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.
At the moment we run guided trips on three private ranch lakes on two properties, Burns Lake and Upper and Lower Story Lake. The largest of these lakes is Burns at 25 or so acres. The Story Ranch Lakes are smaller, at 6 or 7 acres and a bit less, respectively. 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 these lakes, rather than applying more generally to private lakes we don’t fish. These properties are located within 45 minutes of Livingston. We are looking at fishing Montana private ranch lakes a bit further afield during the 2021 season to add to our offerings.
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.
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 15 minutes to Lower Story Lake and 25 or so to Upper Story Lake. 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. 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.