Snake River Fly Fishing

While the Snake River as it flows through Jackson Hole is normally called “the Snake” it is more properly referred to as the South Fork of the Snake River, which headwaters deep in Yellowstone National Park. After flowing from Yellowstone, through Jackson Hole and the subsequent Snake River Canyon, it eventually enters Palisades Reservoir, which straddles the Wyoming/Idaho border.

Where it exits the Palisades Dam (located in Idaho) locals refer to this section of river as the “South Fork”. In other words, though the entire river is technically the South Fork of the Snake River, the section upstream from Palisades Reservoir is called the “Snake” and the section downstream of Palisades Reservoir is called the “South Fork”. This distinction confuses many visitors, but serves the purpose of differentiating the two sections of river which are somewhat different in character. This article will describe the section immediately upstream from Palisades Reservoir (i.e. Alpine) on up to the Jackson Lake Dam, located in Grand Teton National Park.

Throughout this entire course, the Snake River is a relatively large and swift river. While wade fishing is certainly possible, and done all the time, the preferred method for fly fishing is via driftboats. Driftboats provide access to much more of the river than would otherwise be possible on foot.

An Anglers Impression

The tendency to take my eyes off the tiny dry fly that floated along the edges of the Snake River was intense as we rounded a bend and the Grand Tetons sprang into view. It seemed uncanny that just when I was distracted, a cutthroat trout would rise from the cold clear water and make a pass at the grasshopper imitation. I would immediately raise my five-weight fly rod high in an attempt to set the hook, and in most cases by the time I reacted, the trout had tasted and rejected the offering.

Luckily, as the day progressed, I would develop the instantaneous response necessary to plant the barbless hook in wild trout’s jaw. This was the first week of a trip to the mountains near Jackson, Wyoming, and my first float trip on one of this nation’s premiere trout streams.

We began the day at Moose Junction near the entrance to the Grand Teton National Park, where we met our guide, Lucas Donaldson, at Snake River Outfitters. We had planned the trip two days earlier with Will Dornan, the proprietor of the shop. Dornan’s is a familiar name to visitors to the Park. His family and their employees have been serving residents and visitors to northwestern Wyoming for fifty-six years. Donaldson, our guide, had grown up in nearby Kelly and had been fishing the streams and rivers in this Park for twenty years. After loading the drift boat with lunches, and picking the flies for the trip, we headed towards the northern boundary of the Park and launched the drift boat at Pacific Creek Landing. There are several stretches of the river that can be floated in the Park and the one we would float today, Pacific Creek to Deadman’s Bar, was one of the most scenic. We had the option to float several other stretches of the river, but let our guide make the final decision based on conditions and local knowledge. That choice would prove to be auspicious.

The Snake River is one of the wildest and most scenic in North America. While there are more prolific bodies of water, the Snake holds some impressive numbers of native cutthroat trout. I particularly like fishing for cutthroat because they take a dry fly so readily. They are challenging for a saltwater angler because they can hit a fly, determine that it’s a fake, and release it extremely fast. The day started off slow as is often the case with western trout. However, by ten o’clock I was getting, and missing, strike after strike. Soon I got into the rhythm and began connecting with the rising trout. The day warmed into the high 70’s and Donaldson rowed the boat expertly back and forth across the swiftly flowing river, pointing out grassy banks and sunken logs where he knew fish were lying. I was impressed with his extensive knowledge of the river as we began to take beautiful trout to 16″ with regularity.

 

Fine-spotted Snake River Cutthroat Trout

As you may already know, the Snake River is home to a unique subspecies of cutthroat trout known as the Fine-spotted Snake River Cutthroat Trout. This outstanding game fish is indigenous to the Snake River drainage and relies totally on natural reproduction. Having a wild trout fishery with indigenous trout is not something we take for granted and for which we are eternally grateful. If you would like to learn more about our native cutthroats, read our article entitled Cutthroat Country.

From a fly fisherman’s perspective, one of the cutthroats most endearing qualities is its fondness for the dry fly. Large dry flies. Size 8 dries like Turck Tarantulas and hoppers are commonly used. On occasion we’ll even get to throw size 6’s and even 4’s. And don’t think you always have to dead drift your fly. A little twitch or skating action can generate explosive strikes. Like the cat that thinks it’s a dog, our Snake River Cutthroats think they’re bass.

Trout Season

Trout season on the Snake opens on April 1 and extends through October 31. Runoff typically starts around early to mid-May and can last well into July and even August in high snowpack years. That gives us about a month and a half of fishing prior to the onset of runoff. Early season fishing can be very good, but is not as consistent as post-runoff fishing.

