Spring runoff began in earnest this morning after a couple days of 75+ degree temperatures with nights in the 50s. The Yellowstone River came up approximately 60% in two days and is forecast to continue rising with some brief pauses for at least a week. The river is now chocolate brown and completely out of the question as a fishery and will be for the foreseeable future.
For the time being, our local fisheries are limited to private lakes and the Paradise Valley spring creeks. It is still possible we’ll get a break from the runoff sometime in late May, but I think it’s unlikely. I expect the Yellowstone to clear in the first week of July. Early in the week if runoff is hard, late if it mellows later in May.
Until Yellowstone Park opens to fishing May 27, our guide services are focused on the private lakes, Missouri River jet boat trips, and to a much lesser degree on the lower Madison River southwest of Bozeman.
For what it’s worth, we did get two excellent days of Mother’s Day Caddis hatch fishing ending last evening. The river was already “cafe au lait” with branches floating in it, but the fish were still willing to eat from the caddis bonanza in the foam lines. That’s the way of the spring caddis hatch… a day or two of great fishing followed by a filthy river.
The Yellowstone River from Gardiner all the way to Laurel, 183 river miles, closed to all recreational usage on August 19, due to a fish kill impacting whitefish. As of September 1, portions of the closure have been completely lifted and other portions will be reassessed on September 6. We expect the upper Yellowstone River from Gardiner to Carbella to reopen to fishing on September 8 after this assessment. This stretch is now open to non-angling use.
Here is the Montana FWP news release announcing the reopening, including details on what’s open and what’s closed. In short, Gardiner to Carbella is open to non-angling recreational use (including tribs). Carbella to the Highway 89 bridge near Livingston is still closed to all use. All tributaries EXCEPT the Paradise Valley spring creeks remain closed; the creeks are now open. Hwy 89 down is now open to all use, with the exception of the Shields River system, which remains closed.
Over the past few weeks, the Yellowstone River between Gardiner and Springdale (east of Livingston) has undergone a dramatic fish kill primarily involving mountain whitefish. The worst effects of this kill seem to be occurring in lower Paradise Valley, from somewhat below Emigrant down to Livingston, where upwards of 4,000 dead whitefish have been found and estimates of total mortality extend into the tens of thousands of whitefish. The effects have been far smaller near Gardiner. Our guides have seen perhaps fifty dead whitefish between Gardiner and Carbella Access some 17 miles downstream of Gardiner. No fish kills have been reported in Yellowstone National Park. Thus far, the fish kill is almost exclusively impacting whitefish, with confirmed reports of only three dead trout found by Fish Wildlife & Parks survey crews. It is unclear (to me) whether these fish died due to the same pathogen or whether they died from some other cause.
Lab studies show that the whitefish have fallen victim to a microscopic parasite called Proliferative Kidney Disease. This disease can cause extreme mortality in both whitefish and trout. In the most recent kill in our region, in Idaho’s South Fork of the Snake and Henry’s Fork of the Snake in 2011, trout impacts were minimal but whitefish impacts were extreme. The spread of this illness and its effects are exacerbated by low water, warm water, and angling and other stress factors. To protect the Yellowstone’s trout population and to prevent the spread of the parasite responsible for the disease, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has closed the entire Yellowstone River drainage from the Yellowstone Park boundary at Gardiner down to the city of Laurel, past the primary coldwater sections of the river. This closure includes all free-flowing tributaries (small streams, the Boulder, Stillwater, and Shields River systems, and the Paradise Valley spring creeks). It is unclear to me whether this closure includes private lakes separated from the main flow of the river drainage. The Bighorn River is east of the closure zone and is not impacted. The impacted waters are closed to ALL recreational activities, including fishing, boating, and swimming.
Yellowstone National Park waters as well as small streams that begin in Montana north of Yellowstone Park but flow into the Yellowstone River upstream of Gardiner are not impacted by the closure. Of particular note, Yellowstone National Park fisheries staff have found no fish kills within the park boundaries and as of August 20 have no plans to institute closures within the park. This might change, but it would surprise me if it does. Low, warm water is a contributing factor to the disease, and Yellowstone National Park waters are higher, colder, cleaner, and with some exceptions see less pressure than waters outside the park. The lack of any fish mortality within the park jives with what I have seen just north of the park. Guides fishing lower down the Yellowstone near Livingston have seen literally hundreds of dead whitefish in a day. I have not seen more than a half-dozen in a day. Here is the park news release on the subject. Check here for any additional news releases on the subject.
