Blog

Fly Tying Vid: Clouser Swimming Nymph

Fly Tying Vid: Clouser Swimming Nymph

This variation of the Clouser Swimming Nymph includes bead chain eyes to make it ride upside-down. This is an excellent stillwater pattern in both cold water (trout) and warmwater (bass, crappie, and panfish) settings. It is especially evocative of damselfly nymphs, though it possesses crossover appeal as a leech, small crayfish, or large mayfly.  You can fish it deep on a sink-tip or twitched shallow over the weed-tops on a floating line.

Hook: Dai-Riki #285 or other curved-shank 3xl nymph hook, #8-14, particularly #12.

Weight: A few turns of .010 to .25 lead or lead-free wire at the center of the hook shank.

Thread: 8/0 to match the fly body color. Here, olive-dun. Other good color variants are black, rust, and tan.

Eyes: Black or gold bead-chain. Adjust eye size to change the sink rate.

Tail: Olive-dyed grizzly chickabou or standard marabou.

Rib: Copper wire, color to match or contrast body. Here, brassie copper Ultra-Wire is used.

Abdomen: Olive Hare’s Ear Dubbing, thin.

Wing Case: Several strands of peacock herl.

Thorax: Same as abdomen, full.

Legs: Olive-dyed or natural brown India Hen back or similar buggy, webby feather, tied in vee-style.

Spring Runoff Update and Summer and Early Fall Streamflow and Fishing Forecast – Late May Update

Spring Runoff Update and Summer and Early Fall Streamflow and Fishing Forecast – Late May Update

Introduction

Montana lifts its nonresident quarantine order on June 1. It becomes legal on that date for me (and all other guides/outfitters/shops) to take nonresidents who haven’t undergone the mandatory 14-day quarantine fishing. Speaking for probably every guide in Montana, I hope you consider booking some trips if your health and funds allow. I have taken out PPP loans, but for sole-proprietors like me, the amounts offered by these loans only cover a couple weeks of lost summer work, since they’re averaged over the entire year’s income rather than just the peak summer season.

Spring runoff is now heavy everywhere. Over the next month to six weeks, all area waters will drop out of the melt and fall into fishable shape.

Here’s the short version:

  • The spring runoff is now underway on all area rivers, including those with spring water components (Firehole) and which are resistant to a little bit of warm weather (Boulder). Even portions of the Missouri below Holter Dam were blown out last week.
  • Following a cool spell last weekend, complete with snow even at valley levels, it is now very warm and runoff is quite intense. Rivers are not safe to float even for whitewater purposes, due to woody debris and other obstructions.
  • Winter snowpack was quite high in most area drainage basins, but we’ve had an early start to the spring runoff which made snowpack in some low-elevation basins drop sharply, while in others it’s still holding steady at slightly above-normal levels.
  • A slight cooldown is forecast for mid-late June. I suspect this will be too late to “pause” remaining snowmelt but will really just result in area fisheries clearing a bit sooner due to a slight flattening of the curve (see what I did there?).
  • Most area “summer” fisheries will drop into shape between June 20 and July 10. Temperature-related problems and below-normal streamflows are likely in the Madison and Jefferson basins, but the Yellowstone basin (including the Lamar and Gardner Rivers in YNP and the Boulder and Stillwater Rivers north of YNP) should be near-normal.

Current Conditions

Runoff is very intense right now. High but fishable flows on the Yellowstone are around 10,000cfs. The river is at twice this level now and will probably rise still further. All flowing water in the region with the exception of the Firehole River and the lower Madison River between Ennis Dam and Cherry Creek are too high and/or muddy to fish right now. In a week or so, the Gibbon and Madison within Yellowstone Park will fall into shape, along with the rest of the lower Madison. There’s a good chance the upper Madison will become marginally fishable as well.

This means lakes are the best bet now and for the next ten days or so. Both private ranch lakes and warm-water opportunities in the region are good choices now. I went fishing on a moderate-sized reservoir in eastern Montana for a few days and did fair, though the warmth pushed the pike deep and after the first day I lost the school of good-sized eater crappie I’d been chasing. Here’s the best bass I caught, on a five-weight and a crappie fly, of all things.

 

eastern Montana largemouth bass
Eastern Montana largemouth bass.

Coronavirus and Guiding in 2020 – Reopening the Big Sky

Two big changes to the reopening plan I cover in my previous post are important for visiting anglers:

  1. Montana is moving to Phase II of its coronavirus reopening plan on June 1. In a change to this plan, out-of-state tourism restrictions are now being lifted in Phase II rather than Phase III. In other words, as of June 1 there’s no more out-of-state quarantine and I can legally take you fishing.
  2. In conjunction with the change in Montana’s tourism rules, Yellowstone Park is opening its northeast, north, northwest, and west entrances, in addition to all roads in the park not otherwise closed for construction. The park’s 100% open as of June 1, in other words.

The above changes mean that subject to common sense, social distancing requirements, and assuming no mass surges in coronavirus which shut things down again, the fishing and guiding seasons are about to restart again. Things won’t be “normal,” but at least they’ll exist…

Due to expected low crowds this season combined with good water conditions four years running, I anticipate very good fishing this year for those who make the trip.

Snowpack Update and What the Snowpack Says About Summer Conditions

We saw above normal snowfall and colder than normal temperatures from February through mid-April in Montana, with snowpack in the Yellowstone River drainage peaking at about 125% of normal as of my update in early April. This snow started melting early, around April 20, which ate into the snowpack numbers substantially, but the numbers stabilized and increased through the middle of May. Late May has returned to warm temperatures, near-record warm temperatures in some cases, and the snow is now melting furiously again. It will likely continue doing so for about 10 days before conditions return to cooler-than-normal temperatures.

