Quick Facts

  • Price: $4350 // 6 NIGHTS / 5 DAYS FISHING
  • Species: BROWN, RAINBOW, BROOK, AND CUTTHROAT TROUT
  • Seasonality: APRIL – SEPTEMBER
  • Location: WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, MONTANA

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, MONTANA

White Sulphur Springs is eighty miles north of Bozeman, Montana. The Bozeman airport receives daily direct flights from all over the country. After flying to Bozeman, guests either rent a car or take a shuttle two hours to the Bar Z Ranch.

TROPHY BROWN TROUT, PLUS RAINBOWS, CUTTHROAT, AND BROOK TROUT

The Bar Z has 55 miles of private rivers, plus two private lakes. With that much water, the Bar Z offers plenty of variety. However, its crown jewel is the upper Smith River, which accounts for most of the water on the ranch. The upper Smith has all the qualities of a classic spring creek. Its countless cut banks create the perfect habitat for big brown trout.

THE BAR Z RANCH IS OPEN FROM APRIL THROUGH SEPTEMBER

With the exception of runoff in late May, the fishing is excellent any time the lodge is open. June normally brings the best traditional dry fly action on the Smith, while terrestrials are the hot ticket in late summer. Streamer fishing is good throughout the season. (See WHEN TO GO for more details).

The Bar Z Ranch has a relaxed, personal atmosphere and is a great destination for fly fishermen of all skill levels. More experienced anglers focus on trophy brown trout in the Smith River. However, the ranch also has miles of classic freestone where untold numbers of rainbows, brook trout, and cutthroat rise to dry flies all day long.

The Bar Z is the perfect destination for anyone who loves walk & wade fly fishing for big brown trout.

6 Nights / 5 Days Fishing is $4350 (based on shared room / guide)

Shorter and longer trips are available. Single anglers and non anglers are welcome. Please see RATES for more details.

Additional expenses include but are not limited to airfare to/from Bozeman, Montana; transportation from Bozeman 1.5 hours to the ranch; wader/wading boot rental (the ranch has loaner rods/reels); fishing license; gratuities (10-15% of trip cost is customary)

You the client don’t pay a penny for our travel services! Our destination recommendations, organization, and pre-trip planning services are completely free of charge – and oftentimes less expensive than booking direct with a lodge or outfitter. We can assist with every question, concern, or special request related to your adventure at zero cost!

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Miles and miles (and miles) of private water. That’s the first thing that jumps out about the Bar Z Ranch in Montana. The ranch has so much water that the number itself — 55 miles! — is hard to wrap one’s mind around. To put it in more concrete terms, the Bar Z has so much private water that some stretches do not get fished all season long.

The sheer amount of fishable water makes the Bar Z Ranch more comparable to the large estancias of Patagonia rather than any trout fishing lodges in North America. In fact, we are not aware of any other fly fishing operation in the U.S. that has as much private water (not even close). But its not just the nearly endless amount of water that firmly places the Bar Z in the upper echelon of trout fishing lodges — it is the quality of that water. The headwaters of the renowned Smith River meander through the Bar Z Ranch. The upper Smith is low gradient, with all the qualities of a spring creek winding through flat, lush prairie. Its countless cut banks are chock full of BIG, colorful brown trout.

The confluences of several Smith River tributaries are also located on the Bar Z. The tributaries include miles of classic freestone that hold mostly rainbows, as well as brook trout and westslope cutthroat. Dry fly fishing is the rule on these waters. The diversity of water types, species, and fishing styles of these tributaries are a great contrast to the spring creek-like Smith — but the Smith River is the main event due to the monster browns that thrive there.

The lodge only takes 6-8 anglers per week, even though it could easily handle several times as many fishermen. This tiny amount of traffic spread over so much water means that human pressure is simply a non-factor, and it shows. It shows in the fishing, with large browns chasing and eating flies without hesitation. In fact, the larger trout on the Bar Z are often more aggressive than the small ones, which only happens with completely uneducated fish.

