Snowpack Update and Summer Streamflow & Fishing Forecast: Early March Update
Here’s an introduction. More details are below.
After a great start to winter and a very warm and dry period from the middle of December through late January, February saw southwest Montana and northwest Wyoming blessed with one of the coldest and wettest Februaries in memory. This trend continued into early March, with temperatures a few days ago bottoming out at -28 in Livingston, a record for the date by 11 degrees! Basically, we had January weather in late February and early March.
Temperatures are still cold, but temperatures are now moderating somewhat and the outlook for the remainder of March is for cooler and drier than normal temperatures transitioning to warmer and drier than normal temperatures. April and May outlooks call for an equal chance of above normal, normal, and below normal temperatures and precipitation. We hope for normal precip and below normal temperatures to preserve the snow until May.
Fishing is frankly terrible right now. Even the Paradise Valley spring creeks are tough due to the lots of snow and ice on the banks, even though the creeks themselves are in good shape. The main flow of area rivers are now mostly ice-free except where drift ice has packed up and formed dams, but there’s so much bankside shelf ice that fishing is dangerous. We hope that conditions improve over the next week or two, but it could be early April before the boat ramps are clear this year. They’d better be. We have trips scheduled for the first week of April…
Current conditions put us in good shape for near-normal water conditions for this summer. It is now very unlikely things will be either substantially above normal or below normal this year, which should make for a “normal” season, provided the water melts on time. If it melts drastically late or drastically early, things could change a great deal. Since the forecast for most of March is for dry conditions, I expect the snowpack to decline as a percentage of average for the next few weeks. This means we could still be in for below-normal flows this summer (though probably not drastically below normal flows), particularly if the snowmelt begins in late April as it did last year, rather than around May 7-10 as it does in normal years.
NOTE: Everything that follows assumes near-normal precipitation and temperatures and a near-normal timing for the start of spring runoff!
Current Snowpack Conditions and Impacts on Summer Fishing
Snowpack in our area of operations ranges from 116% to 132% of normal. The highest number is in the Madison-Gallatin Basin in Yellowstone Park, the lowest in the upper Yellowstone River Basin in NW Wyoming, including Yellowstone Park. Unlike last year, and frankly unlike January this year, this is exceptionally cold snow that will be resistant to melting early.
In a general sense, we have a strong snowpack that should provide near-optimum water levels and keep flows solid and cool through July. As always, the early part of August is a bit of a question mark and depends on NOT getting a week straight of 95-100 degree temperatures.
Here are some notes on what to expect for specific watersheds, beginning with the Madison Basin in YNP, which is always the first walk-wade water to drop out of the spring melt. I’ll cover waters inside the park first, then waters outside it.
The Yellowstone Park General Season Opens May 25 This Year!
Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison Rivers in YNP
This is the first time in quite a while that the Madison-Gallatin Basin has had snowpack numbers higher than the Yellowstone Basin. This could make for an interesting early summer on the Firehole River, “interesting” in the first week of the season because of high water and ACTUALLY interesting in the last week of June and first week of July. If and only if the snow holds off melting until a near-normal timeframe, we could have good fishing on the Firehole and certainly on the Gibbon and Madison into early July, at least in the mornings. In fact, it’s at least conceivable that both the Firehole/Gibbon/Madison AND the Yellowstone and its tributaries could offer good fishing for about a week in early July. This almost never happens. Usually there’s a week or so in there when the former waters are too low and warm and the latter are still too high, and we kind of have to scramble to find good spots in the Park.
The Firehole is likely to be the only fishable water in this basin for the first week of the park season. Even it might be “meh” for the first few days of the season, if a big warmup does not occur a couple weeks earlier in May to clear out some snow. It is likely to be best in the middle ten days of June, but at least solid from June 5 to 25. As noted above, there’s potential for fishing into July in the mornings, but that will depend on weather.
The Gibbon below Norris Geyser Basin should begin fishing between June 1 and 5 and be best in the latter half of June. It should continue to fish into the first half of July, particularly in the mornings. The canyon water downstream of Gibbon Meadows will be best for the first week or ten days, while the meadows will be best in the last week of June. The short section of the Gibbon that holds fish upstream from Norris Geyser Basin (and its couple fishable tributaries) will not be ready before June 20-25 and will be best in July and August. Reminder: Grebe Lake and the entire Gibbon watershed from Virginia Cascades upstream was poisoned beginning in fall 2017 and is now effectively fishless pending grayling and westslope cutthroat introductions.
The Madison in YNP will probably be too high for the opener but drop and clear enough to fish with subsurface flies between June 1 and June 5. The best fishing will be in the latter half of June and it should hold up into July. Water conditions will be good for decent numbers of fall-run browns and rainbows to remain in the system until late June after overwintering in the river.
