Into the Great Wide Open

Lakes to fish near Bozeman.

The lowland lake fishing within a day’s drive from Bozeman can be rewarding—even if the fish aren’t biting, the scenery from shore or boat makes the trip worthwhile. Hebgen Lake outside West Yellowstone is one such lake. This beautiful body of water is a little-known treasure for fishermen all year round. With 95 percent of the shoreline residing on National Forest land, this 12,000-acre reservoir is beautiful and loaded with trout—but not with boats and anglers.

The fish are hungriest at ice-out, which typically occurs around Mother’s Day, but can be as early as mid-April or as late as the end of May. Nightcrawlers are the food of choice this time of year, when shore fishing is easy. Quake Lake, just to the west, fishes similarly in the springtime, and is particularly well-suited to fly fishing due to its relatively shallow depth. The fish stay hungry well through June in both lakes, and anglers will experience the most success by sticking to shallower waters. When the weather and water warm up, however, most of the trout plunge to the depths of the lakes. Dragging flies or trolling down through deep channels with bright lures can yield nice catches throughout the summer. The periodic hatches on the lake shorelines draw out fly fishermen in their tubes going after the big gulpers.

Fall is arguably the best time to pull big fish out of Hebgen, and three-pound-plus rainbows and browns are common. Then, throughout the winter and extending until late March, ice builds to 18-inches or more, but cagey fishermen will still be able to catch trout near the shorelines or the dam where they hang fairly close to the surface.

Closer to home, there are several other great stillwater fishing opportunities within a day-trip radius of Bozeman. Cliff and Wade are two picturesque natural lakes about 40 miles south of Ennis. As a great venue for fly fishing, spin fishing, and trolling, they might be a lot smaller than the neighboring Hebgen, but they’re known for holding monster rainbows and browns. In fact, Wade Lake used to hold the brown trout state record at 29 pounds, until it was broken in 2021. That doesn’t mean a new record isn’t out there, but you might have to work a little harder for it at your favorite local reservoir this summer.

Mark Ward is the captain of the Montana Outdoor Radio Show, heard on 20 stations statewide every Saturday morning from 6-8am and at