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Category: Weather and Water Conditions

Updates on short-term weather and water conditions.

Snowpack, Spring Snowmelt, and Summer Water Conditions & Fishing Outlook – Early May Update

Snowpack, Spring Snowmelt, and Summer Water Conditions & Fishing Outlook – Early May Update

Snowpack, Spring Snowmelt, and Summer Water Conditions & Fishing Outlook – Early May Update


Winter and spring mountain snow and how this snow melts from mid-April through the end of May (and then runs off into the rivers in most of May and June) is the primary driver for the western water year. High snowpack and a late melt means higher than normal flows during the prime June-September season, which limits early summer fishing but improves conditions for mid-late summer and early September. Low snowpack and/or an early runoff means an early end to the melt and good flows early in the summer, but tough conditions in mid-late summer. All in all, we prefer slightly above normal snowpack combined with a slow and normal to late melt, which gets us started on our peak summer waters only a few days late, but keeps flows high and cold in the early August “danger time.”

Our Winter and Current Conditions

All in all, we enjoyed an above-average winter and early spring snow accumulation season, with snowpack currently running around 120% of normal throughout our operations area. It is now the cusp of the spring high elevation snowmelt (runoff). With current temperatures forecast to run from below normal to normal for the rest of May, we are now assured of a normal to late spring melt, a heavy spring runoff, and overall above normal flows for the core summer season. This is going to make June fishing tough. It’s going to help late July through early September.

The spring runoff has not started in earnest on any area waters, though some are muddy with low-elevation and medium-elevation snowmelt, since the late winter and early spring period has generally been cool and wet and there’s therefore patchy snow remaining even at low elevations (though most elevations under 7000 feet are now snow-free). With temperatures forecast to remain in the 50s and 60s for about another week, it’s very possible the spring melt won’t begin in earnest until May 15. This is about a week later than average and more like 3 weeks behind last year.

Yellowstone Park Opener Outlook

The Yellowstone Park season opens May 25 this year. The opener is always the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, which falls early this year. Because of the late start to the melt and the early opener, it’s very possible the early fisheries are “weird” this year. During average years, the fishable water is the Firehole and that’s it. During years with below-normal snowpack, the Madison, Gibbon, and perhaps Gardner are also fishable. This year we expect different waters to possibly be better, before they enter the heavy runoff and the Firehole takes over. Here’s our guess.

Please note: we won’t know if these predictions are going to hold or not until at least May 20, so check back then for an updated report.

The Firehole may be in full-scale runoff or not yet entering it on the opener. We expect BWO hatches and nymphing to be the most likely tactics to work. The critical blond Nectopsyche caddis are unlikely to start until early June this year.

The Madison and Gibbon may or may not be fishable on the opener, but will certainly be too muddy beginning a few days thereafter. If they are clear on the opener, I expect spring-style nymph and streamer techniques rather than hatches (Madison) and dry-dropper (Gibbon) to be the tickets.

The Gardner will likely be muddy, but if it has so much as a foot of visibility, it will fish well with big nymphs tight to shore. There may also be remnant Mother’s Day Caddis, but only if late May is VERY cold.

The Yellowstone in the Grand Canyon is going to be high, cold, and not clear, but it might be a sleeper bet for anglers interested in nymph and streamer fishing. We are going to look closely at this water right before the opener as it may be a great bet for early guide trips we have booked. It will get too muddy no later than June 1 and stay that way until late June. The Black Canyon is going to be muddy from the opener on. The lake to falls stretch is closed until July 15.

Slough Creek may be fishable in its lower meadow using streamers. If it is and you are experienced, fish there and expect the largest trout of the season. The rest of the Lamar Drainage will be muddy.

End of Runoff and Season Fishing Forecast for Various Waters

For most anglers, this is the “meat” of this post. Waters are listed in the approximate order in which they become fishable post-melt. Note that some waters are within my (Walter’s) operations area under my business Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing, but not really Parks’ Fly Shop’s, since they are a long way from Gardiner and YNP but not my home base in Livingston.

Missouri River

While it is running high and likely to get higher, peaking about May 20, the tailwater portions of the Missouri below Hauser Dam (“Land of the Giants” section) and Holter Dam (the longer, more-famous, drift boat section) are always fishable throughout the spring and are fishing well on nymphs, though dry fly action is limited with the high water. As always, these stretches of river will fish best before late July and again from late September into November.

