When the tug came, there was no mistaking it. There was a big fish on the end of the line.
“Okay, start to reel it in,” directed Monster Lake outfitter Steve Bassett, “but be sure and let go when she starts to run. That reel will spin so fast, you might cut yourself.”
Before long, the fish hit the end of the line again and leaped into the air – a glimmering, beautiful rainbow trout – and huge. “Wow, that is a big one!” Bassett said. “Just keep the tip of the rod up and keep reeling it in, you’ll get it.” And soon we did, a 22-inch, 6-pound rainbow. Awesome.
In the High Desert region of Wyoming, a scant eight miles outside Cody, Monster Lake is a mile-long expanse of water and a magical combination of minerals, abundant underwater forage, and oxygen that feeds some of the largest stillwater trout in the world. Now owned by Montana rancher Dan Eddleman, Monster Lake is returning to its former glory, and its sense of history, having weathered a series of owners and foibles that both formed and very nearly destroyed it.
Monster Lake Ranch sits on the west rim of the Big Horn Basin that, for more than 100 years, has drawn men to its bosom with expansion and commerce in mind. Among them, was “Buffalo” Bill Cody, who never passed up on an opportunity to tell potential investors about the wonders of the Basin.
The land, Cody believed, was a perfect candidate for settlement, not to mention outstanding fishing and hunting. By the end of the 19th century, though not the first to settle, the certainly more famous Cody planted roots in the area of the town that would become his namesake. Water was one thing he still needed and nature had yet to deliver.
Cody and his partner, Nate Salsbury, formed the Shoshone Land and Irrigation Company to purchase land and build canals from the Shoshone River to the area around Lowell, Wyoming. But the company was often beleaguered with financial issues and bickering shareholders. While Cody worked to get his project off the ground, Omaha businessman Solon L. Wiley worked on his own plan building a canal from the Greybull River known as the Bench Canal, tapping the water above the spot where Cody was working. His family was the first to settle on the land that is now Monster Lake Ranch and, seeing that it was not likely that both projects would be sustainable, Wiley approached Cody and his investors with the idea of taking it over. Wiley built the town of Wiley on the spot where Monster Lake now exists, which included a post office and bank, but his money situation was no better. He abandoned the project, as did Cody, who then urged the government to take it over, under the authority of the 1902 Reclamation Act. With the federal government backing the project, dams and reservoirs were built, but the forgotten canals were left to nature; one, still visible, stretching into the expanse of the 10,000-acre Monster Lake Ranch. Nature, however, had plans to work with Monster Lake in a different way. Nature will do what she is designed to do, regardless of what mankind might have in mind; like the stubborn beauty she can be. When mankind, though, respects and appreciates the role of nature, the rare happy accident can happen and be truly astonishing.
Shadowed by the Absaroka mountain range, the climate surrounding Monster Lake is a powerful mixture of arid desert, short-grass prairie and alpine climates, with average rainfall between nine to 16 inches. The desert soils are highly alkaline and used mostly for winter range, although there had been attempts for agricultural production and heavier grazing. For that to work, though, there had to be irrigation and, with one of the first of several “happy accidents,” Monster Lake was born.
“Around 1980, the people that owned the land pushed some dirt into a draw and created the lake,” said Bassett, who has fished the lake and served as a guide for nearly 30 years. “They threw about 20,000 fingerlings into the lake and then they basically drove off and left it.”
Over the next two years, nature took its course and an eco-system began to form unlike any other in the world; one that might have gone undiscovered had Bassett not contacted a worker he knew on the ranch and asked if he could fish it.
“When we started catching those fish, I was just amazed,” he said. “There was just no way those fish could have grown that fast from the time they were put in there as fingerlings, but it turns out, that is just the way it was.”
After years of meeting with different owners and failing to convince them that fishing was a diversification they could count on, Bassett and then partner, Jay Walker, gave it one more try and in 1993, impulsively walked in on a meeting among the owners and presented a proposal for a “pay-for-play” fishing contract.
“They told me it was my lucky day because they had been looking for six months for someone to manage the fishing,” he recalled. “They had actually restocked the lake the year before. We got a contract with them that prevented the lake from being pulled down below a certain depth and after about three years, the fish were back to that monster size. By the fifth year, it just blew up and we were full of fishermen.” Nature had most certainly crafted a unique brew when it came to Monster Lake. With the combination of how the lake “happened” to have been developed and the level of alkaline pH in the soil and water, a concoction was created that became a literal buffet perfectly suited to trout.
