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Category: Snowpack, Streamflow, and Summer Fishing Predictions

Updates on winter snowpack and likely summer streamflow and fishing conditions, mostly posted from January through June

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.

Early April Snowpack Update and Summer Streamflow Forecast

Early April Snowpack Update and Summer Streamflow Forecast

Early April Snowpack Update and Summer Streamflow Forecast

I’m stuck in a hotel in Utah with THE WORST “HIGH SPEED INTERNET” OF ALL TIME through Sunday morning, so I won’t be posting any pics of likely streamflow as I usually do in these updates. I’ll make another post in 10 days to two weeks.

Winter Summary

We’ve had a topsy-turvy winter and early spring that has left us guessing in terms of predicting summer 2019 conditions. September through early December were cold, wet, and snowy and put us off to a great start. Late December and most of January were warm and dry, and left us worried about conditions. Jan 20 or so through early March had wet spells interspersed with near-record cold. It was -28 in Livingston on March 1, a record for the date by more than 10 days and closing schools for the first time since 1988 (no snow days in these parts). Most of March were warm and dry, while early April was warm and wet until just a couple days ago, when things shifted to cold and wet. It has snowed up in the mountains each of the last three days.

Our mountain snowpack typically peaks between the middle of April and early May, depending on the specific location and elevation. We look on track for this year to follow suit, though with a transition back to warm/dry weather now forecast for late April, I expect we will run a few days early for peak snowpack, particularly for the high elevation locations that look unlikely to build snow in late April as they usually do.

Current Snowpack

Snowpack in our operations area ranges from 102% to 126% of normal. The most important basins for our “core” operations area are the Upper Yellowstone Basin in Wyoming, the Upper Yellowstone Basin in Montana, the Madison-Gallatin Basin in Yellowstone Park, and the Madison Basin outside Yellowstone Park. These basins range from 111% to 126% of normal. The highest percentage is the Madison-Gallatin, which bodes well for a long season on the Firehole, while the lowest is the Yellowstone north of the park, which bodes for a near-normal start to the summer season coupled with streamflows that should remain relatively high and cool throughout the summer.

All in all, we are looking at a somewhat above normal snowpack, which is what we prefer for the summer season even though it leads to a slightly late start for Yellowstone River floats. Remember: we are also floating the Madison and Jefferson this season. While these rivers are not as convenient to Gardiner or Yellowstone Park as the Yellowstone, they are good float options before the Yellowstone is ready.

Current Fishing Conditions

Because the warm weather in early March melted out most snow at low elevations, even if the deep freeze in February has left some ice shelves in strange places, we are now in the full swing of spring fishing. As a matter of fact, I ran two guide trips last weekend and hope to get some more in the next couple weeks.

The top fisheries through April are the Yellowstone, Paradise Valley Spring Creeks, and the lower Madison. The private lakes are just turning on (access might be tough due to snow drifts). Some “new to us” waters like the Jefferson and even the Musselshell will come on in late April. The Missouri is always good in April, on a variety of stretches, and this year is no exception.

Summer Fishing and Streamflow Predictions


We are looking at likely slightly above normal snowpack and streamflows this season. While the timing of the onset of the heavy spring melt has a lot to do with the specific streamflows later in the summer (early snowmelt = early end to snowmelt = lower flows later in summmer), we now feel pretty confident that conditions will be at least near-normal.

In a general sense, this means that we’ll be sweating for places to fish a bit after May 5-10 and until early July, with the most likely bets during this period the Firehole, Madison, and Gibbon in YNP as well as private lakes, the Missouri River, the Madison River, and perhaps the Jefferson River outside the park our best (only) options. On the other hand, once the Yellowstone System both inside and outside the park comes into shape sometime in early July, we anticipate generally consistent fishing and streamflows that are optimal for good fish activity and health as well as angling success. We do not anticipate any closures related to water temperature or flow except on the few rivers that are always too warm in mid-late summer anyway (the lower Madison and Jefferson, basically).

Here’s a suggestion: fishing is going to be generally good this year. If you’re a Firehole Junkie, come anytime in June. If you prefer the northern part of the park and the Yellowstone System outside it, come anytime after about July 4. We had great dry fly fishing through September last year and top-notch subsurface fishing through late October. I expect this year to be just as good, with the standard caveats about thunderstorms muddying the river and the few days that are 97 degrees and sunny out being the exceptions.

