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YNP and Montana Snowpack Update and Summer Streamflow and Fishing Conditions Predictions
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 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 and the remainder of spring are forecast to be warmer and drier than normal.
Current Yellowstone and Montana Snowpack
Current snowpack ranges from 88% to 103% of normal in the Parks’ Fly Shop and Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing areas of operation.
The highest snowpack is 103% 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 102% 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 PFS operations area.
Besides the above basins, which are the most important river drainages for both businesses, snowpack is not so good. It ranges from 88% to 94% of normal and falling fast due to current warm temps (forecast to touch 70 degrees in Bozeman and Helena this weekend). The worst snowpack is in the Madison Basin, at 88% to 89% of normal. This includes the Firehole River in Yellowstone Park.
In general, snowpack is on the decline as a percentage of average everywhere due to current warmer-than-normal weather. In lower-elevation basins like the Madison within YNP, it may have peaked in general already, several weeks early. Despite the current warm spell, it is unlikely than snowpack has peaked in higher elevation drainages in gross terms, though it will probably continue to decline against average through spring, due to the forecast warm/dry weather.
Here’s a map. Our operations are is outlined in red (approximately).
General Expectations for Summer
Based on current Montana snowpack and predictions for spring weather, we expect the following for the core June-early September season. Conditions after mid-September depend on fall rain and snowfall:
- Below-normal snowpack on May 1, flirting with far below normal (80% or less of average) in a few basins.
- An early beginning to the spring snowmelt
- An early end to the spring snowmelt
- Below-normal stream levels after July 1
- Above-normal water temperatures in all river basins between July 15-20 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
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 ice-free and fishable. As usual, they will be best from late April through mid-June (Story Lakes) or mid-July (Burns Lake). We are looking to add the Sitz Ranch Lakes to our repertoire. They are best before early July.
Missouri River – Land of Giants: Holter Reservoir is ice-free so jet boat trips are now available through Thanksgiving. The only limiting factor from here out is wind (N winds of 20+ mph are extremely dangerous). Due to low flows from the dam upstream, we expect things to get weedy by early July and be pretty tough in August and early September. Otherwise, this is a dependable fishery regardless of weather.
Area Reservoirs: Some (Dailey) are already ice-free. All the rest will lose their ice by early May. As usual, the best fishing is from ice-out through June on the low-elevation reservoirs near us. We’re looking forward to putting the jet boat on many reservoirs by late this month.
Madison River (Lower): The Lower Madison is a perfectly reasonable fishery through the winter, though it’s best in May and early June. Due to expected low flows, the Lower Maddy may get questionable by June 20-25 this year. It now always has “hoot owl” 2:00PM to midnight restrictions from July 15 through August 15. These may be expanded to 24-hou closures this year if summer is hot.
Jefferson River: The “Jeff” will blow out with spring runoff between April 20 and the end of April and stay muddy until about June 15. The fishable window thereafter will depend on how fast it gets hot. Expect 2:00 closures after July 4, possibly expanding to a 24-hour closure from mid-July through August.
Boulder River: The Boulder is rising now, but will not be floatable before April 20 to the end of April. It will blow out with runoff between May and May 15 and stay muddy most of the time for a month to six weeks. Note the “most of the time.” Unique among float rivers that ever get too muddy (the Lower Madison and Missouri never get too muddy to fish), the Boulder often drops into fishable shape for 2-3 days at a time even during the middle of the spring runoff. All it takes is a couple cold days. When these “runoff windows” occur, fishing is usually fantastic. The Boulder will drop from runoff for good sometime in the last 10 days of June, probably early in that period. It will get too low to float by July 20 this year, and maybe sooner. The headwaters will be fine to wade fish all summer, though the lower river may get low and warm enough that fishing after 2:00PM is not a good idea. This will be most likely the last week of July and first half of August.
Stillwater River: Upstream of the Rosebud confluence, the Stillwater tracks similarly to the Boulder in terms of entering and leaving runoff, as well as its floatable levels and late July and early August water temps. Downstream of the Rosebud, it’ll clear up around July 1 or perhaps a few days later. It should remain high enough to float until August 25. After that will depend on summer precip. High water temps suggesting a 2:00 quitting time are likely in August downstream of the Rosebud.
