Edible Bozeman

Fine Times on the Madison

River guide Craig Boyd demonstrates a proper hold on this beauty of a brown trout.

Madison Double R in Ennis Specializes in Quality Food, Rest, and Outdoor Adventure

The sun shines brightly, although lower in the sky now. Splashes of bright yellow, gold, sienna, and maroon dance and explode across the landscape. There’s a trace of snow high in the mountains. It’s quiet. Less hurried. More room on the roads now. The purple peaks of the Madison Range rise before us stretching above the glacial moraine left behind after millennia of slow-moving rock and ice. It’s shoulder season in Montana and we’re on the Madison River, near Varney Bridge, just south of Ennis.

A short scenic drive down U.S. Highway 84 from Bozeman has brought us to the Madison Double R, where we’ll meet the sportsman lodge’s proprietors, John and Krista Sampson, also of Bozeman. We’ll float. We’ll fish. We’ll dine. All at our own pace, when time flows slowly like the deeper waters of the mighty Madison River. Anytime is a good time to stay at the Madison Double R, with off-peak season offering a particularly intimate experience of solitude on the river. “Weather permitting, guided fishing trips are year-round,” John reminds me. “Check the weather report and book a weekend of fine dining and open-air respite at the lodge.”

The Madison Double R is a sprawling, flowing, living 1,200-acre ecosystem of a property located just off Varney Bridge south of Ennis. Fly-fishing outfitters John and Krista purchased the land in 2017 and designed and built their dream lodge from scratch. The parcel was previously a working cattle operation owned by a local family in Ennis who called it River Ranch, which inspired the Sampsons to name their lodge “Double R.” When it was purchased by the Sampsons, the former cattle ranch would over time be returned to its ancestral form: gurgling streams, swaying grasslands, and abundant wildlife.

From the comfort of an on-property cabin, Rosie the bird dog on a working vacation anticipates a morning flush of pheasant.

As we turn off Varney Cutoff Road onto the dirt road leading to Madison Double R, we’re enveloped in tall natural grasses swaying in the breeze. The Gravelly Mountains rise in the distance above cottonwoods bursting in fiery yellows. The Madison River runs just to the west. Homes, buildings, and outposts disappear. We’re all alone out in this vast, ancient riverbed. Then, the silhouettes of the Double R’s main lodge and individual creek-side cabins begin to come into focus. The property is stunning, and we’re tremendously excited to be a part of it for a few days.

John is a long reed of a man. His excited voice can be heard all over the property, telling tall stories and regaling guests with life’s tales from road and river. Krista adds important details here and there. They are, after all, fishing guides first and foremost. They’re born to entertain. John spent over 30 years guiding across Alaska, Idaho, and Montana and was a partner in Ruby Springs Lodge south of Twin Bridges until he and Krista decided to move one valley east and start anew. Our first evening at the Madison Double R remains discreet: it’s just John, Krista, the staff, and a couple of guests.

John entertains everyone, his voice booming above the din of music on the large speakers. He moves from bar to pool table and back to bar, ordering and serving drinks. We quickly feel at ease, embracing a deep and sincere sense of closeness, of earnest camaraderie, and of being welcomed into someone’s dream home, like family.

Guests staying at Madison Double R engage in daily activities of their choice. These include guided fly fishing, pheasant hunting, clay shooting, horseback rides, trips to Yellowstone National Park, in-room massage, workout sessions, and much more. John is permitted to guide fishing trips on the Madison River, Big Hole, Ruby River, Jefferson, and Henry’s Fork.

During our stay, we meet a fellow guest, David, who has stayed with John many times in the past. On this trip, David preferred he and his guide return to the Ruby River, one of his favorite fishing spots. Over an evening cocktail perfectly paired to salty hors d’oeuvres served by the roaring fire of the Main Lodge, David tells a comical story as it relates to his quirky lunch preferences and why he’s loved the level of service involved in staying at John’s property. That’s a theme that runs throughout the activities and food programs at Double R: Clients receive quality experiences and are invited to make pre-trip special requests. As an example, John says recent clients wanted to celebrate their visit with fresh oysters. And John has exactly the right fresh seafood contacts to make that happen. He has, after all, been an outfitter for 30-plus years.

