In addition to the Big Hole River and a few other spots in Montana, Elizabeth Lake is one of just a few places in the lower 48 states where anglers can catch both rainbow trout and arctic grayling, and big ones at that! The lake is quite large, and most anglers concentrate at the foot of the lake and the inlet. The trout and the grayling cruise along the shelf where the clear, shallow water meets the impenetrable green-blue line of water, which is produced by glacial silt. Grayling and trout reaching 14 to 16 inches and larger ones are not uncommon. In addition to the mayfly hatch, I saw lots of caddis and stoneflies enticing lots of fish midday, in spite of the heavy winds. Look for some protected coves along the eastern side of the lake.
The western side of the lake may be reached from a suspension bridge. Looking down into the water from the bridge, anglers will observe four or five really large rainbows sipping on midges. They, of course, are quite aware of human presence as well and are very wary, not to mention irritated that they have to constantly slide over to the other side of the pool each time an excited angler discovers them. (Yes, I couldn't resist and made a couple of foolish casts from the swinging bridge. They nonchalantly ignored my offerings.)
Pauline and I packed up our two donkeys and met her son Dennis on the way up to the Park. I had secured a reservation early in the spring for one night at Gable Creek and two nights at Cosley Lake. Although I had asked for Elizabeth Lake, I was pleased to get so close to this most popular fishing lake. For the most part the donkeys behaved quite well. Because we had not stayed the night at Saint Mary or Babb, we reached the trailhead late, despite hitting the road at 6 am. This kept me from fishing the Belly River section by the campground that evening. If you are not a healthy, strong backpacker, I most certainly recommend staying the first night at Gable Creek Campground, which is only 6.1 miles from the trailhead. In retrospect, I would prefer to stay two nights at Gable Creek Campground and do a day hike to Elizabeth if I couldn't get a campsite the second day at Elizabeth Lake.
When Dennis and I reached Elizabeth Lake from our campground at Cosley Lake, the wind was blowing hard, producing small, choppy waves. Wading out into shallow water about 20 yards, I faced squarely into the wind. Having recently had arthroscopic shoulder surgery, I gave up after a few futile casts and retreated to a piece of shade. I was too tired to brood over our bad luck on facing hot dry winds, which thrashed the surface of the lake. Dennis looked at me sympathetically and went off exploring. (I am sure he made a silent vow not to be so out of shape at 55.) Dennis disdains all forms of fishing elitism and prefers to carry a two-foot Snoopy rod and reel. About a half-hour later he came back and said, "Sorry to disturb your nap, Dave, but I think you had better grab your rod and follow me. I found a spot where there are tons of fish. They follow my lure all the way in until they see me, but I can't get them to hit."
I was instantly awake to the possibilities. Sore shoulders and blistered feet vanished. Dennis led me over to the first cove on the eastern shoreline, a quarter of a mile in sight of the campground at the outlet. Before I had even made my first cast, Dennis pointed out the cruisers swimming along the line where shallow water meets the deep blue. I had already had a Goddard Caddis on my line with a beadhead dropper. Within two or three casts I had caught a very large grayling on the nymph.
I quickly changed Dennis's Snoopy rig and put on a beadhead Prince nymph with two strike indicators and a swivel to add a little weight. Dennis began making 20-foot casts and caught both rainbows and grayling. After catching a number of fish, I offered Dennis my fly rod, as he had never used one before. His second cast along the shoreline threw a size 16 yellow Wulff pattern into the shallow water. The 16-inch rainbow shot right out of the shallows no more than six feet from the shoreline and snatched Dennis' offering. After Dennis released this beauty, my generosity and sharing quickly dissolved when I saw the size of his fish. I deftly snatched back my fly rod and went on to catch a lot of small and large fish before we had to head back down the trail. Dennis did quite well with his Snoopy outfit until the reel broke. The last fish he landed he brought in hand-over-hand. His only comment: "They don't make Snoopy rods like they used to."
by David Archer