Memorial Day: Count on snow

The weather will eventually cooperate
firehole river - fly fishing - yellowstone national park
Casting to risers on the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park (photo: Chad Shmukler).

If you’re like me, you’ve become attached at the hip to the weather app on your phone, particularly when it comes to your fishing.

It’s a love-hate thing, honestly. The 10-day extended forecast, whether I’d like to admit it or not, is usually spot on this time of year. Spring on the fringes of Yellowstone National Park could be aptly renamed “winter, part II.” There’s some suspense, of course, and, as the rivers in the park open to fishing the Saturday before Memorial Day, that day gets a lot of looks on the phone well ahead of the actual date.

I usually start about a month out, and kind of get the “lay of the land” when it comes to May weather. This year, meteorologists have predicted for weeks now what many of us in eastern Idaho come to expect when it comes to Memorial Day weekend.

It’s gonna suck.

Locals in this part of the country often opine on both of our seasons: winter … and the Fourth of July. It’s funny because, well, there’s a bit of truth to it. I’ve been on the Firehole River on or around opening day many times, and only once or twice can I recall a truly gorgeous day on the river at the end of May. Those days usually come later in June and July, when the river gets too warm to fish. Memorial Day weekend in these parts is pretty sketchy, and the folks who live here just assume the weather’s going to be shitty, and they tough it out anyway.

Campers will come out of storage. The motorheads will be ready to mud it up in their ATVs and side-by-sides. Campfires will send woodsmoke wafting through the Targhee National Forest, and the rain and snow will eventually prevail. Folks will make due with card games in the RV and maybe, if the generator can handle it, a movie or two before hitting the rack, only to wake up and do it all again the next day.

Last year, for instance, we spent the weekend sitting in my buddy Dennis’ garage at his cabin up above Ashton, not too far from the Henry’s Fork, bundled up against the cold and watching it rain and spit snow. The drift boat never left the garage, but at least the drinking was good.

This year, as noted, opening day weather in the park, aside from being quite a bit different than usual thanks to closed entrance gates and closed rivers due to the coronavirus outbreak, will be predictably crappy. Highs should be near 40. Lows in the 20s. Snow.

Bring it on, summer. And bring it on soon — two months of being cooped to stay healthy, coupled with typical “spring” weather in eastern Idaho has a lot of us up to our eyeballs in freshly tied flies that need to be put to use.

The weather will eventually cooperate, and the app on my phone will begin to deliver better news in the weeks to come. And, one could argue, fishing the Firehole on a 40-degree day hardly qualifies as a difficult undertaking. Gloves. A little fleece under the waders. Wool socks. A face gaiter. Hell … it’ll look a lot like it did at the end of last October when I stood in the river below Midway Geyser Basin on a snowy 20-degree day and stuck a few nice browns and rainbows before the sand ran out on the season.

It’s a remarkable river, and it can be very angler-friendly. But its fish — mostly foot-long browns and rainbows with a few nice fish thrown in to make things interesting — can, on occasion frustrate even the most seasoned angler. Last fall, I introduced two East Coast anglers to the Firehole, and they haven’t forgiven me yet. Fish were everywhere. But catching them was unbelievably tough.

It’s a river for the shoulders of the fishing season. Because it gets so much thermal inflow from the geysers and hot springs that bubble up from just above the magma chamber below Yellowstone, it tends to fish really well early, and again late. I like to hit the river in May and early June, and then again after that first cold spell in September and all the way through to the end of October when the park closes all fishing within its boundaries. In high summer, many of the Firehole’s trout retreat up tributary streams to find cooler water — in some stretches, the river can approach 80 degrees in July and August, which would be deadly if the trout hung out in the mainstem of the river.

But, when it’s cold outside — say, on a 40-degree day in May, for instance, with a rain-snow mix forecast on that damn app on my phone — water temperatures in the river might be ideal for trout that call the Firehole home. And that’s why, despite the weather, I’ll likely make the trip over Craig Pass come Saturday and practice some self-isolation along a lonely stretch of the river. And it might be especially lonely this year — with only the south and east entrances to the park open to visitors, getting to the Firehole won’t be nearly as easy as it would be otherwise.

That weather app is more accurate than I’d like to admit. Gone are the days when we could jeer the nightly news forecast, and the poor meteorologist who crafted it. Instead, we’ve got the weather in our pockets, good, bad or otherwise.

And, when I’m standing thigh-deep in the river, fighting off the chill, I really can’t blame my phone. I can only blame myself, because … well … I knew the weather was going to be miserable. It’s Memorial Day weekend, after all.

But I bet the fishing is going to be epic.


Snow just above the valley floor in Driggs this morning.