You ever heard that rumor about Montana being Trout Country? Well, I guess it’s true, sort of, at least in the collective public consciousness. In reality, though, Montana is also Walleye Country.
Especially up in north central Montana, officially known as Russell Country. In July, in fact, with the kind assistance of the Russell Country tourism office, my fishing partner, Gene Colling, and I spent ten days up there trying to prove it.
And we did, but we also re-proved what every walleye angler already knows. Those ‘eyes can be finicky. When they are on, they’re fairly easy to catch, but when the bite is off, watch out. You have a hard time catching them, regardless of how many are under your boat.
Loma’s River Eyes
Our first stop was Loma, Montana, known to many travelers as one of those irritating little spots along the road where you have to slow down to 35 mph for a few blocks. But instead of slowing down, anglers should stop and try the fishing. Loma is the home of perhaps Montana’s best river walleye fishery. We spent two days there and had lots of bites. You can read about it and watch the video here.
Our next stop was Fresno Reservoir west of Havre. There, with the help of local Walleye Unlimited members Carolyn Anderson, who is also a nationally renown artist, and Charlie Foussard, retired farmer and now close-to-full-time angler, we had some terrific walleye fishing.
For the first half-day, we fished with Charlie. He showed us around the lake and told us what makes 3,185-acre Fresno Reservoir different than a lot of other reservoirs.
Many such reservoirs tend to be sort of homogenous in nature, he explained, but not Fresno. “We have way more physical structure (i.e. rocks, weeds, other good fish habitat) than most other reservoirs, but the main difference is you catch more fish.”
Well, it’s hard to argue with the man. We spent the next two days fishing the rocky points on both sides of the reservoir, the edges of weed beds, and over submerged vegetation. We used small jigs and swimbaits tipped with leaches or crawlers and had constant action.
We hit Fresno on a good water year, but it isn’t always so. In some years, low water levels, resulting from dry weather and heavy withdrawals for irrigation, have severely knocked back fish reproduction and fishing success. Both Carolyn and Charlie expressed concern for the future and noted that the local Walleyes Unlimited chapter was working hard on trying to resolve the problem.
And Fresno, like Loma, is not all about walleyes. We also caught northern pike, crappie and perch while targeting walleyes.
White fishing Fresno, we stayed in Havre, at the Great Northern Inn, and made the short (about 15 miles) drive west on U.S 2 out to Fresno each morning. We only had two nights to sample the local cuisine, but clearly, we found two of the best–Murphy’s Irish Pub and Andy’s Supper Club.
Beaver Creek Reservoir
I’m sure most walleye anglers haven’t even heard of Beaver Creek Reservoir, but we decided to make a quick stop there before heading over to Tiber Reservoir, our next destination on the Russell Country Walleye Trail.
Beaver Creek Reservoir, the centerpiece of a 10,000-acre county park, is about 10 miles south of Havre on a paved county road. It’s easy to find; just take the Beaver Creek Road to Beaver Creek Reservoir, which is part of Beaver Creek County Park.
Beaver Creek Reservoir has a 10-horsepower limit, so I couldn’t fish it with my 60-horse, but we did manage to hook up with local Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) fisheries biologist Cody Nagel, who had a glowing report on the fishing in this relatively small reservoir (only 179 acres).
“There’s some huge fish in here,” Cody said, “because we have a lot of food in here for them to eat. Every year, we get a few 12- to 13-pound walleyes in our (research) nets. But with the motor restrictions, not many of the walleye guys fish this lake.”
Cody said most of the fishing pressure is shore fishing in summer and ice fishing in winter. The boat ramp doesn’t get much use.
“It’s more of a multi-species fishery than Fresno,” he said. “Lots of 9-10-inch perch in here, plus northern pike, largemouth bass and a few rainbow and brown trout.”
You know what they say about first impressions; they’re usually right. Beaver Creek is an amazing place, gently beautiful in its prairie surroundings, sort of an emerald-like oasis, mostly unknown, tucked away in the shadows of the Bear Paw Mountains. I can’t wait to try to outwit one or two of its monster walleyes and some of those perch, too, and I won’t make the mistake twice; next time, I’ll bring a smaller boat.
After putting Beaver Creek on our future agenda, we headed over to Tiber Reservoir and hooked up with Dennis Hanson, owner of the Vets Club in nearby Chester and a pro angler for Team Lund. We met him at Tiber Marina—where, it seems, he lives halftime–and quickly hit the water. We fished a half-day with Dennis in his pro boat, caught a few walleyes, and learned a lot about Tiber.
Then, we headed into Chester, checked into the comfy and reasonably priced MX Motel (you have to be at least 40 years old to guess how it got its name). That night (and the next), we enjoyed a tasty dinner next door at the Grand Bar & Eatery. Each morning, we hit Spud’s Café, a block from the motel, for a great angler’s breakfast before driving out to Tiber.
Tiber is huge, a whopping 14,842 acres, four times bigger than Fresno. That, admittedly, makes it a little more challenging for beginners who don’t have the local knowledge of somebody like Dennis Hanson. Otherwise, though, Tiber isn’t hard to fish. It’s easy to stay found and locate likely walleye hangouts. Our success didn’t match the incredible fishing at Fresno, but that probably was mostly our unfamiliarity with the fishery. And regardless of what you do or how good you are, sometimes those walleyes just don’t cooperate.
Another reason, according to Dennis, is that unlike Fresno and many other Montana reservoirs, the FWP doesn’t stock walleye in Tiber, but he is hoping that will change. Local anglers have asked FWP to start stocking walleye in Tiber and there has been a public meeting in Chester to discuss the request, but according to Dave Yerk, local FWP fisheries biologist, his department hasn’t decided to do it. “We discussing it,” he agreed, “but there’s no decision or schedule, yet.”
Dave describes Tiber as a “typical temperamental walleye lake” where the fishing can be quite unpredictable. “There really wasn’t a bite this year,” he said, “but the walleyes are there.”
Our last stop on the Russell Country Walleye Trail was Lake Frances, which is a small (3,616 acres) reservoir, basically right in the town of Valier. We stayed at the Mountain Front Lodge and had some fine dining at the Lighthouse, located on the shore of Lake Frances. You can see its famous “lighthouse” while fishing out on the lake, and people drive for hours to enjoy the fine cuisine.
Video by Gene Colling
Lake Frances is owned and operated by the local irrigation district, so it gets drawn down significantly late in the summer, but we were there in July, and this was a good water year, so it was almost full.
You’d think a lake virtually within the city limits of a town would be ringed with cabins and houses, but not Lake Frances. With the exception of a few places near the city park, the lake has an undeveloped shoreline. Out on the lake it sure doesn’t seem like you’re fishing in anybody’s backyard. If fact, there weren’t even many anglers on a lake you’d think would be heavily fished.
There’s an excellent boat launch at the city park on the south edge of town, but the dock is pulled out in late summer when the irrigation district starts taking a lot of water out. So, anytime after mid-July, you might be looking at loading and unloading without a dock. There’s also a put-in right by the dam, just southeast of town, where we launched our boat.
We didn’t have much time at Frances, less than two full days, but we managed to scare up a few walleyes, but interestingly, we also caught a lot of perch, and some very nice ones, while targeting walleyes.
After Frances, we headed home thinking about cooking up a few fillets for dinner that night and convinced that a lot of walleye anglers have been missing a lot of good fishing up Russell Country.