“Monster Lake has the ultimate insect and freshwater shrimp growing water,” Bassett explained. “ The shrimp, or scuds, love that alkaline water and this lake is full of them. It’s full of leeches, baitfish, backswimmers and snails. About the only thing we don’t have in this lake are crawdads. This allows the fisherman to fish numerous patterns on numerous different types of lines all year long. Even in July and August, when most places are in the doldrums of fishing, we still have fabulous fishing here.”
Then there are the insect hatches – the magic word for all fly fishermen.
The lake produces a series of hatches that are perfectly timed. First comes a Chironomidae or midge hatch, followed by a Callibaetis or “callies” hatch. From there a damselfly nymphs hatch begins its dance. “Then we have a capering sedge hatch which 99 % of most lakes don’t have. That is an insect that looks like a tent-winged caddis and it’s those that bring the fish to the surface because they actually run and mate on the water. It’s just an explosive top water action when they hit those bugs, so it’s one of those huge draws that makes people really like to come.”
And they come, with many of them being some of the top fishermen in the world, including Jason Corbin of “Jason Corbin’s On The Fly Guides,” fly fishing expert Denny Rickards and John Randolph of Fly Fisherman, among others. So much so, that for eight years, Monster Lake was the top-rated stillwater fishery in the continental United States.
For the most part, owners over the years worked well with Bassett and partners, ensuring the lake stayed at a viable level, but then Wyoming land became a magnet for the wealthy, one of whom was former billionaire Tim Blixseth, who bought the ranch to add to his worldwide Yellowstone Resorts, but unfortunately, the dream came apart when he fell into some financial trouble and the lake and property began to suffer.
The ranch, with little direction, was in the hands of an owner who collected on a debt from Blixseth, had little interest in keeping it. He did, however, take Bassett’s advice to restore the lake and restock it if he wanted to sell it.
Enter Dan Eddleman, a rancher who had become quite adept at recognizing the potential of land that, with a bit of tender loving care and the right management, could be turned into a jewel. The owner of the Oar Lock ranches in Montana and Texas, Eddleman, along with his wife Sandy and daughter Mattie, traversed from north to south and back again, developing ranches that in turn produced one of the most well-bred lines of American Quarter Horses in the country. Eddleman saw Monster Lake Ranch as another base for raising horses and cattle, and never one to be shy about trying new ventures, was more than happy to get into the fishing business. Even more importantly to Eddleman, was sharing the benefits of the outdoor life and the rich Native American and westward expansion history.
“It was the combination of the lake and the cowboy in me that made Monster Lake attractive,” he said. “I liked the big rims and the scenery, plus it wasn’t too far from our ranch in Montana.”
When Eddleman looked at the crumbling horse barn, houses, fencing and roads, his eye didn’t see the problems, but the possibilities and the answer was to start from the beginning.
“I saw the potential of the property and my potential for the long-term interest in it,” he said. “But, whenever you put the quick fix on something, you’re always going back after two or three years and re-doing what you had already spent a lot of money on. You have to go back and do it all right at some point, so I started at the foundation.”
From that foundation, Eddleman, who took advantage of the craftsmanship of ranch manager Dave Bunnell and the welcoming personality of Dave’s wife, Dori, built a warm and comfortable environment, treating guests as family. From the old emerged the restored with the installation of new roofs, water systems, furniture, bedding, roads . . . replacing virtually everything on the existing property. Still, he wasn’t satisfied. So he gutted the old horse barn, building the Cutthroat Saloon in the loft, complete with a bathroom featuring a floor and counter covered in shiny copper pennies and a ceiling made completely of his used silver snuff can lids. The lower floor became home to a gourmet kitchen with the stalls serving as individual dining rooms.
“We converted the old equipment shed into a convention center where we can have corporate meetings, weddings and big parties, then we decorated our lodging so it would have the really interesting character and flavor of the old West with real comfortable beds and leather couches. We wanted a combination of the old and the new in all of our lodging, and have added log cabin that sits in the high hills that will overlook the snowcapped mountains.”
Eddleman’s idea of lodging reflects his own grizzled cowboy character. Leather harness adorns the walls, but the antiques abundant throughout reflect the influence of his wife, Sandy. While the lodges have their modern conveniences, including kitchens and laundry, Eddleman has options for those who would rather “rough it” comfortably – an authentic cowboy camp and a teepee village that sit among the picturesque rims surrounding Monster Lake. Trail riding is another popular activity, with horses provided by Monster Lake, and riders can take in the historic property along with its abundant wildlife including mule and white tail deer, antelope, mountain lion, and an assortment of birds. Adding to its diversity are 15,000 feet of flight pens for wing shooting, featuring pheasant and chukars, along with sporting clays, that shooting enthusiasts can enjoy.
As he began to restore the property, it was crucial to Eddleman that the ranch remained a working ranch, but also be a spot where people can experience an authentic western lifestyle experience in combination with world-class stillwater fishing.
