Learning to Fly Fish in Montana

Fly Fishing, Planning
Added Date:
Monday, 18 Apr, 2016
Ennis is about fifty miles from Bozeman, but if you’ve never been in a 1983 Chevy pickup navigating the winding, lonely highway that cuts through the dry foothills connecting these two Montana towns, the drive seems a lot longer.

Ennis is about fifty miles from Bozeman, but if you’ve never been in a 1983 Chevy pickup navigating the winding, lonely highway that cuts through the dry foothills connecting these two Montana towns, the drive seems a lot longer. It’s just enough time to forget where you’re headed or wonder why you’re traveling in the first place.

Archie had come to depend on those fifty clicks. He did the drive most days, even in the winter when the road got icy. It gave him time to think and sing along to the cassettes stuffed into his glove compartment. Today it was Social Distortion, Merle Haggard, Radiohead and a few others.

He and his girlfriend, Sarah, shared an apartment in downtown Bozeman, right up the street from the university and not far from Ted’s, the bison steak joint owned -- like a lot of the land around here -- by Ted Turner. Archie said we should get ourselves a buffalo burger there before we left the state. We assured him we would.

Right now, though, the only game on our minds was trout. My father-in-law had signed us up for two days of guided fly fishing down the Madison, one of the most bountiful rivers in America, and had us holed up at a luxury lodge in Ennis with exposed log beams, gourmet meals and a big, friendly wandering black Lab named Jake.

Archie came to pick us up the first morning. He was all smiles even though it was about forty degrees and drizzling, not exactly the perfect Big Sky September Saturday we had signed on for. “Are you guys ready to catch fish?” he said with a sparkle in his eyes. “You bet,” said my father-in-law, and he meant it. I didn’t say anything, and I meant it, too.

We headed down to a parking lot by the rushing Madison and changed into our chest waders. Archie didn’t need to show my father-in-law what to do, but he knew a novice when he saw one and took me aside to introduce me to the unique rhythm of the rod. Pulling it back, pausing, and then letting it fly. It seemed so easy at first, but you could get lost if you started thinking about it. I think that’s why Archie liked it so much and why I took to it so quickly.

The plan was to drift down river twelve miles, hitting all of Archie’s favorite spots, before loading the boat onto the trailer and driving back to the put-in point for one more run. In the first ten minutes, my father-in-law caught three fish. I didn’t feel a nibble.

“Cast again, Tom,” Archie said over and over as the water continued to take my line out of the right spot. “Cast again.”

Archie had asked me about my prior fly fishing experience, and I told him it consisted of falling asleep during “A River Runs Through It.” He laughed and then I described a few flounder trips with full coolers of beer during high school in the salty waters off of Long Island. There, you’d take a spinning reel, stick a minnow on the hook, and let it hit bottom. After that, all you had to do was lift up once in a while and stir up the silt enough for the fish to hit. Once they did, you yanked on that rod as hard as you could to set that hook in that fucker’s mouth.

“This isn’t exactly that,” Archie said, “but I do want you to set the hook whenever you feel or see anything. Seriously, don’t hesitate. Just set the hook, or you might miss a fish.”

An hour later I had already caught and released two brown trout and felt a light tug on my line. I saw the orange bobber -- the “strike indicator” -- that sat atop the water surface begin to dart upstream. I yanked with all my might as Archie almost jumped out of the boat, screaming frantically, Strip in line, Tom! Strip in! Strip in!”

Archie’s mom had passed away only a few months earlier at the age of fifty. She was young when she gave birth to her son, who recently had turned thirty, and she remained young in his mind. She was the one who turned him onto “Social D,” the little band from Fullerton, California, that rode three chords and lead singer Mike Ness’ earnest, hard-fought lyrics to the radio and the big-time bills of punk rock. We floated along without any action while he told the story.

“She’s the reason for this,” he said, pulling up his sweatshirt sleeve and showing off a monstrous shoulder tattoo of a heart with an arrow piercing it, his mother’s name, Laura, and the hanging skeleton with a cigarette and martini glass known immediately to Social D fans as the logo printed on the bass drum during live gigs.

It had taken Archie’s dad a mere two days to stick a little fly rod in his infant son’s crib, and the sentiment stuck to this day. Even though Archie loved to write and had graduated from college with a degree in English, it had occurred to him a few years later that there were only two things he wanted to do for the rest of his life: snowboard and fly fish.

