Browns Lake

I had heard the stories and seen the photographs of the enormous Browns Lake rainbow trout caught just after ice-out so I was especially excited for our outing in late April. Heading out of Milltown, we head up a tight, winding canyon. The Big Blackfoot River races toward the Clark Fork, its waters turbid and brown from spring run-off.

Blackfoot Valley

Montana Route 200 from Bonner to Lincoln is one of my favorite drives in the state. A herd of bighorn sheep slows traffic as they graze beside the highway in the narrow canyon of the lower river. My cell phone goes silent as the last bar drops and the headlines of Covid-19 dissolve as the vast meadows of the Blackfoot Valley open ahead.

We crest the hill where Potomac, Montana ends and Greenough begins and the views are breathtaking. The Bob Marshall Wilderness, with its snow-capped peaks, lies ahead.

Fishing Browns Lake in April after Ice Out

Informational Sign at Browns Lake

Rowing a Kick Boat on Browns Lake

Fishing From a Kick Boat is a Great Option

About Browns Lake

At 550 acres, you would not consider Browns Lake big. It’s deepest points are hardly more than 20 feet. Yet Browns Lake produces some huge rainbows.

According to Patrick Uthe, a Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks biologist,

“Browns is extremely productive and supports an abundance of macroinvertebrates, particularly Gammarus shrimp (scuds) that contribute to excellent trout growth rates.”

We noted a healthy population of crayfish along with Corixidae (Water Boatman), midges, and a small hatch of mayflies on our visits in late April.

Ice-out on Browns Lake

Ice-out occurs mid to late April on the lake. Kathy at Blackfoot Angler in Ovando keeps anglers up-to-date on road conditions and ice via her Facebook page. As the ice melts away from the shore, hungry trout emerge from the cold depths to feed. Many consider this the optimum time to fish the lake.

Spawning Rainbows

After the ice clears, the rainbows get down to serious business – spawning. Or at least trying to. The rainbows in Browns Lake are unsuccessful propagators. Patrick Uthe explains:

“The mature rainbow trout will try to spawn along the lake shore and in the inlet stream (Ward Creek), however natural reproduction is extremely limited at best. We have not documented natural origin fish in our gill netting surveys, so if these fish are successfully spawning, the recruitment is at such a low level that we haven’t been able to detect it. As such, we rely exclusively on hatchery plants to sustain the fishery. The reasons for lack of natural recruitment are most likely due to poor habitat conditions along the lake shore for egg incubation, as well as dewatering in Ward Creek after runoff subsides.”

It wasn’t more than a minute or two after getting out of our rig that we saw the first wake along the eastern shoreline just 50 yards away. There they were. A pair of rainbows with a smaller male following the action.

Greg Inglis With a Browns Lake Rainbow Trout

 2016 – Greg Inglis With a Browns Lake Rainbow Trout

Browns Lake Video – Scenery and Underwater

Stripping Streamers

We met some nice folks at the lake. One shared a nymph which he passed on from a trip the previous year. It didn’t look like much – just an olive dubbed body with a painted hot orange head. His recommendation was to hang a foot below the strike indicator.

We tried without luck – these fish were only interested in each other.

Tim tied on a streamer and caught a small rainbow we deemed too small for photos. I too, tied on a streamer – lots of marabou, lots of flash. I had several follows. From these followers, I’ve learned.

Leave the streamer on the lake bottom. Let the pod of rainbows get close. Strip, strip. They see it. Strip, strip. One is interested. Strip a little faster. He follows. Keep stripping. The mouth opens.

And then I pull too fast on the streamer, he turns and disappears into the depths. Dammit!

Lucky for me, I just as content to photograph fish as I am catching them.

Bring a Boat or Wade?

At the campground on the lake, there is a boat launch and ample parking. On the eastern shore, wading is easy and the bottom is mainly firm gravel. Launching a kick boat or float tube can be done easily along the eastern shore or at the boat launch.

On our next visit, our plan is to bring the kick boats. It’s a great compromise and a more versatile way to fish the lake.


The wind can really blow in this exposed flat just west of the Continental Divide. By noon the first day we visited, we were done. Wind whipped and fishless, it was no fun anymore. We made a plan. Be here before 8 am tomorrow and fish until 11 or so, leave when the wind starts getting fierce.

The next day we arrived at 7:30 am. This was a magical time at the lake. Ducks chattered about, a flock of snow geese rose off the lake only to settle back in a cove, while the low droning of an outboard motored anglers to a fishy spot.

Wakes from big rainbows gave away their location and intent. There was not a ripple on the water otherwise. Next year we bring the camper to maximize time on the water without the howl of spring winds.

Getting There

You’ll see two signs for Browns Lake off Highway 200. Coming from Missoula, the first sign will be near the small, and I mean small, town of Ovando. Turning here you’ll pass through downtown. There’s a small country store, an inn, a cafe, a fly shop, and a post office. In a flash, you’ll be past all that and headed into Big Sky country. Turn left at Browns Lake Road. It’s 11 miles from Highway 200 to the lake, but it could be the smoothest drive on gravel and paved road.

If you’d like to shorten the drive, take Browns Lake Road nine miles East of Ovando off 200. Drive slow over the bumps and ruts. This access is a good bet if the road has had a chance to dry out after winter snow or spring rains.

The road hugs the shoreline before turning to the north and into the campground and boat launch. At the lake, you’ll have spotty cell reception. Just enough for your phone to make noise but not enough to post a photo with you and a hefty rainbow to the ‘gram.



Local Experts

Blackfoot Angler in Ovando is clearly the local expert. Don’t let the small size of the shop fool you. They are well-stocked with flies for Browns, the Blackfoot, and most Montana destinations. Keep up with them on Facebook for up-to-date fishing information.

Nearby Fly Fishing Waters

  • Big Blackfoot River
  • Harper’s Lake
  • Upsata Lake
  • Clearwater River
  • Monture Creek

Area Lodging

For us, Browns Lake was a day trip. Less than an hour and a half away, Browns is a great choice when the rivers begin to swell with run-off.

If you’re traveling to the area, either bring a camper or book a room at the Ovando Inn.

Waterfowl and Epic Scenery

As you can see from the photos, the landscape is beautiful. Rocks in the lake are wonderfully colored. Blue-green colored rocks, rust-red, purple, gray, and yellow stones line the lake bottom.

Large numbers of ducks and geese bring photographers with tripods, blinds, and huge zoom lens to capture waterfowl photos up close.

Mountain Ranges

From here the Rattlesnakes, the Missions, the Swans, and the mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness rise to the north and west.

This is a special spot. Be prepared, this is not a secret and there will be many other anglers. Tread lightly and bring back only photos and memories from this special spot.

Winter Kill

The winter of 2017-18 was harsh. Deep and prolonged snows brought a massive fish kill to the lake. The size and population of the rainbows is on the rebound. Left to grow, these fish will return to trophy size once again.

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Rainbow with a kype Underwater in Montana

Male Rainbow Trout

Three Rainbow Trout Underwater in Browns Lake

Underwater at Browns Lake

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