Yellowstone River Mainstem in YNP, and Tributaries in YNP
As always the upper Yellowstone River from Chittenden Bridge upstream to the park boundary (not including Yellowstone Lake) opens July 15 and will be best from that point through July. Water levels will be higher than anticipated in my last update, so that though the run should be stronger than it has been since about 1995 due to lake trout suppression efforts, fishing will be harder than earlier anticipated.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from the Silver Cord Cascade confluence to the Lamar River Confluence, including the Tower Falls area, MIGHT be fishable for the first 3-5 days of the park season if May is cool, but only with big nymphs and streamers for fit anglers. More likely, it is now unlikely to be fishable for the main summer season before June 20, and will probably not drop into shape before June 25-July 1. It will be good from this point through at least early October, with the Salmonfly hatch beginning around the time the water clears and continuing in sporadic fashion for a month. Yes, the Salmonflies hatch in the Grand Canyon for a month. They begin near warm water sources (small hot springs) and end near cold tributaries.
The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone from the Lamar Confluence to the Gardner Confluence is unlikely to fall into fishable shape before June 25 and it will probably be sometime in the last few days of June or first few days of July. Expect Salmonflies to begin about that time near Gardiner or a few days later and progress upriver for a couple weeks, with the conclusion of the hatch in the upper canyon between Hellroaring Creek and the Lamar around July 20-25. This water should fish well except when rains muddy it from the time it clears until late September at the upstream end and mid-October at the lower end.
Yellowstone River tributaries in the Park will generally be best in the latter half of July and August, though most will run clear no later than July 1. Blacktail Creek will be marginally clear by June 20-25. Tributaries draining lakes might be ready by June 15. Blacktail Ponds open in early July. Cascade Lake will be a swampy mess but probably reachable and ice-free in the first week of June, but will be best in the latter half of June after it warms a bit.
Gardner River System
The Gardner River Upstream from Osprey Falls will become fishable in early July. It has fished poorly the past few years. We’re not sure why. Access to this water may be tough due to road work this year.
The Middle Gardner between Osprey Falls and Boiling River will drop into some kind of shape sometime in the latter half of June, probably after June 20. It will fish best from early July through about October 25 (late season fishing is better when it’s warm out). Salmonflies should begin here with stragglers from downstream around July 1 and continue in the remotest reaches of Sheepeater Canyon into the first few days of August, with the bulk of the hatch around July 15.
The Lower Gardner from Boiling River to the Yellowstone may be nymphable for fit anglers on a day-to-day basis from the beginning of the park season. This is especially true for the first few days of the season, when the early opening means that cooler weather might allow some fishing before the bulk of the spring melt gets going. This is physically demanding fishing suitable only to experienced tightline (Euro/high-stick) nymph anglers. The river will start dropping into better shape about the same time as the Middle Gardner. The Salmonflies will occur in the first half of July. Fishing will be best for the last week of June and July and again from mid-September through the close of the park season.
Gardner River tributaries will begin dropping into shape around June 20 and be best in July and the first half of August. Many tribs will be hard to reach due to road construction. Grizzly Lake is effectively inaccessible due to this construction. Joffee Lake and the Swan Lake Flat sloughs will be squishy but fishable from the beginning of the park season (note that Swan Lake itself is fishless).
The Lamar River System
Slough Creek might be fishable in its Lower Meadow for the park’s opening weekend, but ONLY if it has been cool and dry, and ONLY utilizing streamers. It is much more likely to come into shape in the first week of July (along with rough water portions). The upper hike-in meadows (First, Second, Third) fall into shape a few days later. As always, Slough is usually best for the first month it is fishable, and gets tougher and tougher into late summer and early fall before shutting down in late September.
Soda Butte Creek will drop into shape between July 4 and 10 and be fishable from that point until late September. The catching will be best in late July and early August. I say “catching” rather than “fishing” because in our opinion the fishing is always miserable here due to overwhelming crowds and scarred, lethargic trout. It is often difficult to find 100 yards to yourself here and you should expect other anglers to jump into your pool no matter how small it is, including fishing directly across from you from the bank you are casting towards. Crowds are most intense and approach “eastern put & take fishery at stocking time” levels in the first two weeks of September, which is always the most crowded period here.
Rugged portions of the Lamar River will fall into shape for nymph fishing and possibly the Salmonfly hatch in the first week of July. Meadow portions will fall into shape shortly thereafter. The fishing will be most consistent for the first month after it drops into shape, but the Lamar remains worthwhile until late September. Roadside portions in the upper and lower end of the Lamar Valley will rival Soda Butte for overwhelming and dispiriting crowds. The portions of the valley farther away from the road won’t be so bad, and hike-in stretches are almost always fairly uncrowded. The rough water may or may not be crowded. It depends on how many anglers fit enough to do so run screaming from the crowds further upstream to fish the rough stuff.
Other Lamar River Tributaries typically require hikes and perhaps rough footing to access and produce smaller fish than the main streams, but produce far healthier fish and far less crowds. The main exceptions are Trout Lake (always crowded) and the lower end of Pebble Creek (usually crowded, always crowded when Soda Butte is muddy). The tributary creeks that aren’t obvious or require a hike to reach will begin fishing sometime in the first week of July and be best in the latter half of July and early August.
