As readers should know from previous posts on the subject, winter and early spring snowfall and how this snow melts from April into June are the most important drivers of summer water conditions in our area. I make reports on the progress of the snowpack through the end of the spring runoff in late June or early July, with the reports getting more detailed as the season progresses and we start to get a firm handle on what to expect.
In general, we like to see snowpack between 100% and 120% of normal, with 105-110% absolutely ideal. With snowpack at this level, waters drop out of the spring runoff at about their normal time (between early June and July 10 depending on the water in question), but flows remain high enough and therefore cool enough through late July and early August for the fish to remain aggressive and happy. With higher snowpack, the fishing once the water clears is great, but we start late and miss much of the prime summer tourist season. In 2011, we weren’t able to begin floating the Yellowstone until July 28, for example. If snowpack is dramatically low, we get an early start and have good fishing until about mid-July, but mid-July through late August can be tough fishing and we may need to start and end early.
As of right now, here’s where we’re at. Our approximate operations area is circled in red. I have also added in the drainage basins for the Upper Yellowstone system in Wyoming and Yellowstone Park (including the Lamar and Gardner Rivers) and the Madison/Gallatin basin in Yellowstone Park, including the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers.
As you can see, things are looking good right now, with drainage basins in our operations area ranging from 98% to 111% of normal. By far the most important basins for our operations are the Upper Yellowstone basins in Montana and Wyoming/YNP. These are edging right into the “sweet spot.” The only basins that we would like to come up are the Jefferson and Madison basins outside YNP. Considering we run less than five guided trips in these basins each year, this isn’t a huge issue for us so far.
The upcoming weather forecast for the remainder of this week looks like we’ll see the heaviest snowstorm of the winter so far from Wednesday (tomorrow) evening through Friday morning. The longer-range outlooks through February look cold and wet, as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if everything is up in the 115% of normal range by the middle of next week. Considering the long range late spring and summer outlooks are calling for warmer-than-normal temperatures, we’ll take it.
I should note that assuming the “average to somewhat high” snowpack numbers we’re seeing so far continue, we should have good to excellent water conditions for this summer, the fourth year in a row things have run average to a bit above. This will be the first time in my career (20 seasons counting 2020) that we’ve had this many years of solid water conditions in a row. We had great fishing and healthy fish last year, with the Yellowstone seeing probably its strongest average size range in at least ten years. Will this trend continue in 2020? I wouldn’t bet against it…
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.
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.
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?!?!?
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.
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.
Early April Snowpack Update and Summer Streamflow Forecast
Early April Snowpack Update and Summer Streamflow Forecast
I’m stuck in a hotel in Utah with THE WORST “HIGH SPEED INTERNET” OF ALL TIME through Sunday morning, so I won’t be posting any pics of likely streamflow as I usually do in these updates. I’ll make another post in 10 days to two weeks.
We’ve had a topsy-turvy winter and early spring that has left us guessing in terms of predicting summer 2019 conditions. September through early December were cold, wet, and snowy and put us off to a great start. Late December and most of January were warm and dry, and left us worried about conditions. Jan 20 or so through early March had wet spells interspersed with near-record cold. It was -28 in Livingston on March 1, a record for the date by more than 10 days and closing schools for the first time since 1988 (no snow days in these parts). Most of March were warm and dry, while early April was warm and wet until just a couple days ago, when things shifted to cold and wet. It has snowed up in the mountains each of the last three days.
Our mountain snowpack typically peaks between the middle of April and early May, depending on the specific location and elevation. We look on track for this year to follow suit, though with a transition back to warm/dry weather now forecast for late April, I expect we will run a few days early for peak snowpack, particularly for the high elevation locations that look unlikely to build snow in late April as they usually do.
Snowpack in our operations area ranges from 102% to 126% of normal. The most important basins for our “core” operations area are the Upper Yellowstone Basin in Wyoming, the Upper Yellowstone Basin in Montana, the Madison-Gallatin Basin in Yellowstone Park, and the Madison Basin outside Yellowstone Park. These basins range from 111% to 126% of normal. The highest percentage is the Madison-Gallatin, which bodes well for a long season on the Firehole, while the lowest is the Yellowstone north of the park, which bodes for a near-normal start to the summer season coupled with streamflows that should remain relatively high and cool throughout the summer.
