguishable by the presence of large, irregular spots along their sides extending toward their head. They are greenish gray or silver in color and have a crimson streak that is located just above their belly.

Diet

Westslope Cutthroat trout feed primarily on native terrestrial insects, aquatic insects and zooplankton. Westslope Cutthroat trout are smaller than Yellowstone Cutthroats and feed on smaller insects.

Range

Westslope Cutthroat trout are found in Last Chance Creek, Oxbow/Geode Creek Complex, East Fork Creek, Grayling Creek, Goose and High lakes, upper Gibbon River drainage, and Wolf and Grebe lakes region.

mountain whitefish yellowstone park

Mountain Whitefish have a slender rounded body with yellow, green or grayish coloring. They do not have spots or teeth. There are typically 10-16 inches in length.
Anglers sometimes confuse Mountain Whitefish with the more common Arctic Grayling. Mountain Whitefish have slender body with a small, pointed mouth and are found in the clean, clear clean water of Yellowstone’s deeper pools and larger rivers. They are often found in large schools during their fall-spawning runs.

Diet

Mountain Whitefish feed on invertebrates, aquatic insects and larvae found along the bottoms of rivers. They will take bait or artificial flies—although bait fishing is prohibited in Yellowstone Park.

Range

Mountain White fish in Yellowstone Park are found primarily in Heart Lake and its tributaries. They also found in Yellowstone River (below the Lower Falls), and the Lamar, Gardiner, Madison, Gibbon, Snake, and Lewis rivers.

longnose dace

The Longnose Dace has an elongated snout from which it derives its name. It is short, slender and tan in color.
The Longnose Dace is a small minnow indigenous to the rivers and backwaer streams of Yellowstone Park. They are usually found hiding behind rocks and boulders in eddies of cold, clear water. They feed on small aquatic insects and are a food source for larger fish.

The Longnose Dace derives its name from its uncharacteristically long nose. Longose Dace grow to about 3-4 inches in length, have a sleek body, and tan coloring. They are one of the few fish in Yellowstone that are also common in murky waters.

Diet

Longnose dace feed on small aquatic insects and algae found in Yellowstone water systems.

Range

Within Yellowstone National Park, Longnose Dace are primarily found in Yellowstone and Snake river drainages, as well as Yellowstone Lake.

speckled dace

Speckled Dace is small brownish gray minnow. They have a mottled pattern covering their body.
Measuring no more than 4 to 5 inches, the Speckled Dace is a species of minnow found in the Snake River and Fall River drainages of Yellow Stone Park, as well as Heart Lake. They prefer clear, clean water that is well oxygenated. The are brownish gray in color and derive their name from the speckled pattern that covers their body.

Diet

The diet of the Speckled Dace minnow includes small bottom-dwelling aquatic insects, insect larvae, zooplankton, small crustaceans and algae.

Range

The Speckled Dace is primarily found in the Snake River drainage as well as Heart Lake and Fall River drainages.

red shiner

The Redside Shiner is grayish in color with a yellowish belly. It is distinguised by a red marketing along its sides.
The Redside Shiner minnow is indigenous to the Yellowstone Snake River drainage, as well as the Fall River drainage. It is occassionally spotted in the slow moving current of Yellowstone’s streams and rivers but is more often found in lakes and ponds.

Redside Shiners grow to a maximum of 7 inches and have a life span of about 5 years. They feed on aquatic insects and serve as an important food source for larger fish including the Yellowstone Cutthroat trout.

Diet

Redside Shinner minnows feed on aquatic insects and plankton.

Range

Within Yellowstone National Park the Redside Shiner is found along the shoreline and in the tributaries of the upper Yellowstone River. It is also found in the Snake River drainage, Lewis Lake and Shoshone Lake.

Utah Chub

The Utah Chub has a black to olive green back and side. Its sides are silver to gold in color. It may exhibit a golden stripe running along its upper side.
The Utah Chub is a large minnow reaching up to 12 inches in length. It prefers slower, warmer waters to fast moving current, but can be found in both environments. They are commonly found in and around aquatic vegetation. The Utah Chub is native to the Snake River drainage in Yellowstone Park. Today it can be found in Heart Lake, Lewis Lake and the Shoshone Lake system. Utah Chub are often caught as a byproduct of trout fishing.

Diet

Utah Chub feed on aquatic plants and insects, as well as snails, crustaceans, fish eggs and smaller minnows.

