Big Trout Ranch - Twin Bridges, Montana

A Rave Review For Big Trout Ranch
“Thanks to The Angling Report’s FREE Fishing Program, my wife, Ruth, and I just returned from a trip to Big Trout Ranch near Twin Bridges, Montana, smack in the heart of some of the finest trout fishing in the lower 48 states. John and Cynthia Osborne own and operate the ranch, which consists of 1,400 acres along the banks of the Beaverhead River. Big Trout Ranch is not a lodge, nor are the Osbornes fishing outfitters. What they offer is high-quality, individual-home lodging for anglers who want to fish the blue ribbon waters of southwest Montana without going through a full-service lodge.

As for the fishing you can enjoy from Big Trout Ranch, the ranch itself offers some very good on-site fishing that can be enjoyed on a self-outfitted basis. The larger attraction, however, are the famous trout streams nearby such as the Big Hole, the Jefferson, the Ruby and the Madison. There are hundreds of miles of water fishable on foot or by driftboat near Big Trout Ranch. In addition, there are small mountain streams in the surrounding mountains that can provide great fun for the hiking fisherman. Independent anglers with a little direction from the Osbornes can enjoy fishing much of this water on their own, or the Osbornes can recommend some local guides. Either way, the ranch serves as a central base for an angler to enjoy a variety of fishing opportunities at his or her own schedule.

Big Trout Ranch is a working ranch located just a few miles southwest of Twin Bridges, in a broad valley ringed by the Tobacco Root, Ruby and Pioneer mountain ranges. The snow-capped peaks of the mountains form a perfect backdrop to this lush valley, steeped in western history. More than 200 years ago, Lewis and Clark actually brought their boats up the same waters of the Beaverhead that we fished on the Big Trout Ranch. Beaverhead Rock, which we could see from the deck of our ranch home, was the landmark Sacagawea recognized when Lewis and Clark were beginning to despair of ever finding the horses they needed to cross the Continental Divide. Sacagawea, of course, was the Shoshone Indian woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition. When she recognized that rock formation, she knew they soon would arrive in the land of her people. It’s a powerful experience to walk the same streambed that was so pivotal in the discovery of the American West.

But fishing was the reason for our visit, so I’ll return to that. For our first day, the Osbornes had arranged for us to fish with local guide Greg Lilly. Lilly lives in Twin Bridges and has an amazing flyfishing pedi- gree. His father founded and operated the legendary Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop in West Yellowstone, Montana. Lilly has not only fished and guided since childhood, he even teaches how to be a flyfishing guide through his Greg Lilly’s School for Professional Flyfishing Guides.

He is an incredible guide. Since our timing coincided with the first flush of spring runoff (the Madison River at Ennis was the color of a Starbucks café au lait), Lilly’s knowledge of the local waters was invaluable. He selected a stretch of the Big Hole for us to float, and it was a great suggestion. While the water level had risen in the last few days, the clarity was still good, and Lilly knew every shelf and run that held fish. We spent about half our time drifting and the other half wading some of the more productive runs. We caught browns and rainbows (along with an occasional whitefish) consistently through the float. While there were a few caddis and mayflies in the air, there were no fish rising, so we nymphed most of the day. We used a double rig of a stonefly nymph trailing a San Juan worm, with the majority of the fish taking the trailer.

Lilly told us that the Big Hole has nearly 100 miles of fishable water, and it’s just a glorious river to fish. We saw wildlife continually and only saw two other boats the entire day. We probably brought about 30 fish to hand (plus a bunch more that I managed to lose). Most of the fish were in the 10- to 14-inch range, with my wife, Ruth, landing two 17-inch browns and my best a slightly smaller rainbow that was very acrobatic. All the fish were healthy, fat, beautifully marked and very strong. We had a great day. Lilly charges $425 per day, including pickup and drop-off, boat shuttle, lunch and beverages.

That evening, Ruth and I had dinner at the Old Hotel in Twin Bridges rather than cooking for ourselves in our cabin at the ranch, which was equipped with a fully-furnished kitchen. The Old Hotel is considered one of the finest restaurants in Montana, and our meal was excellent. Reservations are highly recommended, as it was full the night we ate there. We watched four fishermen being turned away because there were no empty tables.

We spent the last two days of our trip exploring the ranch itself. We learned the Osbornes retired from corporate life (although John still sits on several company boards) about 10 years ago and purchased their first property along the Beaverhead. Since that time, they’ve added to their land and now own 1,400 acres of river bottom and upland farmland. They’ve been working since their first purchase to enhance the natural habitat for birds, mammals and fish.