Once the river begins to clear in late July or early August, dry fly season begins in earnest. Wulffs, Stimulators, Humpys, Trudes, Power Ants, Jay-Dave’s Hopper and Turck Tarantulas are standard fare. If streamers are your style try JJ Specials, Woolly Buggers, Muddlers, Zonkers, and Kiwi Muddlers. For nymphs, Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tails, Yuk Bugs, and Prince’s, with or without bead heads all work well.

While September is considered the single best month for fishing theDriftboat fishing on the Snake River in autumn Snake, oft times the good fishing will begin in August and extend into October.

Pacific Creek to Deadman’s Bar

The Buffalo River Meets the Snake River here. Some great runs and channels are available to fish by walking down the banks from the boat launch. The Snake is big and this is where the drift boat becomes so valuable, but a little walking will payoff. The distance from the road makes it hard to get to this water by foot but it can be a fun adventure. The willows will claim some flies but the fish are there. Pacific Creek itself can be very rewarding as well.

When the heat of the summer hits, so do the BIG terrestrials. Big hairy flies will bring up the fish. I LOVE it. Cutthroats begin to eat like bass. Twitching a huge rubber legged hopper will be a different experience. The experienced fly fisherman will often be mending their line to get that pretty dead-drift float of a mayfly when they should be skittering the bug. Often the fish will hit when you finally start to pick up the line for another cast and the bug finally moves. Ripping a hopper or stonefly across the surface is not natural for an angler who was brought up on BWO hatches, but Mr. Cutthroat will take advantage of a big unfortunate hopper every time.

In a drift boat, an experienced Snake River angler will make a down stream cast 2″ off the bank and twitch the rubberlegged Chernobyl Ant out into the river like a stone fly running on the surface. Yes, these stone flies run on the surface and make alot of disturbance on the water. The novice might throw his size 4 hopper on the bank, rip it off the rocks,and then attempt a mend in his line. Being out of control and yanking the fly around is actually the right stuff. Ripping the big fly across the water while the guide cringes is better than fishing a lifeless fly. Snake River “yellow bellies” loves big helpless flailing bugs!

This is not to say that when a PMD hatch or sally hatch is in full force that you use this technique. When the size 12 – 14 brown mayflies come on in September, we’re back to fundamentals. A good cast, 9-foot leader, 4X or 5X leader, a nice mend and good presentation are key. You know the drill. Our guides are excellent at teaching and there is no better motivation to learn to cast than when you are in a heavy hatch and the fish are chewing.

Remember when a big fish comes up- they have a big mouth. I say, let him close his mouth. Okay, think about it. Once you see him eat, you say “that’s a big fish.” Then set the hook. After you have yanked the fly away from a big fish, please come tell me. I like seeing the look in angler’s faces after the story. I should probably look in the mirror myself. We all do it.

Back to floating this stretch. Lots of snags and huge log jams make floating serious business here. The one fishing needs to hit the banks, the brushy piles, log jams, and any place that looks like cover. The one rowing must concentrate on rowing. A lot of flies can be lost putting them in tight spots where cutthroat live. Don’t worry, you can tie more this winter.

PMDs, sallys, and big Yellowstone hoppers are good flies.

Snake River, Wyoming Fishing Map
  • 2 Pages - 01/01/2022 (Publication Date) - Map the Xperience (Publisher)

Deadman’s Bar to Moose

An amazing stretch of water awaits you on this section of the river. If you are a lousy fisherman just take in the unbelievable view. I’ve lived here all my life and even on the worst day of fishing I lean back in my seat in the boat and look at the Tetons….I’m speechless. This is 9 miles of total grandeur.

The Snake River gives life to multitudes of 6 – 10″ cutthroat. Lots of 10 – 15″ cutthroat take the good spots behind a log or under the bank. But there are some really nice 18 – 20″+ in this section too. The fall is the most productive time of year for these big fish. Water flow is really reduced and the big ones take over the good feeding lanes and holes. It sure would suck being a 5″ fish in one of these holes, wouldn’t it?

Once the river clears, around mid-July or early August, the Snake river is the place to be. Walking into this section is fairly easy for anglers without a boat. Schwabacher’s Landing is a boat launch 5 miles north of Moose and you can drive to the river. You can hike the banks upstream or down all day. Wildlife such as moose, elk, eagles, and deer will be watching you cast.

Channels and logjams rule this stretch. These areas are cutthroat paradise. Cutthroats love the braided channels in this section. These channels are like little rivers and are easy to walk and wade. If you float in a drift boat you must know your stuff, and the person on the oars must pay attention! Channels end in log jams, huge tree stumps from the runoff are piled up, and overhanging logs are waiting for you. Heads up! It’s great fun to float this section but the awesome power of the Snake River must always stay in the back of your mind.

Hot summer days bring the terrestrials out. You can hear the sounds of a hopper clicking and buzzing. The bright yellow underwing flashes as they jump. Good flies are stoneflies, fall brown drakes, drywall PMD, October Caddis, and Bead heads.

