Introduction, Current Conditions, and Long-Range Outlooks
Here in Yellowstone Country, winter snowpack and how this snowpack melts from late April through June play the most important roles in summer water supply for both fish and agriculture from early June through mid-September. June through mid-September temperatures and rainfall play a secondary role. Only after mid-September does day-to-day weather play the largest role in overall water levels and water quality. Winter weather is thus very helpful in planning summer fishing trips to the region.
On the heels of low snowpack in 2020-2021 followed by a record warm, dry summer that came early, we are currently in severe to extreme drought throughout the YCFF operations area. Most areas are in extreme drought, the second-worst category overall. Montana is in worse shape as far as drought than any other regions in the West except for Oregon east of the Cascade Range and southern Nevada. Unfortunately, we have had a very dry winter and had record warmth (now thankfully over) in the latter half of March. This record warmth ripped the guts out of what meager snowpack we do have and primed this snow to melt.
As of right now, areas within our operations area are at 68% to 80% of normal, with the most important basins–the Yellowstone River Basin in WY and Yellowstone Park and the Yellowstone River Basin in Montana–at 80% and 75%, respectively. Combine the drought and the low snowpack and you get a recipe for exceptionally low water through much of the peak mid/late summer season. I would not be surprised if most of the snowpack disappears straight into the ground as it did in California last year.
Long-range outlooks offer some hope for cooler weather through April, but none for much late-season snowfall.
Summary of Anticipated Water & Fishing Conditions
In a general sense, here’s what we expect for June through mid-September streamflow and fishing conditions. This is based on current conditions and the longer-range outlooks. Think of the following as something like a weather forecast from a week out: it’s too early for specifics, but the general outline is probably accurate. Absent an exceptionally cold and wet second quarter to the year, we now anticipate extreme low water conditions starting in mid-July and lasting until the fall rains come sometime in mid-September.
- The fishing and guiding seasons began a couple weeks ago and fishing has been good. The period from now through about April 20 as well as June and the first two or three weeks of July are almost certain to offer the most consistent fishing of the year.
- Below-normal snowpack and resulting summer streamflows are now certain. How low we go depends on how much moisture we get through mid-May and how the snow melts from late April onward. Record-low water in late summer is very possible.
- We anticipate a light snowmelt and an early end to the snowmelt cycle. The end point will depend on when the snow starts melting in earnest.
- Mid-June through mid-July will offer much better conditions than August and early September on all waters, including many small streams and areas within Yellowstone Park that are typically too high and muddy to fish before early July. An early start to the spring melt will put the latter half of July in jeopardy as well.
- The fish are likely to be spooky and difficult from mid-July through mid-September more often than not, with steeper, faster, deeper water holding on longer.
- 2:00PM fishing closures will be common to almost universal across our operations area between sometime in the last ten days of July and late August. Closures outside of these timeframes are possible if we have an early extreme warmup as we did in 2021.
- Complete fishing closures are possible on many waters in August if we have a repeat of last summer’s record heat and drought. This could include total fishing closures in Yellowstone Park. These are much less likely in Montana.
- Very limited legal or at least ethical fishing opportunities are possible in August if we have a hot/dry summer.
- The fishing opportunities will increase substantially with the first spell of cooler weather, usually in the last week or so of August, but the fishing will remain very difficult most days until the weather gets cold and gray sometime in the latter half of September.
- Due to tinderbox conditions throughout most of the West, fires and smoke from both local and distant fires are likely to be very bad this year beginning in mid-July.
- Due to anticipated very poor conditions in August, we now discourage fishing-specific travel to the area between August 1 and at least August 20. We are still accepting bookings for this period, but only if clients are willing to book “guide’s choice” trips in terms of duration (full-day vs half-day, the latter being much more likely if we’re targeting trout), trip type (walk or float), and target species. In regards to target species, high stress on trout and widespread closures on trout waters may mean that carp will be our preferred target species in August, particularly on full-day trips.
- Due to the winding-down of COVID (we hope) prompting high tourism, as well as the rapidly increasing population in the region, fishing pressure will be intense from the end of runoff through early October, assuming fires and stream closures allow for it. The quality of the fishing will not play any role in how many people are on the water. We are already seeing much more fishing pressure than used to be typical, including record-high bookings for March and April.
Detailed Fishing Conditions by Water
The following information is coming into sharper focus now, since most of the snow that will accumulate has accumulated. The real X factors remaining are when the spring melt starts in earnest (early–>late April, normal–>first ten days of May, late–>anytime thereafter), how much June rain we receive, and how soon the first summer heat wave hits. In 2021 we were in much better shape for snowpack than we are this year prior to the end of April, but we had an early melt, an exceptionally dry June, and broiling-hot weather from mid-June through mid-July. These three factors crushed us last year.
If we have a normal or late start to the melt, a normal to wet June, and a normal to cool June and early July, we will be in good shape to avoid widespread closures. If we have a similar start to summer as we did last year, complete fishing closures in the vast majority of our operations area are very likely in late summer.
- Yellowstone River: While it’s conceivably we won’t have an unfishable runoff on the Yellowstone, only a few muddy days here and there, it’s more likely runoff will end between June 5 and June 20, with June 10-15 most likely. The fishing will be best for the month following. One of my long-time clients booked for June 20-21 and I suspect he hit his dates perfectly. Hot, bright days from about July 20-25 through early September will be very difficult, particularly in shallow, gentle sections of river. 2:00PM fishing closures are very likely on the entire Yellowstone River from YNP to Laurel from sometime in late July or early August until sometime in late August. Complete fishing closures are possible in the first three weeks of August.
