As students of Montana’s land grant university, we’re awfully fortunate to have so many recreational opportunities in close proximity to our campus. During the winter months, MSU students enjoy the area’s iconic landscapes by skiing, snowmobiling, and ice climbing, just to name a few. Even though the increased number of people enjoying winter sports in the area is to be expected, the added pressure of crowds may cause some outdoor enthusiasts to second-guess their decisions. Most leave the urban sprawl to escape the unpleasantries of town, not to run into neighbors and colleagues. For those who desire to get away from it all, the answer may come in the form of an unassuming place for this time of year: a local trout stream.
Fly fishing is a tradition that began in the 13th century in England. Today, Montana is the world's fly fishing capital. The rugged geography of the Rocky Mountains and consistent moisture from the Pacific Ocean creates a spectacular and diverse habitat for trout, allowing healthy populations of large fish to endure for generations. This combination of landscape and climate also creates breathtaking backdrops of mountain peaks standing guard over golden valleys whose blue arteries tempt anglers with fish. In Montana, fly fishing is much more than an enjoyable pastime, which former president Herbert Hoover illustrated precisely in 1951, "To go fishing is the chance to wash one's soul with pure air, with the rush of the brook, or with the shimmer of sun on blue water. It brings meekness and inspiration from the decency of nature, charity toward tackle-makers, patience toward fish, a mockery of profits and egos, a quieting of hate, a rejoicing that you do not have to decide a darned thing until next week. And it is discipline in the equality of men, for all men are equal before fish." Today, Montanans understand that fly fishing is a crossroads between the state’s incomparable environment and its unique culture.
“Trout U” is one of the alternate titles trademarked by MSU, and it really is fitting. Our Bozeman campus is settled close to some of the most extensive and highest quality fly fishing opportunities in the entire world. For those unaware, fly fishing is deeply ingrained in this town, university and state’s culture. MSU’s connection to fly fishing goes much deeper than just a pastime of its students, staff and faculty. Special Collections and Archives at the Renne Library is home to one of the world’s largest trout and salmonid collections, holding an immense amount of print, archival and digital information detailing trout, salmon and char along with the experiences of those who have interacted with these fish. Furthermore, MSU graduates work as biologists, resource managers and fly fishing guides amongst a great deal of other professions directly involved with our area’s fly fishing culture.
For students who seek to engage in the beautiful tradition of fly fishing, Bozeman offers plenty of opportunities to get started. A good first step would be to visit a local fly shop and be honest about your greenness. At a good fly shop, they will help outfit you with a rod, reel, line, waders and all other necessary equipment along with some information regarding where to fish, examples of productive flies and how to present them to fish. A possible further step could be to book a guided trip with a local fly shop. This would allow one to gain a true education on how to fly fish effectively and will definitely decrease the somewhat steep learning curve associated with the activity. A few fly shops that I would recommend in the area are the Bozeman Family Fly Shop on W. College St. and Montana Troutfitters on East Main. Both shops are close to campus and give students a discount on their purchase, plus they have enjoyable and knowledgeable staff, and like all good fly shops, often there’s a friendly dog greeting customers at the front door.
Some people, including myself, would rather learn how to fly fish the cheaper and more frustrating way. To begin this process, seek out some used equipment at Second Wind Sports on Olive St. Second Wind has everything a beginner needs besides some smaller things such as tippet and flies, but those can be purchased at any full-fledged fly shop. Once outfitted in hand-me-downs, you’re going to need to learn the basics of setting up your rod along with how to tie some basic fishing knots, which can all be found on YouTube. I recommend the series of videos published by The Orvis Company, which are well-produced and very informative. Also check out their videos on casting, as this can be one of the more frustrating aspects of learning and requires a good amount of practice before it becomes second nature. A good place to find your rhythm is in a grass field such as the MSU intramural fields, where your fly line won’t be degraded by concrete, and you’ll have plenty of space to mess up.
After honing your skills enough to hit the water, find some sources to point you in the right direction. Trout Unlimited recently released an interactive map with every fishing access in the state. Go to map.montanatu.org to start exploring. A good book for information regarding our area fisheries is “Montana’s Best Fly Fishing: Flies, Access, and Guides: Advice for the State’s Premier Rivers” by Ben Romans, which offers information useful to any angler. However, no one book is going to make you a successful fly fisherman.
Defining what being a successful fly fisherman means itself is open to quite a bit of controversy. For instance, some fly anglers’ main goal is to capture impressive hero-shot-style photographs with big fish while repping the most expensive equipment on the market. For many outsiders to fly fishing, this is what they picture when thinking of the activity. To add, newcomers’ first intentions may be pure, but they might quickly feel pressured to imitate those producing trout clout on social media. For some, that may be the goal, and that’s their choice, but regardless of the gear you use or the fishing clout that you hold, the only thing that will deem you successful is if you really enjoyed the experience. Getting started fly fishing shouldn’t be daunting, though I'm not saying that it’ll be easy to enjoy at first. But the struggle that comes with it is what makes the activity so wonderful and rewarding. As you continue to fish you will eventually realize that there is no capacity for knowledge and experience, but rather only infinite room for improvement and growth.
As the famous seventeenth-century English writer and angler Izaak Walton wrote, “As no man is born an artist, so no man is born an angler.” He further echoes the idea of the ever-improving fly angler by saying, "Angling may be said to be so like the mathematics that it can never be fully learnt." The great historic novel turned movie, “A River Runs Through It” sums up the anglers mindset by considering, “Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.” With time, the river becomes a sanctuary for those with patience and perseverance.
Our student body is incredibly lucky to be on the doorstep of some of the most pristine fishing country remaining in the continental United States. Our area’s streams and rivers are some of the last on the planet to hold such brilliant populations of wild trout and grayling, but all landscapes change. With the large increase in population and development in our corner of the world, along with increasingly abnormal weather patterns, this unique resource may not be around for much longer. If you decide to become a fly angler, know that you are also becoming an ecologist, environmentalist, historian, policymaker and ambassador for the next generation as it becomes your responsibility to ensure that future Bobcats and others will be able to enjoy the same resources you did. One of the best ways to ensure that future is to use the resource you hope to sustain. So when the ski hill is too crowded on a future weekend, look to our area’s rivers for a chance to escape it all.