He spent the winters doing the former and the summers socking away enough dough from guiding trips to afford the latter. He fished on his days off, and his vacations spots were predictable: Florida to hook tarpon, New Zealand to score trout. His dad lived a few miles from Ennis. Archie would sometimes bunk down there after long days guiding.

He loved his job, he said, and how many people can say that? A quick glance at his fingers showed that love: chewed-up nails with almost no cuticles from biting at the prospect of his clients’ fish not doing so. The raw redness behind those nubs also revealed his unique method of replacing flies, the intricate, beautifully constructed bug replicas that made the trout bite at those precise moments of insect-hatching renewal atop the river’s silver sheen.

More polished guides might unsheath knives to cut off flies that had gone cold. Archie didn’t want to waste the customer’s time, so he bit his into submission. We tried almost every trick in his tackle box that day, from an olive zonker to a red copper John to a pheasant tail to the prince nymph. His teeth earned their tips.

Read More Tips for Successful Nymph Fishing

The prince nymph came alive on the end of my rod and I started pulling in one fish after another. By the time we had reached the end of the first run, I had boated ten trout, a magical mixture of rainbows and browns, although my prize, one Archie spastically predicted to be at least eighteen inches long while positioning the net in the middle of the fight, got away.

We stopped for lunch before hopping in Archie’s pickup to double back for the final run. I asked him how he thought I was doing, and he smiled. “You’re doing great. Shit, ten in the boat is a helluva day, and we’ve got one more go-around. I’d say you’re doing great.”

I had told Charlie I wrote about sports for a living and he told me that’s what he had wanted to do at one point in time, before the water and the fresh air and the fish called him back.

“But you’ve got a cool job,” he said. “No doubt. It’s a job that a lot of dudes would love to have.”

We were back in the truck. Merle and Archie were singing together loudly as the old rig bounced up and down the pavement in time with the beat. “Turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana, and gimme all I got comin' to me,” they crooned.

“I can’t stop playing this song,” Archie told me. “It kind of says everything, doesn’t it?”

I nodded, not needing to answer and deciding instead to look out at the vast landscape unfurling to my side, something I’ve done as long as I can remember while riding in a car. I saw it all: yellowing grasses, a stark beige hillside, a wandering herd of antelope and sky. All that sky.

I caught my reflection in the rearview mirror and thought of drifting along on the river and showing someone else how to hold a rod, set the hook, strip in, and then tie on another fly.

Read More What Makes a Good Fishing Guide

Reading Time:
This is a small town with a big heart, a veritable fisherman’s paradise. Located near the fish-filled Madison River, and surrounded by the waters of Ennis Lake, the Ruby River, Hebgen ... moreLake, Quake Lake, Henry’s Lake, the Big Hole River and scores of smaller streams, the town boasts what many consider the best trout fishing in the world. As well known for its wranglers as its anglers, Ennis has succeeded in maintaining the look and feel of its original, gold town roots. Warm and hospitable, the area offers a wide variety of accommodations ranging from simple campsites, rustic motels and gracious hotels, to full-service, luxury resorts. Fly shops are numerous, stocked by local experts ready to advise and assist, while guides can be booked for trips throughout the area.

Boredom is the only thing unavailable in Ennis. Throughout the summer season the city hosts a series of events, including its renowned 4th of July Celebration Parade and a genuine, old-fashioned rodeo. In August, fly-fishing luminaries from around the US, flock to Montana to compete in the Madison Fly Fishing Festival. Athletes also find their way to Ennis to compete in the city’s Madison Trifecta, two shorter races followed by a full Marathon at 9000 feet, the highest elevation run in America. For the true sportsman, October falls in with the annual Hunter’s Feed. What’s caught, typically elk, moose deer, pheasant and bobcat, gets cooked on the streets and served up to hungry spectators.

Flanked by three grand mountain ranges, The Tobacco Root, Gravelly and Madison, Ennis is scenic and entertaining – truly an authentic, fly fisher’s haven.
Fishing Waters
The Madison River is arguably one of the best trout fishing rivers in all of southwest Montana, if not the entire world! It’s certainly the most talked over, written up and frequented ... morein the state of Montana – which is considered by some the capital of fly fishing. Anglers will find plenty of great access sites to wade or float along the Madison’s banks and reservoirs (including Hebgen Lake and Ennis Lake). Rainbows, browns, cutthroats, and more abound in this majestic fishing stream.

