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Hoot Owl Angling Restrictions Begin on the Yellowstone 7-21

Hoot Owl Angling Restrictions Begin on the Yellowstone 7-21

We knew it’d happen. This summer’s extreme heat and drought just caused Montana FWP to shut down afternoon and evening fishing on the Yellowstone, lower Stillwater, Madison, and most of the Missouri starting tomorrow. We agree with this decision. It should be extended to large, famous waters in Yellowstone Park, as well.

This obviously puts a damper on our guiding. Here are remaining options:

  • Morning half-day float trips on the Yellowstone River; for floats, this is probably our preferred option now.
  • Full-day floats meeting no later than 6:00AM.
  • Half-day and full-day walk-wade trips in Yellowstone Park; again, half-days are probably a better bet, though we can make a full-day work by sticking to small mountain streams in the afternoon.
  • Full-day walk-wade trips in Montana: Basically these trips would be limited to the upper Stillwater.
  • Walk-float combos: Another good option, though availability is limited. We’ll float early, then wade fish a small mountain stream in Montana later.

Do your rain dance, folks.

Here’s the full news release from FWP:

High temps prompt additional fishing restrictions on several Montana rivers

HELENA – Several angling restrictions on rivers in southwest, north-central and south-central Montana go into effect today due to warming temperatures and low flows.

The restrictions include what are commonly known as “hoot owl” restrictions, which means fishing is closed from 2 p.m. to midnight each day. Some waters are under full fishing closures, which prohibit fishing at all times of day. These closures and restrictions will stay in effect until conditions improve.

The following closure went into effect today:

  • A full fishing closure for portions of the Shields River from the confluence with Yellowstone River to USFS Crandal Creek Bridge.

These closures go into effect, Wednesday, July 21, at 12:01 a.m.:

  • A full fishing closure for portions of the Big Hole River from the confluence with the Beaverhead River to Tony Schoonen Fishing Access Site.
  • A full fishing closure for portions of the Gallatin River from the mouth to Hwy 84 Crossing.
  • A full fishing closure for the entire Jefferson River.

These restrictions go into effect, Wednesday, July 21, at 2 p.m.:

  • Hoot owl restrictions for the entire reach of the Madison River from the mouth to the boundary with Yellowstone National Park.
  • Hoot owl restrictions for portions of the Beaverhead River from the mouth to State Highway 91 South.
  • Hoot owl restrictions for portions of the Missouri River from Town of Cascade Boat Ramp to Holter Dam.
  • Hoot owl restrictions for portions of the Stillwater River from the confluence with Yellowstone River to Absaroka Fishing Access Site.
  • Hoot owl restrictions for portions of the Yellowstone River Hwy 212 Bridge in Laurel to Yellowstone National Park boundary.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ drought policy provides for angling closures when flows drop below critical levels for fish, when water quality is diminished, or when maximum daily water temperatures reach at least 73 degrees for three consecutive days. Warm and dry conditions are expected to continue during the coming weeks.

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

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

If you’ve been following the news, you know that the NW United States has been under a nasty heat wave. We’re right in the bullseye even though we don’t make the news as often. Coming on the heels of a low snowpack year and an exceptionally hot and dry June, we’re starting to run into severe water temperature and flow problems that are hurting both fishing opportunities and area fish and fisheries. The governor has declared a state drought emergency. The long-range outlooks for summer 2021 do not provide much hope conditions will improve. Indeed, we’re now looking at our worst water year since 2007 or 1988.

Here’s a rundown of where we’re at and where we’re going. The hyperlinks will take you to relevant information pages.

As We Stand Now – A Summary

Water levels are drastically below normal. While the precise percentage varies from stream to stream, in general most rivers and streams are flowing at 30-40% of their historic averages for the date. For reference, these levels are closer to those commonly seen in early August than early July. Coupled with temperatures generally in the 90s at low elevation and the 80s even at 7000 feet in Yellowstone Park with bright sun, water temperatures are climbing well above normal. They’re already at levels seldom seen except during early August heat waves during previous drought years. The current water temperatures are unprecedented this early in the season.