- Madison River: The Lower Madison will not experience any appreciable runoff and will be best prior to June 10. After June 15 it will generally run too warm after noon depending on day-to-day weather. The Upper Madison (really outside my ops area) will likewise probably not experience much of a runoff. It will be best from mid-June through mid-July. 2:00 closures are certain on the Lower Madison beginning no later than early July and possible on the upper Madison beginning in late July.
- Boulder River: Runoff will end between June 5 and June 20, with June 10-15 most likely. The river will get too low to float by July 10, and perhaps sooner. High water temps and low flows will almost certainly be a problem even for wade-fishing in August due to this small river’s intense irrigation drawdowns. The Boulder seldom sees any fishing restrictions due to water levels or temperature, but in all honesty I expect areas downstream of Natural Bridge should be closed 24 hours a day in August this year, due as much to irrigation drawdowns as water temps.
- Stillwater River: Runoff will end between June 10 and June 20, with June 15 most likely. Upper sections will be too low to float around July 10. Lower portions downstream of the Rosebud confluence will be high enough to float through sometime in August, probably the 15th-25th. The best fishing will occur in July. 2:00 closures are possible in late July and August.
- Missouri River: No appreciable runoff will occur. The carp/walleye/pike water upstream from Canyon Ferry Reservoir will as always fish best from late July through early September. Head-hunting carp here will be our preferred option for early August trips if we have a hot/dry summer. The trout water downstream of Canyon Ferry (including “Land of Giants”) will fish best from now through June. Both the trout water and the “other” water are less likely to have closures than any other water we fish.
- Private Lakes: Day-to-day weather is more important on the lakes than snowmelt. These lakes should fish well from early April through at least mid-June, with hot/bright weather thereafter the determining factor on when things get slow.
- Paradise Valley Spring Creeks: Fishing is always best on the creeks from early March through April, then again from about June 20 through July 20. Unfortunately, radically-increasing pressure on the creeks now means that many prime dates in June-July 2023 are now booked solid. We’re basically done guiding on these creeks except in March-April because of this.
- Other Waters: The Gallatin River will likely drop out of runoff in mid-June and possibly get too warm by late July. The Jefferson River will drop from runoff by June 10-15 and probably be too warm the instant it does. Immense fish kills occurred on this river in 2021 and this year will be no better. Many portions may honestly never recover, given the likely future flows and water temps current climate models predict. Montana small streams will generally fish best in July and perhaps early August if they don’t drop TOO fast. Public lakes in Montana will be best in May and early June except for carp, which rise to hoppers on some lakes in late July and August.
Yellowstone Park Fisheries
- Yellowstone River: The Lake-Falls stretch always opens July 15. It will be best for the week thereafter. The Grand Canyon from the Falls to the Lamar confluence will not experience an unfishably-high runoff. It should fish well with nymphs and streamers as soon as it opens on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, though it won’t necessarily be “pretty.” 2:00 closures are likely in August, though only because YNP tends to use a hammer as its only tool in fisheries management–in reality, this section of the Yellowstone stays under 70 degrees and is deep enough to offer good cover even in awful drought years. The Grand Canyon will probably offer the best fishing of any stretch of the Yellowstone this year averaged out over the whole season, including sections both inside and outside the park. The Black Canyon section downstream of the Lamar confluence tracks similarly to the Yellowstone River outside the park.
- Gardner River: The Gardner will be fishable on a day-to-day basis from the park opener through mid-June, then be good through early July throughout and after early July only upstream from Boiling River. Downstream of Boiling River will be too warm until mid-September. Note that the Gardner saw overwhelming pressure in 2021 and generally fished poorly because of it except in June and October.
- Lamar River & Tributaries: Runoff will end between June 15 and June 25 on Slough Creek and between June 15 and July 1 elsewhere. The best fishing will be for the month thereafter. Late August and early September will see low water and spooky fish, particularly on Slough Creek. Roadside areas saw overwhelming pressure in 2021 and 2022 might well be worse.
- Firehole River: The Firehole will not experience an appreciable runoff and will fish best between the park opener and June 10. The first hot/dry spell between June 5 and June 20 will shut down fishing until after Labor Day. Overall, this will be a very grim season for the Firehole. We did not guide on the Firehole in 2021 and almost certainly will not in 2022, either. If current climate models continue, the Firehole will cease to be a relevant fishery downstream of Old Faithful by 2030 due to repeated fish kills associated with high water temperatures.
- Gibbon River: The Gibbon upstream of Norris Geyser Basin will be fishable sometime between the park opener and June 5 and will be best before mid-July. Areas downstream of Norris Geyser Basin are unlikely to experience an appreciable runoff and will be best between the season opener and June 10. After June 10, the first hot spell will shut the fishing off until September 1. This is going to be a bad year for the lower Gibbon.
- Upper Madison River: Generally similar to the Firehole but will hang on for a few days after the first hot spell. This is going to be a bad year for the Park section of the Madison.
- Lakes in YNP: Ice-out will depend on day-to-day weather but should occur before or right around Opening Day. All should be accessible from this point onward due to limited snow on the trails. All will fish best from ice-out (or Opening Day, whichever comes second) through June, then trail off through early July.
- Creeks in YNP: Meadow-type streams will become fishable between June 5 and June 20, with those draining lakes becoming fishable towards the earlier end and those draining mountains falling into shape later. All will be best for the first month after they come in. Rough, mountain creeks will come into shape between June 15 and July 1 and be best for a month starting about a week after they fall into shape.