Montana: Setting the Hook

Montana: Setting the Hook
Written by Will Peterson On August 16th, 2011 courtesy of starting six ski blog

I arrived in Montana determined to become a better fly fisherman.  While I had done some fishing before, the trips had been sporadic and I was still very much a beginner.  By working at the Big Hole Lodge, I hoped to learn more about casting, tying my own knots, and being able to fish without the guidance of more experienced fisherman.  The lodge is located on the Wise River, perfect for wading and developing these skills.  Though there were plenty of guides around, they were guiding during the day and therefore could only offer verbal advice.  I found a teacher in Lanette, the Big Hole Lodge's long time chef and a seasoned fisher.  From knots and casting, to fly selection and approach, Lanette helped me through the entire process.  In fact, she was with me on the Wise River when I caught my first fish, and she made sure I followed tradition by kissing my fish before I released it (chased with a nip off the flask). 

After gaining some experience on the Wise River, lodge guide Chuck Ravetta suggested I tag along on a float trip on the Bitterroot River that Wade Fellin was guiding.  The Bitterroot, located about an hour and half from the lodge, is smaller river than the Big Hole, winding through with the Bitterroot Mountains off in the distance.

As we put in to the river, we knew we were in for a great day

As we started the trip we floated along right bank…

And immediately felt a strong tug, I began to pull in the line and was surprised to see a fish much bigger than expected on the line.  As I continued to pull in line, the fish fought hard to break free.  After a few minutes I was able to get the fish into the net, and it turned out to be 18″ cut throat trout!

As we continued to catch fish, the day was shaping up to be one of the great ones. While I was taking a break from casting, I saw a huge bird headed our way. As it flew over, it turned out to be none other than our nation’s symbol, the Bald Eagle.  The eagle landed just above us and opened its wings to dry them out.

Wade got into the action too.  A little break from guiding, can bring a lot of joy.

As temperatures rose into the 80's, I hopped in the water to do my best fish impression

As we finished up the day, the mountains in the distance made a return trip during the winter for a bit of skiing a strong possibility.

Trapper Peak, Bitterroot Mountains

Overall the day was a great success, with nearly 50 fish landed and countless others just missed (mostly due to slow reflexes on the setting of the hook). Tons of fish, great company, beautiful weather, mountain views, and great food…who could ask for more?

On the way home, we stopped by one of the guides' cabins for a few beers.  While there, I had the chance to tie my first dry fly. The fly tying practice is one of precision and patience -carefully building each aspect of the fly, first adding the body, then the thorax, and finally the wing, considering in each step what a fish will be viewing from below.  While there are thousands of types of flies that can be purchased, constructing a fly allows for variation of more common flies and a more personal connection with the sport.  As I tied the fly, in a small log cabin, within view of the Wise River, and supplies surrounding the work space, I felt like a craftsmen trying to crack the always changing mystery of the fish.  The process was difficult, as fly-tying is an art that takes years to learn and even more to master, but with the guidance of Wade and Matt I was able to produce a fly that I hoped would look appealing to the fish.

Wade tying a Spruce Moth

With a little help from Matt, I also finished a Spruce Moth.

A few nights later, I had the chance to use my fly.  I was nervous to use it, afraid that I would get it stuck in a willow or the knot would come lose, but I went for it.  After a few casts, I suddenly saw a fish coming up from the depths of the Wise straight towards my fly.  I held my breath, waiting, and hoping.  I saw him go for it, and set the hook and felt him pull back just as hard.  I gave the fish some line, and tried to contain my excitement, as I slowly worked the fish in.  I lifted the fish out of the water and couldnt help but smile…my Montana goal of learning to fish had exceeded my own expectations.  As I stood in the river, with the sun setting behind the mountains, I understood the addiction that comes with this sport and knew that fishing would remain a part of my life.

Later that night, we grilled a couple brookies that Matt and Wade had caught out back. As we sat around the fire, talking about the day, and listening to the fish simmering over the fire, I listened to Matt and Wade, both longtime guides, tell stories about fishing, compare their approaches on different rivers, and tell of the improvements they saw in clients.  While their stories may have been different, both talked with an unmistakable passion for the sport.  This sport wasnt just some way to make a living, or take up the weekends, it was a way of life. I couldnt help but wonder how soon I could get back out to Montana.


I really enjoyed reading about one of your guides, Matt. I fished with Matt way back in 87'-88' on the San Juan; this began my love for the river, the rises, the hatches, and the setting of a wonderful fish, whether large or small. Glad to see Matt has pursued one of his passions! Hello from New Mexico long lost friend!

Woot woot.