More detail on individual fisheries follows. The fisheries are listed within their river basins, with basins listed in the approximate order in which they drop out of the spring runoff. Yellowstone Park fisheries are given first, then Montana fisheries.

Reminder: The Yellowstone Park general season opens May 25 this year!

Madison River Drainage (YNP)

Firehole River

This is going to be a good year for the Firehole. The park opener falls early, so there’s a good chance the river will not have even reached peak runoff yet for the first few days of the season. Fishing in the last few days of May and early June will be best if it is cool, which will slow the runoff. There may be a few days of “meh” clarity here, even between Biscuit Basin and Midway. These are most likely prior to June 5. The best fishing will be June 5–20. Afternoons will get shaky after the 20th, but mornings should be good through June barring extremely hot weather. It’s pretty likely that Biscuit Basin down to but not including Midway Geyser Basin will continue fishing in the mornings until at least July 4 and maybe July 10.

Madison River

Will probably become fishable in the first week of June unless runoff is very slow, in which case it may fish at the opener, go out for a few days, and then be back no later than June 10. The best fishing will be in the latter half of June. It’s very likely that mornings will be fine through mid-July. It’s possible but unlikely that mornings will be fishable through July, meaning the Madison doesn’t have a down period this year (last time was 2011 or 2014). This depends on fairly cool summer weather and some rain.

Gibbon River

Will probably not fish on the opener unless it’s cold, in which case it will fish and then go out. Unlikely to be consistent before sometime between June 5 and June 10. The best fishing will occur in the latter half of June in the canyon or June 20 through July 4 from Norris to the canyon. Below Norris should fish at least in the mornings through July 15 and may fish all summer, though there will be better “small fish and numbers” fisheries than the canyon all over the place and better “big spooky” fish in the Lamar Drainage.

The small fish water between Virginia Cascade and Norrris will not be ready before June 20. This is in contrast to the swarms of campground folk who’ll be crawling all over Norris Meadow while it’s still a giant swamp. The water from the headwaters down to Virginia Cascades is currently not a viable fishery while fluvial grayling and westslope cutthroats are introduced above the falls; this water was poisoned in 2017 to remove non-natives.

Other Fisheries

Firehole tributary creeks will come in during the last ten days of June or so. Reminder: Grebe Lake and the upper Gibbon System are currently not viable fisheries due to the poisoning and introduction noted above.

Yellowstone River Drainage (YNP)

Upper Yellowstone (Above the Lake and Lake to Falls)

Opens July 15, as always. The best fishing will be in the two weeks after the opener, but there’s sufficient water in the system and enough cutts in the lake rebounding from the lake trout that there’s some utility in fishing through August, particularly from the lake to Sulphur Cauldron.

Grand Canyon (Falls to Lamar)

May be fishable with nymphs and streamers on the opener if and only if May 15-25 are cool. If it’s clear then, holy biscuits… After that, will blow out and probably not reach peak runoff until June 20-25, though this water becomes fishable the instant it begins to drop (since the loose mud will have been scoured from the canyon walls by that point). Again, nymphs and streamers for a while after that. The best fishing will occur from about July 10 through September. Salmonflies here and there as soon as it clears, but heavy in the second and third weeks of July.

Black Canyon (Lamar to Gardiner)

No way it’s fishable until at least June 25, and July 4 is not 100% safe (cross fingers, daddy has floats). The Salmonflies will pop between the second week of July and the end of July, with the peak emergence near Gardiner around July 10 and the peak at the upper end of the canyon a week or so later. The best fishing will occur from the Salmonfly hatch through late September, but the portions near Gardiner are worth a shot right until the park closes in early November.

Other Fisheries

Tributary streams will generally not be fishable until at least early July, with August best. Those flowing out of lakes are the main exceptions. Blacktail (beginner brookie creek) will be fishable in spots by the 25th of June. Small lakes will be reachable around June 10 and best from June 15 to July 15. Yellowstone Lake may well still have ice on the opener, but it’ll melt within a few days. The fishing will be best prior to the middle of July.

Gardner River Drainage (YNP)

Gardner above Osprey Falls

Likely too high even if it’s clear until at least July 10. The best fishing will be July 20 through August.

