Welcome to the first Weekly Fishing Report from Big Sky Anglers for 2018!
We had a great snow pack throughout Yellowstone Country this winter, and that means that in this first report we will be talking a lot about run off. It comes with the territory, and we’re used to dealing with high water around here. In fact, we hope for it every year. From rainbow trout and caddis flies to elk antlers and wild flowers, everything benefits from a good snow pack.
It might be a little touch and go for a few weeks, but with more fishable water in a 90 mile radius than arguably anywhere else in the planet, there is always some fun fishing to be had somewhere around Big Sky Anglers world headquarters in West Yellowstone, Montana. Between the Henry’s Fork and the local stillwaters, we always have GREAT options for fishing. Even in the highest water years.
Read on to see our take on this week’s fishing, and check out the links below to stay current on area forecasts and flows.
Stay tuned as we report each week on hatches, flows, weather, and more. For the most up to date info stop by the shop, give us a call, or drop us a line.
West Yellowstone Forecast
This weekend marks the beginning of another fishing season in Yellowstone National Park. While we have already been fishing for weeks outside the park, the YNP opener serves as the official start to the 2018 season, and it’s a weekend that we all look forward to.
The fishing season officially begins this Saturday, and there are some important new regulations in place for 2018. Most notably, all felt soled wading boots have been banned from park waters to limit the spread of aquatic invasive species. So, if you haven’t already, make sure you pick up a pair of rubber soled wading boots before you head into the park this Saturday. While you’re at it, be sure to have your new 2018 YNP fishing license and a copy of the fishing regulations too.
This year we’ll be dealing with high water, and run-off conditions for opening weekend. Each winter we keep our fingers crossed, and hope for a solid snow-pack, and a slow spring melt. Our fishing season,and the health of our fisheries depends on it. Fortunately, we got what we wished for this year, and that means we have to deal with less than ideal conditions for the first few weeks of the season.
The best bets for fishing on opening weekend in the park are traditionally the Firehole and Madison Rivers, and that remains the case on high water years too. The Firehole has been flowing right around 1,000 cfs all week, and the water is a tannic, tea-stained brown that is customary here. With rain this week, and warmer temps over the weekend, there’s a good chance flows will increase, and clarity will go from tea-stained to chocolate milk. If the clarity remains reasonable you can expect some fun fishing with streamers and soft-hackles, as well as the random (and we stress random) fish rising to PMD’s, Baetis, and Caddis. The Madison will have similar conditions and fishing opportunities as the Firehole. Stay tuned to these legendary fisheries for some great hatches and classic fishing in the weeks to come as water conditions improve. Give us a call here in the shop for up to the minute reports on water conditions and fishing reports for opening weekend
The Henry’s Fork has fished well so far this season, and remains one of the best bets for reasonable water conditions and good fishing. With 70 miles of fishable water open right now, there are a variety of solid early-season fishing opportunities available.
The Box Canyon currently has some of the best conditions in the area with clear water, and flows between 750 and 800 cfs this week. We have enjoyed the low flows here while they try to save storage space lower in the system for runoff water coming from drainages with heavy snow pack in the Tetons. However, Island Park Reservoir has reached full capacity and flows will be raised to roughly match inflows (currently around 1200 cfs) by this weekend. With warmer weather predicted, look for the first signs of Salmonflies over Memorial Day weekend in the Box.
The Railroad Ranch is still closed and will be through June 15. Great water conditions this winter and spring have us feeling optimistic for fishing and hatches on the Ranch this year here. Overall fish populations will be down from the last 5 years, but this usually has the effect of making the big fish bigger. Fish are rising a bit from Wood Rd 16 downstream. We are not seeing huge numbers of trout up, but those desperate to fish to big picky ones can find decent game down there for a few hours each day. March browns and caddis are predominantly driving the dry fly bite here.
The Lower River has seen a lot of early-season action, and more than its fair share of attention lately. Salmon flies are active throughout the lower river system, and some good fish have been looking for them. The Falls River is running high but not too off color currently, but as both daytime high and evening low temps rise, this will get dirtier and dirtier affecting the river from Chester down.
