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How local programs are hooking women and youth on fly fishing

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Hooked on the Gallatin gives local kids the opportunity to learn about rivers, conservation and fly fishing through activities and days on the river with licensed guides hired by the nonprofit Gallatin River Task Force. PHOTO BY DAVE PECUNIES

By Bay Stephens LOCAL EDITOR

BIG SKY – Ten and two, ten and two. Keep your wrist still, use your arm instead. That’s it, pivot at the elbow. Alright, now cast. Nice placement. Wait, wait, mend. Wait for it. Now cast over on that seam.

These are the instructions a new fly fisher might receive from an experienced angler while wading Southwest Montana’s fabled coldwater trout streams. Traditionally an older gentleman’s pastime, fly fishing is transitioning into a more inclusive sport—this is true in Big Sky thanks to a smattering of initiatives and programs.

Hooked on the Gallatin is one such program. A partnership between the Gallatin River Task Force and the Big Sky Community Center’s Camp Big Sky, the course takes kids typically between the ages of 7 and 14 for four half-days of learning about the river, conservation and fly fishing on tributaries of the Gallatin River.

The program has been active since 2016, but this is the first year the camp will come in three sessions: beginner and intermediate sessions in July and an advanced one in August. The beginner session kicks off July 15.

During the four days, staff from GRTF engage kids with a variety of hands-on activities, such as collecting and identifying stream insects, teaching about invasive species, fish handling to optimize fish survival after being released and making t-shirts with a Japanese press art technique. The advanced session might even include a fish dissection to learn about the creatures’ biological mechanics.

The rest of the day, campers ply the waters of the West and South forks of the Gallatin River with licensed guides from around the area as they impart to their students the technique and an eye for stealthy fish.

“Fly fishing is this really beautiful pursuit which teaches you how to connect with the river in a way that, perhaps, other ways of recreating don’t,” said Stephanie Lynn, the task force’s education and communications coordinator. “We really believe in the importance of starting young. If you can help youth connect with the river early, they’re so much more likely to develop into good stewards.”

Jimmy Armijo-Grover, a former Gallatin River Guides guide of 17 years, played a crucial role in getting the camp’s first year off the ground.

Armijo-Grover had access to rods, reels and fly tying equipment through a fly fishing program he learned through in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before he was hired at Gallatin River Guides and moved to Big Sky.

“It was so great because fly fishing gear is really expensive and the first year starting a camp there’s just a lot of things you need to acquire,” Lynn said. “It was a huge hit and we’ve done it every year since and we’ve grown it incrementally.”

Through funding from the Spanish Peaks Community Foundation, the task force has since bought all of its own gear.

In Armijo-Grover’s eyes, getting kids outdoors is increasingly important as technology becomes more prevalent, and educating them makes way for future conservation.

“These kids are going to be adults someday that will get other people involved and be stewards of the river,” Armijo-Grover said. “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be protected and these kids will be in our position. If we don’t have them, I don’t know what will happen.”

Already, the camp is bearing fruit. Finn McRae, 12, learned to tie flies through Hooked on the Gallatin, and has participated in the camp every year since. This year, he will even help with the beginner session. He and his friend Wats Littman, who learned to tie flies with Armijo-Grover at Gallatin River Guides, have their own fly tying business called Fish Outta Water that sells flies at the weekly Town Center Farmers Markets on Wednesdays.

Among initiatives that get less traditional user groups out on the rivers are Gallatin River Guides’ women’s courses. In response to a growing trend of individual women and groups of women fly fishing, the outfitter began offering an all-women’s course four years ago.

“It started with this realization that—especially in the last four or five years—that we’re seeing more and more women that are interested in fly fishing, and not only are they interested in it, it’s becoming their thing,” said co-owner Mike Donaldson, who purchased the company from Pat Straub with his father in March of this year.

When he began guiding for GRG eight years ago, Donaldson said it was rare to see women fishing, or at least not without male accompaniment. Though it used to be rare for groups of out-of-town women to visit Big Sky with the chief goal of fishing, he said it’s quite common now.

Headed by fulltime GRG guide Kimberly Smith, the women’s course lasts three days. The first starts with a morning at the fly shop doing “classroom” work, such as learning entomology, rigging and casting technique before lunch and an afternoon fishing the Gallatin. The second day takes clients for a full day of walk-wade fishing on the Madison River between Earthquake Lake and Ennis, followed by a third day of fishing wherever the group feels drawn.

From what Donaldson has seen, women tend to gravitate toward the class for two main reasons: because they like having female guides run the course—though male guides such as himself also guide when needed—and because they enjoy learning and building friendships within a group of women.

“They really seem to build a camaraderie between themselves quite quickly,” Donaldson said.

He said helping out with the women’s courses has always been a blast for him, offering a fresh perspective on fly fishing.

“It’s possible that at times we take the sport too seriously, or we take our fishing days too seriously, and we forget that it’s not all about just getting in there and catching as many fish as you can,” Donaldson said. “The ladies seem to be able to reflect more and stand back more and enjoy the day.”

“It’s a great program,” Donaldson added. “As new owner, I am so proud to have it be a part of Gallatin River Guides.”

Visit gallatinrivertaskforce.org or montanaflyfishing.com to learn more about the Hooked on the Gallatin kids fly fishing camp or the women’s fly fishing course offerings at Gallatin River Guides.

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