As snow piles up here at Big Sky Anglers World Headquarters in West Yellowstone, MT (the Geographic Center of the Fly Fishing Universe) our sights are locked on to the 2018 fishing season. Guide Trip reservations are pouring in, and we’re busy planning fishing adventures throughout Yellowstone Country and beyond. We’ve fielded a lot of questions over the last few weeks about times to take a guide trip. So, we decided to share some of our recommendations for a few overlooked options.
#1 – Springtime (April – May)
When most anglers think of Springtime in the Rockies they conjure up images of our big, Western rivers running wild with brown water flooding the banks and stream-side vegetation. In much of the region, that’s an accurate description. But, on two of our favorite rivers, the Henry’s Fork and the Missouri you can find a much different experience in the early-season months of April and May. You see, both of these rivers are tail-waters with strategic dam releases, and are situated at relatively low elevations compared to other big rivers like the Madison or Yellowstone. Warm weather comes much earlier to places like Ashton, ID and Cascade, MT then it does to West Yellowstone. With warm temps comes the onslaught of Spring hatches like Mother’s Day Caddis, Baetis, and Stoneflies. While no river in our region is completely immune to Spring run-off, the Henry’s Fork and Missouri Rivers generally have sections that continue to fish well through the “mud-season” because of the clean releases coming from dams on both systems. April and May weather in the Rockies can range from 70 degrees and sunny to 30 degrees and snowing, and anglers need to be prepared for any combination of weather conditions. It’s always an adventure in the Spring as our best fishing occasionally occurs when the weather is at its worst! So, if you want to experience some of our area’s best fishing at an adventurous time of year when few other anglers are thinking about trout fishing out West, consider April and May on the Henry’s Fork and Missouri Rivers.
#2 – August
The “Dog Days of Summer” can be a bear on many fisheries. That hot August sun dries out the countryside, and heats up water temps. “Hoot Owl” closures (angling restrictions placed on bodies of water when water temps are too high and flows fall below critical levels) plague many Montana rivers like the Big Hole and Jefferson. This might be the time when many anglers would consider taking a break until the Fall, or dusting off the old golf clubs. But, in fact this is prime time for one of the angling world’s premiere destinations – Yellowstone’s Backcountry. The high alpine environment in YNP has a much different seasonal calendar than the surrounding region. Lush, green, hillsides covered in wild-flowers, and snow-capped peaks are common sight in Yellowstone’s high country well into August. Daytime temps are generally in the high 70’s to low 80’s and nighttime lows will routinely drop below freezing. This is the perfect recipe for cold, clean water. By August the backcountry has dried out, and most of the biting flies are done for the season making it the most comfortable time of year to hit the trail and explore some of the best kept secrets in our area. Our veteran guides have decades of experience wandering through the backcountry of Yellowstone in search of trout. They have more overlooked and under-fished spots in their quiver than you could fish in a lifetime. If the backcountry isn’t your thing or you’re looking for a little diversity, August is also the best time for Gulpers on Hebgen lake, and some of the most consistent dry fly fishing on the Railroad Ranch at the Henry’s Fork. Combining the backcountry of Yellowstone with some time on Hebgen, and a visit to the Ranch is a program that’s hard to beat any time of the season!
#3 – Anytime you can get here!
In this day and age, time is the one thing no one has enough of. Everyone struggles to maximize their time, especially when it comes to vacations. Visiting anglers are always in search of the “perfect time” to plan their fishing trip. The truth is, there is no perfect time. From our location in West Yellowstone (the Geographic Center of the Fly Fishing Universe) we are blessed with arguably the greatest diversity of fishing locations and authentic angling situations found anywhere. Now, Mother Nature is a fickle temptress, and often she reminds us that planning can be an exercise in futility. But, on most years with somewhat “normal” conditions we can find awesome fishing somewhere in our area every day of the season. If you have your heart set on experiencing a specific hatch on a specific fishery, say the Green Drakes on the Henry’s Fork, then, you better get here in mid-June. But, if you’re less focused, or just have an opening in your schedule, get here whenever you can! We’ll find you some awesome fishing!
