A Western Dude Ranch Family Fly Fishing Vacation

Reprinted from The Maine Sportsman

Montana Cowboy HatsAlong a deserted stretch of highway a couple of hours south of Glacier National Park, a weather-beaten wooden sign marked the turn that lead to the JJJ Wilderness Ranch.  So, with the western face of the Rockies planted squarely in our windshield, we rattled down 40 miles of rough dusty road, until it dead-ended near the headwaters of the Sun River, just below the outlet of Gibson Dam.

From this location, an angler can choose from an almost endless variety of opportunities that range from enjoying an evening hatch for a few hours along a roadside section of the Sun River, to spending a couple of weeks fishing your way through the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  As soon as I drove through the split rail fence that marked the entrance to the JJJ and saw the looks on our kids faces, I knew this trip was going to be about much more than just fishing.

The major diversion of course was the horses, which roamed free and greeted us en masse as we pulled into the yard.  After months of anticipation, shrieks of joy echoed across Mortimer Canyon as three streaks bolted from the truck to inspect the corral and their new surroundings.   Fortunately, none of the wranglers working that afternoon seemed to mind being bombarded with questions on everything from “how do you put on a saddle” to “when will we be allowed to ride to the top of that mountain?”   In fact, a couple of them told me that since horses play such a central role in the activities of most family trips, they really appreciated the enthusiasm.

Life At The JJJ

JJJ Dude RanchOur days generally began with breakfast in the main ranch house at 7am, followed by a horseback ride which lasted until around noon.  Our guide was a classic cowboy from Great Falls named Joe, who told great stories and epitomized western hospitality.  He and my 10-year-old son, Ty, hit it off particularly well, and throughout most of our stay, they debated whether Ty could handle his horse “Geronimo” at a full gallop.  On our last day, Joe finally broke down and let him go all out for a couple hundred yards along the back fence.  Of course, this pleased Ty to no end, but scared everyone else half to death.  But, I suppose ‘All’s well that ends well,’ and for Ty, that 20-second ride was the highlight of his trip.  For the rest, the best thing about the riding was that all of the trails seemed to lead to a spectacular view; so even if we only went out for a couple of hours, we were still always able to capture that top-of-the-world feeling of the Big Sky country.

After lunch back at the ranch, afternoons were usually spent around the corral, in the pool, or on another ride.  Of course, I also always managed to spend a couple of hours each day teaching the kids to fly fish in the gin-clear water of the two spring fed trout ponds just outside our door.  Stocked with rainbows and brook trout, these catch and release, barbless-hook only ponds produced some of the prettiest (and largest) fish I’ve caught in Montana.  They also provided fishing that was quite challenging, with small flies and fine tippets often required to take fish.  The thing that made these ponds ideal for us, was that the fishing was very visual.  Large fish were constantly on the move, so even when they wouldn’t take the fly, they still created lots of excitement just by coming up for a look.

All of the family-related activities going on at the ranch limited my “serious” fishing time to evenings only.  And since I’m a bit of a fanatic about fly fishing, initially this made me a little nervous.  But when I shared my apprehension with the owner of the JJJ (Max) at breakfast, he smiled and said,  “Don’t worry about the fishing.  At this time of year, as soon as the sun drops behind the mountains, the mayflies and caddis start to hatch.  I’ll send you to some places where you’ll be casting to rising fish until well after 10 o’clock.”

Fishing the Sun River

JJJ Ranch PondThat evening, I followed Max’s directions to a remote canyon on the Sun River about 10-miles from the ranch, and right on cue, the fish began to rise.  The river consisted of a long series of ledge pools that provided deep water and ample cover to hold big fish.  It was also easy to wade and cover with a fly.  And in just over three hours, I caught and released more than 20 rainbows, browns and whitefish.  The best thing about this spot, however, was that I didn’t see a single other angler the entire evening.

Located on the southwestern edge of the million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness area, the ranch also serves as a jumping off point for unlimited fishing opportunities in the backcountry.  The North and South Forks of the Sun River both arise along the eastern slopes of the Continental Divide and flow for more than 25-miles before joining up to form Gibson Reservoir.  It’s about a six mile trip from the ranch to the head of the reservoir, and from there, your only limitations are daylight and stamina, because both forks provide great rainbow fishing throughout most of their length.  The ranch also runs a number of fully outfitted pack trips deep into the heart of the wilderness.  But since most involve quite a bit of steady riding, we felt our kids were not quite up to it just yet.  With the vision of cutthroats and goldens cruising the shallows of untouched high country lakes burning in my mind, however, you can bet your cowboy boots that it won’t be too long before we’re back to give one a try.

Things To Look Out For

Rocky Mountain FishingBased on what you’ve read so far, you might conclude that a trip to a western guest ranch is a can’t- miss idea for a family fishing vacation.  The reality, however, is that all ranches are not created equal.  In fact, we have been to three over the past several years, and the JJJ is really the only one I’d feel comfortable recommending to my fishing friends.

So how can you insure that your western dude ranch experience turns out to be a good one?  Well, although this might seem obvious, the most important feature that a fisherman should look for, is proximity to good fishing water.  These days, with the boom in the popularity of fly fishing, just about every ranch advertises fishing as one of their activities.  But to insure that you’ll have convenient access to premier fishing, you really need to do your homework.  Be wary of distances, because it’s not unusual for ranches to mention well-known rivers in their advertising that are a two or even three hour drive away.  And for family trips, I’d also recommend a place that has a private stream or stocked trout pond that the kids can enjoy.

Ask Tough Questions

Ty and GeronimoAnother important task is to objectively evaluate the quality of the activities that different guest ranches offer.  Just like with fly fishing, almost all of them list trail rides and float trips in their advertising, so it’s up to you to determine exactly what you’ll be getting for your money.  Don’t be afraid to ask specific questions about things like the flexibility of the riding schedule or the size of the typical group assigned to each wrangler.  And try not to settle for answers like, “we’ve got lots of nice riding trails.”  Find out if they’re talking 5, 50 or 500 miles.

This need for thorough investigation is well illustrated by an experience we had at the first ranch that we ever stayed at.  In their literature, they listed float trips as one of the main activities at the ranch.  So of course, during the months leading up to our visit, I pictured us having a great time crashing through Class IV rapids in a guided raft.  The reality turned out to be a self-guided paddle along 5-miles of dead water in a couple of old canoes.  Since this experience did technically qualify as a “float trip”, we  really didn’t have any recourse or legitimate reason to gripe.  The bottom line is that we should have done a better job of investigating the activities before making our decision to stay at that particular ranch.

Trip Planning

The term “dude ranch” generally applies to both working cattle ranches that accommodate guests during the summer season, and guest ranches whose sole purpose is to provide lodging and activities for vacationers.  One of the first steps in planning a trip to either is to obtain a Travel Planner from the tourism office in the state that you are considering visiting.  These informative booklets contain a wealth of information on motels, campgrounds, outfitters, resorts and dude ranches.  Most are arranged regionally and provide a summary of each ranch that could be used to help evaluate all of the possibilities in a given area.  Be prepared to do homework though, because there are more than 200 dude ranches operating in Montana and Wyoming alone.  A simpler and more reliable approach would be to work with a travel planner (such as Tracewski Fishing Adventures) .