Budget Montana Trout Fishing

I had visions of being in waders, fly fishing streams teeming with trout, and catching them thanks to the expert advice of a local guide.

My trip didn’t quite turn out that way…

In the end, it worked out well enough. Despite not being able to secure that expert-guided trip, I managed to lay the groundwork for that ultimate trip where I’ll be better prepared to enjoy it.

Getting Here

Last Tuesday (July 13th), I flew from San Diego into the Bozeman, Montana airport. Airports are airports…just a place to get in and out of quickly (if you’re lucky), with all your belongings intact. I was pleasantly surprised to find a welcoming, uncrowded space. It was like a cross between a ski lodge and a Bass Pro Shop.

My hosts, Eileen Leonhardy and Jon Mathosian were 5 minutes out when I called to let them know I landed. They picked me up there and whisked me away to their property in Ennis, Montana…roughly an hour southwest of Bozeman.

Ennis is a small town (population less than 1000) located in the southwestern part of the state, near the borders of Idaho and Wyoming. The town sits at an elevation of almost 5000 feet amongst the mountains and foothills of the northern Rocky Mountains. Aside from the surrounding peaks, the prominent geographic feature of Ennis is the Madison River. The Madison is somewhat unusual in that it actually flows north from its origin near the town of West Yellowstone, Montana. The north entrance of Yellowstone National Park is not far away from Ennis in Gardiner, Montana, while the park proper is located mostly in the state of Wyoming. Ennis was a real cowboy town that still has working cattle ranches in the surrounding area today. Now though, it is known mostly for being kind of an artsy enclave and bucket list destination for fly-fishing anglers worldwide.

Our first stop in Ennis was at The Tackle Shop. The shop isn’t the only shop in town, but maybe the most prominent one. The shop has been serving anglers since 1937. It was the shop that Eileen’s dad, Terrance Leonhardy used to frequent when one of his fishing buddies, Tom Williams, was the owner back in the 1960s.

At the shop, we purchased 10-day fishing licenses for what I thought was a very reasonable price of about $76 (non-resident). We would return the following morning to buy some terminal tackle (tippet, leader line, dry flies) for the gear Eileen and Jon had at their place. The cost for that tackle was less than $40.

Eileen, Jon, and I had tried to book a full-day float trip (above) through various sources prior to my coming out. Those trips run anywhere from about $500-1000 a day. The only problem was they were all booked out. Thankfully, Eileen had a backup plan of some spots she could take us. The guy at the shop was also helpful with some ideas of where to go, what flies to use, and showed me how to rig up if we needed to re-tie.

Day 1 – Sureshot Lake

After getting outfitted at The Tackle Shop, we headed to a spot just north of town appropriately named, Sureshot Lake. The lake is up in the foothills on public access land. We had lunch once we got there, then proceeded to “fish.” It was really more of a lowkey practice session to try and get comfortable with the gear and fly-casting. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s a good starter spot because of its relatively uncluttered banks and easily walkable shore access. By uncluttered, I mean that there was a decent amount of backcast area without a lot of trees and brush to get your line hung up on. Despite that fact, I still managed to tangle on some of the brush and grass behind me. I kept at it though because I could see small trout “rising” just in front of me to take the various bugs that happened to land on the lake’s surface.

I could tell from the small impression they were leaving on the surface, that the fish in this spot weren’t big.  It gave me hope though knowing that despite my limited fly-casting skills, there was still a chance at catching one.  Over the course of the afternoon, I slowly worked further and further out with my casts.  My best efforts were only maybe 15 feet away from the shore, but fish were breaking within range.  I casted a better one out and kind of twitched the dry fly to hopefully make it seem like a real bug that accidentally landed on the lake’s surface and was struggling to fly back off. 

When I saw a fish come up and try to take it, I was pretty excited that I had worked up to a level where I actually had a legitimate opportunity to catch something. 

They kept rising up and I kept casting my offering into the zone.  Finally, the timing came together, one came up on my fly and got stuck.  The poor thing was tiny.  I took a moment to enjoy my small feat of success, but I didn’t want to leave it out there too long.  It didn’t require a net.  I had Eileen take a picture before quickly releasing the pretty little brook trout.  Had it been a little stouter, I would’ve taken time to get a close-up shot and capture the beautiful patterns on its skin. 

