Big, often spooky trout, with limited competition from other anglers... at an additional price
Montana private water fishing trips offer fat, healthy, and often very large trout in beautiful, easy-access settings, all without the crowds of similar public waters. The exclusivity and excellent fishing comes at a cost, however.
Access fees charged by landowners range from $40 to $125 per angler per day on top of normal guide service fees, which makes private water trips by far our most expensive options. For some anglers, the price is worth it. For others, it isn’t. Read on to learn about the private water trips we offer and decide for yourself.
We offer two types of Montana private water fishing trips: float/walk trips on small private reservoirs located on working Montana cattle ranches and walk & wade trips on the famous Paradise Valley spring creeks, located just south of Livingston. All private waters require advance reservations and sharply limit the number of guests they accept. The Paradise Valley spring creeks in particular are often fully-booked months or even years in advance, while private lake reservations can usually be made less than a month in advance except perhaps during the peak early June season.
Private Water Trip Rates
Rates are identical for both private lake trips and spring creek trips. Please note that the following rates do not include access fees of $40 to $125 per day per angler payable to the landowner. In general we charge these fees when you book the trip as part of the deposit and pay the landowner on your behalf, though you may also pre-book with a specific property and cover the access fees yourself.
- Full-Day Private Water Rate: $625 for one angler, $675 for two.
- Shoulder Season Private Water Rate: $550 for one angler, $600 for two. Available March 1 through May 14 and October 1 through November 14.
Since the landowners do not offer a discounted half-day rate on the lakes, it makes little sense for you to book a half-day guided trip with us while paying for the entire day on the creek, though our standard $535 half-day rate would apply if you so choose.
Fishing licenses are required on the Paradise Valley spring creeks. They are not required on private lakes since the lakes are non-natural waters completely under the management of the relevant landowners. This latter fact does help reduce costs to our guests somewhat.
Private lake availability depends on the lakes being ice-free, which is unlikely before early April or after November 15. Spring creeks are fishable year-round. As noted in the chart, they have high points as far as fishing quality and in late-term availability.
Note on Private Water Access Deposits and Final Payments
Private water landowners have different and in many cases much less forgiving deposit/cancellation policies than Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing.
In general, the spring creeks are in such high demand that landowners require non-refundable full prepayment. You book it, you’re either fishing it or paying for it, no matter the weather or water conditions.
The private lakes are somewhat more lenient, though still less lenient than our own policies in most cases.
Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing’s own deposit policy is unchanged for private water bookings, but our guests need to understand that they may be on the hook for private water access fees even if we refund the full cost of the guide service fees. This is true whether we book the private fishery on your behalf or if you book the access directly (easiest with spring creeks, which all allow non-guided anglers).
Private Lake Trips
Trips on area ranch lakes are our most popular Montana private water fishing trips. These private lakes offer big fish, sometimes including big fish caught using sight-fishing and dry fly tactics. These lakes are located on working cattle ranches. They hold the largest fish in our operations area on average. Most trout in these private lakes are rainbows stocked as fingerlings, but which often get huge. We’ve seen fish in the 6lb-8lb class, and 16–18 inches is average. Some lakes also hold trophy-size brook trout, browns, or cutthroats.
The brookies deserve special mention. They average 14–18 inches and fat, making them the largest brook trout in our operations area available without drastic hikes. Most of these brookies are wild.
Southwest Montana is ranch country, with many working cattle ranches of several thousand acres in size still operating despite the encroaching condos. Cattle need water, so old-time ranchers made small lakes. This isn’t easy in the arid west, so virtually all of these lakes were built in natural wetlands and marshes where small springs would help the process. By damming these low areas to keep the water from flowing away and then seasonally running in some irrigation water to augment the natural springs, these old-time ranchers made super-fertile, weedy, insect-rich, spring-fed ponds and small lakes that support large, fast-growing trout.
These lakes are the best fisheries in the area during the spring runoff period, and also offer great fishing whenever they’re ice-free provided they’re not too warm. The lakes with less spring water are generally out of play from late June through early September, while those with more spring water are good bets except from late July until about Labor Day.
Private Lakes: The When, How, and Who
Private lakes fish more consistently from April through June than any other bodies of water within two hours of Livingston and also produce well in September and October. The best “big numbers” fishing usually comes in October. On the other hand, they are poor in mid-late summer, are seldom “exciting” to fish, and offer less variety in their scenery and wildlife encounters than most other trips. In addition, they are no longer particularly beginner friendly due to increasing pressure and the fish getting spookier.
