Exploring Southwest Montana Backcountry

Reins, lead rope, cinch, stirrup, pannier….

Until this summer most of these terms were still a little foreign to me. Even though I have been around horses and worked closely with a few wranglers over the last couple of years I have not fully immersed myself into backcountry horseback expeditions until recently. In the last couple of months I have been fortunate to lead, and guide, some epic trips into some of the stunning Wilderness and National Forest areas around Southwest Montana.

In the past, I have done hiking or backpacking journeys into the mountains with the objectives of escaping crowds on the rivers, discovering new bodies of water, or chasing different species of trout. By introducing horses into the equation everything becomes a little easier. Horseback makes the deep backcountry more accessible since they can cover 15-20 miles of terrain, and elevations gains of 2,000-2,500 feet, in a day with ease. Since someone else is doing the hard work, you get the chance to sit back and enjoy all the breathtaking scenery and views. Next, horseback can save your back when it comes to camping and overnight expeditions. Horses give you the option to camp in comfort by bringing along cushy pads, warm sleeping bags, plenty of layers, all your fishing gear and, most importantly, cooking supplies and great food. After enjoying a Prime Rib dinner cooked in a cast iron skillet over a camp fire it will be hard to go back to eating freeze dried meals in the backcountry.
Regardless of how you get there, on horseback or by foot, the fishing is always rewarding! In Southwest Montana we are fortunate to have destinations that hold plenty of Cutthroat Trout, some lakes that hold Artic Grayling and a few lakes that have Golden Trout. Through August and into September most of these trout are more than willing to eat a dry fly, which only adds to the excitement. During a recent expedition to one of the Spanish Lakes three of us enjoyed an afternoon of landing 75+ Cutthroat Trout all on dry flies. Some of my go-to backcountry patterns include the Parachute Adams, Purple Haze and any assortment of ant or beetle imitations. For some reason trout cannot resist those little crunchy terrestrials during the late summer months.

The Madison, Gallatin and Yellowstone Rivers get all the attention in this part of Montana, but you can be rewarded with scenery, solitude and hungry trout by getting off the beaten path and exploring the backcountry!