All in all, we are looking at a somewhat above normal snowpack, which is what we prefer for the summer season even though it leads to a slightly late start for Yellowstone River floats. Remember: I also float the Madison and Jefferson this season. While these rivers are not as convenient to Livingston as the Yellowstone, they are good float options before the Yellowstone is ready.
Current Fishing Conditions
Because the warm weather in early March melted out most snow at low elevations, even if the deep freeze in February has left some ice shelves in strange places, we are now in the full swing of spring fishing. As a matter of fact, I ran two guide trips last weekend and hope to get some more in the next couple weeks.
The top fisheries through April are the Yellowstone, Paradise Valley Spring Creeks, and the lower Madison. The private lakes are just turning on (access might be tough due to snow drifts). Some “new to us” waters like the Jefferson and even the Musselshell will come on in late April. The Missouri is always good in April, on a variety of stretches, and this year is no exception.
Summer Fishing and Streamflow Predictions
We are looking at likely slightly above normal snowpack and streamflows this season. While the timing of the onset of the heavy spring melt has a lot to do with the specific streamflows later in the summer (early snowmelt = early end to snowmelt = lower flows later in summmer), we now feel pretty confident that conditions will be at least near-normal.
In a general sense, this means that we’ll be sweating for places to fish a bit after May 5-10 and until early July, with the most likely bets during this period the Firehole, Madison, and Gibbon in YNP as well as private lakes, the Missouri River, the Madison River, and perhaps the Jefferson River outside the park our best (only) options. On the other hand, once the Yellowstone System both inside and outside the park comes into shape sometime in early July, we anticipate generally consistent fishing and streamflows that are optimal for good fish activity and health as well as angling success. We do not anticipate any closures related to water temperature or flow except on the few rivers that are always too warm in mid-late summer anyway (the lower Madison and Jefferson, basically).
Here’s a suggestion: fishing is going to be generally good this year. If you’re a Firehole Junkie, come anytime in June. If you prefer the northern part of the park and the Yellowstone System outside it, come anytime after about July 4. We had great dry fly fishing through September last year and top-notch subsurface fishing through late October. I expect this year to be just as good, with the standard caveats about thunderstorms muddying the river and the few days that are 97 degrees and sunny out being the exceptions.
More detail on individual fisheries follows. The fisheries are listed within their river basins, with basins listed in the approximate order in which they drop out of the spring runoff. Yellowstone Park fisheries are given first, then Montana fisheries.
Reminder: The Yellowstone Park general season opens May 25 this year!
Madison River Drainage (YNP)
This is going to be a good year for the Firehole. The park opener falls early, so there’s a good chance the river will not have even reached peak runoff yet for the first few days of the season. Fishing in the last few days of May and early June will be best if it is cool, which will slow the runoff. There may be a few days of “meh” clarity here, even between Biscuit Basin and Midway. These are most likely prior to June 5. The best fishing will be June 5–20. Afternoons will get shaky after the 20th, but mornings should be good through June barring extremely hot weather. It’s pretty likely that Biscuit Basin down to but not including Midway Geyser Basin will continue fishing in the mornings until at least July 4 and maybe July 10.
Will probably become fishable in the first week of June unless runoff is very slow, in which case it may fish at the opener, go out for a few days, and then be back no later than June 10. The best fishing will be in the latter half of June. It’s very likely that mornings will be fine through mid-July. It’s possible but unlikely that mornings will be fishable through July, meaning the Madison doesn’t have a down period this year (last time was 2011 or 2014). This depends on fairly cool summer weather and some rain.
Will probably not fish on the opener unless it’s cold, in which case it will fish and then go out. Unlikely to be consistent before sometime between June 5 and June 10. The best fishing will occur in the latter half of June in the canyon or June 20 through July 4 from Norris to the canyon. Below Norris should fish at least in the mornings through July 15 and may fish all summer, though there will be better “small fish and numbers” fisheries than the canyon all over the place and better “big spooky” fish in the Lamar Drainage.
The small fish water between Virginia Cascade and Norrris will not be ready before June 20. This is in contrast to the swarms of campground folk who’ll be crawling all over Norris Meadow while it’s still a giant swamp. The water from the headwaters down to Virginia Cascades is currently not a viable fishery while fluvial grayling and westslope cutthroats are introduced above the falls; this water was poisoned in 2017 to remove non-natives.
Firehole tributary creeks will come in during the last ten days of June or so. Reminder: Grebe Lake and the upper Gibbon System are currently not viable fisheries due to the poisoning and introduction noted above.