Range

Found throughout Yellowstone’s Snake River drainage system with the largest populations found in Lewis, Shoshone and Heart Lakes.

longnose sucker fish

The longnose sucker is dark olive with gray sides, a light underside and fine scales. They can grow up to 20 inches and weight up to 7 lbs.
The Longnose Sucker is one of three species of sucker fish that live in Yellowstone. Longnose Sucker are indigenous to the Yellowstone River drainage and are believed to be one of the first fish species to inhabit Yellowstone Park. Today they can be found in Lamar River, Slough Creek, Garnder River and more recently Yellowstone Lake as well as the park’s upper tributaries. Longnose Sucker can live up to 25 years.

These fish are an important part of the Yellowstone ecosystem and serve as food source for other fish including Yellow cutthroat, Brown and Rainbow Trout.

Diet

Longnose Sucker feed on aquatic plants, algae, insects and small invertebrates found on the bottom of cold water creeks, rivers and lakes.

Range

Longnose Sucker were originally found in Lamar River, Gardner River and Slough Creek. They’ve recently been introduced into Yellowstone Lake and their range has expanded into the upper tributaries of Yellowstone Park.

mountain sucker fish in yellowstone park river

The Mountain Sucker is dusky or dark green in color with black specks. It has a long mouth that may be wider than its head.
The Mountain Sucker is one three sucker species that lives in Yellowstone. It can be found throughout the rivers and streams of the major drainages throughout the park.

The Mountain Sucker is typically green to dark green in color along its back and upper sides, and white along its belly. It may have mottling shaped saddles along its back. During the breeding season Mountain Suckers develop an orange to red color band along their sides. They can reach up to 9 inches in length, but rarely exceed 6 inches.

Diet

Like other sucker fish native to Yellowstone, the Mountain Sucker feeds primarily on algae, aquatic plants and invertebrates it finds along bottom of the water column.

Range

Mountain Sucker fish are found in cold, clear streams throughout the Yellowstone drainage. They are often found in the waters directly below Yellowstones major waterfalls.

utah sucker fish

The Utah Sucker is blackish along its upper sides and back with mild streaks and blotches. It’s belly is white.
The Utah Sucker is the third of three species of sucker fish indigenous to Yellowstone National park. It is also the largest, reaching up to 25 inches when full grown.

Utah Suckers typically are dark brown or black along there backs and sides with a white underbelly. They often have a faint pattern of blotches or spots along there upper sides and back. They have a noticable rosy band extending from the rear of their head. The mouth is found on the underside of the head and has the thick lips characteristic of sucker fish. They have an elongated anal fin that is placed well back.

Habitat of the Utah Sucker includes streams, rivers and lakes in seasonally warm to cold water. They tend to prefer water flowing over sand, silt or gravel substrait. They’re often found near vegetation or rocks where they can flee to escape predation.

Diet

The Utah Sucker feeds on aquatic plants and invertebrates found along the bottom of the waterways withing its range. As a larger sucker species, they will also take flies, lures and a variety of baits including worms. (Note: fishing with both organic and non-organic baits is prohibited in Yellowstone Park.)

Range

The Utah Sucker is found in Heart Lake, the Heart Lake drainage and the Snake River drainage system.

mottled sculpin

The Mottle Sculpin is tan to dark brown in color. It receives its name for the mottled pattern covering it’s body.
The Mottled Sculpin lives in the streams, rivers, lakes, and the waters below larger falls throughout Yellowstone National Park. It is one of the smaller fish species in Yellowstone typically reaching no longer than 5 inches in length. The sculpin has a relatively short lifespan of 3 years.

The sculpin is tan to brown in coloration and has a mottled pattern of speckles and spots covering its body. It has a large banded pectoral fin and a slender dorsal fin made of soft spines.

The Mottle Sculpin is an important part of the Yellowstone ecosystem and often serves as a food source for larger fish including Brook and Brown trout.

Diet

Mottled Sculpin feed on small bottom-dwelling aquatic insects, larvae, invertebrates, crustaceans and fish eggs.