Oh well, my first fish ever caught on the fly.

I took a victory lap and went back to the car to grab a beer.  I couldn’t really linger and enjoy my beverage though because of the big nasty horse flies attacking me there.  Eileen and Jon were fine taking a skunk.  We called it a day.  On the way home, we stopped at Willie’s Distillery in town and shared a round of their signature Manhattans.  We met a guide there, Sean Gifford, who Eileen and Jon’s friend, Randy Dix, had put us in touch with.  Sean had a client out on the Madison that day and was volunteering the following day to take out a fellow military veteran.  Had his Thursday client been a regular tourist, I might’ve pressed him to try to move him.  He offered to take us out at a Friends and Family rate on Friday, but I was leaving Friday to meet up with family of my own at another location.  Sean was generous with his time to share information, show us his boat and give us some of his hand-tied flies for the areas he recommended.  We thanked him and vowed to plan ahead for a trip with him next time around.

Day 2 – Lake Hebgen & Three Dollar Bridge

After meeting up with Sean, we went home.  Following up on one of his tips, we tried to book online reservations at a cattle ranch, Sitz Angus, that offers private fishing access to 3 lakes on the ranch property.  Again though, our lack of planning left us unable to secure a spot.

The next day, Jon and I followed Sean’s Plan B and headed southeast, toward Yellowstone Park and the Wyoming border.  Our destination was Lake Hebgen.  Sean said that after Quake Lake, look for the Mile 13 marker, then turn off at the next exit. 

Along the way to Hebgen, we noted the other public access fishing areas we saw…just in case we needed a backup. 

The State of Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks maintains over 300 public access fishing spots at lakes, streams, and rivers across the state.  These public fishing access locations are easily recognizable from these signs posted along the highway.  This one (right) is the access point closest to Eileen and Jon’s property.

We found our spot.

Lake Hebgen is vastly larger than Sureshot.  It is actually a reservoir formed as a result of building the Hebgen Dam along this stretch of the Madison River.  Maybe because it is so much bigger, we weren’t getting the constant affirmation of fish in the area like at Sureshot.  I gave it a dozen casts or so, then looked to see how Jon was doing.  He wasn’t fishing and we moved on.

We backtracked to a spot called Three Dollar Bridge.  This spot is so named because the recommended donation to maintain it is $3.  We saw it along the way to Hebgen and I remembered Eileen mentioning it the previous day.  We found several anglers in the parking lot who had either just come off the river or were rigging up to give it a go.  I took that as a positive sign that this one might be a good spot. Unlike Sureshot or Hebgen, Three Dollar was an actual stretch of river.  It was flowing pretty fast.  By my reckoning, it seemed too fast to allow a fish time to see and act on our flies.  We gave it a try for a bit anyway, but nothing.  We crossed the bridge and I found a little side pool within casting distance that looked deeper.  I felt like it gave us a better opportunity for success.  Still nothing.  Hopefully, my weekend effort would be more productive.

Swan River Swan Song

Friday (July 16th) I drove up to see my half-sister, Gayanna Magcosta, and her boyfriend Chris McEnany at their weekend place in Lake Seeley. Lake Seeley is famously known for being the place where author Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It) owned a cabin. Friday evening we had dinner and a subsequent boat ride on the lake with their friends Julie and Dave Lapham. Dave is “the fish guy” that my sister wanted to connect me with. Setting aside the fact of him telling me that pike can be caught in the lake (need a boat), Dave told me there were plenty of access points north of Lake Seeley…

“Anywhere along the Swan River where the access roads intersect with the river…give it a try.”

When we got off the boat, Dave took me into his garage, gave me a small spinning outfit and a tray of spinnerbaits and spoons to borrow, “Take these. Trout can’t help themselves and will hit them.”

