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!
Statewide, there are fishing regulation changes that are coming down the pipe and frankly, I don’t really care for all of them. I will not go into any other regulation changes other than those here on the Madison River. First off, I am not a fisheries biologist, however, the amount of time I have spent on river over the past 23 years of my life as an angler, guide and outfitter gives me some insight on the topic.
Throughout the Rocky Mountain West, fishery managers are on a path to “simplify” regulations. Folks, if you can read, then you can follow the regulations as they stand right now. Ever try to draw an hunting tag in the West? Wading through those regulations takes time, energy and a complete understanding of entire mountain ranges that are broken apart into zones – it gets confusing to say the least. These “proposed” fishing regulation changes are a huge swing in the other direction from what we’ve had for a VERY long time.
Why is this? There are many rivers in the State of Montana that are open year round (the Missouri and the Big Horn to name two notable ones) and fishing these rivers in the spring has not lead to a downfall in fish populations. However, these rivers are busy places and getting busier all the time – especially the Missouri. The Madison is the busiest river in the State, period. Opening it up year round will put more pressure on the fish at a time period when they are vulnerable. I can tell you that as soon as the river is open, more anglers will come here to fish. Will it hurt the fishery? That remains to be seen and fisheries biologists will tell you that no, it does not hurt the fishery to fish over spawning fish. This is where ethics comes in to play a part. Personally, I don’t fish directly over redds (spawning nests) as I have an overwhelming feeling to leave them alone. However, I do fish and guide rivers in the springtime and it can be difficult to avoid the redds – in some rivers redds are almost everywhere. Avoiding the shallow gravel bars and the shallow channels is a solid choice in the months of April, May and early June. The Madison is a shallow river and a majority of the trout spawn in the river itself. Do we need more anglers walking on redds and hooking spawning trout? Will that have a negative impact for the years to come? I want to say yes, but I can’t say that it will either. In my opinion, the Madison River needs a break during the springtime.
Below, in black ink, is what’s in store for the Madison River. I would suggest that most of these changes will happen. In my experience, once FWP gets this far, it’s imminent. Your comments matter though, so speak up. What’s alarming, is that hardly anyone knows about it and not many of us have heard a word about this from FWP. Just this morning, the outfitters on the river received a note about the proposed changes and now that the public meetings have come and gone, all we can do it write in our comments or make a phone call. There was not a public meeting in West Yellowstone or Ennis.
Yellowstone National Park boundary to Hebgen Reservoir
• Catch-and-Release for rainbow trout, except anglers 14 years of age and younger may take 1 rainbow trout daily and in possession, any size.
• Combined Trout: 5 brown trout daily and in possession, only 1 over 18 inches.
Hebgen Dam to Ennis Reservoir
• Artificial lures only.
• Combined Trout: 1 Daily and in possession, any size. .
Quake Lake outlet to Lyons Bridge
• Closed to fishing from boats/vessels
Ennis Bridge to Ennis Lake
• Closed to fishing from boats/vessels
Ennis Dam to the mouth
• Northern Pike: No limit.
RATIONALE: These regulation changes greatly simplify the Madison River fishing regulations.
What’s changed you ask? Well, quite a bit.
For as along as I can remember the Madison from Quake’s out flow to Mac has been open from the 3rd Saturday in May till the end of February. That was to protect spawning trout. If these reg changes happen, then the entire river from Hebgen Dam to Ennis Lake will be open year round.
As it stands right now, anglers can fish bait from Hebgen Dam through Quake Lake. This is a change I can get behind. I have no problems with anglers who like to fish bait, by all means, go right ahead. But this is a gem of a river and fishing bait normally means you’re gonna keep the fish. This leads to the next proposed change. Anglers inbetween the lakes will no longer be able to keep 5 trout per day, per person. I hardly ever notice anglers keeping fish except for the spring time inbetween the lakes. This stretch of river is plum full of spawning trout in the spring time and I have seen, on more than one occasion, stringers full of big rainbows which are full of eggs. Hopefully they do get eaten and not freezer burned. In the past ten years, I have hardly wet a line in between the lakes during the spawn….for me, it’s a choice to leave the rainbows alone.
