As many readers will know, Hebgen Dam on the Madison River malfunctioned the morning of November 30. In this post, we give a summary of the problem, immediate efforts to rescue stranded fish, and impacts. We then make some guesses on the effects of Hebgen Dam malfunction on the 2022 Montana fly fishing season.
Summary of the Hebgen Dam Malfunction
Around midnight on Tuesday the 30th, a dam component broke and caused the dam’s outlet gate to immediately shut. This Hebgen Dam malfunction reduced the river’s flow from just under 700cfs to under 200cfs (half the record low flow) in about 30 seconds. Imagine the latch that keeps an extendable ladder extended suddenly breaking and the ladder collapsing abruptly to its folded length.
This abrupt cut in flows did not leave time for fish (trout and forage both) in side channels and other shallow areas to flee to deeper areas and left brown trout redds full of fertilized eggs from the recent spawn high and dry. Here are more details on the problem. Repairs on the dam were completed just after midnight on Thursday December 2, meaning fish in side channels were trapped and eggs left exposed for about 48 hours. The impacts were highest between Hebgen and Quake Lakes, where the drop in flows was most abrupt and only a couple tiny tributaries enter to keep flows slightly higher.
On Wednesday December 1, volunteers coordinated by Montana FWP staff conducted a salvage operation to move fish trapped in deep spots in cut-off side channels to the main channel while avoiding redds that were still damp. Most fish moved were sculpins and some small trout. Most dead fish found were small trout. It seems that most larger trout were already in deeper water (typical for winter water conditions) or were strong enough to wriggle over the shallow gravel while it still had any water at all flowing over it. That said, the largest trout rescued were over 24 inches in length.
Despite the above efforts and the relatively short period before flows returned to normal, a fish kill of unknown proportions is certain. Additionally, a substantial loss of the 2021 brown trout spawn is also certain. The worst fish kill seems likely to have occurred immediately below the dam. The worst egg loss is likely the entire section between Hebgen Dam and natural Quake Lake downstream. Both impacts gradually decrease the further downstream you travel, with the trout kill in particular much lower by Cameron, Montana, about halfway between Quake Lake and Ennis Lake. Impacts on redds are likely present throughout the Madison between Hebgen Dam and Ennis Lake.
Several factors probably help reduce the overall impacts of the dam failure:
- The weather: It has been extremely warm in Montana lately. This means that most isolated side channels did not freeze overnight, even at the surface. In effect, the side channels cut off from the main river were briefly turned into shallow ponds in which fish were trapped. While stressful, since these areas did not freeze, most fish trapped in the deep spots in side channels did and will survive.
- The season: Most fish, adult trout in particular, were already in winter holding areas of deep areas of the main channel or – in the case of fish “Between the Lakes” between Hebgen Dam and Quake Lake – down in Quake Lake. Compared to summer, when many fish move into side channels to get out of heavier currents in the mainstem and/or to feed, many fewer fish were trapped.
- Prompt and massive recovery efforts: A huge turnout on Wednesday December 1 from Ennis, West Yellowstone, and Bozeman fishing guides, anglers, and concerned locals to help FWP relocate trapped fish meant that many fish, particularly trapped sculpins, were moved to safety in the mainstem. So many volunteers turned out that many were not required to join recovery efforts since all publicly-accessible areas were covered.
Montana FWP instituted an immediate emergency fishing closure on the entire Madison River from Hebgen Dam to Ennis Lake when notified of the crisis. To our surprise, this closure was lifted as of Friday, December 3. We expected it would be continued for quite some time and honestly are a bit horrified that it was lifted.
We encourage all anglers to AVOID this stretch of the Madison through the winter and spring months to allow the fish time to recover and to ensure no angler impacts on remaining brown trout redds and the upcoming rainbow trout spawn. The lower Madison near Bozeman is below Ennis Lake and was unaffected by the dam malfunction. The Yellowstone Park section was likewise unaffected.
Effects of the Hebgen Dam Malfunction on the Madison River
Effects on the Madison River itself remain to be seen but are likely to be substantial and last through the 2022 season and beyond. These impacts will be highest between Hebgen and Quake Lakes and lowest between Varney Bridge and Ennis Lake. The lower Madison River downstream of Ennis Dam (including the Beartrap Canyon) will be unaffected since Ennis Dam had normal water releases during the crisis.