Gardner between Osprey Falls and Boiling River

Nymphable anytime it’s clear (a few cool days will do it), but tough and inconsistent. It will ‘really’ become fishable around the beginning of July. From this point, it’s a good choice provided it’s not cold all the way until late October.

Gardner between Boiling River and the Yellowstone

Nymphable whenever there’s a foot of visibility so long as you like heavy #6 stoneflies. There is a very good chance for a couple days of fishing in late May, essentially the early stages of the high elevation melt. This is tough and physical fishing. Will ‘really’ become fishable between June 15 and June 25, but still be physical into early July. The best fishing will be the early physically exhausting and dangerous nymphing, the Salmonflies in the first week of July(ish), and the fall fishing from about September 20 through the end of the park season.

Other Fisheries

Joffee Lake and the Swan Lake Flat Sloughs will be cold and sloppy but fishable on the opener. Otherwise, tributary creeks will begin dropping into shape between June 20 and the end of the month, and be good in July and August.

Lamar River Drainage (YNP)

Lamar Mainstem

Almost no way it’s fishable before July 4, and it might easily be the 10th. The latter half of July through the middle of September will be best.

Soda Butte Creek

Same as the Lamar, but more crowded.

Slough Creek

Slough might be fishable with streamers on the opener. This happens about one year in five, and the early opener is good for that. If so, go there and swing meat. More likely, it becomes fishable in the first week of July and is best from the 10th through the month, getting tougher and tougher but still producing for skilled anglers until the middle of September or a bit later.

Other Fisheries

Other Lamar System tribs are likely to become fishable sometime in the first ten days of July. All are best before the end of August, since the larger fish tend to live in one of the bigger rivers. Trout Lake should be ice-free and be as good as it ever gets on the opener.

Missouri River (MT)

Headwaters to Canyon Ferry

While technically open for rainbows now, and can turn out some huge ones on streamers when it’s clear, we think of this as summer carp and fall brown trout water. As such, skip it until late July.

Canyon Ferry Tailwater and Hauser Tailwater (“Land of the Giants”)

Fishing now, and unlikely to get quite so high as last year. Think pink. Peak inflow and therefore highest water levels are likely in May, probably mid-month. I will be running power boat trips here again beginning in spring 2020. I would love to get a bunch of early deposits…

Holter Tailwater

There’s a reason this is the busiest water in Montana in May and the first half of June. It’ll get high, but stay clear, and should fish well all spring. The dry fly bite will probably be so-so at best in May due to fairly high water.

Madison River (MT)

“Between the Lakes”

Fishing now, though requires post-holing through snow to reach. Think pink, midges, and eggs. Any warm weather will bring mud in from tributaries, but the top portion of this short chunk of river, the stretch right below Holter Dam, always remains clear.

Quake Lake to Ennis Lake

Fishing now and relatively snow-free as of Tuesday. A good bet with stonefly nymphs, midges, eggs, and maybe some BWO. Will get high enough that bank fishing will be tough to nonexistent, and probably won’t be “good,” from late May until the middle of June, but seldom becomes truly unfishable.

Ennis Lake to Three Forks

Will probably get fairly high, but that doesn’t really hurt this water. The bigger issue is mud out of Cherry Creek, which may be enough to dirty the river in early May. Otherwise, this water is a good choice. We’re running trips here for the first time this year, and this is where we’ll be floating the most from May 10 until the Yellowstone clears. There should be enough snow up high that this water will fish at least in the morning through July 15, though watch out for the bikini hatch once July rolls around.

Other Fisheries

The lakes should ice-out in early May and be good out of the gate.

Jefferson River (MT)

Has a short runoff that should be done by June 25. The fishing is best in late April and early May before the mud and for a week or two after the mud but before it gets hot. It can be a narrow window, alas.

Yellowstone River Drainage (MT)

Gardiner to Point of Rocks

Fishing well now (two guide trips out over the weekend) and should continue to stay strong until early May except when early surgest of low-elevation melt hit the river. Hopefully the heavy runoff holds off until May 10 or so. If it does, we’ll have a good Mother’s Day Caddis hatch. If it doesn’t, we’ll have chocolate stew from the time it blows until at least the last week of June, and I’m now thinking the first week of July is a better bet. The fishing will be good from then until early November. Salmonflies should take place July 4-10 or so.

