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2021 Snowpack Update and Season Streamflow Forecast

2021 Snowpack Update and Season Streamflow Forecast

Walter just posted a thorough season streamflow update over on his personal website. Rather than reposting it here, we’ll just suggest you head over there.

Long story short is that we are at 90-108% of average snowpack in the drainage basins that impact our operations. While not bad, this isn’t as high as we would like to be sure of good August water conditions.

The long-term outlooks do not suggest significant improvement in the above numbers for the remainder of the winter. We’re instead likely to remain flat or have the numbers decline a bit over the next six to eight weeks before the heavy spring melt begins.

So we’ll likely be near average in the Yellowstone Basins (at 106-108% now), but below average in the Madison Basin, which includes the Firehole and Gibbon (at 90-91% now).

The next update will pop around April 1, and no it won’t be a joke.

Continued Improvement in 2021 Snowpack and Fishing Season Outlook

Continued Improvement in 2021 Snowpack and Fishing Season Outlook

Ten days back I posted about how I was holding off on posting about our current snowpack and what it means for the 2021 fishing season. I’m STILL not going to go into extreme detail because we’re STILL getting tons of snow.

The above is great news for the 2021 fishing season. Back at the beginning of January we were hurting, and January itself was dry, too. I was still on my “rock” snowboard on February 1 because not only were a few rocks still exposed at Bridger Bowl, there were also stumps, bushes, and clumps of grass, when all that junk is usually buried.

Simply put, we were looking at a drought season three weeks ago, with the possibility of widespread late afternoon fishing closures if summer turned out hot. Now we’re fast approaching exactly where we want to be for snowpack, which in turn bodes well for summer streamflow and fishing conditions.

A quick reminder before I lay out some numbers: most of our summer water comes from winter snow. Once runoff peaks in June, the water continually drops until sometime in September when fall rains usually raise things a swidge again for a few weeks before rivers drop to their winter low flows. High snowpack means a high peak runoff means higher flows and colder water temperature through summer means happier and healthier trout means much happier fishing guides and clients.

All in all, we like snowpack to be 100 to 115% of normal at the end of April. This sets us up for normal to slightly high streamflows no matter what happens for summer temperatures and rainfall.

It does mean our summer fisheries (Yellowstone, Boulder, and Stillwater Rivers for floating, northern YNP for wade-fishing) start in early July instead of late June, but it sets these fisheries up for much better conditions from about July 20 through mid-September. Anyway, we have plenty of other spring fishing options now that Walter is running power boat trips and we float the Lower Madison. These fishing options are great during the May to early July runoff season.

Here’s where the important drainage basins in our operations area stand as of Feb 17. They’re given in order of approximate importance to our operations:

  • Upper Yellowstone Basin Inside and Upstream of YNP: 109%
  • Upper Yellowstone Basin Downstream of YNP: 107%
  • Madison/Gallatin Basin Inside YNP: 90% 🙁
  • Madison Basin Outside YNP: 89% 🙁
  • Gallatin Outside YNP: 101%
  • Jefferson (Impacting the Missouri R.): 97%
  • Helena Valley (Missouri R.): 106%

As you can see from the above, we’re near or slightly above normal for two out of three of our critical basins. There’s definitely still some improvement needed in the Madison-Gallatin, especially for you Firehole fanatics.

Still, things have improved substantially of late, and we’re hoping they keep improving.

Snowpack and Summer Streamflow Predictions – DELAYED

Snowpack and Summer Streamflow Predictions – DELAYED

The title says it all. I expected to post about current snowpack and what it means for summer streamflow and fishing conditions sometime in the past few days or the next few, but I’m going to wait a bit.

Why?

Because we are currently right smack dab in the snow machine, so snowpack numbers are rapidly increasing every day. I’m going to wait to say what the numbers are and what they mean for summer/fall fishing until I don’t have to shovel for a couple days.

The above is GREAT news. We had a low snowpack last year and were having a VERY warm and dry winter to this point, but the outlooks for the remainder of the month are for us to make up for the deficit. All in all, fishing is better when snowpack is somewhat high. Things get delayed a bit in June, but July through September are much better.

Here’s today’s snowpack report for the area, with our approximate operations area circled in red. Most of these numbers were 10-20 points lower a week ago.

Three Winter Fly Fishing Tips

Three Winter Fly Fishing Tips

Introduction

With summer crowds getting heavier and heavier, winter fishing is getting more and more popular in Montana. This is very different fishing than we have in summer, however. The fish are in different places and demand different tactics. Whole books have been written on winter fishing, but the following three winter fly fishing tips will point you in the right direction.

