2014 Montana Fishing Season Forecast

Compiled and Written by: Montana Angler Fly Fishing


The Madison River near Palisades is a great summer stretch for brown trout.
Photo by Phil Monahan

We are now into April, and our snowpack across Montana is healthy and above average. For those of you who were out here three seasons ago when we had the record-breaking high water year, we aren’t expecting anything like that, just a near-perfect scenario of slightly above average snow. Generally speaking, mid April is when our snowpack levels reach their maximum. As anglers, we tend to think that most of our water for the coming season is in the bank when mid April arrives.

So at this point, we have a pretty good guess as to how our season will unfold in terms of water in our rivers. This prediction can shift forward or backward based on temperatures and moisture the remainder of the spring. For example, four years ago, we came into April with slightly above average snow pack and then broke records for May and early June moisture. Not only did the moisture keep coming, but the weather stayed cold and the melt didn’t start on time. When July arrived, some drainages were at 1,000 percent of average for snowpack. On the other hand, if we get a warmer-than-expected spring and the melt begins early, we can hit July basically right at or near average.  

At this point, it is safe to say we will not be in drought conditions for 2014. We are very fortunate in Montana, since we have so many fisheries at different elevations. Montana is a bulletproof fishing destination as a result: in drought years, the spring and fall fishing is awesome on the bigger rivers, and then when the water gets low and hotn the mountain rivers and streams are ideal (even better than a normal water year). On the other hand, in high-water years, some of the fisheries that usually get too warm for good fishing remain viable even in the heat of summer.  

Essentially the trick is being at the right place at the right time. An above-average snow year is always good for our fisheries, since it makes sure that marginal fisheries in lower elevations do not get dewatered. Healthy flows also help to scour gravel of sediments, which results in higher trout-fry recruitment levels for future years. So for 2014, most of our drainages are averaging 120 to 150 percent above average at the moment.

 

Basin

Snow Water Equivalent Percent of Median

KOOTENAI RIVER BASIN

Percentage Bar 122%* 122%

FLATHEAD RIVER BASIN

Percentage Bar 132%* 132%

UPPER CLARK FORK RIVER BASIN

Percentage Bar 145%* 145%

BITTERROOT RIVER BASIN

Percentage Bar 163%* 163%

LOWER CLARK FORK RIVER BASIN

Percentage Bar 135%* 135%

JEFFERSON RIVER BASIN

Percentage Bar 140%* 140%

MADISON RIVER BASIN

Percentage Bar 128%* 128%

GALLATIN RIVER BASIN

Percentage Bar 142%* 142%

MISSOURI HEADWATERS

Percentage Bar 137%* 137%

HEADWATERS MISSOURI MAINSTEM

Percentage Bar 154%* 154%

SMITH, JUDITH, AND MUSSELSHELL RIVER BASINS

Percentage Bar 150%* 150%

SUN, TETON AND MARIAS RIVER BASINS

Percentage Bar 145%* 145%

MISSOURI MAINSTEM RIVER BASIN

Percentage Bar 152%* 152%

ST MARY AND MILK RIVER BASINS

Percentage Bar 136%* 136%

UPPER YELLOWSTONE RIVER BASIN

Percentage Bar 154%* 154%

WIND RIVER BASIN (WYOMING)

Percentage Bar 129%* 129%

SHOSHONE RIVER BASIN (WYOMING)

Percentage Bar 149%* 149%

BIGHORN RIVER BASIN (WYOMING)

Percentage Bar 150%* 150%

TONGUE RIVER BASIN (WYOMING)

Percentage Bar 141%* 141%

POWDER RIVER BASIN (WYOMING)

Percentage Bar 159%* 159%

LOWER YELLOWSTONE RIVER BASIN

Percentage Bar 141%* 141%

 

Legend:

Percentage Bar Below 70%* <70% Percentage Bar 70-90%* 70-90% Percentage Bar 91-110%* 91-110% Percentage Bar 111-130%* 111-130% Percentage Bar Above 130%* >130%

* = Data are not available or data may not provide a valid measure of conditions for over half of the sites within the basin.

