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.
The Madison has been fishing quite well this winter. Some days have been better than others, but hey, that’s fishing. Yesterday, I fished the West Fork area, Lyons Bridge and Reynolds Pass. I had to work a little bit, but caught plenty of fish on nymphs like the 3$ dip, prince nymph, rubber legs and the red worm. While I looked for heads, I didn’t see much at all. Midges were coming off in decent numbers, but the north wind and sunny conditions may have kept the fish down – at least where I was fishing. I did find a few nice brown trout in the shallow water sunning themselves, but I couldn’t get them to take a dry fly. With the lack of snow pack on the level in the Madison valley, getting around the river bottom is pretty easy. River left has more snow than river right, but once you get below the West Fork, both sides of the river are relatively free of snow. Today was nasty. I left Horse Butte with sunshine, broken clouds and hardly a breeze. Turning left at the Duck Creek Y the north wind had picked up and temp was dropping slightly. Rounding Quake Lake the wind was cranking up and I could see the wall of weather down in the Madison Valley. At Reynolds Pass it began. Blowing and drifting snow coupled with gusts that hit 30+ mph, made me sit in my rig and watch. Annoyed by this at first, I quickly felt a relief set in as this moisture was exactly what the river was in need of. Across the parking area I observed four 20 somethings rigging up bobbers and nymphs in this insane weather. I fondly remember being this way too but took comfort in knowing that it’s okay to sit and watch one’s surroundings and enjoy just that. It’s why I live thirty minutes from the Madison.
Coming into Hebgen Lake: about 800 cfs
Below Hebgen – 841 cfs…down quite a bit.
At Kirby Ranch – 882 cfs…down as well.
Below Holter Dam on the Missouri River – 4900 cfs
Hebgen Lake is 5 feet from full, full pond is the elevation 6534.5 feet.
Jefferson Drainage – 101%
Madison Drainage – 83%
Gallatin Drainage – 107%
Missouri Mainstem – 107%
A word or two on what all this means for us….
The flows have dropped quite a bit in the past few days and anglers should expect this flow or less for the rest of the winter season on the Madison River. Flows were dropped down as the snow pack for the Hebgen Basin is not up to snuff. While the snow is not deep, there is a ton of moisture in what we have on the ground. This is not the time to fret, rather it’s time to go fishing and let Mother Nature take care of the weather – remember we have no control over the weather. What we do have control over is the lake level at Hebgen Lake. Not that “we” control this, that’s left up to the folks at NW Energy. I’ve been watching this like a hawk and talking with NW Energy’s biologist every few weeks. He too is watching this closely, thus the reason for the drop in flows a couple days ago. As of right now, the lake is almost a foot higher than a year ago today. The in flows to Hebgen Lake are 800 cfs and at some point, NW Energy may drop the flows down to match out flows with in flows. Hebgen Lake is normally (we all know how this can turn out) full by the end of June, so while the snow pack on the Madison, Gibbon and Firehole Rivers is low, there is a significant amount to time ahead of us for more moisture to fall. Generally speaking, the months of March, April, May and June are when we get the moisture. Now if you’re a downhill skier, then you probably aren’t too happy with this season, but my point is that there is plenty of time to fill Hebgen Lake. Both the Gallatin and Jefferson drainages are holding slightly above normal snow pack and I’ll take 100% at this point in the winter any year. The Missouri low lands are still holding quite a bit snow as well, which is always good news.
For three weeks now, the Madison River drainage has seen mild daytime temps and hardly any snowfall. The valley is void of snow and it seems more like April than February. With that in mind, I must say, Winter will return. The boat ramps in the Madison Valley are free and floating is an option in the upper river till she closes in a couple weeks. My new boat from RO Drift Boats is not quite laid up yet, but next week I plan on spending some time with Robert at the boat shop. Yes! I’m getting a new boat for the 2015 season….exciting stuff is happening on this front. More to come in the next few months.
Today I sat and watched a pair of golden eagles play on the thermal air around Palisades. Nothing says, sit back and watch, like two giant birds soaring hundreds of feet above you; cupping their wings, diving straight down and then pulling out, ascending back above the cliffs. At that point, who cares about the fishing, the trout. They will still be there in five minutes. It makes one realize how important these open spaces are to us all. Palisades is BLM ground – Federal land that belongs to each of us. Let’s keep it that way.
The Firehole has been alive with rising trout, some of which I watch prolonged and then realize that all but a few folks on my snow coach tour could care less about them. With the warmer than normal winter, I can’t help but fish on days away from Yellowstone National Park . Lots of anglers are drifting flies throughout the work week from Reynolds Pass down to Ennis and through the Beartrap Canyon. Go downstream for solitude, being alone on the Madison does wonders for each of us. Stella has become quite the fishing dog, sitting beside me to observe the scene no matter how deep the water I wade. She loves to sit in my wake and stall out on a boulder just large enough to get her chest above water.. Today she snapped up a large whitefish from the river as it was released. Her head went full on under the river and she was udderly proud of her catch, looking at me as the tail smacker her fury cheek.
