Browsed by
Category: Weather and Water Conditions

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…

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…

Coronavirus and Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing

Coronavirus and Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing

I hope everyone reading this is healthy, employed, and not contemplating locking your children in the closet until the virus abates.

The effects of COVID-19 on summer fishing in southern Montana and the Yellowstone area remain to be seen, but they certainly call for some flexibility in my operations. Here are some changes I’m making, effective immediately.

Temporary Changes to Operations Calendar

For right now, I am not accepting bookings for March through May, 2020. People are not beating down the door anyway, but I think it’s in the best interests of both client health and my own to write off the spring season as a wash. Think about coming out in 2021 if you would like a pre-runoff trip or, if my funds allow a new boat purchase, a Missouri River power boat trip.

I am still accepting bookings for trips from June through the rest of the year. I expect bookings to be limited to nonexistent in June, but am holding out hope for my peak season from July through September to make it so this year isn’t a wipeout. That said, for financial planning and worry purposes, my wife and I are working under the assumption that I won’t have any trips this year beyond the pair I had last week.

Temporary Changes to Cancellation Policy

For all current bookings for the 2020 season as well as new bookings for the season as they come in, I am making the following changes to my cancellation policies to allow greater flexibility and alleviate client concerns about booking trips they may not be able to travel to take.

  • My normal 30-day no questions asked cancellation policy remains in effect. Cancel with 30+ days notice, the full deposit will be refunded.
  • From 30 days to 72 hours prior to the trip, upon cancellation any deposit made may be held for a trip later in the 2020 season or during the 2021 season, rather than forfeited if I am unable to rebook. If things continue to be really ugly into the summer, I may revisit this policy and make it more lenient yet.
  • I will handle cancellations within the 72hr window on a case-by-case basis. Basically, if somebody gets sick or your flight gets canceled, I will do the right thing.

Effects on My Livelihood and Business

Simply put, I expect a severe reduction in trips and income this year. As of March 1, my bookings were looking excellent and I was on track for a record season. That’s all out the window now. I’ve only had three cancellations thus far, but I expect more to mount. A bigger issue at the moment is the utter lack of new bookings since the beginning of March. All in all, I would be surprised if I run more than fifty trips personally, with a handful of trips in which I have other guides working for me. I had expected to run twice as many trips before the double sledgehammer (the sickness and the economic blow) of coronavirus hit with full force. This is going to hurt rather severely.

I intend to keep YCFF operational in 2021 no matter what 2020 brings, provided nothing else catastrophic happens to reduce my finances. My wife’s work has already laid-off 20% of her division. If those cuts hit my wife, as well, I may have to start thinking about “eating my seed corn,” in other words selling off boats, client fishing tackle, and other large-scale business assets in order to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. I will gut my retirement savings, sell off my personal fishing tackle, sell my daily driver car, and take advantage of any applicable government programs before taking this extreme step, however.

Effects on the Fishing

Here’s a brighter note: I expect the fish to be happy and the fishing to be outstanding this season. I anticipated a good year before the virus reared its ugly head: we have good snowpack, a good outlook for continuing moisture through spring, and have had good water years every season since 2017. 2019 offered generally the best fishing since 2014, and the best hopper fishing in close to a decade. All signs pointed towards this trend continuing. Combining these conditions with what will certainly be reduced fishing pressure compared to the past few seasons, no matter how the virus and economy shake out, the fishing in 2020 is likely to rank at or near the best for my entire career. If your funds and health allow, contemplate a trip. I’ll be grateful and I bet the fishing will be good.

How You Can Help and Conclusion

I posted a video appeal on how to help my business and Parks’ Fly Shop as part of my March 25 Fly Tying Video. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll ask that you watch the video. In short, staying liquid this summer and especially through next winter is going to be my biggest challenge, and if you can book trips to help me do it, I’ll appreciate it.

Keep an eye on the blog for future updates. I’ll also be sending out an early spring newsletter with most of the same information above, as well as a fishing report. Sign up for the newsletter, if you haven’t.

Runoff Break Incoming (Who’s Up for a River Float?)

Runoff Break Incoming (Who’s Up for a River Float?)