Point of Rocks to Carter’s Bridge

It’s always a question mark if this water clears before, during, or after the Salmonfly hatch. It should clear near the end of June or in the first week of July, with Salmonflies at about the same time. We should have enough water this year that this stretch stays good all summer, with the best big brown streamer action in the latter half of July (with numbers of fish on caddis) and the best attractor/terrestrial fishing for both numbers and bigger fish in the latter half of August and first week of September.

Carter’s Bridge to Laurel

The Shields River has been pumping mud in already, so it’s a good question of how most of this water will fish pre-runoff. It might now. This water is “burly” enough it needs more time to drop into shape than the water above. Look to fish here beginning July 10-15, with the best fishing for the first month on caddis and streamers and on streamers and BWO after Labor Day. There may be some days this stretch gets too warm, generally the last week of July and first week of August. This depends on temps and precip. If summer is cool/damp, no problem. A week of 90+ daytime highs and you should go further upstream, even if this is the “lunker hunter” water on the Yellowstone.

Boulder River

We will be running floats here for the first time this year. Runoff will recede around July 1 and flows will remain high enough to float for about a month thereafter. This whole period will offer good attractor dry-dropper fishing, though every guide in Livingston with a raft likes to fish here at that time (including yours truly).

Stillwater River

Similar to the Boulder, but further away (2hr from Gardiner, at minimum), bigger, and less-crowded. It’ll stay high enough to float until around Labor Day.

Private Lakes

Usually good already, but the snowdrifts at low elevations make them something of a question mark. I’d hold off until April 20 or 25. After that, good fishing until late June for Story and late July for Burns, with warm water a question mark for good fishing from those points until about Labor Day. Merrell had another fish kill last year and so is off the table for 2019.

Paradise Valley Spring Creeks

Good bets for a few more weeks and then again after June 15-20, when the PMD start. Runoff does not impact them.

Other Fisheries

Dailey Lake is a reasonable bet for a few huge mutant holdover stocked fish and maybe some smaller recent stockers. Tributary creeks won’t be ready until July 10 or so and will be best July 20 through about September 10. We are playing with some access on the Shields River, which will have good streamflows for the third year in a row, a rarity. Stay tuned…

Gallatin River Drainage (MT)

Park Boundary to Gallatin Gateway

Fishing now, particularly between Big Sky and Gallatin Gatewaay. Expect runoff to hit sometime in the first half of May, though this water can have a short window of fishability here and there during this period, especially between the boundary and the Taylor Fork confluence. Will drop from runoff in early July.

Gallatin Gateway to Gallatin Forks

Good now, particularly at the upper end. Will blow out in early May and generally be too warm once it drops from runoff in July. There’s a reason the water upstream gets more pressure.

Gallatin Forks to Three Forks

Really only a fall float fishery. We’ll run a trip or two here after Labor Day for diehards who want to see a new river and are okay with tough fishing for very small numbers of big guys in exchange for low crowds.

East Gallatin

A good choice now when it’s clear. We may run some trips here this year now that I’m in Livingston. Will experience pulses of runoff whenever it’s warm, especially if it’s warm and rainy. The heaviest runoff will be in May and early June. Will drop out of runoff in late June.

Other Fisheries

The various lakes will be hard to hike into before late June, but should be good then. Tributary creeks besides the East Gallatin will be roaring until about July 10 and best July 20 through Labor Day.

Snowpack Update and Summer Streamflow & Fishing Forecast: Early March Update

Snowpack Update and Summer Streamflow & Fishing Forecast: Early March Update

Snowpack Update and Summer Streamflow & Fishing Forecast: Early March Update

Here’s an introduction. More details are below.

After a great start to winter and a very warm and dry period from the middle of December through late January, February saw southwest Montana and northwest Wyoming blessed with one of the coldest and wettest Februaries in memory. This trend continued into early March, with temperatures a few days ago bottoming out at -28 in Livingston, a record for the date by 11 degrees! Basically, we had January weather in late February and early March.

Temperatures are still cold, but temperatures are now moderating somewhat and the outlook for the remainder of March is for cooler and drier than normal temperatures transitioning to warmer and drier than normal temperatures. April and May outlooks call for an equal chance of above normal, normal, and below normal temperatures and precipitation. We hope for normal precip and below normal temperatures to preserve the snow until May.