The final proposed change is anglers will now be able to keep 1 fish per day per person on the entire river. For what seems like an eternity, the Madison River has largely been a catch and release fishery. My personal beliefs are that a trout is worth catching more than just one time. Catch and release angling does in fact kill fish. Like it or not, those of us who put em’ back actually kill a percentage of the fish. A barbless hook regulation would help with this as barbed hook extraction take much longer than a barbless hook. If a fish is out of the water for a couple minutes while an angler extracts a barbed hook, the fish may swim off, but will probably die a short time later. Fish barbless folks!
So….make those comments to: email@example.com The comment period is open till September 12th, 2015.
Click here for an article on the reg changes and to read a little more about it. I called and talked with Joel Tohtz this morning for over an hour to express my thoughts. You can too: 406 444 1230. Joel is the Fisheries Management Bureau Chief for Montana.
Something else for you to ponder…..
Since 2008 Hebgen Dam has not been functioning. Hot water has been running right off the top of the lake and into the river all summer long. Water temps have been way too high during the summer months which was not the case prior to the debacle at Hebgen Dam. There have been quite a few years where we have seen fish die in the river due to warm water temperatures. Are rainbows more susceptible to warm water than brown trout? Yep, they are. Most of us thought we would see a Hoot Owl closure on the upper Madison River this summer (and past summers) – that did not happen. Most of us altered our fishing hours accordingly to not stress out fish even more. If you read this site very often, I have been outspoken about Hebgen Dam. I believe the river needs a couple years, if not more, to see how things (insects and trout) react to a properly functioning, bottom draw dam before we get a sweeping regulation change like the proposal facing us right now. The Madison will not change overnight with respect to insect hatches and trout behavior. At this point, the water is coming from around 17 feet below the surface…better late than never. By November, hopefully, the river be drawing from 37 feet (or around there) below the surface. Will the hatches go back to the way they were? Will the consistent fishing on the Madison return? I say yes…but all in due time. Why not wait for a couple years to see what happens with the river before we change the regulations?
Flows and the damn Dam
River flows in the Madison Valley, from Hebgen Dam to Ennis lake, are sitting pretty good right now as we shift from summer to fall. At the Kirby Gage, she’s registering at 994 cfs. Over the past few weeks, the heat and high sun have been minimal and river temps are hanging in there on most days. However, there have been some super hot days once in while and the river temps can still hit the high 60’s and low 70’s. Once 68 degrees hits the river, you might as well reel up, sit back and take a boat ride. Recently, we have been experiencing some very cold over night air temperatures and several mornings here on Horse Butte the thermometer has read 28-30 degrees. That folks, has been the saving grace for the Madison River, well, that and decent flows from Hebgen. This past week, Hebgen Dam began to pull from roughly seventeen feet below the surface. This is NOT the point where we celebrate just yet. Apparently, this will only drop the river temp a couple degrees, but that’s better than top releases any day of the week. Sometime in November (cross your fingers), Hebgen will hopefully be completed and the river will pull from 37 feet below the surface. Right now, I am holding my breath and really won’t believe its fixed until it actually is. This project has stretched out for way too long and we are all completely over it.
Madison River Fishing Report 08.25.2015
Inconsistent…to say the least. Really though, I’ve had a bunch of great days on the Madison River this summer. However, if you are gonna roll the dice and fish the river only one day while you’re in the neighborhood, you had better be on the good side of the trout gods…..or be a little lucky. It also helps to bring your A-game and let the fish eat your fly. Your day could be a dink fest, but please remember to pay attention as there are some really nice fish eating the fly and just when you think it’s a dink and you don’t set the hook, you’re hating life and wondering out loud where that big brown trout came from. My only answer to that question is, “they live here too”. The nymphing crowd is pounding rocks and mid river runs with various flies like: shelia sculpin, trevor’s sculpin, rubber legs, zonkers, midge larva, $3 Dips, olive dips, crystal dips, shop vacs and the traditional no bead pheasant tail. The rest of us are fishing dry flies whenever possible with hoppers, ants, wulffs, beetles, trudes, small royal stimis and pretty much any reddish attractor pattern. I like fishing a single fly this time of the year as most of us, myself included, tend to get a better drift with just one fly on the end of the line. It’s late August and the trout are not dumb, so tighten up that skill set and pay attention.