Yellowstone River Drainage (YNP)
Upper Yellowstone (Above the Lake and Lake to Falls)
Opens July 15, as always. The best fishing will be in the two weeks after the opener, but there’s sufficient water in the system and enough cutts in the lake rebounding from the lake trout that there’s some utility in fishing through August, particularly from the lake to Sulphur Cauldron.
Grand Canyon (Falls to Lamar)
May be fishable with nymphs and streamers on the opener if and only if May 15-25 are cool. If it’s clear then, holy biscuits… After that, will blow out and probably not reach peak runoff until June 20-25, though this water becomes fishable the instant it begins to drop (since the loose mud will have been scoured from the canyon walls by that point). Again, nymphs and streamers for a while after that. The best fishing will occur from about July 10 through September. Salmonflies here and there as soon as it clears, but heavy in the second and third weeks of July.
Black Canyon (Lamar to Gardiner)
No way it’s fishable until at least June 25, and July 4 is not 100% safe (cross fingers, daddy has floats). The Salmonflies will pop between the second week of July and the end of July, with the peak emergence near Gardiner around July 10 and the peak at the upper end of the canyon a week or so later. The best fishing will occur from the Salmonfly hatch through late September, but the portions near Gardiner are worth a shot right until the park closes in early November.
Tributary streams will generally not be fishable until at least early July, with August best. Those flowing out of lakes are the main exceptions. Blacktail (beginner brookie creek) will be fishable in spots by the 25th of June. Small lakes will be reachable around June 10 and best from June 15 to July 15. Yellowstone Lake may well still have ice on the opener, but it’ll melt within a few days. The fishing will be best prior to the middle of July.
Gardner River Drainage (YNP)
Gardner above Osprey Falls
Likely too high even if it’s clear until at least July 10. The best fishing will be July 20 through August.
Gardner between Osprey Falls and Boiling River
Nymphable anytime it’s clear (a few cool days will do it), but tough and inconsistent. It will ‘really’ become fishable around the beginning of July. From this point, it’s a good choice provided it’s not cold all the way until late October.
Gardner between Boiling River and the Yellowstone
Nymphable whenever there’s a foot of visibility so long as you like heavy #6 stoneflies. There is a very good chance for a couple days of fishing in late May, essentially the early stages of the high elevation melt. This is tough and physical fishing. Will ‘really’ become fishable between June 15 and June 25, but still be physical into early July. The best fishing will be the early physically exhausting and dangerous nymphing, the Salmonflies in the first week of July(ish), and the fall fishing from about September 20 through the end of the park season.
Joffee Lake and the Swan Lake Flat Sloughs will be cold and sloppy but fishable on the opener. Otherwise, tributary creeks will begin dropping into shape between June 20 and the end of the month, and be good in July and August.
Lamar River Drainage (YNP)
Almost no way it’s fishable before July 4, and it might easily be the 10th. The latter half of July through the middle of September will be best.
Soda Butte Creek
Same as the Lamar, but more crowded.
Slough might be fishable with streamers on the opener. This happens about one year in five, and the early opener is good for that. If so, go there and swing meat. More likely, it becomes fishable in the first week of July and is best from the 10th through the month, getting tougher and tougher but still producing for skilled anglers until the middle of September or a bit later.
Other Lamar System tribs are likely to become fishable sometime in the first ten days of July. All are best before the end of August, since the larger fish tend to live in one of the bigger rivers. Trout Lake should be ice-free and be as good as it ever gets on the opener.
Missouri River (MT)
Headwaters to Canyon Ferry
While technically open for rainbows now, and can turn out some huge ones on streamers when it’s clear, we think of this as summer carp and fall brown trout water. As such, skip it until late July.
Canyon Ferry Tailwater and Hauser Tailwater (“Land of the Giants”)
Fishing now, and unlikely to get quite so high as last year. Think pink. Peak inflow and therefore highest water levels are likely in May, probably mid-month. I will be running power boat trips here again beginning in spring 2020. I would love to get a bunch of early deposits…
There’s a reason this is the busiest water in Montana in May and the first half of June. It’ll get high, but stay clear, and should fish well all spring. The dry fly bite will probably be so-so at best in May due to fairly high water.
Madison River (MT)
“Between the Lakes”
Fishing now, though requires post-holing through snow to reach. Think pink, midges, and eggs. Any warm weather will bring mud in from tributaries, but the top portion of this short chunk of river, the stretch right below Holter Dam, always remains clear.