Fishing is frankly terrible right now. Even the Paradise Valley spring creeks are tough due to the lots of snow and ice on the banks, even though the creeks themselves are in good shape. The main flow of area rivers are now mostly ice-free except where drift ice has packed up and formed dams, but there’s so much bankside shelf ice that fishing is dangerous. We hope that conditions improve over the next week or two, but it could be early April before the boat ramps are clear this year. They’d better be. We have trips scheduled for the first week of April…

Current conditions put us in good shape for near-normal water conditions for this summer. It is now very unlikely things will be either substantially above normal or below normal this year, which should make for a “normal” season, provided the water melts on time. If it melts drastically late or drastically early, things could change a great deal. Since the forecast for most of March is for dry conditions, I expect the snowpack to decline as a percentage of average for the next few weeks. This means we could still be in for below-normal flows this summer (though probably not drastically below normal flows), particularly if the snowmelt begins in late April as it did last year, rather than around May 7-10 as it does in normal years.

NOTE: Everything that follows assumes near-normal precipitation and temperatures and a near-normal timing for the start of spring runoff!

snowpack map early march
March 9 Snowpack Map. Our area of operations is circled in red.

Current Snowpack Conditions and Impacts on Summer Fishing

Snowpack in our area of operations ranges from 116% to 132% of normal. The highest number is in the Madison-Gallatin Basin in Yellowstone Park, the lowest in the upper Yellowstone River Basin in NW Wyoming, including Yellowstone Park. Unlike last year, and frankly unlike January this year, this is exceptionally cold snow that will be resistant to melting early.

In a general sense, we have a strong snowpack that should provide near-optimum water levels and keep flows solid and cool through July. As always, the early part of August is a bit of a question mark and depends on NOT getting a week straight of 95-100 degree temperatures.

Here are some notes on what to expect for specific watersheds, beginning with the Madison Basin in YNP, which is always the first walk-wade water to drop out of the spring melt. I’ll cover waters inside the park first, then waters outside it.

The Yellowstone Park General Season Opens May 25 This Year!

Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison Rivers in YNP

This is the first time in quite a while that the Madison-Gallatin Basin has had snowpack numbers higher than the Yellowstone Basin. This could make for an interesting early summer on the Firehole River, “interesting” in the first week of the season because of high water and ACTUALLY interesting in the last week of June and first week of July. If and only if the snow holds off melting until a near-normal timeframe, we could have good fishing on the Firehole and certainly on the Gibbon and Madison into early July, at least in the mornings. In fact, it’s at least conceivable that both the Firehole/Gibbon/Madison AND the Yellowstone and its tributaries could offer good fishing for about a week in early July. This almost never happens. Usually there’s a week or so in there when the former waters are too low and warm and the latter are still too high, and we kind of have to scramble to find good spots in the Park.

The Firehole is likely to be the only fishable water in this basin for the first week of the park season. Even it might be “meh” for the first few days of the season, if a big warmup does not occur a couple weeks earlier in May to clear out some snow. It is likely to be best in the middle ten days of June, but at least solid from June 5 to 25. As noted above, there’s potential for fishing into July in the mornings, but that will depend on weather.

The Gibbon below Norris Geyser Basin should begin fishing between June 1 and 5 and be best in the latter half of June. It should continue to fish into the first half of July, particularly in the mornings. The canyon water downstream of Gibbon Meadows will be best for the first week or ten days, while the meadows will be best in the last week of June. The short section of the Gibbon that holds fish upstream from Norris Geyser Basin (and its couple fishable tributaries) will not be ready before June 20-25 and will be best in July and August. Reminder: Grebe Lake and the entire Gibbon watershed from Virginia Cascades upstream was poisoned beginning in fall 2017 and is now effectively fishless pending grayling and westslope cutthroat introductions.

The Madison in YNP will probably be too high for the opener but drop and clear enough to fish with subsurface flies between June 1 and June 5. The best fishing will be in the latter half of June and it should hold up into July. Water conditions will be good for decent numbers of fall-run browns and rainbows to remain in the system until late June after overwintering in the river.

