How can private water fly fishing trips in Montana be such a big deal, when this is a state blessed with laws that make it legal for the public to fish most streams and small lakes and all rivers and larger lakes legally? Because this private water is often very, very good. Landowners with good water on their properties limit access to a few anglers per day and charge big bucks for the privilege. This cuts down on competition, leading to fish that are fat and sassy if not often easy. Some private fisheries are available for non-guided fishing, some are only fishable with me or another guide.
I run trips on two general types of private water, private spring creeks and small private ranch lakes, on a total of five properties as of this writing. These properties are all within 45 minutes of Livingston, Montana, making them among the closest waters to Livingston that I guide. Each type of trip offers a different experience, as do the individual properties.
Part of the appeal of private waters should be clear...
The key advantage offered by all private waters is exclusivity. The "busiest" private water on which I guide books no more than sixteen anglers per day, and these are spread out over 2.5 miles of stream. One property I guide accepts no more than two anglers per day. In other words, you and your fishing partner will be the only ones on this water. Since all my private fisheries are spring-fed to one degree or another, they are fertile, clear, and weedy. This leads to fat and powerful fish that are often quite picky, despite the limited competition. That said, if you book a day on a private fishery, you won't have to worry about some idiot coming along and flailing at the big, spooky fish you're targeting, as can happen on public waters.
The downsides of private waters in general tie mostly to price. Put simply, these trips cost more due to the access fees charged by the property owners. Depending on the property and the season, additional fees payable to the landowners on top of my rates range from $40 to $120 per angler per day. While some private fisheries do not require fishing licenses (man-made private waters entirely located on one property and maintained exclusively by the landowner), these extra fees do add up. In general, I add these additional fees onto your deposit when I book a private fishery on your behalf.
Please note that while I do offer half-day trips on private waters, the landowners do not provide any discounts. When you book a "rod" on a lake or spring creek, it's yours for the entire day, whether you fish one hour or twelve. For this reason, full-day trips are a more cost-effective choice than half-days.
On the remainder of this page, I go into detail about the types of private waters I guide: when they fish well, who should consider trips to them, etc. Click the "learn more" links in the introductions below to expand the information about these types of fisheries.
Private lakes offer big fish, sometimes including big fish caught using sight-fishing and dry fly tactics. These lakes, located on working cattle ranches, hold the largest fish in my operations area on average. Most are rainbows. Some lakes also hold trophy-size brook trout, browns, or cutthroats. These lakes fish more consistently from April through June than any other bodies of water within three hours of Livingston, particularly for clients interested in full-day trips rather than half-days and getting out in the boat. On the other hand, they are poor in mid-late summer, are seldom "exciting" to fish, and offer less in the way of scenery and the like than other trips I offer. Learn more about private lake trips...
The largest trout of any of my trips, on average, are found in private lakes. This one was exceptional even for the lakes.
The Yellowstone River valley is ranch country, with many working cattle ranches of several thousand acres in size still operating despite the encroaching condos. Cattle need water, and 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 natural springs, these old-time ranchers made super-fertile, weedy, insect-rich, spring-fed ponds and small lakes (those I guide range from four to about 20 acres) 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 are good bets except from late July or early August until about Labor Day.
I primarily guide these lakes from a drift boat, 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.
Exceptional brook trout are possible from the private lakes, particularly in the fall. The average brook trout in the region run under eight inches. This one was more like eighteen.
The private lakes are excellent for anglers who like a slower-paced day and 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're 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 day when fishing the lakes.
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. I have seen three-foot waves on tiny lakes. If the wind is up, the fishing might be pretty grim. Besides the access fee 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 the 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.
Large fall private lake rainbow.
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. Want to know more?
Changing bugs on a private creek. We have to do a lot of this, because the fish are picky...
Let me get one thing straight right away. The spring creeks are hard. I have never personally caught more than about twenty fish in a day on the creeks. The average number I have had clients catch is under ten. One day in late May, a tough period, my client caught six fish in about nine hours of fishing, 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 I guide where there's more than a remote chance of catching nothing at all, no matter your skill level. If you are okay with that, you might consider a day on the spring creeks. If not, book something else.
The best periods on the creeks are from late February through April, late June through late July, and the middle of October through the middle of November. In the summer, the big draw is 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 as much as a year in advance, because the quality of this fishing is known worldwide.
Sleeper bets in my opinion are the spring and fall fishing. During both periods, midge or 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 creeks typically close them to angling during this period (and I do not target actively spawning wild trout on my trips, anyway). The real draw is the fishing for pre-spawn fish as well as resident fish that hang in the deeper water downstream of the spawners, eating both eggs they drop and insects they stir up by their spawning activeity
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. To be honest, except during the timeframes noted above, I would much rather guide other waters. At the right times of year, I love the creeks.
The fish in the spring creeks are all healthy, and most tend to be solid to large, though other options are better for monsters.
Walter Wiese is licensed to operate on all waters in Montana under general regulations, Yellowstone Park, and the Madison River in Montana. He is Montana Outfitter #22001, Yellowstone Park CUA holder 426SSF, and Madison River SRP Holder #297.
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