Hebgen Lake Fishing Report
I will never claim to know everything about Hebgen Lake, it’s almost impossible. However, I’ve been playing around the lake this August and Hebgen has shown us some really good days with calibaetis spinners, duns and ants. Slow stripping mayfly nymphs is a great way to spend any early morning in an unnamed bay on the south shore of Hebgen Lake. I absolutely love watching the lake come alive from 8 am till noon. Some days, like today, there was glass all over the lake till almost 3pm, but making the fish eat was a little difficult. My best bug here lately has been a #14 Missing Link fished on 5X.
Writing and this blog
I would like to reach out and thank those folks who have asked me to keep writing and posting my random thoughts here on the site. Running the business…aka…. full time guiding/outfitting, tying flies for what may be your trip tomorrow, answering emails and phone calls along with mowing the yard and running the bird dog has gotten in the way of writing. Writing is hard, and while I don’t claim to be very good at it, writing is time consuming and after some 600 posts on the blog, I got tired. With any luck, I’ll continue to find some time as I really do enjoy writing, but sometime it’s just hard to find the energy. Thanks for reading! If you enjoy social media, please check us out on Instagram, that folks, is the easiest way to get your fix without sitting in the boat with us on a river here in the great state of Montana.
Headed for the beach….
In just a few hours I will be hoping in the truck with Jonathan Heames and heading north to Bozeman. Tomorrow morning, the two of us depart for Miami, where, once we land, we’ll rent a car and drive south to the Keys and Captain Greco’s house. Hanging out in the Keys is a precursor to our four day run on South Andros at Bair’s Lodge, a trip that our buddy Steve Hoovler is coming on as well.
I’ve been tying bonefish, tarpon and permit flies since February and reading up on what to expect. To a dozen or more guides and anglers, who I know have fished all over the saltwater world, I asked for their favorite fly patterns and their best piece of advise.
Tony V, from L-Town, told me to, and I quote, “set with the strip and not the tip, but since you’re a trout guide, you are screwed on that front….good luck with the trip, you will be addicted for sure and your wife will want to kill you since you’ll be trying to spend every last dime on the next saltwater trip.”
It’s been almost ten years since I was in Florida and I fully expect to blow many a shot while standing in the bow of Brett’s skiff. I’ve never been down to the Bahamas and my brain is ripe with excitement. Expect a full report upon my return and if you’re on Instagram, check us out as I will be posting from Florida and South Andros.
Montana’s General Season Opener
For the past sixteen years, I have not missed one opening day on the Madison River. The upper Madison, from the outlet of Quake Lake down to MacAtee Bridge will open on Saturday, May 16. Both Cabin and Beaver Creeks are tossing in mud, but Quake is filtering some that making for a bitch creek green Madison River. If you are venturing out this weekend, expect to see a few folks on the river. The current flow out of Hebgen is 552 cfs with a flow of 799 at Kirby. Yep, that’s pretty low for this time of the year. Hebgen Lake is filling up and with any luck, we’ll start seeing a rise in flows sometime in early June….don’t count it, but keep up the rain dances as we need every drop we can get. Last night it rained on and off and today we had showers as well. The river above Ennis has been fishing quite well this spring, but it’s boney down there as well.
Good luck and enjoy the coming weekend!
This past winter I started an Instagram account to help promote the business and also cause I really just love taking pictures. What I like most is that Instagram is about capturing images of everyday life with your phone. Taking photos, for me, goes back to childhood. Growing up, my father took A LOT of photographs of our outings with a Nikon film camera, that, at the time, was a great camera. Those printed photos are sitting in the basement of my folk’s house back in Quincy and are super fun to look at when Molly and I make it back to the homeland for a visit. To me, photos are a visual time line that mark periods of my life. Periods that can almost be forgotten as the memories stack up over time. As I get older, capturing these moments is almost as important as the moments themselves. When I’m old, gray and no longer able to row a boat, I’ll have photographs to remind me of the good ole days.