Yellowstone River Mainstem in YNP, and Tributaries in YNP

As always the upper Yellowstone River from Chittenden Bridge upstream to the park boundary (not including Yellowstone Lake) opens July 15 and will be best from that point through July. Water levels will be higher than anticipated in my last update, so that though the run should be stronger than it has been since about 1995 due to lake trout suppression efforts, fishing will be harder than earlier anticipated.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from the Silver Cord Cascade confluence to the Lamar River Confluence, including the Tower Falls area, MIGHT be fishable for the first 3-5 days of the park season if May is cool, but only with big nymphs and streamers for fit anglers. More likely, it is now unlikely to be fishable for the main summer season before June 20, and will probably not drop into shape before June 25-July 1. It will be good from this point through at least early October, with the Salmonfly hatch beginning around the time the water clears and continuing in sporadic fashion for a month. Yes, the Salmonflies hatch in the Grand Canyon for a month. They begin near warm water sources (small hot springs) and end near cold tributaries.

The Black Canyon of the Yellowstone from the Lamar Confluence to the Gardner Confluence is unlikely to fall into fishable shape before June 25 and it will probably be sometime in the last few days of June or first few days of July. Expect Salmonflies to begin about that time near Gardiner or a few days later and progress upriver for a couple weeks, with the conclusion of the hatch in the upper canyon between Hellroaring Creek and the Lamar around July 20-25. This water should fish well except when rains muddy it from the time it clears until late September at the upstream end and mid-October at the lower end.

Yellowstone River tributaries in the Park will generally be best in the latter half of July and August, though most will run clear no later than July 1. Blacktail Creek will be marginally clear by June 20-25. Tributaries draining lakes might be ready by June 15. Blacktail Ponds open in early July. Cascade Lake will be a swampy mess but probably reachable and ice-free in the first week of June, but will be best in the latter half of June after it warms a bit.

Gardner River System

The Gardner River Upstream from Osprey Falls will become fishable in early July. It has fished poorly the past few years. We’re not sure why. Access to this water may be tough due to road work this year.

The Middle Gardner between Osprey Falls and Boiling River will drop into some kind of shape sometime in the latter half of June, probably after June 20. It will fish best from early July through about October 25 (late season fishing is better when it’s warm out). Salmonflies should begin here with stragglers from downstream around July 1 and continue in the remotest reaches of Sheepeater Canyon into the first few days of August, with the bulk of the hatch around July 15.

The Lower Gardner from Boiling River to the Yellowstone may be nymphable for fit anglers on a day-to-day basis from the beginning of the park season. This is especially true for the first few days of the season, when the early opening means that cooler weather might allow some fishing before the bulk of the spring melt gets going. This is physically demanding fishing suitable only to experienced tightline (Euro/high-stick) nymph anglers. The river will start dropping into better shape about the same time as the Middle Gardner. The Salmonflies will occur in the first half of July. Fishing will be best for the last week of June and July and again from mid-September through the close of the park season.

Gardner River tributaries will begin dropping into shape around June 20 and be best in July and the first half of August. Many tribs will be hard to reach due to road construction. Grizzly Lake is effectively inaccessible due to this construction. Joffee Lake and the Swan Lake Flat sloughs will be squishy but fishable from the beginning of the park season (note that Swan Lake itself is fishless).

The Lamar River System

Slough Creek might be fishable in its Lower Meadow for the park’s opening weekend, but ONLY if it has been cool and dry, and ONLY utilizing streamers. It is much more likely to come into shape in the first week of July (along with rough water portions). The upper hike-in meadows (First, Second, Third) fall into shape a few days later. As always, Slough is usually best for the first month it is fishable, and gets tougher and tougher into late summer and early fall before shutting down in late September.

Soda Butte Creek will drop into shape between July 4 and 10 and be fishable from that point until late September. The catching will be best in late July and early August. I say “catching” rather than “fishing” because in our opinion the fishing is always miserable here due to overwhelming crowds and scarred, lethargic trout. It is often difficult to find 100 yards to yourself here and you should expect other anglers to jump into your pool no matter how small it is, including fishing directly across from you from the bank you are casting towards. Crowds are most intense and approach “eastern put & take fishery at stocking time” levels in the first two weeks of September, which is always the most crowded period here.

Rugged portions of the Lamar River will fall into shape for nymph fishing and possibly the Salmonfly hatch in the first week of July. Meadow portions will fall into shape shortly thereafter. The fishing will be most consistent for the first month after it drops into shape, but the Lamar remains worthwhile until late September. Roadside portions in the upper and lower end of the Lamar Valley will rival Soda Butte for overwhelming and dispiriting crowds. The portions of the valley farther away from the road won’t be so bad, and hike-in stretches are almost always fairly uncrowded. The rough water may or may not be crowded. It depends on how many anglers fit enough to do so run screaming from the crowds further upstream to fish the rough stuff.

