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Summer Streamflow and Fishing Forecast and Runoff Update – Mid-June (Final) Update

Summer Streamflow and Fishing Forecast and Runoff Update – Mid-June (Final) Update

Introduction

Montana lifted its nonresident quarantine order on June 1. While it has been slow, I’ve been working a bit this month and things do pick up in July, though this is still going to be a down year for me, as for every other outfitter in the region. Speaking for probably every guide in Montana, I hope you consider booking some trips if your health and funds allow. While our water conditions are going to be a bit more challenging than 2017-2019 due to an early runoff, I expect low crowds on the rivers will more than make up for this.

Spring runoff is now tailing off everywhere, though most waters are still too high. Over the next week this will begin to change, and by the end of June my entire area of operations will be in shape for the summer or only a couple days out. We’re do for cool weather this week, and this will play a big role in dropping the Yellowstone, Boulder, and Stillwater Rivers into play a bit earlier than anticipated.

Here’s the short version:

  • The spring runoff is still heavy on most freestone rivers across the northern part of Yellowstone Park and points north. It is basically over in the central and western parts of Yellowstone Park as well as west and northwest of the park. The Madison Basin in particular is now down to something like 30% of its normal snowpack for the date, meaning it’s game on over there.
  • Runoff came early and except for a couple short “runoff breaks,” was quite intense. Now that we’re past peak runoff, the cool spell coming this week will likely drop larger, low-elevation rivers out of the spring runoff to fishable levels for the season, though flows will still be high until about July 4.
  • Winter snowpack was quite high in most area drainage basins, but the early and heavy runoff has melted this snow fast. We now have below-normal snowpack everywhere, drastically below normal in the Madison Basin. This means we’re looking at below normal streamflows for July-September.
  • Area fisheries that are still in spring runoff will drop into play between June 20 and July 4. After that, everything except perhaps the rough lower Yellowstone east of Livingston will be ready to go.
  • Closures related to low water and high water temperatures are certain on the lower Madison River below Ennis Lake and on the Jefferson River. They are unlikely elsewhere. The Firehole River downstream of the Old Faithful closure zone is ALWAYS too warm to fish after about July 1, and this year will be no exception. Why this water isn’t simply closed from July 4 until Labor Day, I have no idea.
  • Other areas that are unlikely to fish well after noon from mid-July until Labor Day are the Gardner River downstream from Boiling River (a hot spring), as well as on the Gibbon and Madison Rivers in YNP. The lower Gallatin River downstream of Gallatin Gateway also falls into this category.
  • It is possible that low flows combined with heat waves in late July and early August will result in poor fishing conditions after 2-3PM on portions of the Yellowstone River outside YNP, especially points east of Livingston. This will be tied to day-to-day weather. A week of 90+ degree highs and sunshine will mean we need to start at 6AM and quit at 2PM, or fish the Yellowstone in the morning and go elsewhere after lunch. I do not anticipate any mandatory “Hoot Owl” restrictions on the Yellowstone.

Current Conditions

Runoff is over in west-facing drainages both inside and outside YNP, and it’s fading fast everywhere. After June 20, I expect all rough-water areas to be at least marginally fishable for the remainder of the season. The current cool spell, which will transition to downright “cold” for a few days this week, is going to do wonders for the late June fishing on the Firehole River and also slow the last surge of runoff elsewhere. The next ten days will see me shift my fishing/guiding attention from the Gibbon River in YNP and private lakes and the Lower Madison outside the park to the Gardner River in YNP and the Boulder and Yellowstone Rivers outside the park.

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 moved to Phase II of its coronavirus reopening plan on June 1. Tourism and therefore guided fishing are now permitted without any sort of quarantine.
  2. All entrances to Yellowstone Park are now open. All roads except the Tower Junction to Canyon road segment are now open. Tower to Canyon is closed through 2021 or 2022 for reconstruction.

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 now underway. Things aren’t “normal,” but at least they exist…

Due to expected low crowds this season combined with good streamflows for feeding and spawning purposes from 2017-2019, I anticipate good fishing this season with the possible exceptions of late afternoon from mid-July through mid-August.

