The surrounding Missoula area is certainly best known for her rivers and streams, but when that famous Glacial Lake Missoula finally fled for the sea, more than a few phenomenal and sometimes over-looked lake fisheries were left behind.
Okay, I admit I have no knowledge of any lakes being directly linked to that massive geological event, but there is just no way that Flathead Lake isn’t keeping the heartbeat so to speak. Here are some of Western Montana’s best lakes for fishing, listed from largest to smallest.
Flanked by the imposing Mission Mountains, the deep, glacial silt green Flathead Lake is worth the drive on Highway 93 North just for the vistas.
But Flathead Lake, the largest body of fresh water west of the Continental Divide, offers some excellent fishing opportunities, too. While there are also some Cutthroats available, a salmon stocking program gone wrong, as well as a mismanaged and miscalculated invertebrate shrimp introduction program has made the lake primarily a Mackinaw or Lake Trout fishery. These fish are great quarry. They are big, strong, nice to look at, and delicious.
Flathead Lake is not necessarily a fly fisherman’s paradise, but quit complaining, walk a few miles in any direction and you are right back in trout town. The lake is thusly best targeted with spinning gear, and a motorized boat helps greatly when trying to find some Macks. Flathead is very, very deep, like bottomless, magical abyss deep, hundreds of feet in places. That is why jigging is the preferred method, with heavily weighted jigging spoons doing nicely.
An old-timer once told me that a bit of WD-40 sprayed on the lure drives the fish wild, and it actually works, although it may violate some environmental covenants… all’s fair in love and fishing, right?
Cliff Note Regulations: Catch and release for all cutthroat trout. Lake Whitefish up to 100 daily and in possession. Lake Trout 100 daily and in possession, there is a slot limit enforced whereas only one fish over 36 inches, and all fish between 30 and 36 inches must not be retained. A reservation permit is required on the southern half of the lake.
Seeley Lake in Missoula County is surrounded by the 4,200-person town of Seeley Lake. It is a fairly short drive from Missoula up Highway 200 and Route 83 towards Glacier Park. The drive along with the views encountered of the Swann and Mission ranges is surely worth the trip alone. I try to remember one thing when I am fishing a new place: “People come here just to hike or photograph or stare.” It puts the angling experience in perspective for me.
Seeley Lake offers decent fishing for Rainbow Trout, and the odd Brown Trout that may reach startling weights. These fish are best targeted by fishing bait suspended deep from a boat or plying the shorelines and rock points with lures and flies early and late season. There is also very productive ice fishing for Northern Pike during the winter months.
Cliff Note Regulations: Catch-and-release for bass. No limit on pike. Salmon five daily and 10 in possession, snagging season open for salmon Oct. 15 through Dec. 31, with 20 daily and 40 in possession during this time. Additionally, spearing for pike is permitted year ’round.
Georgetown Lake is about a 90-minute drive from Missoula through the amazing Pintler Scenic Loop between the quaint towns of Philipsburg and Anaconda.
Georgetown Lake truly fishes well all year long. Winter is a popular time to ice-fish the lake, with the best results coming on Ratso jigs tipped with maggots which are available at the gas station near Philipsburg. Georgetown is well-suited for ice fishermen because it is a broad but fairly shallow lake, and the prospect of sketchy, weak ice is very rare.
In the spring and summer, the lake fishes well from boat or shore, with trolling lures out of motor-boats and stripping leeches out of float tubes popular with spin and fly anglers respectively. The lake boasts a healthy population of Kokanee Salmon which are not very large on average but still a hoot to catch, and great table fare when smoked. The lake also has both Rainbow and Brook Trout. The Rainbows are bolstered by stocking efforts and can be quite available for the catching if you know what I mean. The Brookies, however are wildly reproducing, and can grow quite large for Brook Trout standards, commonly reaching 20 inches.
In late summer, usually mid-August, the lake experiences a heavy hatch of damsel or dragonflies. The nymphs are effective when stripped in slowly over the weedbeds present in the lake’s shallow bays. The adult dries can be seen emerging from the lake near dusk and some of the large trout feed on these insects, providing vigorous sport!
Fall is the time to target the aforementioned Brook Trout, as they inhabit the shallow areas of the lake, seeking vital spawning tributaries. They can succumb quite nicely to flashy lures and Zonker flies. They are certainly beautiful fish at that time of year, dressed fashionably in the colors of the season.
Cliff Note Regulations: No limit on salmon possession, Combined trout, 5 daily and in possession, only 2 of which may be Brook Trout.
Lake Como is a beautiful lake nestled in the Bitterroot Valley near the town of Darby. It is set back on the west side of the highway, and besides the ubiquitous brown sign, one could easily miss the turn and miss out on a great fishery.
The lake has good bank access on the north side, the south side is better fished from watercraft. There are all manner of trout in the lake, including some rainbows that can reach a very large size.