1. Find Warm, Walking-Speed Water from Four to Six Feet Deep

When winter fishing Montana rivers, you have to go where the trout are. The fast, shallow, bouldery areas where most trout feed in summer are devoid of fish in midwinter. The water in these areas is just too fast when trout have slow metabolisms. Instead, the fish gather in large, deep, slow-moving pools where the don’t have to work very hard.

On the other hand, the slowest pools are not the best places to catch fish. Simply put, trout need some current to bring food. So even though there might be a lot of fish in the dead-slow holes in winter, these fish aren’t eating. Instead, look for them along the edges of large, slow-moving current seams. Often the best spots are long midriver seams adjacent to big slow pools, the sorts of places where there’s a gentle interchange of current 100 yards long or more.

By the same token, avoid the very deepest runs. In summer, trout prefer to feed in water 2-4 feet deep. In winter, they may be a bit deeper. That bottomless deep run is unlikely to have any insect activity, because sunlight doesn’t penetrate all the way to the bottom as easily.

Trout are most likely to be feeding in seams that are a little bit warmer than the main river. Perhaps these are areas adjacent to hot springs or hot spring-influenced tributaries, such as immediately downstream of the Gardner River confluence on the Yellowstone or Hot Spring Creek on the lower Madison. Perhaps these are just areas that receive the most sunlight in the winter.

Winter is a good time to bring a stream thermometer. Look for water temps over 38 degrees. Anything colder and the trout tend to shut down. Once the water hits 41-42, you’re really in business.s

2. Fish Low and Slow

What do I mean here? Three things, even though “low” and “slow” are only two words.

First, “fish low.” By this, I mean your flies need to be on the bottom. If you’re not losing an occasional fly in the rocks, you’re probably not deep enough. Most bugs are in the gravel or cobble in midwinter, and even if a few are hatching, the trout are unlikely to move to mid-column to feed because currents are too heavy at mid-depth. The ONLY common exception to ticking the bottom is when heavy midge or BWO hatches occur, which may bring up a few nymph-eaters to mid-column and eventually some dry fly eaters to the surface. We love dry fly fishing here, but we don’t do it in the winter unless we’re seeing rising fish first.

“Slow” has two meanings. First off, your flies should not be “swimming.” If you’re fishing a run that’s moving at a slow walk, your flies should be moving the same speed as the current or just slightly faster if you happen to be fishing a streamer. No skating your bugs, no fast wet fly swings, no stripping & ripping streamers. Trout aren’t going to chase flies in winter.

The second meaning of “slow” refers to how quickly you should move. In high summer, we might cover over a mile of water in an hour on the Yellowstone River on a drift boat trip, and that includes time pulled over changing flies, fixing tangles, releasing fish, snapping pics, etc. Even on foot I might cover half a mile, skipping all but the best water. In the winter, I might fish a single hundred-yard stretch of river for two or three hours.

The fish bunch up in winter, the water they hold in reduces the chances these fish will spook, and the fish are more tight-lipped, requiring perfect drifts to eat. All of this adds up to mean that in winter you’re much better off pounding on one or two good holes than fishing fast and furious.

3. Think Small or Think Big

Here I’m talking about flies. Basically, you have a choice between matching the dominant food items in winter (small stuff), or of giving the fish such a large mouthful that they can’t refuse it. Is it a good idea to fish something big, heavy, and meaty with something tiny on the dropper to touch both bases? You bet.

Most “small” flies should run #16 to #22, with larger flies on rivers and the smallest flies on spring creeks. The predominant small food items you should plan to match are midges and Blue-winged Olive nymphs. If the fish are rising, it’ll be to small midges (or slightly larger midge clusters, imitated with a Griffith’s Gnat) or occasionally to tiny BWO. As winter progresses, a few late Winter Stoneflies might join these insects, though small black mayfly nymphs and black single midge dry flies do a good job of matching these bugs. Also as winter progresses, eggs begin entering the trout’s diet, as early-spawning rainbows start dropping an egg now and again. These eggs should be tiny, either #16 or #18. Even San Juan Worms, which can work on spring creeks and tailwaters, should be sparse and small unless the water (on rivers) gets murky.

Note that pink flies are very good choices on many area waters in winter, especially tailwaters where both early eggs and dead scuds can be matched by pink patterns. Sometimes these run a bit bigger than the typical winter small stuff, but #12 or #14 is still the upper limit.

At the other end of the spectrum are stonefly nymphs and streamers. While you usually don’t want to use the giant #4 nymphs or articulated streamers you might use in summer, a #6 or #8 Girdle Bug or Woolly Bugger is an excellent option. You’re not necessarily trying to match any specific food item except the occasional stonefly nymph. Instead, you’re just giving the trout a great big mouthful: lots of calories to keep warm in winter.