The lack of pressure also shows in other, more subtle ways. Wildlife abounds, and on the river anglers have regular encounters with deer, moose, otters, waterfowl, and a myriad of other wild creatures. Even the grass reflects the lack of traffic; there seem to be no trails on the Bar Z. Typically, the grass along a blue ribbon trout stream is trampled down by a steady parade of anglers. On the Bar Z, however, the grass is tall, straight, and untrodden. The opportunity to fish rivers that have barely a trace of human presence is what makes not only the fishing, but the entire Bar Z Ranch experience so rare and special.

Destination Details

Destination Description

The Bar Z is a large working cattle ranch near White Sulphur Springs, Montana. It has been owned and operated by the same family since the 1880’s, when they were among the first pioneers to the area, just a few years after Custer’s last stand on the Little Bighorn. Having their choice of where to homestead, the family naturally chose the well-watered valleys, lush pasture, steady springs, and river confluences on the headwaters of the Smith River. In this idyllic setting, they founded the Bar Z Ranch.

Over a century later, the family started a small, exclusive trout fishing operation. They found that almost all of their clients returned every year, so they did not need to do any marketing. For that reason, the Bar Z has stayed well below the radar in angling circles despite its outrageous brown trout fishing. The ranch has hosted several Casting for a Cure events (raising funds and awareness for rett syndrome), but that is as close as the Bar Z has come to the spotlight.

Keeping the fishing operation small has had other benefits besides uneducated fish. Hosting just a few anglers per week translates into a personal, family atmosphere. Only a few full-time guides are needed, which means that those guides are first-rate and know the rivers intimately. It also means that the dollars spent on the lodging itself have gone towards high-end amenities, instead of toward extra space and more beds.

The Bar Z is one of those destinations that checks all the boxes. With gorgeous surroundings, elegant accommodations, great food, quick and easy travel, and some of the finest trophy brown trout fishing found anywhere, we expect the Bar Z Ranch to be one of our go-to trout fishing destinations for a long, long time.

bar z ranch homestead

The Fishing

With 55 miles of rivers and two lakes, the Bar Z offers variety, from classic freestone with nonstop dry fly action, to sight casting on the flats of shallow lake shorelines (more on those below). 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.

UPPER SMITH RIVER

The Crow Indian word “bar-zee” roughly translates as “brown-trout-long-as-my-arm.” OK, that is completely made up, but if native speakers still roamed the upper Smith River country it would be spot-on. The upper Smith is loaded with trophy browns. The consistent quality of the fish here is even more impressive given the modest size of the river. All the fishing on the Bar Z is walk and wade since the upper Smith and its tributaries are too small to float in a drift boat. It seems impossible that a stream this size produces so many fish over twenty inches, and even a few that hit the thirty inch mark.

Smith River brown trout

Obviously, it is not your typical trout stream. The upper Smith produces so many monster browns because the mix of food sources is quite different than most western trout streams. But, different food sources also means that the fish behavior is different, which in turn dictates a different fly selection and fishing style than on a “typical” trout stream. This is something that all anglers considering a trip to the Bar Z should understand.

Most of the upper Smith slowly meanders through relatively flat, lush prairie — in character very much like a spring creek. The low gradient means that the river bottom is generally gravel and sand, rather than the rocks and boulders of a typical freestone. It is a great habitat for menu items like crayfish, terrestrials, baitfish, worms, tadpoles, leeches, and mice. These tend to be big mouthfuls, and they sustain a trout population distribution that skews heavily towards large fish.

Smith River fly fishing

Of course there are also aquatic insects on the upper Smith, notably the callibaetis mayfly, but these bugs seem to feed the smaller browns and brook trout. The big fish focus on big meals. This means that the larger fish tend to be opportunistic rather than selective feeders, and may move more readily for a large fly than a small one. So, for instance, streamer fishing tends to be productive all season long, and late summer provides good action on big terrestrials like hoppers. Hatches and traditional dry fly action are somewhat less reliable on the upper Smith.

Plenty of rivers have big fish, but catching them can be another story. Waters that produce numbers of trophy trout tend to get all the angling attention, which in turn educates the fish — especially the bigger, older specimens. The Bar Z is truly unique in this regard. The lodge only takes around 100 anglers during a season more than 4 months long, and spreads them out over 55 miles of river and two lakes. This translates into each stretch of river, on average, only getting fished a handful of times per year.