How to Analyze Snow Water Graphs

The following snow-water-year graphs for the Madison and Yellowstone Rivers are helpful for making some predictions about water levels during and just after run off. Generally, even if we have a huge water year, by the time we get to late August, the snow is gone and rivers return to base levels (although base levels on a high water year might be up by 30% or so, but in general we are back to low water flows). Also, spring fishing is also somewhat unrelated to snowpack. For example, in early May we always have snow in the mountains, but whether the Mother’s Day caddis hatch on the Yellowstone is epic or not depends more on water temperatures and weather systems. If it gets too hot too fast, the river can get dirty even on a low snow year, and if temps stay near average, the river will be clear enough for great fishing even on a big snow year because the snow isn’t melting yet.  

So snowpack levels are most important for determining how big runoff will be and how long into the summer it will last. Keep in mind that there is great fishing during runoff, as long as you are in the right location. Some locations, like parts of the Madison, The Missouri, Beaverhead and others actually fish even better during high flows.

So on the graph below of the Madison River, it is important to understand that the graph is not showing river water levels, but rather snowpack levels. The gray shades show the different quartiles of past years, so the top of the darker gray zone would be a record-breaking snow level. The different lines leaving the bolded red line show predictions of where this year could go based on what happens the rest of the spring. For example the green line is where our snowpack would be if it is average from here on out. The fainter red line would be a prediction if it stayed cold and much wetter than average. What we look for is the rapidly dropping line; that means lots of snow will be melting and rivers will be high. It is also important to note that when we start getting close to “running out of snow,” rivers begin dropping even if the melt curve is in a steep descent.

Madison River Snowpack

So from this graph it, appears to me from past observations that if we hold course with average conditions the Upper Madison will probably peak in mid June and start dropping in the second half of June, which is always a great time to catch it. Keep in mind that we fish the upper part of the Madison and the Lower Madison even at its highest flows so it is only the bottom portion of the Upper Madison near Ennis that can get too high and off-color due to all of the tributaries in the bottom half of the valley. The Madison is actually one of our go-to rivers during the heart of runoff in early June.

This second graph shows the water snowpack graphs and predictions for the Yellowstone Basin. The Yellowstone River is trickier than the Madison because it doesn’t have dams, and when it is in full runoff it can’t be fished (too dangerous and off color). So we have to pay close attention to the Yellowstone River patterns. The Yellowstone River is also one of the last in the state to drop to fishable levels. Looking at the water curves, it appears that sometime in the first week of July we will be fishing the Yellowstone if we have average conditions for the remainder of the spring. However, if the spring is wet and cold, then we look at the light blue or even dark blue lines that would predict snow levels that persist due to cold temps and more moisture. So while the odds are good we will fish the Yellowstone by around the 4th of July, it may not be ready until mid July. If it is dry and hot in the mid spring months, even late June is still on the table.

Yellowstone Snowpack

So as an outfitter when we plan trips we tend to avoid having folks up high near Gardiner on the Yellowstone until we are sure it will be fishing since there aren’t a lot of other options. Staying near Livingston is safer because even if the Yellowstone is still a bit too high, we can run to spring creeks, private ranches, the Boulder and Stillwater (which fish earlier than the Yellowstone even if high), and even the Madison.

So now we have learned that there is some variability in predicting early summer flows, even when we are this far along with our snowpack. So where do we think we will be fishing this year?

Seasonal predictions for 2015

Here is a prediction of what we will be targeting at different times of the 2014 season. Note that there are other options out there, but these are ones that our guides and partner outfitters like and trust at different times of the year.

April to Mid May

This is the pre-runoff window of the spring. This is also a great window for catching some of our best spring hatches including the Baetis, March brown, and Mother’s Day caddis hatches. Our favorite location for early spring fishing is to target the Yellowstone River valley and its tributaries, the Boulder and Stillwater. The Lower Madison and Jefferson can also be great.

Third week of May to mid June

Snow begins melting in earnest around mid May. During runoff, we enjoy some terrific fishing opportunities with high catch rates and a lot of big trout. Some of the freestone rivers, such as the Boulder, Yellowstone, and Stillwater become unfishable during this time of year, so we focus on rivers with some protection from dams, spring creeks, and stillwaters. So while some waters are not an option during run off, others are peaking and producing very high catch rates.  

This is also a beautiful time in Montana, with bright green valleys, snow-capped peaks, and wild flowers in full bloom. During this window the famous tailwaters such as the Bighorn, Missouri and Beaverhead are producing high catch rates and some big trout. Nymphing is generally the game on the tailwaters during the higher flows, and this time of year they can get pretty busy. The Madison sees much less pressure during this window and is one of our favorite targets.

