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Upper Canyon Outfitters in Montana has been my favorite place to get away and fish since my brother and I first visited the ranch in 2003. From the moment of our arrival, we felt welcome and knew we were in good hands. Those feelings have grown stronger during more than a dozen visits with friends and family over the last 15 years. Owners Donna and Jake McDonald and their excellent staff provide exceptional experiences for all ages and skill levels.
Montana, particularly the Ruby Valley, is beautiful and the ranch is a great place to get away and relax. There are many choices of activities, from fly fishing to riding, hunting, hiking and more. They even have a Build Your Own Adventure option!
My first love is fly fishing on the Ruby River (though I did enjoy horseback riding at the ranch for the first time last year, and will probably do it again sometime). One of the big reasons I enjoy fishing so much are the guides at the ranch. They work hard to make your days on the river fun and productive, and they’re helpful without being intrusive.
Every UCO fishing guide is experienced, licensed and trained in first aid, and most have been at the ranch for several seasons. They’ll bring plenty of water and other drinks, a streamside lunch, and probably, whatever you forgot! They always make your day better.
UCO also has private access to some of the best fishing spots. While there is plenty of river with public access for fishing on both the upper and lower sections of the river, there are some special stretches of the river where you must have a UCO guide to fish. UCO has an arrangement with landowners along these stretches that allows fishing with a guide and a rod fee (included with the guide fee). These private stretches are amazing, and since the access is limited, the fish are usually plentiful. You really want to spend some of your time casting in those private stretches.
Over my years at the ranch, I’ve been joined by people with fly fishing skills ranging from beginner to expert. UCO always does a great job matching them to the right guides.
If you’re new to fly fishing, the UCO guides can help you learn to cast or improve your casting. They’ll suggest what flies are right for a particular part of the river and the conditions, and help you rig your flies. They’ll also show you likely places where the fish are holding, and tell you where to start your fly in the water so it reaches the fish in a natural way.
By fishing with a guide, you’ll begin to understand how to read the river and identify where the fish are holding for yourself. It’s sometimes helpful to use a hopper-dropper rig where one fly floats on the surface with a nymph below the surface. The guide will set up the rig for you, help you realize when a trout has taken the nymph (it’s surprisingly subtle), and tell you when to set the hook.
When you hook a fish, the guide will help you land it in ways that are safest for the fish and – after your victory picture – make sure the fish is healthy and properly released.
And, when the inevitable tangle or snag happens, the guide will help you fix the problem and get you back to fishing as quickly as possible.
For the experienced angler, the two sections of the Ruby River are very different experiences. (Here’s how another frequent guest has described the Ruby.) Both sections look pretty straightforward at first, but have plenty of nuances.
If you prefer to head out on your own, a guide can take you to the public sections of the river and show you the most productive rigs and flies for the area, plus share local experience. With that inside knowledge, you’re sure to have a much better day.
Below the Ruby Dam, there are three public access points before you get into Alder, Montana, which is 24 miles northeast of the ranch. Each fishes a bit differently and local knowledge can really improve your results when you fish on your own. A few miles up the river from the ranch, the Ruby River flows through national forest land that also offers some great fishing. A UCO guide can show you places you can park, where to access the river, and the best techniques and rigs for those parts of the river and some of its tributaries.
Even after years of fishing both public and private waters, I continue going out with a guide on most days. There are many advantages, including getting current knowledge about that year’s conditions, having the guides manage lunch, and keeping the day rolling along if there are problems. I also like that I’ve fished with the same guides before, and enjoy the chance to slow down and catch up with them.
Of course, if you want to fish on your own, UCO will set you up with a lunch, point you in the right direction, and the guides will answer any questions you have on fly selection or rigging before you go.
One final, important note… tipping your guide is not something the UCO staff talk about, and they won’t say much about it if you ask at the ranch. In addition, many anglers are confused about whether they’re supposed to tip and how much. I say it’s just like tipping your server 15 to 20 percent of your bill at a nice restaurant. Guides provide a valuable service and like I do with other service providers, I tip them for their excellent work and think this should be standard practice. I have settled on giving my guides 20 to 25 percent of the daily fee because I believe great service and hard work always should be acknowledged.