Firehole River "The Last Day" 2014
Firehole River “The Last Day” 2014

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

In Southwest Montana, season’s end doesn’t happen on any specific date. Most of our larger rivers are open year round. Other than Yellowstone Park and a lot of small streams, hardy anglers can fish anytime they want. Rather what happens is that November eventually begins with hope of a few more good days but by the end of the month most sane anglers have packed away the gear for the winter. Compared to mid-summer, fishable days are few. The brown trout spawn is over, rainbow and cutthroats are now languishing in waters just above freezing and only the veritable whitefish shows much activity. The days are shortening fast, the wind, rain/snow and freezing cold more likely than not. Early ice jams on bigger rivers portend dangerous fishing through the winter months. The last few weeks in November in Montana are sometimes just best spent reflecting on the season and anticipating the next.

Trout season in Southwest Montana gives an angler a lot of things to reflect on. Opportunities to fish new as well as old familiar waters, big and little fish, wildlife encounters, floating rivers with friends, tying and trying new flies, new (old) equipment, the inevitable leaky waders and of course those opportunities to brag and share stories. According to my Montana Fishing Log, my first day on the water in 2014 was March 3rd on the Yellowstone River. Only one 16” brown trout in 2 ½ hours on a cold day came to hand. By the end of the month I’d spent another 10 hours on the Yellowstone with over 20 fish landed. The season was underway and the almost obsessive daily review of the USGS Montana Stream Flows begins. As March turns into April the season is in gear. Fly shops transition from their winter programs. No time for fly tying classes or casting clinics. It time to check with clients and guides for more and more reports to be posted on what’s going on. Booking for float trips increase and flies start leaving the bins. The best part of April in Montana is that for the most part the locals are the only folks on the rivers. Out of state anglers and dudes are few.

By the end of April caddis and midge fishing is good, the water is warming and we are all dreading the beginning of runoff. Runoff in the West is inevitable. Even below the dams, the rivers will swell and become difficult to fish. The Yellowstone at Livingston, Montana can go from 1000 CFS in mid-March to over 30,000 CFS by the end of May. The famous Mother’s Day Caddis hatch (early May) is more often than not impacted by early high water on the big rivers. But once May rolls around, we know that the Yellowstone opener is less than a month away and the Montana General Season opener only weeks away. This year the National Park Service opened Yellowstone Lake early with the Yellowstone general season instead of the traditional June 15th opener, but it still took another week for the ice to clear enough to fish. I found no Lake Trout this year (a testament to the relentless eradication program by the Park Service), but a lot of very large Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout made it to the boat. For me, fishing days in June are usually spent in west side of the park on the Madison, Firehole and Gibbon rivers. I avoid the ridiculous crowds that chase Salmon Flies in the big rivers. If the Gardner comes into shape early, I may tackle that rocky stream before the Salmon Flies show there in early July.

July is the month we all anticipate as the days are long, the small streams are in good shape and the big rivers are clearing and falling fast. PMDs and small stoneflies are everywhere and the warm summer temperatures are beginning to unleash massive trico hatches that can be awesome to watch but challenging to fish. There is a highly effective but barbaric technique for catching rising trout during a trico hatch. When you find yourself near of pod of rising fish, position yourself just upstream and to the left or right of the pod. Make an indelicate cast (good splash) just a few feet above and across the pod. Swinging your flies through the pod will almost always generate strikes from feeding fish. Oh, flies to use are a #8-10 woolly bugger with a #16 soft hackle trailer. I did say it was a barbaric technique. SW Montana has a fairly dry climate and on average, the Gallatin Valley only gets ~19” of annual precipitation. Every year is different and in some seasons, the unirrigated valleys and hills will stay green well into late summer. Other years, it seems that things turn brown overnight, and the possibility of really low water in the Fall looms large. Regardless, mid to late summer introduces the opportunity to fish hoppers which in my opinion is only second to streamer fishing. Slashing strikes by rainbows or browns and those irrepressibly slow sucking rises by cutthroats are exciting to experience.