This lack of pressure shows in the cooperative fish behavior. The big browns on the Bar Z eat. For instance, they aggressively chase and devour streamers. The smallish size and slow flow of the upper Smith makes it most effective to cast upstream and strip streamers down. This leads to many large browns charging downstream after a streamer to eat it close to the angler — a very visual game.

So, what makes the upper Smith River on the Bar Z great is one part natural habitat that grows huge browns, and an equal part lack of pressure that keeps the trout acting like trout, unmolested by man. If you love brown trout and intimate, walk & wade trout streams, you will love the upper Smith River.

upper Smith River

NORTH AND SOUTH FORKS OF THE SMITH RIVER

The Smith River’s two main tributaries, the North and South Forks, meet on the ranch. For miles above the confluence, they continue to slowly coil through flat prairie with sweeping bends forming one cut bank after another. These sections of the North and South Forks are therefore extensions of the Smith, with the same character, fish diet, and fishing style. As tributaries, they are slightly smaller than the main Smith — but the fish in them are just as big.

Upstream, the North Fork is dammed to form a lake at the point where the long, relatively flat pasture section begins to climb into foothills. Above the lake, the gradient is slightly steeper so the North Fork loses the characteristics of the upper Smith and takes on more qualities of a freestone. Too cold for browns, it is filled with rainbows and brook trout.

This section of the North Fork is a fairly small stream. Some sections braid through willows and are too tight to fish, but when combined in a single channel the North Fork forms plenty of classic pools and riffles that all hold fish. Even at its size, it produces fish up to 20 inches regularly. Aquatic insects are the staple for the fish. Therefore, fishing dries, a dry/dropper setup, or terrestrials in late summer is the norm. This section of the North Fork adds variety to the Bar Z’s menu, providing species diversity and a more surface oriented fishing style when compared to the Smith.

angler fighting trout

SHEEP CREEK

While the Smith is the Bar Z’s crown jewel, the home water at the lodge is Sheep Creek. The lodge is nestled on a hill overlooking a lush valley floor that Sheep Creek meanders through. About a mile below the lodge, Sheep Creek drops out of the meadow and into a long canyon section. It eventually joins the Smith at Smith River State Park (the put-in for the famous sixty mile Smith River Canyon float).

The canyon section of Sheep Creek is a classic Rocky Mountain freestone. Its energetic flow is a great contrast to the slowly snaking Smith River. Sheep Creep holds a few big browns, but mostly rainbows and brook trout, as well as native westslope cutthroat. On average, the fish are smaller than on the Smith, but they are seemingly behind every rock. Because the Bar Z has so much other water, Sheep Creek barely gets fished. The number of fish and lack of pressure make for unbelievable fishing, simply using attractor dries. 100 fish days are possible for those inclined to go for numbers.

Sheep Creek is the perfect river for anyone new to fly fishing — particularly kids. They are sure to have not only success, but constant action. This is a place that can really shorten the fly fishing learning curve. Countless times in a day on Sheep Creek, an angler will practice reading the water, presenting the fly, making drifts, setting the hook, managing line, fighting, landing, and releasing fish. He or she can make every mistake in the book and still catch fish. Before long, many of the small, overlooked details of fly fishing start to become second nature on a river like this.

But don’t get us wrong — Sheep Creek is not only a river for beginners. Sometimes experienced fishermen need a change of pace or palate cleanser after trophy hunting on the Smith for several days. These anglers will love the therapeutic, zen-like state resulting from trout rising to almost every well-placed fly, set to the rhythm of a cascading mountain freestone.

Sheep Creek fly fishing

PRIVATE LAKES

The Bar Z has two private lakes that are each around ten acres. One of them was just stocked with westslope cutthroat. We have high hopes that in a few years, this will be the go-to spot to catch the area’s native trout.

The other lake is spring-fed, which translates into prolific hatches, healthy trout and consistent fishing. Depending on the day and time, a variety of tactics and flies can work here for the resident rainbows, browns, and brook trout. But what makes this lake special is a long, shallow shoreline where it is possible to sight-cast to cruising fish for hours on end. It can be a challenge to coax these fish in the shallows to eat one artificial fly among thousands of the real thing, but it would be boring if it were easy right?

