Lessons from the Montana Women’s Fly Fishing School

Written by Margo Magnant, Membership Director, Big Sky Chamber of Commerce

I’m pretty good at catching fish. That is, with my training wheels on. For most of my 31 years, I’d receive a rod (likely a nice Sage), with the perfect fly setup handed to me—might as well be on a silver platter—and when the fish was caught, well, I’d hand it right back. To my father, that is. A somewhat legendary local career ski patroller, river rat and all-around outdoor enthusiast, my father has worked as a part time fly fishing guide for many years in the blue ribbon waters in the Bozeman and Big Sky, MT areas.

You see, catching fish is fun. But all the rest of it? The whole picking out of the right flies, what weight of line to use, those knots that I’d been taught so many times before and never remembered, the touching of the slimy, squirmy creatures and pulling a sharp hook out of their (hopefully) mouths—a predicament that I had caused and ultimately felt guilty for—yeah, all that. Not for me. I’ll stick with the catching, please. Just that.

That is, until I signed up for Gallatin River Guides’ Montana Women’s Fly Fishing School last fall. GRG owner and self-proclaimed “Dry Fly Snob” Pat Straub got me signed up and I put in for a few days of PTO at my job at the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. I talk a lot about fishing, I thought, maybe it’s time I learn to do the craft from start to finish. After all, my office and condo are literally steps from the Gallatin River and its West Fork, which was made famous as the setting for the famed Brad Pitt movie A River Runs Through It, based on the novel of the same name by Norman Maclean.

I thought about asking a friend to join me. But part of what was appealing to me was that I was doing this just for me. I wanted to meet new people, hopefully other women who love to fish, or are learning to love to fish just like me. I was branching out – yearning to lose those training wheels. So that October day I drove to their shop on Big Sky’s Highway 191 with some well-tested gear (courtesy of my dad, of course) and a great deal of expectations for the start-to-finish trout slayer I was about to become.

Now my job is to promote businesses in the Big Sky area, so I’ll add that as a disclaimer, but I honestly cannot say enough good things about the staff at Gallatin River Guides and the Montana Women’s Fly Fishing School. The weather was a bit crappy (think: rain/snow/sleet mix) the first day, so we tackled the classroom. We learned about the life cycles of the mayfly, reading water and practiced those elusive knots in bright pink colored rope (yep, training wheels still fully on at this point). We were given sweet fish-designed coffee mugs, copies of The Curtis Creek Manifesto by Sheridan Anderson (a highly recommended “Fully Illustrated Guide to the Strategy, Finesse, Tactics and Paraphernalia of Fly Fishing”) and offered a discount on anything in the shop, which we all took full advantage of. After lunch, we headed out back to the casting pond and went home eager for day 2, when we’d put our waders on and get our feet wet, literally.

Our amazing guides Kara and Drew took us over to the 3 Dollar Bridge on the Madison River that second day, where we were taught the art of the “roll cast” (totally different than any casting I had ever done—it’s mostly used for wade fishing—whereas my experience was all from a drift boat or raft) and the guides role played a highly entertaining and educational real-time fish landing scenario. I tied my own flies on my rod (had I really remembered the knots this time, or was it just the excitement of the environment??) and we headed out. We fished that section of the river for the next two days, and all of us (myself, plus a sweetheart of an X-Ray technician and bulldog lover from Dillon, MT along with a darling mother-daughter duo from Bozeman) caught fish, had fun, and learned so much. There was no competition; on the contrary we all felt genuine excitement when a fellow “student” had a bend in her rod. All the experience I had fishing was left far behind and here I was, a complete novice, feeling raw and absorbing every bit of information and experience we were fortunate to receive.
In the end, I think the greatest part of the experience was the humility and camaraderie. Even Kara, our guide, a woman whom I felt an instant deep admiration of and respect for, doesn’t always know which fly is the right one. We all came to the school searching to be better and more knowledgeable and confident at the craft of fly fishing, but I can honestly say that the experience made me more knowledgeable and confident at the craft of life. Training wheel status: gone.

When we hugged good-bye, we all knew it wasn’t that. It was, “See you on the river soon.” And in life, maybe there should be more of that. Maybe there should be more of those leaps of faith into an experience you may know or think you know, but somewhere inside feel the yearning to perceive it in a new way.

Just this past weekend, I caught a rainbow trout in front of my father on a fly that I had tied. It was a full-circle moment that I have Pat, Kara, Drew, Brigitte, Rosie and Toni to thank for. And while I’m still working on touching the fish and removing the hook, I finally do have those knots down and that confidence I lacked before. It was hiding in there somewhere, and out with it came more than I expected. So I hope to see you on the river soon. Feel free to take my fish off the hook for me if so.