Quake Lake to Ennis Lake
Fishing now and relatively snow-free as of Tuesday. A good bet with stonefly nymphs, midges, eggs, and maybe some BWO. Will get high enough that bank fishing will be tough to nonexistent, and probably won’t be “good,” from late May until the middle of June, but seldom becomes truly unfishable.
Ennis Lake to Three Forks
Will probably get fairly high, but that doesn’t really hurt this water. The bigger issue is mud out of Cherry Creek, which may be enough to dirty the river in early May. Otherwise, this water is a good choice. We’re running trips here for the first time this year, and this is where we’ll be floating the most from May 10 until the Yellowstone clears. There should be enough snow up high that this water will fish at least in the morning through July 15, though watch out for the bikini hatch once July rolls around.
The lakes should ice-out in early May and be good out of the gate.
Jefferson River (MT)
Has a short runoff that should be done by June 25. The fishing is best in late April and early May before the mud and for a week or two after the mud but before it gets hot. It can be a narrow window, alas.
Yellowstone River Drainage (MT)
Gardiner to Point of Rocks
Fishing well now (two guide trips out over the weekend) and should continue to stay strong until early May except when early surgest of low-elevation melt hit the river. Hopefully the heavy runoff holds off until May 10 or so. If it does, we’ll have a good Mother’s Day Caddis hatch. If it doesn’t, we’ll have chocolate stew from the time it blows until at least the last week of June, and I’m now thinking the first week of July is a better bet. The fishing will be good from then until early November. Salmonflies should take place July 4-10 or so.
Point of Rocks to Carter’s Bridge
It’s always a question mark if this water clears before, during, or after the Salmonfly hatch. It should clear near the end of June or in the first week of July, with Salmonflies at about the same time. We should have enough water this year that this stretch stays good all summer, with the best big brown streamer action in the latter half of July (with numbers of fish on caddis) and the best attractor/terrestrial fishing for both numbers and bigger fish in the latter half of August and first week of September.
Carter’s Bridge to Laurel
The Shields River has been pumping mud in already, so it’s a good question of how most of this water will fish pre-runoff. It might now. This water is “burly” enough it needs more time to drop into shape than the water above. Look to fish here beginning July 10-15, with the best fishing for the first month on caddis and streamers and on streamers and BWO after Labor Day. There may be some days this stretch gets too warm, generally the last week of July and first week of August. This depends on temps and precip. If summer is cool/damp, no problem. A week of 90+ daytime highs and you should go further upstream, even if this is the “lunker hunter” water on the Yellowstone.
We will be running floats here for the first time this year. Runoff will recede around July 1 and flows will remain high enough to float for about a month thereafter. This whole period will offer good attractor dry-dropper fishing, though every guide in Livingston with a raft likes to fish here at that time (including yours truly).
Similar to the Boulder, but further away (2hr from Gardiner, at minimum), bigger, and less-crowded. It’ll stay high enough to float until around Labor Day.
Usually good already, but the snowdrifts at low elevations make them something of a question mark. I’d hold off until April 20 or 25. After that, good fishing until late June for Story and late July for Burns, with warm water a question mark for good fishing from those points until about Labor Day. Merrell had another fish kill last year and so is off the table for 2019.
Paradise Valley Spring Creeks
Good bets for a few more weeks and then again after June 15-20, when the PMD start. Runoff does not impact them.
Dailey Lake is a reasonable bet for a few huge mutant holdover stocked fish and maybe some smaller recent stockers. Tributary creeks won’t be ready until July 10 or so and will be best July 20 through about September 10. We are playing with some access on the Shields River, which will have good streamflows for the third year in a row, a rarity. Stay tuned…
Gallatin River Drainage (MT)
Park Boundary to Gallatin Gateway
Fishing now, particularly between Big Sky and Gallatin Gatewaay. Expect runoff to hit sometime in the first half of May, though this water can have a short window of fishability here and there during this period, especially between the boundary and the Taylor Fork confluence. Will drop from runoff in early July.
Gallatin Gateway to Gallatin Forks
Good now, particularly at the upper end. Will blow out in early May and generally be too warm once it drops from runoff in July. There’s a reason the water upstream gets more pressure.
Gallatin Forks to Three Forks
Really only a fall float fishery. We’ll run a trip or two here after Labor Day for diehards who want to see a new river and are okay with tough fishing for very small numbers of big guys in exchange for low crowds.