Right now, basins within my operations area range from 81% of normal up to 112% of normal. The lowest snowpack numbers are found in the Madison River basin in Montana, while the highest number is found in the Upper Yellowstone Basin in Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. The Yellowstone Basin in Montana (which factors in the Wyoming numbers as well) is at 107% of normal. All of these numbers will continue to decline sharply in the next few days.

Overall snowpack is thus winding up near average with a somewhat early runoff. I expect flows to be well below normal in the Madison Basin, though they will be near-normal in the Yellowstone Basin. I anticipate overall slightly early clearing dates in summer 2020. There is the possibility of tough fishing in late afternoon on a day-to-day basis in the last ten days of July and first half of August due to warm water temperatures, though this depends on weather. I do expect the lower Madison River to be too warm and low by about June 25 this year, whereas last year it fished well into July. The Firehole may well get too warm on a day-to-day basis by mid-June this year, especially in the afternoons. Even with massive amounts of snow runoff in the river, the Firehole is already hitting 68 degrees in the afternoons.

I do not anticipate any closures due to low streamflow or high water temperatures on any waters which are not always terrible in high summer (Jefferson, lower Madison, Firehole). The Yellowstone basin should all be fine except possibly too warm for good fishing some days between 3:00 and 7:00PM during the dog days. This will just mean getting started and finishing early.

Anticipated Dates Rivers Will Drop from Runoff and Expected Best Fishing Periods

This is the meat and potatoes for most readers.

Firehole River

The Firehole may be tea-stained on June 1 but should not be too dirty to fish again this season. It is already fishing for anglers coming up from the Wyoming entrances to the park. It should fish best in the first half of June this year, then decline for about a week, then be too warm even in the mornings by around June 25.

Gibbon River

The Gibbon is likely running too high and tea-brown for right now, but once flows drop by June 5 it will be good to go. It will fish best from this point until about June 20, then slowly decline until about July 4. After July 4, the waters below Norris Geyser Basin will be too warm except in the mornings. There is limited fishable water above Norris due to the continuing westslope cutthroat and grayling reintroduction project underway above Virginia Cascades, including Grebe and Wolf Lakes.

Madison River Inside YNP

The Madison inside the park is running high and hard right now. Expect streamers to be the best bet until June 5 or so, followed by PMD and caddis hatches. The best fishing on this section of the Madison for the “early” season as opposed to the fall season will be the middle two weeks of June. This stretch of the Madison will be too warm particularly in the afternoons by July 1.

Madison River “Between the Lakes”

The short section above the tributary creeks may be clear for now, but crowded. The creeks should clear up by about June 10, after which this will be a good stretch through the rest of the year.

Lower Madison River (Below Ennis Lake)

Running very high, which will hurt the dry fly bite even if bugs are hatching. Caddis, Yellow Sallies, and several mayflies are possible. San Juan Worms and crayfish are probably the best bets overall. Ready now, but will get better in early June as mud from Cherry Creek stops pouring in. Will likely get too warm by June 25 unless significant cool spells take over by then. The lower Madison is the best float river near me, and will be until the Boulder drops into shape.

Lakes in Yellowstone Park

Yellowstone Lake is fishable now and will be as good as it gets until late July for cutthroats or late June for lake trout. Lewis Lake is probably still ice-bound. Smaller lakes will be soggy wet hikes to access and will be high, but otherwise should be fishing right now and will be good choices until lake July.

Gardner River

The Gardner Below Boiling River is always fishable on a day-to-day basis with big nymphs from the normal park fishing season opener on the Saturday before Memorial Day onward. With the heavy runoff we’re seeing right now, the Gardner is definitely out until June 15 OR the next cool spell, whichever comes first. Salmonfly hatch the last week of June and first week of July, maybe even starting June 20 if conditions remain warm on balance for the next several weeks. After mid-July, may be touch and go particularly after lunch until the middle of September due to warm water temps. Day-to-day weather will govern this.

The Gardner from Osprey Falls to Boiling River is similar in structure to the Gardner below Boiling River (a hot spring), but much colder. Therefore it starts fishing later and remains good all summer and until the first extended cold snap in October. Portions remain good until the end of the season. This year, it should get going with nymphs around June 20-25 and be at its best in late July and the first half of August. The Salmonfly hatch will take place from around July 4 through July 20-25. The Gardner always has the longest-lasting Salmonfly hatch in the West, though the fish (6-13″ on average) are not as large as many other Salmonfly waters. Bigger fish hunting is always better from late August through fall.

Above Osprey Falls, the Gardner is a brook trout fishery (with a few small rainbows mixed in near the falls). It will be ready around July 4 and best from about July 15 through mid-August, as always. The upper river tributaries that come together near Indian Creek Campground always clear at least 10 days before the main river and are best from this point until late July. This is all beginner and kid water only.

Madison River (Quake Lake to Ennis Lake):

Very marginal right now due to mud from tributaries. Conditions will improve by mid-June. While the water will be cold enough all season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see very low flows here by August.

Jefferson River

Only good for about a week after it leaves runoff and again after September 1 or so. This year it will leave runoff around June 20.

Boulder River

During runoff the Boulder goes up and down like a yo-yo due to short-term weather conditions. Right now it’s totally blown (I looked at it yesterday). Safe flows are 2000cfs, and it’s at 4600 right now. It may hit record flows for the date tomorrow. The Boulder is running so high and hard that it’s very possible the next cold spell around June 10 will drop it into fishable shape for the season, especially from boats.

