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Cowboy Heaven Consulting, LLC
6116 Walker Road
Bozeman, MT 59715
406-587-9563
1-877-613-0404
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Cameron Lake

Fishing in the Sweetgrass Hills

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ooking for a fishing destination that’s kind of obscure, off the beaten track? Well, if Cameron Lake in the Sweetgrass Hills doesn’t qualify, I don’t know where would. The Sweetgrass Hills consist primarily of three buttes, volcanic outcroppings that protrude from the prairie east of Sunburst and north of Chester, just south of the Canadian border. In many areas they would qualify as mountains, but in Montana they fall into theCameron.jpg (13878 bytes) "hill" classification. They are a long way from anywhere, no getting around it, although since they are by far the highest points in the surrounding landscape for miles around, on clear days they are visible from most points in north central Montana. If you are in the Glacier Park area, look far off to the east from any of the higher points along the east side of the Park and you will see them, weather conditions permitting. Montana is renowned for its far-reaching vistas, and as an aside, I recall one particularly clear winter day when I set a personal record by being able to see across nearly the entire state from north to south. We were skiing at Showdown, in the Little Belt Mountains south of Great Falls. From the top of the mountain, I could see the Sweetgrass Hills, over 150 miles to the north. Not a great deal closer looking south I could see the peaks of the Absaroka Range, just north of Yellowstone. Big Sky Country, indeed.

You were wondering about the fishing, though, and I will get to that after a bit. Not a small part of the charm of visiting Cameron Lake is the surrounding countryside, rich in wildlife and scenery, and also the knowledge that you are "out there", in a seldom visited but fascinating part of the state. This is isolated country, harsh as it is beautiful, sparsely populated by a tough, resourceful breed of folk. Consider that a trip to a town where you can get much more than a quart of milk means a journey of fifty miles or so, and Great Falls, the nearest town with much for shopping is about 135 miles away. These folks don’t just run to the corner store for a video when they are feeling bored, and when you pass a battered pickup truck, occupied by a couple of dogs and a cowboy hat wearer you can rest assured that they are the real deal, the genuine article, and not a recent transplant hobby rancher. Personally, I like that.

If you are going to make the effort to visit this area, you are probably going to want to do more than just fish and I recommend reading our article about hiking and sightseeing the area in our hiking section. While it’s certainly possible to visit the area on a day trip, you’re going to be doingCameron2.jpg (15696 bytes) more driving than fishing or exploring, and I recommend making the trip an overnighter. There aren’t any developed campgrounds, not to mention motels or Bed and Breakfasts, but there is a fair bit of public land where you can camp anywhere you see fit. Since you are reading this, you are probably most interested in fishing, and camping right at Cameron Lake is probably your best bet. Just bring plenty of mosquito repellant and be aware that you are on private property, although the Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has an easement for public access. To preserve that privilege, please be respectful of the landowner and don’t litter, etc. Also, due to the obvious remoteness of the area, you need to come well supplied with whatever you think you might need. If you run short of food, drink, or any other necessities, it is a long drive to resupply.

So, you are probably saying, "enough preliminaries already, how do I get there?" Since most visitors would likely include this as a side trip from the Glacier Park area, the most logical choice would be to take the Kevin-Oilmont exit off I-15, fifteen miles north of Shelby. Follow a paved highway, MT 343, east for eighteen miles, and then turn north onto a gravel road, Miner’s Coulee Road. If you forget to check your odometer, this intersection is just before the otherwise arrow-straight 343 makes a slight swerve around tiny Sheep Creek. The road to Cameron Lake departs Miner’s Coulee Road 4.25 miles north, 1.25 miles beyond an intersection with another gravel road, which heads off to the west. The Cameron Lake road intersection is unmarked, but if you are paying attention you can’t miss it. There are gateposts on both sides, painted with the familiar orange paint that means "no trespassing", but that pertains to the surrounding land, not the road itself, so turn east (right) onto an increasingly primitive road and continue on your way. I should qualify this by saying that common sense and good manners should preclude travelling beyond this point if conditions are muddy. It is viewed as exceedingly bad form to tear up rancher’s roads, and not only that if you insist onCameron3.jpg (28255 bytes) proceeding you are likely to find yourself hopelessly stuck in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the ground in this area dries fairly rapidly after a rain, with the help of the winds that usually follow a storm, and normally the roads will have dried sufficiently within a day or two after a rain to permit travel. After you depart Miner’s Coulee Road, follow the Cameron Lake road generally northeast along Fourmile Coulee. Coincidentally enough, you will reach Cameron Lake in about four miles. You will pass a couple of intersections with other trails, but the proper route is obvious. The nearby Middle Butte of the Sweetgrass Hills, commonly known as Gold Butte, provides an infallible landmark, and Cameron Lake lies approximately two miles directly west of the butte.

After you arrive, you might find yourself saying "What, I drove all this way for this?" Cameron Lake isn’t very big, only a few acres, and is a man-made stock pond. It supports a good population of trout, though, with the help of regular stockings by the MT dept. of FWP. There is a sign, advocating release of small fish from current stockings, but it is probably advisable to release all fish. Most fish you catch will be in the 10" – 12" range, but while I haven’t yet personally tied into one yet I have heard reliable reports of trout running to six or seven pounds.

Assuming you are likely to be fly fishing, scud patterns are proven producers, as well as the ever-reliable small nymphs like pheasant tails and hare’s ears. Damsel fly nymphs also produce in many of these prairieCameron4.jpg (7194 bytes) lakes, although since Cameron lies in a reasonably deep coulee and Gold Butte looms not far to the east, it doesn’t exactly seem like a prairie lake. When the fish are in a receptive mood, dry flies will also produce, although I have found the fish surprisingly selective for such a remote location. A float tube can be used to advantage, although the lake isn’t very wide and can be quite effectively fished from the bank.

I wouldn’t advocate anyone making Cameron Lake the focal point of a fishing vacation in Montana; rather it is an alternative location for those seeking something far out of the ordinary. The fishing is fine, but will quite likely take a back seat to the surrounding countryside, which begs exploration. Lakes such as Cameron also provide an excellent alternative during spring runoff, when many of the more well known rivers and streams are high and muddy. The Blackfeet Indians viewed the Sweetgrass Hills as a sacred area, and whether you believe in that sort of thing or not, I think you will likely notice that they do possess a certain magic, an interesting aura, and you are not likely to be disappointed with a visit to them.

 

 

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