Yellowstone River: The Yellowstone in Montana will enter runoff sometime in the last 3-4 days of April or first week of May, depending on how warm temps are after April 20. It will remain in runoff for about six weeks except for the possibility of one or two runoff windows as described above for the Boulder. The Yellowstone will begin leaving runoff between June 20 and 25. The stretch from Gardiner to Yankee Jim Canyon and Carbella to Mallard’s Rest drops into shape first. Yankee Jim Canyon and points through and east of Livingston need another 10 days to two weeks to drop to safe levels (for us, 6000cfs on the Corwin Springs Gauge). The most consistent streamflows will be in July. The last week of July and the first three weeks of August may be too warm on a day-to-day basis from Gardiner to Livingston between July 20 and August 20, but 2:00 closures are unlikely unless runoff starts exceptionally early AND summer is very hot. East of Livingston, 2:00 closures are possible in the same timeframe and a lot of afternoons will be too warm on a day-to-day basis. Basically if it’s hot, bright, and dry, expect to take out early east of Livingston.
The Salmonfly hatch on the Yellowstone will almost certainly be fishable this year. Expect them beginning as the river drops out in late June through July 4, but probably not much or any thereafter. Ants will likely be better terrestrials this year. Terrestrial season is likely to start July 20 this year (early).
Rosebud Creek and Forks: We’ll be fishing the Rosebud and its forks for the first time this year, in cooperation with Quaking Aspen Ranch. It is great in the latter half of April and first part of May before blowing out around May 10. It typically stays muddy until about July 1. It remains a good wade-fishery until mid-November. The mainstem is floatable for a month to six weeks after dropping into shape, exclusively through a partnership with Quaking Aspen. Note that public access is limited on this water. Quaking Aspen has 1.5mi exclusive and about 4mi with friendly neighbors.
Most Small Streams: Except for a couple low-elevation odds and ends that fish well in late June, like the Musselshell River and upper Smith River, most small streams will begin coming into shape in the second 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
Note: The Yellowstone Park season opens May 29 this year, as late as it possibly can. The season always opens at sunrise the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend. Because of the late opener, we expect all of the early season fisheries to be ready on the opener, which is unusual. On the other hand, the late opener means that the Yellowstone from the falls to the Lamar (Grand Canyon), Slough Creek, and the Gardner River are almost certainly going to be muddy. In years with early openers, these waters can be fishable for opening weekend before they enter runoff.
Firehole River: The Firehole will be clear enough and fishable on the opener and be best before June 15. It may be too warm on bright afternoons thereafter and will almost certainly be too warm after noon no later than June 25, and possibly by June 20. The park has apparently stopped closing geothermally-heated waters like the Firehole, but the Firehole should be closed to all fishing in July and August downstream of Old Faithful this year, even if it isn’t. Above Old Faithful is a fine mountain creek in high summer, since it has little geyser water.
Madison River in YNP: The Madison will be clear enough and fishable on the opener and best before June 25. It will be too warm on bright afternoons thereafter and too warm period between July 4 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 will be low and clear enough on the opener and best from June 5 through June 20. It will gradually get too warm thereafter and be too warm in July and August. From Norris Geyser Basin through Gibbon Meadows will drop into shape June 5-10 and be best through June and too warm between July 4 and Labor Day. From Virginia Cascade to Norris will drop into shape around June 20 and be best in July and August. Upstream of Virginia Cascades is still undergoing grayling and westslope cutthroat restoration so is not recommended this year.
YNP Lakes: Yellowstone Lake will be fishable out of the gate more than likely. Cascade, Grebe, and other small lakes in the central part of the park may be reachable on the opener but will almost certainly be ready by June 5. These lakes will be best in June and early July. Note that Blacktail Ponds opens in early July. It will likely be too warm already by then this year.
YNP Central Plateau Streams: Streams like Nez Perce will drop into shape around June 15-20 and be best before early August.
Gardner River: Occasional runoff breaks are possible before June 20 downstream of Boiling River, but it will drop into shape for real downstream of the High Bridge June 20-25 with the Salmonfly hatch thereafter downstream of Boiling River. The Salmonflies will last until July 20 in Sheepeater Canyon. The river below Boiling River will be too warm after 2:00 and maybe in general between July 20 and early September. Osprey Falls to Boiling River will be fine but likely crowded in easy-access areas all summer. The upper river (brookie water) will come into shape around July 1 and be best before August 15.