The food program at Madison Double R is no second fiddle to the outdoor activities. “When Krista and I travel, one of the most important decisions for us on any trip is where to experience dinner,” John says. That sensibility and sense of priorities comes through in the kitchen at Double R. Our dinner menu includes seared ahi tuna finished with an Asian flair to include wonderful umami flavors, crunchy fresh vegetables, and crispy rice: seared sea bass finished to perfection with a crispy crusty exterior and translucent meaty interior, topped off with a tangy relish and counterbalanced with the crunchy texture of snap peas; delicious grass-fed tenderloin served alongside wild mushrooms and skin-on potatoes au gratin finished with creamy Parmesan and thyme; and roast lamb with a polenta studded with garlic that resembles corn bread stuffing for its natural sweetness. My favorite dish may be the bountiful salad of roasted red beets with goat cheese and crispy ribbons of cured prosciutto. All dishes are carefully paired with wines selected by the lodge. I’m ready to roll back to our creek-side cabin, but before I do, I finish my sumptuous dinner with a tipple of Montana Moonshine, a young unoaked whiskey from Willey’s Distillery located just around the bend in downtown Ennis.

We’ll float. We’ll fish. We’ll dine. All at our own pace, when time flows slowly like the deeper waters of the mighty Madison River.

The creek-side cabins accommodate different party sizes and are fully furnished with beautiful art and amenities that Krista hand selected. The Sampsons really did build this new property from scratch, and have put a little bit of themselves and their travel experiences into every touch. Cabins come with fat-tire bicycles and an electric golf cart for quick transport around the property on chilly days and evenings. The dirt trail out front leads to the banks of the Madison River, acres of property to ramble and flush pheasant, and a Day Cabin that conveniently serves as a cozy central area for river put-ins, outdoor bonfires under the stars, and midday lunch on the porch with views to the banks of the Madison.

Madison Double R Head Chef Alex Deen hails from Austin, Texas. Deen got his start in fine dining when he practically begged his way into a job washing dishes at the highly acclaimed Vespaio Ristorante in Austin. He spent nine years at Vespaio, eventually rising to the role of executive chef. Deen attended the Culinary Institute of America, then took his skills to central California to try his hand at winemaking. After a year, he realized that winemaking wasn’t his scene and he returned to cooking. Eager for a change of scenery in contrast to his native Austin, Deen jumped at the chance to join the kitchen at Madison Double R.

These days, Deen enjoys catering to clients’ needs by sourcing foods locally at farmers markets like the one at Twin Bridges, the Double R gardens, or from some of the area’s finest off -site resources like Bozeman’s Quality Foods Distributing. This year, Deen and the kitchen staff grew vegetables on the property and quickly learned the hard way just how much space and time are required to grow tomatoes in Montana. They look forward to tackling another year of growing on the property in 2023—with a whole lot more space dedicated to the tomatoes.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are expertly prepared by Chef Alex Deen and the staff. Guests delight in the quality of the experience, each day beginning with sunrise in a private cabin, mingling in the lodge, and ending with last call at the River Ranch Bar.

Deen’s credo is simple: to make food that tastes really good. To do that, he makes sure to focus the kitchen’s attention on the final results that are served in the dining areas. If it’s not something that the kitchen can focus on, the kitchen outsources it to a local specialist. Case in point: fresh bread. Could Double R invest resources in baking incredible breads from the starter they have saved on-site? Sure. Would they prefer, however, to focus on delivering the best dinner plates to the table and let On the Rise Bread Co. in Bozeman focus on the breads? Absolutely.

Judging by our box lunch for our fly-fishing adventure under the excellent tutelage of angling guide Craig Boyd, you’ll be glad the kitchen stays focused. A Double R–prepared lunch is nothing shy of spectacular. Deen tells me our Asian salmon salad started with Ōra King salmon brined overnight and then lightly smoked so that the natural fats of the salmon stay intact and the fish doesn’t dry out. The result is a shiny square slab of dark pink salmon with a dense texture and wonderfully fresh flavors resting atop a pile of Asian noodles accompanied by fresh baby lettuces and a slightly spicy dressing on the side. Pair it with a cold ale from Boyd’s cooler and you’ve got yourself quite the riverside picnic lunch. I won’t divulge the location of Boyd’s sublime respite; it’s very special to him, having fished that exact spot with his dad since he was a wee lad. But I will say that Boyd guided me onto the biggest fish I’ve ever landed (save that mako shark I pulled in off the coast of Montauk many moons ago). It was the most speckled and beautiful beast of a brown trout.

It’s worth pointing out that the food program at the Madison Double R is open to the public. Reservations are strongly recommended since availability is influenced by the number of guests booked to stay at the lodge, as are many of the available activities, especially when it’s shoulder season and things move a little bit slower in southwest Montana. It’s a wonderful diversion to set aside some time and rejuvenate yourself in pristine nature, and you’re sure to enjoy a perfectly prepared experience with the entire staff of the Madison Double R.

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