Introduction to Montana’s Public Lakes
Montana’s public lakes are a little-utilized fishing resource by most fly anglers. This includes locals as well as out-of-staters. In our quest to get on uncrowded water, especially water that fishes well in May and June when many local rivers are blown out with spring runoff, we here at Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing are planning to place much stronger emphasis on lake fishing in upcoming years. We suggest you do the same.
Montana’s lakes offer a huge range of fish species and experiences, from finger-length bluegill in sight of the Bozeman mall on up to enormous trout and even muskies. For the moment our guiding focuses on area reservoirs that hold trout. These reservoirs are at their best from April through June when nearby river opportunities are limited. Fertile and warm, these reservoirs can grow very large trout. Some of these fish are wild, some are stocked. It all depends on the spawning habitat available to the trout in each lake.
This page is a little thin for the moment. Look for it to expand during and after the 2021 fishing season.
Montana’s Public Trout Lakes: Three Divisions
While Montana has some excellent bass, pike, and panfish lakes, those that produce trophy bass and pike that might interest visiting anglers are all outside our operations area and our expertise (for the moment… look for new options in 2022). Therefore, all lakes we discuss here hold trout. A few also hold walleye and perch, which are largely incidental catches for us. Montana trout lakes can be divided into three broad categories.
- Large low-elevation reservoirs (those under about 6000 feet elevation)
- Large high-elevation reservoirs (those over about 6000 feet elevation)
- Mountain lakes and ponds, most of them small and most of them at 7000 feet or higher
All lakes on which we guide are large, low-elevation reservoirs, large meaning several hundred acres on up to a couple thousand acres. Montana has larger reservoirs in our operations area, like mighty Canyon Ferry Reservoir, but it is too large for even Walter’s powerful jet boat to handle. Instead we focus our guided trips on lakes that don’t see five-foot waves and traffic from 24-foot ski and Deep-V fishing boats.
Montana’s high elevation reservoirs are arguably more well-known as trout fisheries than those at low elevations, but they’re almost all 2.5+ hours away from our home base in Livingston and thus out of our operations area. Hebgen and Quake Lakes, Cliff and Wade Lake, Clark Canyon Reservoir, and others even further away all fall into this category. Hyalite Reservoir south of Bozeman is the only reservoir in our operations area at high elevation that’s road-accessible. It’s also a popular playground for Bozeman residents and located in the Gallatin National Forest, so it’s both crowded and impossible for us to guide on.
There are many small high-elevation lakes and ponds that are nominally within our operations area, but all are hike-in fisheries in the Absaroka-Beartooth, Gallatin, and Madison Mountain ranges (most are in National Forest). As such, the time needed to reach them – in some cases a couple days of hiking – puts them beyond the scope of our small business and smaller website. Two good books provide FAR more infomation about these sorts of fisheries than we can. We suggest Fishing the Beartooths if you’re interested in a backpacking fishing trip to the many lakes in the remote Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and Flyfisher’s Guide to Southwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes for a more general guide.
On to information on area reservoirs…
Reservoirs Near Livingston
The following reservoirs hold trout (and in some cases other species), offer public fish and game access, and are within roughly two hours of Livingston, Montana. All offer at least some bank fishing access as well as boat access. They are listed in approximate distance from Livingston. Unless noted, we offer jet boat trips on all of them.
Dailey Lake: Located about ten miles southeast of Emigrant on a good gravel road, this 205-acre lake over the first hill east of the Yellowstone River holds perch, rainbow trout, and walleye. The trout fishing is best from April through June, while the perch and walleye are better later in spring and early summer and especially under the ice. Some of the trout can get very big here. We know of fish in the 8lb class that have come out of here. Most of these get caught in the shallow, rocky coves along the north shore shortly after iceout when these stocked rainbows attempt to spawn in these windswept, rocky areas. Site-fishing from shore is best when targeting these big boys. In May and June, troll leeches and nymphs from a belly boat or get out along the weedbeds with a boat equipped with an electric motor and look for fish rising to midges and Callibaetis. Most of these will be smaller trout that were recently stocked. The perch will eat leeches and jig-type small streamers along weed beds and dropoffs.
Hyalite Reservoir: This popular 206-acre reservoir south of Bozeman holds Yellowstone cutthroat and grayling. While it sees heavy recreational traffic from local boaters, there’s a no-wake rule in effect which helps keep the waves manageable and makes the lake seem less busy than it is. The best fishing here is in early summer when hatches of chironomids and Callibaetis can produce some good trout. Note that the road through Hyalite Canyon downstream is closed seasonally during late winter and early spring due to the potential for ice falls from the surrounding cliffs. This one is in the National Forest, so we are unable to offer guide trips on it.