Area Private Lakes

All are now fishable and have their most consistent fishing of the year from now through June, though Burns Lake holds on through July due to higher spring water content. These are going to be the best near-Gardiner options for larger fish through June. High summer sees these running a bit warm and weedy, and they come back on around Labor Day and remain good through late October.

Paradise Valley Spring Creeks

All are fishable year-round, though May and the first half June are not as good as March and April, late June and July, and October-November.

Firehole River

May be muddy on the opener and likely to see its peak runoff after June 1, a rarity. Nonetheless, this will be the most consistent river option in YNP through the first half of June and remain good through June, possibly through the first 10 days of July particularly in the mornings. After that will be too warm until about Labor Day and then get gradually better through the fall.

Madison River outside YNP

Fishing well now, but will rise and get steadily dirtier and be tougher for the last ten days of May and first half of June. Salmonflies in the latter half of June below Ennis Lake and the last few days of June and first few of July above Ennis.

Madison River in YNP

May be fishable on the park opener but then will go out of play by June 1 and be marginal for the first 10 days of June. Will then get progressively better and be good the last ten days of June and probably the first ten of July before getting too warm, with afternoons and possibly all-day fishing too warm in late July and early August, before coming back into play in the last ten days of August.

Gibbon River

Generally similar to the Madison, but less likely to be good out of the gate and more likely to hold up through July.

YNP Lakes

All except Lewis and Shoshone will be ice-free and accessible (albeit wet, sloppy, marshy messes) by June 1. Lewis and Shoshone will follow by June 10. All will fish best from mid-June through mid-July.

Gardner River

May be fishable on the opener, but probably too high and fast for most anglers even when clear enough through about June 25. After that will nymph well below Osprey Falls. Above Osprey Falls won’t be ready until at least July 4 and probably the 10th. Salmonflies begin below Boiling River in the last few days of June and above it about July 10. They will last in colder portions of Sheepeater Canyon through July and probably into August. The Gardner should have enough water that even below Boiling River it stays cold enough to fish well except on the hottest days all summer.

Jefferson River

Fishable right now but will go into runoff in the first few warm days. Will clear around June 25, but only remain cool enough to fish for at most two weeks. Will come back into play around Labor Day.

Yellowstone River, Grand Canyon

May be fishable on the opener but will get dirty no later than June 1. Will drop into nymph/streamer shape around July 1, with pockets of Salmonfly activity near hot springs then but stronger in the latter half of July. Will fish well from July through at least September except when overcrowded and/or muddy.

Gallatin River, Especially the YNP Stretch

Will drop into shape around July 1 and be good except downstream of Gallatin Gateway through fall.

Boulder and Stillwater Rivers

Will drop into shape in the first week of July and be best from July 10 through August 1 for the Boulder and another two weeks on the Stillwater.

Yellowstone River, Gardiner to Livingston

Fishable now and given the weather forecast should remain so at least off and on for another week before blowing out with runoff for real. Mother’s Day Caddis hatch is underway. The late runoff means this water will not drop into shape until at least July 1, with July 5-10 more likely. Salmonflies will occur at the same time. The middle of July onward will be very good this year on the Yellowstone, with enough water in the Paradise Valley section to keep good fishing going through August. As always the upper river will produce best for numbers, closer to Livingston for size. The fall fishing will be consistent given the high levels. We had good floats into the last week of October last season and this year should be no different.

Yellowstone River, Black Canyon

Generally similar to the Gardiner-Livingston section, but Salmonflies will start a few days later and last (particularly at the upstream end) through at least July 20 and probably July 25.

Small Streams in YNP

A few will fish by June 15-20, but most will drop into shape sometime in the first half of July and be best from mid-July through late August.

Slough Creek

Possibly fishable with streamers on the opener, but will blow out thereafter and otherwise not be ready until probably July 5-10, with the best fishing from July 20 to August 10 or so, though some fishing will continue until late September.

Lamar River and Most Tributaries

Muddy until probably July 4 and too high in the meadows for another week, though the canyon will fish after July 4. Will remain good (though crowded) until late September or early October.

Soda Butte Creek

Very small shot of a short fishable window right at the beginning of the season, otherwise not fishable until about July 10. Will be horrendously crowded from before it’s ready through early October at least, or two weeks after it’s consistent. We leave Soda Butte for West Yellowstone guides and tourists except when we have no other option given client time or mobility restraints. We just loathe the crowds here.