The next morning, I was up before dawn, made myself some coffee, and got on the road. I started at Pine Ridge Road about 30 minutes north of Lake Seeley. The access point by the bridge was heavily wooded and the creek there was pretty low. The next spot I found though looked very promising. There was a little turnoff to park the car and a trail alongside the river that offered access to some deeper, slower-moving pools in the river. I tried the fly setup I borrowed from Eileen and Jon, but there weren’t really fish rising up in the spot I found. Those deeper pools looked fishy though, and I wanted to see what would happen if I could put a bait deeper into them. There weren’t any nymph-type flies (sinking) in the selection of flies I had brought up from Ennis, plus the river was moving fast enough that I didn’t think a fly would really get down into those pools like I wanted them to.

Let’s try the spinnerbait! It was money. I casted it upstream, trying to place it so it would flow down into the pool. When it got into the pool area, it had the weight to find its way deeper into it. The second cast, I was bit. The fish had enough weight to it that I actually had to tighten the drag. I didn’t finesse it because I didn’t want it to get around the corner into the faster water and past the bridge where it might break me off on the light line (4#).

Be prepared for success…I wasn’t.

I had left the net and my camera in the car. Still, I managed to get the fish onto the bank. It was about a 13″ rainbow trout! I was gingerly carrying it back to the car along the riverside trail, but with one mighty twist and shake he worked himself off the hook and back into the river. I watched him swim away. Dang it! I tried to see if I could get it (or one of his buddies) to re-engage, but they’d seen enough. No picture, but I was excited to have finally caught a legit trout.

I packed up and tried the next access point I found up the road. I crossed a little creek and found myself on a rocky bar in the middle of the river. Along the way, I spooked a great blue heron from where it was hunting along the bank. When I was on the bar, I saw a pair of bald eagles working the stretch of river just below me. There must be fish here.

This time, I was prepared and brought the net and my camera with me. I found a similar condition along a bend in the river where there was a deeper, slower-moving pool. First cast into it…I’m bit. Wow, they really can’t deny these spinnerbaits! It ended up being a little smaller rainbow than the first, but still a healthy, keep-able (if I wanted to) size. This time I got the pic.

I lingered in that spot awhile because there was a lot of area to explore, but that rainbow ended up being the only fish I caught there. It was getting to be late in the morning. The sun was getting higher in the sky and it was starting to get hot. I packed up and left.

Well…just one more spot.

I found another one as I was making my way back to the lake. While I was rigging up (I lost a few lures at the last one), a truck drove up with two guys in it. “You going to fish here?” they asked. “Yeah, I was going to give it a try” I responded. “Okay then, we’ll go.” “Happy to share if you want to” I responded back. The driver pointed out a trail leading back upriver. “There’s a bunch of nice little holes back there along the trail.” I followed it and found a spot with slower-moving water along a bend. The spot was shallow enough and clear enough that I could actually see a school of small fish in the water. I downsized to a smaller spinnerbait and gave it a go. I caught one on the first cast and several subsequent ones. These fish weren’t big, but it was hard to leave when it was so easy to get them to go. After catching maybe 6 or so, none larger than 5-6 inches, I was satisfied there wasn’t a bigger one to catch and returned to the car. I was able to later identify them as mountain whitefish.

That was my morning and a nice way to finish out the trip.

Three days, three species of fish (with a couple of keeper-sized ones in the mix), and my first ever on the fly. Not a bad way to go. I spent almost nothing doing it…the major cost being the airfare and gifts for my hosts. I didn’t plan it that way. Heck, I didn’t plan much at all, but it worked out. I hadn’t fished trout since I was a kid when our family spent some summers in Sun Valley, Idaho. It was good to get a change of pace in my fishing regimen. I spent time with some really nice folks. I experienced some beautiful locales and I saw some amazing animals in them (eagles – bald and golden, osprey, abundant deer, a blue heron, and some sandhill cranes). I even learned some Montana customs like the 2-finger wave (as you’re driving and approach an oncoming car). I had fun! All in all, it was a trip to remember and one that I’d like to experience again…only I’ll be better prepared next time.

Thanks to my hosts, their friends and family, and the random people I encountered that shared information with me. Good luck if you get out there.

Joe Sarmiento
Joe Sarmiento is the founder and primary writer of the So Cal Salty blog. The blog covers saltwater fishing, primarily aboard the many sportfishing boats of Southern California. In addition to writing his blog, Joe's writing has appeared in Western Outdoor News, The Log and Griffin Media. Joe is ...