Posted on March 16th, 2023 in Season Forecasts, Weather & Water Conditions
Winter precipitation and temperatures create a deep snowpack in Yellowstone Country. The amount of snow, how cold and dense it gets (a cold winter = a dense snowpack), and how this snow melts between late March and late June are the primary drivers for our summer streamflows. Only after mid-September does day-to-day weather play a bigger role than the previous winter’s snow. Lots of winter snow, a cold winter, and a late, mellow spring make for a long, gentle release of meltwater through the summer that keeps flows high and cold and trout happy. A warm, dry winter makes for an early melt and great fishing early in the summer, but tough conditions later. A warm winter with lots of late snow makes for intense flooding, but low flows later on, basically the worst of both worlds. That’s what we had last year.
The state of the snowpack, weather outlooks, and (after mid-April) the progress of the spring melt all factor into trip planning, since they govern when the spring runoff will begin and end, how high flows will remain through the summer, the potential for high water temperatures and associated closures, etc.
Through the remainder of spring, we’ll be posting updates at mid-month and the end of the month about the current state of the snowpack, the weather outlooks from NOAA, and what we think these factors mean for late spring, summer, and early fall fishing on many important fisheries in the region.
Winter Weather Summary and Current Conditions
After a generally warm and dry fall, winter struck with a vengeance in Yellowstone Country and has hardly left. We have had at least some snow on the ground here in Livingston since the middle of November. Early snowfall through about December 20 was exceptionally strong. Then things died down a bit until mid-January. Since then we have seen normal to above normal snowfall. Temperatures have been normal or below normal except for about a week in mid-January and a day or two now and again in March. We’ve only hit 50 here in Livingston about 5 days this winter, and had two bouts with -20 to -35 lows and highs well below zero.
All that being said, the intense moisture that has bombarded California has generally skirted just to the south of our region. Areas in northern Utah have seen twice their normal snowfall, with ski areas already reporting 500+ inches of snow. Our local ski area (Bridger Bowl) has received about 200 inches since November 1, about normal.
This cold and normal to slightly wet winter we’ve had is a welcome reprieve from the past several years of below-normal snowfall that either didn’t recover until late in the season (2018-2019 and 2021-2022) or never recovered (2021, especially). Right now, basins within our operations area are running between 108% and 131% of normal for the date. The most important basins, the Yellowstone Basins in Wyoming (basically in Yellowstone Park) and in Montana (downstream of Yellowstone Park) are both at 108% as of this morning. We like to see 105%–110%, so we’re pretty happy so far.
The real standout in our operations area is the Madison-Gallatin Basin in Yellowstone National Park, which is at 131% of normal. This basin in particular has lagged behind the Yellowstone basins in recent years, almost certainly due to the warm winters we’ve had which meant some of the moisture in the relatively low mountain ranges feeding this basin fell as rain even in the dead of winter. This high snowpack bodes well for keeping the Firehole, Lower Gibbon, and park sections of the Madison running cool later into the summer than normal, probably into July. At the very least, this high snowpack provides a cushion against an early warmup.
Spring Weather Outlooks
The one-month and three-month NOAA outlooks covering April and April through June, respectively, just came out this morning. While they both suggest a return to near-normal precipitation, the April outlook is still calling for below-normal temperatures through the entire region, while the April–June outlook suggests an equal chance of normal, above-normal, and below-normal temperatures. The Yellowstone area sits much lower to the part of the United States forecast to have below-normal temperatures than to areas supposed to be hotter-than-normal.
If the above proves accurate, we should be in for a spring melt with near-normal timing. That’s a good thing, and will put us on track for a start to “prime season” around the beginning of July, with enough water to last through the summer. This last point is an important one. With El Nino forecast to replace La Nina, along with the mounting impacts of global warming, the long-range outlooks are calling for ANOTHER hot/dry summer. The more water we have in the rivers, the slower they warm up in late July and August. Maybe we’ll be able to avoid 6:00AM meeting times even with hot weather? I like my beauty rest…
Predictions for Summer Fishing Conditions
Assuming the long-range outlooks for spring are somewhat accurate, the snowpack as expressed as a percentage of normal should remain near current levels. That said, we’ve still got a month to gain or lose significant amounts of snowpack at all elevations, and more like 6–8 weeks in the highest mountains. So there’s still a considerable amount of uncertainty regarding what we’ll wind up with come the 1st of July when spring runoff is almost over. Consider that last season I expected drastically low water at this point in the winter due to a terrible snowpack and a very warm, dry March. Then we had the coldest April and wettest May in 25 years. We still finished with below-normal snowpack, but it didn’t start melting until May 20, the Yellowstone flooded June 13, and we didn’t start running floats on the Yellowstone until after July 4. Hopefully nothing as extreme happens again this year.
