Lots of spin-fishers, but few fly fishers, and fewer tourists...
Montana lakes and reservoirs within about 90 minutes of Livingston offer solid fishing during the spring runoff (and in some cases during the fall) for trout that can sometimes get very large, all without the competition of rivers and streams. While generally poor choices for total beginners, due to a need for long-distance casting, they’re good choices for almost anyone else here during the spring melt, especially those who don’t want to join the masses on the Firehole River.
Lakes in Yellowstone Park are discussed separately. In addition there’s a whole category of lakes we aren’t even going to touch on here, the innumerable high-alpine lakes in Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and other mountain ranges in the region. Why aren’t we talking about these lakes? Because they all require substantial hikes to access (often multi-day backpacking trips), and because there are so many of them that there’s no way we can do them justice on our little website. Instead we suggest the following books:
- Fishing the Beartooths: While getting a bit long in the tooth, this book is the Bible for fishing the numerous lakes in the “A-B” Wilderness.
- Flyfisher’s Guide to Southwest Montana’s Mountain Lakes: This is a more general guide to fishing the area’s high mountain lakes.
These PDF guides put out by Montana FWP are also helpful: Mountain Lakes Guide: Absaroka-Beartooth & Crazy Mountains, and MONTANA FISH WILDLIFE AND PARKS MADISON/GALLATIN DRAINAGES MOUNTAIN LAKE FISHERIES.
So what are we covering on this page? Basically, about fly fishing Montana lakes and reservoirs, both public and private, within about 90 minutes of Livingston that it is possible to drive to. In other words, places within easy day-trip range of Livingston that don’t require a long hike or an overnight backpacking trip.
There are three categories of such lakes:
- Private ranch ponds accessible for a daily fee
- Public lakes and reservoirs that hold trout as a primary target species
- Public lakes and reservoirs that hold mostly or exclusively warmwater fish
The following hatch and fly charts cover all lakes, including those at fairly high elevations. Bear in mind that almost all lakes near us fish best from sometime in April through sometime in June, then again in the fall.
On most lakes, subsurface flies suggestive of chironomid larvae/pupae, leeches, and other protein-rich subsurface foods are better than dry flies:
Private Ranch Ponds
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 when non-guided fishing is permitted (it is not on some lakes). Most lakes we fish do not have websites and signage is limited.
We guide on four properties, the Sitz Ranch, the Burns Ranch, Merrell Lake adjacent to Hubbard’s Lodge, and the Story Ranch. These properties hold a total of eight 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 or historic cattle ranches.
Three of the properties discussed here are within 45 minutes of Livingston, while Sitz Ranch is closer to 90 minutes away.
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 they do 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, fishing gradually slows down as the water warms. For the most part, fishing Montana private ranch lakes is not worth it from sometime between June 20 and July 10 (depending on the weather and the lake) 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. Early October 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 2024), 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.
Non-guided fishing is available on Sitz Ranch, and unique among private lakes, this fishing may be booked online at the Sitz Ranch Website.
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.
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 truly 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 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 patrol the 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 sighted 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.
Bausch 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 $120 per day (effective 2023, unchanged for 2024), and a maximum of six anglers are allowed.
As of 2023, non-guided fishing is now not permitted on Burns Lake. Apparently some non-guided customers got lost and trapped on muddy access roads on the ranch at some point in 2022, so the ranch owners now want to be sure visitors know what they’re doing.
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.
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 underway or has recently occurred. The roads are narrow, rutted, made entirely of clay, and often hang precariously over gullies and swales. A high-clearance 4WD vehicle is required even when the roads are dry, and my truck cannot safely make the trip when they’re wet.
So long as the roads are okay, Story is a good value. Either lake is $80 per day per angler, 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 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 one of the better wade-fishing lakes 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 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.
Merrell Lake Fishing
Merrell Lake is an 85-acre lake located on the Hubbard’s Lodge property. Outside anglers and guides may use the lake for daily fees of $100 outside of the core mid-June through mid-September season, when it’s reserved for lodge guests.
Most of Merrell’s eastern and southern shores feature steep, wooded banks and a rocky bottom, while much of the western and northern shores have flatter banks covered in cattails. There are only one or or two places on the lake where bank fishing is possible due to the trees and steep rocky banks in many spots and the sucking mud in others, so this is the one lake where we do virtually all of our fishing from the boat. Since much of the structure is composed of offshore weedlines and spring holes, sometimes almost in the middle of the lake, we’re not missing out on much by not being able to fish from shore.
The lake is exceptionally rich, resulting in heavy aquatic plant growth beginning in mid-late June and green-stained water that allows anglers to use heavy tippets, which is important since the fish love to drag you into the weeds or under the abundant woody cover present in a large portion of the lake. Except for the lake’s western shore, most of the Merrell is exceptionally deep, and the shoreline drops into deep water quite quickly.
Merrell Lake goes through boom and bust cycles. It is either fantastic or almost fishless. The problem lies in the lake’s abundant weed and algae growth. If fall weather cools down too abruptly, all of this plant growth dies and decays at once, sucking up all the lake’s oxygen and killing the trout. This occurred in 2012 and 2017–2019. As of 2023, the lake owners have installed heavy-duty aerators to alleviate the problem. In 2023, the lake fished very well in May and so-so in limited use (by us anyway) in early June. The average fish size was great, over 18 inches, and on our first “check run” in May we had six trout in the 20–22″ class and about 20 overall in only three hours on the water.
Since Merrell is so rich, it’s often the color of pea soup. This makes larger flies more effective here than on other lakes. In 2016, our top flies during the spring were assorted San Juan Worms, while in the fall we did best on various medium-sized leeches. Chironomid pupae, small peacock-bodied wet flies, and small flashy beadheads are also regular favorites. In June, we can do well on damselfly nymphs. Dry fly fishing here is limited, since the lake tends to be rough and the poor clarity limits the numbers of rising fish, but perhaps two days a season we’ll get several fish on dry chironomids, Callibaetis mayflies, or dry damselflies.