Willow Creek Reservoir: Also known as Harrison Reservoir, this 715-acre reservoir is located on Willow Creek, a tributary of the Jefferson River south of Three Forks. It has excellent populations of rainbow and brown trout, some of which are wild and some stocked. Occasionally westslope cutthroat and kokanee salmon can also be found here. There are several inlet streams, and the creek arms provide the best fly fishing. Boats are extremely helpful here, and given the size of the lake a gas motor is better than an electric one. Fish streamers and leeches in spring and fall in the inlet areas, and also look for damselfy, Callibaetis and chironomid hatches. While it’s large enough and deep enough to stay cool enough to fish in midsummer, heavy recreational boat traffic makes it unappealing at this time.
Canyon Ferry Reservoir: This 33,500-acre reservoir on the Missouri River is impounded near Helena, Montana and stretches southeast about 30 miles, with its head near Townsend, Montana about 90 minutes from Livingston. This is a renowned walleye and perch fishery that also holds very large rainbow and brown trout, plus carp the size of oil drums. Unfortunately, it’s a long, wide lake without any creek arms or other obstructions to block the wind, so it gets exceptionally rough. As such, large V-hull boats are necessary to travel on it and be safe. Bankbound anglers can do well for both perch and walleye near the numerous fishing accesses and docks along the lake’s western shore and near the dam. We do not guide here because of the rough water.
Martinsdale Reservoir: This 950-acre reservoir located midway between White Sulphur Springs and Harlowton, Montana holds rainbow and brown trout as well as a variety of baitfish. From April through June, concentrate on the shallow weedbeds with leeches and damselfly nymphs. You may see fishing rising to Callibaetis or midges. The deeper water can fish in the summer, but this is mostly a spin-fishing game. Because the lake holds browns as well as rainbows, you can find some big browns nosing into the inlet area in the fall. Target them with streamers. You pretty much need at least a canoe on this lake. A boat with both electric and gas motors is better.
Newlan Creek Reservoir: This 265-acre reservoir is 12 miles north of White Sulphur Springs. It holds rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, and ling (burbot), a deepwater fish in the cod family that supposedly tastes like lobster. Heavy irrigation drawdowns in late summer as well as heavy recreational pressure mean spring is the best time to fish here, though early fall near the inlet is the time to try for kokanee. The trout here tend to prefer subsurface flies: chironomid pupae, streamers, and leeches are best.
Lake Sutherlin: This lake is located northeast of White Sulphur Springs and is 375 acres in size. Irregular in shape, with inlets from both 8 Mile Creek and the North Fork of the Smith River, this one can be fished somewhat effectively from shore and very effectively from a drift boat or other rowboat. Target the inlet areas in spring and early summer, when the rainbows might be running, as well as in the fall when brookies might be running. Fish the old river and creek channels with leeches and chironomid pupae. Heavy irrigation drawdowns make this lake unattractive in high summer.
Bair Reservoir: Bair is located 20 miles east of White Sulphur Springs near the head of the North Fork of the Mussellshell River. This 221-acre reservoir sees moderate traffic from spin-fishers but very little from fly fishers. A small boat with a putt-putt outboard or electric motor will get you away from the south shore where most of the shore fishers congregate. The inlet area is a good choice in April and May, where holdover stocked fish and a few wild ones will congregate before and after spawning in the North Fork. Leeches and streamers are good bets here. Because it’s close to both Lake Sutherlin and the upper Mussellshell, it’s possible to combine fishing this reservoir and elsewhere to make a full day of fishing, with the reservoir in the morning and the upper Mussellshell in the afternoon a good bet. There are brook trout, rainbows, and westslope cutthroats here. The rainbows are the only ones that are planted.
Ennis Lake: This 4,800 impoundment of the Madison River is located north of Ennis, Montana. Essentially a large, shallow dish, the average depth of this lake is only about eight feet. For this reason, it gets very warm in mid-late summer and holds fewer fish than the other lakes on the Madison beyond the scope of this guide (Hebgen and Quake). The Madison itself enters in many channels at the south side of the lake. Since the Madison always runs cold, the best fishing is generally near the river’s many mouths. Good Callibaetis, Trico, and chironomid hatches are possible in the summer. Because of the cold influx from the river, virtually all of the lake’s fish gather towards its south end to avoid thermal stress in late summer, and in preparation for spawning. Both rainbow and brown trout live here.
Deadman’s Basin Reservoir: This is a 1950-acre reservoir located just off the Mussellshell River 20 miles east of Harlowton. This one is getting pretty far from Livingston, but it’s notable for holding tiger muskies (northern pike x muskellunge hybrids) and kokanee salmon in addition to rainbow and brown trout that can reach several pounds. As the largest lake in south-central Montana, this one receives heavy pressure both from gear/bait anglers and from water skiers and the like. It’s also drawn down heavily for irrigation in the summer. As such, spring and to a lesser extent fall fishing is best. The tiger muskies are the big draw here. Target them in late April and May with 8-9 weight rods and large streamer patterns fished on wire or 50lb fluorocarbon tippets. Many area guides like fishing here in the spring, hoping for one big tiger, a fish that can’t be found anywhere else within day-trip range. A power boat is basically a requirement here, and when the wind gets up even V-hull boats might have trouble on the windward side of the lake. We do not guide here given the distance from Livingston.