While the snowpack is low, there is still plenty fo time for it stack up…keep up the snow dancing though, we need every inch. Stay tuned for more updates on snowpack and winter fishing reports. We are bound for Cody, Wyoming once again this Spring for a little golf and March/April angling. Cody is a little gem that is getting harder to keep under the hat.
Guiding for Yellowstone Alpen Guides during the winter months provides ample opportunities for photo graphs. While I am in no ways a professional, I thoroughly enjoy keeping my camera on hand everyday and taking advantage of my time in Yellowstone National Park’s Interior. If I could spend a little less money on fishing and hunting gear and little more money on higher quality lens’, I’d be in better shape for taking pictures. Each day that goes by allows me to see shots that I would like to take depending on where wildlife pops up in the right light or if the sunset or sunrise presents itself. I have a shot in mind, with a great subject of a bison skull, but just haven’t had the opportunity yet to sneak away from the coach and get it.
The Winter Season in YNP is half over and if the white stuff doesn’t start to fall here in headwaters of the Madison, the season could come to an early end in March. However, we do live in once of the snowiest places on earth and are bound to get some February snow fall. Is it time for a snow dance? We started out the day with a drizzle of snow and warmish temps, but it petered out and we got a skiff…just enough to cover the ice and make it slippery than the bottom of the Madison River in the Big Bend.
This week’s daytime highs for West Yellowstone are forecast to be in the 40s. Really, the 40s? If the air displacement doesn’t come up too much, the fishing in the Madison Valley should be really good. Down in the Valley, the river temps have been hovering around 36-39 degrees and slightly cooler in betwix the lakes. Hebgen Lake is 4.4 feet down at this point and the flows out of Hebgen Dam are higher than normal as well. Hopefully, someone with PPL over in Butte is watching this closely as we might just need all the water we can get to fill Hebgen on time, which as some of you know, can be a problem.
Madison River below Hebgen – 985 cfs
Madison River at Kirby – 1050 cfs
Madison – 84%…this would be like getting a “D” in fourth grade math. Sad really…pray for snow.
Jefferson – 103%…slightly above average
Gallatin – 107%…better than the Jefferson
Missouri Mainstem – 118%…great lowland slow pack for this time of the year. It will melt in a couple weeks as the weather continues to warm up come February.
Best Book of 2014: Wait for Signs, by Craig Johnson
Good books mark my life by chapter and verse. I own many of them. We moved last spring, a little deeper into the forests of Horse Butte. When we bought our new place, I refused to consider living there until I found a place for my bookshelves. Joe and I packed up Pony, Stella, and Oscar, along with everything else which makes up Big Sky Anglers: rods, reels, hackles, hooks, flies, hoodies, hats, wading boots, computers, printers, fax machines, boats, kayaks, oars, old Toyotas, scanners, filing cabinets, waders with holes, waders without holes, rod tubes, books about trout, photos, articles, cameras, bird dog collars, kennels, shotguns, the Dirty Harry pistol (which Joe used to hide in my magazine basket until I pitched a fit), fishing shirts, Joe’s dress shirt, socks, jackets, leaders, tippet, fly lines, and two broken guitar cases. In addition to my books, I brought along a small suitcase of clothes, two NPS flat hats, and 24 pairs of skis.
Almost as important to me as my books is Wyoming. The land speaks through sagebrush, cowboys, broken china tossed off Conestoga wagons, and abandoned sod dugouts in the middle of the prairie. Wyoming is full of elk, pronghorn (antelope), cows, cowboys, deer, and wind. Lots of wind. Mountains, bluebirds, and crisp fall mornings soothe the wounds created by its harshness. Since a lot of great authors also enjoy the state, I possess a fine collection of Wyoming writers, including Craig Johnson, Annie Proulx, Mark Spragg, Gretl Erlich, and CJ Box. They write about the rowdy surroundings and the survivors who call it home.
Between Meeteetse and Thermopolis, Highway 171 cuts through the rough country in a futile attempt of control and symmetry. All around are ridges of rock hiding coulees, dips, and valleys full of antelope, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles. Geology takes precedence over the engineering egos of the WY Department of Transportation, as the narrow road winds its way south. I love this stretch. Austere in its presentation of natural wonders, it’s a far cry from the in-your-face drama of Glacier or Yellowstone. Wyoming begs you to look for the unknown, hidden at first among a seemingly boring setting of dirt, sagebrush and drab color. But watch for morning sunlight or evening fade, and the earth turns pink and purple. Walk around until you stumble upon the Legend Rock petroglyphs, where people used stone walls into artistic canvases for thousands of years. Hear the stories of the people of Wyoming, hacking a life out of the wilderness and bearing their children along the way. And wait-just wait-until you meet Wyoming personified, Sheriff Walt Longmire.