Merrell is a good fishery for outside guides and anglers from mid-April through mid-June and again in the first half of October. The best fishing is in late May, early June, and October. Rod fees run $100 per angler.
Note that boats are pretty much required here if you intend to fish on your own. The lodge may allow you to use their boats for an additional fee.
Public Lakes & Reservoirs Near Livingston
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.
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 power boat trips on all of them.
Note that the most famous public reservoirs in Montana for fly fishing are all out of range of us. These lakes are Hebgen and Quake Lakes near West Yellowstone. At 3+ hours from Livingston, we’d be lying if we offered our thoughts on fishing these lakes. You’re better off talking to one of the shops in West Yellowstone.
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 early 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.
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 safely. We’re talking big-water Lunds and the like. 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.
Our guiding here is limited to the large marsh at the lake’s south end, which is a bit protected from the wind and holds lots of sight-fishable carp.
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 and carp. We guide on it both in spring (for trout) and in late summer (for carp).
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 produce trout 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.
To target the carp, fish the shallow inlet areas towards the west side of the lake, using hoppers or slow-sinking nymphs. This can sometimes be done on foot from the adjacent campground, but a boat you can stand up in is more helpful.
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.
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 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.
This 4,800-acre 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 early 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. While the trout can reach 4lbs, the tiger muskies are the big draw here. Target them in late April and May with 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.
Warmwater Ponds Near Livingston
While few anglers come to Montana to fish for bluegill and largemouth bass (a few more come for the carp), there is surprisingly good fishing for these species in a few small ponds nearby. These ares are mostly fished for an hour or two before or after work/school by locals, but they can be good diversions for tourists who find themselves nearby and for “basic training” half-day trips for kids.
Standard bass and bluegill tactics work on these lakes. I like fishing small yellow, chartreuse, or black Woolly Buggers with a soft hackle dropper and just seeing what eats. I’ve caught everything from bluegill to 8lb carp on this rig.
The fishing on all of these ponds is best from mid-May until early July, when they’re warm enough to get the fish active but not so warm/weedy that the fish are hard to find.
This pond is adjacent to the Bozeman Mall. It holds mostly bluegill and largemouth bass. Some of the bluegill can get surprisingly large here, but fishing pressure is heavy.
Trout Meadows Pond
Despite the name, this pond behind the Bozeman Costco now seems to hold only bluegill and largemouth bass. My wife used to live in the namesake apartment building nearby. Bluegill are the main draw in this lake.
Three Forks Ponds
These three public ponds adjacent to the town of Three Forks are definitely the best warmwater ponds in the area, and are the only ones with an attached state fishing access site. I have tried to run some guided trips here with kids, and these ponds would be great for getting kids hooked on fly fishing, but these plans have always been quashed by trout-obsessed parents.
The eastern and center ponds are the better fisheries. The western pond is quite silty and mostly holds carp that are difficult to spot due to the mud.
The eastern pond is smaller and shallow, so it may be fished from shore, though the eastern shoreline is brushy. That makes a small boat helpful just to get away from other shore-fishers. There are some 14-inch bass here, but the bluegill tend to mostly run very small. This lake is shallow and weedy, but pretty clear, so the big carp are also easy enough to target, though in my experience they are spooky and tough to catch.
The central pond is the largest. While it can be fished from shore on its eastern side and from a series of fishing/swimming docks on the western side, a boat is helpful. Electric motors only are allowed, but I’ve seen people launch full-sized power boats anyway. The only problem on this lake is the danger of errant golf shots; the lake abuts the town golf course on its north side.
The central lake holds bluegill, bass, yellow perch, and carp. It may also be stocked with trout for ice-fishing, but these die out every summer. I have experienced solid bluegill, perch, and carp fishing here in late May. Yellow Woolly Buggers work well for all species. I even caught the carp pictured below while blind-casting for panfish. This is the only carp I’ve ever caught without sight-casting for a specific fish.
Warmwater Road Trips
While well outside our normal operations area, Montana is actually blessed with numerous great warmwater fisheries, most of which see almost no tourist fishing pressure. While not something that a new client should consider, I’d be glad to take a multi-day road trip to many locations with repeat clients. Here are some destinations:
Castle Rock Lake near Colstrip is a personal favorite. I’ve caught largemouth and smallmouth bass, pike, eater-size crappie and bluegill, and green sunfish here. This lake is perfectly sized to fish from a drift boat with an electric motor attached.
Kalispell-Area Lakes: While some lakes here are too large for any of our boats (Flathead Lake is the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi), this area is dotted with tons of small lakes and rivers full of perch, crappie, bass, and pike.
Havre Area: This area is next on our list of places to check out in Montana for all sorts of fish. These range from tiger muskie to largemouth and smallmouth bass to pike and crappie. A county-owned park here holds three lakes holding a mix of warmwater fish as well as a stream with great trout populations.
Fort Peck: This mighty Missouri River reservoir is far too large in general for our power boats, but the creek arms towards the south end of the lake are doable and offer great spring pike fishing, including opportunities at trophy fish over 40 inches long. The tailwater and adjacent dredge ponds offer all sorts of warmwater fish as well as a few huge trout.
Rocky Mountain Front Reservoirs: A whole series of reservoirs along the Rocky Mountain front west of Great Falls offer good opportunities for pike, perch, and trout. Pishkun Reservoir is probably the best of the lot, and isn’t so far from the Missouri River tailwater near Craig that it couldn’t be combined with some trout fishing on the “MO.”