Post runoff into Fall in SW Montana is a stressful time for the fly fisherman. There are just too many opportunities and care must be taken to select your destinations carefully. Encountering too many Dudes on your favorite river can be off-putting. Every season, I find myself in a position where I’m taking someone else fishing—relatives, clients or friends. They always have high expectations and the challenge to help fulfill those expectations is not without stress or merit. I always relish in reflecting on trips with others where they had great success on the rivers. As the season roles into September and October, the challenge of where to fish is overridden by the challenge to get in the maximum number of days fishing before season’s end. Wise old Dr. Seuss reminds us: How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon? When there’s only weeks left in the season, it becomes no challenge at all to ignore all those “Honey Do’s” and go fishing instead.

Late Fall on the Yellowstone
Late Fall on the Yellowstone

I’ll always try a few more shots at the East Gallatin in late October and hope for at least one more fine day in early November on the Yellowstone. But the probability of temperatures in the 40s, light to no wind and overcast skies all on the same day is low. Even the last day of the Yellowstone season, the first Sunday in November is never a sure thing. If you know where to go, fishing the Firehole on the “Last Day” is lonely and generally productive as most anglers are trying for those big run up browns in the Madison. However we have been turned back more than once on the Last Day when overnight snowstorms closed park roads prematurely.

seasons end troutThanks to digital photography and fishing logs, I’ll have a lot to reminisce on during the depths of winter. There are flies to tie, things to write about, gear to care for and most importantly, working on that mental agenda for next season which I hope will begin early in March and include new rivers to explore. An agenda I trust that will be full of healthy rivers, beautiful places, lots of brown, rainbow, cutthroat trout and of course whitefish. Irish singer Enya, in her 1995 album, Memory of Trees sings the song, Anywhere Is. It captures the way I feel at season’s end well:

To leave the thread of all time
And let it make a dark line
In hopes that I can still find
The way back to the moment
I took the turn and turned to
Begin a new beginning
Still looking for the answer
I cannot find the finish
It’s either this or that way
It’s one way or the other
It should be one direction
It could be on reflection
The turn I have just taken
The turn that I was making
I might be just beginning
I might be near the end.

Enya, Anywhere Is, 1995

Every fishing season ends, but next season looms large in my expectation filled head.

4 Comments

  1. Very informative article, Mike, not to mention eloquent, as always. You paint a picture revealing that even the Mecca of fly fishing has its complications. Despite living in the Great American West for many decades, and despite having paddled many a serious wild-water run everywhere, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a trout stream go from 1000 to 30,000 CFS in a quarter-season’s time. Incredible.

    I enjoyed your hatch timetable too. But I found myself shedding few tears for your winter fishing plight, because a single 16-incher coming to hand in even six or seven hours of fishing is still a productive and memorable day where I normally flog water. : )

    – Mike

  2. Michael, many who don’t live out here year round don’t realize the magnitude of our watersheds. The Yellowstone at Livingston (just 20 miles east of Bozeman) drains a watershed of over 3500 sq miles. That’s an area larger than Rhode Island or Delaware. Most of that watershed is above 6000 ft MSL and includes 2/3rds of the Yellowstone Plateau. In the winter, the watershed is frozen and the river barely hangs on to 1000 CFS. When it finally warms in the Spring, all 3500 sq miles of snow just about melts at once. The waters rise fast and recede slowly. The record for Livingston is 42000 CFS. Most of the other watersheds (except the Madison) experience the same drastic rise in May/June as the snow melts. We are just slaves to the USGS flow tables.

  3. Mike,

    I’m extremely surprised to see a blog about Yellowstone and my hometown, Gardiner. Great blog! You summed up Montana fly fishing in a nutshell. I can attest to the extremely high CFS runoff throughout Montana. Sometimes the upper Yellowstone is unfishable until late July. My old man (fish bio) actually changed the regulations to allow fishing on Yellowstone lake early this year. I also landed several large cutthroat and a few lakers this passed spring. It is awesome to see a positive comment for Yellowstone’s invasive eradication program. I have worked with the gill net crews and have seen first hand how many lakers they are removing. We can only hope to see an only Native Yellowstone Cutthroat fishery in Yellowstone lake.

    tight lines – Justin.

  4. Justin, nice to see someone from SW Montana reading the blog. I will be on the Lake at ice out for another day of great Cutthroat fishing. I would be nice however if the NPS could streamline their boat permitting process for us kayakers. A real pain to travel to Grant Village such to buy a $10 permit and have some one wave a wand over my kayak.

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