The Henry’s Fork of the Snake River is one of the most diverse fisheries in the western US. With over 70 miles of fishable water, each section has such a unique character that it is like having eight rivers rolled into one. Water types on the Fork range from tailwater canyons to flat, technical spring creek water, with freestone canyons and low gradient riffle-run sections as a nice bonus. The Fork also has great diversity in elevation above sea level, with its headwaters at Henry’s Lake located 6472 feet, and the lower reaches of the river down around 5000 feet. In times of extreme weather here in the high country surrounding West Yellowstone (elevation 6666 ft), it is possible to head down to the lower elevation “banana belt” where you can find nicer weather and water conditions that make the fish and fly fisher both a bit happier. Nearly the entire river is sourced from natural groundwater springs, the largest of which forms the river’s headwaters and is aptly named Big Springs. Due to the strong influence of groundwater, the Fork experiences a very minimal runoff by local standards, and almost always has several fishable sections in the early season (April through the month of June).
All of us here at Big Sky Anglers are excited to have an outfitting license for the Henry’s Fork. We are now the only fly shop in West Yellowstone with this license, and we are among only eight outfitters total that are license holders for the river. Guiding on the Henry’s Fork allows us to treat our customers to great fishing opportunities at times when many other local waters are blown out, closed to fishing, still frozen or otherwise unfishable. And, all of this exists within a 35 minute to 1 hour drive from the shop here in West Yellowstone.
The lower elevation reaches of the Henry’s Fork in particular exhibit great diversity of geology, gradient, scenery, and fishing. Each section has its own unique character, ranging from sections with large average sizes of trout that offer chances at true bruisers on dry flies, to other sections that are home to larger populations of smaller fish that offer the an angler the chance to relax a bit, learn a lot, and bring a few fish to hand. The beauty of the Fork is that there is something for every angler regardless of skill levels. We feel that it has been a misconception for years that the Fork is an experts-only river, and while there are sections where even the most experienced can test their skills and wits, there are other areas where newer anglers can still have a good time.
Though it is legal to fish year round on many of the sections of the Henry’s Fork, the fishing really begins to shape up in April, with good baetis hatches and some March brown activity occurring in several sections. Stable water conditions, a rarity in the mountain west in April, make for reliable angling conditions, even if the weather is still a bit unpredictable. Nymph fishing usually dominates during April. While hatches can be prolific, they are typically short lived. There is also some good streamer fishing when water temps are warm enough.
The fishing during the beginning of May can be considered an extension of April conditions… until the salmonflies begin to hatch. This usually happens around the middle of the month. Because the Fork has numerous tributaries and springs that change water temperature between river sections, the big bugs begin hatching and reach their peak in each section at different times. Often the hatch will appear in a section upstream on the river and a few days later will begin to happen in a downstream stretch. Fishing with a guide who has been on the water every day affords visiting anglers a HUGE advantage for this very reason. While targeting the salmonflies can be a bit tricky because of unstable weather in May, there are typically 5-7 great dry fly days with salmonflies . And when the dry fly action isn’t perfect, the nymphing with big stonefly imitations can be outstanding.
Nymph fishing and dry/dropper fishing gets us through the end of May and into the beginning of June when the most exciting hatches of the year begin. Usually we start with golden stones, PMDs, and caddis, which overlap with small olive stones and yellow sallies. Next come the flavs and green drakes, followed by gray drakes, which create some of the most exceptional match-the-hatch dry fly fishing of the year. This is often a mix of blind fishing with dries while looking for targets. For the angler who prefers to target and cast to rising fish, the combination of a reliable spinner fall in the morning, blending into a PMD hatch in the afternoon, followed by a flav emergence in the early evening, this is absolute paradise. These hatches offer a real chance at some very large trout in some sections of the Henry’s Fork, and for those who are willing to trade quantity of smaller fish for overall size of fish taken using extrememly visual methods early June is tough to beat.
And remember, all of this happens before the Madison is even done clearing up from runoff for the year. Once the fishing begins to wane at the end of June on the lower Henry’s Fork due to rising water temps, the salmonflies will have just begun to establish themselves on Montana’s Madison and the upper Henry’s Fork gets into full swing with a repeat of many of the same hatches described above. We’ll be there and hope you’ll be there with us!