“It’s kind of a unique area,” he explained. “We have one of the best museums in the country here, with a rodeo every night for 90 days straight. The community is real friendly. They do everything they can for the people who are visitors. They realize that tourists are a real important part of what makes Cody as prosperous as it is, so it’s a really cool community to work with and be involved in.”
As the father of a 14-year-old horse-crazy daughter, Eddleman knows the value of having a variety of option for families, so Monster Lake Ranch offers a plethora of activities that, in combination with the offerings of Cody, can satisfy the most demanding guest.
“There are so many choices around our place that this area has to offer that almost anybody can get all their wants met here,” he said. “A fisherman can bring his whole family and while he fishes, the kids can go ride a horse or target shoot. Mom can go shopping or the museum and then later, everyone can go to the rodeo or Yellowstone.”
Of course, the “Yellowstone” he refers to is the nearly 3,500-sq.-mile wilderness recreation area atop a volcanic hot spot just a short drive away. Yellowstone features dramatic canyons, alpine rivers, lush forests, hot springs and gushing geysers, including its most famous, Old Faithful. It’s also home to hundreds of animal species, including bears, wolves, bison, elk and antelope.
Yet, he admits, the real attraction at this point are the “monster” fish and Eddleman gives the lion’s share of the credit to Bassett.
“Steve loves this lake and it shows in the way he cares for it and cares for the people who fish on it,” Eddleman said. “He’s the one who’s making sure the lake has the fish it needs and that the fish have what they need.”
With his appreciation for fine horses, Eddleman can understand the development of trout that keep fisherman from around the world pointed toward the eastern slope of the Absaroka Range, which is the reason Bassett stays focused on making sure Monster Lake delivers.
“We manage the lake to develop quality fish that look and act like wild fish,” Bassett explained. “We get the fish as tiny fingerlings that grow a little over an inch a month for the first year, so that by the time they’re a year old they are 16, 17, even 18 inches long, which is just unheard of. It’s not just the length. It’s the girth of these fish. You’ll catch a fish that might be 22 or 23 inches long and have a 16 to 18-inch girth on it. There are places, but not very many, that have that kind of natural food source that we’re growing that are that long and that type of girth. So that’s the big draw.”
The variety of trout is outstanding as well. Brightly colored rainbows, golden browns, brookies and tiger trout, a beautiful cross between the brown and the brookie, populate the lake that is carefully managed to ensure the health of the fish and the experience of the fisherman.
While just 10 rods are allowed on the lake at any given time and all catch and release, Bassett says fisherman from the novice to the expert are almost guaranteed a great trip.
“The issue really isn’t hooking the fish, it’s landing them, because they are so strong,” Bassett related. “They are tackle busters, so it’s a thrill for the novice who has never or seldom been fly fishing because they are going to hook a fish and catch it.”
Anglers can test their skills with flies including wooly buggers, midges and chrominoids in the spring to big hopper patterns in late summer. These large trout are not leader shy.
It’s a great place to try large tippet due to the size of the trout and the weed beds occasionally encountered in the lake. It is not uncommon to catch 20 fish per day.
While not necessary, Bassett recommends the novice hire a guide who can provide the rods, flies and boat, as well as the expertise that will make the trip a good one . . . with lunch thrown in.
“For the experienced fisherman – even the really, really experienced fishermen that have been to Alaska, Chile or Argentina, they’re still not going to hook in a day near as many fish as they will at Monster Lake. You might get those fish in Alaska who are going to be just as long or a little longer, but they don’t have the girth. I had a fellow there that has been all of over the world fishing and he still caught the fish of his career. He ended up landing like a 28 or 29-inch brown trout and it weighed well over 10 pounds. He actually fell in and filled his waders up twice trying to land that fish.”
As for time, take all the time you need, Bassett says.
“We don’t have a typical eight hour day like most places. We allow people to fish from six o’clock in the morning to 10 o’clock at night, that’s even on our guided trips. They get what you would call a full day of fishing.”
Which suits the early rising Eddleman just fine. For him, Monster Lake, the jewel he is honing, should be a diamond that rises from the hills and ridges of Wyoming, offering year-round outdoor sports and experiences.
“We’ve put together a great team of people who work incredibly hard to make sure our guests have an outstanding experience and on their terms when it comes to what they would like to do. Hiking, sightseeing, enjoying the mule deer and antelope, riding one of our trail riding horses, wing shooting, sporting clays, it’s all up to them,” he said, “but one of the things we have to remember is that this is still a working ranch. The grass is green. We’re putting up hay. Mares are foaling. Cows are calving. We’re hard at it, trying to make it better.”