The Madison Double R is the newest high-end fishing lodge in the Northern Rockies. It just may be the best.
BY JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR
The long dirt road off Highway 287 south of Ennis, Montana, leads to a long dirt driveway that follows the iconic Madison River. Tall cottonwoods, their leaves a golden yellow, line the banks standing guard over one of the most famous trout fisheries in the world.
Passing a gate reading Madison Double R Lodge, the driveway opens to reveal the main lodge and the dozen or so cabins and outbuildings that surround an open grassy area bathed in the early evening light. The low-profile structures feature clean lines and large windows, each intricately designed in a manner that could be described as rustic minimalism. John Sampson calls it “modern Montana.”
“The architecture brings Montana from the outside into the buildings,” says Sampson, 54, who opened the Double R with his wife Krista in June of 2019. “[It’s a] simple, clean style that doesn’t get in the way of what guests are looking to do, and that’s to experience the beauty of Montana.”
The Madison Double R is the newest high-caliber, top-end fishing lodge in the Northern Rockies, providing guests with fly fishing gear by day, and a gym, hot tub, full bar, and premier dining experience at night. Expert guides lead float trips here giving anglers access to the large rainbow and brown trout that make the Madison among the most sought-after rivers around.
Snugged up to the Madison on what’s colloquially known as the “Miracle Mile” for its unrivaled fishery, the Double R Lodge stands on 1,287 acres through which moose, deer, bear and antelope regularly travel. Sampson leases about half the land to a friend whose horses graze in the vast fields. It’s a fitting arrangement since the Double R was named for the original property: River Ranch.
But what Sampson holds dearest is the conservation and restoration work that’s been done here: when he made the purchase, more than 600 acres of the property was in a conservation easement with preservation heavyweight Montana Land Reliance, and guidelines include 500-foot setbacks from the river. And Sampson has endeavored to restore the local ecosystem by creating a network of creeks connected to the Madison that allow the river’s famed trout to spawn and their numbers to grow each year.
“If there’s one thing that I will look back on my career [and] be most proud of,” Sampson says, “it will be the recreational development, riparian- improvement projects that will live well beyond my time on the Earth.”
These restoration projects have become something of a crusade for Sampson. Indeed, he’s worked on eight in the Lower Big Hole Valley and in the Ruby Valley, where he co-owned the Ruby Springs Lodge with elementary school chum Paul Moseley just 30 miles west of the Double R. It was here at Ruby Springs, building off his experience working for all-inclusive lodges in Alaska, that Sampson began conceiving of the ideal fishing lodge.
The Double R took Sampson 18 months to build, but this lodge has taken him more than two decades to perfect. He helped run Ruby Springs for 23 years, and he’s learned from the mistakes and successes, fine-tuning each component of the Double R.
For Sampson, however, this highly curated experience begins and ends with people. Guests are an eclectic mix of young and old, honeymooners and grandfathers, families and anglers. The backbone is a staff of 40 hand-selected, welcoming professionals. Sampson gives them the tools to be their best.
“It’s important to me that they’re empowered and encouraged to make decisions on their own,” he says. “Nobody is less or more important than [another.] Every single teammate is important to the whole system. A happy staff makes for happy guests.”
While an uncanny attention to detail gives guests visiting the Double R a world-class experience, it’s the people that make the lodge special.
Sam Hanssler and Alex Deen are the lodge’s chefs. Deen came from Colo- rado last May after working seasonally in Alaska and says the locally sourced ingredients make the cuisine unparal- leled, while custom wine pairings round out meals.
“Coming from a culinary standpoint, it’s like a dream,” Deen says.
Peter McLoughlin, a next-door neighbor to the Double R and friend of John Sampson’s, agrees. “Having gone to a number of lodges around the country, I’ve never had better food than Alex and Sam provided,” says McLoughlin, who frequents the lodge with his wife Kelly for dinner and fishing once a week or so.
But alongside trying to make the restaurant the “best in Montana,” Deen says the team is like family. “And that goes for everybody on the ranch. We’re all so closely knit.”
That teamwork provides the experience. And that comes down to details: shuffleboard and pool tables in the bar; mountain bikes leaning against spacious, two-bedroom cabins; rooms with towering windows offer breathtaking views of the valley to the north and south, the Madison Range to the east; a hot tub just a short golf cart ride away overlooks the river.
Each component of the lodge works in unison, thanks to Krista and interior designer Teresa Kessler: from the minute detail of the Double R insignia on the napkin holders to the placement of Sampson’s grandfather’s mallard decoys overlooking the large stone fireplace in the great room.
But while an uncanny attention to detail gives guests visiting the Double R a world-class experience, it’s the people that make the lodge special. Sampson says he’s discovered the sweet spot where comfort and relationships combine for a world-class experience.
Former Major League Baseball pitcher Matt Morris’s signed jersey lives in a frame on the wall of the workout facility. “You become an extended member of the Sampson family when visiting the Double R,” said Morris, who lives in Big Sky with his wife Heather. “John and Krista have raised the bar for fishing lodges across the country. We’re just lucky it’s in our backyard.”
On this evening, new friends and old mingle at happy hour, sampling apps and handcrafted cocktails as the Montana sun sets over this pristine stretch of the Madison River. Bozeman native and former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Brock Coyle is here celebrating his 30th birthday talking with an 89-year-old man who’s fished around the world. A young couple celebrating their wedding anniversary shares the day’s fish tales with a father whose 20-year-old sons and nephew lounge on a nearby couch.
The great room is open and inviting; guests relax in plush leather chairs, chatting and watching the Seattle Seahawks game on vast flatscreens. It’s a fitting game. After all, Sampson grew up in Seattle and neighbor McLoughlin, former president of the Seahawks, is here laughing with the fishing guides.
“We view the lodge as a great resource to us because of the proximity of our friends John and Krista and the facilities the lodge has to offer,” McLoughlin says. “To me, the Double R is all about hospitality and the friendships that you can make with the people that are John’s customers and clients, and the staff. It’s nothing short of incredible.”
Visit madisonrr.com for details and booking information.
Joseph T. O’Connor is the editor-in-chief of Mountain Outlaw magazine.