The abundance of wildlife on the ranch is just astounding. There were literally hundreds of whitetail deer throughout the fields and river bottoms, along with ducks, Canada geese, doves, pheasants, Hungarian partridge, hawks, ospreys, eagles, herons and my favorite, sandhill cranes. It was breathtaking.

As for the onsite fishing, the Big Trout Ranch includes over a mile of the Beaverhead, two miles of lovingly-restored spring creek, and two ponds that are packed with rainbow trout. We sampled all of that water and wished we had more time to explore. In this part of the valley, the Beaverhead widens and slows and is somewhat placid in nature. We found this meant the fish were concentrated in elbow bends rather than in the longer, flatter sections with few features. A moderate caddis hatch came off both mornings we fished the river, and we were able to catch numerous browns to about 16 inches on small, tan parachute caddis dries. The key was to move fairly briskly upstream searching for rising fish and then target the risers and move on when we had exhausted a pool.

My biggest river fish of the trip came on the afternoon that I fished the Beaverhead on the ranch. A strong wind had come up and a thunderstorm rumbled across the mountains to the north, so I switched to a big tan and white Clouser to probe some of the deeper pools. During that time, I caught two nearly identical 19-inch browns on the streamer. They were strong, heavy fish and both jumped high out of the water at least once before coming to hand. I was pleasantly surprised at how many of those Beaverhead browns would take to the air when hooked.

We also did a little fishing in both ponds and caught many rainbows, some up to 20 inches, and we saw much bigger ones cruising. In the larger pond, we were able to catch most of our fish on the dry half of a dry-and-nymph rig. It was great fun to watch these fish flash up out of the depths and nail the dry.

I fished only a short time on the ranch’s spring creek, but walked nearly half the length of it admiring the work that John and Cynthia have done in restoring it. They’ve just completed restoring the entire length of the creek on their property, deepening pools, building spawning riffles, adding bank hides, logs and willow ball structures. They also hand-planted over 1,700 seedlings of dogwood, cottonwood and willow. The creek averages four to six feet wide, and I would predict that this will offer great sport for the technical fly fisherman as trout start moving up into the creek from the river. Over time, as some of the trees grow to help provide shade and cover for the fish, this creek will provide great spawning and rearing habitat.

The accommodations at Big Trout Ranch consist of three different homes, all separated and very private. The Vintage Log Cabin is an original homesteading cabin that was built in the 1880s and beautifully restored by Cynthia. It sits on the banks of the spring creek and a short walk from the river and one of the ponds. It’s fully furnished with kitchen and bath and would be perfect for an individual fisherman or a couple.

Big Brown is a four-bedroom, five-bath log home elevated on a bench above the river valley. It has wonderful views of the surrounding mountains.

The Kamloops is a fully remodeled former ranch home with five bedrooms and four baths. It has a panoramic view of the river bottom and the mountains to the west and north and a marvelous deck for watching the sunset, or for watching the wildlife start to stir as the sun first comes across the valley. Kamloops also has a huge and incredibly beautiful high-back bar on the lower level, along with pool table, darts and poker table. Cynthia rescued the bar from a classic Montana saloon that was being demolished. She and John and eight friends moved the entire wood-mirror-and-neon bar in one piece in the back of a horse trailer.

All of the accommodations are tastefully furnished with handmade wood furniture and set off with historic ranch and farm accents. Each home has a spacious and relaxed western feel and all have satellite TV, full kitchen facilities and outside grills. Meals are self-catered. If you plan to cook your own meals instead of eating out, know that the wine/liquor selection at the market in Twin Bridges is very limited, and the food selection isn’t a great deal better. So, you may want to buy groceries elsewhere.

The high season rates (May through September) range from $95 per night for the Vintage Log Cabin (two people meximum) up to $325 per night for the Kamloops (six people maximum:, or $650 to $2,100 respectively for a week. Those rates include the rights to fish any of the waters on the ranch property. John and Cynthia offer seasonal specials as well.

Summing up, it’s hard for me to express what a special trip this was for my wife and me. The solitude and peacefulness of the ranch, the amazing amount of wildlife, the excellent accommodations and the quality and variety of the nearby fishing is hard to beat. The Osbornes are warm and gracious hosts, and their love of this special place is obvious. We will definitely go back. “

(Written by Bob Peters for The Angling Report, June 2007)