Ft Peck Reservoir is 245,000 surface acres of water located in central Montana. To give you an idea of the size of it, if every single resident of the state of Montana, man, woman, and child were to live in an area of that size each individual person would have over 1/4 of an acre for themselves. That says two things, one that’s a pretty big lake and two, there’s not a lot of folks that live in Montana. All that being said there’s not a lot of easy access to fish it either.
Surrounded by mostly public land one would think there would be plenty places to fish but the sheer size of the lake and lack of population keep most of the banks of this lake wild. It makes for a beautiful drive in a boat as you troll along you can scan the surrounding hills and shore lines for wildlife. Deer, elk, big horn sheep, coyotes, mt lions, all manner of birds and small mammals claim this as home.
On one occasion as we trolled along I caught a glimpse of a deer and she was headed straight for the water at a speed that told me she was being chased. I quickly glanced behind her and seen a coyote closing in for the kill. The deer ran into the water until she was almost up to her neck and the coyote stopped short knowing he didn’t stand a chance if he had to swim for her. That started a stand off that lasted hours.
We trolled on passed after a few minutes and the coyote made his way back to the tree line. I knew better than to think he had given up and so did the deer. She stood in the water drinking and scanning the trees. She slowly made her way out enough that we could see she had an injured leg, I’m not sure if the coyotes had knicked her a little or they picked her out from the herd because of the injury knowing she would be the easiest meal but either way she was likely living out her last moments, if they didn’t get her now they surely would get her in the dark.
The doe was still in the water hours later as we passed by in the boat again and I wanted to get in a little closer for pictures. I shouldn’t have done this because it spooked her back into the trees where she quickly returned with a coyote right on her heals again as she plunged back into the lake. For a few short moments I considered going to the truck and getting my gun and calls and calling the coyote out and killing him but as much as I love coyote hunting I thought Id just let nature take its course and we let them be.
My first introduction to Ft Peck was about 10 years ago when I spent a weekend there fishing. I didn’t fully grasp its size at that time but after returning five years later to hunt and after walking miles and miles a day through hills surrounding the banks of this mammoth lake and seeing it from above at a distance I started to realize just how huge this lake is.
As I stated earlier most of the land surrounding the lake is public and can be hunted for deer but a special draw permit is required to hunt elk and a near impossible draw permit is required to hunt sheep. Hunting deer in this area would be best done from a boat. Roads are minimal and are slow traveling anyway, it took us an hour to go the 26 miles of dirt road to the cabin and its very hard on tires and suspensions of vehicles.
I will plan a deer hunting trip from a boat soon for a couple years from now because I think there is a lot of country that most folks don’t see because they wont walk and or don’t have a boat to get to parts of the lake without roads but for now we are here to fish.
Our main focus this trip was salmon. Salmon from the shore in a lake is not a common thing but these salmon are different. These fish are released by Montana Fish and Game as fry and like any other salmon they retun to the same place to spawn when they mature. The problem is they can’t spawn in the lake on a boat ramp so the Fish and Game steps in and helps them along in the process by capturing some and milking them and fertilizing eggs and returning them back to the same spot when they are fry again to start the process all over. Another problem is once they return to spawn they die, because they are released in an area that is easy access for fishermen most are caught. This is by design, nobody wants 5000 fish floating dead across the lake. Once they start the journey from the depths of the lake where they have spent the last 5-7 years getting fat on cisco, shiners, and any other fish that will fit in their mouths they will stop eating. This poses another issue because they are released with the idea they will be caught and eaten, and the ones caught in the summer in the deep water are usually kept for food but that’s a small fraction of what is going to return to spawn and then die so Montana Fish and Game opened a snagging season.
Much like snagging for paddle fish, which don’t eat other fish, a large treble hook is usually used and the idea is to get a hook in the fish anywhere you can. When the major salmon run is happening this is an easy task but if you miss it by a few days like we did you could spend hours and hundreds of casts trying to pierce the thick skin of just a few remaining fish.
We arrived at the lake at about midnight which I was told was a good thing because the majority of the fish return to the boat ramp and when boats are coming in and out it pushes the fish to deeper water farther from shore so when all gets quiet the fish come to shallow water looking for other fish to do their thing with.
I’d be lying if I said I was confident in this plan. Think about this, it’s the middle of the night, 15 degrees, wind blowing about 10-15 right in your face, you’re throwing a single treble hook with no bait on it into a 245,000 acre lake trying to catch a fish that spends most of his life in 100 feet of water from the shore. Go tell your friends that plan and see how many of them follow you, the ones that do are either really desperate for friends or they truly are your friends or like in my case with my brother in law Bo and wife Mary Ann they just happen to be in the truck when I went. I’m kidding Bo is actually the one that turned me on to this and poor Mary Ann she loves to fish but these conditions were brutal and I didn’t blame her a bit for only staying out a few minutes before returning to the heat of the truck. In fact after a few dozen casts I had thoughts of leaving myself but we drove four hours and I was determined to catch a salmon.
Bo had given up on me for a little bit too and there I was throwing blindly into the pitch black nothing wondering if I had lost my mind. There wasn’t another person around anywhere which told me there wasn’t a salmon run going on but there should be fish here so I kept on. At one point in my headlamp I noticed it was snowing and I thought why not it’s already miserable enough but as I looked around there didn’t seem to be snow anywhere else that’s because the water off my reel was freezing in the air when I casted turning to ice and sticking to my beard.
