Yellowstone National Park 5 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing Heart Lake in Yellowstone National Park

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

October 6, 2019

Heart Lake in Yellowstone National Park

Looking to get away from the crowds and do some fly fishing in pristine natural solitude? Heart Lake is one of the best places to spend time in virtually untouched pastoral beauty in all Yellowstone National Park.

Tucked away in the southeastern corner of the park, Heart Lake is a massive 2,000 acre lake resting at the foot of the mighty Mount Sheridan.

Visits to Heart Lake typically require at least one overnight stay, but the trek there and back is easy enough even for inexperienced hikers.

For low fishing pressure and some solitary time in the virtually untouched Heart Lake Geyser Basin, be sure to pay Heart Lake a visit.

About Heart Lake

Fly Fishing for native cutthroat in Heart Lake of Yellowstone National Park

There are few bodies of water more ideal for trout fishing than Heart Lake. Thanks to its high elevation (just shy of 7,500 feet), the waters of the lake are clear and cold almost all season long.

Additionally, as part of the Snake River drainage, the inlet is teeming with cutthroats and other species of trout departing or returning for spawning in June and July. As if this were not enough good news, the lake also makes up the headwaters of the Heart River, and the outlet also sees plenty of traffic from the local cutthroats throughout the season, too.

The promise of excellent fishing conditions isn’t the only reason to head out to Heart Lake either though. The trail to reach the lake is an easy hike for anyone to make in a day or so, and there are plenty of primitive campgrounds where you can pitch your tent and bivouac for the night.

An overnight stay makes it much easier to take advantage of the frigid lake water along the shoreline before the sun warms the shallows and drives the fish further out later in the day.

Any angler visiting Yellowstone National Park needs to make the trip out to Heart Lake for at least a day, as it presents a fishing experience unique to the southeastern region of the park.

Heart Lake Fishing and Campsite Map

map of fishing access sites on Heart Lake in Yellowstone National Park

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish Heart Lake

You’ll find the trailhead to Heart Lake near the southern entrance to Yellowstone off of West Thumb Road. You’ll wind your way along a trail that takes the better part of a day to cover, and if you aren’t acclimated to the high altitude it may take longer. Once you arrive at the lake, make your way along the lakeshore to the northwestern side toward Witch Creek.

The creek drains from the hot springs and the Heart Lake Geyser further upstream, but the water is plenty cold enough to make for happy trout here. If they aren’t striking in the northwestern corner of Heart Lake, follow the lakeshore east past Witch Creek or southwest from the mouth of the creek, you should find plenty of early morning sippers feeding on the first flies and insects of the day.

Not getting much action near Witch Creek? Keep following the eastern shore south toward the mouth of Beaver Creek, then further south to where the Heart River begins in the southeast corner of the lake. Here you will find trout making their way in and out of the lake, particularly during spawning runs. Keep a weather eye out for grizzly and other big predators here, as they know an easy catch when they see one, too.

Best Time to Fish Heart Lake

Right around the spawning runs in early July is the prime time of the season to visit Heart Lake. The 8 mile hike from the trailhead to the lake is generally enough to keep less determined anglers away, so there is rarely significant fishing pressure here, and more than likely you may spend your 2-3 day visit to the lake in complete solitude aside from the local wildlife and the occasional camper.

As Heart Lake is at a higher elevation, it becomes inaccessible due to snow earlier than most lakes in Yellowstone, so make sure you get there before September if at all possible.

Heart Lake Hatches and Flies

Heart Lake is rich with aquatic insects and has all the standard stillwater mayflies, caddisflies, damsels flies and dragon flies.  Callibaetis are one of the most prolific mayfly hatches and a Speckled Dun dry fly works well to imitate them. 

Terrestial insects such as ants and hoppers get blown into the lake and are on the menu too. Subsurface patterns should include leech imitations, nymph patterns and large streamers.

The lakers and cutthroats of Heart Lake are not fussy eaters since they so rarely see much fishing action.  Don’t worry too much about particular fly patterns, just about any attractor pattern will do! 

A few recommended fly patterns to have on hand include:

  • Woolly Buggers (black, tan, olive), size 4 to 8
  • Clouser Minnows, JJ Specials, Tequeelys, size 2 to 6
  • Parachute Adams, size 12 to 18
  • Elk Hair Caddis, size 14 to 16
  • Prince nymph, size 14 to 18
  • Hare’s Ear nymph, size 14 to 18

The best flies for Heart Lake are those that match the hatch. Not sure what’s hatching? Not to worry. Just put on a basic nymph pattern or an attractor dry fly, and you’ll be good to go.

Gearing Up To Fish Heart Lake

You can wade at the lake (the bottom is fairly stable), but if you do make sure you layer up and wear insulated waders. The water is extremely cold even in mid July, particularly first thing in the morning before the sun gets up in the sky.

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs at Heart Lake. For larger nymphs and streamers a 9-foot 6-wt with a sink tip fly line makes life easier. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

If you will be targeting Lake Trout, you’ll want a 7-wt rod with full sinking fly line.  The lake trout live deep in the lake and get very large.  If fact, the largest lake trout (on record) ever caught in Yellowstone was a whopping 42-pounds and came from the depths of Heart Lake.

Heart Lake Fishing Regulations

Fishing at Heart Lake opens July 1st in order to protect critical grizzly bear habitat. Standard Yellowstone National Park fishing regulations apply. Only artificial flies and lures, with barbless hooks are permitted.  All native fish including cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish must be released.  There is no harvest limit on Lake Trout.

Trip Planning Tips

The shortest hike to Heart Lake is from the southern entrance to Yellowstone National Park on the Wyoming side, so Jackson Hole will offer the nearest airport and conventional accommodations.

If you are looking to get the full Heart Lake experience, you should definitely plan on some backcountry camping for 2-3 days. The 8-mile hike is definitely worth the effort for the fishing, but not everyone can do backcountry camping and hiking either.

You can also find nearby ranches and vacation rentals around Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park that offer discounted stays, too. Bottom line, if you plan to visit Heart Lake, you are going to need to spend at least one night there, so plan accordingly.

Looking for more places to fish? Visit our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Yellowstone National Park.

Feature Image by RG Johnsson