The float fishing on the Boulder in late June and early July should be spectacular this year, due to reduced guide traffic on this small river. I expect the Boulder to be at floatable levels of 2000 to 500cfs from whenever it clears until about July 20 this year.

Yellowstone River (Grand Canyon)

Always fishable before any other stretch of the Yellowstone due to the moderating influence of Yellowstone Lake upstream and the lack of large tribs between the lake and the Lamar confluence. Will be fishable with nymphs and streamers around June 20, or maybe even June 15. Salmonflies begin around June 25-July 1 in isolated areas and best the second week of July, but continue in isolated areas until about July 25. This water is good well into October provided you get on water that hasn’t already been fished on a given day. Tower Area may be less crowded this year due to roadwork between Tower Falls and Canyon (Tower Falls is accessible).

Stillwater River

Above the Rosebud should drop into shape around June 20-25 and be best for the first month or so, getting pretty low thereafter. Below the Rosebud, will come in around July 1 and be best in late July and August. The Stillwater should be very good this year due to reduced traffic, though the difference won’t be as pronounced as on the Boulder and Yellowstone, since more traffic here is local anyway.

Yellowstone River (Black Canyon and Gardiner to Pine Creek)

This includes both the walk-wade Black Canyon inside Yellowstone Park, which runs from the Lamar to the park boundary at Gardiner (and really for 2-3 miles or so below Gardner, since drift boats do not put in until a rough access at the 2mm or a better one at the 3mm), the “upper Yellowstone” float section from near Gardiner to Carbella, and most of Paradise Valley down almost to Livingston.

This water will drop into shape (except Yankee Jim Canyon) in the last ten days of June or the first few days of July. I suspect the last week of June for this. Flows need to be under 10,000cfs as measured at the Corwin Springs stream gauge. The Salmonfly hatch will begin at about the same time on the float stretch and last about a week there. The hatch will start a week later on the walk stretch and last until the last few days of July in a few areas near the Lamar confluence.

The best fishing of the season on this water will probably be in the latter half of July this year, due to low pressure during what is normally the highest-pressure period. I expect the best July and early August fishing on this portion of the Yellowstone of my career, subject of course to day-to-day weather. This is especially true of the float section which is often wall-to-wall boats in July but won’t be this year.

Fishing will remain good on this section through fall, though the deeper, faster sections are better once the water drops below about 3000cfs.

Yankee Jim Canyon will drop below 6000cfs (the level I consider safe to float in a raft) around July 10-15 and be at its best as always in late August and September.

Lamar River, Slough Creek, and Soda Butte Creek

This water will all come into shape sometime in the first week of July, with the best fishing in the latter half of July and first half of August. Thereafter, expect spookier and spookier fish requiring smaller and smaller flies, as always. Pressure should be reduced this year, but it will still be high relative to everything else.

Most Small Streams

A few small streams in the Yellowstone, Gardner, and Madison drainages that drain from lakes and/or hot spring basins will be fishable between June 10 and June 20 depending on the creek, but most small streams will truly drop into shape around July 15 and be best in August, as they always are.

Yellowstone River (Pine Creek to Laurel)

The rougher, bigger portion of the Yellowstone from Pine Creek down through Livingston and on east to Columbus and beyond is too high and rough for at least a week and often two weeks after most of the Yellowstone upstream. I expect it will drop into shape by July 15 this year and perhaps as early as the 10th. From Pine Creek to Mayor’s Landing in Livingston is pretty consistent from when it gets low enough right through the fall provided water temperatures remain below 70 degrees and above 47 or so. East of Mayor’s Landing is much more a “big fish hunting”
game. It is good but hard for the first ten days or two weeks after it clears, then less consistent but easier through August. By Labor Day things really depend on sticking a pig on a streamer or good hatches.

Pressure will be reduced on this stretch, particularly east of Livingston where there is more guide than local traffic, but this stretch of the Yellowstone is hard no matter what. It might just be less hard this year.

Water temps may be a problem on this stretch of the Yellowstone in August, particularly east of Livingston. If water temps are breaking 70 degrees, plan to fish 6AM to 2PM rather than in the afternoons and evenings.

Conclusion

There’s going to be good to great fishing this year, particularly in July and provided temps remain cool in August. We’re on year-four of decent to great water levels in most area basuns, which means we should see a large average size to the fish as well as some real monsters. This combines with low overall tourist traffic to mean the fish won’t be as picky as usual (read: they will be dumber than normal).

The Madison Basin will not be as good as the Yellowstone basin, due to lower flows.

If your finances and health make a trip feasible, I suggest coming, and I’d love to be your guide if you do…

Sources for Streamflow Data

Sources for Streamflow Data

Virtually all fly fishing guides and outfitters in Montana watch streamflow data and streamflow forecasts like hawks, especially during runoff season (that is to say: right now) and when summer thunderstorms are rolling around. This is no different than farmers watching the weather forecasts. Here are the important sites to allow YOU to check streamflows, both right now and expected flows for the days ahead.

Montana Streamflow Data: This site returns data from all USGS gauging stations in Montana. The site is organized by river drainage, then from upstream gauging stations to downstream stations. In my area, the Yellowstone Basin graphs from the Lamar River in Yellowstone Park down to the graph at Springdale are the graphs I use most often, with the Stillwater graph secondary. By far the most important graphs for general streamflow are the Corwin Springs and Livingston graphs on the Yellowstone, while the Lamar and Gardner graphs are important for telling me about sudden rises in water level (which are almost always accompanied by mud) due to storms.

Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service – Billings: Here’s the streamflow prediction site for eastern Montana. This site shows flow graphs noted in the previous link, but also shows predicted flows for the next few days for most gauging stations. The basic graph pictured below is most useful during the spring runoff season when we are trying to plan for future trips based on weather forecast. If you’re looking at a big predicted bump coming up, it’s best to get fishing beforehand, because that bump means mud.

This site also includes an option to view “Probability Information.” This is a longer-range forecast of predicted flows, but it isn’t updated very often and I often find it inaccurate. Here’s a sample graph of probability information:

Select the above graph by clicking the dropdown menu off the lower right corner of the graph, then selecting “Flow – Weekly Chance of Exceeding Levels.” This is most useful to anglers, as flow rather than gauge height determines fishability. Too much water and things are too rough, and probably muddy to boot.

Montana Quarantine Order Lifts June 1

Montana Quarantine Order Lifts June 1

Montana instituted a quarantine order for out-of-state residents starting in late March. This order is due to lift June 1, which means guiding will become legal again. Coming to Montana? My calendar is wide open and I’d love to take you fishing.

Fly Tying Vid: Barry Reynolds’ Pike Bunny

Fly Tying Vid: Barry Reynolds’ Pike Bunny

Barry Reynolds’ Pike Bunny is a straightforward, simple pike (and bass) bunny streamer that derives its durability from strategically finishing the fly well behind the hook eye and from lots of adhesives. This is a small one, but they can be tied with magnum rabbit strips as large as 3/0 or 4/0.

Fish the pattern on a floating line in shallow water or on a sink-tip deep.

Hook: Standard bass/pike, #4/0 to 4.

Thread: 3/0 or 6/0 to match the front rabbit strip.

Eyes: Clear Cure Eyes or similar weightless dumbbells, or use doll-style eyes secured at the end of the tying process.

Flash: Sea green Polarflash, but any flash to match or contrast the rear rabbit strip will do.

Tail: Standard rabbit strip on sizes #1-6, magnum rabbit strip on larger sizes. Good colors are yellow, chartreuse, white, black, or barred combinations of the above. Here I’ve used barred chartreuse over yellow.

Body: Standard rabbit strip wrapped forward. Use the same color strip as the rear, or contrast. Red is a good alternate front color.

Gills/Blood: Red flash, here Kreinik Flash, but again any flash will do.

Head: Several coats of Thin or Thick UV resin topped with head cement to remove any tackiness.

Fly Tying Vid – Murdich Minnow Variation

Fly Tying Vid – Murdich Minnow Variation

The Murdich Minnow is one of the most popular smallmouth bass flies these days. The variation I tie using a synthetic hair/flash blend for the tail and one of several “body wrap” materials in place of the original flash chenille body is my favorite swimming baitfish imitation for all moderate-sized warmwater predator fish: smallmouth & largemouth bass, small pike, large crappie, white bass, hybrid stripers, etc.

Other good color combos run the gamut of popular warmwater fly and lure colors: chartreuse/white, “fire tiger,” brown over gold, or really any of the color combos that you’ll find Rapalas and similar long, slender plugs made in.

Tie on the fly using a non-slip mono loop to allow it to swim, using either a floating line or a sink-tip depending on the depth you want to reach. As tied, the fly has a very neutral buoyancy and will sink quite slowly, giving it a “near topwater” action when fished without added weight.

Hook: #2/- to #4 long-shank ring eye such as MFC 7050, Gamakatsu SP11-3l3H, etc.

Thread: 3/0 or heavier to match desired body color.

Tail: SF Flash Blend in white, yellow, chartreuse, or other baitfish color.

Cheeks: Ice Fur to match tail.

Body: Lion Go For Faux or similar “faux bunny” yarn twisted together with UV Polar Chenille, wrapped forward, and trimmed to shape.

Markings: Use Prismacolor or Pantone or Sharpie Markers to color the fly as desired. All colors should have a red hotspot.

Eyes: 1/4″ to 5/16″ stick-on eyes secured with gel super glue and UV resins.

2020 Snowpack, Season Fishing Forecast, and Summer-Fall Fishing Predictions – May 2 Update

2020 Snowpack, Season Fishing Forecast, and Summer-Fall Fishing Predictions – May 2 Update

Introduction

Coronavirus is obviously occupying everyone’s mind right now, but there’s fishing to do now and will be a lot more to do once the spring runoff is over. This post is intended to tell visiting anglers what’s going on now and what to expect for the summer-fall peak season, both in terms of likely water conditions and in terms of the effects of the virus.

Here’s the short version:

  • The spring runoff is now underway on the Yellowstone River and its main tributaries, but I expect a slight “runoff break” next week due to upcoming cool weather.
  • Fishing is effectively closed for nonresidents in Montana right now, since nonresidents are required to self-quarantine for 14 days in their lodgings upon arrival. We do not know when this restriction will be lifted, but various large tourism operators in Yellowstone Park plan to reopen June 15, so this should be the latest day the restrictions will be lifted.
  • My guide service and outfitting operations are open now, but only for residents. Area fly shops are generally open subject to social distancing guidelines.
  • Winter snowpack was quite high in most area drainage basins, but we’ve had an early start to the spring runoff which is making snowpack drop sharply. I now anticipate a “normal” season rather than a high water season.
  • Most area “summer” fisheries will drop into shape between June 20 and July 4, with good fishing conditions (subject to day-to-day weather as well as any extended heat waves) through the summer.

Current Conditions

The spring runoff is now underway in Yellowstone Country, particularly on the Yellowstone River. Right now the Yellowstone is muddy and high, flowing at almost 9,000cfs at Livingston. While this is a tough but fishable flow on the back end of runoff, at the front end as we are now this means a chocolate brown river full of sticks and debris. The Boulder River will be marginally better but is still quite high for the date.

