Parks' Fly Shop: Guided Lake Float Trips

Introduction to Lake Floats

big lake bow

Photo taken at full telephoto from about 75 yards away. That's a 5+lb trout...

Guided float trips on area lakes offer two key advantages. First, they offer visitors extremely consistent fishing for large trout. Fish over eighteen inches are common on all lakes. With the exception of those from Lower Story Lake, most fish caught on our lake trips exceed 1.5 pounds, and many will crack three. Second, the lakes we guide on are usually at their best in the spring and fall, when the Yellowstone River is out of play due to spring runoff or can be inconsistent as water temperatures drop. There are also two downsides. First, the lakes where we run float trips are private, with access fees ranging from $75 to $100 per angler per day. Second, availability is quite limited. One of the lakes we fish has a capacity of only one boat, for example. Basically, it comes down to increased cost in return for increased fish size and decreased competition from other anglers.

The rates below do not include the access fees charged by the landowners (usually called rod fees). When me make reservations with the lakes on your behalf, these fees will be charged along with your deposit to the shop.

Lake trips typically run as full-days, since landowners may or may not offer discounts for shorter trips (though we'll ask on your behalf, if you want a shorter day). For trips to Merrell Lake or the Story Lakes, we'll generally meet between 7:00 and 9:00AM, while trips to Burns Lake, which requires a long drive, will meet between 6:00 and 7:00AM.

Lake Float Trip Rates

lake trip rates

brian williamson story lake

Ugly weather often leads to excellent fishing on the private lakes.

Lake trips are ideal for any anglers who want to fish from a boat when the Yellowstone is in runoff, for anglers who don't want the fast-paced trip of a river float but nevertheless prefer to be in a boat, for anglers with limited mobility, for less-experienced anglers who don't want to take a walk trip, for those who want to ensure limited competition from other anglers, for anyone coming between mid-April and mid-June or after September 20, and for anyone who wants to catch large fish.

They are not ideal trips from mid-July until Labor Day, for anglers who want to see a wide range of water and/or use a wide range of tactics, or (with a few exceptions noted below) for anglers who wish to stick with dry flies.

Please note that availability for lake trips is quite limited, both because these waters are private and only allow a few anglers each day, including anglers booked with guide services besides our own, and because only two of our full time staff and two of our core independent guides work on the lakes. Trips can usually be arranged on short notice prior to mid-June and in October, but for trips at other times, we suggest booking as soon as possible to ensure we can make a reservation on your behalf at the lake of your choice.

Read on for a description of each lake we fish, or click the links for information on Story Lake, Merrell Lake, or Burns Lake.

Story Lakes

tom ochsner lower story rainbow

Pretty Lower Story Lake rainbow.

The Story Lakes are probably the best all-around value in area private lakes. There are two lakes, the upper of seven acres and the lower which is a bit smaller. Both lakes are situated in beautiful "old" agricultural country in Paradise Valley, about thirty miles from Gardiner.

The upper lake is generally the better of the two. It holds rainbow and brook trout, and once in a great while a brown or two. This is our favorite lake for pulling the boat to the side and walking the banks, which are mostly relatively flat and open. This allows us to sight-fish for fish cruising the weed edges. Small, flashy nymphs are usually the ticket for this technique, but there are also appreciable numbers of Callibaetis mayflies which can get the fish rising in May, June, and September, and early and late in the year this lake's fish are suckers for big leeches. If the fish aren't crusing shallow, aren't rising, and aren't eating leeches, we usually fish deep with chironomid imitations. The brook trout are worth noting here. The last few seasons, this lake has been turning out a lot of 14 to 18" brookies, which are gigantic for the species. The rainbows averaged in the same range in 2016, but they can reach 24 inches.

The lower lake holds rainbow and brook trout. Since 2012, rainbows have predominated. The brookies average 12-14 inches, while the rainbows average 12-16 inches. This lake does not present as many opportunities for dry fly fishing or sight-fishing from shore as the upper lake, but it is not as badly impacted by wind, which makes it a better choice for beginners than the upper lake. Chironomids work great here, while at times the fish strongly prefer small Woolly Buggers and leeches.

Rod fees for the Story Lakes are $80 per angler/day. This fee applies to both lakes, so as long as the lakes are not fully booked, it's possible to jump from the upper lake to the lower lake if the wind kicks up. Four rods (two boats) are allowed on the upper lake, while only two rods (one boat) are allowed on the lower lake, so availability can be quite limited, especially in June when traffic really increases. We primarily fish the Story Lakes from mid-April through mid-June and again in October.