Jonathan Heames, Co- Owner and Head Guide
Big Sky Anglers Co-Owner and Senior Guide Jonathan Heames looks forward to early season on the Fork all winter long.
Wade fishing is one of my favorite past times. Why? Because it’s just you and the river – intimacy with a river is hard to come by unless one gets out of the boat and stalks trout. When wading, all your skills come into play: stalking, reach casts, managing slack line, mending, feeding slack line and of course, setting the hook.
You watch and wait.
Patience is key and without it one will never really get it.
Timing is everything. Okay, maybe not everything as a good reach cast will bring home the bacon, but timing is damn near everything. That’s why one must go fishing, cause if you don’t go you won’t know…….just how good it was.
For me, when the big mayflies emerge on the Henry’s Fork, there is really no other place I want to be. Sure, salmon flies and evening caddis on the Madison ranks right up there, but watching a large trout pick off your drake from a skinny water riffle is priceless. These are the days that I stick away and remember when I have been guiding twenty-five straight in July or when sitting at the bench in the dead of winter at 30 below.
Big fish slide into the skinny stuff and love to eat these flies with reckless abandon. When hooked in shallow water, fish rip line and test your skills. This is “drop everything and go” kind of trout fishing. Luckily, my wife understands this addiction and realizes that without this time on the river, I become a pain in the ass.
Drew and I stopped on the way down and get a twelve pack and some fried chicken as there will be no time to leave the river. We stay as long as they rise and then a little longer. We soak everything in.
Summer is here. Enjoy it.
There are Big Bugs throughout southwest Montana and parts of YNP. I caught my first trout of the season on Jacklin’s Salmon fly not too far from West Yellowstone…..love this pattern and Bob still ties them. There are not cheap, but this fly is hands down, one of the best patterns ever. Go by and visit Bob and buy some of his Salmonflies. Take one home and never fish with it.
Rumor has it that there are Big Bugs in Bear Trap Canyon. The Madison above Ennis lake has dropped some and has been a little on the tough side the past few days – that happens when the river bumps up. So be it.
June is flying by……are you coming out? You should. Next week is gonna be stellar and so will the rest of June on through July. June just might be the month this season. Like last year, the Madison has been really good thus far. With the recent rains (keep praying for more) and hot daytime temps, the tributaries bumped up and put the Madison off for a few days. It’s still pretty good but it’s quite as good as it was. That’s fishing for ya. For those of you who like to wait till the last minute, we do have some openings during the rest of June.
The Henry’s Fork is also an option as we run trips through Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop. I will be down there later this week as the green drakes are on the cusp of popping!
….to look into the future? Just go fishing. That’s what I’d do.
What I mean by this, is can one really say what the summer angling season will actually look like? Educated guesses are popping up all over the Web and some of them are quite good. I pay attention to a couple of them, just to compare with my own thinking. Even then, some of the best fishing is when one just heads out, with no expectations and fishes. This could be in January or during the dead heat of late August.
Here are the facts:
1. Run-off has started. Yes, indeed it has. We normally see some pushes of low level snow melt in mid May, but we are full on into run off and it’s two weeks early, maybe three. The low level snow pack is gone. The mid level snow pack is almost gone.
2. Snow pack is light. While it looked great a few weeks ago; the lack of rain combined with warm weather and wind evaporated the snow pack. I have been up in the high country, hiking around to check it out. What is left up there, will soak into the ground and may not hit the river like years past.
3. Mud…..rivers around West Yellowstone are a bit off color, but from reports in Ennis, there is 12 inches of visibility down there. Of course, there is always more mud to come out from the West Fork of the Madison, so this will change. Cabin and Beaver Creeks are up and muddy, but I have yet to check out Quake Lake or the Slide – that will come later today. It looks like the Dearborn River (Missouri tributary) has peaked so the lower reaches of the Mighty Mo’ should stay clear barring any freak snowstorms.
4. Rain showers passed through SW Montana yesterday afternoon. Water fell from the clouds for most of last night, it poured from time to time, but the ground soaked most of it up and puddles are rare outside my door on Horse Butte. More rain is forecasted for through Monday, so if you’re planning a trip to Madison for the Opener, bring a rain jacket – it’s gonna be a wet one.