Bar Z lake fly fishing

upper Smith River Montana

Smith River brown trout

Accommodations

The Bar Z built a new lodge with three guest cabins in 2014. They could not be more tastefully done, combining luxury with a genuine western ranch feel. The setting is gorgeous, with the lodge perched high on a lone hill in the middle of a broad valley. Sheep Creek winds its way across the valley floor below the lodge. Elk, deer, and a variety of birds and other wildlife form a near-constant parade below the lodge.

The living room, dining area, and large covered porch in the main lodge have wonderful views up the valley and are great places to observe wildlife or simply soak in the vistas in all directions. Indoor and outdoor fireplaces keep things cozy regardless of the weather. The lodge has good wifi, TV, and a pool table. The heated garage is a great place to dry waders and boots and organize gear. A washer and dryer allow the option to wash clothes and therefore travel light.

bar z ranch lodge

The cuisine is up to the high standard set by the fishing and lodge accommodations. Breakfast includes eggs cooked to order, hash browns, sausage, bacon, toast, and honey produced on the ranch. Lunches are typically sandwiches or wraps made to order, plus several sides, taken in the field. After a long day of fishing, the hors d’oeuvres feature dishes like ceviche and sushi rolls, plus a good selection of liquor, beer and wines. Dinners are upscale comfort food and include steaks, pork tenderloin, chicken marsala, lobster macaroni & cheese, and baby back ribs. You will not go away hungry!

The main lodge has a couple of bedrooms that are used with large groups, but the primary guest quarters are in three separate cabins. Each cabin has two queen beds with really comfortable mattresses, fine linens, and built-in reading lights. There are closets and credenzas for storing clothes and gear, comfortable chairs, artwork and other appropriate decor. The bathrooms have impressive technology including showers on a timer, heated floors, and even heated towel bars. These are truly some of the most comfortable rooms we have found at any fishing lodge.

Bar Z guest room

The lodge has only a two person staff in addition to the guides; a housekeeper and a chef who used to own a locally famous cafe. The guides stay at the lodge and help out with any tasks necessary to keep the operation running smoothly. This also means that guides hang out and eat with clients in the mornings and evenings. We mention this because it gives the entire experience a personal feel, like you are part of the family. This is an underrated aspect of the Bar Z’s vibe, and a great contrast from many lodges with a more corporate atmosphere, which can make clients feel like just another number. At the Bar Z, clients and guides usually end the week with bear hugs and plans for next year.

Bar Z guest cabin

Bar Z lodge

Travel

The Bar Z is just north of White Sulphur Springs, about eighty miles north of Bozeman, Montana. The Bozeman airport is the busiest in the state, accounting for around 30% of all passengers flying to Montana. As such, Bozeman receives flights from all over the country, including daily direct flights from DFW and IAH.

From the Bozeman airport, it is a two hour drive to the Bar Z. Most guests rent a car at the Bozeman airport to make the drive. Private shuttles are also easily arranged and work well for groups.

So, traveling to the Bar Z is straightforward. Most guests will have a leisurely travel day where they leave home at a reasonable hour, land in Bozeman and drive to the Bar Z in plenty of time for dinner the same evening.

Montana stock

Sample Itinerary

TRAVEL DAY

Fly to Bozeman, Montana. Rent car or take private shuttle two hours to the Bar Z near White Sulphur Springs.

FISHING DAYS

The fishing at Bar Z typically starts on the later side and gets progressively better throughout the day. So, even though coffee is ready around 6:00 a.m., feel free to sleep in! Early risers will be treated to elk herds in the valley below the lodge and beautiful sunrises. This is a great time to catch up on emails . . . or ignore your devices completely and soak up natural beauty and tranquility.

Breakfast is served around 8:00 a.m. There is usually no need to leave the lodge to go fishing before 9:00 a.m. Lunch is usually taken in the field. Fish until the late afternoon/evening, then return to the lodge for cocktails and appetizers. Depending on how late you fish, dinner is normally served around 7:00 or 8:00 p.m.

There is no set schedule at the Bar Z, so guests are free to customize their days.

DEPARTURE DAY

Return to Bozeman and fly home (or to your next destination).