Other Lamar River Tributaries typically require hikes and perhaps rough footing to access and produce smaller fish than the main streams, but produce far healthier fish and far less crowds. The main exceptions are Trout Lake (always crowded) and the lower end of Pebble Creek (usually crowded, always crowded when Soda Butte is muddy). The tributary creeks that aren’t obvious or require a hike to reach will begin fishing sometime in the first week of July and be best in the latter half of July and early August.

Note on Lamar Drainage Crowds: Upwards of 90% of Parks’ Fly Shop retail customers from July 4 through September plan to fish roadside meadow portions of Soda Butte Creek, the Lamar River, and Slough Creek, or to hike to the First Meadow (2+ miles) of Slough Creek. The crowds are most manageable in July. They are least manageable in the first half of September. These crowds substantially detract from the overall experience of fishing these areas, result in hook-scarred and tired fish, cause erosion, and are otherwise to be avoided if you are fit enough to fish elsewhere. In 2018, less than 2% of all Parks’ Fly Shop guided trips into Yellowstone Park went to these areas, and always at client insistence or due to a lack of physical fitness needed to fish other walk-in fisheries.

Yellowstone River System outside Yellowstone Park

The “Upper” Yellowstone from Gardiner to Carbella is typically good already, but ice is limiting fishing so far this March. We hope things turn on in a week or two and really hope the ice is gone by early April, when we have floats scheduled and typically get a lot of big fish. The heavy runoff will probably begin around May 1-5 this year, and there will be a lot of low-elevation runoff during warm spells in April due to the abundant snow we’ve gotten lately. The river will drop out of runoff in the last week of June or first week of July, with Salmonflies beginning at that time. The best dry fly fishing will begin about July 10-15 and continue through early October. The nymphing was great all the way until November last year. Because I (Walter) now have a raft rather than a high-side drift boat, Yankee Jim Canyon floats will begin no later than July 15, though this water is typically best from August until early October regardless of water levels.

The Paradise Valley Stretch of the Yellowstone from Carbella to Pine Creek is usually not as good pre-runoff as the sections upstream or down, except during the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch which may or may not be fishable in early May. This water drops into shape at about the same time as the upper section, but is not as good on the surface except during the Salmonfly hatch or heavy evening caddis hatches before late July. The best dry fly fishing will be in August and September this year. Some slow fishing is possible during the hottest parts of late July and early August and during bright weather in late August and early September. The latter in particular depends on how fast the water drops after runoff. Low water here equals tougher fishing. Fall fishing is typically good in deeper areas.

The bottom of Paradise Valley and the “Town Section” of the Yellowstone from Pine Creek to Mayor’s Landing typically drops into shape a few days after the sections above (due to rough, turbulent water) but fishes better on dry flies than the Paradise Valley stretch through most of July, and holds up during hot/bright weather in late July and August better. It is also good in the fall, including very late fall (big browns). We will be running more trips on this stretch beginning no later than July 15, since both Rob Olson and I (Walter) are now based in Livingston right by this water. Evening caddis trips may be available in July depending on other bookings.

The “Lower Yellowstone” east of Livingston will drop into shape around July 10-15 and be best in late July, perhaps the first half of August provided water temps remain under 70 degrees, and after September 15. This is the big fish portion of the Yellowstone and is best for anglers who want to try for some toads rather than numbers of smaller fish on dry flies. We will be running this water more in 2019 due to the aforementioned guides being in good position to do so.

The Boulder River offers some pre-runoff fishing. Its main season will begin a few days before the Yellowstone. It should be floatable for about a month thereafter and makes a great changeup to the Yellowstone for those willing to drive to meet me in Livingston.

Yellowstone River Tributaries Outside the Park will begin dropping into shape around July 10-15 and be best in August and the first week or so of September. The main exception from Livingston south is Dailey Lake, which will ice-out soon and will be good in early April based on last year’s heavy stockings. Note: the private lakes and Paradise Valley spring creeks are discussed below.

Madison River System Outside YNP

For our purposes, only the Lower Madison River matters much. It will become floatable in early April subject to a reasonable melt of the current bankside ice. It will be best in May and June, and is our closest float trip option during this period. As usual, in early July it will get too warm to float ethically and remain so into early September, then be good again into November.

