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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — The weather we’d been warned about showed up when we stopped at Fountain Flat Drive on Saturday — wind, sideways snow, little evidence of the sun’s existence. No wonder the parking lot was mostly empty.

Then again, it’s what we expected. My father and I had come to Yellowstone to savor the last 48 hours of the fishing season, which always closes on the first Sunday in November, when the region is on the brink of winter. Bad weather is almost a given.

All week, I’d been watching the forecast, which called for rain and snow and temperatures in the 40s on Saturday. At the gate, the attendant warned us that the road between Old Faithful and West Thumb was closing that afternoon, and that other closures were possible.

She was right. Park officials wound up closing the interior roads and all but one entrance that night, a day earlier than scheduled. We wouldn’t find that out for several hours, though, and we were willing to ignore the threat of dicey conditions for the many upsides of fishing the park late in the year.

West Entrance, Yellowstone

The west entrance to Yellowstone National Park sits closed on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021

Fall in Yellowstone means fewer people, and there are plenty of non-angling visitors who take advantage of that. We saw bicyclists taking a last ride through the park and helped some first-timers find their way to Old Faithful.

It also means the arrival of some of the park’s most interesting fishing opportunities. Massive lake trout are spawning in the shallows of some lakes. Other big fish are moving out of lakes and into places like the Lewis and Madison rivers. Mayflies are still hatching on the Firehole River.

And there’s something nice about marking the end of the season in the park, especially after a hot and dry summer. This summer, the park ordered afternoon and evening fishing closures from late July to late August. It was the first closure of its kind in more than a decade, said Todd Koel, Yellowstone’s top fisheries biologist.

Still, there were a lot of people fishing in the park all summer long, Koel said. As the temperatures drop, the crowds thin. Fishing pressure drops and those who do come find a quieter scene.

“It’s a treasure,” Koel said.

John Juracek, an angler and photographer who lives in West Yellowstone, said fall fishing draws a different crowd than the rest of the season.

“I don’t want to say they’re more hardcore — there’s a different mentality,” Juracek said. “A willingness to tolerate the conditions and the fact that the fishing might be iffy.”

My father and I started Saturday on the Madison, looking for big fish running up from Hebgen Lake. He had a couple of fish eat a nymph but didn’t land them.

I missed one that ate a soft hackle, and I spotted an 18-inch fish hugging the river bottom right in front of me. Seeing one isn’t as good as hooking one, but it’s close.

Firehole River, Yellowstone

The Firehole River near Midway Geyser Basin. 

After a couple of hours we dispensed with big fish dreams and headed to the Firehole to look for rising fish. That’s how we ended up making coffee in the wind at Fountain Flat Drive. The river cuts through an open meadow a couple hundred yards from the parking lot. We decided we needed a little protection from the wind, or at least a shorter walk back to the car.

A turnout a few miles down the road worked fine. Fish rose to mayflies there, plucking them from the surface.

Turns out they were pretty good at telling the difference between real and fake, however. One fish ate an olive soft hackle I tried but spat the hook long before I could do anything about it.

The snow and the rain kept falling, and the wind gusted. After a few hours, we headed back to West Yellowstone, where we were staying.

Sunday morning, our cars were covered in snow. Knowing it was closed, I drove over to the gate, just to see what it looked like. Barriers blocked any incoming traffic. A traffic sign flashed the message that the roads were closing at 7 p.m. on Nov. 6, even though that was more than 12 hours ago. Beyond the entrance station, the tree-lined road collected its first layer of snow.

Outside the park, along U.S. Highway 191, cars were parked at a few pullouts where anglers can walk to the Madison River, including parts that are inside the park.

It was still snowing, and it was less than 40 degrees out. And there was still time left in the park’s fishing season, at least for those willing to tolerate the conditions.

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Michael Wright is the Chronicle’s managing editor. He can be reached at or at 582-2638.

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