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Montana, a multi-million-dollar fly fishing destination

Posted at 12:10 PM, Apr 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-25 13:28:50-04

CRAIG – Fly fishing has been a popular outdoor sport in Montana since the early 20th century. Since then it has grown into a major industry of shops, manufacturers and outfitters.

Towns like Craig reel in thousands of anglers each year– an impressive feat given the size of the town.

“Craig is unique,” said Chris Strainer, Owner of CrossCurrents Fly Shop, “it’s a town of 40 residents, that’s a couple hundred yards long and wide and there’s three fly shops.”

Strainer said during the summer months the town is packed with people and his shop sells more than a hundred flies each day on average. Warm weather has returned to the area bringing new fly hatches for the season.

The hatch is usually accompanied by eager anglers trying to land trout on dry flies. This year is a little unusual though.

Because of the late winter and spring melt, the section of the Missouri River below the Holter Dam is currently seeing a flow of more than 11,000 cubic feet of water per second, twice as much as is usually is.

“It changes a little bit of our clientele here or changes the way people have to approach the river,” explained Strainer. “High water years like this are great for the fish, the fish love it. They just make fishing a little tougher.”

Strainer said this is good for fish to grow in size and is looking forward to better dry fly casting in a few months.

The Montana Department of Commerce says all types of fishing are popular in Montana and the state has become a fishing destination for many travelers.

“Outdoor recreation as a whole is the cornerstone of tourism in Montana,” said Jennifer Pelej, Division Administrator for the Montana Office of Tourism and Development, “and within that umbrella, fishing ranks really high as a top activity of why people want to come to our state.”

Each year more than 12 million people visit the state making tourism one of the top industries and supporting over 52,000 jobs. Of those visitors, around one million say they have come to fish in the Treasure State’s streams, rivers and lakes.

Pelej said the state is currently seeing a surge of people using outfitters, bringing in around $374 million last year as an industry.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks often hold fly casting classes at the Montana WILD facility in Helena. The classes are so popular that they usually fill up in a matter of hours.

Staff said one of the best parts is with a few hours pretty much anyone can pick up fly casting, though it takes a lifetime to truly master.

There are many factors that have contributed to the growth of the fly fishing industry over the years, but state officials and outfitters alike agree the 1992 Robert Redford movie “A River Runs Through It”, based on the Norman Maclean novella, certainly had a big impact.

“Unspoiled nature is a brand pillar of ours and we’re one of the last places that you can experience something like this.,” said Pelej. “We have such great access to our waters. We have an audience that wants to come here for free-spirited adventure. Fly fishing really embodies that. It’s romantic and part of ‘A River Runs Through It’ helped us romanticize that.”

Maclean wrote in his novella: “Poets talk about ‘spots of time’, but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.”

Fly fishing at its core is practice, patience and bit of luck.

Many anglers will tell you though, even if they don’t catch anything it’s still a great day to be fishing in Montana.

-John Riley reporting for MTN News