Likely effects include:
- Slightly reduced overall trout counts: While the overall fish kill is probably not as bad as initially feared, some trout certainly died after their holding areas dried up and others will die because of the immense stress they underwent between suddenly being trapped in shallow, exposed areas and the stress of being trapped and moved to refuge in the main channel. Immediate fish kills will be concentrated on smaller trout and sculpins, while stress-related mortality will be heavier among larger trout.
- A substantial loss of the 2021 year-class of brown trout: While not a total loss, we expect the 2021 brown trout spawn to be a disaster, especially in the “Between the Lakes” stretch and probably down to Lyons Bridge. This loss will be more and more apparent as time progresses and this year’s eggs reach catchable and then spawning size. Another poor spawn is likely in about 2026 since fewer spawning-size brown trout will be present. This impact comes on the heels of an unexplained reduction in brown trout numbers across SW Montana that has occurred over the past several seasons.
- Reduced sculpin populations: Sculpins are big trout food and there will be a lot less of them in 2022. Maybe the trout will eat flies better? Maybe they’ll shift more to stoneflies or smaller forage? Maybe they’ll just be skinny?
- Reduced insect populations: Almost all insects trapped in channels that went dry will have died. Like the sculpins they should bounce back quickly, but see above about potential impacts to the trout.
When the Hebgen dam malfunction first occurred, we anticipated widespread and long-term angling closures on the river. At the moment, it does not seem that these will be instituted. We believe some closures SHOULD take place. We will be writing a letter to Montana FWP as a permitted outfitter on the river and thus a stakeholder suggesting as such. We believe:
- The Madison should be closed between Hebgen Dam and Ennis Lake from now through the third Saturday in May, 2022 to give the fish a break and to allow an unimpeded rainbow trout spawn.
- The Madison should be closed either between Hebgen and Lyons Bridge or between Hebgen Dam and Ennis Lake from October 15, 2022 and the third Saturday in May, 2023, to allow unimpeded brown and rainbow trout spawns.
The above changes would allow populations to return to normal for the future without unduly hurting area anglers and guides. Note that the traditional season opener from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge was historically the third Saturday in May. This date was only changed about five years ago.
Effects of the Malfunction on Other Waters
We must first note that the “Between the Lakes” and “Fifty Mile Riffle” sections of the Madison River impacted by this disaster are not in our core operations area. In fact we are not authorized to guide between Hebgen Dam and Quake Lake and only run about one or two trips per season between Quake Lake and Ennis Lake. So the direct impacts of the Hebgen Dam malfunction, fish kill, and damage to the brown trout spawn on our operations and most of our Livingston-based clientele will be nonexistent.
Impacts on other waters will not be direct. Even the Missouri River of which the Madison is a source was and will remain unimpacted, since Ennis Lake downstream had normal water releases into the Missouri downstream.
Indirect effects may be present. These are all “possibilities,” rather than certainties:
- Increased guide traffic on other waters: With reduced fish numbers on the Madison, many Bozeman-area guides may opt to float the Yellowstone River instead. Other waters like the Gallatin, Ruby, Jefferson, or other stretches of the Madison may see similar changes for a year or two.
- Reduced angler traffic to the region overall: A small but noticeable drop in visiting anglers occurred on the Yellowstone River due to oil spills FAR downstream that occurred several years ago. These oil spills had no impact whatsoever on the Yellowstone as a trout fishery since they occurred far downstream, but bad publicity is bad publicity. A few visitors may stay away because of this.
- Widespread regulations changes to protect spawning trout: With proposals already being floated to reduce angling pressure during the brown trout spawn due to the aforementioned reduction in brown trout numbers region-wide, it’s possible FWP will implement widespread October-spring closures to protect this spawn not just on the Madison, but on most rivers.
- Increased oversight of public utilities: Let’s hope… This isn’t the first time Hebgen Dam has failed, a pipeline has ruptured, sewage has been dumped directly into rivers, etc. etc.