It’s full on run off season on the Madison right now, and with rain, and then warm temps forecasted that’s not going to change anytime soon. Flows have been on the rise this week with 1,500-2,000 cfs at Hebgen and 2,000-3,000 cfs at Kirby. A “Flushing Flow” is scheduled for sometime from the end of May to the beginning of June. That means flows will be raised to 3500 cfs at Kirby and kept there for a minimum of three days. Montana FWP has issued a press release with more info on the specifics. Click Here to read a blog post about FWP’s Press Release.
All of the usual suspects are adding mud to the Madison River. Cabin Cr., Beaver Cr., and the West Fork of the Madison are swollen and running brown. The Carrot Basin snotel site is still reading 60” of snow on the ground with more than 30” of snow water equivalent. That’s a whole lot of brown water yet to come down.
The good news is that with a great snow pack, a good flushing flow during run off, and a full season of cold water thanks to the decade-long repair on Hebgen Dam finally being completed, we’re looking forward to a great water year and some awesome fishing this summer on the Madison.
In the meantime, some productive fishing can be found with nymphs and streamers in the muddy water at classic spots like $3 Bridge and Raynold’s Pass.
Always a great bet during run off, Hebgen Lake is seeing some good fishing right now for those looking for strip leeches, hang chironomids, or hunt heads. Good numbers of Hebgen’s giant midges (size 12), and the occasional gulping trout can be found in the Madison Arm and along the North Shore. Chironomids and leeches have produced well throughout the whole lake.
Joe has been staked out up on the Mighty Mo for a few weeks as he always does this time of year. Here’s a report from his last week of guiding…
At Toston – 18,900 cfs
Below Holter – 14,000 cfs
Dearborn River – 1410 cfs
At Ulm, MT – 18,800
It’s been raining steady since yesterday evening and continued all night long. 44 degrees and raining makes for a cold day here on the Missouri River. Saturday looks to be cloudy and a slight chance of rain. On Sunday and Monday things should be drying out with warmer day time temps reaching the high 70’s.
As for the fishing…
For the past two weeks we have been rowing high water here on the Missouri River. We haven’t seen flows like this since 2011 and prior to that it was back in 1996 and 1997. High water is here to stay for at least another 4-5 weeks. Late June up here is gonna be really good! Downstream of Holter Dam are two tributaries that are tossing in quite a bit of mud, the Prickly Pear coming in about 3 miles down and then roughly 13 miles down the Dearborn merges with the Missouri at the head of the Canyon. The Pear had settled down from last week’s rain but will come back up after today. For years there had been a CFS gauge on the Prickly Pear but funding for that has gone away as of this season. My guess is that it’s flowing about 1500+ CFS. The Dearborn has dropped as well but it too will come back up after today’s rain. Most of the river traffic has been in the upper reaches of the river, anywhere from the Dam to Dearborn has been fishing pretty well most of the time. Mid Canon boat ramp is closed for now as the river is flowing through the boat ramp. Just in the past four to five days has the canyon stretch cleared up enough to catch some nice trout in green water.
Most of us up here have been rigging two nymph rigs per angler. One is set up deep, about 8-9 feet from bobber to 2-3 BB split shot with sows bugs variations for the flies. The other is rigged with a wire worm and a sow bug with a total length of about 7 feet. The latter rig is tossed at the banks/submerged willows, plan on loosing plenty of flies when fishing this way, but there are quite a few fish hanging out in this type of habitat. The deep rig has been the go to for many boats out there on the water. One must get the flies down and leave them there for as long as humanly possible. Throw left and let it roll…marinate them bugs and set the hook on anything that bumps, pauses or twitches the bobber. Hook sets are free – set often and make the hook set a back cast when nothing is attached to your line. Wait forever on the back cast and don’t forget to mend.
The super bright sunny days make the Missourui a little moody. Even at these flows, the fish don’t really like the sunshine. The past two days have been cloudy and the fishing has been very good.
