Introduction to Area Private Ranch Lakes
Small Montana private ranch lakes offer large trout in bucolic rural settings, without the crowds of public waters and the difficulty of getting reservations that can make things tough on private spring creeks. They also fish best from April through June and again in late September and October, periods when area rivers can be finicky.
These lakes seldom produce a lot of trout in a day of fishing, but those they produce run large: most are 14 to 18 or even 20 inches. Most are rainbows that are stocked as fingerlings but grow fast in the super-fertile waters in which they find themselves. Some lakes also hold brown, cutthroat, and brook trout. The brookies are typically wild and run just as large as the rainbows, which makes them rank among the largest brook trout in the region.
Fishing Montana private ranch lakes requires paying access fees of $80 to $100 depending on the property. The rates are identical throughout the year. Most fishing on private lakes is guided, not least because the access roads to many lakes require high-clearance 4WD vehicles. Boats are also required for optimal fishing on all lakes. If you have a belly boat or small raft, that will work fine, though all guides use drift boats.
Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing runs guided boat trips on several private lakes. These trips are particularly good choices from April through late June and again in the fall.
If you’re interested in fishing a private lake on your own, let us know and we can provide you with contact information and directions. The lakes we fish do not have websites and signage is limited.
We guide on three properties, the Sitz Ranch, the Burns Ranch, and the Story Ranch. These properties hold a total of seven fishable lakes. The lakes range in size from five or six acres on up to 85 acres, with five of them under fifteen acres. If these sound like farm ponds, you’re right. They were originally created to water the cattle, and it turns out that they grow big fish. All private lakes we fish are based on working cattle ranches, and the good fishing puts a little extra money in the ranchers’ overalls.
The information given here is to help you get a sense of the fishing on the specific lakes, rather than applying more generally to private lakes we don’t fish. Two of the properties discussed here are within 45 minutes of Livingston, while Sitz Ranch is closer to 90 minutes away.
A couple private lakes we used to like have suffered from a combination of mismanagement and fish kills and are not available at the moment, which is a shame because when they were good they were really good.
Fishing Montana Private Ranch Lakes – Tactics
Fishing begins on the private lakes at ice-out sometime in April. For the first month of the season, most fishing is with big hunks of protein: streamers, leeches, big San Juan Worms, and eggs. The fish are trying to bulk up after a long, cold winter. On warm days, the fish will move into shallow water at this time, since the shallows warm faster than the deep water. Often it’s even possible to sight-fish in early spring, which is pretty unusual compared to all other waters in the region except spring creeks.
Sometime in May, the fish typically switch gears to feeding on smaller insects. Chironomids are crucial, as are Callibaetis nymphs. Often it makes sense to fish slender, flashy nymphs in combination with soft hackles or perhaps small leeches. Sometimes the fish can be found shallow at this time, but more commonly they cruise the deeper weed lines unless wind blows food in tight to shore. When the fish are deep, the most effective tactic is kind of boring: fish your nymphs under a bobber, chuck them out, and twitch them once in a while until a fish takes. The fun begins when you hook one. The fish run shallower when hatches occur.
Speaking of hatches, late May is typically when they begin. Dry fly activity is hit-or-miss on the lakes. May and early June see some rising fish on chironomids, but more eat Callibaetis when these mayflies hatch. It’s a good idea to fish a soft hackle or small, flashy beadhead beneath a Callibaetis, as the fish often feed just as heavily or more heavily on emergers or nymphs near the surface than on adult insects on top.
Weed growth intensifies in June. This weed growth gradually starts to make fishing difficult for beginners and novices. Fishing weed edges and holes in weeds is now a good choice. Insect hatches are heaviest at this time. Provided it’s not either too hot and sunny or unseasonably cold and windy, the fish often stay shallow from early in the morning until midafternoon, eating bugs on or near the surface and in the shallows. It often makes sense to park the boat or float tube and walk the banks at this time, sight-fishing for trout cruising shallow. Damselfly hatches sometimes join the Callibaetis at this time, and are what really get the fish excited.
