Introduction to Montana Private Water Fishing Trips

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 $120 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.

very large rainbow trout caught on a montana private lake

Exceptional fish and limited competition from other anglers are possible on Montana private water fishing trips. On the October day this client caught the spectacular rainbow trout seen here (and many others), we didn’t share the lake with anyone else.

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 of the private waters on which we guide as of this writing are located within 45 minutes of Livingston, making them the closest options to our home base beside the Yellowstone River and a few small streams.

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 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. Some lakes also hold trophy-size brook trout, browns, or cutthroats.

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. 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.

young woman, montana fishing guide, and large rainbow trout on montana private water fishing trip

Even novice anglers can catch large trout on private lake trips, so long as they are patient. This young woman outfished grandpa!

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.

large brook trout from a montana private lake

The region’s largest brook trout are common catches in area private lakes, and are stunningly beautiful in the fall when they’re preparing to spawn. This one was caught in late September.

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.

The fish are fat and sassy. Most years, they average 14 to 18 inches and fat regardless of species, with significant numbers of rainbows from 20 to 24 inches in many lakes. Overall fish populations are not high in most lakes, but a few fish in the high teens are enough to make a good day for most anglers.

The private lakes are excellent for anglers who like a slower-paced day that would rather catch fewer but larger fish. Experienced clients can do well with dry flies during midge, damselfly, and Callibaetis mayfly hatches and by sight-fishing with nymphs, but even novices and beginners can do well using subsurface techniques. This makes the lakes a great option for parties with widely-varying skill levels.

They 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 when fishing the lakes.

large rainbow trout caught on a Montana private water fishing trip

FACT: when you hold the fish out, it automatically looks bigger and nobody ever notices that you’re using the wonders of forced perspective.

Except in early spring or late fall, the lakes generally fish best from sometime in the morning until early afternoon. For this reason, expect to meet between 7:00 and 8:00 in the morning for lake trips, regardless of the season, with the precise timing depending on where you’re staying. Getting out early is one way of beating the bane of the private lakes: the wind. Since these lakes are generally in open, exposed country, the winds can be horrific. We have seen three-foot waves on tiny lakes. If the wind is up, the fishing might be pretty grim.

Potential for wind notwithstanding, besides the access fees and the fact that there is less in the way of scenery and animals on the private lakes than on other trips, there are no real downsides to Montana private water fishing trips on area ranch lakes. The fish are big if not particularly numerous, the lakes fish consistently well, including in periods when few other nearby options do, and the overall “experience” of trout fishing in what amount to large farm ponds is new for many clients.

Private Spring Creek Fishing Trips

The three spring creeks in the northern portion of Paradise Valley – 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.

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.

Paradise Valley spring creek, fishing client, and rainbow trout caught on a Montana private water fishing trip

June and July pale morning dun hatches offer consistent but never easy fishing. This rainbow trout and its friends were willing to eat PMD emergers that were 1/3 the color of the dun and 2/3 the color of the nymph, but not the other way around.

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.

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. We are writing this on February 5, 2021. As of today, Depuy spring creek is fully booked (they allow 16 anglers per day) from June 18 through July 13 this year and many days in the same timeframe in 2022! If you’re planning for a couple years in advance, take note and book “PMD season” trips very early.

spring creek rainbow trout caught on a montana private water fishing trip

Early spring is a great time to fish the Paradise Valley spring creeks. This gorgeous rainbow trout ate a midge pupa in early March.

Sleeper bets in our opinion are the spring and fall fishing. During both periods, midge and Blue-winged Olive hatches can prompt good numbers of rising fish for an hour or two each day, but the main attraction is the runs of spawning trout entering the creeks from the Yellowstone. These spawners themselves are not the targets, at least not while they’re actively spawning. The spawning areas are well-known, and the landowners typically close these areas to angling during spawning periods (and we do not target actively spawning wild trout on our trips, anyway). Instead, the real draw is the fishing for pre-spawn fish as well as resident fish that hang in the deeper pools well downstream of the spawners, eating both eggs the spawners drop and insects they stir up by their spawning activity.

The remainder of the year, fishing involves lots of fly changes with tiny mayfly nymphs and midges, with occasional sporadic hatches of this mayfly or that. Another option that can work is covering lots of water with streamers. While the creeks are less busy during these periods, there’s a good reason for that. The creeks make the jump from hard to really hard outside the peak seasons.

2023 Montana Private Water Fishing 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. Because landowners do not offer a discounted half-day access fee, all private water trips run as full-day trips.

Private Water Trip Rates: $600 for one angler, $635 for two. $50 discount before May 1 or after October 14.

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.

Note on Montana Private Water Fishing Trip Deposits

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. We had trouble in one case even getting a landowner to refund deposits made for guided trips that were booked to take place during Montana’s spring 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, when it was illegal for out-of-state residents to even leave their hotels.

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.