Bar Z Ranch Trip Report

Fly Fishing in Montana

Counting down the days and prepping all of my gear, this was a trip I had been looking forward to all summer. From everything I had heard regarding the Bar Z Ranch, my expectations were set fairly high and they were certainly all met – a lodge that has over 50 miles of private water, two lakes, rivers with deep cut banks that go under further than you can reach, and of course large trout that will rise to a hopper. After hearing all of this I knew we were in for a treat.

The Owner and head guide, Dave Hanson, grew up on Bar Z where he spent his time wrangling cattle and wade fishing the banks of the Upper Smith River. The ranch has been in Dave’s family for generations and has always been a cattle operation, but it wasn’t until the 1990’s when Dave decided to share his passion by opening a fishing lodge as well. Just by spending a little time with him, you will quickly realize how special this place is and how much it means to him. Without Dave’s hard work and dedication, this incredible fishing lodge wouldn’t exist. From the lodging and food to the endless amount of untouched trout water, the Bar Z Ranch is truly one of a kind. 

One great aspect of the Bar Z is the ease of getting there. Most trout fisheries as special and untouched as this one are usually remote and logistically hard to get to. The closest comparison I can think of would be something similar to a Patagonian Estancia.  One with endless rivers to fish and large uneducated trout, but dropped in the middle of Montana.

We flew into Bozeman International airport, which receives daily direct flights from hubs around the country, including DFW. The flight was just under three hours, so perfect for a movie or to get a little work done. The Bozeman airport was just another cool part of our journey – small and easy to get through but reminded me of a ski lodge, with large timber beams, grizzly statues and elk mounts on the walls. From there we rented a car and within two hours we arrived at the Bar Z Ranch, just outside of White Sulphur Springs, MT. 

After arriving at the lodge which sits up on a butte with incredible views, we were greeted by Dave with cocktails and delicious appetizers crafted by chef Tim. The open feel at the lodge from the porch to the bar, living room and dining room made me feel right at home and I knew right away this was where all the after hours fun went down. Shortly after, the rest of our group arrived and we were shown to our rooms. 

The two cabins where most of our group stayed have the same incredible view as the lodge and a total of three bedrooms, all within a 100 feet of the main lodge. Matt Jones, Schuyler Marshall, and myself stayed downstairs inside the main lodge where there’s an additional two bedrooms that share another living room with a pool table and a comfortable sitting area. 

After settling into our rooms and starting to gear up for the next morning, we sat for dinner and enjoyed stories from Dave and Tim’s incredible food, and that was the routine every night. Get back from fishing, appetizers and cocktails, and then wrap up with dinner. We ate like kings the whole trip!

With 55 miles of rivers and two lakes, the Bar Z offers a variety of options from classic freestones that produce 50+ fish days, to sight casting dry flies to suspended trout on the lakes. But the upper Smith River accounts for most of the water on the ranch, and is what sets the Bar Z apart. In this section of river, the Smith winds its way through lush pasture in slow, deep bends, forming countless cutbanks stuffed with big, colorful brown trout.

Day 1: Sheep Creek

On our first day we set off to fish the canyon section of Sheep Creek, a smaller tributary to the Smith where you have the opportunity for 60+ fish days. We hopped in our guide’s truck and drove about 30 minutes to the trailhead. From there we hiked another 20 minutes down into the canyon. No wider than a two-lane road, the creek was fast flowing with loads of mid to large size boulders. As we looked upstream we saw large cliff faces and thick timber surrounding the banks of the river. I will say the canyon section might not be for everyone due to the difficulty of wading across large slippery rocks but the fishing was incredible. We used hoppers all day and occasionally a nymph dropper in some of the deeper holes. Most of the trout were 10 -16 inches but we did hook into a few 18-20 inch fish. We also enjoyed the variety of fish we caught including Browns, Rainbows, Brook trout and a few whitefish. This was definitely the most unique stretch of river we fished on our trip, and if you think you are up for the wading I would highly recommend it. 