We knew it’d happen. This summer’s extreme heat and drought just caused Montana FWP to shut down afternoon and evening fishing on the Yellowstone, lower Stillwater, Madison, and most of the Missouri starting tomorrow. We agree with this decision. It should be extended to large, famous waters in Yellowstone Park, as well.
This obviously puts a damper on our guiding. Here are remaining options:
- Morning half-day float trips on the Yellowstone River; for floats, this is probably our preferred option now.
- Full-day floats meeting no later than 6:00AM.
- Half-day and full-day walk-wade trips in Yellowstone Park; again, half-days are probably a better bet, though we can make a full-day work by sticking to small mountain streams in the afternoon.
- Full-day walk-wade trips in Montana: Basically these trips would be limited to the upper Stillwater.
- Walk-float combos: Another good option, though availability is limited. We’ll float early, then wade fish a small mountain stream in Montana later.
Do your rain dance, folks.
Here’s the full news release from FWP:
High temps prompt additional fishing restrictions on several Montana rivers
HELENA – Several angling restrictions on rivers in southwest, north-central and south-central Montana go into effect today due to warming temperatures and low flows.
The restrictions include what are commonly known as “hoot owl” restrictions, which means fishing is closed from 2 p.m. to midnight each day. Some waters are under full fishing closures, which prohibit fishing at all times of day. These closures and restrictions will stay in effect until conditions improve.
The following closure went into effect today:
- A full fishing closure for portions of the Shields River from the confluence with Yellowstone River to USFS Crandal Creek Bridge.
These closures go into effect, Wednesday, July 21, at 12:01 a.m.:
- A full fishing closure for portions of the Big Hole River from the confluence with the Beaverhead River to Tony Schoonen Fishing Access Site.
- A full fishing closure for portions of the Gallatin River from the mouth to Hwy 84 Crossing.
- A full fishing closure for the entire Jefferson River.
These restrictions go into effect, Wednesday, July 21, at 2 p.m.:
- Hoot owl restrictions for the entire reach of the Madison River from the mouth to the boundary with Yellowstone National Park.
- Hoot owl restrictions for portions of the Beaverhead River from the mouth to State Highway 91 South.
- Hoot owl restrictions for portions of the Missouri River from Town of Cascade Boat Ramp to Holter Dam.
- Hoot owl restrictions for portions of the Stillwater River from the confluence with Yellowstone River to Absaroka Fishing Access Site.
- Hoot owl restrictions for portions of the Yellowstone River Hwy 212 Bridge in Laurel to Yellowstone National Park boundary.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ drought policy provides for angling closures when flows drop below critical levels for fish, when water quality is diminished, or when maximum daily water temperatures reach at least 73 degrees for three consecutive days. Warm and dry conditions are expected to continue during the coming weeks.
If you’ve been following the news, you know that the NW United States has been under a nasty heat wave. We’re right in the bullseye even though we don’t make the news as often. Coming on the heels of a low snowpack year and an exceptionally hot and dry June, we’re starting to run into severe water temperature and flow problems that are hurting both fishing opportunities and area fish and fisheries. The governor has declared a state drought emergency. The long-range outlooks for summer 2021 do not provide much hope conditions will improve. Indeed, we’re now looking at our worst water year since 2007 or 1988.
Here’s a rundown of where we’re at and where we’re going. The hyperlinks will take you to relevant information pages.
As We Stand Now – A Summary
Water levels are drastically below normal. While the precise percentage varies from stream to stream, in general most rivers and streams are flowing at 30-40% of their historic averages for the date. For reference, these levels are closer to those commonly seen in early August than early July. Coupled with temperatures generally in the 90s at low elevation and the 80s even at 7000 feet in Yellowstone Park with bright sun, water temperatures are climbing well above normal. They’re already at levels seldom seen except during early August heat waves during previous drought years. The current water temperatures are unprecedented this early in the season.
Due to the high water temps and low water, some closures are already in place on low-elevation streams including the Jefferson, Shields, Smith, Ruby, lower Gallatin and East Gallatin, but near-universal closures on all larger rivers in Montana are likely soon. Except a couple marginal fisheries like the Shields, current closures are 2:00 to midnight “hoot owl” closures that allow for morning fishing. Without a break in the weather, full closures are likely on all major rivers except the Missouri, Bighorn, and perhaps the Madison upstream from Ennis Lake.