Due to the high water temps and low water, some closures are already in place on low-elevation streams including the Jefferson, Shields, Smith, Ruby, lower Gallatin and East Gallatin, but near-universal closures on all larger rivers in Montana are likely soon. Except a couple marginal fisheries like the Shields, current closures are 2:00 to midnight “hoot owl” closures that allow for morning fishing. Without a break in the weather, full closures are likely on all major rivers except the Missouri, Bighorn, and perhaps the Madison upstream from Ennis Lake.

Yellowstone Park has not instituted any angling closures yet, though it should. Water temperatures in portions of the Firehole River have already reached 85 Degrees! This is undoubtedly lethal to the Firehole’s fish. We expect large-scale fish kills due to high temps have already occurred on this river.

Fire danger is high to very high and likely moving towards extreme levels. We are at stage II fire restrictions in Park County, Montana (as well as virtually all other counties in the area; no fireworks, kids), and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, while stage one restrictions are present in Yellowstone Park.  We anticipate a very bad fire year in the region, possibly on par with 1988, or, for younger folk who don’t remember this, the recent apocalyptic fires in California.

Fire danger and water temperatures are increasing with no end in sight, while hope for increased streamflow is nonexistent before September rains.

Impacts on Fish and Fishing

High water temperatures and low flows are terrible for trout. Trout beginning experiencing thermal stress when water temps reach the high-60s. 73 degrees can be lethal. As such, Montana begins instituting 2:00 to midnight “hoot owl” closures when water temps hit 73 degrees three days in a row at any point during the day. 24-hour closures are instituted if temperatures fail to drop below 70 degrees during any 24-hour period. These closures remain in place until water temps remain below 70 degrees for three consecutive days and forecasts predict this will continue.

At any rate, fishing when water temps is over 68 is terrible, so it is best to leave the fish alone when temps reach this level.

When fishing when water temperatures may push into the danger zone, it is important to do the following:

  • Avoid fishing during the warmest part of the day or in any condition when water is over 68-70 degrees.
  • Play fish quickly to limit their exertions. Consider upsizing your tackle to enable bringing trout in quickly.
  • Keep fish in the water – no hero shot photos.
  • Use barbless hooks that are easy to remove.
  • Fish high-elevation or tailwater areas that do not get as warm.
  • Consider fishing for alternate species such as carp.

Given the duration of the low flows and high water temperatures, we anticipate severe negative effects on area trout populations. Large fish kills are likely in the Firehole, Gibbon, and Madison Rivers in YNP, which all receive hot geyser basin discharge. Limited trout kills are possible elsewhere. Large whitefish kills are possible in the Yellowstone River System due to a resurgence of Proliferative Kidney Disease, a parasite that thrives in the warm, low, weedy water we will have this year.

Impacts on Parks’ Fly Shop Operations

Here’s the meat of the matter for many readers. Effects on our operations are beginning and will be severe for the remainder of the summer. These include:

  • Drastically reduced fishing opportunities on large, famous waters including the Yellowstone River and many locations in Yellowstone Park. Even when closures are not in place, poor fishing or undue stress on fish will prompt us to refrain from fishing many areas until temperatures decrease and flows increase.
  • Reduced fishing hours – We are already quitting by 3:00-4:00 and will shift this earlier if need be, even if we are not legally required to do so.
  • Earlier starts – We will begin meeting for all full-day trips at 6:00AM this week, and all half-day trips will run in the morning.
  • “Guide’s Choice” trips are required – Because options are limited, we expect all trips to have to run as “guide’s choice” trips in which we fish areas that are open and ethical to fish, regardless of client preferences. In general, the highest, steepest, and coldest water is what we will have to fish in order to operate at all.
  • Likely full suspensions of our services – We anticipate having to shut down our guide services beginning sometime in mid-July and continuing until sometime in late August. Full closures through the 2021 season aren’t off the table.
Yellowstone Fishing License Fees Increase

Yellowstone Fishing License Fees Increase

The title says it all. Big jump in Yellowstone fishing and boating license fees this year. The YNP license is now almost as expensive as the Montana license. Here’s the fee schedule:

On the plus side, you can finally buy Yellowstone licenses online. They will go on sale May 24 this year at recreation.gov.

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.