The Yellowstone River will not reopen until conditions improve and the whitefish stop dying. I believe this will happen sometime between the Labor Day holiday and the 20th of September. Cooling water temperatures and the lack of fishing pressure will make a difference. I suspect FWP will begin considering reopening the river just after Labor Day, to save the fish the pressure from the holiday. That said, if the whitefish quit dying, they might reopen the river in the next week. If trout start dying in large numbers, the river might not reopen this fall.
In the meantime, the key duty of all anglers who like fishing Montana and the Yellowstone Region is to clean, dry, and disinfect all watercraft and wading gear before traveling to another waterbody, if you’ve visited the Yellowstone River in the past few weeks. I have extra wading gear that I’ll be using in Yellowstone Park for the next couple weeks, until my gear I used in the Yellowstone itself is thoroughly dry and all risk of contamination is gone.
Having a day off: good… having a day off with a guide to row for you: better (thanks Ben Jewell)… having a day off fishing the “Y”: PRICELESS! Since I had only walked and waded on the Yellowstone to this point I was eager to cover more water, but I had no real expectations other than I assumed we would catch fish. We self shuttled and started our day close to 8 am. Launching from Emigrant I began with a double nymph setup with a Bitch creek on top followed by a smaller stonefly pattern. We were quickly rewarded with a whitefish on the lead nymph.
Within five minutes a little cutthroat was added to the count. Of course the good fish are close to the bank where the vegetation and subsurface structure provide refuge and plenty of death traps for the angler’s terminal tackle. Having just lost both flies I quickly switched to a stonefly followed by a black wooly bugger with flash. Side note: we had multiple rods pre-rigged with flies for different applications so no time was lost to tying. Ben had just quipped how we were doing great with two quick species, and we now needed a brown trout from the cut banks that typically hold big fish.
Almost as if on cue the strike indicator dipped abruptly, and I felt the familiar tug and the next fish was on. This fish immediately behaved different, and we moved to the center flow to play it to the drifter. As soon as I saw the flash tease (you know the one where your fish shows a profile and challenges your skill to complete the task) I knew I had a brown trout waiting for CPR (catch photograph release).
Now that three of the six species were accounted for I started wondering if this combo of flies would continue the trend. The advantage of a having a streamer as your bottom fly allows for a dead drift as well as a twitch and/or a strip as a true streamer. When the flows and wind challenge your mending skills the streamer uses the hydraulics and angler inabilities to make a believable presentation. As the float continued we hit the banks dead drifting and twitching the flies and soon fish number four found its way to the net–a solid rainbow in anyone’s book.
With two fish on the black bugger I was starting to believe we might have things figured out. What would be the chance of catching another fish without doubling up on species? The next fish was landed within 5 minutes and was another whitefish but on the bugger. As we continued to watch the bank and water, Ben would ferry the Clack to the most productive side. Having the “hang of things” I continued to pound the bank, back eddies–remembering to mend downstream as the flies would suck upstream, foam lines, tree fall, etc.
Keeping pace the sixth fish was bending the 5 wt in short order. We had two 6 wts on stand by and one 7 wt for heavy double streamers. However, the 7.5 foot 3x leader on the 5 wt Winston LT kept me smiling. Just liked we planned it… wink, wink…the cuttbow hybrid kept me on pace for the slam.
By lunch we had 9 fish to hand, a few misses, and a couple of those aww @#%*! They say first impressions are lasting impressions. So, if the day stopped here my memory would be very favorable. We picked up right where we left off repeating our formula of success. From jumping ‘bows to hard fighting browns I kept the “Joker-face” firmly planted to my mug. The next big fish was a brown trout that dove under the boat, around the back of the boat twice, and avoided the net several times during his forceful runs.
Although I never landed a brook trout on this float, the sixteen fish that were released made my day. With 8 over 16 inches and one near the magical 20 inches my first Yellowstone float was very satisfying. I am sure most of us would like to have 6 hours of fishing with those totals. But how bad could it be when you’re in Paradise Valley.
I look forward to the next report because that legendary insect known as Pteronarcys is ready to emerge and create an angling heyday. Names like cat puke, prom queen, carnage stonefly, and the often imitated Park’s Salmonfly will be on every fly rodders’ mind. We know this how? Because we fish and pictures don’t lie. Tight lines!