Yellowstone River: East of Livingston

It’ll be after July 15 before this water is low enough to be safe to float. This stretch killed some folks last season… Should have enough water to fish well into late fall after that, with late August this year being a good period to roll the dice in search of one or two monster browns on hoppers.

Yellowstone River, Above the Falls

Opens July 15 and as always is best shortly thereafter, though increasing numbers of cutthroats and good water levels this year should keep it worthwhile for a shot at a few big fish until late August. 2019 will be the best year since the late 90s here, something we can now say every year, since the lake trout are getting slaughtered at a quick clip and therefore cutthroat numbers are rebounding nicely.

Stars Aligning for Mother’s Day Caddis

Stars Aligning for Mother’s Day Caddis

It’s looking good, folks. The past few days have been downright cold here in Livingston (probably colder at the shop in Gardiner), with snow each morning. This is helping the Yellowstone drop and clear. By the weekend temps are forecast to rise to around 60 degrees in the afternoons, which is warm enough to help the caddis get popping (especially with sunshine) but not so warm that it’ll bring down high elevation snowmelt. If you’ve got any flexibility in your schedule, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get here Sunday and stay the whole week after, hitting the Yellowstone when it’s game-on and the lower Madison if the Yellowstone gets muddy…

A Little Bird Told Me… (Mother’s Day Caddis Prognostication)

A Little Bird Told Me… (Mother’s Day Caddis Prognostication)

…That you should plan to fish the Yellowstone and/or lower Madison River next weekend, beginning Friday the 3rd of May.

Why? The current cooldown forecast through midweek will clear out the river and put the Mother’s Day Caddis hatches on hold. With temps forecast to rise back into the 60s by next Friday, the river will stay clear a few days and the caddis will go BOOM! My early prediction is that we are going to have a good hatch for at least a couple days.

Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch Outlook and Tactics

Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch Outlook and Tactics

Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch Outlook and Tactics

It’s almost that special time of year when the fish can go crazy eating olive-bodied caddis for a few days on the Yellowstone before the river blows out. It’s been a couple seasons since the stars aligned, but because of recent heavy rains that should flush the low-elevation snow and a forecast for temps in the 60s (good) rather than warmer (bad) for the next week or so, we have at least a decent shot. Here’s a detailed outlook, plus tactics that will work on the Yellowstone (where the hatch can be epic or can be washed out by snowmelt) and on the Madison (where the hatch is usually decent but not epic).


I’d say we have a 50/50 shot at a fishable caddis hatch on the Yellowstone this year. It depends on how much it rains this upcoming week and where the snow line is. Late last week saw the warmest temps of the season, up to the low 70s at valley-level, and this combined with heavy rain yesterday (Saturday 4/20) and this morning has caused the Yellowstone to spike to 2900 to 3500 cubic feet per second flows, roughly twice the seasonal average.

The river is muddy right now. Provided on how much it cools off, and it is supposed to cool off sharply Monday-Wednesday, we should have a fishable window mid-late week to get us close to the end of April. I do not expect any or at least many caddis this week. Water temps will still be in the 40s and it takes consistent 50-53 degree temps to get them really popping. Streamers are likely to be the ticket instead.

The key is the period beginning next weekend, April 27 onward. Temps in the week thereafter will determine whether we get a fishable hatch. If the NOAA forecast pans out, we are in good shape. The forecast is calling for cooler than normal temps and below normal precip for this period. This would be ideal to keep runoff from starting early. We’ll see… The most likely period for the hatch will be the first week of May. After that, temps are supposed to spike and that’ll be the end of the spring fishing on the Yellowstone.

The entire river from Gardiner to the mouth of the Shields River should be clear enough if the hatch does pop while the river’s clear. Even before yesterday’s rain, the river was filthy below Biltman Creek in Livingston, but the rain should have blown out most of the remaining low snow in this creek’s drainage. Once it drops, this will open up more clear water. It is unlikely the Shields River will clear enough to make the area east/downstream of its confluence fishable again this spring. There’s too much snow in the Shields Drainage, which is south-facing and therefore melts quick.

Over on the Madison, expect the caddis to pop in mid-May. While seldom as epic as the Yellowstone hatches, the Madison hatches pretty typically offer at least decent fishing for a week or more in mid-May.

