Guided Montana Float Trips
Float trips in drift boats and rafts are the most popular guided trips in Yellowstone Country. Few experiences are more fun than floating down a beautiful Western river, casting dry flies up to the bank and getting lots of strikes from aggressive trout, all while surrounded by fabulous scenery. Oar-powered boats allow visiting anglers to access sections of rivers that are difficult or impossible to fish on foot, and offer great opportunities for lots of fish in many areas and big ones in some others.
In addition to river floats, I also offer float trips on Montana private lakes. These lakes are reservoirs located on large ranches and range in size from six to over ninety acres. They are particularly good bets in the spring and early, when they are just warming up and their fish cruise the shorelines fattening up after a hard winter under the ice, and again in the fall, when cooling water temperatures cause the trout to go into a feeding frenzy, preparing for the long winter ahead.
Please read on for more information on each type of float trip.
Nice rainbow from Lower Story Lake. Photo courtesy Eric Heinsohn.
River Float Trips in Montana
I offer river float trips on many rivers in southern and southwest Montana. I personally guide river trips on the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, while my contract staff offer additional opportunities on the Madison, Jefferson, and other rivers. River float trips are available from March through mid-November, and are the most-popular trips I offer from late June or early July through September, basically from the end of the spring melt through the first extended cold snap.
River float trips offer a lot of different options depending on the time of year and the interests and skill levels of my clients. Depending on where we float and what tactics we use, anywhere from a whole lot of medium-sized trout on dry flies to a few big ones on streamers are possible. This means that we can run fish many days in succession and never do exactly the same thing twice.
Float trip hybrid, caught on a dry.
In the spring, before the spring runoff, the best bet is often to float short stretches of river and either anchor or get out to fish the best spots on foot. This is also a good bet in the fall, particularly during hatches. During the high season, July through the middle of September, we'll usually float a longer stretch of river and do all or almost all our fishing from the boat. In the spring and late in the fall, nymphs and streamers are the most productive flies on guided float trips. In the summer, opportunities are available for all different kinds of tactics. That said, my trips from July through September focus on dry fly fishing as much as possible. During the July through September period, over 90% of the trout my clients catch are caught on dry flies. Admittedly, most of the really big fish eat streamers. All guides and outfitters like to put their clients on fish willing to eat dries, but I push this aspect of my business as hard as possible. If there's fish willing to eat dries, I'll put you on them.
I'll also do something very few Montana fishing guides are willing to do: I float Yankee Jim Canyon in my drift boat, when levels are appropriate (typically extending from late July or early August for about a month to six weeks). This rugged and beautiful stretch of the Yellowstone sees far less traffic from fishing guides than any other stretch of the Yellowstone, and I am the only guide to do it in a drift boat rather than a less-nimble and less-comfortable rubber raft. This stretch offers exceptional fishing for trout that don't see anywhere near as many "fake bugs" as those that live on other stretches of the river. It's a particularly good bet for anglers who want to get a lot of solid cutthroat trout on dry flies, all while enjoying some whitewater fun.
River float trips are great choices for anglers with some fly fishing experience. Because the guide is busy rowing the boat and can't offer much hands-on instruction, river floats aren't great choices for complete beginners. That said, beginners who are willing to put up with some fishing frustration in exchange for a relaxing day on the river can have a great time on floats.
I run my personal Yellowstone River trips exclusively through Parks' Fly Shop. I generally outfit trips to other destinations and trips utilizing multiple guides through my own licensure.
First image: big July Yellowstone River float trip brown, caught on a dead-drifted streamer.
Second image: big September Yellowstone River float trip rainbow/cutthroat hybrid, caught on a dry.
2017 River Float Trip Rates
Montana Private Lake Float Trips
Floating Yellowstone Country private lakes is becoming a more and more popular option. While private lakes are still less popular than the other private water options nearby, namely the Paradise Valley spring creeks, and are far less popular than floating rivers, they offer certain advantages: first and foremost, they are at their best in spring and fall, and so offer good opportunities when area rivers are out of play due to the spring melt or are starting to get somewhat inconsistent with the onset of winter weather. Second, they are by far the best boat trips for beginners and novices, since the guide doesn't have to work as hard at handling the boat and can offer more instruction. Third, they offer uncrowded fishing for trout that run big: 14-22 inches on average.
I outfit and guide on three private ranches in the area. There are two small lakes on the Story Ranch property near Emigrant, a significantly larger lake on the Hubbard's Lodge property in Paradise Valley, and a medium-sized lake on the Burns Ranch property near Big Timber. The predominant trout in all lakes are rainbows, but there are some large (14-18") brook trout in the Story Ranch Lakes and Burns Lake, a few cutthroats in Merrell Lake and Burns Lake, and some browns in Merrell. Of these, the browns get the largest, averaging over 18 inches, while the rainbows come in second.
Fishing the lakes usually involves fishing with nymphs and leeches subsurface, but some dry fly fishing is possible in late spring and early summer and again in September. Because the trout in these lakes are usually very fat and powerful and the lakes hold a lot of weeds, logs, and other obstructions, you can expect difficult, nip-and-tuck fights from just about every fish.
The private lakes are best from late April through June and again from early September through the middle of October. They are very poor choices in midsummer, when they get quite warm. My rates for private lake float trips are $75 less than those for full-day Yellowstone River float trips, but additional access fees of $75-100 per angler per day apply. Please note that half-day trips are not available on private lake trips.
2017 Private Lake Float Trip Rates