Moose to Wilson Bridge/Wilson Bridge to South Park Bridge

Below Moose, the Snake becomes even more braided and runs out of the park and into private lands. There are even more log jams than on the upper river, which create good habitat for trout. For the wading angler, access can be found at above and below the bridge at Moose, around the Wilson bridge and the South Park Bridge. The dikes both above and below the Wilson bridge provide good access; one the east side of the river you can go upstream from the Wilson bridge and on the west side of the river you can go both up and downstream for a distance. Before venturing to far it is best to get more detailed information before fishing any particular area. As is true in the Deadman’s stretch, attractor dries will work fine.

South Park Bridge to Pritchard

Below the South Park bridge (the first highway bridge on the Snake south of Jackson on US 189) for a few miles the river is primarily in one channel. Although there are some tricky currents, there are no blind channels on this stretch. The highway follows the river for the entire stretch. This is one of the better stretches for someone new to this area to float, because they can’t get lost in the maze of channels. Generally the fish are smaller than in the upper stretches, but they are very abundant. Later in the season when the water drops this is a great stretch to fish because the fish population is so high. Attractor dries, such as a Red PMX, will usually be the best bet here.

Pritchard to West Table

From Astoria down the access to the river increases as it flows through Bridger-Teton National Forest. There is a little private land on the east side of the river for a short distance, but the west side is clear of private property. The character of the river changes a bit. Although it is still braided, there are less log jams and the channel is often wider than above. There are some really fine long deep runs which will produce a number of the larger trout. While attractor dries will work well, it is also suggested to have some streamers for some of the deeper structures. There is a little whitewater in some parts and it is suggested that boaters know how to operate their craft in this type of water.

West Table to Sheep Gulch

This is the well-known whitewater stretch of the Snake. In this area the Snake cuts into a fairly deep canyon. The bank access becomes limited by the sheer walls of the canyon. Floating should only be done by persons with a whitewater capable craft who know how to operate it. This is a very busy stretch with a lot of whitewater traffic during July and August, but the river traffic virtually comes to a halt in September. Parking at the takeout during the congested times can be difficult. The fishing on this stretch is very good, but different than on the rest of the river. Both dries and wets work, depending on the structure.

Fall

The Snake river is one of the most scenic fly fishing destinations on earth. The Snake starts in Yellowstone National Park and runs about 35 miles through the park before it flows into Jackson Lake. The Snake then flows from Jackson dam through Jackson Hole and eventually into Palisades Reservoir on the Wyoming/Idaho border.

Spring

The Snake gets full and muddy during the spring from the run off. In mid August the flow calms, water clears and the hatches come off. The best fishing will run from mid August through September and into October.

The Snake river, with it’s strong native cutthroat trout and excellent dry fly fishing deserves a look. Throw in the world class scenery of Yellowstone and the Tetons, and you’re in for some real blue ribbon Wyoming fly fishing.

Hatches

At least six major mayfly hatches and a wide variety of caddis hatches occur between March and November on the South Fork. Midges hatch year-round and provide excellent dry-fly fishing on the sections open for fishing during the winter. On top of that, the South Fork produces some of the best stonefly hatches in the West, especially the giant salmonfly that normally emerges in early July.

Mayflies

The dry-fly fishing season usually gets under way when the Pale Morning Duns emerge in late June or early July. These prolific mayflies can emerge into October. PMDs carpet the water in August, and the hatches are especially heavy on cloudy, cool days. South Fork PMDs have a definite pinkish cast.

A pink Parachute Cahill in #16-18 is the top choice during the PMD hatch. Thorax patterns and no-hackles in the same color are also very effective. If the fish are selective, you’ll also need a variety of emergers and cripples. My favorite is a PMD Cripple with a white upright wing for better visibility. The same patterns are effective on the other mayfly hatches, but you need to change the size and color to match the insect.  A spinner can be an excellent choice in the mid-morning and evening hours. These spent-wing patterns are tough to see. Sometimes guides use a spinner or emerger as a dropper attached about a foot below a parachute pattern.

By late August you’ll start to notice good numbers of Western Quill Gordons (Epeorus albertae) mixed with the PMDs. These mayflies are slightly larger than the PMDs and a little darker in color.

One of the best late season hatches is the Mahogany Dun (Paraleptophlebia bicornuta). Some anglers mistake them for PMDs because they are about the same size, but the body and wings are much darker. These mayflies continue to emerge into early October.

Tiny Blue-winged Olives (Baetis #20-22), are the most prolific and dependable mayflies (no matter what the weather is like) during late autumn and early spring. I’ve experienced some of the best dry-fly fishing on cold, snow-filled days.

