Do what the river tells you to do

Talking fly fishing, conservation, and more with Craig Mathews
craig matthews west yellowstone fly fishing
Craig Mathews at The School of Trout (photo: Jeremy Roberts / Conservation Media).

Craig Mathews got his start in the fly-fishing business when he and his wife Jackie opened Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone in 1980, and over the next three to four decades, they established their company as one of the nation’s most highly regarded fly shops. Along the way, Craig authored and co-authored many books on fly fishing, including The Yellowstone Fly-Fishing Guide, Simple Fly Fishing, Fly Fishing the Madison, Fly Patterns of Yellowstone, Fishing Yellowstone Hatches, and Western Fly-Fishing Strategies. More recently, Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, Craig, and Mauro Mazzo collaborated on a new edition of Simple Fly Fishing, promoting the best way to catch a trout as using a simple rod, simple fly, and nothing else.

Innovation has been an attribute of Craig’s long career in fly fishing. When Fly Rod & Reel announced Craig as their 2005 Angler of the Year, they wrote that “Craig has been a determined tinkerer with fly patterns, and is in the advance guard of those who have dramatically altered the course of fly-tying by freely blending natural and artificial materials,” Indeed. His design of the sparkle dun and his wife Jackie’s design of the X-caddis—incorporating deer hair, synthetic dubbing, and Zelon—are, or should be, staples in every dry-fly angler’s box.

Craig has been a determined advocate for conservation issues since his early years. “My grandfather on my father’s side and my grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side were deeply involved in conservation,” Craig says about his first influences. “And then I really got a kickstart by President Jimmy Carter. I met President Carter when I was a police chief, he and I became good friends, and some of my prized possessions are letters he and I shared.”

Since then, Craig and Jackie have received many awards for their tireless work in conservation, including “The Protector of Yellowstone National Park Award” and “Guardian of the Madison.” In 2002, Craig partnered with his friend Yvon Chouinard to create 1% for the Planet, a monumental initiative that has recently passed half a billion dollars raised to support conservation, a testament to their commitment and the tangible impact of their work. Practicing what they preach, Yvon, Craig, and Mauro donate all of the proceeds from their Simple Fly Fishing book to conservation and environmental organizations, including 1% for the Planet, Native Fish Society, Atlantic Salmon Federation, and World Trout Initiative.

Craig’s well-deserved reputation as a skilled angler is rooted in one simple philosophy:

Do what the river tells you to do. “The biggest mistake most anglers make is they rush into things,” Craig says when asked how anglers can improve. “The river reads like an open book. If you want to catch fish, do what the river tells you to do, have some patience, and do a little homework. ”

In the fourth episode of the Reading the Water podcast, “Do What the River Tells You to Do,” Craig joins host Tim Schulz to share insights about his life, including his early career in law enforcement, his decision to open Blue Ribbon Flies, his dedication to conservation, his favorite hatches, favorite flies, favorite river, and his preference for wading over floating. “I like to walk and wade, sit on the bank, and just watch the river unfold in front of you. Just do the right thing, and you catch fish.”

If only it were that easy for the rest of us.

You can listen to the entire discussion with Craig Mathews in Episode 4 of the Reading the Water podcast, available through Substack, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Pocket Casts.


Never met Mr. Anderson, but from what I've just read, he seems like my kind of guy. Someday I'll fish his river.