I have been seeing a few more fish rise here in the past several days, but targeting them is close to impossible. I’d wager that a savvy angler could fish dry/dropper along the banks and find a couple fish willing to rise; most would take the dropper fly. Caddis are starting to show up in the canyon but not in huge numbers just yet. There are March Browns emerging as well as Blue Winged Olives. Midges too. We won’t really see much for rising fish until the river gets around 8,000 CFS. If I was fishing dry flies, it would be a #10 Parachute Adams with a worm or #12 PT dropper. One might also try a small Chubby with the nymph droppers. Most of the subsurface flies that seem to be working are sow bugs, worm patterns, a #12 PT and from time to time a BWO nymph such as the Little Green Machine. For me, I rarely take off the sow bugs above Craig, but when I get below, the previously mentioned patterns are all working.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Water Releases from Hebgen Dam to Flush Madison River Sediments
Butte, Mont. – May 21, 2018 – NorthWestern Energy is planning to release water from Hebgen Dam with the goal of flushing fine sediments from Madison River gravel under the terms of its operating license with the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
The Madison Flushing Flow Program was designed during FERC licensing to augment natural flows with surplus water in heavy snowpack years with the intent to flush accumulated fine sediment to maintain the quality of spawning gravels that support the healthy fishery in the river.
NorthWestern Energy plans to continue gradual increases in outflow from Hebgen Dam that began on May 20, 2018, with the attempt to maximize releases for a minimum of three days coinciding with peak runoff in the West Fork Madison River. To protect the outlet of Quake Lake from erosion, the goal is to maintain the flow slightly below 3,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the Kirby gauge.
NorthWestern is conducting the gradual release of water from the dam in cooperation with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; the U.S. Forest Service; U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
“Fortunately, this year we have a better snowpack in the mountains, and the recent warm weather has made it a good time to supplement naturally occurring high water,” said Andy Welch, Leader of NWE’s Hydropower License Compliance group. “This operation will not affect our ability to refill Hebgen Reservoir. There will still be plenty of water to support our normal operations for the rest of the summer.”
Releases of 1,700 cfs from Hebgen Dam are being made now and could go up to 2,500 cfs by May 26, Welch said. These figures are estimates and will change based on location on the river and the variability in river flow, which can change rapidly this time of year.
Anglers should be aware of the changing conditions and take appropriate precautions.
After the flush the flow will be gradually tapered down to protect small fish and river life at the margins of the stream. Questions about this flushing flow operation may be directed to Andy Welch at 406-444-8115.
NorthWestern owns and operates Hebgen and Madison dams on the Madison River under a license issued by FERC. The operation of the hydroelectric facilities play a significant role in managing streamflow on the Madison River.
About NorthWestern Energy (NYSE: NWE)
NorthWestern Energy provides electricity and natural gas in the Upper Midwest and Northwest, serving approximately 718,300 customers in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. More information on NorthWestern Energy is available on the company’s website at www.northwesternenergy.com.
- Originator: Brian Chan
- Hook: TMC 2302 or equivalent, #10 – 16
- Thread: 8/0 Uni, dark brown
- Bead: White, sized to match hook
- Body: MFC Sexi Floss or Spirit River Flex-Floss, brown
- Rib: Uni Wire, small, red and silver
Brian Chan is a Canadian Stillwater angling expert and signature tier for Montana Fly Co. We’ve found his Chironomid Bomber patterns to be absolutely deadly on Hebgen both before and after the more glamorous hatches of Callibaetis, Tricos, and damselflies. These can be fished static, under a strike indicator, or slowly retrieved using a hand twist on a floating or intermediate tip line. You’d be amazed at how strong the takes are on a fly that is barely moving! Another great thing about this pattern is that, if you tie your own, you can easily experiment with other color combos.
It turns out that winter can get a little long here in West Yellowstone. That leaves plenty of time to look back on photos and bring back memories of the warmer days of the past summer, and to look ahead to the upcoming season.
I haven’t spent an extensive amount of time in Montana or fished every “Gotta fish” river, but the places that I have been in this naturally wild state have been a great introduction to what fly fishing this vast state has to offer. My first real introduction to fly fishing in Montana was in the summer of 2012, while working in the small town of Twin Bridges – the home of Winston Fly Rods. The main waters there include the Jefferson, Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby Rivers. Each of these waters has its own specific personality and time of excellence. Fast forward to 2017, and I found myself standing in a soon-to-open fly shop in West Yellowstone, Montana called Big Sky Anglers. My first day consisted of picking up and organizing wet flies (soaking wet flies, not flies intended to fish subsurface) off the basement floor because there was a leak in the foundation. Meanwhile, I’m thinking to myself, “Great, what have I gotten myself into.”
