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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…