On August 31, 2008, Hebgen dam suffered a catastrophic failure, resulting in an uncontrolled release of water to the Madison River and precipitating a rehabilitation project that has stretched on now for over seven years. It’s a well-chronicled story, the gist of which is that since the dam break, the river’s flows have come from the surface of Hebgen Lake, as opposed to 40 feet below. That’s resulted in much above normal water temperatures during the summer months. This surface-flow regime was supposed to end last year. But late last fall Northwestern Energy released a dam update containing disturbing news.
Turns out that 2015 actually won’t be the last year that river flows come from the top of Hebgen reservoir. After a one year hiatus in 2016, when water will flow from its historic depth, a project to reline the dam’s outlet pipe in 2017 will once again call for water to be diverted over the top of the dam. The press release suggested that this relining will require around four months of work, and will take place during the summer. Despite Northwestern’s claims that this was not new information, it was certainly the first time that I had heard of it. Same for many others who have followed this issue closely. (On April 6, 2016, a Northwestern Energy representative told me that they were still calculating the amount of work necessary to reline the outlet and the schedule it will require. Public meetings will be held this spring regarding this issue.)
So the Madison has now endured seven summers of warmer-than-normal water flows, with another in the cards for 2017. What have been and what will be the consequences of this? Answering this question requires consideration of significant changes that have been taking place on the Madison since long before Hebgen dam failed. For instance, as far back as the early to mid-1980s, excessive streamside grazing between Raynold’s Pass bridge and the Big Bend increased erosion and greatly reduced bankside trout habitat in that stretch. Massive erosion of the Quake Lake outlet in spring 1989, resulting from poorly calculated dam releases, dramatically (and so far permanently) reduced trout habitat from above Slide Inn to Raynold’s Pass bridge. Whirling disease, with its attendant decline and rebound of the rainbow trout population, has been affecting the river for at least several decades. Warming water, seemingly a consequence of warming weather, appears to be playing a role in altering the aquatic insect community. Populations of Pale Morning Dun and Flav mayflies, plus several important species of Hydropsyche caddis, have been declining since before the dam break. Conversely, we’ve seen a burgeoning upriver population of Epeorus albertae (a mayfly species that prefers warmer water temperatures).
In light of these and other changes, attributing specific effects to the dam failure and its interminable rehabilitation probably isn’t possible. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been any, even if they can’t be isolated right now. After all, trout-related ecosystems thrive on cold water. And what we do know for certain is that the dam failure has meant more warmer water in the river. This clearly has had negative effects on the fishing during the heat of recent summers. Hot days shorten the windows of fish and insect activity. Fish are not as apt to rise, affecting the river’s famed dry fly fishing. Larger trout feed and fight more lethargically, and endure more stress. Anglers concentrate in the cooler water of the upper river, making the experience more crowded for all and less aesthetically pleasing for many. And the longterm effects of increased angling pressure on upriver trout populations are simply unknown.
That it has taken so long to repair the dam has given both PPL Montana (the dam owner until 2014) and Northwestern Energy (current owner) a sordid reputation among the fishing and river communities. Lacking engineering knowledge, I’ll leave it to others to debate how much actual foot-dragging has taken place, but I can say with certainty that neither company has done themselves any favors with their consistently substandard communications to the public, and the meager regard they’ve displayed time and again for this world-class and world-renowned fishery.
Can the Madison dodge yet another summer of warm water flows? It’s proven a resilient river so far, and I’d like to think it can. But it’s dodged plenty of bullets already over the past seven years, and it seems unfair to ask it to skirt even more. Demanding that Northwestern Energy complete its relining project at a time of year less disruptive than mid-summer is the least we can do for the river. The Madison needs and deserves that show of respect.
Let’s hope the folks in charge come to think the same.
Photo couresty of John Juracek
The Zebra Shop Vac combines attributes of several of our most productive Madison flies: the original Shop Vac and the Zebra Midge. Midges abound in the Madison and other local rivers, and are a constant food source for trout every single day of the year. This serendipity-style fly can be counted on to produce fish consistently during any season, and is a staple in many of our guides' fly boxes all year long. On top of that, it is simple and quick to tie, and uses inexpensive materials. We typically tie it with a brass bead, but if you find yourself fishing in heavier currents, don't be afraid to tie a few with tungsten beads to make sure they get down. We most commonly fish them in size 14 and 16, but they are equally effective in smaller sizes to match smaller insects. Be sure to give one a try on your next fishing adventure!