In Craig Johnson’s Wait for Signs (2014), twelve short stories give personal profiles of America’s favorite sheriff, Walt Longmire. Walt is the main character in a series of novels, recently adapted into A&E’s Longmire. Johnson originally wrote these short works as Post-Its, annual Christmas gifts to readers that subscribe to his email newsletter. Amidst a wintry holiday backdrop, Walt rescues hitchhikers on Christmas Eve, hands out presents from the back of a wrecked Toys-R-Us semi, and investigates miscreant residents of the local old folk’s home. Like the main character in any good crime series, Walt Longmire is always in the thick of a case, even if his jurisdiction is the middle of nowhere, Absaroka County, Wyoming.
Several years ago I first met Walt Longmire one cold night in Lamar Valley. Actually, I was attending a weeklong course at the Yellowstone Association Institute-Lesser Known Scats of Porcupines, Mating Calls of Bison, or some other such awkward and intimate animal knowledge. While wolves howled outside, I huddled in my tiny log cabin with a headlamp and a bottle of wine and read almost all of The Cold Dish. I laughed, I cried, I had to replace my headlamp batteries, and I fell in love with Walt and his perspective of the world. Thankfully I know a thing or two about Yellowstone, because the next morning I was worthless. Walt says, “It wasn’t that revenge was a dish best served cold, it was that it was a dish best not served at all.” Cold Dish is the first of ten in the Longmire series. Set in the fictional town of Durant, Absaroka County, Wyoming, his jurisdiction covers the least populated county in the Lower 48. Born and bred in Durant, Walt was elected sheriff shortly after playing all-state tackle at USC and serving with the Marines in Vietnam. He’s a big man, nearly 6’4 and 240, although his intimidating physical presence is often balanced by a friendly smile. He wears blue jeans and a cowboy hat with his sheriff’s star and sidearm. His department includes Ruby, who mothers Walt as much as she dispatches calls; Double Tough, a former oil rig welder, the Ferg, who ties flies and scouts good fishing holes while on duty, and Vic, who gave up a fast-paced career with the Philadelphia police department to follow her engineer husband for job in the Bighorn Basin oil fields. Henry Standing Bear, Walt’s best friend since childhood, steers Walt true with constant companionship. Walt’s daughter Cady is an East Coast trial lawyer and constant reminder of her mother Martha, who dies of cancer before we ever meet Walt for the first time.
Longmire is a hero, a comic, a ladies’ man, a lawman, a father, friend, and completely infallible. Propelled by a clear sense of right and wrong, his heart usually finds the right way to get there. In my favorite story, “Ministerial Aid,” Walt confronts a domestic abuse situation. A few things are a little odd about his approach- he’s hung over and wearing a bathrobe. Its New Years day and Walt finds himself in between the troubled couple, all the while still confronting his grief about Martha’s recent death. His own redemption emerges from helping others besides himself. He thinks, “Just then, I thought I might’ve caught sight of that first ray that shoots over the edge of the earth like a hopeful thought, and maybe, just maybe I might’ve felt something. ‘Well, like the rest of us…’[Walt] sighed. ‘She’s just waiting on something.’”
Walt’s way with women follows him on most cases. In the “Divorce Horse,” he and fellow Absaroka County heartthrob and his best friend Henry Standing Bear look for a stolen pony. Walt muses, “The much-storied case of the divorce horse was the kind of situation familiar to most rural sheriffs, one of those disputes you ended up getting involved in even thought it had nothing much to do with law enforcement.” Johnson inserts hints of his involvement with Undersheriff Victoria Moretti, who is half Walt’s age and moves twice as fast.
Faithful BSA readers might feel tricked by my post, as they realize I’m not reviewing a book full of fish. Ha! Gotcha. In a scene from “Messenger”, Henry and Walt catch a few creels full of brookies, with designs on releasing them into the frying pan for dinner. Ok, so it’s not Isaaz Walton. But it is full of wit, humanity, and most importantly, Wyoming. Not ready for a full book of Walt just yet? Dip in slowly with Wait for Signs.
Yesterday we woke to 35 below zero, for the second day in a row. Yes, that’s cold, but honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s a reason that this area was the last place, in the Rockies, to be civilized. This type of weather keeps the riff raff from really wanting to live here and those who are hearty enough to stick around are usually worth their salt. Today, New Year’s, is a bit warmer with five below at high noon. Still though, it’s too cold outside to hunt birds on the last day or venture out for the first fish of the new year. With any luck, I’ll get out for a ski with my better half in YNP later in the day. For now, I’ll settle to watch the English Premier League and catch up on next summer’s bookings. The Hot Spurs have Chelsea on the ropes thus far with a 4-1 lead.