Fishing Tactics

Subsurface tactics are usually more effective during the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch than dry flies, and attractor dry flies are usually more effective than imitative ones.

Start your day of fishing with streamers or by nymphing deep. Flashy streamers like the Kreelex are good choices in the spring as the water gets dirty. Run a caddis pupa like my Mother’s Day Pupa as a second chance fly behind this streamer. A lot of fish will take the dropper if the caddis hatch is imminent. If nymphing, something like a Prince or my Hula Princess on the bottom with an upper dropper of a lighter caddis pupa is a good choice. Another option is to fish a stonefly nymph with the Prince or a heavier pupa behind it.

Once you start seeing a few rises and a few caddis fluttering, switch to something like a #14 Peacock Clacka Caddis or Coachman Trude with the Mother’s Day Pupa or Prince on the dropper. Except in intense hatches, you can stick with this rig for the remainder of the hatch. Look for hatches to be heaviest from early afternoon through early evening. Early and late in the day won’t do much for you.

If the fish really start going crazy, swap the pupa for an olive Mercer’s Missing Link Caddis or Lawson’s Spent Partridge Caddis in olive. These double-dry tactics will work best in areas where bugs will cluster: foam patches, large eddies, and the like. They’re also a better bet if you’re wade-fishing than floating, since when wading you can pound areas you find rising trout and sort of encourage them to rise. From the boat, you’re flock-shooting and so better off most of the time targeting the larger numbers of fish eating pupae subsurface.

Yellowstone River Conditions Update

Yellowstone River Conditions Update

Current Conditions

Though it has been sunny with weather between the 40s and around 50 degrees for the past week, the Yellowstone River remains hazardous with bank shelf ice and is difficult to fish in many spots, with only a few boat ramps clear of ice.

In addition, stripes of low-elevation snowmelt have run through the river each day. It has always been possible to find clear stretches to fish, however. At 3:00 Thursday, the 26-Mile access in Paradise Valley was puke yellow/green in color, while the stretch near the Cinnabar access was emerald green with at least 4 feet of visibility (plenty).

This is DEFINITELY the latest into the late winter/early spring period that the Yellowstone has remained so inaccessible since I began living full-time in Montana back in 2006. Most years, the bankside ice is minimal by this point, with most boat ramps clear and almost all wade-access fisheries perfectly reasonable options.

Here are a couple examples of how this year differs:

East of Livingston, I have floated the Springdale to Grey Bear stretch as early as the first week of March without trouble. As of this writing, there are still river-wide ice jams on this section, and none of the boat ramps are clear of snow and ice.

Near Gardiner, my favorite stretch to wade-fish besides the mouth of the Gardner River right in Gardiner (which is always accessible through the heart of winter and is a good choice now) is usually easily accessible by late February, and frequently can be accessed without danger through most of the winter. It remains inaccessible both due to deep ice shelves completely covering the stream that must be waded to reach the main river and due to 4-6 foot ice shelves reaching out from the bank into the main river in the best spot, making the river itself dangerous to wade-fish. I thought hard about fishing it Thursday, but chose not to due to the danger of falling through the ice shelves. I usually get on this stretch for the first time without any danger besides the usual risk of a pratfall no later than mid-March.

The Long and The Short of It

For right now, choose the stretches of the Yellowstone you fish very carefully. Knee-deep snow or ice along the banks is negotiable, but it’s best to avoid any ice deeper than that, or walking on any that extends out into the river.

Floating is a bad idea except perhaps on the Brogan’s Landing to Yankee Jim stretch. Both of these ramps are ice-free, though there are high ice shelves along the banks for much of the float itself, making a pee stop a challenging endeavor.

Changes Coming Up

The weather forecast suggests the ice shelves will continue to melt at least slowly through mid-week, and will probably continue melting in a general sense moving forward. The melt may happen VERY slowly, however, since snow and temps peaking in the high-30s are forecast even at valley levels from the middle of next week through the weekend and the 6-10 and 8-14 day NOAA outlooks are calling for colder/wetter than normal conditions through at least April 5.

I have float trips scheduled the 6th-7th of April, and it’s possible I won’t feel safe running anything but the Brogan’s to Yankee Jim stretch noted above, though I’m almost certain that stretch will be at least safe to float. Mud might be a problem, though.