A good choice now when it’s clear. I may run some trips here this year now that I’m in Livingston. Will experience pulses of runoff whenever it’s warm, especially if it’s warm and rainy. The heaviest runoff will be in May and early June. Will drop out of runoff in late June.
The various lakes will be hard to hike into before late June, but should be good then. Tributary creeks besides the East Gallatin will be roaring until about July 10 and best July 20 through Labor Day.
The 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 throughMarch. 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
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.
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.
Early February Update on Snowpack and Summer Streamflow Predictions
Whoever did the snow dances, thanks. In my last posts about snowpack and likely summer streamflow, we were looking at a snowpack ranging from 69% to 93% of normal, with the most important basins at 81-86% of normal and falling fast, with most of the snow having fallen before early December. We were also dealing with drastically above normal temperatures that left the snowpack warm rather than deep-frozen as it usually is from early December through mid-January. If those conditions had continued, we would have been looking at a drastically below normal snowpack, an early runoff, and probably some tough fishing and perhaps closures in August.
Thankfully, Old Man Winter finally woke up and the past few weeks have reversed the previous trends. Several big storm cycles have hit that have raised the snowpack to near-normal levels in most of our operations area. In addition, Late January and the first few days of February have been bitter cold. Typically we’re past the worst of winter by now as far as cold (though not snow), but the past few nights have seen temperatures well below zero. In addition, this overall cold/wet trend is forecast to continue through at least the middle of February, and perhaps through most of the month. That will still leave a lot of winter and spring to go, but it will put us in a much better position overall.
Here is the current snowpack map for the region, with our approximate operations area circled in red:
Compare the above to the graphic I posted with my previous update:
The improvement should be pretty obvious.
The trend looks set to continue for a while, as shown by the following precipitation and temperature outlooks from the National Weather Service:
Put simply, we’re looking at a strong probability of cold/wet conditions through at least February 20. February is typically a drier month than either January or March, so having it run wet instead can really help the snowpack add up.
Disclaimer: Everything I say from here on out depends on near-normal weather from now through early June!
What Does the Above Mean for Summer Streamflows?
Based on current conditions as well as long-range outlooks through spring that favor an equal chance of above and below normal precipitation (though warmer than normal temperatures from March through June), I now anticipate normal to slightly below normal snowpack. There’s a lot of winter and spring weather that will impact this. A few really big storm cycles and we could still wind up with somewhat above average snowpack. It could also quit snowing in March and April and we still wind up with substantially below normal snowpack. In addition, the onset of the spring runoff plays a huge role. A melt beginning in late April might still put us into the danger zone in August. A melt beginning after May 10 can shift things into “above normal” water levels for summer, even if the winter snowpack had been “meh.”
I do feel safe making the following prediction: We are unlikely to have either substantially high summer streamflows or drastically low streamflows from late June through early September. I suspect we’ll turn out with something like an 80% to 110% snowpack and streamflow this summer, with around 90% of normal my guess.
What Does This Mean for the Fishing, in General?
Generally speaking, low snowpack means better conditions and fishing from the middle of June through the middle of July, with an early start on our primary summer fisheries on the Yellowstone River and its tributaries, but worse conditions from the beginning of August through the middle of September on these waters as well as limited fishing on our secondary waters, the Madison drainage in YNP and the lower Madison River, the Boulder River, and the Jefferson River. Higher than normal snowpack means tougher conditions and fewer places to fish in the first half of June (though good fishing in the places that are low enough and clear enough, mainly the Firehole, Gibbon, and Lower Madison Rivers, as well as private lakes), but much better conditions and fishing from late July through the middle of September in the Yellowstone System. All in all, we would rather have normal to slightly high snowpack with the Yellowstone drainage falling into shape in the first or second week of July depending on location, with good conditions in August, but have to sweat things a bit in June.
I think we’ll be ABOUT there this season, with only a couple weeks in early August in which water temperatures might make late afternoon fishing a tough option and slightly tougher fish in late August and early September, the latter due to low water and weeds rather than water temperature issues.
Overall, I anticipate conditions and fishing resembling the following recent seasons: 2009, 2010, and 2017.
I do not expect low/warm/challenging conditions as found in 2012, 2013, 2015, or 2016. Nor do I expect the high water and late start we had in 2008 or 2011. I also expect the conditions to be slightly less favorable than the “perfect” years we had in 2014 and 2018.
Any July-August River Closures Likely?