While tactics on the lakes are not difficult, casting can be. Basically, the longer an angler can cast, the better. Long casts are often actually a mistake on moving water, but on still water they help cover more of the lake and avoid spooking fish near the boat. For this reason we suggest clients at least get a casting lesson prior to booking a lake day.
We primarily guide these lakes from drift boats, but some walk-wade fishing is also possible if the wind is down and the fish are cruising the shorelines. This is most common in the spring and fall, when the sun warms the shallows more than the depths. A variety of subsurface aquatic insect and crustacean imitations interest the fish, as well as leech patterns. Hatches are sporadic, but when the large chironomid midges, Callibaetis mayflies, and especially damselflies are hatching in May and June, some very exciting dry fly sight-fishing is possible in the afternoons.
The private lakes are excellent for anglers who like a slower-paced day that would rather catch fewer but larger fish, most often on subsurface techniques (though dry fly fishing can be great in May and June if the wind cooperates). The lakes are not good choices for those who like fast-paced action or a lot of thrills on their trips. Except when you’re actually fighting a fish, you should expect a slow-paced and mellow day punctuated by a few really solid trout.
Private Lakes: The Where
We now guide on a total of eight private lakes on four properties. The Story Ranch near Emigrant hosts two small lakes, while the Sitz Ranch near Norris (45min west of Bozeman) holds three small lakes and one great big one. The Burns Ranch holds one midsize lake (20+ acres) and the Hubbard’s Lodge holds 80-acre Merrell Lake. The lakes are discussed below in their distance from Livingston.
The Story Ranch Lakes are both small lakes populated with rainbow and brook trout. In general the upper lake is the better one, but it’s also more exposed to the wind, and sometimes the lower lake turns out some surprise monsters. Since they have more shallow areas than the other lakes, these lakes can fish well the instant the ice goes off. Often sight-fishing to big rainbows “sunning themselves” is very good in April. The fishing remains good until early June, after which water temps warm up and the weeds get thick until roughly September 20. Except for Callibaetis on the upper lake, most fishing on the Story Lakes is subsurface. The last week of September and first week of October are prime time for big brook trout. They’re all wild in these lakes, and come in via the inlet “streams” which are actually irrigation draw-offs from nearby creeks. The leech fishing in early October is very good both for rainbows and brookies.
Outside guides (including us) can access Hubbard’s Lodge’s Merrell Lake prior to mid-June and after about September 20, which thankfully are the best times to fish this big, windswept lake. All trout here are stocked. While these once included some browns, of late it seems like rainbow trout dominate. This lake is deep, full of weeds, and exceptionally rich, so the trout can get very big. On a two-guide trip here with four clients, we once had three of the four clients get fish over 6lbs. Almost all fishing here is subsurface, with leeches prime before about May 20 and late in the year and San Juan Worms and assorted midge pupae good in June. While this lake probably holds more 20-inch fish than all the others, it has two downsides: it can absolutely get wrecked by afternoon winds (we are talking 3ft whitecaps) and it has suffered several fish kills over the past 10 or so years. 2023 saw good fishing when we were on it in May, so-so in early June. The monster trout at the top of this page came in October. The monster on the “guided trips” page came in mid-June.
Burns Lake offers the most consistent dry fly fishing of all the area private lakes. This 25-acre lake near Big Timber primarily holds rainbow and brook trout. While rumors of monster trout abound, most seem to run 14–18 inches. The peak fishing is during late May Callibaetis and June damselfly hatches, but the leech and chironomid fishing can be good just about anytime the wind isn’t howling. This lake has three springs that keep the water cooler and somewhat weed-free into July and starting again in early September, making it the best lake outside the peak late May and early June and late September/October timeframes that are the hot periods elsewhere. During cool summers Burns can even fish with grasshoppers in early July and early September.
Sitz Lake is an 80+ acre, deep reservoir. It holds mostly rainbows, but some spawning of cutthroat and other trout takes place in the year-round creek feeding in from the west. While rumors of 10-pound trout abound, most we have seen have run about 15 inches here, though they can be very abundant. In our experience the fishing is most consistent in May.
