Last week the leaves were as beautiful as I can remember. Now after a couple of windy days they are pretty much gone. It’s hard to believe we’re in the twilight of one of the best fishing seasons I can remember. Don’t misunderstand. There is plenty of good fishing ahead but in this part of the country the icy winds of winter can change this very quickly.
Our great season actually started last winter when our accumulated snowpack pushed far above normal. It was a welcome relief from its poor showing the prior winter followed by one of the driest summers on record. The resulting water demand left our streamflows very high, our water conditions poor and our reservoirs almost completely drained. Another winter with below normal precipitation could have been catastrophic. A quick look in the rear view mirror of the 2017 season can give us clear perspective as to why it has been such a great fishing year.
I define our preseason as the period from mid-February through early May. This is also pre-runoff time when the water is low and clear. This year such conditions provided optimum fishing opportunities on the Henry’s Fork, Madison, Teton and South Fork until mid-March. By then it was evident that snowpack levels were 140% to 180% resulting in higher releases from the reservoirs to make room. The flow on the Teton River, which isn’t controlled by a dam, ebbed with the weather but stayed higher than normal throughout the period. This changed the fishing a bit. With higher flows our dry fly fishing with Blue Winged Olives slowed but we had great caddis and March Brown hatches. Nymph fishing was also productive. Streamer fishing was awesome as the higher water kept big trout in their comfort zones on the banks.
In early May it’s always a guess as to when the salmonfly hatch will start on the Henry’s Fork. In low water years it can occur as early as the 10th of May. This year with higher water I predicted the salmonfly hatch would start on May 20th. Check out my blog about the salmonflies. I hit it dead on with the first nymphs crawling on May 20th. The 2017 salmonfly hatch on the Henry’s Fork was epic as a result of higher water which kept the big trout on the banks. The only drawback was heavy fishing pressure, especially from floaters. To really score with large trout you needed to stop and work the water. Just passing your fly over water that had been worked by other drift boats didn’t work.
Even though the water was high the Firehole River in the park produced good fishing until the end of June. Other rivers in our operating area stayed pretty high through the period. In fact the South Fork of the Snake was near flood levels into mid-July. The Teton River was also well above normal during the period. The Madison River was also above normal but it still produced very good fishing from mid-June through early July.
By the time the Ranch opened on June 15 the hatches of PMDs, March Browns, BWOs and caddisflies came alive. Anglers who expected to see Green Drakes were disappointed. They didn’t start showing in numbers until about June 20th but when they came it was impressive. The Brown Drakes also started hatching in the evening hours producing great dry fly fishing in the lower Ranch downstream to Pinehaven. The salmonfly hatch came off on the Madison right on que in late June and produced great action as it moved up the river to the Reynolds Pass area. The only real disappointment of this period was a lack of Gray Drakes on the lower river. We’ve always felt like this hatch was tied to higher stream flows but for whatever reason, we didn’t see intense hatches of Gray Drakes. While the entire 60 miles or so of the Henry’s Fork produced some of the best dry fly fishing we’ve seen in years, most of our other rivers were still expelling high water resulting from the heavy snowpack and above normal precipitation.
By mid-July everything came together. The drake hatches in the Ranch transcended to Flav and Pale Morning Dun mayflies. The streamflow of the Teton River dropped back to its normal track. It produced great hatches of PMDs, caddisflies and even some golden stones. The Teton fished well throughout the period. In fact, some of the largest trout caught and released by our guide clients came from the Teton River. Riffle fishing on the South Fork was tough. It was evident that flows exceeding 24,000 cfs over a prolonged period moved some rock and gravel. However, there were lots of good fish holding on the banks producing great dry dropper fishing. The Madison continue to fish well in Montana.
The Yellowstone River opened in the park on July 15. Many anglers arrived to find the water higher than they had ever seen. This made wading not only difficult but impossible in most areas. This made fishing very challenging but those who worked at it were rewarded with some great fish using dry salmonfly patterns.
By early September it was hard to find water anywhere that didn’t fish well. I personally couldn’t get away from the Ranch and the upper Teton. Both of these waters are very similar with slow, slick water, rising trout and good hatches. At that time of year you never really know what you’re going to get in the Ranch. I landed some enormous trout on hopper patterns but I also found good fish rising to PMDs, flying ants, Callibaetis, Tricos, and a few Mahogany Duns. The early September hatches that waned later in the month were replaced by strong numbers of Mahogany Duns and Blue Winged Olives. You could still raise a good fish on a hopper. In fact hopper fishing was good on all of the rivers in our region until late September.
The mayfly hatches of the upper Teton actually intensified as the month of September rolled on. By late September there were plenty of big Gray Drakes mixed in with Mahogany Duns, PMDs and Blue Winged Olives. Henry’s Lake usually comes on strong in September and this year didn’t disappoint. Our clients landed some huge trout well into October on this famous lake.
Yellowstone Park has always been one of our favorite fishing places late in the season. Distant rivers like the Lamar River and Slough Creek produced great fishing. Closer to home the Firehole ramped back up with good hatches of Blue Winged Olives and caddisflies. Large trout also started moving up the Madison from Hebgen Lake.
Golden leaves, bugling elk, and rising trout mark our favorite time of the year. We’ve had exceptional fishing this fall. The only challenge is so little time to utilize so much opportunity. I personally had a number of epic days this October. The hatches seemed to intensify on the Ranch and the Teton as the month progressed. The riffle fishing also picked up on the South Fork. We saw Green Drakes on the Lamar and Slough Creek in the park and Gray Drakes on the upper Teton. While I personally didn’t have a chance to fish the park, Todd Lanning spent a lot of time swinging flies for large trout migrating up the Madison from Hebgen Lake. When it started to get crowded at the Barns Pools he moved up the river. One of my favorite things to do in the park in the fall is to fish streamers on the Yellowstone. I didn’t get it done but I recommended it to a few other folks and they were glad they followed my advice. It’s interesting to drive up the Madison with anglers in almost every pool to arrive at the Yellowstone to find it all but deserted.
Henry’s Lake continued to produce some very larger hybrids as well as some big cutthroat and brook trout. The best fishing has been at the mouths of Targhee and Howard Creeks but many anglers caught fish off the dock at the Henry’s Lake State Park.
I’ve been staying close to home since October 10th when Sheralee had knee replacement surgery. She’s doing great and well on the road to recovery. I have mostly fished the Henry’s Fork and lower Teton close to home. It’s always amazing how good the fishing is right in St Anthony. We’ve been catching some nice browns and rainbows on streamers and nymphs. The dry fly fishing has also been very good in the slow backwaters like the Fun Farm. There are still good hatches of BWOs and midges. Todd and Chris have also reported great dry fly fishing at Last Chance down through the Ranch.
Looking ahead the fishing is totally dependent upon the weather. Right now the 10 day forecast looks very favorable with near normal temperatures. There are also plenty of clouds in the works. I expect great fishing at least until the middle of the month but don’t forget a fleece jacket and a good raincoat.