Yellowstone River: The Yellowstone River above the falls always opens July 15. From the falls to the Lamar (Grand Canyon) will begin coming into shape around June 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 on late summer afternoons.
Lamar, Soda Butte, and Slough Creek: Rough stretches of Slough and the Lamar will start coming in around June 25. Meadow stretches will come in around July 1. The fishing will be best before mid-August with low but not warm water conditions thereafter. 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.
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 15 through August.
Slideshow from March 23 Twin Cities TU Presentation
Posted on March 25th, 2021 in Fishing Tips
I gave a presentation to the Twin Cities TU chapter on Tues, March 23. Here’s a longer version of the slideshow I presented. The topic was finding and fishing uncrowded water in Yellowstone Country.
Big Fee Increases on YNP Licenses – But You Can Buy Online
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.
2021 Winter Snowpack Update and Summer Fishing Forecast
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.
Sources for Streamflow Data
Posted on March 4th, 2021 in Fishing Tips
Virtually all fly fishing guides and outfitters in Montana watch streamflow data and streamflow forecasts like hawks, especially during runoff season (that is to say: right now) and when summer thunderstorms are rolling around. This is no different than farmers watching the weather forecasts. Here are the important sites to allow YOU to check streamflows, both right now and expected flows for the days ahead.
Montana Streamflow Data: This site returns data from all USGS gauging stations in Montana. The site is organized by river drainage, then from upstream gauging stations to downstream stations. In my area, the Yellowstone Basin graphs from the Lamar River in Yellowstone Park down to the graph at Springdale are the graphs I use most often, with the Stillwater graph secondary. By far the most important graphs for general streamflow are the Corwin Springs and Livingston graphs on the Yellowstone, while the Lamar and Gardner graphs are important for telling me about sudden rises in water level (which are almost always accompanied by mud) due to storms.
Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service – Billings: Here’s the streamflow prediction site for eastern Montana. This site shows flow graphs noted in the previous link, but also shows predicted flows for the next few days for most gauging stations. The basic graph pictured below is most useful during the spring runoff season when we are trying to plan for future trips based on weather forecast. If you’re looking at a big predicted bump coming up, it’s best to get fishing beforehand, because that bump means mud.
This site also includes an option to view “Probability Information.” This is a longer-range forecast of predicted flows, but it isn’t updated very often and I often find it inaccurate. Here’s a sample graph of probability information:
Select the above graph by clicking the dropdown menu off the lower right corner of the graph, then selecting “Flow – Weekly Chance of Exceeding Levels.” This is most useful to anglers, as flow rather than gauge height determines fishability. Too much water and things are too rough, and probably muddy to boot.
May-Midge Cripple Fly Tying Video
Posted on March 4th, 2021 in Fly Tying Videos
We tied the May-Midge as something of an experiment prior to the 2019, intending it to combine attributes of midge patterns like the Griffith’s Gnat while maintaining the overall silhouette of tiny, sparse mayflies. Our goal with this fly was to come up with something that would fool the spooky, lazily-rising fish we often see in the morning in flat water in late summer and early fall. These fish seldom eat any one thing in particular, but are feeding on a mixture of midges and the duns of three or four species of mayflies, as well as the occasional odd ant, mayfly spinner, and other “schmutz.” The May-Midge proved extremely effective in this role this season, particularly in the Lamar Drainage, where it turned out several very large fish on lower Slough Creek that were turned off by larger and/or more heavily-dressed flies.
Note: This fly is intended for use in slow water, particularly big eddy lines or places with many complicated micro-currents. It should not be used in choppy water, as it won’t float well in chop.
Hook: #16-22 1x short, 1x fine emerger hook.
Thread #1 and Abdomen: Claret Veevus Body Quill (I called it wine in the video).
Tail/Shuck: Gray Sparkle Emerger Yarn or similar.
Thread #2: 8/0 or 10/0 wine.
Wing: White Widow’s Web or similar synthetic yarn.
Hackle: Grizzly saddle, tied sparse.
Thorax: UV Brown Ice Dub.
Other Colors: Light olive, black, copper, gray (use alternate abdomen material on gray, as there is no gray Body Quill). Change threads and dubbing to match desired fly color. Tail, wing, and hackle do not change.