The Legacy of My Fly Fishing Mentors

fly fishing mentors

It takes a village to raise a fly fisher. In my case, it was a village of fourteen fly fishing mentors who showed up in my life over the years and helped me learn the craft of fly fishing.

I’d love to pay tribute to them by naming them. But I’m not going to do so for two reasons: First, the list would resemble the credits at the end of a movie. Nobody cares about them except the producer and those involved in the production.

Second, I am still a mediocre fly fisher on my best days. So I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone by citing them as one of my fly fishing mentors.

Perhaps I can pay tribute by listing a few characteristics that they all had in common. These characteristics can help you identify a mentor if you are new to the sport. Or, they can help you be more effective when you get the opportunity to mentor a younger fly fisher.

1. Patience

This is the number one characteristic by far.

My mentors did not sigh or curse (at least not audibly) when I slapped my line against the water, when I was slow to set the hook on a strike, or when my backcast hooked a branch. I may have even hooked one or two of my mentors. They simply went over their instructions again and again.

Bob never raised his voice when he kept telling me to mend my line, and Kevin didn’t roll his eyes when I tried to threat my tippet through my fly rod guides when we were getting ready to fish the Gallatin River.

2. The ability to simplify

Fly fishing is a complex sport. It can bewilder beginners. But good mentors break down complex concepts into simple explanations. One mentor encouraged me to stick with a few simple patterns while I learned to fly fish—the Woolly Bugger, Prince Nymph, Parachute Adams, and Elk Hair Caddis. Another boiled down my first lesson in casting to: (1) flick your wrist when you cast and (2) keep your eyes on the target. Still another taught me that the foam line in the current is the feed line. The simple explanations formed a knowledge base on which I’ve been building for more than three decades.

3. Creativity

Good mentors are also creative.

None of my mentors had me cast to the rhythm of a metronome like Norman Maclean’s father did in A River Runs Through It. But Gary Borger taught me to tie a couple important knots by using a small piece of rope rather than a tiny 6x tippet. He also taught me to pick up my line off of the surface by drawing the letter “C” with my rod tip.

Good mentors traffic in word pictures and analogies. They find vivid ways to show and tell.

4. Unselfishness

I’ve had some faux-mentors who simply left me on my own while they raced ahead to their favorite spots.

Real mentors, however, sacrifice the time they could be fishing and share the prime spots they could be fishing. They act more like guides whose mission it is to set up their clients for success.

I remember my mentor and friend, Bob, taking me to fish for fall browns on the Madison in Yellowstone National Park. He brought his rod along, but he didn’t make one cast that day. He simply devoted his time to helping me read water, cast, and (of course) mend my line. It’s rewarding to teach others to fly fish. But you have to be prepared to give up some rod time and even some of the hot spots you love to fish.

5. Humility

These mentors are some of the best fly fishers on the planet. But none of them felt the need to inform me about this. I had to coax out of them the stories about their fly fishing heroics The best mentors do not have egos the size of a jumbo jet. They do not need to tell you how great they are.

I’m convinced that humility is what enables patience and unselfishness.

Okay, maybe I will let the credits roll. I owe my fly fishing skills to the mentoring of Gerald, Duane, Doug, Kevin, Jerry, John, Murray, Bob, Toby, Harry, Dave, Gary, Leon, and Ben.

Thanks, fellas.

I’m fishing in and around Yellowstone National Park this week, and I’m a better fly fisher for all the ways you invested in my development. I wish you were all here. I still need all the help I can get.

Fun Facts about the Movie “A River Runs Through It”

A River Runs Through It

A River Runs Through It premiered on October 9, 1992 – more than 25 years ago. Based on the novella by Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It” launched the career of Brad Pitt and boosted interest in fly fishing. Even as it celebrates its 25-year anniversary, the movie continues to captivate viewers who resonate with its story of tragedy, family, the American West, and fishing.

The movie is set in Missoula, Montana, though most fans know that it was filmed 200-plus miles east of Missoula in Livingston, Montana. Livingston served as Missoula, and the Gallatin River served as the Big Blackfoot River.

But there are some fun facts about its filming which you won’t find in most reviews or articles. This information comes from two primary sources. First, I lived in the very area where the filming took place. I could take you to the exact spots on the Gallatin and Boulder Rivers (and Mill Creek in Paradise Valley) where the scenes were shot.

Second, my podcast partner, Dave, and I had an extensive conversation with Gary Borger about his role as a consultant. Even Gary’s son Jason was part of the movie.

So if you’re curious about some of the details, keep reading.