Yellowstone Park has not instituted any angling closures yet, though it should. Water temperatures in portions of the Firehole River have already reached 85 Degrees! This is undoubtedly lethal to the Firehole’s fish. We expect large-scale fish kills due to high temps have already occurred on this river.
Fire danger is high to very high and likely moving towards extreme levels. We are at stage II fire restrictions in Park County, Montana (as well as virtually all other counties in the area; no fireworks, kids), and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, while stage one restrictions are present in Yellowstone Park. We anticipate a very bad fire year in the region, possibly on par with 1988, or, for younger folk who don’t remember this, the recent apocalyptic fires in California.
Fire danger and water temperatures are increasing with no end in sight, while hope for increased streamflow is nonexistent before September rains.
Impacts on Fish and Fishing
High water temperatures and low flows are terrible for trout. Trout beginning experiencing thermal stress when water temps reach the high-60s. 73 degrees can be lethal. As such, Montana begins instituting 2:00 to midnight “hoot owl” closures when water temps hit 73 degrees three days in a row at any point during the day. 24-hour closures are instituted if temperatures fail to drop below 70 degrees during any 24-hour period. These closures remain in place until water temps remain below 70 degrees for three consecutive days and forecasts predict this will continue.
At any rate, fishing when water temps is over 68 is terrible, so it is best to leave the fish alone when temps reach this level.
When fishing when water temperatures may push into the danger zone, it is important to do the following:
- Avoid fishing during the warmest part of the day or in any condition when water is over 68-70 degrees.
- Play fish quickly to limit their exertions. Consider upsizing your tackle to enable bringing trout in quickly.
- Keep fish in the water – no hero shot photos.
- Use barbless hooks that are easy to remove.
- Fish high-elevation or tailwater areas that do not get as warm.
- Consider fishing for alternate species such as carp.
Given the duration of the low flows and high water temperatures, we anticipate severe negative effects on area trout populations. Large fish kills are likely in the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison Rivers in YNP, which all receive hot geyser basin discharge. Limited trout kills are possible elsewhere. Large whitefish kills are possible in the Yellowstone River System due to a resurgence of Proliferative Kidney Disease, a parasite that thrives in the warm, low, weedy water we will have this year.
Impacts on YCFF Operations
Here’s the meat of the matter for many readers. Effects on our operations are beginning and will be severe for the remainder of the summer. These include:
- Drastically reduced fishing opportunities on large, famous waters including the Yellowstone River and many locations in Yellowstone Park. Even when closures are not in place, poor fishing or undue stress on fish will prompt us to refrain from fishing many areas until temperatures decrease and flows increase.
- Reduced fishing hours – We are already quitting by 3:00 and will shift this earlier if need be, even if we are not legally required to do so.
- Earlier starts – We will begin meeting for all full-day trips at 6:00AM this week, and all half-day trips will run in the morning.
- “Guide’s Choice” trips are required – Because options are limited, we expect all trips to have to run as “guide’s choice” trips in which we fish areas that are open and ethical to fish, regardless of client preferences. In general, the highest, steepest, and coldest water is what we will have to fish in order to operate at all.
- Likely full suspensions of our services – We anticipate having to shut down our guide services beginning sometime in mid-July and continuing until sometime in late August. Full closures through the 2021 season aren’t off the table. We will be getting in touch with clients booked in July and August over the next few days to discuss options.
Will YCFF Survive This Year?
Absent all the trout in area rivers dying from this heat and drought (which frankly is something we are beginning to worry about) or our house burning down due to wildfires (more likely, we are prepping “GO!” bags for this possibility), yes we will. We had a record June due to the July-like water levels and are selling off some of our capital (namely the jet boat Walter just bought) to see us through the winter, and Walter is lucky his wife Jani chose a steadier and more-lucrative career. We will get through this year more-or-less intact and hope for a strong resurgence in 2022.
That said, a second year in a row like this one will destroy rather than damage area fisheries and will mean Montana is no longer a world-class fly fishing destination, in which case I will most definitely be looking for something else to do…
Winter snowpack and how this snow melts from April through June are the primary drivers of summer water conditions: whether the water’s high or low, whether it’s warm or cold, etc. This in turn drives the fishing. In general, we like to see slightly above-normal snowpack since this leads to cool water and aggressive fish.