Within two weeks I realized that I was working with some of the most respected, experienced, helpful, and genuine people in fly fishing, and everyone one of them was truly passionate about what they are doing here in West Yellowstone.
The owners and experienced crew at Big Sky Anglers introduced me to some of the local water, and also encouraged me to pull out a map, find a blue line or blob that looked interesting, and go exploring. Which brings me to talk the about fishing around here. Basically if you placed a drafter’s compass on a map centered in West Yellowstone and drew a circle with a radius of about 50 miles, you would be circling enough moving and still water to fish for rest of your life. Working for Big Sky Anglers and living in town for the 2017 season gave me the opportunity to merely scratch the surface of these special places.
I grew up bass fishing in Southern California. In that setting, I fell in love with that feeling of tranquility of being on a motionless, glassy piece of water. But my ignorance and lack of exposure never properly mixed the joy of a calm lake with fly fishing for trout. Last summer, fishing on Hebgen Lake changed all that.
There are many interesting fishing opportunities that present themselves throughout the season on Hebgen, but the Callibaetis hatches and spinner falls during mid-summer set things up for one of my favorite fishing games. It is truly exciting to witness big, healthy lake rainbows and browns choke down Callibaetis spinners like a hungry bear that just ended its hibernation.
Imagine sitting almost motionless on a glassy lake with beautiful tall pines kissing the water’s edge. There you sit, waiting for the signal. You look down into the air and on the water for any cues of life. Actually, you are looking for signs of the end of life, since we’re talking about mayfly spinners here, but that’s getting a bit picky. In time, you see a brilliantly speckled Callibaetis as the boat slowly drifts over the water. Then, more start to appear and you finally hear it – the gulping sound of a twenty inch rainbow trout arching its nose out of the water to inhale a Callibaetis spinner. It makes me smile just thinking about it. Mixing the emotions of hearing it with actually seeing it and it’s like tasting Nutella for the first time. You just can’t stop eating it.
The challenge of successfully gulper fishing adds another interesting element to the pursuit. You can’t be messy at this game, at all. Only bring your A-game and be prepared to mess up a few times along the way. This angling is best done with a partner, or better yet a seasoned guide. One angler positions the boat and spots for rising fish while communicating with the other angler who holds a rod at the ready while also looking for trout noses. As you scan the surface, you are mentally preparing to make deadly accurate cast of anywhere from fifteen feet, if you are lucky, to sixty feet or more. Easy right? Some days these fish have a more rhythmic feed style and other times they’re what I’d describe as being “all over the place”. Hebgen’s gulpers can change feeding directions on a dime and will make you waist a lot of casts. If you shout out enough clock positions to your partner and have your line untangled and organized before you make your cast, you can catch a couple of these fish. They jump, run and dart for cover like you want them to and are truly a gratifying fish.
I remember the first time I went out on Hebgen for gulpers with friend and Big Sky Anglers guide Donovan Best. My casting motions were too open which made the boat rock ever so slightly sending little waves out to the feeding fish. That slight and subtle error spooked several fish before I modified my casting stroke. Learning from my mistakes, and adjusting what I was doing resulted in a couple of fish that day, and the feeling of discovery was just fantastic!
I’m so excited for summer, gulpers, and the many other amazing fisheries around our area. I hope you get a chance to head out there yourself during the 2018 season. If you’ve never experienced stillwater fly fishing of this type, I encourage you to give it a try. Please pop by the shop, say hi, and introduce yourself. We’ll be sure to give you the details on this fun, local game we call gulper fishing. Until then have a great winter and remember, when you free the heel, you free the mind. 😉
Welcome to the information page of the
West Yellowstone Trout Spey Days!