Range

The Mottled Sculpin is distributed throughout Yellowstone Park. It can be found in clear streams, rivers and lakes, and prefers shallow, cold rocky waterways. Mottled Sculpin are native to the Yellowstone drainage and also inhabit Fall River, Snake River, Yellowstone River, Shoshone River and Gallatin River drainages.

brook trout in yellowstone park lake

Brook trout have light yellowish orange spots on dark skin. Their back, dorsal and tail fins have a marbled appearance. The tips of their lower fins have a bold white stripe.
Even though Brook trout carry the name “trout”, they are actually a char, more closely related to lake and bull trout than rainbow or cutthroat trout. Brook trout are extremely colorful and attractive fish, and make excellent table fare. Brook trout range from 10 to 20 inches in length, but are typically on the shorter end. They can weigh up to 15 lbs.

Brook trout were the first non-native fish species introduced to Yellowstone Park. In 1889, the then fishless Firehole River was the first body of water to be stocked with Brook trout. Today Brook trout are found throughout Yellowstones waterways, rivers, streams and lakes. The prefer clear, highly-oxygenated water and are sensitive to pollution.

Even though Brook trout are a popular sport fish for anglers, they’re considered an invasive species and certain measures have been taken to remove them from regions of Yellowstone Park. Biologists have used electrofishing to eradicate Brook trout from Soda Butte Creek and Lamar drainage to allow native Yellow cutthroat species to flourish.

Diet

Brook trout have a diet very similar to other trout. They each aquatic insects (caddisflies, mayflies, stoneflies and dipeterasns), native terrestrial insects (cricket, grasshoppers, ants), larvae, frogs, smaller fish and fish eggs. Artificial lures including rooster tails, jigs, spoons, spinners, swimbaits and flies are effective for catching Yellowstone Brook trout.

Range

Brook trout populations are found primarily above Kepler Cascades in Firehole River and Firehole tributaries including Little Firehole River, Sentinel and Iron Spring creeks. Above Osprey Falls in Gardner River drainage, Middle Creek drainage of Shoshone River and Shoshone Lake Brook trout are also plentiful.

brown trout pulled from yellowstone river

Brown trout have a characteristic forked tail. They are tan to yellow in coloring and covered with black spots along their sides and back.
The Brown trout is a European trout species that is not indigenous to North America. It is the only non-native fish species in Yellowstone that is also non-native to North America. It was introduced to Yellowstone Park in 1890 by way of Firehole River, Madison River and Gibbon River below the falls.

Brown trout are the primary fish species in the Madison River. Each year there are large runs of spawning Brown trout from Hebgen Lake outside the park to Yellowstone’s Madison river. These runs of Brown trout are extremely popular among anglers.

Although a popular game fish among anglers, the Brown trout is considered an invasive species to Yellowstone. Native cutthroat trout and Arctic grayling have declined in numbers over the years in both the Madison and Gallatin rivers due to predation and competition from Brown trout.

Brown trout are tan to yellowish in color with speckled spots along their upper sides and back. They typically have a yellow-colored belly. Their back, dorsal an adipose fins have a marbled appearance. Their lower fins are white tipped. Brown trout average beween 7 to 14 inches, but can reach over twenty inches. Large brown trout can weigh in at 15 to 20 lbs.

Diet

Brown trout in Yellowstone Park feed on native insects (terrestrial and aquatic), crustaceans, crayfish, smaller fish, frogs and mollusks. They’ve also been known to eat birds and mice that venture too close to the water. Brown trout will also take artificial lures and flies.

Range

Brown trout can be found throughout Yellowstone Park rivers and drainages. They occur in Firehole River, Madison River, Gibbon River, Yellowstone River below Knowles Falls, Gardner River below Osprey Falls, Middle Creek, and Shoshone and Gallatin River tributaries. Brown trout are absent from Fall River and Bechler River drainages in the southwest region of Yellowstone.

lake trouth in yellowstone lake

Lake trout have dark grayish green or olive colored bodies with white spots. The have a forked tale with white around the edges of their fins.
Lake trout is an non-native species that was introduced to Yellowstone Park in 1890. They were originally stocked in Lewis and Shoshone lakes but are now found in other Yellowstone waterways including Yellowstone Lake. Although popular among anglers, Lake trout is an invasive species that has had a negative impact on native fish species such as the Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Lake trout are larger than Yellowstone’s other trout species and live in deeper pools and lakes, rather than shallow tributaries.

An average adult Lake trout will range between 24-36 inches and weight between 15-40 lbs—substantially larger than the average cutthroat. In order to lessen the impact of Lake trout on native cutthroat populations, efforts continue to reduce the number of Lake trout in Yellowstone Lake. Anglers are required to harvest any Lake trout they catch, and it is illegal to release live Lake trout back into Yellowstone lake or its tributaries. As Lake trout populations decline, cutthroat populations rebound.