The lower the snowpack and hotter and drier the summer weather, the more likely we will have tough or limited fishing on late summer afternoons due to warm water. In exceptionally hot/dry years, we may even have stream closures in core watersheds in our operations area. Some watersheds are now always closed from 2:00PM to midnight in late July and August, though none of these are important fisheries at this time.
Winter and Early Spring Weather Summary
Winter started with a bang in early October, with over a foot of snow and below-zero temperatures even in Livingston. Things then got dry by early November and stayed that way through January. The early part of winter was so dry that Bridger Bowl Ski Area had to delay its opening until almost Christmas.
February really saved our bacon. The whole month was very cold and very wet. In fact the ski area set its record for February snowfall. This heavy snowfall propelled Yellowstone and Montana snowpack to above normal levels in most river drainages by mid-February. Those that didn’t jump above average climbed over the 95th percentile, close enough.
March returned to slightly warm and slightly dry conditions for most of the month, with a few cold and wet outbreaks. Snowpack increased in a general sense, but declined against average.
April turned out to be highly variable, despite a forecast that predicted warm and dry. We’d go from a couple days of light snowfall that mostly melted by noon (here in the low country) to bright sun and 65 degrees a day later. The last few days of April were exceptionally warm, with temperatures in Livingston reaching the mid-80s on the 30th. This prompted an early start to the snowmelt.
May was highly variable, with weather yo-yoing from hot and dry to cold and wet. We had accumulating snowfall that stuck around for a couple days here in Livingston as recently as May 20. June 5 it is forecast to hit 90 degrees. That’s how the spring has gone. On balance, May was probably a bit drier than normal.
Current Yellowstone and Montana Snowpack and Runoff Update
Current snowpack ranges from 38% to 129% of normal in the Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing areas of operation. Runoff is well underway everywhere, which is a big reason why these numbers are so variable. The other big factor is a heavy winter storm that mostly impacted central and northern Montana ten days ago. Basically, high mountains and especially high mountains north of here still have good snowpack. Otherwise, the snow’s almost gone.
Snowpack is 75% of normal in the Upper Yellowstone Basin in Wyoming, basically meaning the Yellowstone River and all its tributaries upstream of Gardiner, Montana. This comprises all the core summer water within Yellowstone Park. The Upper Yellowstone Basin in Montana is at 77% of normal. This includes the Yellowstone Basin (including the Wyoming water) downstream to the Clark Fork confluence near Billings, Montana, at the eastern edge of YCFF’s operations area and beyond the Parks Fly Shop operations area.
Besides the above basins, which are the most important river drainages for both businesses, snowpack ranges from 38% of normal in the Madison-Gallatin Basin in YNP to 129% of normal in the Smith-Judith-Musselshell Basin, which barely touches on our operations area.
In general, snowpack is low to very low across the important drainages in our operations area. With above normal temperatures in the forecast, things will not improve.
General Expectations for Summer
Based on current Montana snowpack and predictions for June we expect the following for the core June-early September season. Conditions after mid-September depend on fall rain and snowfall:
- A short runoff cycle that will end in all but the highest drainages by June 20.
- Below-normal stream levels from this writing onward.
- Above-normal water temperatures in all river basins between July 10 and August 15-20
- More 2:00PM fishing closures than usual between the above dates.
- Potential for poor fishing conditions after 2:00-3:00 during hot spells on many fisheries that do not meet closure criteria (note: Montana closes trout fisheries from 2:00-midnight when they touch 73 degrees three consecutive days to avoid stressing trout; above 70 is poor fishing anyway)
- Potential for round-the-clock fishing closures in a few low-elevation fisheries (note: these are unimportant fisheries to most anglers in midsummer)
- Spookier than normal fish in late July, August, and September
- More fires than usual from late July through September
This is the meat and potatoes for most visiting anglers. Here’s when we expect various important fisheries to blow out with runoff, clear from runoff, and how we expect they’ll fish through the summer. Within each jurisdiction, waters are discussed in approximate order of when they’ll leave spring runoff.
