Outside The Office: Big Sky Fly Fishing

by Brant Oswald

As you stand in the bow of the drift boat, the river’s current moves you through a scene of snowcapped peaks and a lush river valley, accompanied only by the sound of chirping birds and the quiet dip of the oars. Your eyes and mind wander from the fishing, but a voice behind you urges you to make another cast.

“Put the fly right against that next log. Don’t worry about losing it — we have plenty more,” the guide says.

You’re proud — and mildly surprised — when the grasshopper imitation plops down exactly where you intended. The dry fly bobs downstream on the current, slowing slightly along the edge of the log. Suddenly, a shadow materializes under the fly. An instant later, your brain registers that both the shadow and your fly have disappeared.

Even before the guide hollers, you instinctively sweep the rod back, and as the line comes tight, you can feel the fish shaking its head, its wild strength telegraphed right into your hand on the rod’s grip. Then, leaping out from the cover of his lair, the big brown trout is suspended in the air for an instant, its spots and golden sides glistening in the sunshine, an image now burned permanently into your memories.

Sound like fun? Have you ever thought about giving fly fishing a try but thought it was too involved or esoteric? Fly fishing is complex enough to be a lifelong adventure of new challenges and learning new skills, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. Learning just a few basic skills will allow a beginner to enjoy fly fishing right away.

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Of course, you can get started in fly fishing on your own — making use of instructional books, videos, and online resources, as well as the staff of a local fly fishing pro shop — but one of best ways to get a real feel for fly fishing is to book a trip with a professional guide. Of course, the guide’s knowledge of local waters and conditions will give the client the best chance to catch some fish, but a guide can also provide a crash course in basic skills like knot-tying, casting and line control. Even one day of informal instruction from a guide will give a beginner a substantial head start on becoming a competent angler. And, the guide will provide a safe and complete experience — from sharing knowledge of local natural history to providing a tasty lunch.


Fly fishing guides are available all around the globe, but a trout fishing trip in the lower 48 is a less expensive option than a trip to Alaska or a foreign destination, and my home state of Montana should be at the top of the list.

There are several ways to approach planning a trip to Montana. A lodge booking will include accommodations and meals, which can range from rustic to luxurious, and most lodges have their own guide staff or work with an outfitter who will handle the guide bookings. Some lodges offer hiking and horseback riding programs, which can be attractive if one is traveling with a non-fishing spouse or family.

If booking the trip through a fly shop or directly with the guide service, most clients will stay in a local motel, a guest cabin or a bed and breakfast and use a rental car for transportation. Most shops and outfitters will be glad to share local knowledge of the best spots to stay and can also help with those reservations. Be sure to book as early as possible to get the best guides and the widest choice of accommodations.


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Although fishing can be very productive in the spring and fall, most travelers to Montana come in the period from mid-June through mid-September when the weather is most predictable. Travelers also need to plan around the runoff period, early May through mid-June, when many rivers in Montana are unfishable due to snowmelt.

­­A number of towns in Montana — including Missoula, Dillon, Bozeman and Livingston — serve as headquarters for a variety of local fishing, from big rivers to small mountain streams and spring creeks. Don’t try to cover too much of Montana on one trip, lest you spend more time in the rental car than on the water.

Float fishing on a bigger river is a great way to combine fishing and sightseeing, and it eliminates worries about wading in fast water. On the other hand, the guide can do more hands-on instruction when he is not rowing the boat. If you have a preference for wading vs. floating, be sure to communicate this when booking the trip.

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Most guides will provide flies and basic tackle for beginner clients, but they will often meet clients at a local fly shop in case the clients need licenses or other supplies.

For a summer trip, bringing lightweight pants, long sleeved shirts and sun protection — sunblock, hat and polarized sunglasses — is critical. Pack a fleece top and a rain jacket in case of an afternoon thundershower. If waders are needed, they can be rented from a local shop.


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Brant Oswald is a world class fly fishing guide with more than 30 years’ experience teaching, guiding and trip hosting, especially in the Big Sky State. He is known all over the world for his technical knowledge of fly fishing and fly-casting techniques. To book a trip, visit Brant’s website at www.brantoswaldflyfishing.com.