My first introduction to Rat Lake was during
dinner one evening at the Corral Restaurant in Gallatin Canyon. Along with
the great food you are treated to a fine collection of mounted fish and
wild life that have adorned it's walls for more years than I can remember.
My position at the table put me face to face with a huge rainbow that
seemed to be calling me over for a better look.
The rainbow on the wall had been there for a
very long time. The once magnificent colors were gone but no amount of
dust nor length of time could change it's proportions. It had to go at
least seven pounds I thought. During periodic visits from our waitress I
was able to conclude that the rainbow came out of a lake not too far away
in the Squaw Creek drainage.
I have fished Rat Lake several times since that
first bite at the restaurant. On this particular occasion our departure
had been delayed and almost put off due to a rain shower that passed
through the Gallatin Valley. It was mid afternoon before we left Bozeman.
By this time the sun was poking through the clouds and the promise of an
evening hatch was looming. We made our way south along the Gallatin River
and into Gallatin Canyon. I drive this way often and never tire of the
beautiful scenery. The view of the river as it slices throught he canyon
to it's randevous with the Madison River further downstream to the north.
The breath taking sight of the Spanish Peaks and Lone Mountain. The wild
floweres that dot the meadows in the spring. The occasional Sheep, Mule
Deer and Moose that come to the river to drink. Today we would be driving
only as far as the the Squaw Creek Ranger. As we drove over the bridge and
started up the forest service road that follows Squaw Creek to the east,
puddles dotted the gravel road but the clouds were breaking and sky was
clearing. As we drove along Squaw Creek I could see the caddis fluttering
along the willows that flourish along this beautiful stream. A few miles
later we took a turn off of the forest service road and started on our
climb up another winding dirt road toward Rat Lake. I noticed that someone
once again removed the sign that pointed the way to the eighteen acre
We crossed Squaw Creek which was now running
bank full and off color from the recent rain. We started the climb to the
trailhead. The road was wet and I could hear the mud splashing against the
wheel wells. The back of the pickup was starting to move first a little to
the left then a little to the right. We were losing traction and only half
the distance to the top of the hill. With the tires spinning and no room
to turn around, we were committed. My prayer was that we meet no one in
the middle of the hill that decided to make their way down at the same
time. I glanced out of the window to see mud flying throught the air and
the edge of the road coming precariously close.
Slowly but steadily we made progress to the top
of the hill and the parking area. The tires, fenders and bottom of the
truck had a coating of Montana Gumbo that was several inches
Fortunately portions of the parking area were
dry and getting our gear together wasn't much of a problem.
It was a little more than a half mile trek from
the trailhead to the lake. The rain had made the trail slick but it was in
the process of drying. There was only one challenging area in the trail
and we were nearing it. During a storm some years ago a portion of the
hillside washed away taking the trail with it. Over the past few years
hikers created a narrow path along the side area which was no more than a
narrow shelf in a muddy hill side. Pretty formidable especially when wet.
The reddish brown gumbo started to build up on our hiking boots. Walking
became difficult with the extra few inches of mud that had adhered to the
bottom of our vibram soles. I lost footing in the gumbo but only slid a
few feet before regaining my balance. As we rounded the final bend in the
trail before dropping down to the lake the condition of the trail
improved. We were able to kick most of the mud from the bottom of our
boots and decided to approach to the lake from the west.
The western end of the lake offered several
nice places from which to launch our float tubes. By the time we entered
the water it was early evening. We spent the next hour trolling with a
variety of nymphs working the weed beds without the slightest recognition.
Not a bump. The lake was quiet. Our position in the lake afforded us a
grand view of the meadow areas to the west.
Mule deer begin showing their faces. First one,
then another. We seemed to blend right into the surroundings. Out of the
corner of my eye I detected a small rise at the north end of the lake in
the shallower water. I started to ease my tube in that direction. I
approached the area cautiously trying not to create any unnecessary
movement in the lake's surface. This had been the first sign of any
feeding activity all day and I didn't want to put any fish down. Now there
were several fish working. Whatever they were taking was small. No caddis
or calibaetis were visible. My thoughts turned to midges. Adult midge
patterns offered minimal results. We managed a few smaller fish but a very
small percentage of the rising trout were interested in our offerings. It
was starting to get darker. My thoughts were now on our trip back to the
truck. I decided to tie on a #20 Pheasant Tail Nymph and start back to
where we had left our gear. I cast into a pod of feeding trout and let the
nymph sink just below the surface before I made my first kick with the
fins. I never got to make that second kick. I was fast to a beautiful
rainbow that took me into my backing. The screeming of the Hardy LRH broke
the evening silence. It was an alarm clock for my fishing partner who
began kicking his tube in my direction giving up his position in the weed
beds. For the next hour we were able to coax several more fish to the
Pheasant Tail. The rainbows that inhabit Rat Lake are very hot. The feel
of the barb is enough to set them off on a wild trip around the lake. If
they choose to head into the weed beds all expectations of landing one is
lost. The best that you can hope for is to coax them into an area where
there are fewer obstacles. It was almost 10 PM and nearly impossible to be
sure where the fly had landed. After a few short strips it was possible to
feel the connection and enjoy the sound of the reel. We were intoxicated
with our success not stopping to think about the hike out in the dark. Not
thinking about the slick slide area that had been a problem on the hike
into the lake. Not until now.
We made our way back to the area where we had
stored our gear. At that point we realized that the only light that we
brought was the little flex light that we shared all evening tying on
Some how we managed to get our waders, vests
and fins into our packs. Our focus was now on the little shaft of light
being emitted by the flex light. As we made our way back down the trail
our imaginations began to take control.. The crack of every twig and the
rustle of every bush could be a bear. The anticipation of coming face to
face with another set of eyes on the trail was climbing.
We should have left a little earlier. I would
walk ahead a few steps then turn around and focus the beam of light on the
trail for my partner to follow. A larger flash light would have been a
nice addition to our equipment. Auspiciously the trail had dried enough so
as not to be a problem on the hike out. As we entered the final segment of
trail before the parking area the umbrella of trees opened and with the
additional moon light we could see our truck.
It was now almost midnight and the adrenaline
rush that we both experienced on our trek out of Rat Lake would keep us up
for hours. We looked around for an all night restaurant an enjoyed an
early breakfast while reliving our interesting evening of fishing at Rat
Lake. The rainbow that started my trek remains to this day on the wall in
the Corral Restaurant. Each time that I visit there I leave with a smile
on my face.
Copyright @ 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005,
2006 by Bob Kloskowski