Diet

Lake trout are predatory fish. About 30% of their diet consists of cutthroat trout. They are voracious feeders and can consume a fish half their size. Anglers can catch Lake trout using a variety of artificial lures, spoons, spinners and flies.

Range

Within Yellowstone National Park, Lake trout are found primarily in Lewis, Heart, Shoshone and Yellowstone lakes. There have been continued efforts to reduce the population of Lake trout in Yellowstone lake in order to improve native fish populations.

lake chub

The Lake Chub is a small minnow that averages 4-7 inches in length. It is typically silver or blueish gray to olive-brown in color.
Although native to Yellowstone river drainages in Montana and Wyoming, the lake chub is a non-native species to Yellowstone Park. As there are no waterways connecting Yellowstone Park to their native breeding grounds in Montana and Wyoming, it is believed Lake Chub were introduced to Yellowstone Park by anglers who used them for fish bait.

Lake Chub are often found in cold water lakes and streams. They are also found in rivers, but prefer smaller creeks. Within Yellowstone Park, Lake Chub are found in Slough Creek.

Lake Chub average between 4 and 7 inches in length and are silvery to blueish gray/brown in color. They have a distinct barbel located above each corner of the mouth.

Diet

The diet of Lake Chub consists of aquatic insects, insect larvae, native terrestrial insects, and algae. Lake CHUB will occassionally feed on smaller minnows. Larger fish, including cutthroat trout, will feed on Lake chub when the opportunity is presented.

Range

Withing Yellowstone Park, Lake Chub are found primarily in the Slough Creek drainage. They are also found in Yellowstone Lake to a lesser degree.

rainbow trout

Rainbow trout have a silvery to blue-green body with black spots along the head and back. They have a distinguishing red band along their side.
While a popular game fish, Rainbow trout are non-native to Yellowstone Park and compete with indigenous fish species, including the Yellowstone Cutthroat trout and Westlope cutthroat trout. Between 1890 and 1923, Rainbow trout were introduced to many of Yellowstone’s lakes and waterways including Gibbon and Firehole rivers. Today there are strong populations of Rainbow trout in Gibbon, Firehole, and Lamar Rivers. A limited number of Rainbows can be found in Trout Lake. Rainbow trout tend to be more abundant on the Western side of Yellowstone Park.

Diet

Rainbow trout feed on a variety of aquatic insects, native terrestial insects, crustaceans, small minnows, mollusks and worms. Rainbows will take a variety of artifical lures and flys. Fly fishing is the most common technique for catching Rainbows in Yellowstone National Park.

Range

Rainbow trout are found throughout Yellowstone Park waters due to historic stocking of the fish. However, they are not found in Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone River (above the Upper Falls) or the Snake River. There are substantial populations of Rainbow trout below Yellowstone Falls, in upper Slough Creek, Firehole River, Lamar River and Gibbon River.

cutbow rainbow-cutthroat trout hybrid

Rainbow-Cutthroat hybrids (aka “Cutbows”) have characteristics consistent with both species.
In waters where Rainbow and Cutthroat trout cohabitate interbreeding and hybridization may occur. A Rainbow-Cutthroat trout hybrid is referred to as a “Cutbow”. This hybrid fish is found in several waterways throughout Yellowstone Park, with especially high concentrations in Gallatin River.

Cutbows share many of the characteristics of both Rainbow and Cutthroat trout. Rainbow-Cutthroat hybrids lack the yellow color of the Cutthroat trout and have sides similar in color and pattern to those of a Rainbow trout. A red slash in the lower part of the gill clearly distinguishes the Cutbow from either the Cuttroat or Rainbow trout.

Cutbows have the spirit of Rainbow trout and tend to put up a bit of a fight when they’re hooked.

Diet

Cutbows have a diet similar to that of both Rainbow and Cutthroat trout. Cutbows feed on aquatic insects, terrestial insects, small minnows, snails and crustaceans.

Range

Rainbow-Cutthroat hybrids may occur anywhere where both Rainbow and Cutthroat trout are present. Populations of Cutbows exist in the Bechler, Gallatin, Gardner, Falls, Slough Creek and Lamar river drainages, as well as Yellowstone River below the Upper Falls.

Brian Walters is an avid angler that has been fishing since he was old enough to pick up a rod. With over 40 years of experience fishing all over the country for.... read more
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