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…

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