Private Lakes: The private lakes are now enjoying their best fishing of the year. Given the hot weather forecast for the upcoming week, we anticipate some lakes will begin slowing down by mid-June this year. All lakes will be poor from the beginning of July through mid-September.
Missouri River – Land of Giants: Very low flows have led to crowded and so-so fishing on the Missouri so far this season. Weeds will be heavy in July and August due to the low flows, which will probably prevent us from fishing here July-September.
Area Reservoirs: Like the private lakes, the reservoirs are at their best right now and will likely begin falling off into summer doldrums with the upcoming heat wave. High-elevations reservoirs like Hyalite near Bozeman and Hebgen near West Yellowstone are a very different matter and should be fine except on hot/bright/windy afternoons in July and early August.
Madison River (Lower): The Lower Madison is at or near its best fishing of the year, though it’s very low. Caddis pupae, Yellow Sallies, and crayfish are working, and PMD might also be on tap. Forecast high temps will do this water no favors, though it probably won’t be too warm to fish before about June 20-25. The Lower Madison is always closed to fishing from 2:00PM until midnight from July 15-August 15. In reality it ought to be June 25 through Labor Day this year.
Jefferson River: The “Jeff” is now blown with spring runoff until about June 10. High air temps and low flows do this low-elevation river no favors. We might not have ANY fishable window between the end of the runoff and the onset of high water temps. Expect 24-hour closures here in late July and August, with 2pm to midnight closures in early July.
Boulder River: The Boulder has just gone into its heavy runoff, but it will drop quickly too. We expect marginal fishability by June 15. It’s very likely going to be an exceptionally short float season on the Boulder this year, with flows falling under the 500cfs threshold by July 15 to 20 at the latest. Expect low flows and stressed fish in late July and August, so no wade-fishing downstream of Natural Bridge in late summer, either. 2:00PM closures are possible in August from Natural Bridge to the Yellowstone.
Stillwater River: The heavy runoff has now hit on the Stillwater. Points upstream from the Rosebud confluence should come into shape June 15-20. Downstream, around July 1. Prime floating flows will be from June 20-25 through early August depending on the stretch. The upper Stillwater above the Rosebud will get too low by August 1. The lower Stillwater will likely get too low to float sometime between August 20 and Labor Day unless good late summer moisture occurs to keep things up. High water temperatures below the Rosebud confluence are likely in early August, with 2:00 closures possible but unlikely. More likely, you’ll just want to launch early and take off by 3:00 during hot spells.
Yellowstone River: The Yellowstone will experience maximum runoff around June 4 this year, with flows forecast to peak around 14,000cfs at the Corwin Springs gauge.. This is 6,000cfs below normal. Because of the low peak, expect fishable flows by June 20 at the absolute latest, with June 15 very possible. The most consistent fishing will range from June 25 to early August depending on the section and the weather. Late July and August will see water temperatures over 70 degrees on many hot afternoons. 2:00 closures are possible on the entire Yellowstone outside YNP but are most likely east of Livingston. Regardless of any mandatory closures, lots of days will demand “early-on, early-off” for good fishing, especially the week either side of the beginning of August when maximum sun/heat combine with lower flows. We expect many of our guided trips to meet by 6:30AM and be off the water around 3:00 during this period regardless of legalities. Mandatory 24-hour closures are unlikely anywhere on the Yellowstone, but are possible east of Livingston and especially east of Big Timber.
The Salmonfly hatch on the Yellowstone will almost certainly be fishable this year, though it will probably be of short duration. Look for the hatch from June 20 through July 4 depending on June weather and the specific stretch of river.
Most Small Streams: Except for a couple low-elevation odds and ends that fish well from mid-June until early July, like the Musselshell River and upper Smith River, most small streams will begin coming into shape in the first week of July and be best between mid-July and Labor Day. Most run ice-cold, which makes them excellent bets in late July and August on afternoons when big rivers may be too warm.
Yellowstone Park Fisheries
The Yellowstone Park fishing season opened May 29. Most “westside” fisheries are clear and fishable already, with the Firehole already probably at its best fishing level and temperature of the year. Crowds have been overwhelming, though. The rest of the park will become fishable between June 10 and July 1, depending on the water. The upper Yellowstone and a few other odds and ends do not open until July 15. Check regs to be sure!