Please, save the date: September 21-23, 2018. We are thrilled to be partnering again with the Custer Gallatin National Forest and hosting our second annual Trout Spey Days event right here in West Yellowstone. Check back in the coming months for details on event schedule, presenters, and party times! Be sure to sign up for our email newsletter for updates on this event and more.
Email Newsletter Signup
Are you already into Spey casting and fishing for trout? Maybe you have heard of it, but have never picked up a Spey rod, and are interested in getting involved in this super fun way to fish for trout? This event is open to everyone, regardless of skill/experience level, age, fly shop or industry affiliation, etc. We had a great turnout last year and have plans to expand the format and add even more opportunities for you to hang out and talk Spey with experienced pros and spend time on the water perfecting your technique.
It was 3 degrees and snowing here in Montana as I wrote this a couple weeks back. Skiing season. Maybe ice fishing season. But a few days before writing it was nearly 50 degrees, and now it seems like the first lower elevation melt is really on. A couple of my lake fishing buddies have already texted me, excited for the upcoming Stillwater fishing season. I’ll admit that I am a bit excited too. I wrapped up a few (dozen) flies for my lake boxes. And now, through writing this, I’ve organized my thoughts in anticipation of ice out, which is coming a bit later than normal this year.
Throughout the mountain west ice out is a much anticipated event for many stillwater anglers. For those who do not live in cold climates or have never visited a frozen lake, ice out is the short period of time on a lake where conditions change from the ice capped, frozen surface of winter to the open water of spring, summer, and fall. From the time that the ice begins to peel away from the shore, until two weeks or so after the lake becomes completely ice free, there is often a fantastic window of opportunity for anglers to get out on the lake shore, beat the cabin fever of late winter, and find some great fishing. Anglers who don’t have the luxury of owning a boat really enjoy the ice out fishing, because the fish tend to concentrate near shore. Even when things don’t completely work out when fishing ice out, it’s fun to get out of the house, see some country, and maybe connect with the first open water fish of the new year.
Why is Ice Out a “Thing”?
I believe that ice out is a “thing”, because of the trout’s desire to find ideal conditions when it comes to water temperature, dissolved oxygen, light, and food or insect activity.
It’s well known that, when a lake is covered with ice and snow, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water is not continuously replenished by the action of wind and waves. Lack of light under the ice also reduces aquatic plants ability to produce oxygen. By winter’s end, when the ice begins to recede from the lake’s margins, the dissolved oxygen in the lake water under the ice may be at it’s lowest point for the entire year. As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the air and wind can hit the water again and reoxyegenate it.
Also, remember that water is less dense when it is frozen than it is when it is at 39 degrees F (4 degrees C). That’s why ice is on the top of the lake. It also means that the warmest portion of the water column is likely toward the bottom of the lake in winter. As the ice leaves the margins of a lake though, the sun can hit the water and warm it up locally.
The unique physical and chemical properties of liquid and solid H20 make ice out a “thing”.
So, long story short, at ice out, the increased temperature and dissolved oxygen in the water at the lake’s edge stimulate the ecosystem, get some chironomids and perhaps other trout food sources active, and create conditions more favorable to the trout than anywhere else in the lake.
Once the ice fully dissipates, the effects of wind and sun warm the lake, and mixing or turnover evens out water conditions over a much larger portion of the lake, you will find that the ice out bite dies. The fish spread out throughout a much larger portion of the lake at that point, making them harder to find, especially if fishing from shore. When that happens, either find another lake that is starting to ice out, or fish the rivers for a while, until other factors on the lake begin concentrating the fish again into summer feeding areas.
Where are the good places to fish at ice out?
Well, IN THE WATER! It’s a bad joke, but if you are really on top of things, or maybe just a bit over zealous and out at the lake a bit too early in the year, look for any open water you can find. Remember , though, that open water doesn’t guarantee the presence of fish. Some areas of a lake are always better than others.
A couple of days too early, but we fished it!