That said, based on current conditions and the predictions, we anticipate near normal to above normal streamflows this summer, beginning with a near normal spring melt beginning in early May. Cross your fingers. I think we could all appreciate some “normal” for the first time in a few years…
Based on current predictions and the long-range outlooks, here are some more-detailed guesstimates about the conditions we’ll see this summer on the main fisheries in the region, starting with Montana fisheries within about 90 minutes of Livignston and continuing with those in YNP. I begin each section with rivers (and river segments, if applicable) and finish with lakes, reservoirs, and other waters. Rivers are listed in the approximate order in which they should become fishable following the spring melt.
Detailed Predictions for Specific Fisheries – Montana
In general we expect good conditions in Montana this year. We like float rivers to have higher than normal flows, since a lot of their water gets pulled out for irrigation. The only question mark is when our core summer float rivers (the Yellowstone, Boulder, and Stillwater) come into shape. If we have a cold and wet spring, we might have a bit of a late start on these rivers. That said, the Lower Madison should have the highest flows it has seen since at least 2017 (maybe 2014?) and this river benefits hugely from high water. We’ll be running floats here in late May and June when we can’t in the Yellowstone Basin.
- Madison River – Lower: The Lower Madison (Ennis Dam to Three Forks) seldom experiences an unfishable spring runoff. It also enters the runoff late, usually in the last few days of May. As such, this is the most important river fishery in the area from sometime in the middle of May when the Yellowstone enters runoff until late June or early July, when it comes back in. The Lower Madison is likely to get high and murky for two or three weeks in late May and early June this year, but remain fishable above Cherry Creek throughout the spring. Good snowpack upstream suggests the Lower Madison should remain fishable until at least July 4 this year, maybe as late as July 15. After this it will get too warm for about six weeks, not to mention crowded with the “bikini hatch.” The best fishing will occur just before runoff in mid-May, then again in early-mid June provided the clarity is good enough for hatches.
- Madison River – Upper: The Upper Madison is likely to get too muddy to fish for about three weeks beginning in late May, particularly downstream of the West Fork. The strong snowpack in the basin suggests the Madison will run fairly high this season, which is a good thing. It keeps the fish closer to the banks and not quite as spooky. The Salmonfly hatch should pop on schedule the last week of June and first week of July. Note that I am offering Upper Madison trips this year, primarily in late June and early July before the Yellowstone drops but after the Lower Madison starts getting busy with recreational floaters.
- Boulder River: The Boulder will rise to floatable level (in our new ultralight raft) the last week of April or first week of May before blowing out with runoff the third or fourth week of May. Runoff always yo-yos on this river and it is often fishable for a few days at a time during any cold spell in late May and June. This year it will probably leave runoff in the first few days of July and remain high enough to float with the big raft for 3–4 weeks, then for another 3 weeks with the new ultralight. The best fishing will occur in July.
- Gallatin River: The Gallatin will enter the spring melt in mid-late May and stay there until around July 1. The runoff is likely to be heavy this year given the heavy snowpack in the Gallatin Basin. Lone Peak Snotel at Big Sky Resort is reporting 135% of normal snowpack! As such, the best fishing will be in late July and August upstream from Gallatin Gateway. Downstream of Gateway, where irrigation drawdowns hurt flows, July will be best. Note that we will be offering float-wade trips on the Gallatin River this year for the first time, using our ultralight raft.
- Stillwater River: The middle Stillwater upstream from the Rosebud confluence should drop into shape around June 25 to July 1 (latter more likely), while the area below the Rosebud will still be too high for at least ten days thereafter. We did much better above the Rosebud last year; further down suffered a lot from the floods. As such, we expect to stick to the middle river until at least early August, since our ultralight raft will allow us to stay on this stretch after it gets too low for full-size rafts. The lower river will probably fish better the lower it gets. We intend to explore it very late in the season this year with the ultralight, looking for run-up browns.
