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Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

Being a lifelong angler and living in SW Montana, it is predictable that one will inevitably be asked to host or fish with visiting anglers. There’s no doubt that the rivers and lakes of SW Montana are a mecca of all sorts for trout fishers across the U.S. It happens two or three times every summer. Someone, a relative, a friend or a client is coming to Montana and wants to fish. I am mostly to blame for these opportunities, invites, impositions, adventures or whatever they might turn into as I freely advertise through pictures, videos and stories the exceptional angling in SW Montana (including Yellowstone National Park). Some of these visits are a direct result of my inviting friends or clients, especially those who I know to be avid anglers. Others come out of the blue. An email-“We’re making a trip to Montana and would like to fish, what do you suggest!” Regardless of how the visits are initiated, every year there are two or three that come to fruition. So, for the visiting angler here’s a Bill of Rights (of sorts from my perspective).

  • Visiting Anglers have the right to a good time
  • Visiting Anglers have the right to be completely uninformed about fishing in SW Montana
  • Visiting Anglers have the right to be unprepared or overprepared to fish in SW Montana
  • Visiting Anglers have the right to high expectations—monster fish that aggressively attack everything tossed at them as long as they accept the reality of the day.
  • Visiting Anglers have the right to learn something while they fish SW Montana

Above all, I want the visiting angler to catch some decent Montana trout. That’s not always that easy for a wide variety of reasons. For the experienced angler whose been out here before, has the right equipment, gear, flies, clothes and skills, the visits are generally just a bit of transportation, good food and pleasant days on the water. They understand SW Montana trout fishing and show up at the right time of the year for the experience they want to enjoy. Even inclement weather (always inevitable), is shrugged off and taken as just part of the experience. I always try and get them on some new water they’ve never fished before to broaden their experience. That’s almost always appreciated and rewarded with some good fish. It’s not difficult to show the experienced visiting angler a good time (angling) in SW Montana.

On the other end of the spectrum are the novices. When they visit the challenge to give them a good angling experience is magnified and the bill of rights really kicks in. Novices fall into several broad categories—those who may be good anglers but have never tried or experienced big, world-class trout waters like we have in Montana, those who may have some experience with trout, but don’t know that much about or have marginal skills at fly fishing and those that no matter what their casting skill is, couldn’t read water even if there were little signs along the stream that said: “Put your fly here!”. I’ve experienced visitors of all these types. Regardless of where the visiting angler might fall on the spectrum, my first goal is to show them a good time. I have a good time on Montana waters at such regular intervals that its seems fair that visitors should too.

Good times come from preparation. Not so much on my part, but making sure the visitor(s) is prepared. It’s easier if the angler is experienced or has fished Montana before, but making sure they have the license and gear for the day or days before the trip is essential. Nothing frustrates more than having to burn up fishing time buying licenses, weather gear, etc. The angler visiting from Florida rarely encounters ice cold water, cold rain and wind. There is nothing more uncomfortable for the visiting angler than having to endure six hours of wet wading in ice cold water in tennis shoes and jeans. If nothing else, I always correspond well in advance to ensure they are coming with the right clothes and if they are not traveling with wading gear, that I’ve made arrangement to get some for their visit. The other side of a good time is meeting (or exceeding) the visiting angler’s expectations.

Expectations are always hard to assess, especially with visiting anglers you may have never fished with. Guides and outfitters face this problem on a regular basis. Richard Parks of Park’s Fly Shop in Gardiner, Montana tells the story of the angler who called the shop and wanted to fish Montana for a week. When Richard asked the angler where he wanted to fish, the answer showed high expectations, but little knowledge of Montana’s vast distances. “I would like to do a day on the Bighorn, the Madison, the Yellowstone, the Firehole, the Big Hole and maybe get some evenings on the Gardner after dinner.” Richard replied factiously that until his business gets a personal helicopter that can carry a drift boat, such a trip would be a transportation challenge. The travel time alone would be impossible as it is 250 miles East to the Bighorn from Gardner and other 190 miles West to the Big Hole from Gardner. Such are the expectations of the uninformed.

Even if the visiting angler wants to fish a particular river, that river might not be fishing well, is subject to some closures or just plain unfishable during the timing of the visit. This is where a bit of pre-visit correspondence is useful. Anglers unfamiliar with our seasons out here often want to fish in certain waters that just don’t fish well at certain times of the year. The Firehole in Yellowstone is the perfect example of this. It fishes well in June, but in July and August it is terrible. I won’t waste a visitor’s time on the Firehole in July or August. They won’t have a good time. No matter where you are, rivers fish differently throughout the year. The visiting angler may have no clue about the seasonal nature of the local rivers. Plan on preparing them for and taking them somewhere that will fish well.

Getting the visiting angler on water that will fish well is an important step in helping them learn something new about fishing local waters. Of course, my favorite lesson is the use of a kayak to access remote sections of big rivers. For the angler new to the combination of wading, a kayak and a big river, there’s a lot to teach. But no matter where you take someone to fish, there will be opportunities to teach—reading water, fly selection, casting tips, wading techniques, area history, interesting local stories etc. Always put your visitors on the best water and have patience while they work the river. Give them the same tips you would be giving yourself. You have probably fished the river many times and will do so in the future. You understand it. Your visitors may never see the river again. Make it a memorable experience by remembering and implementing the Visiting Angler’s Bill of Rights.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Mike,

    Love your blog….I have had the good fortune to fish SW Montanna…and have learned that it is great to keep the expectations high the energy and enthusiasm at a peak…but also remember that they call it fishing and not catching. Your Bill of Rights and the info, plus the info between the lines, is right on.

  2. Mike, as usual your points are well made and your photos are the stuff of daydreams. I’m going to start asking you to answer to my manager when I get caught staring into space in some meeting.

    As you mention, the importance of prep cannot be overstated. I tell my kid that while “attitude is everything,” only a little of attitude is the tooth-clenching at the key moment; most of it is in the weeks and months of prep. As you point out it’s as true for fishing and hosting a visiting angler as for anything else.

    I’m also drawn to your “getting on water that will fish well” point. There came a time in my fishing life, very young in fact, when I realized that the problem of my typical lacklustre results was not me–that I was adept enough to do better, but that I only had access to warm, de-oxygenated, silty, over-disturbed “picnic water” and that the biggest thing I could do to catch more fish would be to find somewhere that had them. That’s when I bought Bergman’s book and began to dream of the Great American West. Being a geographic epiphany, it was a realization that would shape every other aspect of my life; it led to my selecting the West as my stomping grounds and ultimate home, and also led to paying more attention to how ecosystems work, how seasons affect each, etc. That whole line of thinking shifted focus from mere gear and technique to the deeper understanding of venue.

    I too would like to do a day on the Bighorn, the Madison, the Yellowstone, the Firehole, the Big Hole and maybe get some evenings on the Gardner after dinner. But I’m a realist, so…maybe I’d need to skip dinner?

    – Mike

    1. Mike,
      If you can find time to visit, dinner will be the least exciting adventures you’ll experience. The “Visiting Angler’s Bill of Rights” will kick in big time.

  3. Mike –
    Nice write-up! And great photos!! 🙂
    Thanks again for the guided Firehole trip – we had a blast and learned a ton. Hopefully we see you there in June.
    Bill

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