When I first heard about Axolotl (ack-suh-LOT-uhl) Lakes in Madison County, it felt like I was hearing a somewhat more believable version of the Loch Ness Monster story. There aren’t any tales of a stealthy gigantic beast hiding out in this small collection of lakes (that I know of), but it’s a great spot to see a truly exceptional aquatic creature whose name traced to Aztec origins means “water monster.”

In reality, axolotls are harmless, even cute, rarely growing longer than 10 inches. If you aren’t quite sure what an axolotl is, it’s an amphibian that doesn’t go through metamorphosis from aquatic larvae to fully developed barred tiger salamander — it keeps its gills and fin. Salamish is likely what I’d have named it if it didn’t already have one.

When conditions are right, these salamander larvae diverge from the normal growth pattern because stresses causing change such as many predators, scarce food and limited breeding sites aren’t a problem. Adolescent salamanders can take their time in the aquatic larval form, often a couple years before growing the equipment necessary to function on land. The rebels who stay in the water? They’re the permanent axolotls.

Fortunately, I can say now that I’ve seen one up close. My fisherman friend caught one with skill and luck; they’re pretty sly. I saw at least two others from the banks of the lakes. Seems like they like to hang out in shallower water when the sun is out. The axolotl he caught wasn’t quite fully an adult, probably some teenager in amphibious years very confused about the commotion. Slippery and wiggly, you could still see his gills and fin intact along with legs and feet.

Though barred tiger salamanders are common in Montana, the ones living as true axolotls in their natural habitats are nearly extinct. They are known only in this region to be in the Axolotl Basin and a handful of lakes by West Yellowstone: a good reminder that preserving and protecting natural ecosystems couldn’t be more important, so please be mindful of that if you visit.

After we released the little axolotl, he caught a couple arctic graylings and a rainbow trout in upper Twin Lake. This area is primo for fishing. I’ve heard arctic graylings are thriving as brood stock for reintroduction and most of the unnamed lakes and potholes are great for catching both rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

If I wasn’t already blown away, here’s a shortlist of the wildlife we saw: blue heron, red-bellied leopard frog, vole, rock chuck, cinnamon teal, countless antelope and so much more that I can’t even name. Other wildlife known to roam these parts include elk, deer, moose, bear, bald and golden eagles and nesting osprey. Be prepared to bust out those binoculars and cameras.

You can park at the bottom and hike from Twin Lakes, which are the most accessible, up to Blue Lake, Axolotl Lake, and Reservoir Lake. You’ll get some beautiful views of the Madison Range and surrounding country. There are unmarked but visible trails and former roads that connect the lakes, but expect to have a little difficulty finding the trails in some areas. There’s a fascinating variety of terrain including sagebrush fields, meadows, forests, lakes and streams.

Several spots are great for picnicking, but unless you’re doused in bug spray, I’d keep a good distance from the lake.

The lakes and surrounding land are part of the roughly 400-acre Axolotl Lakes Recreation and Wilderness Study Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. From fishing, hiking and biking to canoeing and horseback riding, there couldn’t possibly be enough time in the day to explore all this area has to offer.

There are a few ways to get to the lakes, but unless you have a high-clearance, all-wheel drive vehicle, follow the directions the BLM gives for cars.

If you want to turn a day trip into a weekend trip, BLM rents out a cabin about 14 miles southwest of Ennis from late May through mid-October for $75 a night. The cabin can hold up to seven people and reservations need to be made six months in advance. Some of the amenities provided are propane lights, a refrigerator, two wood stoves, a fireplace, an outhouse and two corrals for horses (Electricity not included). For more information about the cabin or for reservations, call 683-8000 or visit recreation.gov.

I didn’t get a chance to stay in the cabin this time around, but that’s been added to my Montana bucket list. Also on the list: catching a fish or maybe even the elusive axolotl on my own! A special thanks to my fishermen friends who guided me and without whom catching anything in the water wouldn’t have been possible.