Way back in late August of 2008, Hebgen Dam broke. The day it happened we sat there and drank beers, watching the lake drop six inches in 24 hours. A month later, PPL Montana got the situation “under control”, but none of us thought it would take this long to complete construction. Where is the accountability? For the past seven years, the angling could be hit and miss, more so than before the failure of the intake structure. During the past two seasons, it seemed as if the trout have come around to the warmer temps and fishing was pretty darn good. However, the dry fly fishing wasn’t nearly as consistent and most guides in the float stretch relied on nymphing. I’ve written about this quite a bit over the past seven years, so have others like Mike Lum down in Ennis. We’ve been pretty hard on Northwest Energy (formally PPL Montana, this change happened in the fall of 2014) and only in the past couple of years has anyone at NWE really paid attention. I’d like to give that credit to their biologist, Brent Mabbot. Brent is a diamond in the rough and is putting in some time with regards to getting out and talking with the locals who have spent their lives on the Madison River and care for it deeply. While we don’t agree on everything, he at the very least will listen and react. Brent went to bat for the river and I personally have noticed the change. While some of us would’ve held on to more water this winter in Hebgen Lake, at least we are sitting at a higher elevation that in past years…it’s not much higher, but it is better than it could be. Trout in the Madison River are spawning and it remains to be seen how they’ll do with the recent drop in flows, which is a double edged sword. Why? Well, the lake is gonna need all the water it can to be filled by the end June and our snow pack is quite low (72% for the entire Madison Drainage, slightly lower locally). Hopefully, this drop in flows (currently 654 CFS) is early enough to catch the pre-run off snow melt that is occurring right now and also to not cause the spawning channels to become too shallow, too soon.
So, cross your fingers, cross everything really, as they are almost finished with Hebgen Dam project. On or around July 1, 2015 NWE is going to begin testing the new intake structure. This will take some time as they want to make sure everything is functioning properly. Once this is the case, they will start to remove the coffer dam.
This is when things get tricky.
You see, there is roughly 56 degree water down at the intake, which is about 10 degrees cooler than what comes off the top of the lake. In August, there are times when the top of the lake is 70 degrees. If NWE switched out the flow from the warmish water on top of the lake to the cold water beneath the thermocline, this could “shock” the fish. Mabbot would like to slowly introduce the cold water to the fish and plans on mixing the top water and bottom water for a little while to gradually change the temperature of the river. Against the coffer dam sits quite a bit of silt and nobody knows exactly how much. This silt will enter the river once the coffer dam is removed. Will it blow out the river completely? Who knows, but the river betwix the lakes will get some color. With any luck, Quake Lake will act as a filter and the river from the Slide to Ennis will be green. By August 15th, or earlier if all goes well, the Madison will once again have clean, cold water. Honestly, nobody really knows how the river will react to this change, but the one thing we all know is that cold water is better than warm water. When I talk about change, I mean go back to the way it was. Back to when one needed waders to fish betwix the lakes in August. Back to when most of us fished dry flies ramp to ramp with good success no matter how skilled the angler was in the boat. This change will take some time as the river will adjust the way all ecosystems do – at their own pace.
I boldly predict that the fish, post runoff, will enjoy the river as they normally do. However, when the river begins to warm up, like it has the past 7 years in late July, it will continue to be cold because Hebgen Dam is functioning properly from the depths of the lake. Maybe, just maybe, the larger trout in the river will still be holding in the shallow riffles and boulder strewn runs through the month of August and early September and not retreat to the deepest, darkest and coolest runs in the river. Sixteen years ago, I started guiding on one of the finest rivers in the world. Some of the best advice I got was to learn the river by floating long stretches and fishing a dry fly against the banks, around the boulders and throughout the mid-river gravel bars. Float long and fish it dry. This has not been the most productive technique since 2008, with the exception of late June and early July or the random day they decide to eat it all day on top, but I want this back more than about anything else in my angling world….and I am not alone.