Norris Geyser Basin has become my favorite hot spot in Yellowstone. With hardly ever a soul around, complete with geysers, hot springs and super heated steam vents, Norris has it all. Rarely do I see anyone XC ski here, but the Back Basin is one of the best little known ski trips in YNP. The next time you come to Yellowstone National Park, skip out on Old Faithful and take some time to visit Norris Geyser Basin.
The valley is void of snow. Not trout though, they are there. It’s been warm thus far in December and the rest of the week looks to be fabulous fishing weather. All this snow melting and general warmness has given me the itch to fish and with a world class trout stream like the Madison, just a short drive away, I figured it would be a good plan. The river was empty today, as it is so often this time of the year. Rigged with a single dry, I walked way down below Three Dollar and poked around for an hour or longer and found not a head – the hatch was light too. After fishing blind for a bit longer, I made the switch to a shallow nymph rig and caught fish till I felt that everything was right again.
If I didn’t have guide training for YNP beginning on Friday, I would pack up Stella and head to eastern Montana till the snow fell. Most of us are wondering when Winter will actually begin. The West Gate of the Park opens on the 15th, but we won’t be driving a bombardier in Yellowstone anytime soon. Recently, I’ve come to the realization that Cody would be a grand place for Molly and I to live, however, this would only be for the months of November and December…the bird hunter in me has come up with this plan, but at this point it’s just conceptual. I also want a second draht, an airstream that comes with big sacks of money and another shotgun. It’s not that Cody is a bird hunter’s paradise, it just happens to be a bit closer to bird hunting paradise.
Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day.
I did not serve in the United States Military, my grandfather did in World War One. I have no possible idea what his experiences were like as he passed before I was born, but sitting on my desk are two spent .30-06 cartridges from his funeral. There were times growing up when there was an overwhelming feeling to join the Military. Frequent trips to Army Surplus stores throughout my youth yielded various backpacks, fatigues and other camping gear; patches were my favorite pieces to collect. At one point in high school I sat down with a recruiter from the Marine Corps and asked him some questions. He asked me a few and once he realized that I had blown my ACL playing soccer, he was less interested in my service. That was alright with me, I was actually more afraid to enlist than I was of heading off to college. Two high school friends enlisted in the Marine Corps, during my freshman and sophomore years we wrote letters back and forth – I still have those letters.
Years later, I find myself saying “thanks for your service” to men and women I’ve never met; it happens in parking lots, at gas stations and just about anywhere it can. I can’t really help it, it just comes out and immediately they light up and are very appreciative. There is something inside me that wants to know more about their service and their time spent defending our freedom, but those are personal feelings and experiences that I am not warranted to know. I have a large list of fishing clients that are serving or who have served in the US Armed Forces. Some of them openly share, others just want to unwind and not discuss “work”. They come out to Montana, not for the fishing, but for the peace and quiet our great state offers. In the drift boat I witnessed grown men, with more clearance than most folks will ever have, completely breakdown and lose their shit. That story in it’s entirety will never appear on the pages of this blog- it just wouldn’t be right. I get it though, really, cause the stress that these men and women are put through is nothing like what the rest of us Joes have to deal with. It’s similar, but not the same. One can’t relate, one can only try to understand and respect it. There is a common phrase used in society today – “the upper 1%”. That’s typically used for the ultra wealthy, but “the other 1%” is now being used for those who served in the Military. Nowadays, only one percent of Americans have served in the Armed Forces. That’s actually quite disturbing and is the real reason why the general population of America doesn’t understand what’s going in the world today.
Another client, who became a friend (as many do), is a co-founder of a program/organization called Words After War. Brandon Willetts is a Navy Veteran and a writer. His father and grandfather are both Veterans as well….it runs in their blood. Brandon and his business partner are trying to bridge the gap between Vets and the rest of us. Their program is gaining ground. One day not too far down the road, they will be the ones who figured out the way to make us understand what’s it like to be a Vet trying to assimilate back into society.
We’ve been fishing streamers and dry flies for the past two weeks or so. Some days have been banner and some days we scratch out a good day on the water. Those who keep their head down and strip it with fishiness have been rewarded here on the Missouri River. The dry fly bite is as good as you are and from time to time a bit of luck is helpful. October is one of my favorites and I really don’t want to fish anywhere else this time of the year. Tom and Harry showed up for a four day run, the Ladies trip was here, Molly ventured in and Heames’ boys are currently in town. Ten more days and two more groups of great anglers. All we need is the weather to cooperate just a little more.