It is not unusual to see Callibaetis spinners on the water. These medium-size mayflies abound in lakes, sloughs, and slow-moving spring creeks. There are numerous sloughs and back channels on the South Fork providing perfect habitat for these speckle-winged mayflies.

Caddis

Anglers who like to fish during the evening hours in late July and August will see blizzard-like hatches and egg-laying flights of these active aquatic insects. There are many species of caddisflies on the river. The most common are the net-building Speckled Sedge (Hydropsyche) and the case-building Grannom (Brachycentrus). The giant October Caddis can also produce some explosive rises on bright autumn days. There usually aren’t a lot of these big insects on the water, but since they can range as large as a #6, the trout really get after them.

Hair-wing caddis patterns, such as the Elk-hair Caddis, can be very productive, especially if casting from a drift boat. The E-Z Caddis is a great pattern. It floats low in the film, has an Antron body and underwing with a partridge overwing, and a parachute-post wing. The Antron produces a very realistic brightness, and the partridge wing holds its shape even after it gets wet. A floating E-Z Caddis with a caddis-emerger pattern as a dropper provides a deadly combination when caddis are on the water. The trout will often hold under structure, so when you are fishing from a boat and casting up against the bank, I’ve found that giving the fly a little twitch can entice them out to take a look.

Stoneflies

Unlike most other tailwaters, the South Fork produces some incredible stonefly hatches, including the giant salmonfly (Pteronarcys). The big salmonflies usually start to emerge on the lower river about the first of July. The hatch moves upstream a few miles a day and reaches the Palisades Dam by mid-July. Because river flows can fluctuate from year to year, this hatch may deviate by two or three weeks each year.

The smaller Golden Stones and little Yellow Sallies follow the big bugs, providing good dry-fly action throughout July and into early August. You’ll need some high floaters, such as the Kauffman’s Stimulator, as well as some low-profile patterns. In recent years foam-bodied flies have been the rage, and for good reason. They seem to outproduce everything else, not only during the stonefly hatches, but as an attractor pattern all through the season.

A stonefly phenomenon that I have not witnessed on any other river occurs on the South Fork. In September when the flows are reduced, a #8 or #10 dark amber stonefly emerges that creates some explosive action on floating foam-bodied patterns. As the flows drop and new rocks are exposed on the bank, the nymphs crawl out to transform into adults. These adults do not have the appearance of normal stoneflies, however, because their wings are abnormally short, less than one-half their body length. These lively adults, incapable of flying, race over the rocks and across the water along the margins of the river. Chernobyl Ants and other foam patterns work great when you cast them at the edge of the water and twitch them back with an erratic retrieve. A favorite local pattern is called the Green Machine, which is a two-tone foam fly with a pale underbody, brown rubber legs, and a short elk-hair wing.

Midges

As in most other tailwater rivers, midges are the most abundant aquatic insect. They emerge throughout the year, but are most prolific during the cold winter months. Most of the larger mayflies and caddis hatches are over by mid-October and the trout really begin to key in on the smaller insects. The slicks, quiet pools, and tailouts are the best spots to find midge-feeding trout. They usually pod up as they softly sip the tiny flies. The trick is to try to pick off the trout feeding at the edge of the pod. If you hook a trout in the middle of the group, you’ll risk putting down the entire pod of fish.

Like caddisflies, the midge’s pupal stage is usually the most important for the angler. For that reason, many anglers like to tie on a high-riding pattern such as a Griffith’s Gnat, and tie a midge pupa as a dropper about a foot off the hook bend. That way if you see the top fly move or hesitate, or if you see a rise or boil near the dry, you can set the hook. Tie your midge pupa patterns very lean, with a thread or biot body and a touch of dubbing or soft hackle at the hook eye. The best colors are gray, dark olive, or rusty brown.

Hatch Chart

InsectSizeBegin DateEnd DateBest Time
Midge18-22March 1April 30morning and evening
Baetis14-18March 1April 30afternoon and evening
Caddis10-14June 5October 15morning and evening
Stonefly2-8June 15July 15afternoon
PMD16-18July 1September 30afternoon and evening
Golden Stone8-10July 1August 5afternoon
Little Yellow Stone10-14July 5September 5afternoon and evening
Gray Drake10-12July 5August 30afternoon
Terrestrials6-12July 15October 15morning and afternoon
Trico18-20August 5September 30afternoon
Midge18-22September 1November 30morning and evening
Mahogany Dun16September 1October 15N/A
Baetis14-18September 1November 30afternoon and evening

Resources

JD High Country Outfitters
Snake River & Jackson Hole, Reports
https://www.jdhcoutfitters.com/blog

Snake River Angler Fishing ReportsUpdated reports
https://snakeriverangler.com/category/fishing-reports/

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