Bo had warmed his hands enough to give it another go so he came down and kept me company for a awhile. We both were wearing headlamps which when looking across a lake of this size were worthless but were good to see where we were stepping. As I glanced down to take another step a very large shadow appeared for a second in the shallow water. I thought I was getting delirious from no sleep and possible frost bite on my brain. I mentioned to Bo I swear I seen a fish here in the shallows and he just gave me a nod and was likely thinking I’d been out in the cold too long but shortly after that he seen the same thing. We both converged on the area that we were seeing glimpses of fish and held our lights steady. The water was starting to get choppy and making out ghostly figures wasn’t easy but we had both now seen several fish. There was no way I was leaving now without a salmon.
Just as I was starting a cast Bo yells there, and points just a few short feet out from where we were standing. I slung my hook from what was going to be a long cast to about 20 feet out and jerked hard. It worked!! The fish was stuck deep in the tail and he was not happy about it. I couldn’t believe I actually got a hook in him as he was moving fast and I really wasn’t ready to cast that direction or distance but none the less he’s on and I couldn’t be happier.
Anybody that fishes knows a foul hooked fish fights twice as hard as a mouth hooked fish and this was no small fish. I had no idea what I had gotten into. This fish pulled drag on the initial run for a good 20 seconds. Using heavy braided line and a stiff rod I knew I had the equipment to land him but wondered if I had the skill with frozen hands and minimal light.
Seeing the commotion from the truck Mary Ann made her way down to see the fight. The fish was no where near death like I thought he might be since after spawning they die but this guy was well alive. The fight lasted 20 minutes and after several failed attempts to net him Bo finally got him in the net and drug him onto land.
I was stunned! I had no clue that these fish were this big. I had never seen a king salmon before and although I had seen pictures of them seeing one in person is different. He weighed in at almost 24 pounds. Not the biggest one caught from there this year but still a great fish and bigger than average. He was over three feet long and just a phenomenal specimen. I was more than excited to have him and suddenly I wasn’t even cold anymore.
After some fuzzy night photos and a retelling of the story we made a few more casts but to no avail. By now it was into the morning hours and we had driven a long ways so we called it a night.
The next leg of the drive was the 26 miles of dirt road that took an hour but we seen plenty of deer and having a fish on ice made it a little easier to handle. We had no intentions of an early morning so sleep was all we had in mind.
The next day after a late breakfast and coffee while looking out across the lake at the wilds of Montana we decided to get some better pictures of the salmon and do a little fishing from the bank.
I still couldn’t believe the size of the fish and was extremely happy about landing him. After a few good photos I cleaned the fish and we did a little shore fishing.
I wanted to try some carp fishing in this lake because I know it is basically untouched as far as carp fishing goes. I had all of my equipment and even some chum so we set out to find a spot. Knowing I only had a half day I didn’t expect a fish at all and after learning the amount of weed that was there I knew I couldn’t give it my best effort but I threw a few lines out near the cabin anyway and Bo and Mary Ann took turns at the grill making us some deer sausages for lunch.
Just as I suspected I never got a run but I will be back with time to spend on carp. I know there’s some huge fish in there and I suspect from what I’ve seen of other lakes not far away there may be some really special fish there.
That night after dark we decided to make the hour drive back to the marina to try for salmon again but it just wasn’t happening. In fact after speaking to a few locals we found out we had missed the run by a few days and they were all surprised that I had caught the one I did and were impressed with the size and the great shape he was in. It was truly a great fish, one of my best catches ever for me I’d say.
The next day dawned clear and warmer so we set our sights on trolling for northern pike and walleye. My nephew Braden bought a little aluminum boat and 2 horse motor back in the summer and the lake was pretty calm so we loaded up and tried our luck from the little tin boat.
I know near nothing about trolling except go slow and hope for the best. We had no depth finder or electric motor or anything, just a boat a small gas motor and some rods and lures, just the way I liked it. It makes for a more relaxing outing when you keep things simple and honestly with the view we had I really didn’t want to be watching anything but my surroundings.
Bo captained the boat and we did our best to stay in 15-20 feet of water judging our depth by our speed and the lures we had on we knew about the depth of water we were fishing. I overheard a guy in a boat the day before say he had seen some fish in 15 feet of water while watching his depth finder so we just went with that. This was not a serious trip where we were expecting huge fish, mostly just a good warm day to get Mary Ann on the water and see some of the lake. It was very enjoyable, the kind of place I could spend a whole summer.
We seen the deer and coyote scene play out I mentioned earlier and several flocks of big Canada geese, and some ducks. There’s no shortage of wildlife here and you can see miles of basically untouched wilderness from a boat. It’s an awesome place!
A couple hours in Mary Ann hooked a nice pike and did a good job of fighting it and we got him landed. It was a real nice 6-7 pound pike that put up a good fight. I was going to let it go but Bo said hey I’ll clean that and I’m glad he did. We cleaned the fish on the shore and cooked it for lunch and it was delicious. Nothin like eating fresh caught fish while looking out over the wild land, I love it.
The better part of our visit to Ft. Peck was over, we would leave out the next morning and the weather turned for the worst anyway. I had an antelope tag to try to fill in a unit a few hours away so we started making plans for that.
We did stop by the museum on the way out and see the dinosaur bones and read about some of the history of the lake. The museum has one of the most complete T-Rex skeletons anywhere and is a great place to stop and see some of the history of the lake and read about the building of the dam. Montana and Wyoming are rich with fossilized remains of all kinds of plants and animals and many are on display here. It’s a real neat museum.
This will NOT be my last trip to this lake, I plan on at least one more hunting trip and hopefully a nice summer fishing trip as well.
It’s not easy to get to and takes some planning but if you find yourself in central Montana it’s well worth the effort to go see Ft Peck.