Upcoming weather in the 50s-60s should drop the Yellowstone into marginal but fishable conditions and the Boulder into good shape, for at least a few days. Look for Mother’s Day Caddis when this happens.

The Lower Madison River is and will remain the best nearby flowing water bet until mid-June. The upper Madison is also okay though farther away. Other good nearby choices center on lakes: the Yellowstone Valley private lakes as well as reservoirs like Dailey, Hebgen, Sutherlin, and Bair. This is also a good time for warmwater fishing for bass, pike, and panfish on the ponds around Bozeman as well as near Three Forks, or further afield at Castle Rock Lake or Tongue River Reservoir. Given the free time I’ve got due to coronavirus, I’ll be heading to Castle Rock near Colstrip in late May for three days, fishing for bass and pike the first two days and then gathering up bluegill and crappie for the freezer on the last day.

large eastern montana bluegill
Big bluegill: fun on a fly rod and fun to eat.

Coronavirus and Guiding in 2020 – Reopening the Big Sky

The coronavirus continues to exact its toll in Montana as it does everywhere, though Montana is ahead of the curve nationally. Despite the second lowest number of cases in the country, ahead of Alaska, Montana is still reopening slowly and cautiously. “Slow and cautious” is the biggest reason we have so few cases and only 16 deaths as of this writing, after all.

Right now, we’re in Phase I of “Reopening the Big Sky.” Main street businesses including fly shops are open, and soon restaurants will be able to join them. My wife and I will be having a belated anniversary dinner at our favorite high-end restaurant to celebrate, though it’ll be the last such dinner for a while due to the restrictions placed on visitors due to the virus.

Guiding is open right now, but only for Montana residents or nonresidents who have self-quarantined for at least 14 days. In effect, this means there’s no guiding for me right now.

The self-quarantine requirement will be lifted with Phase III of Reopening the Big Sky. There is no set date for this, as it depends on continued low rates of transmission, an overall decline in the virus nationally, etc. I do have a guess that guiding will reopen no later than mid-June, provided all goes well. Why do I expect this? Various plans that have been declared by National Park lodging vendors.

Glacier and Yellowstone National Park lodging is going to be limited to cabins and other “dispersed” options this year, but Xanterra, the concessionaire responsible for this lodging, has stated they plan to open lodgings June 15. Nobody is going to come to Montana, Yellowstone, or Glacier if they’re required to sit in their rental cabin for two weeks, so Xanterra appears to believe restrictions will be lifted no later than June 14. I’m inclined to agree.

Long story short: I expect that guided trips will be available to all travelers coming into Montana by late June, with July 1 quite safe. Again, this assumes no significant flares in the infection numbers and continued progress nationally. I am accepting tentative bookings for the latter half of June, and am VERY eager to book as many trips as I possibly can from July through October, considering how disastrous late March through early June are looking to be for my finances.

Due to expected low crowds this season combined with good water conditions four years running, I anticipate very good fishing this year for those who make the trip.

Snowpack Update and What the Snowpack Says About Summer Conditions

We saw above normal snowfall and colder than normal temperatures from February through mid-April in Montana, with snowpack in the Yellowstone River drainage peaking at about 125% of normal as of my last update in early April. This snow started melting early, around April 20, which has eaten into the snowpack numbers substantially.

Right now, basins within my operations area range from 94% of normal up to 114% of normal. The lowest snowpack numbers are found in the Madison River basin in Montana, while the highest number is found in the Upper Yellowstone Basin in Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. The Yellowstone Basin in Montana (which factors in the Wyoming numbers as well) is at 108% of normal. Long range outlooks suggest a continued slow decline relative to average of the snowpack.

Overall snowpack is thus winding up near average with a somewhat early runoff. I expect flows to be below normal in the Madison Basin, though not by a lot, though they will be near-normal in the Yellowstone Basin. I anticipate overall near-normal to slightly early clearing dates in summer 2020. There is the possibility of tough fishing in late afternoon on a day-to-day basis in the last ten days of July and first half of August due to warm water temperatures, though this depends on weather. I do expect the lower Madison River to be too warm and low by about June 25 this year, whereas last year it fished well into July.

Anticipated Dates Rivers Will Drop from Runoff and Expected Best Fishing Periods

This is the meat and potatoes for most readers. Given that early June is probably going to be a writeoff due to slow easing of CV19 restrictions, the following information begins around June 15, when I expect restrictions to be lifted for travelers. Again, the following generally assumes an opening for out-of-state travelers around June 15. Some waters are fishable now, will get fishable during “runoff breaks,” or will clear sooner than June 15.

Ready on June 15

The following waters in Yellowstone Park will definitely be ready to fish by June 15. All except the lakes will probably be ready by June 1 at the latest, in fact.