Lake Como is a very popular lake for area recreational boaters, as it is the closest place for Bitterrooters to get out. This can make it a bit busy on summer weekends, but the lake is always cold and the fish will feed more aggressively early and late in the day anyway. A good tactic for spin-fishermen is to use a casting bubble, with nymph flies such as hare’s ears or wooly buggers suspended under the bubble.
The fly fisherman will find success using flies such as sheep creek nymphs and seal-dub leeches. A very productive area is to fish the outflow of the lake on the western corner of the lake. The current of the lake emptying into the creek below creates a predictable flow where trout like to hold, and takes some of the guess-work out of fishing Lake Como.
Cliff Note Regulations: Three Daily and in possession for Trout.
Holland Lake is another fishery on the way to Glacier Park (the back way… Highway 200 to Route 83).
Flanked by the Cabinet and Swan Mountain ranges and the edge of the extensive Bob Marshall Wilderness, Holland Lake offers very good fly and spin fishing for the resident Rainbow, Cutthroat, Bull Trout, and Kokanee Salmon.
Like the aforementioned Lake Como, Holland Lake has a lot of non-fishing enthusiasts. Also like Lake Como, the fishing will be best early and late, as well as on week days.
Cliff Note Regulations: Three daily and in possession for trout, while catch-and-release for Bull Trout and Cutthroat Trout. 20 fish in possession for Kokanee Salmon.
Browns Lake is located just past the sleepy fishing town of Ovando, at the doorstep to the upper Blackfoot Corridor. The lake is 300 acres in size, and is very manageably fished from shore or small watercraft.
There are absolute piggy, hoggy, whale Rainbow Trout - choose your favorite adjective – in Browns Lake and it’s not exactly a closely-guarded secret. These fish are fairly susceptible just after ice-off in early spring, when they are thinking of spawning, and the savvy angler can sight fish to legitimate trout in the 8-12 pound range. Bring your A-game and a camera so your friends believe you.
The Lake is also quite popular for anglers wishing to pursue these behemoths “through the ice.” The lake is small and freezes solidly, making the chances for success high. Effective patterns include orange scud flies and small mepps spinners.
Cliff Note Regulations: Open year round, 3 trout in possession.
Upsata Lake is just west of the town of Ovando about five or so miles. The lake is not easily accessed from the shore due to the generally private land surrounding its entirety, save for one public boat launch. However, if you have ANY manner of floating vessel, Upsata is a great place for an afternoon picnic fishing sort of outing.
There are Bass and Perch in the lake, which make for pretty easy pickings. It’s a good warm-water fishery and an awesome place to take a youngster. Bust out the worms and red/white bobbers and go get em’. Small clousers also work quite well on Upsata Lake’s fishy residents.
Cliff Note Regulations: Catch-and-release for bass, no limit on pike, additionally spearing for pike is legal.
Frenchtown Pond is located, you guessed it, near the town of Frenchtown about twelve miles west of Missoula on I-90.
It is a pretty small body of water, hence the name of pond. Frenchtown offers a varied fishing experience, housing stocked rainbow trout, as well as a healthy population of the top-water loving largemouth Bass. It’s a short drive, easily accessed in Frenchtown State Park, and surprisingly doesn’t get all that busy. It is also a great place to practice rowing a boat or learning to do your “Eskimo rolls” for whitewater kayaking.
All manner of bait and lures will do the job for the spin angler, as well as the good old olive woolly-bugger for the fly snobs.
Cliff Note Regulations: Catch-and-release for bass.
Beavertail Pond is just past the Rock Creek Road exit on I-90 East. It is a pretty straight-forward, man-made pond that can be accessed by shore or boat. There is not much room for a back cast by the fly angler, so kick boats and rafts are popular.
The lake has stocked Cutthroat Trout, Bass, and Rainbows that are stocked by the state at incredible sizes. They tend not to be the prettiest fish, but Beavertail Rainbows can reach 10-11 pounds. I ate one once and it wasn’t bad tasting at all, but it’s kind of like telling your buddies you served Mountain Whitefish sashimi for shore lunch. Another great place to take a youngster and get him or her into some fish.
Leeches fished DEEP or bait or power bait suspended on a rod holder from shore ought to do the job.
Cliff Note Regulations: Bass 5 daily and in possession, combined trout 3 in possession no size limit.
McCormick Pond, located well within city limits, is Missoula’s version of fish in a barrel. I could’ve pole vaulted over the pond back in the day (mind you I was not a talented vaulter).
The fish in there are dumb, and we like them that way, as matching wits is not what the McCormick experience is all about. It is a fishery specifically designed for Father-son or Mother-daughter, or any combination of the two, outings. Only anglers under the age of fourteen may wet a line in the pond.
Some of the brood stock fish that the State hatchery program puts in the pond can reach lengths upwards of thirty inches! Imagine that on the end of a SpongeBob or Princess Jasmine rod.
Throw whatever you have to at these fish, power bait, stinky cheese, corn… all fair game.
Cliff Note Regulations: Season is April 1 through Oct. 30. Three fish daily and in possession. Closed to fishing at all times for anglers older than 14 years of age.