Think back to why ice out is a “thing”. Water temperature is a hugely important factor. Warmer water is better at ice out. So, inlets and outlets that alter lake temps are a good thing to look for. Warmer water may be entering a lake and helping thaw the ice. Warmer lake water from down deep (remember water is most dense at about 39 degrees F or 4 degrees C) getting pulled up and out the outlet stream if there is one. Also, ice free shallows with dark bottoms that soak up the heat of the sun, or drop-offs adjacent to said shallows are great places to find warmer water. These same shallows, if the bottom is soft or muddy, will also be the place where the first chironomids of the year emerge.
Another good spot to look for fish are submerged points that funnel fish into and along travel lanes, creating concentrations of fish and increasing your own odds of intercepting one with your fly. It’s no secret that similar places are great Stillwater spots the rest of the year as well.
Gareth Jones’ quote “Stillwaters are NOT still” applies at ice out as well. When only the edges of the lake are ice free, there may be currents in the lake from inlet streams, springs, or other factors. If you have ever ice fished, and dropped a bit of bait down the hole with no weight, you may have noticed that it doesn’t always sink straight down. Even under the ice, the water can be moving. Just after complete ice out, winds begins to really have an effect on the movement of water, and warming of the water begins to slowly initiate the currents that will eventually turn the lake over. A buddy of mine down in California (who fishes the high Sierra lakes passionately) once mentioned to me that at ice out it seems like either one side of the lake or the other is good, but not often both. This is a clever observation that I’d not thought of, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the movement of water and its effect on temperature and dissolved oxygen.
In my experience there are also definite ice-out “hot spots” for fishing that must have some secret (to me) combination of several factors that draw fish back year after year. If you are at a lake at ice out for the first time, and the spots you tried at first aren’t producing, it pays to be mobile, walk, look, cast, and explore. If you find one of those zones where it all is happening, make a note!
What about Flies and Presentation?
On stillwaters, summer is all about the bugs – Callibaetis, damselflies, caddis, tricos, scuds, chironomids, and more. At ice out, though, the insect activity hasn’t really gotten rolling yet. With the exception of some early season chironomids hatching (which you should absolutely be prepared for), ice out fish seem to be very opportunistic, looking to put on some pounds, and are willing to at least consider eating more general and larger attractor patterns. Buggers, leeches, baitfish patterns, and some of the other gaudy attractor type stuff seems to work best for me and my fishing partners. Experiment with colors on your home waters for sure, but never fear starting with standby stillwater colors like black, olive, and brown. If you have your own favorites, by all means give them a shot, too. We’ve also had luck with bright colors or natural colored patterns with bright trigger points like hot beads.
Olive BH Woolly Bugger… never a bad decision.
In terms of presentation, it seems like slower is usually better in the cold water. When casting and retrieving your flies on floating or sinking lines as the ice recedes, try hitting the very edge of the ice shelf and let it sink down for a bit before starting any retrieve. Often the fish will come out from beneath the ice and eat it on the fall. If they don’t eat it, and it sinks to the depth you want to target, work a slower retrieve with emphasis on the pauses. Be ready for a grab especially during the pause.
If the ice is still very close to shore, it can be effective to cast parallel to the ice shelf, and retrieve your fly back along the edge of the ice, just like you might do on a weed edge in summer.
Once the ice is well off shore, or gone completely, cover water by fanning casts and moving your feet, and working around visible submerged structure like drop offs and boulders. It maybe goes without saying, but if you actually see fish, cast to them! If access conditions permit, this may be the time to launch your boat or float tube for the first time and really cover some water.
Another effective ice out presentation method uses a floating fly line and strike indicator system to suspend your flies and allow for an extra slow presentation. You can do this with the typical chironomids and also balanced style leech patterns. Remember, this isn’t just basic bobber fishing. Adding motion in subtle ways to your indicator presentations is often a key to success.
Now, for the catch. Even in cold water conditions where you’d expect trout to be lethargic and prefer a slow presentation, I have seen instances where the trout may follow, but will not commit to eating anything but a FAST moving fly. If you have fish following your fly right to the rod tip, but not eating, or if things seem totally dead, change things up and move your fly in a different way. Especially if you have seen fish cruising the area and they aren’t eating your offerings. Speed it up, shorten the pause, make longer pulls, or shorter pulls, and experiment until you get some feedback! When it all comes together, it’s a beautiful thing…
The rainbow at the end of the pot of gold.