Our weather forecast for the next week or so is calling for drastically below normal temperatures. Some days will see highs in the 50s even at low elevations! Runoff is now on the downward track everywhere, so this shot of cold weather is going to temporarily pull our normal summer rivers out of runoff. The Boulder in particular should be ready to float for the season by Monday and will probably not become unfishable again. The Yellowstone will be more marginal, but for anglers who want to “swing for the fences,” these runoff breaks are great times to pound the banks with streamers and stonefly nymphs.

Here’s the graph of predicted streamflows for the Boulder. It is fishable from 3000 down to about 500cfs. 800-2000 is prime. As you can, it’s looking great for next week.

graph showing predicted stream flow of the Boulder River
Boulder River predicted flows

Here’s the graph for the Yellowstone at Corwin Springs. We consider the Yellowstone fishable when it’s at a bit over 10,000cfs at this gauging station, though 8,000 is better.

graphy showing predicted streamflow on the Yellowstone River
Yellowstone River Predicted Streamflow

If the above predicted flows hold out, we expect excellent float conditions for experienced anglers from Sunday the 23rd through the last full week of June, with conditions deteriorating on the Yellowstone in particular for a week or so thereafter.

Availability for Boulder River trips is limited to June 26. Availability for Yellowstone River trips is limited to the 24th-27th and the 29th. Because the above flows are not guaranteed, we would not be willing to accept a float trip booking unless clients are staying in a location (Gardiner, Livingston, Paradise Valley, Mammoth, Bozeman) where they would be able to head over to the Lower Madison for the float if the above doesn’t pan out. Want to roll those dice? We often see some of our best big fish fishing of the year during runoff breaks like those we expect.

Runoff and Streamflow Conditions Update: Clear Water on the Yellowstone and Boulder?!?!?

Runoff and Streamflow Conditions Update: Clear Water on the Yellowstone and Boulder?!?!?

Flows on the Yellowstone and Boulder Rivers are currently nosediving due to drastically below normal temps. This is setting these rivers up for a brief window of clear (clear enough) water over the next week to ten days, particularly during the early to middle part of next week. These mid-snowmelt windows of fishable conditions only occur about one year in three and can produce the best fishing for large trout of the season. This is true for experienced anglers, anyway.

See for yourself.

graph of projected flows for the Boulder River
Boulder River Streamflow
Graph showing predicted streamflow on the Yellowstone River
Yellowstone River Streamflow

I do not suggest booking a float trip at this time unless you are prepared to drive to the lower Madison River if things turn out to not follow the predicted flows noted above. That said, keep an eye on things. If the above forecasts do pan out and you can book a float on short notice, I strongly encourage you to consider it for Tuesday or Wednesday, the 28th or 29th.

Note that this same cooldown should make the Yellowstone in its Black and Grand Canyons, Slough Creek, the Gardner, and the Firehole/Gibbon/Madison ALL fishable for the opening weekend of the Yellowstone season, and the few days thereafter. I will post more details on this late in the week.

Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch Outlook and Tactics

Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch Outlook and Tactics

Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch Outlook and Tactics

It’s almost that special time of year when the fish can go crazy eating olive-bodied caddis for a few days on the Yellowstone before the river blows out. It’s been a couple seasons since the stars aligned, but because of recent heavy rains that should flush the low-elevation snow and a forecast for temps in the 60s (good) rather than warmer (bad) for the next week or so, we have at least a decent shot. Here’s a detailed outlook, plus tactics that will work on the Yellowstone (where the hatch can be epic or can be washed out by snowmelt) and on the Madison (where the hatch is usually decent but not epic).

Outlook

I’d say we have a 50/50 shot at a fishable caddis hatch on the Yellowstone this year. It depends on how much it rains this upcoming week and where the snow line is. Late last week saw the warmest temps of the season, up to the low 70s at valley-level, and this combined with heavy rain yesterday (Saturday 4/20) and this morning has caused the Yellowstone to spike to 2900 to 3500 cubic feet per second flows, roughly twice the seasonal average.

The river is muddy right now. Provided on how much it cools off, and it is supposed to cool off sharply Monday-Wednesday, we should have a fishable window mid-late week to get us close to the end of April. I do not expect any or at least many caddis this week. Water temps will still be in the 40s and it takes consistent 50-53 degree temps to get them really popping. Streamers are likely to be the ticket instead.

