Hole-hopping for wild walleyes.
About 40 miles southwest of Billings, an inconspicuous 1,000-acre oasis quietly endures south-central Montana’s wind and rays. A closer look, however, reveals a recreational wonderland within view of the ravishing northeast face of the Beartooth Mountains.
It is Cooney Reservoir, and it’s one of Montana’s top walleye lakes, especially if you prefer the self-sustaining type. In fact, on a recent ice-fishing outing there, an 82-year-old angler told me that his best morning on Cooney involved landing four 10-pound wild walleyes, and his biggest ever was a 13-pounder (even accounting for some fish-story hyperbole, that’s something). Cooney also boasts terrific rainbow-trout fishing with individuals exceeding five pounds, and the local-favorite “football” yellow perch.
What better time to pursue these toothy beasts than summer? I’ll tell you—winter. Ice fishing is a revered pastime at Cooney. Twitching a Jigging Rap tipped with a nightcrawler, shiner, or maggot around Marshall Cove, or the peninsula around the North Shore boat ramp, is a good place to start. If you don’t get any action within an hour or two, drill another hole along a different shoreline. Standard regulations apply.
Cooney is an irrigation impoundment of Red Lodge Creek (which also has a few trout both above and below the reservoir) created in 1937, and named for then-governor Frank Cooney (not to be confused with current gubernatorial candidate Mike Cooney, Frank’s grandson). It was first stocked with rainbow trout that same year, and has received brook trout, cutthroat trout, largemouth bass, kokanee salmon, and even coho salmon throughout its lifetime. It didn’t see its first walleye until 1984, and walleye stocking was discontinued in 2005 after it became apparent they’d taken hold.
Cooney State Park encompasses most of the shoreline and hosts over 80 campsites (19 of which have electricity—a rare treat in Montana) at five campgrounds. The campgrounds include picnic areas, boat ramps, horseshoe pits, flush toilets, a fish-cleaning station, fire pits, and amazing views, and they're pet-friendly. Red Lodge Arm, Fisherman's Point, Marshall Cove, and North Shore campgrounds remain open through the winter with electricity but no water; call ahead to request that they plow out a site for you.
From Bozeman, take I-90 east about 100 miles to Columbus. Then follow Hwy. 78 to Shane Creek Road to Boyd Cooney Road to the dam, for another 20 miles. For more information, visit stateparks.mt.gov/cooney.