- Yellowstone River – Paradise Valley and Near Gardiner: The Yellowstone will enter runoff sometime in the first three weeks of May, hopefully the 10th–15th. Except for a couple brief fishable windows during cold spells, it will remain in runoff until the first week of July on this section. Last year the river remained too dirty to fish well (particularly with dry flies, for numbers) prior to July 20, but a prolonged runoff should scour a lot of the silt brought in by last year’s flood, so we expect and hope for a normal start to the summer season. Salmonflies will occur right around when the river clears, hopefully just AFTER it clears, rather than just BEFORE. The most consistent fishing will occur in the latter half of July and August, if current snowpack trends continue until the melt.
- Yellowstone River – Yankee Jim Canyon and East of Livingston: Due to heavy currents and lots of hazards, Yankee Jim Canyon and the area from Pine Creek near Livingston down to Laurel near Billings needs to drop more than other areas before we like fishing/guiding on it. Yankee Jim can be very good right before the spring melt in early May, while east of Livingston usually gets muddy a week before stretches upstream. Post-runoff, we expect these areas to drop below the 6000cfs level we like to see around July 15. The best fishing east of Livingston will be for the month thereafter. Yankee Jim will be best from early August through early October. Pine Creek to Hwy 89 (right through Livingston) is usually best in August and September.
- Area Small Streams: Except for a few meadow-type odds and ends like the East Gallatin, most area small streams outside the park are steep, fast, and rocky. As such they’ll be too high to fish easily or well until late July. They’ll fish best in the afternoons from then until early September.
- Private Lakes: The private lakes come into play in late April and remain good until sometime between June 20 and July 20, depending on medium-term weather and the specific lake. We have a trip June 26 on Burns Lake and wouldn’t mind a few after that.
- Area Reservoirs: Low elevation reservoirs will begin icing out with the first big warmup. We will start exploring them with our new-to-us power boat in April and heavily in May, hoping to begin offering guided trips on them in June (more seriously next year). Except Dailey, which will slow down for trout in early-mid June, the reservoirs we guide will fish best in May and remain strong through June. High-elevation reservoirs like Hyalite, Hebgen, and Quake will remain strong all summer.
- Other Waters: We are not really guiding on the Missouri River this year (except perhaps the stretch near Townsend for carp), but it is already fishing okay and will get very good once water levels rise to 40 degrees. Flows will get too high for comfortable wading in late May and early June but drop again by late June. The Ruby River should benefit from good snowpack in the basin. We may try to explore it with our ultralight raft in late May and June. This isn’t commonly seen as a float river, but with the ultralight it can be…
Detailed Predictions for Specific Fisheries – Yellowstone Park
The Yellowstone Park season runs from May 27 through October 31 this year, though as always many areas open later (check regulations) or are simply too high and muddy well into the summer. This should be a good year for park waters, especially since large portions of the park were inaccessible and received no fishing pressure at all last season. That’s got to be a welcome break for the poor fish in Soda Butte Creek. There will be big changes to the stream bottoms, structure, and even the courses of the streams on the Gardner, Soda Butte Creek, Slough Creek, and the Lamar River, but these waters all produced well in very limited samples at the end of the season last year.
The replacement North Entrance Road was finished in late October last year. There’s still likely to be some ongoing traffic control as this ad-hoc road is built up to code, but full access to Yellowstone Park is available via both Gardiner and Cooke City.
- Firehole River: The Firehole is going to benefit from heavy snowpack in the basin, but maybe not right away. This might not be the season to make an opening weekend trip, depending on when the spring melt begins. It’s very possible the Firehole will be too high and murky for the first week of the season this year. It is likely to fish best from about June 10 through July 1, then fall off fast thereafter. That said, it should stay cooler than usual this summer, which is good news for the thermally-stressed fish that live here. This is the one river in the region that we’d love to fish from February through June more than the rest of the year, due to all the hot geyser water.
- Madison River in YNP: Similar story as the Firehole, but even more likely to be too high, fast, and dirty early on. That said, the first three weeks of the season following cold, wet winters can turn out a lot of good browns and rainbows that ran up to spawn last fall and haven’t gone back to Hebgen Lake yet. The Madison will fish best in the latter half of June and again (as always) in September and October, but if we luck into a cool summer it MIGHT have enough water this year to fish mornings through July.
- Gibbon River: Almost certain to be too high and murky the first ten days of the park season unless there’s a big warmup in early May. Once it becomes fishable, the stretch downstream of Norris Geyser Basin will fish best from June 10 through July 4, with the latter half of June tops. The stretch above Norris is now home to solid numbers of spooky westslope cutthroat and grayling that can get surprisingly large for such a small creek. This reach will come into shape in late June and fish best in July and August, as long as the mosquitoes don’t carry you away.