The House

The “Maclean house” is across the road from the Springhill Presbyterian church, fourteen miles north of downtown Bozeman, Montana. The porch was built specifically for the scene where the Maclean brothers climb out of their bedroom window.

Then, when they drive away in the dark with their cronies, the church is visible, and it looks as much like a schoolhouse as it does a church.

Fly “Pole”

In the scene where the father teaches his young sons the art of fly casting, Tom Skerritt (the actor who played the role of Rev. Maclean) originally said: “Go get the fly poles.”

This happened to be Gary Borger’s first day on the set, and he told the line producer that a fly fisher never would have referred to a fly rod as a “fly pole.” So the line producer got producer Robert Redford’s attention.

“Go get the book,” Redford said.

He found the passage that says that “it is always supposed to be called a rod” — not a pole. And rod it was.

Fly Casting

Most of the fly fishing scenes were filmed on the Gallatin River in the Gallatin Canyon south of Bozeman.

In these scenes, Gary Borger’s son, Jason, did almost all the fly casting for the actors in the movie. This includes the memorable “shadow-casting” that Paul Maclean performed while standing on a big rock in the middle of the river. When Jason did that particular cast, an elderly, long-time friend of the Maclean brothers was on the set. After the scene was filmed, he approached Jason and said, “You are Paul.” The friend was stunned that Jason had captured the essence of Paul’s artistry with a fly rod.

While Jason did most of the fly casting in the movie, the actors picked it up rather quickly. Tom Skerritt (the elder Maclean) had done some fly fishing previously. Both Craig Sheffer (Norman) and Brad Pitt (Paul) were quite athletic. Jason made sure that Skerritt and Sheffer used the traditional forearm style, while Pitt used the more open freearm style that Paul Maclean would have used.

Fighting Trout

The “trout” the Maclean brothers hooked into and fought were mostly non-fish.

In several scenes, the fish on the end of their line was actually a half gallon milk jug with rocks in it. In the scene where Paul fights a fish hidden from view behind a large boulder, the fish is actually John Bailey of Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop in Livingston, Montana. John was behind the rock, pulling on the line!

In the final scene of “A River Runs Through It,” when Paul is fighting a monster trout, the producers filmed the water flying off of his fly reel in a city park rather than in the river. The city park was Lindley Park in Livingston, Montana, and the producers created this effect by dipping the fly reel in a bucket of water. Then, after an actor lifted it out of the bucket, someone on the end of the line immediately started pulling it to get the spool spinning and flinging off beads of water.

Riding the Rails

The scene where Norman’s girlfriend, Jesse, pulls her car onto the railroad tracks and drives through a tunnel was filmed on the CA Ranch forty miles or so north of Bozeman. The exact location is the Eagle’s Nest tunnel on an old railroad grade that the Ringling brothers used to haul their circus equipment to Ringling, Montana, for off-season storage. The railroad trestle leading into the tunnel towers over Sixteen Mile Creek. There is a brief view of the creek in the movie.

My podcast partner, Dave, and I have both caught trout underneath that trestle (pictured above – Dave, in fact, took the picture). In the movie, Jesse and Norman actually enter and exit the same end of the tunnel. Today, there are no railroad tracks; it’s a one-lane gravel-and-dirt road.

A Final Thought

Sometimes, knowing insider information on how a movie was filmed can spoil it. But both the cinematography and the story itself prevent his from happening. If you’ve never watched the move “A River Runs Through It,” you simply must. Even if you watched it years ago, it’s worth revisiting. I’m convinced that after watching it, you, too, will be haunted by waters. And haunted by one of the underlying themes: sometimes it’s the ones you love most that are hardest to understand.

If you want to listen to our podcast episode with Gary Borger on the movie, visit Gary Borger on the Making of “A River Runs Through It”

Keeping Track of Your Fly Fishing Adventures

Once in a while, my podcast partner, Dave, says something profound. A few years ago, he made this observation over lunch: “You cannot fully experience a present moment; but when you think back on it you experience the moment in full.”

That’s as true about your fly fishing adventures as it is about any other life experience. I spend a lot of time on the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers in my mind, experiencing some tremendous fly fishing days to the full.

The problem is, the details of past experiences fade with time. They also blur together in your mind.

    Was that day when the snow turned into rain and the rainbows went into a feeding frenzy in April or September?

    Did I catch them on a size #18 parachute Adams, or did I have to use a size #20?

    Did it happen on the East Gallatin River or on the main Gallatin?