In late June and through July, fishing gradually slows down as the water warms. For the most part, fishing Montana private ranch lakes is not worth it from this point through sometime in September, since area rivers are so good. Late July and August are definitely the doldrums. The fish sit deep in the spring holes that help form the lakes and are lethargic.
Sometime after Labor Day the fishing turns back on. Callibaetis and perhaps hoppers and ants work in September. After the first cold snap, the fishing typically really gets good. Fall is our favorite time for fishing Montana private ranch lakes. Brook trout begin their spawning runs into the creeks that feed some lakes, while all trout put on the feedbags to feed on leeches and baitfish in preparation for the long winter.
Stripping or just slow-trolling streamers along the weed lines is usually the most effective tactic in the fall, and usually turns out the largest numbers of trout of the season. Good fishing continues into late October. It would last longer, but most ranches limit access once hunting season begins so that they can get their bull elk in peace.
Wind can be your nemesis when fishing any lake, but it’s particularly problematic on small ranch lakes because there may not be creek arms, tall trees, or other obstructions to break the wind. When an entire ranch lake is covered in whitecaps, the fishing is going to be tough.
Sitz Ranch Fishing
Sitz Ranch is located between Harrison and Norris, Montana, south of Three Forks and west of the Madison River. This is an enormous ranch, and drive time from Livingston ranges from about an hour and ten minutes to close to ninety minutes, depending on which lake(s) we’re visiting. All trips to Sitz must begin at the ranch office where guests are required to sign in. There are four fishable lakes on the property, ranging from 80-acre Sitz Lake on which a large power boat wouldn’t be out of place down to Lower Malby’s Pond, which is only five acres and often fishes well from the shore. All four lakes on the property may be fished with one access fee ($90/person in 2022), which makes for a wide range of fishing opportunities depending on guest skills and interests.
The Sitz Ranch lakes probably offer the best combination of lower crowds, a range of fishing opportunities, and good fishing overall out of any of the properties on which we operate. The Sitz Ranch roads are also generally much better than most ranch roads, making these lakes a much better bet for unguided fishing provided you have at least a float tube and (for Sitz Lake) preferably a drift or row boat.
Sitz Lake is about 80 acres in size and consists of a large basin to the east with a couple small creek arms to the south and west, in the shadow of the Tobacco Root Mountains to the west. The lake is a reservoir on Norwegian Creek and has some flow year-round coming in from this creek to the west and Canadian creek to the south. Unlike most private lakes, this one is exceptionally deep, so much so that it’s impossible to anchor in many places even within casting distance of the shore. In general, the deepest part of the lake is near the dam and the shallowest parts are in the creek arms. Because of its size and depth, a boat of some kind is basically a necessity here.
While the ranch owners state that this lake holds a mixed bag of trout, we’ve never seen anything but rainbows here.
Due to its large size and position in a wind corridor, Sitz Lake can get absolute crushed by winds. Three-foot waves are possible. For this reason, it’s important to keep an eye on the wind forecast when planning a trip. In general, winds are down in the mornings and up in the afternoons. As such, this lake fishes best in the morning.
Two basic tactics typically work well during the core May-June season. First, anchoring and slowly retrieving or slow-trolling leeches near the dam typically produces lots of midsize rainbows in the 12-16″ class that are hot for their size, but seldom large. The second option is to move slowly in the shallow creek arms, sight-fishing for cruising trout. This latter option will typically produce fewer but larger trout.
Rising trout are fairly common here, but the large size and depth of the lake makes it hard to localize these fish. It always seems like they’re rising just out of casting range. This being the case, we usually stick to subsurface fishing here, and head down to the Maltby’s Ponds when we’re hoping for dry fly action. Since these ponds are smaller and more out of the wind, hitting Sitz Lake first thing in the morning, then heading down to the ponds, makes a good one-two punch.
Malby’s Twin Ponds
The twin ponds in the south-central part of Sitz Ranch are large enough to fish from a watercraft but also offer good shore fishing for strong casters. These lakes are separated only by a dike and ranch road, dividing them into something of a figure-eight shape. The upper pond is about 15 acres, the lower five acres. The upper pond is exposed to the wind and can become unfishable, just like Sitz Lake, but the lower lake is narrow enough and low enough that it usually remains fishable even when the wind is strong. Both lakes are generally shallow and weedy, though the lower lake has a sharper dropoff along its dam (east) side and the along the steep and rocky northeast shore.