The Madison below both Hebgen and Quake Lakes can produce outstanding fishing with some of our highest catch rates of the season. Generally, the water has enough clarity all the way down to Palisades, so both the wade section and the upper part of the float section are very, very good in this window. Another great mid June option is the west side of Yellowstone National Park on waters such as the Firehole, Gibbon, and Upper Madison. The Firehole is particular awesome in June, and by the end of June it is already getting too warm  The Lower Madison also fishes very well the higher the water gets. The big trout get flushed out of the weedbeds and are feeding heavily on large morsels such as crayfish. We also pay close attention to flows during cold snaps in this window when waters like the Boulder and Stillwater often become fishable for a day or two when the colder temps put the breaks on run off temporarily.

Late June and early July

Water levels on some rivers will begin dropping in late June this year.  Generally this is a great time to fish the Upper Madison, Jefferson, Big Hole and Gallatin.  The Tailwaters, such as the Beaverhead and Missouri, are usually producing good fishing. This is also the peak of the PMD hatch on the spring creeks (hopefully you already have your rods booked).

The Yellowstone River and its big tributaries will probably still be running too high in late June, unless we have a warm spring that brings snow down early. This is also the time when some of the giant stoneflies like the salmonfly and golden stone will be hatching, with some exciting opportunities for trophy trout on a dry fly.

2nd week of July to end of July

Most likely, the Yellowstone and its tributaries will be clearing and dropping this week. The Boulder becomes fishable before the Yellowstone. Although the Madison, Big Hole, and Gallatin will still be fishing well, if you can catch the Yellowstone the first week it drops below 10,000 cfs, hang on for the ride because it is epic. So by mid-July, most everything in Montana will be fishing. There is a good chance that even rivers like the Jefferson, which often get too warm in the summer, will still fish well with above average flows. The Yellowstone Valley will be going off the hook as mentioned above, but really you will have good fishing in a lot of different valleys at this time. The tailwaters like the Bighorn, Missouri, and Beaverhead start slowing down a little but are still decent. Most of July will be dominated by aquatic insect hatches, which will wind down by the end of the month.

August and early September

By August, things are basically “back to normal,” even on an a big snow year. Generally on an above-average year, the base levels are still up a bit, which definitely helps water temps and things like algae blooms on the low elevation rivers. But our normal fishing patterns for late summer will be similar to other years, which means terrestrials on the surface and general attractor nymphs and streamers subsurface. I haven’t heard any predictions on the “hopper crop” for 2014. Last year was supposed to be a big hopper year, but it seemed to us like it was just so-so. On the epic high water year we had in 2010, the hopper fishing in August was over-the-top good, so hopefully a nice water year will bode well.

In August and early September, most of our standard fisheries will be in great shape, but the lower-elevation fisheries such as the Jefferson, Lower Madison, and Lower Gallatin will probably be too warm for good fishing (like they always are in late summer). Everything else should be in great shape. I doubt we will see any closures or unusual “hoot owl” restrictions this year, aside from the normal ones on the Jefferson and Lower Madison.

Late September and October

Fall fishing is generally not affected by snowpack. By autumn, rivers are always back to base levels regardless of the early season snowpack. Mid September always brings a nice change of pace, as the lower-elevation rivers drop back to nice water temperatures along with increased flows when irrigation stops. So, while the old faithfuls like the Yellowstone and Upper Madison are still producing, the Jefferson, Lower Madison, and Upper Missouri become interesting options as well.

In October big browns start to enter pre spawn mode and move up rivers out of lakes. While big browns can be caught on any of our rivers in October, we particularly enjoy fishing the Madison then when big browns come out of the lakes to mix in with the resident fish. Yellowstone National Park is also incredible in October, with lake-run fish entering the Madison, Firehole, and Gibbon.

Montana Angler Fly Fishing is an Orvis dealer in Bozeman, Montana.

2 thoughts on “2014 Montana Fishing Season Forecast”

  1. Pingback: 2014 Montana Fishing Season Forecast | Orvis News · The Fly Fishing Daily
  2. I am planning a visit sometime this year 2015 and need best dates and places to visit

    call or email me info.

    Cell 770-598-9705
    home 706-337-2533

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