July-August closures are likely on the waters within our operations area on which such closures are typical, namely the Jefferson and lower Madison Rivers. The lower Madison will probably not be worth fishing from June 25 or so through about Labor Day. The Jeff will probably hold on a week or two longer at the front end and start a week earlier at the back end. In addition, the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison within YNP will be too warm from sometime in late June (Firehole and Gibbon) or early July (Madison) through late August (Madison) or early September (Gibbon and Firehole), though they are seldom closed.
I do not expect any closures on the Yellowstone River, the Lamar River or its tributaries, the Gardner River, the Boulder River, or the Stillwater River. In other words, all of our summer waters should be fine and should not experience any closures, though as always the hottest/brightest days in late July and early August may necessitate an early start or quitting early for the best fishing, and the hottest/brightest days in late August and early September may necessitate either floating the roughest/deepest water or accepting spooky fish. This is typical even in high water years.
As I noted above, all of this might change somewhat depending on snow that hasn’t fallen yet as well as when runoff begins.
When Will the Best Fishing Occur on Various Waters?
Take the below with a massive grain of salt. I will be able to refine the following dates and make them more and more accurate as the winter and early spring progress. Waters are listed by jurisdiction, Yellowstone Park followed by Montana, with the waters listed within each jurisdiction according to rough overall importance to Parks’ Fly Shop’s guide services rather than distance or the number of shop customers who aren’t being guided headed to these waters.
Yellowstone Park Waters
Note:The general park season runs from sunrise on May 25 through sunset on November 3 this year. The major exception to the general dates is the Yellowstone River system upstream from the Upper Falls, which primarily opens July 15 (the lake opens with the general season).
Yellowstone River and Tributaries
The best fishing from the lake to the falls will as usual occur from the July 15 opener through July. This year should see good water conditions for this period, neither too high nor too low. Since fish numbers are on the upswing, I anticipate the best fishing since the late 1990s on this water this season. How’s that for a prediction?
The best fishing in the Grand Canyon (Silver Cord Cascade to Lamar River confluence) will occur from about June 20-25 through September, with only crowded and/or hot-sunny days in August and early September likely to be a bit slow, especially when the Lamar and its tributaries are muddy, which tends to push people here. There will be no water temperature issues. Expect Salmonflies to begin sometime between June 20 and July 1 and last through about July 20.
The best fishing in the Black Canyon (Lamar confluence to the park boundary at the Gardner River confluence) will occur from about July 1 through early October, with hot/sunny afternoons in early August likely a bit slower due to warmer water temperatures than we like. As always, this water can get muddy after summer thunderstorms. Expect Salmonflies in the lower end of the canyon between June 25 and July 10 and in the upper end from July 1 through July 20, with those dates to be refined later.
Yellowstone River tributary creeks inside the park will generally fish best in July and August, as always, though a couple will be fishable by June 10-15.
Cascade Lake should be accessible between June 5-10 and fish best through early July.
Gardner River and Tributaries
The upper Gardner, between its headwaters near Emigrant Peak downstream to Osprey Falls, including all tributaries in this section, will probably not be fishable at all in 2019. This is due to the ongoing Norris to Golden Gate road construction project. This project has been marching steadily northward for the past few seasons, and has already impacted some areas in the upper Gardner (especially Grizzly Lake and Winter Creek). We expect this project to extend north either to Indian Creek Campground or even all the way to the Golden Gate (the steep little canyon with the waterfall south of Mammoth) this year, making access impossible. Keep an eye on the blog for updates, which we will get in late spring.
The middle Gardner, between Osprey Falls and Boiling River, should be clear enough to fish on a day-to-day basis from the beginning of the park season, but very cold at that time. It will come on for real sometime in the last week of June, most likely, and remain good throughout the remainder of the park season except on exceptionally cold days in October-November. October is always the absolute best time to fish here.
The lower Gardner, between Boiling River and the Yellowstone confluence, will be fishable on a day-to-day basis from the beginning of the park season, and might be low enough by the 10th or 15th to be very good at least for fit anglers who can handle the fast water and like fishing stonefly nymphs. The fishing will really kick into gear after June 20, with the Salmonflies soon after. The last week or so of July and first half of August may see high water temperatures in the afternoons on warmer days, and I expect heavy weed growth to make nymphing annoying in August and September (the weeds have been getting worse and worse every year). The fishing will remain good through the close of the park season, and as always October is the best time to fish here at least if you’re looking for large fish and/or dry fly fishing (runner browns and BWO hatches, respectively).
