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.
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.
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 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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Josh Garris’ Yellowstone Nymph is a simple, buggy fly similar in most respects to a Walt’s Worm or Sexy Walt (no relation, just ask my wife) that works well in fast, bouldery water in Yellowstone Park as a caddis pupa as well as sowbug or caddis on the Land of Giants stretch of the Missouri River.
After the tying video, I’d appreciate it if you keep watching for an update on how Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing and Parks’ Fly Shop are handling the coronavirus and how you can help us get through it.
Hook: Standard scud, #12-18.
Bead: Black brass or tungsten to match hook size.
Thread: 6/0 rusty brown. Use 8/0 on #16-18.
Tail #1: Tag end of tying thread.
Tail #2 and Rib: Pearl Krystal Flash (#12-14) or Midge Flash (#16-18).
Body: Spirit River (now Hareline) Buggy Nymph Blend in Hare’s Ear, or similar tan/brown/gray coarse dubbing.
Head: Tying thread and head cement.