Conclusion

Winter is not the time most visitors think to fish Montana, but if you stick to the tips above and wear waders that don’t leak with plenty of layers underneath, it can be more productive than you might think. Fish in early afternoon when the wind isn’t howling and air temperatures are tolerable.

Missouri River Jet Boat Fishing Trips

Missouri River Jet Boat Fishing Trips

The “Land of Giants” stretch of the Missouri River where we run our Missouri River jet boat fishing trips is a unique Montana fishery in which a short tailwater downstream of Hauser Dam leads into Holter Reservoir. This stretch has no boat ramp at the top, meaning access is via hiking or motoring up from the reservoir below. Tailwaters create large fish and lots of them. Reservoirs create large fish and lots of them. When you combine a short tailwater and a lake immediately downstream, close enough its fish can run up into the tailwater to feed and back again over a matter of days, you get lots and lots of large trout.

Simply put, our Missouri River jet boat fishing trips provide the best opportunities for lots of large trout of any of our trips.

Missouri River Rainbow Trout and scenery

Introduction to Missouri River Jet Boat Fishing Trips

  • Season: Ice-out in March through November, with the best overall experience in March and early April and from mid-May through early July.
  • The Fishing: Primarily nymph fishing deep slots from the boat, but some streamer fishing, wade-fishing good seams, and dry fly fishing are also possible. The dry fly fishing is best in late June.
  • The Fish: Rainbow and brown trout that run BIG. The average rainbow runs 14 to 18 inches, the average brown a couple inches longer. 20-inch fish don’t raise any eyebrows and we see quite a few in the 22″ to 24″ class each season. The largest fish on average in our operations area live here.
  • The Boat: Because this area lacks a boat ramp at the upstream end, access requires an aluminum jet boat modified for fly fishing. We use a 2000 Tracker Pro Team 18 Jet, an inboard model with a 120hp engine.

To fish the “Land of Giants,” we launch the jet boat at Gates of the Mountains Marina north of Helena, Montana, then run southeast across Upper Holter Lake into the Missouri River proper. Once in the river, it’s a short 3-odd mile run up to the base of Holter Dam. Most days, we do most of our fishing in the bottom mile and a half of this stretch, since no-wake rules and heavier currents upstream make fishing close to the dam less efficient. That said, most days we do wind up fishing up close to the dam, sometimes anchoring up to fish deep boulder fields in this area.

The season here is very different than on most of our fisheries, which is one reason we run these trips. While it’s possible to wade-fish this area all through the winter, Missouri River jet boat fishing trips begin sometime in March when the ice goes off Holter Reservoir. The fishing can remain good all the way until the end of November, when the ice starts forming again. The largest numbers of fish are available from late March through mid-May, during the rainbow trout spawn, but this is also when the largest numbers of anglers are present. This water can be obscenely crowded at this time, with 20-30 guides and as many as 100 bank anglers present on a bad day. There’s fish enough for everyone, but if you’d rather have a less-crowded experience, fishing either right out of the gate in March or waiting until at least mid-May is better.

Typical high average missouri river rainbow trout

From mid-May through early July is peak season here, in our opinion. The trout are coming off the spawn and feeding aggressively, which causes them to get fat, healthy, and hard-fighting very quickly after the rigors of spawning, but they spread out some and get a little harder to catch. The crowds therefore drop sharply, with 10 guide boats and 20 or so bank anglers or less much more common than the hordes earlier in the season. This is much more manageable. The fishing gets more varied, too. Whereas during the spawn the best way to catch fish is to free-drift egg imitations and assorted pink mayfly nymphs and scuds (which are probably taken as eggs), on Missouri River jet boat fishing trips in late May we usually fish scuds and Blue-winged Olive nymphs, whereas in June we fish a lot of PMD imitations. In late June and early July, good dry fly fishing on PMD cripples and caddisflies is possible. We also do some streamer fishing, particularly with clients looking for a big brown trout or two.

By late July it’s back to nymphing. From now through early October the fishing is harder than it is earlier in the season, though crowds are almost nonexistent. Because of heavy aquatic weed growth down towards Holter Lake, we do most of our fishing up close to the dam.

When the weather turns in the fall, the brown trout begin running up from Holter Lake. While this is not the “massive numbers” fishery it is in the spring, this is the time to take a Missouri River jet boat fishing trip if you want to fish streamers for big brown trout. The browns continue chasing streamers all the way until Thanksgiving, at least, making this our best option for LATE season fishing, long after everything else has gotten too cold to fish consistently.