Lower Gardner Tributaries, basically meaning Lava Creek, will be fishable sometime in the latter half of June and be best in July and August.
Madison River System in YNP: Firehole, Gibbon, and Upper Madison
The Firehole should be prime on the park opener and remain good through at least June 20, with afternoon fishing tough on bright days no later than June 15. The Firehole will probably be too warm for the summer by July 1, though its tributaries can be good through the summer. It will turn on again after Labor Day and remain good through the close of the season.
The GibbonRiver Canyon might be ready with the park opener, but is more likely to drop and clear enough to be good sometime between June 1 and June 5. Norris Meadow, Elk Park, and GibbonMeadows should be low enough to fish well by June 10-15. While Norris Meadow (and the small fish water up to Virginia Cascades) can fish okay for mostly smaller trout through the summer, the stretch from Elk Park down to Madison Junction will be too warm from sometime in late June or early July through about Labor Day. Reminder: the water from Grebe Lake to Virginia Cascades was poisoned in 2017 and is fishless pending grayling and westslope cutthroat introductions.
The Upper Madison might be ready with the park opener, but is more likely to drop into shape for nymph and streamer fishing between the opener and June 1, with the best dry fly fishing from June 5 through June 20. It will get too warm for the summer except during cool spells beginning sometime in the last few days of June or the first few days of July, extending until late August. It will then be good through the close of the park season, with the best big trout opportunities in the latter half of October.
Lamar River System: Lamar, Soda Butte, Slough, and Smaller Tribs
All will probably drop into shape in the first week of July and be best from mid-July through early August, then get steadily harder and harder until they get too cold in late September or early October. As usual, crowds will be overwhelming and will detract from the experience in the roadside sections of Soda Butte and the Lamar. Those who can do so should stick to the rugged portions of the Lamar, hike to the Second Meadow on Slough, head over to the Yellowstone instead, or hike up one of the small tributary streams.
For what it’s worth, in 2018 we ran ten or twelve ten trips in the Lamar Drainage, total, and about half of those were on rugged stretches that aren’t the pretty roadside meadows most anglers think of when they envision this drainage. This water is just too crowded for us to want to take most clients here, these days. People don’t pay us for combat fishing for scarred and lethargic fish that get caught twenty or thirty times each season.
Yellowstone River: Gardiner to Big Timber
As soon as the current cold snap breaks, most of the Yellowstone will become fishable on foot through early May. The best spring fishing will occur from late March through April. If you’ve never fished the Yellowstone in the spring, it’s uncrowded and an excellent time to target larger fish using subsurface tactics.
Runoff is likely to begin (as always) sometime in the first or second week of May, though in 2018 it actually started in April. This will put the entire river out of play for a month to six weeks, probably closer to the latter.
The Upper Yellowstone, from Gardiner to Carbella, will drop into good shape in the last week of June if current conditions hold, with the Salmonfly hatch at the same time or beginning less than a week later. The fishing for the hatch should be good, with lower water levels than we saw in 2017-2018. The most consistent fishing overall will occur in July, but water levels should be good enough that the fishing should be at least decent most days through October. The hottest, brightest periods in the last week of July and first half of August might entail meeting and taking out early, while the fish might be spooky during hot/bright weather in late August and early September. I do not anticipate any streamflow or water temperature issues beyond perhaps a few slow afternoons. Now that I (Walter) use a raft rather than a drift boat, Yankee Jim Canyon will be floatable during this entire period, though it is best when water levels are below 5000cfs, probably from about July 15-20 onwards. For what it’s worth, I guided this water in late October at flows of 1000cfs in 2018, for the first time, and the fishing for big rainbows on dead-drifted streamers, BWO nymphs, and egg patterns (near brown trout spawning areas) was phenomenal.
ParadiseValley (Carbella to Livingston) will drop into shape at the same time as the upper Yellowstone, and may or may not experience a good Salmonfly hatch. If the hatch pops as the water clears, levels should be right for a few days of very good fishing with both dries and subsurface bugs (including streamers!). After that, there will be a small dip in fishing quality before things get good again by the 10th-15th of July. Levels should promote good fishing through all of Paradise Valley through early August, but 26-Mile to Mallard’s Rest might be a bit slow from early August through mid-September, due mostly to low water levels rather than temperature. This will depend on weather conditions, with cool/cloudy days best in late summer and early fall. The upper and lower valley (Carbella-26 and below Mallard’s) should fish like the Upper Yellowstone does in this period. The whole valley will come back into play regardless of weather after September 10 and be good thereafter.