Note on Lamar Drainage Crowds: Upwards of 90% of area retail fly shop customers from July 4 through September plan to fish roadside meadow portions of Soda Butte Creek, the Lamar River, and Slough Creek, or to hike to the First Meadow (2+ miles) of Slough Creek. The crowds are most manageable in July. They are least manageable in the first half of September. These crowds substantially detract from the overall experience of fishing these areas, result in hook-scarred and tired fish, cause erosion, and are otherwise to be avoided if you are fit enough to fish elsewhere. In 2018, I ran one guide trip on this water, and it was a single-person trip in July, which allowed me to fish some nooks and crannies not accessible to larger groups.
Yellowstone River System outside Yellowstone Park
The “Upper” Yellowstone from Gardiner to Carbella is typically good already, but ice is limiting fishing so far this March. We hope things turn on in a week or two and really hope the ice is gone by early April, when we have floats scheduled and typically get a lot of big fish. The heavy runoff will probably begin around May 1-5 this year, and there will be a lot of low-elevation runoff during warm spells in April due to the abundant snow we’ve gotten lately. The river will drop out of runoff in the last week of June or first week of July, with Salmonflies beginning at that time. The best dry fly fishing will begin about July 10-15 and continue through early October. The nymphing was great all the way until November last year. Because I (Walter) now have a raft rather than a high-side drift boat, Yankee Jim Canyon floats will begin no later than July 15, though this water is typically best from August until early October regardless of water levels.
The Paradise Valley Stretch of the Yellowstone from Carbella to Pine Creek is usually not as good pre-runoff as the sections upstream or down, except during the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch which may or may not be fishable in early May. This water drops into shape at about the same time as the upper section, but is not as good on the surface except during the Salmonfly hatch or heavy evening caddis hatches before late July. The best dry fly fishing will be in August and September this year. Some slow fishing is possible during the hottest parts of late July and early August and during bright weather in late August and early September. The latter in particular depends on how fast the water drops after runoff. Low water here equals tougher fishing. Fall fishing is typically good in deeper areas.
The bottom of Paradise Valley and the “Town Section” of the Yellowstone from Pine Creek to Mayor’s Landing typically drops into shape a few days after the sections above (due to rough, turbulent water) but fishes better on dry flies than the Paradise Valley stretch through most of July, and holds up during hot/bright weather in late July and August better. It is also good in the fall, including very late fall (big browns).
The “Lower Yellowstone” east of Livingston will drop into shape around July 10-15 and be best in late July, perhaps the first half of August provided water temps remain under 70 degrees, and after September 15. This is the big fish portion of the Yellowstone and is best for anglers who want to try for some toads rather than numbers of smaller fish on dry flies.
The Boulder River offers some pre-runoff fishing. Its main season will begin a few days before the Yellowstone. It should be floatable for about a month thereafter and makes a great changeup to the Yellowstone for those willing to drive to meet me in Livingston.
The Stillwater River will drop into shape in the last week of June or first week of July and should be strong through August at least.
The Shields River is very much a secondary option, but I am going to be developing some private wade and potentially float access here this season. I hope to begin offering trips on the lower Shields in September-October, the most interesting period.
Other Yellowstone River Tributaries Outside the Park will begin dropping into shape around July 10-15 and be best in August and the first week or so of September. The main exception from Livingston south is Dailey Lake, which will ice-out soon and will be good in early April based on last year’s heavy stockings. Note: the private lakes and Paradise Valley spring creeks are discussed below.
Madison River System Outside YNP
For our purposes, only the Lower Madison River matters much. It will become floatable in early April subject to a reasonable melt of the current bankside ice. It will be best in May and June, and is our closest float trip option during this period. As usual, in early July it will get too warm to float ethically and remain so into early September, then be good again into November.
The Upper Madison River is a long way to drive to fish in a crowd, but it should be at least marginal throughout the spring and good by June 15-20 through June.
More Distant Waters
The Jefferson River should be good in the latter half of April and perhaps early May, then again for a week or two at the end of June and perhaps the beginning of July, before getting too warm until late August or early September.
The Gallatin River is going to experience severe ice jams in late March and April this year. By late April it should be great for wade angling (ice free areas near Big Sky sooner). The floatable lower portion is always of marginal interest until late September.
The Missouri River from Three Forks to Canyon Ferry Lake offers some rainbow fishing in late April and early May, but it’s “meh.” The much more interesting multi-species (carp, big trout, walleye, and pike) fishing will begin in late July and be best in August and while warm weather holds in September. The brown trout runs from Canyon Ferry and Toston Reservoirs are best in the latter half of October and November.
The “Land of Giants” Stretch of the Missouri is typically great by now, but it has been so cold and icy and there has been so much snow in that neck of the woods that I suggest waiting a couple weeks. After that, think pink flies through early May. Note that we are not offering power boat trips here this season. I had to sell my power boat to afford the down payment on a house. Look for them to return at a very friendly rate in late March 2020.
The Missouri River Below Holter Dam (the famous stretch) is currently snowpacked and iced-over, very rare for this late in the winter. It should be good to go by early April at the absolute latest and very good from that point through June. Note that this is getting up to 3hrs from Livingston, so it requires an overnight stay in Helena, Wolf Creek, or Craig.