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Hoot Owl Angling Restrictions Begin on the Yellowstone 7-21

Hoot Owl Angling Restrictions Begin on the Yellowstone 7-21

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.

Drought and Heat Beginning to Negatively Effect Area Fish, Fisheries, and Fishing

Drought and Heat Beginning to Negatively Effect Area Fish, Fisheries, and Fishing

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 Parks’ Fly Shop 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 3:00-4:00 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.
Runoff Report and Summer Streamflow and Fishing Outlook

Runoff Report and Summer Streamflow and Fishing Outlook

Walter just posted an in-depth snowpack and runoff report and an outlook for summer streamflows and fishing over at Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we suggest you click this link for the details.

Long story short, we have low snowpack and runoff is near its peak. We anticipate a low runoff, an early end to runoff, and low, warm streamflows this summer. In general the best opportunities will be in the first three weeks of July before things drop too much, though after that the fishing will still be good as long as it’s not super hot and dry. If it IS super hot and dry… well, we might be doing a lot of 6AM to 2PM trips and morning half-days.

Early May Snowpack Update & Streamflow Forecast

Early May Snowpack Update & Streamflow Forecast

Walter made a snowpack and streamflow update on his business website. Rather than reinventing the wheel, go check it out.

In sum, we had an early start to the spring melt due to downright not weather the last few days of April, but early May is forecast to be cool and wet. This should stall the HEAVY runoff until at least May 15-20 and will certainly lead to good fishing on the Yellowstone, Boulder, and Stillwater once the first flush of runoff drops out in a couple days.

Overall, snowpack is low. We expect low streamflows and an early start to most summer fishing as the water drop sooner than usual. This is good for late June and early July fishing. It’s not so good for late July and August fishing, when we anticipate low flows and warm water that might prompt “early-on, early-off” trips for optimum results as well as some mandatory closures in warm, low-elevation waters. These waters are mostly in Montana, though it’ll be a short season on the Firehole this June.

Yellowstone Blown Out…

Yellowstone Blown Out…

An early warm snap over the past few days has resulted in the Yellowstone blowing out with the first surge of the heavy spring snowmelt. This means that for right now our fishable options have shifted to the Boulder, Stillwater, Lower Madison, and Missouri Rivers and to area lakes.

Here’s a flow graph. The river has almost quadrupled in volume over the past few days:

Yellowstone River flow May 1 2021.

Below is the river’s level. It has come up about 2.5 feet since midnight on April 28. YIKES. This is the highest level the river has been since early July, 2020. Even if it had somehow remained clear, such a big jump would have made the fish weird for a few days. Since it’s full of chocolate brown mud and sticks, the trout are all hunkering on the bottom.

Yellowstone River level May 1 2021.

The good news is that this is not the onset of the full-scale runoff that will see the river completely out of play until well into June. The weather is forecast to drop back into the 50s-60s this week, and the NOAA forecast for the second week of May is calling for below-normal temperatures. Therefore we expect the river to drop back into shape by late this week and stay there through at least May 15 (assuming the outloos are accurate). There might not be much dry fly fishing, but these bumps in flow followed by drops before the heavy runoff hits typically bring great streamer fishing.