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Posted on December 26th, 2021 in Newsletters
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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.
Posted on November 22nd, 2021 in Fishing Tips
As a commercial fly tier and outfitter, I have commercial accounts with most of the major fly tying materials distributors. I’m not allowed to talk about my discounts, specifically, but they are substantial. Flies you buy from me or from Parks’ Fly Shop would cost you twice as much, otherwise.
That said, there are still several materials I am willing to buy at full-price or very close to it, either from a fly shop or some alternate source. This is the first in a series of posts about these materials, and why they’re worth it for me to spend a lot more on them.
Hen Skins for Soft Hackles
The first material I usually buy at full price, and the one on which I probably spend the most, is hen chicken skins for soft hackles (and to a lesser extent streamers). I also buy many other bird skins for soft hackles at full price, such as hen pheasant skins, but chicken skins are by far the most important.
There’s a simple reason why I pay full price for these skins: I can pick through them and get EXACTLY the coloration I want. If I bought these skins from large wholesale distributors, I’d be dealing with the luck of the draw. I’d get whatever the person responsible for packing my order happened to grab.
In the past, I got most of my hen skins exactly this way. At the time, I used a lot of Speckled India Hen Backs, mostly purchased from wholesaler Hareline Dubbing. These are wonderful products, available in a wide range of colors. The problem is that when I ordered half a dozen “brown” skins, say, I would get three that were dark brown with black bars, two that were almost entirely brown, and one that was medium brown with abundant random black speckles. Since I usually wanted the medium brown skins with abundant black speckles, the others largely went to waste (or I sold them).
A better option was to buy skins either in person or when I could see photos of the skin I was buying. This is possible with India Hen Backs, as many shops sell them. For my own purposes, since I need many more feathers than one skin can provide, I turned to furriers online.
I am going to be a bit of a jerk here and not give the website I most often use for these skins. They don’t sell all that many, and I use a lot of hen skins for soft hackles, streamers, collars on Woolly Buggers (such as my PT-Bugger), and legs and tails on nymphs. Instead I’ll point you towards eBay. A wide range of chicken (and other bird) skins are available. You just have to keep searching for what you want. Search for hen skin, hen pelt, chicken pelt, bird skin, or other similar search terms.
Here’s a blast from the past that still works well. The Parachute Midge Emerger, along with something like a #18 Purple Hazy Cripple, should be your go-to dry fly when you see midges hatching on late fall and winter afternoons. This is my top winter dry fly just about everywhere: spring creeks, tailwaters, and the mighty Yellowstone itself. Hang an unweighted thread midge or WD-40 nymph under the emerger.
Hook: Standard or short-shank dry fly, #14-22.
Thread: 8/0 or smaller black, or to match the fly body color.
Wing: White Widow’s Web or similar synthetic.
Rib: Pearl Midge Krystal Flash.
Hackle: Grizzly saddle.
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…