Both ponds hold rainbow and brown trout averaging 16-20 inches and reaching 24 inches, though they hold smaller populations of fish relative to their size than Sitz Lake. In April and May, leeches are good choices in these lakes, though these need not always be fished deep. Since the east end of the upper lake and the entire lower lake have shorelines suitable for walk-fishing, it can be effective to slowly cover these banks looking for cruising trout even early in the season.
By mid-May, smaller nymphs like unweighted Princes begin to work, often in conjunction with a leech. Again, either fishing deep under indicators or sight-fishing can be effective. Both lakes feature abrupt dropoffs from weed lines at mid-lake, so running your flies along these dropoffs either for spotted fish or fishing blind works well.
By early June at the latest, Callibaetis and damselfly hatches begin in earnest. The abrupt changes in depth and weedlines mentioned above make for excellent dry fly fishing opportunities during these hatches. Fish a damsel with a Callibaetis dropper if the fish are rising hard, or run a small, flashy nymph behind either the damsel or mayfly dry if they are rising only occasionally. Targeting spotted trout is definitely the best method for either tactic, not least because the weeds will eat flies fished blind.
One problem with these lakes is wind-associated warming on hot days in mid-late June. Basically, if it’s exceptionally hot and windy out, these lakes are small and shallow enough for hot air to mix down into deeper water. This usually shuts off the surface bite abruptly and makes even dredging the deepest holes slower than we’d like.
This pond is located at the southern end of the ranch, in sight of both busy US Route 287 and the town of Norris. It’s about 15 acres. While there are reports of large brown trout in this lake, its location makes it less attractive as a fishery. Who wants to pay $90 a head to fish in sight of the highway and more or less in town? We’d be lying if we had detailed suggestions on fishing it, because we’ve never bothered. That said, this pond is lozenge-shaped with its dam at the south side, and looks to resemble the Twin Ponds in terms of depth and vegetation.
Burns Lake Fishing
Burns Lake is located north of Big Timber, Montana, east of Livingston. This 25-acre lake is located in a shallow, wide-open bowl between the Crazy Mountains and the Yellowstone River. It primarily holds rainbow trout, though there are some brook trout and once in a while a few cutthroat or browns. The rod fee here is $100 per day, and a maximum of six anglers are allowed.
Burns is without question the best dry fly lake in our area of operations, and this includes the lakes on which we don’t guide. Callibaetis hatches are heavy in May and June, and damselfly hatches are heavy from mid-June through July. The lake’s structure is also conducive to good dry fly fishing. Much of the east, south, and west shores of the lake are shallow and relatively weed-free. It often makes sense to poke along in the drift boat, sight-casting to risers.
Unlike other lakes, hopper fishing can be good on Burns. The immense meadows surrounding the lake as well as the common strong winds explain why: a lot of hoppers blow into the lake, and they make easy meals. I’ve seen some hopper fishing in late May, and it can be quite good in early fall while the hoppers are hopping.
The lake also fishes well subsurface. May through July is chironomid season here, but it seems like Burns fish like leeches through a greater part of the season than most private lake trout. Because there are a lot of big crayfish in the lake, the Pigpen Leech is a great choice here, since it does double duty.
Burns typically fishes better in July and early September than other lakes. There are three springs in Burns which help keep the water a bit cooler, which is a part of the equation, but Burns is also less weedy than most lakes, which makes for a lot less frustration before the weeds die back in late fall. Hooking a fish is all well and good, but it stinks when they dive into the weeds and break you off, as often happens elsewhere. This is uncommon on Burns.