Hook: Dai-Riki 075 Size 14-16
Bead: Nickel Brite Beads (3/32" for size 14, or 5/64" for size 16)
Rib: Silver Small Ultra Wire
Wing: White Straight Zelon
Step 1: Place bead on hook and then start thread behind the bead. Wrap back the hook shank unitl just slightly down the bend of the hook.
Step 2: Tie in a short piece of silver wire at the bend for the rib, and then wrap thread forward evenly back to the bead, forming a slim thread body.
Step 3: Evenly wrap the wire forward to form the rib, about five to six wraps. Tie off and trim excess wire.
Step 4: Tie in two strands of white zelon just behind the bead. Clip the butts as short as possible right behind the bead and wrap down tightly.
Step 5: Trim the zelon wing so it extends about one third the length of the hook shank. Whip-finish and trim thread.
It's always exciting when spring rolls around again, and the first mayflies of the year begin to hatch. This pretty rainbow rose to a Baetis Cripple during one of the first emergences of the season in early April.
Photo courtesy of John Juracek
The Mother's Day Caddis hatch here in Yellowstone country can be a sight to behold, and can provide some of the best fishing of the year. The hatch is highly unpredictable, since it occurs in late April and early May, when run-off is just beginning. Some years the hatch never materializes on some rivers, as the bugs trickle off during prolonged high water, and even when conditions are right, huge numbers of insects can come and go in a day or two, as the warm weather that these bugs prefer to hatch in will often quickly bring snowmelt, shutting the activity down. Anglers who find themselves on the water when conditions are right, however, can encounter some of the best dry-fly fishing of the year. Our classic X Caddis is still one of the most effective patterns out there for mimicing emerging caddis, and this pattern tied with an olive body in size 14 is a dead ringer for the Mother's Day hatch. Be sure to have a few with you any time you find yourself fishing Yellowstone country waters in the spring, because you never know when you might encounter this hatch!
Thread: Olive Dun 8/0 Uni-Thread
Shuck: Caddis Shuck Crinkled Zelon
Wing: Natural X Caddis Deer Hair
Step 1: Start thread behind the eye and wrap back the shank until even with the hook barb.
Step 2: Tie in a strand of zelon for the shuck. Wrap down the butts, and trim the shuck to about three quarters of the length of the hook shank.
Step 3: Dub a tapered body from the shuck tie-in point forward to just behind the eye.
Step 4: Stack a clump of deer hair and tie in the wing, so that the tips are even with the hook bend. Clip the butts to about 1/8" in length to form the head of the fly.
Step 5: Whip-finish and trim thread.
Photo courtesy of John Juracek
Spring is slowly arriving here in Yellowstone country, and with it comes the first mayfly hatches of the year. We've already seen a few Baetis, and the trout have certainly noticed. The first big mayfly of the year, the March Brown, will also arrive soon on waters all over the area, typically showing up in mid-late April. While these big flies rarely appear in large numbers, trout relish these insects, and it typically takes only a few bugs on the water to get the fish interested. The trout are often a little easier to fool this time of year, since they haven't been fished as hard over the winter, and the fishing can be truly memorable when these fish start looking for these big bugs. A sparkle dun is usually the only fly you'll need, and it is our go-to pattern to match nearly any mayfly hatch. This hatch can be a bit unpredictable, since it occurs at roughly the same time of year that runoff tends to begin, but if you happen to find yourself in the right place at the right time, you won't soon forget the experience. So the next time you find yourself in Yellowstone country in the spring, be sure to have a few of these in your box!
Thread: Rusty Dun 8/0 Uni-Thread
Shuck: Mayfly Brown Crinkled Zelon
Dubbing: March Brown Zelon Dubbing
Wing: Natural Sparkle Dun Deer Hair
Step 1: Start thread behind the eye and wrap back about one third of the way down the shank.
Step 2: Tie in a clump of Sparkle Dun Deer Hair for the wing. Clip the butts and wrap down securely, then stand the wing up and build a thread dam in front of the wing to keep it standing upright.
Step 3: Move the thread back to just behind the wing. Tie in a strand of zelon so that one end extends up the back of the wing, the same length as the wing. Wrap down the hook shank over the zelon towards the bend, and then clip the zelon about half the length of the hook shank to for the shuck.
Step 4: Dub a body of March Brown Zelon dubbing all the way up the hook shank to the eye, and whip-finish.