- Park Lakes: Lakes in the park will ice-out over the first week of the season, except for a few small ponds like Joffe that will be ice-free right out of the gate. The difficulty in the first half of June will be accessing the lakes: lots of snow first, then lots of mud and waterlogged trails. Hiking into Grebe or Cascade Lake around June 10 may be an “in waders” affair. Most lakes will fish best from June 10 or 15 for a month thereafter. REMINDER Blacktail Ponds do not open until early July to protect rare ground-nesting birds.
- Gardner River: The Gardner downstream of Boiling River can be fishable right from the start of the season during cold snaps. That said, this water changed hugely in the 2022 flood and may not be very good for several years. Access is also a question mark, as it is no longer near the road and there are no official hiking trails (yet). Upstream from Boiling River and especially upstream from Lava Creek did not suffer from the floods. This water will come into shape the last week of June or first week of July and fish best for numbers prior to mid-August. Thereafter, good fishing depends on fall brown trout runs from the Yellowstone. All of the runner holes between Lava Creek and Boiling River disappeared during the flood, so we don’t know what to expect for this fishing in 2023.
- Gallatin River: The park stretch of the Gallatin has a very deep snowpack, so it’s not likely to clear before July 1 and might be ice water for another ten days thereafter. It will fish best from July 15 through Labor Day.
- Yellowstone River – Grand Canyon: the Grand Canyon did not suffer from the floods and is fully accessible for the first time in several years now that the Tower Falls Trail rehab project is complete. This water fishes occasionally for the first week of the season following a cold spring, basically having not even ENTERED spring runoff yet, but this is unlikely this year with the high snowpack. It’s more likely to come in around July 1 and be best from July 15 through early October. This water holds on much better late into fall than other cutthroat water in the park. The Salmonflies occur in dribbles near hot springs as soon as the water clears, then will be heaviest around July 15, with dribbles near cold tributaries until after July 20.
- Yellowstone River – Upper: The Yellowstone above Chittenden Bridge opened July 1 last year for some inexplicable reason. We don’t like this change from the historic July 15, since the cutthroats are still spawning here in early July. We therefore suggest holding off until July 15. The fishing will be best for the month thereafter.
- Yellowstone River – Black Canyon: the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone tracks similarly to the “Paradise Valley and Near Gardiner” section. It should come in during the first week of July. The Salmonflies move upstream as the water warms, so the second and occasionally even the third week of July see it peak on this reach, with upstream areas near the Lamar peaking last. Dribbles of Salmonflies MIGHT hang on until the last few days of July here. The best fishing will occur from July 15 through Labor Day and then tail off through September.
- Slough Creek: Very occasionally fishable for a few days out of the gate if we’ve had a cold spring. Runoff will really end after the 4th of July, probably between the 7th and 10th if the outlooks are accurate. The best fishing will be for the month thereafter. Fish in the First through Third Meadows got a real break last year, so they should be almost dumb for a week or two once the water clears.
- Soda Butte Creek: Huge changes to Soda Butte’s course due to the floods make it something of a question mark in 2023. On the one hand the fish got a break for a season. There was literally no access to Soda Butte last year. On the other hand, lots of fish and bugs certainly died during the flood. Soda Butte should drop in between the 5th and 15th of July, with the best fishing from July 20 through September 20.
- Lamar River: Similar to Soda Butte, though it suffered comparatively less. It fished well for the time of year in very limited action in October last year, once some access was restored.
- Small Streams: Meadow-type creeks draining lakes should come in around June 20, while faster mountain-type creeks will come in early in July. The meadow creeks will fish best in July. The mountain creeks will fish best in August. All will fall off between mid-August and about September 10 depending on elevation, as the nights get cold.
All in all, we’re in good shape for the upcoming season. We would certainly like SLIGHTLY more snowpack to be sure there isn’t a dropoff in April and May, but we’re in far better shape than we have been at this point in the winter since 2017-2018. As long as we don’t get a repeat of a torrential rain-on-snow event in early June like we did last year, which caused the floods, we expect solid conditions this summer. It feels good to be optimistic about snowpack and likely water levels at this point in the season. 2021 and 2022 we had very little water and expected bad late July and August conditions. They materialized in 2021. 2022 threw us the flood curve ball. Let’s cross our fingers for a normal spring this year.
We’ll have another update in a couple weeks.