Please note that fall fishing is really not discussed here. Most or all of the larger rivers in YNP become good again after September 1 when cooler nights allow water temps to drop.
Firehole River: The Firehole is low, clear, warm, and crowded. The extreme lower Firehole has already hit 70 degree water temps right above its confluence with the Gibbon, though most of the river is still in the high 50s or low 60s. The best fishing of the “early” season is already occurring on the Firehole. It will get too low and warm for good afternoon fishing by June 10 and maybe June 5. It will get too low and warm period around June 20 absent cool and wet weather. Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing does not expect to run ANY trips on the Firehole this spring due to the short cool-water window. If 24-hour closures are not instituted on the Firehole in July and August due to high water temps, shame on Yellowstone Park.
Madison River in YNP: The Maddy in YNP is clear and fishable and will be best before June 20. It will be too warm on bright afternoons thereafter and too warm period between July 1 and late August. Closures should but probably won’t be instituted from July 4 through August 15-20.
Gibbon River in YNP: The Lower Gibbon below Gibbon Meadows is low enough and clear enough now and will be best from June 1 through June 15. It will gradually get too warm thereafter and be too warm in July and August. From Norris Geyser Basin through Gibbon Meadows is in shape now and will be best from June 10 to June 20 and too warm between July 4 and Labor Day. From Virginia Cascade to Norris will drop into shape around June 10 and be best in July and early August. Upstream of Virginia Cascades is still undergoing grayling and westslope cutthroat restoration so is not recommended this year. 2:00 closures are likely and warranted below Norris Geyser Basin in late July and August.
YNP Lakes: All Yellowstone Park lakes that are open are accessible and fishable. Blacktail doesn’t open until July 1 and will likely already be too warm. Yellowstone Lake will be best before June 20. Cascade and Grebe will be best June 10 through early July.
YNP Central Plateau Streams: Streams like Nez Perce will drop into shape around June 10 and be best in late June and July.
Gardner River: Given the warm weather forecast, we don’t anticipate any “runoff breaks” on the Gardner. That said, it’ll be nymphable for good below Boiling River around June 10 and good by June 15. Osprey Falls to Boiling River will be a week later due to colder water. Above Osprey Falls will come in June 20 to July 1 depending on section and will be best in July. Below Boiling River will be too warm in the afternoons and may see closures in late July and August. The park is often overzealous with lower Gardner closures and may shut things down from Osprey Falls on down if they institute any closures at all. Closures between Osprey and Boiling River are NEVER warranted since this water stays below 65 all summer long no matter the weather.
Yellowstone River: The Yellowstone River above the falls always opens July 15 and will be best for the first two weeks. From the falls to the Lamar (Grand Canyon) will begin coming into shape around June 10-15 and be best from the point it’s barely fishable until about July 20 and again after September 15. It will be cool enough all summer, but can see heavy pressure in easy-access areas in late July and August. In the Black Canyon from the Lamar to Gardiner, it will track similarly to the Yellowstone outside the park as described above, except the Salmonflies will be present primarily in the first half of July and there’s less likelihood it’ll get too warm after 2:00 on late summer afternoons. Closures are unlikely on the Yellowstone inside YNP, though if the park institutes any closures at all they tend to go hog-wild with them.
Lamar, Soda Butte, and Slough Creek: Rough stretches of Slough and the Lamar will start coming in around June 20. Meadow stretches will come in around June 25 to July 1. The fishing will be best in July and on August mornings, though fishing will be good on cloudy afternoons even through August. We anticipate OVERWHELMING crowds on roadside easy-access portions of these streams this year. We’re talking people every 25 yards. This is due to the pent-up demand from people who didn’t travel last year combined with people who still can’t travel to more exotic locations overseas as well as low water that concentrates people in the main channels rather than allowing them to spread out in side channels. Closures are possible but unlikely in late July and August, though as noted the park can go bananas when they do institute closures (most recently 2007).
Rough Small Streams: As usual, small streams draining areas other than the park’s central plateau are steeper and rougher than others. They will come in around July 1 and be best from July 10 through mid-August.