  • Firehole River: Probably best for the first week after it opens, likely with excellent PMD and Nectopsyche caddis hatches already underway and the fish very surprised that some of these bugs suddenly grow hooks. Fishing might be exceptional if there are in fact closures extending to mid-June, as these fish usually are hit hard starting Memorial Day and therefore wise up quick most years. The Firehole will probably be too warm in the afternoons by June 20-25 and too warm below Old Faithful period after July 1. The fishing may even be tough on hot/bright days in mid-June.
  • Gibbon River: Will be clear and fishable and probably near its best in the canyon sections by June 15. Will be the best attractor dry/dropper water in the region at this time. The meadows may still be a touch high, but dropping fast and fishable at least with streamers. The Gibbon Canyon will fish best for the first ten days after it opens, then decline particularly after lunch for another 10 days before getting too warm. The meadows below Norris will be best June 20 to July 4. The upper river from Norris up to Virginia Cascades will be best in July and early August, but above Virginia Cascades is functionally fishless right now due to a fisheries project replacing nonnative rainbow and brook trout with native (to the drainage though not these headwaters) grayling and westslope cutthroat.
  • Madison River in YNP: Best for the middle ten days of June but probably okay through June, with PMD hatches underway when it opens, and likely salmonflies in the short canyon section, as well.
  • Madison River “Between the Lakes:” Fishable about tributary creeks for locals now, but will certainly be ready throughout this short reach by June 15.
  • Lower Madison River Below Ennis Lake: The best float option now and will remain so until the Boulder drops into shape in mid-late June. Will likely be at its best BEFORE out-of-staters who have not quarantined can fish it, but okay at least in the mornings until late June.
  • Small and Large Lakes in Yellowstone Park: Probably all reachable and fishing great by no later than June 10, with the exception of Blacktail Ponds which never open before early July (check park regulations when you arrive for this year’s date).

Gardner River

The Gardner Below Boiling River is always fishable on a day-to-day basis with big nymphs from the normal park fishing season opener on the Saturday before Memorial Day onward. This year, it ought to be fishing great when restrictions are lifted and be very good until mid-July. Salmonfly hatch the last week of June and first week of July, maybe even starting June 20 if conditions remain warm on balance for the next 6 weeks. After mid-July, may be touch and go particularly after lunch until the middle of September due to warm water temps. Day-to-day weather will govern this.

The Gardner from Osprey Falls to Boiling River is similar in structure to the Gardner below Boiling River (a hot spring), but much colder. Therefore it starts fishing later and remains good all summer and until the first extended cold snap in October. Portions remain good until the end of the season. This year, it should get going with nymphs around June 20-25 and be at its best in late July and the first half of August. The Salmonfly hatch will take place from around July 4 through July and maybe into early August in small areas of Sheepeater Canyon. The Gardner always has the longest-lasting Salmonfly hatch in the West, though the fish (6-13″ on average) are not as large as many other Salmonfly waters. Bigger fish hunting is always better from late August through fall.

Above Osprey Falls, the Gardner is a brook trout fishery (with a few small rainbows mixed in near the falls). It will be ready July 4-10 and best from about July 20 through mid-August, as always. The upper river tributaries that come together near Indian Creek Campground always clear at least 10 days before the main river and are best from this point until late July. This is all beginner and kid water only.

Madison River (Quake Lake to Ennis Lake):

Fishable with “big uglies” through the spring and early summer, but best from June 15 or so onward. Salmonflies in late June this year.

Jefferson River

Only good for about a week after it leaves runoff and again after September 1 or so. This year it will leave runoff around June 20.

Boulder River

During runoff the Boulder goes up and down like a yo-yo due to short-term weather conditions. It is probably still clear enough, though rising fast. Any 2-3 window of cold and dry-ish weather drops it into shape. It will come into shape for good between June 15 and June 25, with June 20 or so a lot more likely than earlier. It will remain high enough to float until about July 20-25, but good for wade fishing through summer.

The float fishing on the Boulder in late June and early July should be spectacular this year, due to reduced guide traffic on this small river.

Yellowstone River (Grand Canyon)

Always fishable before any other stretch of the Yellowstone due to the moderating influence of Yellowstone Lake upstream and the lack of large tribs between the lake and the Lamar confluence. Will be fishable with nymphs and streamers around June 20, or maybe even June 15. Salmonflies begin around June 25-July 1 in isolated areas and best the second week of July, but continue in isolated areas until about July 25. This water is good well into October provided you get on water that hasn’t already been fished on a given day. Tower Area may be less crowded this year due to roadwork between Tower Falls and Canyon (Tower Falls is accessible).

Stillwater River

Above the Rosebud should drop into shape around June 20-25 and be best for the first month or so, getting pretty low thereafter. Below the Rosebud, will come in around July 4 and be best in late July and August. The Stillwater should be very good this year due to reduced traffic, though the difference won’t be as pronounced as on the Boulder and Yellowstone, since more traffic here is local anyway.

Yellowstone River (Black Canyon and Gardiner to Pine Creek)

This includes both the walk-wade Black Canyon inside Yellowstone Park, which runs from the Lamar to the park boundary at Gardiner (and really for 2-3 miles or so below Gardner, since drift boats do not put in until a rough access at the 2mm or a better one at the 3mm), the “upper Yellowstone” float section from near Gardiner to Carbella, and most of Paradise Valley down almost to Livingston.

This water will drop into shape (except Yankee Jim Canyon) in the last ten days of June or the first few days of July. I suspect the last couple days of June for this. Flows need to be under 10,000cfs as measured at the Corwin Springs stream gauge. The Salmonfly hatch will begin at about the same time on the float stretch and last about a week there. The hatch will start a week later on the walk stretch and last until the last few days of July in a few areas near the Lamar confluence.

The best fishing of the season on this water will probably be in July and maybe the first week of August this year, due to low pressure during what is normally the highest-pressure period. I expect the best July and early August fishing on this portion of the Yellowstone of my career, subject of course to day-to-day weather.  This is especially true of the float section which is often wall-to-wall boats in July but won’t be this year.

Fishing will remain good on this section through fall, though the deeper, faster sections are better once the water drops below about 3000cfs.

Yankee Jim Canyon will drop below 6000cfs (the level I consider safe to float in a raft) around July 10-15 and be at its best as always in late August and September.