Introduction to the “Land of Giants” Stretch of the Missouri River

The “Land of the Giants” stretch of the Missouri begins about 15 miles northeast of Helena, Montana, at the base of Hauser Dam. The river twists its way through a couple short canyons before expanding into Upper Holter Reservoir. This is a stunningly beautiful stretch of river. We launch for this trip at the south end of the “Gates of the Mountains,” so named by Lewis & Clark back in 1805. This narrow, deep limestone canyon has played host to a lot of history, from the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949 which claimed the lives of many wildlands firefighters, an event immortalized in the book Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean, who’s far more famous for his other book, A River Runs Through It, which you may have heard of…

The run across Upper Holter Reservoir is pretty in and of itself. The lake is shallow and in a wide bowl-shaped valley. It’s typically home to a wide range of bird species, including oddballs like Caspian Terns. It’s also home to a lot of trout; if the wind is calm (which it often isn’t), we’ll often fish the lake as well as the river upstream.

missouri river land of giants canyon scenery

Once into the Missouri River itself, the canyon walls close in, falling sheer into the river and occasionally shedding a boulder. The boulders are why we need to run jet boats here; hitting a car-sized rock with a prop motor would ruin everyone’s day. We’ll often see deer, ospreys, eagles, and a range of songbirds here in the river canyon, occasionally joined by black bear.

In the lower 1.5mi of the Land of Giants, the river flows wide and fairly shallow, though the current is often swift. Upstream of the small meadow near tributary Beaver Creek, the canyon walls close in, the river narrows and deepens, and flows get faster and faster as you approach Hauser Dam. This upper reach of the river is deep, fast, and turbulent, and is arguably the prettiest water on the trip, though also the hardest to fish.

Fishing the Land of Giants

This stretch of the Missouri is home to a vast amount of trout food, ranging from tiny mayflies and midges on up to crayfish, sculpins, and–believe it or not–perch. Because of the smorgasbord, even the largest rainbows can sometimes demand flies as small as #22. The vast amount of subsurface food also explains why dry fly fishing is seldom good here. Basically, dry fly fishing requires high water temperatures and heavy hatches. Occasionally you’ll find small pods of trout rising to midges of BWO, but the PMD and caddis hatches of late June and July are much better opportunities for dry fly fishing. Otherwise, expect to fish nymphs and streamers.

Early in the season when the water’s cold and high, most fish are caught nymphing deep with eggs, pink mayflies, and pink scuds. All of these flies are probably taken as rainbow trout eggs. The deep, walking-speed seams in the middle of the river are best at this time. Out of the boat, we usually free drift, cutting the engine and drifting with your strike indicator through good runs, then jetting back up to the top and repeating the performance. For shore-bound anglers or when our clients want to get out to fish on foot, the best tactic is to make a 15-25 foot cast slightly upstream, then stack mends as the flies drift past and downstream, feeding line into the drift as long as possible before pulling in the slack and starting over. This takes some practice, but it’s an extremely effective tactic whenever the trout are stacked in a few deep midriver seams.

large june missouri river rainbow trout

As the water begins to drop and especially warm in May, the deep bouldery slots can still be top spots, but some fish begin moving into cobble-bottomed riffles to eat scuds, sowbugs, and BWO nymphs. Streamer fishing can also be effective, particularly if you’re interested in capping off a day of solid 14-20″ rainbows with one big brown trout. Perch-pattern streamers are often just the ticket in late May and early June, and may produce walleye as well as trout. Instead of midriver areas, we’ll often target smaller targets along the bank or behind midriver rocks at this time. Sometimes we’ll drift. Sometimes we’ll anchor up or even use the trolling motor to hold in good areas. Bank fishing is less effective except in a few specific areas at this time, since the fish are more spread-out than earlier.

In June and especially in July, the fish shift to faster and often shallower areas, such as boulder fields and riffles. Nymphing deep in the morning, shallower in midday, and often hanging tiny nymphs below dries is often the ticket at this time of year. Except when fishing dry flies, we’ll usually do all fishing from the boat at this time, but anchoring up to pound specific boulder piles or riffles is often the name of the game.

For the remainder of the season, the fish move back out into the middle for the most part, often in fast, turbulent seams up close to Hauser Dam. Sometimes we’ll target these fish on the drift, sometimes anchored.

Except when fishing streamers, when bigger is often better, fly size here should be on the small size. While we get some fish in spring on “gob of protein,” flies like #10-12 Caviar Scuds and AMEX Czech Nymphs, #16-18 is better the rest of the year. #20-22 are occasionally required in late summer and early fall. Except in spring, when pink attractor nymphs of various sorts are good, these flies should generally match the food the trout are focused on: BWO and scuds in late May, PMD nymphs and caddis pupae in June and July, midges much of the time. Since “LoG” often isn’t crystal clear, small bugs with hints of flash are often excellent choices. Hatch-matching dry flies are better than attractors. Last Chance Cripples are excellent mayflies, while the Corn-Fed Caddis is a top caddisfly.