    How many rainbows did I land that afternoon?

One solution is to keep track of your fly fishing adventures. Here are a three simple ideas that may help you do this. I list them from less ambitious to more ambitious.

1. Take plenty of photos

This is the easiest way to keep a record, and thanks to smart phones, you can now take photos or videos and post them to Instagram or YouTube. It’s also the most vivid record you can keep. The cliche is true: a picture is worth a thousand words.

Make sure to carry a Ziploc plastic bag to keep your cell phone dry. Make sure, too, that you take pictures of more than the fish you catch. Take photos of the landscape, the best runs you fish, and the grace (or clumsiness) of the casts that your fly fishing partner makes.

2. Keep a fly fishing journal

Sometimes, though, a word is worth a thousand pictures. So consider a fly fishing journal. Buy a cheap notebook or a moleskin notebook that you can throw into your fly fishing bag. Or, simply devote a Microsoft Word file (or Evernote or OneNote or …) to your fly fishing adventures. You can be as literary or as clinical as you want to be. Fly fishers may simply want to record the basics:

    How many fish I caught,

    What patterns and their sizes I used, and

    What the weather was like.

Or, you may want to write a more elaborate, literary account of your trip. That’s especially true if you are a writer. I don’t mean a published author. I mean a writer. There is a big difference. A writer-friend of mine in northwest Montana recently tweeted: “You write because there’s fire in your bones. You’ve got to do this whether anybody ever reads it or not.”

If you feel the urge, write about your fly fishing adventures. It’s a great way to re-live them.

3. Create a blog or a Facebook page

This is not for everybody. But a blog or a Facebook page devoted to your fly fishing adventures will allow you to organize your data — photos and writing — and even to share it with others.

Several of our “2 Guys” listeners and readers have shared their webs sites with us, and we have both enjoyed perusing their photos and the articles. Dave and I keep talking about how much we learn from the guides at the fly shops we visit. But we’re also learning a lot from the blogs that some of you maintain. If you’re doing this, keep up the good work. If you’re interested in trying this, go for it. If it’s not for you, you’ll know soon enough.

Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and Instagram are free, of course, and many hosted blogs like Word Press are also free.

I’m glad I kept a journal.

Now I can go back and get enough details to jog my memory and spend some time in my mind on the East Gallatin River on that September day when I caught a half dozen 16-inch rainbows out of one run. The rainbows went into a feeding frenzy on blue winged olives, and I caught them on a size #18 parachute Adams.

I’m also glad I remembered Dave’s observation about what it means to live in the moment. I found it in my journal as I was looking for the journal entry about that day on the East Gallatin when the snow turned into rain.

Why I Fly Fish

Why I fly fish – it’s pretty simple to explain. I often get asked, “Why do you fly fish? What do you like about it?” This question typically comes from folks who are dabbling in it or thinking about trying the sport. If that is your question, let me try to answer it.

Several years ago, I tried to improve my golf game so that I could spend more time with a friend. I soon realized that I didn’t love golf. In fact, I found it frustrating. I remember golfing on the Cottonwood Hills Public Golf Course just west of Bozeman, Montana, and looking down the hill at the Gallatin River. I longed to be fly fishing. My friend didn’t fly fish. So I found other ways to connect with him. We both loved to play softball. But I decided that day I was done trying to do things I didn’t enjoy.

But exactly why do I love fly fishing for trout (and salmon at times)?

Engaged with the Outdoors

Fly fishing allows me to experience the great outdoors in an interactive kind of way. I love mountains and the clear rivers or streams that flow through or below them.

Obviously, there are other ways to experience my favorite parts of nature. I’ve done outdoor photography, backpacking, hiking, and a bit of non-technical mountain climbing. I even reached the summit of Long’s Peak in Colorado (14,259 feet) twice. All these were great experiences. But unless I’m photographing my fishing trip or heading to a high mountain lake or stream, neither photography or backpacking does it for me. There’s something about standing in thigh-deep water as the snow softly falls or sneaking up on rising fish that allows me to interact with nature in a way that other pursuits do not.

This is not a knock on outdoor photography or hiking or anything else. It’s just a reflection of how I’m wired. Pursue whatever lets you engage with nature most fully and brings joy.

Addicted to the Riser

I’m also addicted to seeing a trout rise to take a dry fly and to the fight that follows. What else can I say? Fly fishing gives me an adrenaline rush and a sense of satisfaction that most other outdoor sports do not.

One exception is calling in bull elk during the rut in archery season. But nothing else quite compares with fly fishing.

