Fishing,  Lifestyle

The Seduction of Montana!

By Everett headley

I stepped onto the red, green, and yellow glacial pebbles of my homewater’s bank. I’ve lost count of the days I fished it and wouldn’t trouble myself to number the years. What I do know are its curves as it moves through the valley and the cutbanks that hide my fish, its seasons and shifts in the water’s clarity and personality. And even though the spring runoff alters it just slightly, it always feels familiar. Like a wrinkle on a loved face, it is always the same and always different.

Any discussion of fly fishing destinations lasts only a few breaths before Montana is offered. A River Runs Through It in cinematic form exalted it in the early nineties and recently Yellowstone renewed this surge. The tides of people have come and gone, but these cold-water residents abide and thrive. Populations are measured in the thousands of fish per mile. The Madison river has recorded some of the lowest numbers in recent decades and still boasts over 3,000 trout per mile. And for fifty years, when stocking efforts ceased, these fish are all wild.

Brown, brook, and rainbows, all nonnative, have helped to establish Montana’s fishery reputation. Big, brown trout on the “Mo” (Missouri river) are coaxed by streamers and mice. Rainbows shaped like footballs roam the Missoula-adjacent Rock creek. But it is the natives that draw visiting anglers. Fish-hungry bull trout, endangered with special protections, are only found in a few waters outside of Montana. Iridescent sails on the backs of grayling, the lower forty-eight’s only riverine population, are in the Big Hole river. And the capstone cutthroat with their hallmark jaw streak are simply beautiful to behold. The westslope cutthroat begins with its fiery cheek into a burnt red belly and a subdued, yellow body is proudly pointed with black spots. No other trout possesses such a striking dress.

After pausing to breathe and savor the river, I unhooked my tiny elk-hair caddis from the guide closest to my reel, fed out some line, and cast to the flat water at the head of the pool where the current trickled in. The leader was hidden in the current, and the hackles on the dry fly rested atop the surface tension. My eye had just located it when it was immediately gone. The flash under the water was unmistakable for a trout, and lifting the fly rod brought the resistance craved by all anglers. I played him to the downstream edge of the pool trying to minimize disturbing any other hungry fish. In the net, I smiled when I saw the fire-orange slash under the gill plate. In my mind, there is no finer trout than a westslope cutthroat, and every time one lands in my net, I am reminded of this affinity.

There is enough water for a dozen lifetimes under the Big Sky. Many come to fish the big, storied waters like Maclean’s Big Blackfoot. But for action and adventure, the smaller tributaries and creeks that go unknown offer the finest local feel. Within an hour of my home are at least four rivers that suit my five weight well and three I can swing a streamer on a seven. If I sized down to my five and a half foot two weight, I could fish a different stream every day of summer and not exhaust them all.

Along the way, you become immersed in the oft-repeated truth, “trout don’t live in ugly places.” Mountain peaks form splendid backdrops for grip and grins. Bright green willows and true forest-green pines in the spring contrast with golden-amber leaves of the aspen. They shield any remnant of civilization, and every frame is idyllic. Even the water adds a distinction marking the scene with an unmistakable gravitas. This is a place that is designed to be fished and fittingly decorated.

I let the fish go and dressed my fly. One cast, one contest, one catch. This has to be the pinnacle of western fly fishing. And while no one who fishes would have the naivete to expect this ratio to continue, on a smaller water in western Montana during a midsummer morning, it’s not far off. The absence of others belies the abundance of fish. New vistas reveal themselves through the curtaining willows. Occasional sandbars offer perfect respites for short breaks or midday naps. Lost fish are quickly forgotten as another volunteers in its place. A kingfisher or merganser are the only others competing with your fly. You are conveyed into some other realm and only brought to reality when you wonder if you’re lost to Montana for good.


Picture of Everett Headley

Everett Headley

Raised outdoors in Montana, Everett has an undeniable passion for all things hunting (and angling) and helping others discover those same experiences. His pursuits span the spectrum from upland to big game, archery to muzzleloading. When he isn’t in the mountains, Everett is involved in state conservation with Montana FWP as a council member working on education, access, and landowner-sportsman dynamics. He enjoys waterfowling with his Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Cane, and flying his peregrine falcon, Freyja. For the past several years he has helped create and teach hunter education programs and is a frequent guest on podcasts, workshops, and events with a focus on hunting ethics. Everett is a member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association and supports the conservation work of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Boone and Crockett Club. You can find more of his work on his website or Instagram.