Fly fishing the Madison or Yellowstone Rivers in Montana used to be no big deal.
I simply tossed my gear in the back of my Toyota pickup and drove for 45 minutes to one of the two rivers. If I only had a couple hours to fish, both the East Gallatin and the main Gallatin Rivers were 5 minutes from my house. The only cost for those trips was a gallon or two of gas.
Then I moved to the north suburbs of Chicago. This has made the trip to those rivers a lot more costly. Still, I have fished in Montana at least once a year since I moved to Illinois twelve years ago.
I have modest amount of discretionary income, so I’ve had to figure out ways to keep my trips to Montana affordable. Here are a few cost-cutting hacks which have worked for me. Some are big, some are little. Even the little ones help.
1. Go in the spring or fall
This is a great idea simply because spring and fall fishing in the Rocky Mountain west is fantastic. But it’s cheaper, too. No one is flocking to the beaches of Montana or Wyoming for spring break. Nor do families vacation in Yellowstone National Park in early October.
So hotels are cheaper (especially when you book them on Orbitz or Hotwire), rental cars are cheaper, and flights are cheaper (usually!). If you plan to book time on a spring creek for a day, rod fees are cheaper, too.
Summer is a great time to fly fish in the west. But it’s more crowded and more costly.
2. Go with a friend
Perhaps this is a no-brainer. But it’s cheaper when you can split the cost of a hotel room, rental car, and a guided trip. Yes, you need to invest in at least one guided trip if it’s the first time you’re headed west! Besides, going with a friend is safer and more fun.
3. Pack economically
Baggage fees for airline travel vary. But most airlines charge around $25 for each checked bag (one way) and then let you bring a carry-on for free. I have figured out how to get everything into a checked bag (an Eddie Bauer Drop-Bottom Rolling Duffel) and a carry-on suitcase.
Most of my fly gear goes into the duffel. It’s long enough for my 4-piece fly rod tubes and my net. If you insist on carrying your rod tube, it might pass as a personal item. Occasionally, if my duffel bag is pushing the airline weight limit (usually about 50 lbs.), I’ll put my wading boots in my carry-on.
Yes, my duffel bag cost me about $175. But eliminating the need to check 2 bags for a round trip saves me $50 a trip. My duffel bag has long since paid for itself. Of course, a cheaper large suitcase can work as long as your rod tube(s) fits into it—perhaps at an angle.
4. Eat strategically
Dave, my podcast partner, and I like to enjoy a good evening meal. It caps off our day of fly fishing and allows us to savor the experiences we had on the river even as we savor the food.
We don’t mind paying for an evening meal at a nice steakhouse because we cut corners the rest of the day. If we can handle the food at our hotel’s free continental breakfast, we eat it. If not, we find a reasonable café. Lunch is a cheap sandwich on the river or sometimes even protein bars.
5. Budget for the unexpected
Perhaps I should say budget for the “expected,” because you can always expect some unexpected expenses! We’ve had to replace damaged reels, leaky waders (which were beyond repair), and lost fly rods (don’t forget to check the roof of your vehicle before you leave the fishing access parking area!). We’ve even forgotten about national park entrance fees or the rising cost of a non-resident fishing license.
Trust me, you can count on losing, breaking, or forgetting something on your trip. So save a bit more than you think you will need.
6. Purchase fishing gear and flies strategically
There are no hard and fast rules here other than to shop with savvy. Do you need to replace your fly rod before your trip? That Orvis or Sage rod will typically be the same price at the fly shop in your town as it is in Bozeman, Montana. But there is no sales tax in Montana. Nor is there in Oregon. I typically need a new pair of wading boots every three years. Unless I find a great sale (and the boots that work best for me are never on sale!), I wait until I’m in Montana.
On the other hand, it may pay to stock up on flies before you arrive at your destination. If you tie, then that’s easy enough to do. If you don’t, then stock up on Parachute Adams, Prince Nymphs, and your other go-to flies from the cheapest place you can find. You always need a good supply of basic patterns.
Local fly shops definitely have the best intel for what to fish on the area rivers, and the hottest fly may be something you didn’t anticipate. Make sure you support the fly shops where you ask for advice.
Also, figure out where you are unwilling to cut corners. You get what you pay for. I’m willing to pay a bit more for the best quality wading boots and rods. But I’ll compensate by going for the mid-range waders, fly vests, and even reels. I’m fine with an off-brand fly fishing shirt. I think you get the idea.
It takes a bit of savvy, but you can make your next fly fishing trip to the western United States more affordable with a bit of thought and preparation. We will see in you Bozeman or Thermopolis or Estes Park!