We have some great trout fishing here in the East; there is no doubt about that. However, once you spend some time trout fishing in Montana, it changes everything. However, I am consistently surprised by the number of fly fishermen that we talk to in our travels that say something like, “man, I’d like to fish Montana some year." Well, that year can be now. You're not getting any younger and anything can happen in life.
Like all trips, a fishing trip out west takes time and costs money. However, it is time and money well spent. Unfortunately, many people are wrongfully under the impression that the only way they can fish out west to go the guide + lodge route, complete with $3,000 price tag. This is not true. Others may be concerned about the skills needed to catch trout out west. If you catch trout in Pennsylvania and other Eastern states then you have more than enough skills to get it done out west, without doubt.
The biggest hurdle (and cost) to a trip to Big Sky Country is usually simply getting yourself there.
The first step is to book a flight. The option of flying to Salt Lake or Denver and driving is a possibility, but a better option for an extra couple hundred bucks is to connect into Bozeman, Billings, Butte, or Missoula – depending where you foresee your destination. Flying directly into the heart of Montana will typically cost you approximately $400-$500 (versus $300-$400 to majors like Salt Lake City) depending on timing and, of course, other economic hurdles such as fluctuating oil prices. I have a lot of luck saving a few bucks by booking flights through websites such as Orbitz or Priceline. You can also add rental cars and even hotel rooms through these booking agents once you have your flight nailed down, which typically increases your savings. Once you book the flight through a booking agent though, you better be ready to go because you will not get a refund unless you have good reason. The timing of many of my treks out west has been dictated what dates and destination resulted in the lowest price – it’s all part of the game!
Once the airfare is booked you are well on your way to an adventure because generally adding a rental and booking a place to hang your hat is easy. Do your research and compare – many years our group was able to rent a car for as little as $20/day. The best rental car values can be found in Salt Lake City. From there you are about 5 hours to West Yellowstone and 6 hours to Bozeman/Butte/Dillon. Be prepared to pay about double for a rental vehicle at the smaller airports such as Bozeman, Butte, and Billings – but the trade-off is you are within minutes of great fly-fishing.
Lodging options abound regardless of where you decide to base your operation. Personally, I just need a place to shower and sleep so I am just as comfortable in one of the Bighorn Angler’s “Fisherman Quarters” in Fort Smith for $25/night as I am in the Bozeman Sheraton for $125/night. It comes down to personal preference. If you really want to be aggressive about cutting costs, you can pack or ship camping gear and spend your nights camping for free on any of the Montana “Fishing Access” properties, a list of which can be found on their web site along with a boatload of other information (http://fwp.mt.gov/fishing/).
With available literature and the abundance of information on the internet these days, you can do some research, compare ideas with your fishing buddies and have a solid plan tabled within a couple of hours. There are so many options in southwest Montana that it can make your head spin – but that is a good problem. Don’t get caught up in the options. Lay out some possibilities and get there. The fishing WILL fall into place.
Montana is also loaded with great fly shops who will point you in the right direction. For those that have never fished out of a driftboat or love to fish out of a driftboa, adding a day or two with a local shop on one of the western majors should be in the cards if finances allow. This option can potentially add up to 25% to your total trip cost, but again, it will be money well spent. For those that have some rowing experience – renting a driftboat on the Missouri or Bighorn is as easy as pie and you can get you the full experience for about ¼ the cost.
Whether you book with them or not, touching base with the local shops and guides in the area you want to fish is important. Unlike the many folks across the country which keep fishing information tight to the cuff, these guys and gals are forthcoming with information that will lead to a great experience, just one more reason you will love the Montana experience. It doesn’t hurt to buy some flies, a hat, or some tippet from them in return.
For the time of your life on the Bighorn, you can’t go wrong checking in with Eric Anderson at the Bighorn Angler (www.bighornangler.com). For a Bozeman based operation, the guys at Montana Troutfitters (www.troutfitters.com) or River’s Edge (www.theriversedge.com) will get you in the game. If you are checking out southwest Montana, touch base with Dan Leavens and his Stonefly Inn and Outfitters in Twin Bridges (www.thestoneflyinn.com) – he has cool lodging options and will shorten the learning curve on a lot of water including the Big Hole, Jefferson, Beaverhead, Ruby and numerous private Spring Creeks.
To summarize, if you haven’t been “out west,” now is the time. The experience you will gain can never be taken away from you. Besides the great fishing, being on "Montana time” is something I greatly look forward to every summer.
Tom Buterbaugh is co-owner of Catching Chrome Angling Services (www.catchingchrome.com) based in Southeastern PA. CCAS offers wade and float trips on all the major waters of Pennsylvania, steelhead excursions on the Erie Tributaries, and destination adventures to Montana. Tom is a Guide Ambassador for Simms and is an archery whitetail enthusiast.