The Town Section through Livingston will come into play in early July and be good from that point through October except during the hottest, brightest days in August. Now that I (Walter) live in Livingston, along with Rob Olson and many of our contractor guides, we expect to fish this water a lot more. It’s good for both numbers of 12-14″ rainbows and decent shots at big browns, and it’s amazing how little of Livingston you actually see.
The Lower Yellowstone (Livingston to Big Timber and Beyond) will come into play sometime between July 5 and July 15 and will fish best during cooler/cloudier weather in August (hoppers) or in a general sense in September and early October. This is “rowdier” water than the stretches of the Yellowstone upstream, and holds fewer but larger fish, so it is a much tougher option during the otherwise great period of July.
The private lakes will be best from ice-out in early April through the middle of June (Story) to the middle of July (Burns), and good options again from the middle of September through late October. Since all of our guides who guide on Burns now live in Livingston, we have deleted our Burns Lake fuel fee, making this lake a great option for early summer dry fly fishing provided the wind isn’t howling. Burns and Story both fished well in 2018.
Merrell Lake experienced another fish kill in 2018, after one in late 2017, so we will not be guiding on it this year (and suggest you avoid it for your own fishing, as well).
We will be offering trips on this river for the first time in 2019. It is only floatable for a short window after the spring melt. This year, it will drop into shape between June 25 and July 1 and remain floatable for 4-6 weeks. This is a great attractor dry/dropper river that typically produces larger fish than the upper Yellowstone does with similar tactics, on average.
Lower Madison River
The Lower Madison is the closest float option to Gardiner during the May-June period. Since Rob Olson and I are now based in Livingston, we have dropped our fuel fees for this water, so if you’re willing to meet us in Livingston, day-trip river floats are now available even during the Yellowstone’s spring melt.
This stretch of the Madison begins at Warm Springs Access and extends to Three Forks, though the best trout water ends at Greycliff. It is best in the latter half of May and the first half of June, will get too warm sometime in the latter half of June, and turns on again sometime around Labor Day, with good fishing in late September and October. Limited opportunities for carp and pike are possible during the warm water period in high summer, but there are better fisheries.
The trout water below Holter Dam is good all year except perhaps during August and early September, but we only guide it in spring and early summer. It requires a 2+ day commitment. Expect good levels for nymphing in May and June, but the water may be too high for good dry fly fishing from early May through early June. We’ll see how much more it snows. Contact me for details on the floats we’re offering for the first time on this stretch.
The multispecies water between Toston Dam and Canyon Ferry Lake is always best in August and early September, especially on hot/bright days when other options might be poor. While some walleye, pike, and big (20+ inch) rainbows are possible at this time, we’re mostly sight-fishing for “rocky mountain bonefish,” aka carp. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. We’re talking about 4-12lb fish that require careful presentations and often run over 100 feet, without any crowds. Curious? This water also provides some options for big run-up browns in October and November, though we seldom fish it then.
The “Land of the Giants” section produces well from now through July whenever it’s warm enough you can stand it. The heaviest crowds are from mid-April through mid-May. We WILL NOT be guiding this water in 2019. I had to sell my jet boat to make a down payment on a house. I expect to replace the boat and resume offering trips here in March, 2020.
Paradise Valley Spring Creeks
We expect to the spring creeks to be a much more important part of our business this year, since we now have two full-time guides based in Livingston. As always, the creeks are best from now (early February) through April, from about June 25 through about July 20, and from mid-October through fall. We would love to introduce you to these waters in March or April.
We will be offering trips on this river for the first time in 2019. It is typically best in the latter half of April and early May, before runoff, for a week or so right after runoff (this year the last week of June or first week of July), and again from the middle of September onward. It’s a long way from Gardiner, but doable as a day trip, and a “different” river than most you’ll see.
Lower Gallatin River
Richard Parks last guided here in the early 1980s, but we’ll be offering trips here again staring in fall 2019. This is big fish hunting downstream of the East Gallatin confluence in October, for run-up fish out of the Missouri.
The Upper Gallatin, from the Yellowstone Park boundary down to Four Corners, is always good in late March, April, and July, with lower portions tough in August and early September. We don’t really guide this water, though.
Expect details on the Shields, East Gallatin, Darlington Ditch, Stillwater, and a few other waters that are secondary options at best by late spring.