Day 2: Smith River

After another long night of sharing stories by the fire and enjoying a delicious meal we laid our heads to rest to regroup for the next day. On our second day of fishing we took off to fish the Smith River. Unlike the long hike and difficult wading from the day before. We pulled the truck right up to the river and the wading was much easier. The riverbed in the Smith is mostly sand and small gravel, and winds its way through the pastures of the ranch.The river was muddy and off color due to some rain we had the night before but the rainbows didn’t seem to mind. We started off using hoppers and caught a few fish in shallow riffles where the trout were eager and looking up, but it was a little too muddy to consistently catch fish on top. We switched over to smaller streamers and started catching a few more fish, mainly rainbows. Unlike the streamer fishing I was used to, casting across and retrieving back or swinging through the pools. The most effective way to catch fish was casting straight up stream inches off bank and retrieving back downstream. Sometimes even under the banks if possible. Throughout the day we caught several rainbows and managed to stick one nice brown that taped out at 22 inches!

Unlike a lot of rivers in the Rockies that have prolific hatches and tons of aquatic insects to munch on. The food source on the Upper Smith mainly consists of crawfish, sculpins, smaller trout, grasshoppers, leeches, tadpoles, worms, etc. The deep undercut banks, untouched water and high protein food source is what makes this place so unique and a sure recipe for growing large fish. 

Day 3: North Fork of the Smith

On day three two of our guests, our guide and myself fished the North Fork of Smith River. The section we fished was like a smaller version of the Smith. The river wound through hay pastures back and forth and almost formed oxbows in a few spots. Due to a day of rest and being further upstream, the North Fork was much clearer which allowed us to get back to the hopper fishing. As we waded up through the river, leapfrogging one another, our guide had us cast a hopper first followed by a streamer. We had a fairly slow morning at first only landing a few fish but as the day went on and the water temps started to rise the fish became more active. We caught several fish during the afternoon on hoppers and lost a few big boys. Laurie managed to stick a nice brown towards the end of the day and as you can see in the image below she was fired up!

After a somewhat slow day on the North Fork, it was nice to hear that Doug and Jill crushed it on one of the lakes. They reported catching over 40 fish, what their guide referred to as a brooky beat down. Doug said they fished mostly streamers throughout the morning, catching tons of aggressive brook trout. But as they moved into the afternoon they started seeing fish on the surface and had fantastic dry fly action for the remainder of the day.

Day 4: Smith River

The next day we fished a new stretch of the Smith and our guide told us this section had not been fished all summer… As you can imagine these fish were a little off their game. With over 50 miles of private water, the guides are able to leave sections of the river untouched for weeks at a time, allowing the fish to get comfortable and uneducated. On this section of the Smith there were tons of willow trees hanging out over the river. So not only did it have massive undercut banks but also large floating grass mats where vegetation floating downriver collected on willow branches. This made for excellent cover for big browns to hold under. 

The water was clear and we had great cloud coverage which made for excellent streamer conditions. Small black leeches were the weapon of choice and boy did they entice the trout. As we moved upstream casting under every grass mat we saw, it was big fish after big fish. We caught multiple browns over 20 inches and of course, there was the giant that got away. Schuyler hooked into one that chased his streamer out from under a moss pad, aggressively engulfed his fly and took off straight downstream. As the line was ripping out of his reel, it managed to wrap the line around a log and broke off. After a moment of silence I asked how big he thought the brown was, his response, “I don’t know…I’ve never seen a fish that big in water this small! Over 25 inches, at least.” 

5th Day: Lower Smith River

On our fifth and final day at the Bar Z, Schuyler and I fished a lower section of the Smith. But just like our first day on the Smith, the river was murky. We struggled all morning getting a fish to eat and almost gave up, until we came across a stretch of hungry fish. We picked off three nice fish for whatever reason and one ended up being the biggest of the trip. Goes to show no matter where you are you can always have a slow day especially when the conditions are off.

Final thoughts

All of the guides were very personable and top notch which made the days even more enjoyable. We were all very impressed with both Chef Tim’s skills in the kitchen and the funny stories he shared. We could not have asked for a better host, as Dave was a delight to be around and knows his home water better than anyone. 

If you’re a trout angler that wants to push your skills and have opportunities at some huge browns, I’d highly recommend the Bar Z. The fishing is difficult due to the trout holding underneath deep cutbanks, but if you can present the fly in front of the fish they will generally eat. Plus, it’s worth it just to witness such a unique trout fishery in an environment that has so much untouched private water.

Overall, everyone in our group had a great experience and the fishing was next level. Between the endless miles of private water, numbers of big fish and the diversity casting opportunity on the lakes to the adventurous canyon section on Sheep Creek, and everything about the Smith River. The Bar Z Ranch is truly a special place with so much to offer. I think I can speak for the whole group in that we will be returning for another glorious week at the Bar Z Ranch.