The key is the period beginning next weekend, April 27 onward. Temps in the week thereafter will determine whether we get a fishable hatch. If the NOAA forecast pans out, we are in good shape. The forecast is calling for cooler than normal temps and below normal precip for this period. This would be ideal to keep runoff from starting early. We’ll see… The most likely period for the hatch will be the first week of May. After that, temps are supposed to spike and that’ll be the end of the spring fishing on the Yellowstone.

The entire river from Gardiner to the mouth of the Shields River should be clear enough if the hatch does pop while the river’s clear. Even before yesterday’s rain, the river was filthy below Biltman Creek in Livingston, but the rain should have blown out most of the remaining low snow in this creek’s drainage. Once it drops, this will open up more clear water. It is unlikely the Shields River will clear enough to make the area east/downstream of its confluence fishable again this spring. There’s too much snow in the Shields Drainage, which is south-facing and therefore melts quick.

Over on the Madison, expect the caddis to pop in mid-May. While seldom as epic as the Yellowstone hatches, the Madison hatches pretty typically offer at least decent fishing for a week or more in mid-May.

Fishing Tactics

Subsurface tactics are usually more effective during the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch than dry flies, and attractor dry flies are usually more effective than imitative ones.

Start your day of fishing with streamers or by nymphing deep. Flashy streamers like the Kreelex are good choices in the spring as the water gets dirty. Run a caddis pupa like my Mother’s Day Pupa as a second chance fly behind this streamer. A lot of fish will take the dropper if the caddis hatch is imminent. If nymphing, something like a Prince or my Hula Princess on the bottom with an upper dropper of a lighter caddis pupa is a good choice. Another option is to fish a stonefly nymph with the Prince or a heavier pupa behind it.

Once you start seeing a few rises and a few caddis fluttering, switch to something like a #14 Peacock Clacka Caddis or Coachman Trude with the Mother’s Day Pupa or Prince on the dropper. Except in intense hatches, you can stick with this rig for the remainder of the hatch. Look for hatches to be heaviest from early afternoon through early evening. Early and late in the day won’t do much for you.

If the fish really start going crazy, swap the pupa for an olive Mercer’s Missing Link Caddis or Lawson’s Spent Partridge Caddis in olive. These double-dry tactics will work best in areas where bugs will cluster: foam patches, large eddies, and the like. They’re also a better bet if you’re wade-fishing than floating, since when wading you can pound areas you find rising trout and sort of encourage them to rise. From the boat, you’re flock-shooting and so better off most of the time targeting the larger numbers of fish eating pupae subsurface.

Yellowstone River Conditions

Yellowstone River Conditions

Current Conditions

Though it has been sunny with weather between the 40s and around 50 degrees for the past week, the Yellowstone River remains hazardous with bank shelf ice and is difficult to fish in many spots, with only a few boat ramps clear of ice.

In addition, stripes of low-elevation snowmelt have run through the river each day. It has always been possible to find clear stretches to fish, however. At 3:00 Thursday, the 26-Mile access in Paradise Valley was puke yellow/green in color, while the stretch near the Cinnabar access was emerald green with at least 4 feet of visibility (plenty).

This is DEFINITELY the latest into the late winter/early spring period that the Yellowstone has remained so inaccessible since I began living full-time in Montana back in 2006. Most years, the bankside ice is minimal by this point, with most boat ramps clear and almost all wade-access fisheries perfectly reasonable options.

Here are a couple examples of how this year differs:

East of Livingston, I have floated the Springdale to Grey Bear stretch as early as the first week of March without trouble. As of this writing, there are still river-wide ice jams on this section, and none of the boat ramps are clear of snow and ice.

Near Gardiner, my favorite stretch to wade-fish besides the mouth of the Gardner River right in Gardiner (which is always accessible through the heart of winter and is a good choice now) is usually easily accessible by late February, and frequently can be accessed without danger through most of the winter. It remains inaccessible both due to deep ice shelves completely covering the stream that must be waded to reach the main river and due to 4-6 foot ice shelves reaching out from the bank into the main river in the best spot, making the river itself dangerous to wade-fish. I thought hard about fishing it Thursday, but chose not to due to the danger of falling through the ice shelves. I usually get on this stretch for the first time without any danger besides the usual risk of a pratfall no later than mid-March.

