This spring, skip runoff. 

Like most local fishermen, I’m drawn to moving water—which is understandable, given the many blue-ribbon streams that run like arteries through southwest Montana. But lately I’ve learned to endure my buddies’ skeptical sneers as I decline a day on the river to pursue bliss on a lake. These oft-overlooked stillwaters are uncrowded, and maybe this fly-fisher pretense is one of the reasons why. Whether your time only allows for an evening of casting across from the Macy’s parking lot, or you’re planning a multi-day backcountry adventure, lakes offer angling fun for all ages, abilities, and levels of adventure.

Around the Bozone
Four small lakes, all within walking distance of town, offer fishable populations of rainbow trout: Bozeman Pond, Glen Lake, Cattail Pond, and the Regional Park Pond. Of the four, Bozeman Pond and Glen Lake also offer warm-water species such as largemouth bass, yellow perch, and bluegill. Head out for a quick evening of casting midges or stripping poppers, or take your kids and drown some worms for more panfish on the line than they ever thought possible. For a longer outing, head to Hyalite Reservoir or north to Fairy Lake. In both places you’ll find clean water replete with plenty of hungry trout.

Getting out of Town
When you’re ready to fish the destination water, you’ll find more options than a lifetime will allow—Hebgen Lake, Quake Lake, Cliff & Wade, Ennis, Harrison, Dailey, Canyon Ferry, Hauser, Holter. These are the premier stillwaters of the region, filled with wild browns and rainbows that will make your drag line sing. Looking to fill a cooler full of walleye? Head to Canyon Ferry, Hauser, or Dailey. All of these lakes fish well from ice-out till autumn. Even then, fishermen can continue to find success through a hole in the ice.

On still water, try standard patterns that imitate calibaetis mayflies, midges, leeches, and minnows. With spin tackle, try Rapalas, especially in black and gold for large browns. Finally, what fish can resist a crawler on a hook? Refrain from heaving a worm from shore under a red and white bobber. While this tactic can work, you’ll find more consistency using bottom rigs and slip-bobbers.

Head for the Hills
As the snowpack dwindles, intrepid anglers will find no dearth of alpine excursions barely an hour from Bozeman. South of town in the Gallatin and Madison ranges, try Rat Lake, Lava Lake, and the Golden Trout Lakes, all a within a few hours of the trailhead. More adventurous anglers can haul a pack to the Spanish Lakes or Deer Lake, or Emerald and Heather lakes up Hyalite.

Don’t underestimate the technical difficulty of angling in these waters. The common misconception about high-country lake fishing is that it’s simple and easy. While there are times when any fly on the water produces strikes, there are just as many situations in which one will try all the usual suspects—buggers, attractor dries, beadheads, and spinners—only to forlornly dine on freeze-dried Mountain House that night. Be prepared to match the hatch and spend time deciphering what the fish are eating, and you’ll be frying up fresh-caught trout around the campfire.

Word of Warning
Most alpine lakes in the area (especially those south of Bozeman) are located in prime grizzly habitat. Bring bear spray and know how to use it. While camping in the backcountry, be “bear-aware” and practice bear-safe measures: cook in an area separate from where you eat and hang bear attractants in a sturdy tree at least 100 yards from camp.

Bears aren’t as much of an issue on the large lowland lakes, but gale-force winds and large waves are. If you’re heading out in a belly-boat, canoe, or other small craft, check the weather forecast and get off the lake before the wind kicks up. Bring a life jacket and consider wearing it.

Keep in mind that lakes are a ready alternative when the rivers are running high and muddy during the annual spring runoff. Boats—especially ones with motors—are useful on big lakes, but a drift boat or raft can work in some cases. Be ready for cold water early in the year and dress accordingly. Wade or bank fishing larger lakes is possible and often successful early in the season when most of the fish are cruising the shallower water. For all forms of lake fishing, learn how to use a sinking line or lures weighted enough to get down to the depths of the fish.

Jimmy Lewis has been fishing the waters around southwest Montana for over 20 years.