The Madison begins its course almost twenty miles into Yellowstone National Park. Within the Park, fishing rules apply: no live bait and catch and release only. Once outside the Park the river meanders past working ranches, stately conifer forests and cottonwood lined banks, interrupted by riffles and quiet runs that contain large rainbow and trophy brown trout. Flowing alongside Yellowstone’s West entrance road, the river enters Hebgen Lake, created by Hebgen dam, until it reaches Quake Lake, a bit downstream from the dam. At this point the river is commonly called either the Upper Madison or the Lower Madison, although in fact, they are one and the same.

Upper Madison – Quake Lake to Ennis Lake
Directly below Quake Lake the river roars into 5 long miles of Class V whitewater with steep gradients and large boulders along the way. As the rapids decline, the magic begins. For the next 53 miles, often referred to as the 50 Mile Riffle, the cold river runs north and the fish jump high. Annual runs of spawning trout make their way from Hebgen Lake, rainbows in the spring and browns in the fall. Known the world over for its “hard fighting” trout, it’s not unusual to pull a 25” brown from these upper waters. In deference to the purists and fly-fishing enthusiasts, it’s wading only from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge. Boats may be used to access the river, but if you’re going to fish, your feet must be on the riverbed. Fortunately, the Hebgen Dam releases water throughout the year, leveling its flows and relieving it of spring runoff issues and summer shrinkage.

Lower Madison – Ennis Lakes to Three Forks
A short section of the river between Ennis Dam and the power station maintains relatively low water levels and provides wonderful opportunities for wading. Past the power station the river regains its muscle and for 7 miles winds through Bear Trap Canyon. Hiking trails offer the only entry, great for those that like to walk and seek the solitude of a designated wilderness area. Floating is permitted but requires a lengthy shuttle and the ability to work through Class III-IV whitewater. Once out of the canyon the river flows in shallow riffles until it reaches Three Forks and joins the Missouri. From Warm Springs to Greycliff, the river is easily accessible for drifters and wading.
/ Boat
1 - 2 anglers
3 days
Variety is the spice of life, right? Well, that's where our 3 Rivers in 3 Days comes in because that's exactly what you'll be doing, fishing three different rivers in three days! With ... moreour choice of 4 world class Montana rivers, our guides will know what rivers to fish on which days to maximize your chances for success. Don't blink, you might miss something!
/ Boat
2 anglers
4 hours - 1 day
The Madison River is our home stream, so we specialize in guiding on this great river. We cater to anglers of all skill levels, from beginner fly fishermen looking to catch that first ... moretrout on a fly, to the seasoned angler seeking a veteran Montana fishing guide who knows these waters like the back of their hand. Our experienced guides will work hard to help you have a first-rate Montana fly fishing experience.
/ Angler
2 - 8 anglers
3 days - 7 days
Experience the best of Montana fly fishing with our authentic all-inclusive packages at the T Lazy B Ranch. We fish some of the most famous Montana trout rivers including the Madison ... moreRiver, the Jefferson River, and the Yellowstone River.

Packages include:

3 night/2 day lodging, meals and 2 days of guided fishing

4 night/3 day lodging, meals and 3 days of guided fishing

5 night/4 day lodging, meals and 4 days of guided fishing

6 night/5 day lodging, meals and 5 days of guided fishing

7 night/6 day lodging, meals and 6 days of guided fishing

Pricing assumes double accupancy 
What do you think of when you hear "Montana?" Small towns? Cowboys? Cows? BIG TROUT?! The answer is D, "All of the above"! Montana is still the place it was 80 years ago, where a man's ... morehandshake means something and big trout thrive. Located in the "Trout Mecca" of Southwestern Montana, our location and our guide's experience allow us to guide on a number of world class rivers; the Madison, Jefferson, Ruby and Yellowstone rivers are arguably the best trout streams in the lower 48.

Whether you have never held a fishing pole in your life or if you've been fishing since you could walk, the versatile, select guides we employee at MFFT all live on, and spend all they're free time on, these select rivers. They know how satisfy ALL of our clients, from novice to pro.

But Montana is so much more than just a trout haven. With picturesque mountains, abundant wildlife and under a million people, you actually have to try to not enjoy our beautiful state. As longtime client and friend Don Patton once wrote me after a trip, "fish count is only one criteria, there are many more markers for success. We hit them all." Here at MFFT we strive to give our clients much more than just a fishing trip, we want to share our passion for fishing and our love of Montana with all of our guests and new friends.

Charles P. Graham

Owner-Montana Fly Fishing Trips

Montana Fishing Outfitter#10349

Discover Your Own Fishing and Hunting Adventures

With top destinations, guided trips, outfitters and guides, and river reports, you have everything you need.