Smith River fly fishing guide

When to Go

THE BAR Z RANCH IS OPEN FROM APRIL THROUGH SEPTEMBER

April – May

The weather in April and early May is normally cool, but as with many trout fishing destinations, the bigger fish are hungry after the long winter. As the temperatures start to warm up, but before runoff really gets going, the fishing can be excellent. (Runoff typically peaks late May/early June).

June

After runoff subsides, the temperatures are warm and the trout active as they look to fill their bellies. Late June brings some of the more prolific insect hatches and dry fly action.

July – August

Temperatures and fishing conditions in July and August are normally ideal, with good action on terrestrials later in the summer.

September

September is a great time to fish the Bar Z. The weather cools down, but the larger fish become more active again as they gorge themselves before the truly cold weather sets in.

Smith River brown trout

Non-Angling Activities

While the Bar Z Ranch is primarily a fishing lodge and does not have a standard non-angling program, there is still plenty to do for those who enjoy a bit of exploring. Even for companions that prefer to simply relax at a nice lodge, there is gorgeous scenery and wildlife all around.

HIKING

There is national forest in every direction from the Bar Z, along with a number of fun hiking trails. These include Memorial Falls trail, a ½ mile hike to two scenic falls. The trailhead is about 30 minutes north of the ranch. Another good option is Elephant Rock, about 45 minutes east of White Sulphur Springs. This is another short ½ mile trail that ends at an area with lots of rock outcroppings and beautiful view of the Smith River valley.

WILDLIFE VIEWING & PHOTOGRAPHY

Wildlife abounds on the Bar Z and throughout the area. Large animals like elk and deer can be seen almost daily from the main lodge, plus a wide variety of birds, including bald eagles and sandhill cranes. The non-angler that tags along with the fishermen has the potential to see even more: moose, pronghorn antelope, marmots, and all kinds of riparian bird and insect life. The innumerable ground squirrels in the area attract lots of birds of prey.

SIGHTSEEING IN WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS

While White Sulphur is small, it has a few curiosities that can provide a day’s worth of activities. A castle built by an eccentric in 1892 is now the Meagher County Museum, displaying artifacts from local history. The Ringling family, of circus fame, used to live in White Sulphur and you can still check out their “mansion” and a couple of their old train cars that used to transport the circus. The Stockman Bar has been a White Sulphur institution since the 1930’s, and it features prominently in Ivan Doig’s autobiography This House of Sky.

LOCAL EVENTS

There are a couple of events in White Sulphur that you should make sure to check out if they coincide with your trip. The Red Pants Music Festival in late July features well-known musicians and brings upwards of 20,000 people to town. If you miss the festival, you still might be able to catch some live music at one of the bars or other venues around town. If your trip is around the first of September, be sure not to miss the Labor Day Rodeo, a PRCA event.

mule deer at Bar Z

Rates

6 nights/5 days fishing:$4,350 per person
5 nights / 4 Days Fishing:$3,650 per person
4 nights / 3 Days Fishing:$2,900 per person

All prices based on shared room/guide.

Single angler supplement is +$250 per day.

Non-angling rate is $300 per day

WHAT’S INCLUDED

All meals and beverages; Flies and loaner equipment (except waders and boots)

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED

Roundtrip airfare to/from Bozeman, Montana; ground transportation between Bozeman airport and the lodge; wader/boot rental; fishing license; gratuities (10-15% of trip cost is customary)

TERMS & CONDITIONS

Tailwaters Travel must adhere to the cancellation policies of the guides, outfitters and lodges which it represents. Bar Z Ranch’s policy follows:
A non-refundable fifty-percent (50%) deposit is required at the time of booking to confirm all reservations. All trips must be paid in full 90 days prior to departure day. A deposit may be transferred to another person who is not booked at the lodge for the current season. Deposits are refundable for cancellation only after/if the cancelled space has been filled at least 90 days prior to trip dates. Refunds are not granted due to weather. Refunds of deposits/payments made on credit cards will be charged a 3.5% service charge to fully compensate Tailwaters Travel for all bank charges incurred. Receipt of deposit and/or final payment is acknowledgement that registrant has read and accepts the cancellation, refund and responsibility clauses.

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