Malby’s Twin Ponds (Sitz Ranch) are 15-acre and 5-acre lakes that sit side by side. Unique among the private lakes we fish, these two both fish as well or better on foot than in a boat. Often we never even get around to launching the drift boats on either lake, especially early in the season. In early May, sight-fishing the shallows with chironomids and leeches produces lots of good rainbows and some browns. June brings excellent damselfly hatches. The average size is very solid on these lakes, around 18 inches, but the overall population numbers appear lower than in Sitz Lake on the other side of the ranch. Because of their small sizes and lots of shallow water, windy June days shut off the fishing on these lakes. Basically the water gets too warm near the surface and the fish tuck down in the depths with lockjaw.
Bausch Pond (Sitz Ranch) is on the outskirts of the town of Norris. This is probably the least interesting of the Sitz Ranch lakes due to a lot of murky rainwater runoff that keeps the water a bit dirty during the prime May–June season. That said, there are some big rainbows and browns here.
Spring Creek Trips
The three spring creeks in the northern portion of Paradise Valley about ten minutes from us in Livingston—Depuy, Armstrong’s, and Nelson’s—rank among the most-fabled private waters in the United States. These creeks are also among the most technical (that is to say ‘hardest’) fisheries in the world.
Day-in day-out pressure from skilled fly anglers, glass-clear shallow water, and a food base consisting primarily of vast numbers of only a few types of tiny aquatic insects and crustaceans make for spooky, particular trout. Some anglers love this kind of fishing. Some emphatically do not.
Let us get one thing straight right away: the spring creeks are hard. They are not the best Montana private water fishing trips for all or even most people. Our outfitter Walter Wiese has never personally caught more than about twenty fish in a day on one of the spring creeks. The average number of fish our clients have landed per day is around five fish. One day in late May, a tough period, a skilled client caught six fish in about nine hours of fishing (a very long day), and he was the only angler on the creek that day to catch anything at all.
Along with a couple “big fish only” float rivers, this is the only place where we guide where there’s more than a remote chance of catching nothing at all, no matter your skill level. If you are okay with the possibility of a skunking, you might consider a day on the spring creeks. If not, literally any of the other trips we offer would be a better choice.
The best periods on the creeks are from early March through April, late June through late July, and the middle of October through the middle of November. They are also our most dependable winter fisheries. The slack periods of May and early June and August and September are tied to limited hatches, though even these periods can be decent on nymphs.
In the summer, the big draws on the creeks are the dependable and often amazing Pale Morning Dun mayfly hatches, which bring lots of good fish to the surface like clockwork almost every day. Unfortunately, days in this period can be fully booked more than a year in advance, because the quality of this fishing is known worldwide.
This is one case where Yellowstone Country Fly Fishing suffers as a “small fish.” Several of the big corporate guide services in Bozeman block-book several “rods” per day every year in perpetuity. As of this writing on Feb 3, 2024, June 19 through July 14 are already fully booked on Depuy, the largest of the creeks. To really bring the problem home, four days in late June and early July next year are also fully booked, and several others are almost full.
We would guide on the spring creeks more if we were more consistently able to get on during the June–July prime PMD hatch period. As it stands, we can only consistently guide the creeks during the March and April early peak, which offers good BWO hatches and lots of pre-spawn rainbow trout eating eggs and nymphs, but isn’t quite as consistent (especially on dries) as the early summer peak.
Montana private water fishing trips on the spring creeks are only suited to experienced anglers who would rather go mano a mano with a small number of challenging and solid but seldom huge trout than catch large numbers of fish blind-casting or otherwise covering a lot of water.
The Paradise Valley Spring Creeks
Depuy Spring Creek is the longest, largest, and in our opinion best of the creeks. It has a wider range of water types than the others (including a pond in the middle of the creek that can be a day-saver), ranging from gentle pools to heavy riffles.
Armstrong Spring Creek is upstream from Depuy. Depuy is in fact partially created from the water of smaller Armstrong’s. While there are a few good riffles on Armstrong’s, it is generally slower, glassier, and weedier, which makes it arguably the better dry fly fishery for expert anglers, though it is harder for others.
Nelson’s Spring Creek is on the east bank of the Yellowstone. It is the smallest of the creeks and also the hardest to get on, since the owners run their own lodge and guide service on the creek. In fact we mostly fish Nelson’s the “dirtbag” way. Some years the creek dumps into an almost-dry river channel. While still almost entirely creek water, this water enters public land when it hits the river channel. Sometimes several hundred yards of creek is therefore available on our float and wade trips.