More Distant Waters

The Jefferson River should be good in the latter half of April and perhaps early May, then again for a week or two at the end of June and perhaps the beginning of July, before getting too warm until late August or early September.

The Gallatin River is going to experience severe ice jams in late March and April this year. By late April it should be great for wade angling (ice free areas near Big Sky sooner). The floatable lower portion is always of marginal interest until late September.

The Missouri River from Three Forks to Canyon Ferry Lake offers some rainbow fishing in late April and early May, but it’s “meh.” The much more interesting multi-species (carp, big trout, walleye, and pike) fishing will begin in late July and be best in August and while warm weather holds in September. The brown trout runs from Canyon Ferry and Toston Reservoirs are best in the latter half of October and November.

The “Land of Giants” Stretch of the Missouri is typically great by now, but it has been so cold and icy and there has been so much snow in that neck of the woods that I suggest waiting a couple weeks. After that, think pink flies through early May. Note that we are not offering power boat trips here this season. I had to sell my power boat to afford the down payment on a house. Look for them to return through my other business Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing in 2020.

The Missouri River Below Holter Dam (the famous stretch) is currently snowpacked and iced-over, very rare for this late in the winter. It should be good to go by early April at the absolute latest and very good from that point through June. Note that this is getting up to 4hrs from Gardiner, so it requires an overnight stay in Helena, Wolf Creek, or Craig.

Brief Snowpack Update

Brief Snowpack Update

Here’s a photo I posted in January:

dry yard in December in Montana

Here’s a photo I shot today:

snowy yardThe entire region, but particularly the Yellowstone River basins in Yellowstone Park and north of it and the Madison-Gallatin basins in Yellowstone Park, have been absolutely pulverized by snow of late. This latest storm, which has put down probably two feet and counting in Livingston, was enough to close schools across the region –which ain’t easy in the Rockies. Livingston schools were closed for the first time since 1989.

All this snow, along with biting cold temperatures that have made February colder than January for the first time in decades at least, means that area snowpack is now running way above average. Depending on the basin, as of this morning snowpack was running 111% on up to 127% of normal. This is a drastic change from even a week ago, when the Yellowstone basin in the park (now at 111%) was actually below-normal.

Once the snow actually winds down I will be posting my full outlook on summer water conditions for early March. Suffice it to say that things have changed. In short, we are now looking at normal to above normal snowpack and streamflows. Above normal snowpack now seems likely considering the long range outlooks through March. We aren’t quite to where we were last season, and we don’t necessarily want to be since only an early melt kept us from a very late start to the high summer season, but the snowpack is now WAAAAAAY up there. At the very least, I feel safe in saying we should be out of the woods for temperature and streamflow-related closures in Yellowstone Park and on the Yellowstone River and its tributaries.

Yellowstone River Fishing Report — Not Much to Report

Yellowstone River Fishing Report — Not Much to Report

Yikes. This has probably been the coldest February since I started spending the winters in Montana back in 2006-2007. It’s certainly the first time I remember February being both colder and snowier than January.

Here’s a still taken from the webcam near Pine Creek.

icy river webcam

See that shelf on the right side of the image? Ice. See the white haze down the middle of the river? Ice. See the island at mid-screen? Mostly ice. See the channels upstream? Almost all ice.

Most of the river is in this sort of shape right now. With air temperatures of late ranging from the single digits below zero up to about 20 degrees, and more of the same in the future, don’t expect much change until at least March 10.

If you want to fish the Yellowstone, your only options for the foreseeable future are the mouths of the Gardner River or Depuy Spring Creek. Otherwise, stick to the spring creeks themselves.

This is actually a very unusual state of affairs. While floating is still out in late February almost every year, we’ve frequently got mostly open river except for ice jams along many banks. The fishing is often very good in the long, deep, midriver runs now, with some midge activity on calm, warm afternoons, but good nymphing any day temps are above freezing. Not right now. I’ll update the overall fishing report (click above) when things change.

This cold is doing wonders for the snowpack. We’re at about 98-104% of normal in all our important drainages. Expect these numbers to jump 5-10% over the upcoming week, with heavy snow in the forecast. I’ll be posting a full update on the snowpack around March 10, but suffice it to say that it is looking more and more likely we’ll have normal snowpack (or so) for 2019.