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 is out of runoff and fishing well now. It will fish great during the current cool spell before rapidly getting too warm during the last week of June. Expect it to be hitting 75+ degrees daily by July 1, and therefore too warm to fish ethically from that point until the first cool spell in early September. The small-fish water above the Old Faithful closure is always cool enough all summer, but it’s basically just a pretty brook trout creek up there.

Gibbon River

The Gibbon is out of runoff. The canyon has fished well since the beginning of June and is now probably seeing its best fishing of the season. The meadows are just dropping into shape. Expect the fishing to fall off to a morning-only option after July 1, due to warm water.

Madison River Inside YNP

The Madison is out of runoff and seeing some PMD, caddis, and Salmonfly hatches. Like the Firehole and Gibbon that feed it, it will be too warm in the afternoons by about July 1 and be too warm until late August. The “runner” holes can fish well in the mornings in late August following cold nights, while the rest of the river gets going again after about September 5.

Madison River “Between the Lakes”

Clear and probably crowded. Certainly out of runoff. This stretch stays cool enough to fish fine all the way until next year’s spring runoff, though there are better sections in the summer.

Lower Madison River (Below Ennis Lake)

Out of runoff. A great choice until things warm up in late June. After July 4 now sees mandatory 2PM closures every year on this stretch of river, which this year will be warranted as this river gets real warm in July and August.

Lakes in Yellowstone Park

Small hike-in lakes are now fishable. Most years see the best fishing of the season right now, but the cold spell starting today might see late June being a better bet. They stay good options into the middle of July. Yellowstone Lake is likewise fishing, but it will slow down particularly for lake trout by the end of June.

Gardner River

The Gardner Below Boiling River is now in shape and fishing well for fit, experienced anglers. Rainstorms may bring it up to an unfishable level again, but that’s a short-term weather phenomenon. Runoff will never bring it back up again. The fishing will get easier if not necessarily better through the remainder of June and be best until about July 10, after which afternoons will be too warm for this stretch until mid-September.

The Gardner from Osprey Falls to Boiling River is similar in structure to the Gardner below Boiling River (a hot spring), but much colder. The larger pools here are already fishing, but the fishing will get much better as the water warms and be strongest in July and the first half of August. The fishing remains strong particularly for larger fish (but not numbers) until early October.

Above Osprey Falls, the Gardner is a brook trout fishery (with a few small rainbows mixed in near the falls). It will be ready between July 1 and July 4 depending on the section. The tributary creeks drain more lakes and lower elevations. They are probably low enough already but will warm to a good temperature around June 25 and fish best before mid-August.

Madison River (Quake Lake to Ennis Lake):

High, but dropping and clearing fast. Definitely fishable with nymphs already, and Salmonflies will pop soon.

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. The good fishing window will be short this year, because we’re forecast to have a late-June hot spell that will warm this low-elevation river fast and almost certainly result in closures by mid-late July.

Boulder River

The Boulder had a very brief “runoff window” last week before coming up again. It will drop into fishable shape for the season by June 20 and be gangbusters after that, almost certainly better than the Yellowstone on balance until July 1, and still a good option thereafter. It will remain high enough to float until July 15-20 this year, but is a good wade-fishing destination thereafter.

Yellowstone River (Grand Canyon)

Ready to go with big nymphs and streamers, but will get much easier to fish and navigate the steep banks around June 20-25. The Salmonfly hatch will start about then and last in spotty fashion for three weeks. Note that my previous guidance on accessing this water in 2020 was incorrect. The Tower Falls access is closed due to roadwork this year. This means you can fish under the NE Entrance Road Bridge with all the spin-fishers (which is usually as poor as it sounds), hike the grueling Specimen Ridge to “Sulphur Beds” trail, or hike the even-more-grueling Seven Mile Hole trail. Tower Falls is slated to be accessible in 2021 and I know exactly where I intend to be guiding for the first 2-3 weeks after the Grand Canyon is even remotely fishable that year…

Stillwater River

Above the Rosebud should drop into shape around June 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. The Stillwater may get too low to float around August 25 this season if it doesn’t rain a fair amount in August and September.

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.