The Long and The Short of It

For right now, choose the stretches of the Yellowstone you fish very carefully. Knee-deep snow or ice along the banks is negotiable, but it’s best to avoid any ice deeper than that, or walking on any that extends out into the river.

Floating is a bad idea except perhaps on the Brogan’s Landing to Yankee Jim stretch. Both of these ramps are ice-free, though there are high ice shelves along the banks for much of the float itself, making a pee stop a challenging endeavor.

Changes Coming Up

The weather forecast suggests the ice shelves will continue to melt at least slowly through mid-week, and will probably continue melting in a general sense moving forward. The melt may happen VERY slowly, however, since snow and temps peaking in the high-30s are forecast even at valley levels from the middle of next week through the weekend and the 6-10 and 8-14 day NOAA outlooks are calling for colder/wetter than normal conditions through at least April 5.

I have float trips scheduled the 6th-7th of April, and it’s possible I won’t feel safe running anything but the Brogan’s to Yankee Jim stretch noted above, though I’m almost certain that stretch will be at least safe to float. Mud might be a problem, though.

Brief Snowpack Update

Brief Snowpack Update

Here’s a photo I posted in January:

dry yard in December in Montana

Here’s a photo I shot today:

snowy yardThe entire region, but particularly the Yellowstone River basins in Yellowstone Park and north of it and the Madison-Gallatin basins in Yellowstone Park, have been absolutely pulverized by snow of late. This latest storm, which has put down probably two feet and counting in Livingston, was enough to close schools across the region –which ain’t easy in the Rockies. Livingston schools were closed for the first time since 1989.

All this snow, along with biting cold temperatures that have made February colder than January for the first time in decades at least, means that area snowpack is now running way above average. Depending on the basin, as of this morning snowpack was running 111% on up to 127% of normal. This is a drastic change from even a week ago, when the Yellowstone basin in the park (now at 111%) was actually below-normal.

Once the snow actually winds down I will be posting my full outlook on summer water conditions for early March. Suffice it to say that things have changed. In short, we are now looking at normal to above normal snowpack and streamflows. Above normal snowpack now seems likely considering the long range outlooks through March. We aren’t quite to where we were last season, and we don’t necessarily want to be since only an early melt kept us from a very late start to the high summer season, but the snowpack is now WAAAAAAY up there. At the very least, I feel safe in saying we should be out of the woods for temperature and streamflow-related closures in Yellowstone Park and on the Yellowstone River and its tributaries.

Yellowstone River Fishing Report, or (Icy) Lack Thereof

Yellowstone River Fishing Report, or (Icy) Lack Thereof

Yikes. This has probably been the coldest February since I started spending the winters in Montana back in 2006-2007. It’s certainly the first time I remember February being both colder and snowier than January.

Here’s a still taken from the webcam near Pine Creek.

icy river webcam
Yikes!

See that shelf on the right side of the image? Ice. See the white haze down the middle of the river? Ice. See the island at mid-screen? Mostly ice. See the channels upstream? Almost all ice.

Most of the river is in this sort of shape right now. With air temperatures of late ranging from the single digits below zero up to about 20 degrees, and more of the same in the future, don’t expect much change until at least March 10.

If you want to fish the Yellowstone, your only options for the foreseeable future are the mouths of the Gardner River or Depuy Spring Creek. Otherwise, stick to the spring creeks themselves.

This is actually a very unusual state of affairs. While floating is still out in late February almost every year, we’ve frequently got mostly open river except for ice jams along many banks. The fishing is often very good in the long, deep, midriver runs now, with some midge activity on calm, warm afternoons, but good nymphing any day temps are above freezing. Not right now. I’ll update the overall fishing report (click above) when things change.

This cold is doing wonders for the snowpack. We’re at about 98-104% of normal in all our important drainages. Expect these numbers to jump 5-10% over the upcoming week, with heavy snow in the forecast. I’ll be posting a full update on the snowpack around March 10, but suffice it to say that it is looking more and more likely we’ll have normal snowpack (or so) for 2019.