5. Snowfall is still a factor. It’s only May 17th and I have seen 2.5 feet fall in the yard as late as June 23. What I’m getting at is that the next six weeks can be VERY wet, and honestly, the tri-State area needs more moisture or it’s gonna be a smokey summer.
6. The lakes have to fill before the rivers bump up. There are a few exceptions; like the Big Hole and Yellowstone, but overall, the lake systems will fill up and then the water cometh.
7. Early is a solid bet. Anglers are shy about June because of the past several years of big water. In 2012, the Madison was fishing really well by the 17th of June and not a soul was here. Hatches of insects will be early as well. I remember guiding the Missouri in early June about 10 years ago and PMDs popped. The river was empty for a few days and then the word go out. 2013 is reminiscent of the early 2000’s. 2013 Salmonflies? Hmmmm……too early for a solid guess, I won’t even try. They will be early. Most years we see heavy hatches by the 4th of July, not the case this year. As for the Missouri hatches? Right now, there is very good dry fly fishing on some days. Once the water bumps up past 6000 cfs, the dry fly bite will slide off, but don’t expect the Missouri to get really big this season. We could see PMDS and Caddis by early/mid June around Craig and down to Cascade.
This is the deal:
There is not one angler, guide or fly shop owner who can predict the future. Don’t expect us to even try….actually, we all like to try, but most of the time we’re wrong. Mother Nature holds the cards and she knows what hands will be dealt. If you live close to the Rocky Mountain West, it’s easier to get here when it’s good. If you live further away, come out when you can, as there is bound to be some great angling throughout Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Right now, everything hinges on moisture. Pay attention to the next four weeks, watch the weather, the river flows and check back here for more updates.
Two weeks on the Missouri will make one think about moving to Craig, Montana. Back in the mid-Nineties, I did my time (3 seasons) on the Missouri, but back then, all the action was in Wolf Creek. These days, Craig is the hotspot on the river. Fly shops, bars, good food and more trout than you can shake a stick at. Sure, we had some tough fishing when the flows were under 5000 cfs with the sun shining brightly, but when the flows bumped up a little and the water temps consistently hit 56 degrees, all hell broke loose. Almost a week ago, the Missouri went from 4500 cfs to 9100 cfs in just a couple of days. The river is now back down to 7600 cfs and the trout fishing will remain stellar. For now, most of the angling will be sub surface with sow bugs, mayfly nymphs and caddis pupa/larva. One can find risers, but things won’t get that consistent until the flows drop below 7000 cfs.
We fished with two groups of anglers over the past two weeks. Above are the Chicken Boys and below are the Dairy Boys. While this is the first trip for the Dairy Boys, the Chicken Boys have been coming out for almost a decade. While these trips are large, with a diverse group of anglers, they always appreciate our hard work and attention to detail. We could not sustain our life style with out folks like this. Thanks fellas, you made our season! I would also like to thank all the guides who helped Greg and I out the on the Missouri – you guys rock and are the reason we are successful.
The mountains around southwest Montana are once again full of snow. Since I have been gone, two different springtime blizzards rolled through dropping some much needed moisture in the high country. The Madison is stonefly green and fishing quite well – I stopped along the river yesterday and caught two trout in a soft seam along the bank in about 2 minutes. No waders were needed as the flows are 2100 cfs out of Hebgen and 2500 cfs at Kirby Ranch. Fishing is good to great on the Madison above Ennis, but be careful when wading the river – don’t get in unless you want to go for a swim.
When will things really get going around here? My buddies in Livingston are saying that Yellowstone should be fishable by the end of the first week of July. The Henry’s Fork is getting good….as it usually does this time of the year. The Madison, hopefully, will be dropping by the last week of June, but as long as the Madison is greenish, it fishes like a champ. I expect that the Madison will blow out once again. When? Shit, who knows. At this point the weather man is calling for cool overnight temps for the next several days. For the snow to getting melting, we need night time temps in the 50’s and daytime temps in the high 70s to low 80’s. We are right on the cusp of world class angling in southwest Montana. Are you ready?