2014 Montana Snowpack Preface:
Every year we discuss the Montana snowpack – why? Well, if trout live in cool waters then trout anglers should have a keen interest in researching how much cool water might be in store for the fishing season. Cool water lends itself to happy, healthy trout – and what Montana fly fishing aficionado wouldn’t want that.
One thing we should point out is that in 15 years of professional guiding and piscatorial acumen (define as “fish freak”) the weather trumps all snowpack conditions. A couple of weeks of seasonally high temperatures can turn high snowpack into below average. At Montana, Fly Fishing Guides can only speculate based on experience and some research.
High snowpack isn’t always bad. Don’t make dramatic changes to your Montana fly fishing trip just because the snowpack is high. Instead, stay in contact with your fishing outfitter or well-informed fly shop and follow the trends.
Make adjustments to your trip based on the latest actual information, not wild speculation. Fortunately, in Montana, we have a variety of waters that hold their own during big runoff events such as the spring creeks and the Missouri River.
Current Montana Snowpack Conditions:
The 2014 Montana snowpack has slowly begun to melt off, and slowly might be the keyword. According to several sources in our research (NRCS & Livingston Enterprise), the snow water equivalent reached all-time record high levels. While the 2014 Montana snowpack and precipitation were near normal at the start of the water year (October 2013), January started an increasing precipitation trend. Along with the average to cooler temperatures this winter most of the snowpack continued to build.
The graph below displays snow water equivalent (SWE) and precipitation at the NE Gate SNOTEL site located in the Upper Yellowstone River Drainage. The take away points for this graph are that both overall precipitation (dark red) and SWE (dark blue) are well above the 30 years average. Remember the record-setting flood of 1996, 1997 and 2011? Well, that was in the past 30 years and it looks like we could have our hand full again this season. Once again it all depends on the weather in the next few weeks.
Current Precipitation by River Drainage:
Depending on where you plan on fishing this summer you can bet that you’ll have at least enough water for most if not all of the 2014 fishing season. As you can see every major drainage throughout the state is over 100% of average. The winner for at the moment is the Yellowstone River with a massive 131% of normal precipitation.
Anglers fishing the areas with over 115% of normal precipitation should definitely talk to their outfitter or guide about the specific locations.
What Does This Mean To You the Angler?
Well first of all the private water (lakes & spring creeks) and many of the tailwaters like the Madison River and Missouri River will fish just fine. The freestone streams like the Yellowstone, Boulder, Stillwater, Smith, and others will likely be fish-able later than normal. For example, the Yellowstone over the past 100+ years has typically started fishing around the 4th of July. This year depending on the weather and run-off it will likely be a week or two later. We’ll see.
If you typically fish freestone streams our recommendation would be twofold. If you haven’t yet booked your Montana fly fishing trip we’d recommend fishing in August, September, and October. The water levels should be fantastic and after a summer of cool water, the fishing should be fantastic. If you have already made your plans don’t fret. This is likely not your fishing outfitter’s first rodeo (if it is you should rethink your choice). Experienced, veteran Montana fly fishing guides have dealt with this their entire guiding career – they have options and trust us when we say they want to catch fish just as bad or more than you do. They will do their best to get you on the best option for the day. As the angler be understanding and flexible – remember the whole idea behind your fly fishing should be to have an enjoyable day on the water.
Our final thought on the anticipated high water is that we should all be excited we have lots of cold, clear water. This is only going to help our trout spawn, thrive and survive the tougher months of the year. We have such a good snowpack and precipitation this season the 1-year forecast is for a markedly improved drought status (above) for Montana and much of the inter-mountain West. Cheers for a lack of drought and lots of cold water!