Fly fishing in Montana on the Missouri River

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Blame it on A River Runs Through It, the movie (and novella by Norman Maclean)  that romanticized fly fishing in Montana. Or at least that’s the way this boomer traveler sees it.

Ever since I watched golden-haired Robert Redford casting his line into the Blackfoot River against the backdrop of Montana mountain beauty, I’ve wanted to learn to fly fish.

Listen! Can you hear the riffles in the river and the sloshing as Redford nets a trout? Who wouldn’t want to learn to fly fish after seeing that movie? And, the best part—no icky worm to put on the hook—remember, I’m a travel princess.

Learning to fly fish on the Missouri River

Trout caught in Missouri River
Alan catches another rainbow trout while fly fishing in Montana.

On a visit to Helena, Montana, Alan and I had the opportunity to learn how to fly fish. The good folks at Helena Tourism Improvement District arranged a lesson and trip on the Missouri River with Chris Strainer of CrossCurrents Flyshop.

After enjoying an early breakfast at The Sanders Bed & Breakfast in Helena, we drove north on I-15 for the 45-minute scenic journey to to meet Chris at his shop in Craig, Montana. This speck in the road has become fly fishing central on the Missouri River.

Boomer Travel Tip

Planning a trip to Big Sky country? You’ll need our Montana Travel Planner.

Gearing up for fly fishing in Montana

After purchasing a fishing license ($25 for a two-day license—the shortest license that we could purchase), we hopped in Chris’s van. Alan and I admired the scenery on the short ride to the boat ramp near the Forrest H. Anderson Bridge.

Cross Currents Fly Shop in Craig, Montana.

While Chris maneuvered his drift boat into the Missouri River, Alan and I lathered on sunscreen since we’ve both experienced skin cancers. The safari clothes that we purchased for a South African safari gave us just the right sun protection without making us too hot on a very warm Montana day. And, of course, we wore our wide-brim hats.

The fly fishing lesson begins

Chris positions the boat in the water.

But, Alan and I weren’t going to be the only ones on the river. I watched another guide put his boat into the water as a mother and her young daughter prepared for a morning of fly fishing. And, a father and son were already in the middle of the Missouri taking their first fly casting lesson of the day.

Donna learns to cast.

That’s exactly where we headed once Alan and I were safely in the boat. Chris rowed us out to a shallow place in the middle of the Missouri River to begin fly casting lessons. And so it began.

“Start with the lure in the water. Raise the rod until it’s perpendicular, sending the line behind you. Snap. Cast your line forward out into the water.”

Chris’s instructions sounded so easy.

“No, you’re sending the rod too far backwards. Remember, snap the line.”

This was going to be much harder than Robert Redford made it look in A River Runs Through It. But we had a patient teacher in Chris, who didn’t flinch when both Alan and I accidentally hooked him in the back on errant casts.

Missouri River near Craig, Montana.

Satisfied that we were ready for a day on the river, Chris gave us two choices as to where we would fish.

He could take us to the dam area of Holter Reservoir where we would catch lots of fish, or we could drift 8 miles down the Missouri combining a scenic ride with trout fishing and a bit more challenging conditions. You know us, we chose the scenic option.

Drifting along the Missouri River looking for fish

Chris nets another rainbow trout that Alan caught.

As Chris rowed the drift boat along the Missouri, he read the nuances of the river the way our tracker read animal tracks in the South African bush. Ripples and currents told Chris where we should fish.

We’d drift along and suddenly Chris would call out, “Cast.”

“Cast, again,”

“Now, mend your line.” A maneuver I never quite got the hang of.

We also talked—about the number of women who fly fish (it’s more than you think) and the popularity of the sport with baby boomers.

Watching for wildlife along with fly fishing

Chris prepares to pull in the boat.

My shoulder grew tired and my back stiffened. Chris had been right when he said, “Loosen up, your arm is too stiff.” I opted for scenery watching over fly fishing long before the Missouri River journey ended.

Besides, there were bald eagles to observe as they flew overhead calling to each other with a sound unrepresentative of their majesty. In other words, bald eagles (and hawks) have squeaky calls to be such large, beautiful birds.

I watched for baby osprey peeping out of nests that were piled onto poles, which the power company had erected right next to power poles—a sort of decoy to keep the ospreys from crashing into power lines and disrupting power, not to mention electrocuting themselves.

I marveled at the Missouri River landscape the same way Lewis and Clark must have done when they floated up the river on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Knowing that your drift boat is following in their historic wake gives special meaning to fly fishing in Montana.

Disclosure: This travel experience was provided by Helena Tourism Improvement District and CrossCurrent Fly Shop. As always, the opinions are our own.

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