Connected to the Art and Skill

Years ago, I fished with a spinning rod and a box full of Mepps spinners.

That brought me a lot of joy at the time. But I love the aesthetic side of fly fishing. There is a grace to casting (when done well). There are also endless ways of improving my craft – reading waters, identifying insect hatches, tying flies, maneuvering a drift boat, and casting.

Fly fishing gives me the chance to be part of something that I can never fully master. It offers a lifetime of learning. Even the literature of fly fishing is rich and often reflective.

I should add that fly fishing is more doable at this point in my life than other outdoor sports that bring me joy.

As I mentioned, I also love bow-hunting for elk. The crisp September mornings, the bright yellow aspen leaves, and the echo of an elk bugle across a canyon make me happy. But this is where reality kicks in. I no longer live ten minutes from good elk hunting.

A decade ago, I moved to the Chicago area.

The time and cost of hunting elk in Montana as a non-resident are simply prohibitive. It’s the cost, mostly. So out of my two outdoor passions, I’m grateful I can still pursue one of them. Fly fishing for trout is generally less expensive. I can afford to go to Montana at least once or twice a year to fly fish. Besides, I can find great fly fishing three seasons of the year (spring, summer, and fall) as opposed to a three weeks of the year (for bow-hunting elk). I’m hoping to bow-hunt for elk again one of these days with my brother in Colorado. But until then, I’m content to fly fish.

If fly fishing appeals to you, give it a try. The sheer thrill of landing a trout on a fly rod might turn out to be something that brings you as much joy as it brings to me.

Episode 38: Fly Fishing Hacks

fly fishing guides

Fly fishing hacks – every fly fisher has them. The word hack has so many meanings today, but for our purposes, we’re defining the term loosely to mean shortcuts or quick solutions to regular problems that we fly fishers face. In this podcast, we offer a few of our better fly fishing hacks.

Listen to Episode 38: Fly Fishing Hacks Now

How about some of yours? We’d love to compile a long list of hacks that make our lives easier and, of course, help us catch more trout.

Post your hacks below!

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Fishing with a Sage

All I really need to know about fly fishing I learned from Bob Granger, a veteran fly fishing guide and fly tier.

When you ask him how many flies he tied last weekend, and he says “twenty,” he means “twenty dozen.” Bob tied for Orvis for many years. Then he worked for Ted Turner, supplying Turner and his friends with all the flies they used. The people Bob has guided in his drift boat reads like a “Who’s Who” list:  Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, Jimmy Carter, Hank Aaron, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Yes, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader.

The list makes me laugh, because Bob is politically conservative. Yet he speaks graciously, if not diplomatically about the people he has guided over the years. When I asked him about Jane Fonda, he said, “She was a very good fly fisher.” Hank Aaron? “He was a better baseball player than a fly-fisherman.”

Bob’s Pearls

I met Bob in the winter of 1996, the year I finally decided to get serious about fly fishing. My buddy, Brand Robinson, and I had signed up for a fly tying course at Montana Troutfitters, a fly shop in Bozeman, Montana. For about eight Saturdays in a row, Brand and I drove eighteen miles into Bozeman to learn the art of fly tying. The name Bob Granger meant nothing to me at the time. But he turned out to be a sage—a profoundly wise man when it came to fly fishing and to life. I can’t remember how much I paid to take the course, but the lessons I learned were priceless. Here are a few of the pearls Bob communicated.

  • Nymph fishing is most productive since eighty-five to ninety percent of a trout’s diet comes from below the river’s surface.
  • Like the rivers, you can always nymph on the spring creeks.
  • The best weather for fly fishing is an overcast, cool day. A sunny day is the worst. If you want to catch the “big boys,” try a streamer on a dark, overcast day or during times of low light in the early morning or late evening.
  • An old extension cord will provide you with a lifetime of copper wire for fly tying.
  • If you want to fish during a mayfly hatch, the best time is mid-day, between eleven and two. But if you are fishing during a caddis hatch, the evening is when the majority of these flies emerge.
  • Tie your nymph and streamer patterns with bead-heads. This will create a natural drift when your fly is in the river. If you insist on weighting your flies in another way, use a different color thread for your weighted flies to tell them apart from your non-weighted flies.
  • The more you fly fish, the fewer flies you will use! For dry fly fishing on the Yellowstone or Gallatin Rivers, an Adams or an elk hair caddis will work most of the time.
  • If fish are refusing your fly, change the size before you try another pattern. Also, check your tippet size. You may need to go smaller.