The float water from Gardiner to Yankee Jim and from Carbella to Mallard’s Rest will drop into marginal shape around June 20 and be fishable but challenging (especially for novices) until July 1, getting easier thereafter. The Salmonfly hatch will begin around June 25. With a fast warmup predicted, I expect the hatch to move quickly upstream and be past Gardiner into YNP by July 1.

The Black Canyon will also be marginal around June 20 but will be very physically difficult to fish until July 1. After that, expect easier if not automatically better fishing, as well as the Salmonflies. The “big bugs” will be heaviest here during the middle 10 days of July, tapering off around the 15th near Gardiner and around the 25th near Hellroaring Creek.

Yankee Jim Canyon will drop into safe floatable shape around July 10 this year.

Except for short-term heat waves in late July and August, fishing will remain good on this section through fall, though the deeper, faster sections are better once the water drops below about 3000cfs. During heat waves, we may want to get on the water at 6-7AM and off by 3:00, especially in Paradise Valley.

I do expect the best fishing on this water will take place in July rather than August this season. Last year early August was better. This year the fish will be spookier due to the faster decline in water levels this season.

Lamar River, Slough Creek, and Soda Butte Creek

This water will all come into shape around July 4, with the best fishing in the latter half of July and first ten days 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 are already fishable, depending on the creek, but most small streams will truly drop into shape around July 10 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 10 this year. 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 late July and 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. It may get to the point where I don’t guide this water, if we really get stuck in a heat wave.

Conclusion

There’s going to be good 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…

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…

Snowpack Report and Summer Fishing Conditions Forecast

Snowpack Report and Summer Fishing Conditions Forecast

Introduction

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

Coronavirus Impacts

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

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

Snowpack Summary

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

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

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

Impacts of Snowpack on the Fishing

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

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

Madison Basin

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

Yellowstone Basin

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

Other General Notes

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

Conclusion and Food for Thought

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

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

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

Crowds will be down.

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

Want to book some guided trips?

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.

Montana and Yellowstone Snowpack Update and Predictions on Summer Water and Fishing Conditions – March 06 Update

Montana and Yellowstone Snowpack Update and Predictions on Summer Water and Fishing Conditions – March 06 Update

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.

Montana snowpack map Mar 06 2020

As you can see, things are looking good right now in most of our operations area, with drainage basins in our operations area ranging from 92% to 127% of normal. By far the most important basins for our operations are the Upper Yellowstone basins in Montana and Wyoming/YNP. These are at 113% and 111%, respectively. The low spots are the Madison in Montana and Madison/Gallatin in YNP.

Because the winter has been warm and we’ve got warm, rainy weather in the forecast for the next week, I expect these numbers to all drop over the next week. Beyond that, long range NOAA outlooks for the 6-10 day forecast period suggest above normal precip and below normal temperatures (aka good chance it’ll be snowy), while the 8-14 day outlook suggests an equal chance of above, below, and normal temperatures with a greater chance of above normal precip. Very long range outlooks extending through the spring suggest greater likelihood of above normal temperatures as well as above normal precip.

We still have a good six weeks of “snowpack building time,” and the above outlooks do not look likely to drastically change our overall snowpack numbers, though I do expect them to decline a few points. We’ve had a warm winter, so the medium-elevation snow will start melting as soon as it gets rained on.

In regards to most of our operations area, in particular the Yellowstone Basin inside and outside Yellowstone Park, 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…

The Madison/Gallatin Basin inside Yellowstone Park is a different matter. It would not surprise me to see this snowpack drop to 85% of normal by the end of next week, with the bulk of the drop in the lower-elevation Madison portion of this shared basin. The storms have generally been going either just north of the park or just south of it, leaving the Madison Basin inside the park just off the storm track. This below average snowpack could become a problem if the forecast warmer than average weather for the next three months materializes. The Madison outside the park should be fine, particularly upstream of Ennis Lake, but the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison inside the park might suffer due to low/warm water this year as they have not since 2016. The Firehole in particular may wind up getting too warm by around June 20, whereas it has fished well through June the past few years. We’ll have to wait and see on this. If you’re a Firehole-lover, I suggest doing some snow dances.

Early Snowpack Update: Looking Good So Far!

Early Snowpack Update: Looking Good So Far!

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.

early february snowpack in Montana

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…

 

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.