Yellowstone Park Pontoon Trek
Lewis Lake, Channel & Shoshone Lake

Larry Tullis



Years ago I first crossed Yellowstone’s Lewis Lake to Lewis Channel during a gentle fall snow storm that painted everything white.  I was with my friend and fly fishing mentor Will Godfrey, who owned a fly shop in Island Park at the time….my first real guiding job.  We cast streamers from the boat to fallen timber in Lewis Lake and Lewis Channel and had buttery 14-18 inch Loch Leven brown trout pounce on the Muddler Minnows as we stripped them back.  The fish just seemed to materialize out of nowhere in the crystal clear water.  I walked a little ways up the swifter portion of the channel, past where the boat could go, but we didn’t have the time to go all the way to Shoshone Lake which was just another mile upstream.  The short days and the strengthening snowstorm made us decide to return to reality.  I always wanted to return to that wonderland.

Last June I finally made it back, over 25 years since that first encounter.  I towed a small trailer loaded with two Outlaw series pontoon boats, an X5 and an Avenger.  Scott Read and I set them up Zodiac style with frames reversed and 4 & 8 HP motors mounted for the several mile crossing of Lewis Lake.


There was snow again at this high elevation forest lake but this time it was a few lingering snow banks still around in late June.  We took a while getting over to the channel because it seemed that everywhere we stopped we kept catching lake trout and a few brown trout on streamers, mostly big white Zonkers. 

We used fins to control the boats while fishing, sometimes standing to sight fish and then buzzed over to the next good looking spot quickly with motors.

We stashed the motors near the channel mouth (no motors allowed from channel mouth up to and including Shoshone Lake.  The channel was also full of lake trout but few browns this time of year.  Fins controlled the boat again as we fished up the slow, deep channel.  Once we hit some current we rowed for about a half mile or more then jumped up to wade the boat through the swifter riffles.

I saw a fish rise in a beautiful run.  I couldn’t tell its size and didn’t have a dry line rigged so I just put a Prince Nymph on my clear sinking line and made short casts to the rise-form area, which was swift and about chest deep.  It ate on the third cast and I was tight into a big brown that did all that a good old brown should do to try to escape, including trying to get me around a log.  It finally tired and I slid a beautiful 23 inch brownie into the net, snapped a few shots and revived it briefly before it shot back into the depths of the hole.

We took the next hour trudging up against a swift current with the boats easily skittering along.  Muscling upstream against fast knee to chest deep water was no easy chore for this old man but slow and steady won the race and we soon got to one of the most pristine wilderness lakes in the lower 48.  It is the biggest natural lake in the U.S. with no roads into it.  Its shorelines are mostly wooded with occasional meadow areas and some thermal features.  It was a very peaceful place with no sounds but the breeze in the trees and waves lapping on theshore, but be aware that storms can crop up quickly and create a  

We rested a few minutes on the lake shore before finning into Shoshone’s outlet bay.  The shallow flats at the outlet were devoid of fish (we could count pebbles in the crystal waters) but as soon as we got deep enough to have the bottom fade from view into a rich green, we started catching lots of nice lakers and brownies.  They averaged bigger than in Lewis Lake and fishing was perhaps even faster.

Typical lake fly fishing strategies worked.  We were stripping a clear, slow sinking line and a type 4 full sinking.  Nymphs and scuds would have worked I’m sure but we stuck with various brown, black, olive or white streamers and all seemed to work.  Some hikers nearby had come in on the 4 1/2 mile Dogshead trail from the trailhead and were fishing from shore.  They called me inshore after a while to ask what we were doing so well on and we exchanged pleasantries and fly patterns.

They had only caught a couple fish in as many hours between 3 anglers.  I remarked that they only need get away from the shallows to catch fish that were out further and they gazed jealously at my Outlaw Avenger fishing machine.  I told them about our backpackable Outlaw (frameless), which would have been my choice if I had opted to hike into the lake instead of using the water-trail.  It’s an ideal lake boat but can also handle wilderness whitewater loaded with all your camping gear.  At 28 pounds, it travels well in car, on airplanes or on a pack frame.

The lake was choppy from wind but the boat still handled easily with just fins.  We could have covered the large highland lake with oars and fins and boated to our remote campsite if it was in the cards but we had already found out at a nearby ranger station that all assigned backcountry campsites were taken so we had opted to do long-day side trips like this from our drive-to campground.

The hot showers were nice but I was now the jealous one, wishing I could stay and fish another day or two in this wilderness paradise.  Instead, we finned our way to the stream and floated down the only legally floatable section of river in all Yellowstone Park.

I calculated the time needed to get back to our rig and added a half hour buffer before dark.  Good thing I did.  My motor wouldn’t start once we got back to Lewis Lake so I just had Scott tow me back with his.  It was a pleasant hi-Tec Huck Finn trip.  The buddy system recommendation is there for good reason.  I could have rowed back of course but would have gotten to the ramp well after dark had I done so.

If you plan to do a trip like this to Yellowstone National Park, keep in mind that it is government over-regulated so you’ll need an entrance permit, a fishing permit, a motorboat permit (bring proper boat documentation) and a backcountry permit.  The hassle and modest expense is worth it once you’re out there, believe me.  Don’t let the red tape prevent you from having some sublime water-time in Yellowstone.

No backcountry permit is needed in the roadside campgrounds, but you’ll pay for that too of course, and check in early for best selection!  Register ahead of time and reserve backcountry camps if you’re going that route.  This lake is near 8000 feet in elevation so don’t go before late June and ice comes back in October.  This trip is a serious trek folks, not a whimsical fishing day so plan gear and peruse the online info about the place to familiarize yourself with it well ahead of time.

Tight lines and fun floats always!
Larry Tullis