Lamar River, Slough Creek, and Soda Butte Creek

This water will all come into shape sometime in the first ten days of July, with the best fishing in the latter half of July and first half of August. Thereafter, expect spookier and spookier fish requiring smaller and smaller flies, as always. Pressure should be reduced this year, but it will still be high relative to everything else.

Most Small Streams

A few small streams in the Yellowstone, Gardner, and Madison drainages that drain from lakes and/or hot spring basins will be fishable between June 10 and June 20 depending on the creek, but most small streams will truly drop into shape around July 15 and be best in August, as they always are.

Yellowstone River (Pine Creek to Laurel)

The rougher, bigger portion of the Yellowstone from Pine Creek down through Livingston and on east to Columbus and beyond is too high and rough for at least a week and often two weeks after most of the Yellowstone upstream. I expect it will drop into shape by July 15 this year and perhaps as early as the 10th. From Pine Creek to Mayor’s Landing in Livingston is pretty consistent from when it gets low enough right through the fall provided water temperatures remain below 70 degrees and above 47 or so. East of Mayor’s Landing is much more a “big fish hunting”
game. It is good but hard for the first ten days or two weeks after it clears, then less consistent but easier through August. By Labor Day things really depend on sticking a pig on a streamer or good hatches.

Pressure will be reduced on this stretch, particularly east of Livingston where there is more guide than local traffic, but this stretch of the Yellowstone is hard no matter what. It might just be less hard this year.

Water temps may be a problem on this stretch of the Yellowstone in August, particularly east of Livingston. If water temps are breaking 70 degrees, plan to fish 6AM to 2PM rather than in the afternoons and evenings.

Conclusion

There’s going to be good to great fishing this year, particularly in July and provided temps remain cool in August. We’re on year-four of decent to great water levels, which means we should see a large average size to the fish as well as some real monsters. This combines with low overall tourist traffic to mean the fish won’t be as picky as usual (read: they will be dumber than normal).

If your finances and health make a trip feasible, I suggest coming, and I’d love to be your guide if you do…

Fly Tying Vid: Green Glass Caddis Pupa

Fly Tying Vid: Green Glass Caddis Pupa

Here’s a green Glass Caddis Pupa in honor of the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch. Feel free to alter the basic color scheme to match whatever caddis you need to imitate. The glass beads on the Glass Caddis pattern provide a three-dimensional, segmented appearance with lots of sparkle.

Hook: 1x short, 1x strong scud, #14. Here, Dai-Riki #135.

Beads: Four chartreuse 11/0 glass seed beads slid onto the hook, then bound down slightly separated from one another up the hook shank.

Thread: 8/0 olive-dun.

Abdomen: Beads and olive squirrel dubbing.

Head: Two strands natural ostrich herl.

Fly Tying Vid: Jig-Style Sculp Snack Streamer

Fly Tying Vid: Jig-Style Sculp Snack Streamer

This jig-style version of the Sculp Snack streamer is representative of drab, impressionistic streamers (often Woolly Buggers tied to ride upside-down) Walter uses on Yellowstone River float trips in the summer. This take on the Sculp Snack uses an exciting new hook, the Firehole Sticks #523, which as far as we know is the first “tactical” or “jig-style” 3xl long nymph or streamer hook on the market. This hook will make tying stonefly nymphs, streamer, leeches, and similar patterns that ride upside-down MUCH less time-consuming.

Hook: Firehole #523, sizes 4-10.

Bead: 3/16 to 5/32 slotted tungsten, here gold.

Weight (optional): .035 to .020 lead or non-toxic wire.

Thread: 6/0 sculpin-tone, here olive-dun Uni.

Tail: Two plumes of marabou or chickabou, here olive chickabou.

Flash: Any crinkled flash to match bead color, here gold Kreinik, two strands.

Body: Polar Chenille or similar “eyelash yarn.” Here, medium UV Olive Polar Chenille.

Legs: Two strands of silicone to either side. Here, metallic green pumpkin Sili Legs.

Head: Two colors of Senyo’s Lazer Yarn, here light olive and olive.

Snowpack Report and Summer Fishing Conditions Forecast

Snowpack Report and Summer Fishing Conditions Forecast

Introduction

Here’s a report on the latest Montana snowpack and the summer fishing conditions we expect this season. Usually snowpack and how it melts are the main factors here, but this year we’ve got an X-factor: coronavirus and all of the spiraling impacts it has. The short version is this: we anticipate GREAT water levels and fishing conditions for the core July-October season this year, with fewer people around to crowd the streams. If you have the means to travel and feel comfortable doing so, this will be a GREAT season.

Coronavirus Impacts

Keep an eye on this post for details on coronavirus impacts on my business, Montana, and Yellowstone Park. In summary, here are the impacts we are currently dealing with or expecting due to the virus:

  • All nonessential businesses are closed in Montana. That includes guiding. I shut down my business through May several days before the state order. Let’s all stay home now and shut this thing down so we have a summer.
  • The spring fishing season for out-of-state anglers is shut down through April 24. This is likely to be extended until late May. Montana’s governor has put out an order that all non-residents as well as residents returning to the state from elsewhere must self-quarantine for two weeks. No leaving your hotel, in other words.
  • Montana has one of the lowest case-loads in the nation. Most are associated with Bozeman and Big Sky, no surprise since this area saw a lot of out-of-state traffic before the ski areas were closed-down in mid-March.
  • Because of the low case-load and the fact the governor got out in front of things, we expect the state to reopen gradually in May. For practical terms, don’t expect any fishing for non-residents until June.
  • Yellowstone Park is closed right now. The fishing season always opens the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and we believe the park will open about then, with the fishing season opening either on schedule or whenever the park opens.
  • We anticipate the virus will be at a low ebb from mid-late June through mid-October (the core fishing season). It will not be absent, but with the curve flattening, travel restrictions should not be present in high summer.
  • Based on cancellations, reading the concerns of anglers and general tourists on various web communities and Facebook, and so forth, I anticipate traffic this summer will be dramatically reduced. This will be most pronounced in June, least pronounced in late July and August.
  • Overall, I figure on general tourist and angler traffic to be down at least 50% before early July and probably 10-30% thereafter. There’s going to be more room on the rivers and the roads this year. The only question is how much.
  • My early bookings are tracking similarly to the numbers above. Nonexistent now, down drastically in June, and down but not catastrophically from July onward. I have had cancellations from outside outfitters I work for in July and August (mostly large corporate groups of which I was one of several or even many guides), but none of my own clients have canceled yet. I expect cancellations in June and probably some the rest of the year. The bigger factor is that new bookings have dried up since early March. On March 1 I was way ahead of normal in terms of trips on the books. I am now way behind since I’ve only lined up one new booking since then.
  • Other outfitters report comparable downturns, but hope for mid-late summer and fall.

Snowpack Summary

Snowpack is running 100% to 124% of normal throughout my operations area. The most important basin, the upper Yellowstone in Montana, is at 120% this is slightly higher than I prefer because it cuts into June and early July business. On the other hand, it leads to much better conditions for late July and August. Given that the coronavirus is gutting business during the early part of the season, we’ll take the high snowpack and delayed fishing on the Yellowstone, Boulder, Stillwater, and in the northern part of Yellowstone Park.

Here are graphics showing the snowpack visually. My approximate operations area is outlined in red. If you want to track these numbers yourself, check the west-wide report here and the Montana report here. The reports are updated daily, even into the summer.  Note that I’ve cut off the bottom portion of the west-wide report, since the conditions in CO, NM, and AZ aren’t exactly applicable.

westwide snowpack as of April 15, 2020
Snowpack throughout the northwest United States on April 15.
graphic of montana snowpack on April 15 2020
Montana Snowpack April 15.

Impacts of Snowpack on the Fishing

I’m only covering the Madison and Yellowstone basins here as they’re the most important to my business. I’ve broken them out by basin, especially since the Madison and Yellowstone basins have dramatically different snowpack right now. The Yellowstone basin is far more important to my business and is where I do virtually all of my guiding from July through the end of the season.

All of the following assumes near-normal snowpack and weather for the remainder of spring. Cold and snow will raise snowpack and push seasons back (or extend them in the case of the Firehole and other geothermal waters). Early warmth and dry conditions will push up clearing dates

Madison Basin

  • The Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison Rivers inside YNP will likely be ready on or near the opening of the Yellowstone Park season (assuming a normal opening date) and at their best before about June 25. These basins have the lowest snowpack in the area and are also fed by geysers. As such they will get too warm by the beginning of July, absent intense late spring snows.
  • The Lower Madison River near Bozeman will likely get too warm by the beginning of July as well, and be best for float trips in the first half of June.
  • The season will be shorter on the rivers above than last year, due to lower snowpack.

Yellowstone Basin

  • Due to snowpack over 120% of normal throughout its basin, the Yellowstone Basin will have a prolonged and heavy spring runoff absent an early warmup (within the next week or two).
  • This applies to the Yellowstone mainstem, the Lamar (and Slough & Soda Butte Creeks), the Gardner, the Boulder, and the Stillwater, and all small-stream tributaries.
  • Portions of the Gardner River may fish in June.
  • The Boulder River goes up and down like a yo-yo depending on day-to-day conditions. It will fish at times in June, during cold spells. It will fall into shape for good between June 25 and July 4 and be floatable through July.
  • The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Falls to Lamar) will drop into shape in the last week of June. It will be high, cool, and good through the remainder of the season.
  • The Gardner will fall into shape for good in the last week of June or first week of July. It will be high, cool, and good through the remainder of the season.
  • The Stillwater will fall into shape above the Rosebud by early July, but may be too high/dirty below the Rosebud for another week. The lower river at least should be floatable until Labor Day. Floatable levels after Labor Day depend on fall rains.
  • The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone (Lamar to Gardiner) and the Yellowstone from Gardiner to Mallard’s Rest will fall into shape in the first or perhaps early in the second week of July. It will be high, cool, and good through the remainder of the season.
  • The Lamar System will fall into shape during the second week of July. It will be best from about July 20 until early September.
  • Some small streams will be low enough and clear enough by June 15-20, but most will be best in August.

Other General Notes

  • We anticipate another excellent dry fly and hopper year this season, particularly on float portions of the Yellowstone. Last year brought our best BIG hopper fishing and best hopper fishing overall since at least 2014. Good chance of more of the same this year.
  • The fish should be stupider than usual on all waters due to reduced overall pressure, particularly before mid-July.
  • Local businesses could really use your help this year. I’m talking here about my guide service, but also restaurants, hotels, fly shops, etc. We are all taking a huge hit right now due to the virus.

Conclusion and Food for Thought

Overall snowpack looks good to excellent, particularly for mid-July and afterwards on the Yellowstone. This will be the fourth year in a row with great water conditions both for the trout and the angler.

Fish populations are at a high level because of the above conditions.

We expect great hopper fishing this season, as well as strong hatches earlier and later in the year.

Crowds will be down.

All of the above adds up to potentially epic fishing conditions for those who make the trip this year.

Want to book some guided trips?