Posted on March 24th, 2021 in Area Fishing News
The title says it all. Big jump in Yellowstone fishing and boating license fees this year. The YNP license is now almost as expensive as the Montana license. Here’s the fee schedule:
On the plus side, you can finally buy Yellowstone licenses online. They will go on sale May 24 this year at recreation.gov.
Winter is now 3/4 over here in Yellowstone Country, which means we have a fair idea of what summer streamflows are going to look like. If you aren’t familiar with the Western water year, we get most of our summer streamflow from snowpack. High snowpack that melts late and we have high water. Low snowpack that melts early, low water.
All in all, we like snowpack to sit around 110% of normal when it starts melting in late April. This gives us a slightly late start on summer waters like the Yellowstone, Lamar, Boulder, and Stillwater, but also gives us a cushion of higher, colder water if late summer is hot and dry.
Lower snowpack than this makes it more likely we’ll have low, warm water in late summer, with the potential for closures or at least tough late-afternoon fishing in early August. Higher snowpack than 110% means a very late start on summer rivers, though usually excellent fishing from late July onward.
The Winter So Far
Winter started in early October, with heavy snowfall and cold weather. Then the script flipped from November through January. During this period, we had far warmer and drier conditions than normal, which led to extremely low snowpack and the prospects for a dangerous drought. If you believe it, we had heavier snowfalls and colder temperatures here in Livingston in October than in January.
The script flipped again at the beginning of February. All of February was cold and wet in the region, which dramatically increased snowpack throughout the region and moved us largely out of the danger zone (for now). The first few days of March have been very warm and dry, though it is supposed to cool off and get wet again over the next week.
Here’s a map covering “west-wide” snowpack. Green and pale blue are good. Yellow and especially orange and red are bad. The northwestern corner of Wyoming and southern Montana are the drainage basins that impact our waters. As you can see, southwest Montana and Yellowstone are in pretty good shape compared to many areas in the West, especially points south of us.
Narrowing our focus a bit, here’s Montana, with little extensions showing basins in NW Wyoming that impact our operations. Our approximate operations area is outlined in the medium red line.
To interpret the above numbers, snowpack within our operations area ranges from 90% to 108% of normal. The most important basins, the Upper Yellowstone in Wyoming and upper Yellowstone in Montana, are at 108% and 106%, respectively. So far so good. We wouldn’t mind if things were a bit higher, but we were 20 points lower six weeks ago.
We are definitely not out of the woods yet, though. We’ve still got about six weeks to build or lose snowpack before the normal spring melt begins.
Outlooks for the Next Three Months
March, April, and May weather will govern whether the decent numbers above translate to summer. This crystal ball is unclear. This graph is updated on the third Thursday of every month. It predicts an equal chance of above and below normal temps and above and below normal precip for March through May. So no help there.
Shorter-term outlooks for March are more pessimistic and predict below normal precip. Going off the short-term weather forecast and these outlooks, that’s honestly what I expect, too.
Summer Streamflow Conditions Outlook
Taking all of the above into account, here’s what I believe we’re looking at as of right now:
- Below normal to near-normal snowpack and likely summer water conditions: February is the only reason we’ll even be near-normal, but the long-range outlooks suggest things will stay flat or decline slightly through the spring until the real melt hits.
- Warm water temps in the last week of July and first half of August, but no closures of note: While we don’t have enough snowpack to guarantee cool water and frisky fish through summer, we should have enough to prevent any drought-related closures in all of the important summer basins, basically meaning all of the Yellowstone drainage. The lower Jefferson, lower Madison, and some other dribs and drabs are likely to have 2:00PM closures in late July and August (the Madison always does), but these aren’t places we fish at that time, anyway.
Most specific predictions will have to wait another six to eight weeks, when we know for sure what our snowpack looks like and whether or not the heavy melt has started drastically early.
The one thing I do feel pretty confident in stating is that the Firehole River is going to get too warm by June 20-25 this year. With only a 91% snowpack in its basin at the moment, it is very unlikely it will climb to average. Basically, as soon as it really gets hot and sunny in mid-late June, that’ll be it for the Firehole. If you’re a Firehole fanatic, I suggest coming before June 20. The YNP season opener this year is May 29.