Now Mend Your Line

Thankfully, when I got my Certificate of Achievement for completing the Beginners Fly Tying Course—signed, of course, by Bob Granger—it did not mark the end of our relationship.

In the fall of 1996, my podcast partner, Dave Goetz, and I scraped together enough money to hire Bob to take us on a day float of the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, south of Livingston. It was a perfect October day. The weather was cool, overcast, and drizzly. We floated a stretch which took us right by my parents’ home on the banks of the Yellowstone near the Mill Creek bridge.

This stretch of river had a healthy population of cutthroats and rainbows, with a smattering of browns. With Bob as our guide, I was sure it was going to be a thirty or forty fish day. Instead, it turned out to be a three or four fish day, and there were whitefish involved. Nothing seemed to work. Still, I gained more wisdom. Bob kept after me all day during the float. “Good cast, now mend your line.” Those words still ring in my ears after a cast. I repeated them to my two sons when I taught them to fly fish, and I expect them to pass on this bit of wisdom to their children as well.

The lesson in all of this is, don’t try to be a self-made fly fisher. Find a sage, a guide for the journey. That guide might be sitting behind the cast register or the fly tying bench at your local fly shop.

Bad Weather, Great Day

bad weather, great day

The rain is more of a West Coast drizzle than a hard shower.

At three o’clock in the afternoon the gray clouds hovering over Montana’s Gallatin Valley release the droplets of moisture they have been hoarding for the better part of the day. Before long, the rain droplets morph into wet snow flakes.

Five minutes later, the snow turns back into rain. The temperature hovers around 40 degrees. A September day like this is a terrible day for a fly fisher to venture outside. But I have learned that the worst weather for fly fishers is the best weather for catching trout.

On days like this, Blue Winged Olives emerge en masse on the East Gallatin River. When they do, the trout go into a feeding frenzy.

Stories of the River

I park my little red Toyota 4×4 at the edge of a rancher-friend’s pasture, a few feet from the river.

I can see my house, one mile away, perched on the first of several foothills which lie at the base of the Bridger Mountains. Captain William Clark and his Indian guide, Sacagawea, walked somewhere nearby as they made their way from the Three Forks of the Missouri to meet up with the Yellowstone River about thirty miles to the east.

More recently, local resident Jim Doig was killed when thrown from his saddlehorse not far from place where I am going to fish. His nephew, Ivan, tells the story in his memoir, This House of Sky. I peer into the Cottonwoods, Aspens, and the buckbrush which line the East Gallatin River. I am not expecting to see the ghosts of Clark or Sacagawea or Doig. But I half expect to see the large whitetail buck, which jumped across the Dry Creek Road in front of me a week ago about a mile from this spot.

The drizzle continues as I take my fly rod and walk through the tall grass to the river.

This stretch of the East Gallatin is no small challenge to fish. From an aerial view, the pattern of the river must resemble a piece of ribbon candy. This pattern slows the current to a crawl. Its surface is glassy, and a vague seam will appear for a moment and then disappear. The best places to fish are in the seams which separate an occasional stretch of riffles from the calm water. I find one of these stretches about fifty yards below a bend in the river. As I arrive at the river’s edge, the drizzle turns into snowflakes. BWOs flutter everywhere on the water. I prefer to keep things simple, so I tie on a size #18 parachute Adams.

Size #20 Dreams

Crouching at the edge of the river, I flip my fly at the head of a riffle, quickly mend my line, and get a reasonable drift.


Fish rise all around my parachute Adams. Five minutes later, I still have nothing to show for my efforts. It occurs to me that the insects with the smoky blue wings are tinier than my size #18 parachute.

So I switch to a size #20 — a fly that is ridiculously tiny, smaller than the head of a Q-tip. I drift the fly through the same riffle I had been fishing a few minutes ago. This time I get a strike. My rod doubles over and quivers as a healthy rainbow tries to shake free from the fly. This scene repeats itself again and again over the next twenty minutes. I end up landing eight healthy rainbows, all fifteen to eighteen inches long.

A quick glance at my watch tells me I need to head for home. I don’t want to leave.

The snow is softly falling. There are more trout to catch. There is a longing to stay in the moment. But if I don’t leave now, my cell phone will begin to ring. I know that my wife can see my red truck from our living room picture window a mile away. Dinner awaits. Then a work-related meeting. Reluctantly, I turn from the river and from the only run I have needed to fish, and I start walking back through the wet grass to my truck. It’s been a great day. But great days don’t last forever—not in this life. As I approach my truck, the snow turns into rain.