One man's secret fishing hole

Choteau rancher Tom Evensen creates his own fishing paradise



dave reese  trout

The author with a kamloops  rainbow trout


Bigfork native Tom Evensen likes to fish.

And like many of the ranchers on the Rocky Mountain Front, he doesn't have time from a busy ranch schedule to travel to destination flyfishing spots.

So he created them himself.

Evensen, 72, has built highways, plowed the snow off of Logan Pass and operated heavy equipment in the oil fields of eastern Montana.

But no amount of dirt moving or snowplowing has given him the satisfaction of a job he did over 30 years ago on the Rocky Mountain Front. There, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Evensen created a 36-acre irrigation lake that has now become Evensen's favorite fishing hole.

It's a place where his family and friends can gather for picnics, swimming, and of course, to fish for trout on fly rods. Several years ago he planted the lake with the kamloops strain of rainbow trout from a private fish hatchery in Lewistown.  

The 4,000 eight-inch trout that Evensen planted have now reached up to 12 pounds, feeding on the freshwater shrimp and myriad aquatic life that inhabit the lake.

Dave Reese photo

The lake sits in a swale along the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front. Jagged peaks form the backdrop to the sparkling jewel of a lake, where anglers in float tubes skim along the surface, angling for the large kamloops rainbow trout that swim throughout the 15- to 20-foot-deep lake. When the fish are feeding on the surface, the large trout often jump completely out of the water and splash back down; close your eyes and listen closely, and these big trout jumping sound like bricks falling out of the sky and splashing down in the lake. On a recent day, blackbirds sang among the cattails, and a pelican cruised the air slowly, looking for a meal.

This particular lake sits on private land and is owned by a friend of Evensen's. Although Evensen had the luxury of working with a landowner who owned an 8,000-acre ranch, you don't need that much land to create your own fishing retreat, Evensen said.  Anyone with one acre to 100 acres - and the proper governmental permits - can create a private fishing hole where you can enjoy the thrill of hooking and landing fish.

In the early 1960s, Evensen said, the Soil Conservation Service helped ranchers pay up to 80 percent for the costs of creating irrigation ponds on their land. 

Evensen prefers the hardy kamloops rainbow trout over other species like brown trout, which he said are too aggressive toward other fish. He doesn't plant warmwater species like bass or pike. "I don't want anything to do with pike," he said. His kamloops live about six years then they begin to die off, mainly from not being able to spawn naturally in a free-running stream.

Evensen knows fishing ponds have their detractors, such as the die-hard fish purists who are against fishing in manmade reservoirs. Evensen doesn't confuse the two. This is a fish pond, not a natural freestone river like the Middle Fork of the Flathead.  

"In the evening, I like to go fishing for a couple of hours," he said. "Not everyone can drive 200 miles to fishing. This way, a rancher can be fishing in 25 minutes."

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks oversees all fish plants that take place in Montana, and restricts the types and places where fish can be planted legally.

Depending on the water source, landowners will need a water rights permit, whether they're diverting water from a stream or using a well. If the landowner is diverting water from a stream, they will need a special 310 permit from the local Soil Conservation Service district office.

"You'll need some plans. People need to do a little thinking about it," said Jim Vashro, fisheries manager for Region One of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Kalispell.

Evensen has built over 20 ponds for ranchers along the Front. Over the course of decades of running heavy equipment and building irrigation ponds, Evensen has learned a trick or two about raising fish. "There are many things to consider," he said. 

The best place to build a fish pond is in a coulee or draw that can hold water. "If you have to dig a hole to build a fish pond, it's far too expensive," he said. 

When it comes to planting fish, Evensen used larger fish, which are more expensive but have higher survival rates. "You're interested in fish survival, not how many you plant," he said. It costs around $650 per 1,000 four- to six-inch fish.

Evensen's ponds have been successful places to raise fish because the ponds have natural bottoms where plant and aquatic life can thrive. Although the fish grow naturally on their own, Evensen has had to replenish them over the years. "It's like a feedlot," he said. "Through the years they get caught, or get eaten by a predator." Building a pond on a gravelly or rocky bottom will not let crucial aquatic life bloom, and you'll have to manually feed your fish, he said. Ponds need to be at least 12 feet deep all year, so that there is adequate oxygen for the fish during winter when the lakes may freeze over.

The Legislature changed the way fish ponds are managed. Previously the pond permits were good for the lifetime of the permit holder; that has changed to a 10-year permit.

FWP permit holders are subject to certain requirements and site inspections, as well as environmental analysis. The permit allows them to purchase and transport fish into their ponds. There are roughly 400 private ponds under license in Region One of northwest Montana, with over  2,000 private ponds statewide, according to Vashro, who said in a typical year he'll get 12 to 20 new applications in Region One.

"It's legal and we recognize it's something highly desirable to a lot of landowners, whether it's as a way to catch dinner, or a place for the grandkids to fish, or to catch trophy fish."

Fish ponds that are connected to public waterways undergo additional scrutiny, because the ponds can introduce the wrong species or disease to the public resource - something that has happened across the state, Vashro said.

Permit holders are required to purchase and plant fish from licensed and disease-free hatcheries, of which there are eight Montana.

Planting fish from out of state requires an import permit - something that a landowner did NOT have when he introduced illegal fish into his pond, resulting in fish with whirling disease in the lower Clark Fork and Kootenai rivers, Vashro said.

In addition, a landowner in the Swan Valley had a permit to plant trout and bass, but he also illegally added crappie - a nonnative species. FWP is in the process of removing those fish, and the landowner can be liable for fines and restitution for FWP's costs, Vashro said.

Fish ponds, he added, "can be done safely.

"As long as they adhere to the species specified and get their fish from a licensed source, it's fine." Region One has its own species restrictions, with bass and some of the trout species among the fish recommended for planting. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks does not provide ongoing landowner assistance in creating ponds because they not open to the public, and instead recommends using a private consultant. "If someone really needs help they should look at a consultant," Vashro said.

Other resources are available to landowners looking to create a backyard fishing hole. One is from the Montana Water Course, which is available online at 

 FWP is also publishing its own guide book on how to create fish ponds that keep Montana's native fisheries safe.

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