Spectacular October brook trout from Upper Story Lake.

Upper Story Lake brook trout

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Merrell Lake

merrell 2016 rainbow 1

All photos in this section were taken in 2016. There were plenty more big fish that didn't smile pretty for the camera.

It was a good year... This fish was caught in mid-June.

Merrell Lake is an 85-acre lake located on the Hubbard's Lodge property. Most of the eastern and southern shores feature steep, wooded banks and a rocky bottom, while much of the western and northern shores have flatter banks covered in cattails. There are only a few places on the lake where bank fishing is possible due to the trees and steep rocky banks in many spots and the sucking mud in others. The lake is exceptionally rich, resulting in heavy aquatic plant growth beginning in mid-late June and green-stained water that allows anglers to use heavy tippets, which is important since the fish love to drag you into the weeds or under the abundant woody cover present in a large portion of the lake. Except for the lake's western shore, most of the Merrell is exceptionally deep, and the shoreline drops into deep water quite quickly.

This one came in mid-October. It was a 40+ fish day, too, though this was by far the largest.

Big rainbow fall 2016

Merrell Lake was hit by a terrible fish kill in 2012, but the 2016 season saw it return to its old glory. In fact, it was far and away our best lake in 2016, producing both numbers of trout and some real monsters. Our clients caught four fish over 6lbs in Merrell in 2016, including THREE this size in one day split between two boats. This was in addition to large numbers of 3-4lb fish and plenty in the 2lb class seen throughout the season, and an average size of around 16 inches and a shape like a football. These fish are virtually all rainbows now, though there are small numbers of cutthroats and an outside chance of a big brown. We hope the brown trout populations see a resurgence; they were the lake's chief draw before 2012.

Since Merrell is so rich, it's often the color of pea soup. This makes larger flies more effective here than on other lakes. In 2016, our top flies during the spring were assorted San Juan Worms, while in the fall we did best on various medium-sized leeches. Chironomid pupae, small peacock-bodied wet flies, and small flashy beadheads are also regular favorites. In June, we can do well on damselfly nymphs. Dry fly fishing here is limited, since the lake tends to be rough and the poor clarity limits the numbers of rising fish, but perhaps two days a season we'll get several fish on dry chironomids, Callibaetis mayflies, or dry damselflies.

We fish Merrell Lake from mid-April through mid-June and again from the middle of September through about October 20. The best fishing is in May and the first half of June and during the first half of October. Rod fees run $100 per angler.

This monster came in early June. Estimated weight: really $&@# big! Too bad it brought along some salad in the net.

giant Merrell rainbow

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Burns Lake

He caught more than grandpa.

Big Burns Lake rainbow, July 2016.

olson brookie

Outfitter Rob Olson with an exceptional Burns Lake brookie. Caught on a dry on our spring check run to the lake.

Burns Lake is a 25-acre lake located near Big Timber, MT. It enjoys the strongest spring water component of any of the lakes we fish, which mean it has the strongest insect populations and water that stays cold enough for good fishing until later in the summer than the other lakes where we guide. This is the lake you want to fish if you want a reasonably solid chance of catching some big stillwater trout on dry flies, and it's a great place if you want to use a variety of techniques.

Burns is home to an eclectic mix of trout, including rainbows, browns, cutthroats, and brook trout. Rainbow and brook trout predominate. The average fish size here is 14-18 inches, but this is a bit misleading because the range of fish is much broader here than elsewhere; there are 10" brook trout, 20" rainbows, and maybe even a few 30" browns. Rest assured that you'll see plenty of fish over 18 inches on a good day.

In May and June, chironomids and leeches are the top producers, while larger streamers and crayfish imitations can also work. On warm, calm days, the shallow flats on the lake's western side offer great dry fly fishing, especially when Callibaetis mayflies or damselfies are hatching. Chances for hatches continue through June and into July, and the possibility of catching fish on ants, beetles, and even hoppers increases as summer progresses. August is really the only month when Burns is typically too warm to fish well, and we avoid it at this time. In the fall, streamers and leeches are the top bets, but since this lake is in low-elevation ranch country, hoppers can work until well into October.

The rod fee on Burns is $100 per angler, and we regularly guide on it in May, June, July, September, and October.

Burns Lake is truly Big Sky Country.

burns lake fall

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phone 406 848 7314, address 202 Second Street South PO Box 196 Gardiner, MT 59030 E-mail Walter Wiese E-mail Richard Parks link to PFS Youtube Channel link to PFS Facebook

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