Wind is your nemesis on Burns. This is a big lake without any real protection from wind, and the Yellowstone Valley from Livingston to Big Timber is in a wind corridor. I’ve seen wind so heavy on Burns that it was impossible to launch the drift boat from the “ramp” near the lake’s northeast corner. When the wind’s blowing hard, the only way to fish Burns is to pull into a lee shore and either get out to wade fish or to anchor right against the bank and cast towards the middle. Often the only wind-free areas are the size of a backyard swimming pool – not exactly exciting to fish, even if it can be productive. The property owners here allow last-minute cancellations on windy days, but they require cancellations to be made up during the same calendar year. That works out fine for guides, not so much for visitors who won’t be back until next year.
Story Ranch Lakes Fishing
The Story Ranch Lakes are located on Story Ranch (surprise, surprise) near Emigrant, Montana. This ranch is only about a 25-minute drive from Livingston, but poor-quality ranch roads mean it’s another 20 minutes to either of the two lakes on the property. You DO NOT want to drive on these roads when heavy rain is or has recently occurred. The roads are narrow, rutted, made entirely of clay, and often hang precariously over gullies and swales.
So long as the roads are okay, Story is a good value. Either lake is $80 per day, and wind is much less a problem on this property compared to Burns or Sitz. Both lakes hold more rainbow trout than anything else, but there are good numbers of large brook trout which we mostly encounter in the fall, a few big browns, and sometimes a cutthroat or two. The brook trout all come from tributary creeks that feed the lakes. Actually these are probably irrigation ditches drawn from a creek on the ranch, but the fish come down the ditches and find themselves in much friendlier environs and grow to two or three times the size of their brethren in the creeks. This is definitely the best place in our operations area to pursue large brook trout, at least without aggressive hikes.
Upper Story Lake
Most years the Upper Lake is the better lake. Four anglers are allowed, which in our opinion is two too many. We’d be eager to pay $100 per angler here if it meant only two anglers could fish it. This lake is shaped like a hand with two fingers and a long thumb. The boat launch is in the “thumb” but the better fishing is usually in the shallower “palm” and “fingers.” A small creek enters from the southernmost “finger,” and small springs are present along a steep cut on the west side of the lake.
Most fishing on Upper Story is subsurface, though the fish often cruise shallow weed lines, so it’s not uncommon for us to fish dry-dropper combinations just to avoid spooking the fish with the splash of a strike indicator or a heavy nymph or streamer. Small flies typically work better here than large ones, except for early and late in the year when leeches are the keys. We like little flashy beadhead nymphs and soft hackles when the trout are on small stuff here.
Dry fly fishing is most common in June and September. In both cases, Callibaetis are the tickets. The trout do seem particularly spooky towards dries, so expect lots of refusals.
Upper Story Lake is definitely the best wade-fishing lake in our operations area. “Wading” is the wrong way of putting it. This is a weedy, mucky lake that makes you feel like you’re going to sink in and disappear or at least slowly rot if you actually wade it. Instead, we walk the banks looking for cruisers. About half the lake is conducive to this technique. It can be effective any time of year here, though it’s probably most fun in early October when the brook trout gather in front of the small inlet creek in preparation for spawning.
Lower Story Lake
Lower Story Lake is smaller and less visually interesting than Upper Story Lake. It’s also typically less productive and seems to hold smaller trout than its neighbor, though the photo below should make clear there are some big exceptions. This lozenge-shaped lake has one key advantage: it sits down in a bit of a bowl and is almost surrounded by trees, which means it almost never suffers from wind. Only two anglers are permitted on this lake due to its small size.
Virtually all fishing on the lower lake is subsurface. Small leeches and streamers work well here, as do fuzzy and flashy nymphs like unweighted Princes. While it sometimes makes sense to walk the rocky and open bank near the boat launch, the rest of the lake is impossible to fish from shore. The banks drop off quickly here except at the lake’s southwest end past the small inlet stream, so the best tactic is often to work slowly around the lake, casting right to the banks with streamer-nymph combinations and stripping them away from the shore.
Because the Lower Lake is usually less interesting than the Upper, it usually makes sense to spend the whole day here only when wind makes the upper lake less friendly. I also like this lake better with kids, because it’s possible to troll slowly with oars here and put even poor casters on fish. Otherwise, we usually hit the upper lake in the morning, then come down to the lower for a couple hours if no other anglers have it booked for the day.