By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
When I first started guiding nearly 20 years ago, winter was time for reflection, tying flies and checking off the reading list. Things have changed in my world now that I have an 18 month old and a 5 year old. I may be a little crusty these days, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Back in the spring of my guiding career, winter was my time to travel the world, ski, and master living cheaply so I could “just hang.” But in order to hang, a person needs a place to do it. Here are my favorite Montana winter locales for both fishing and skiing. To avoid any disputes the list is alphabetical.
Anaconda. This is a sleeper town nestled at the base of the Pintler Range and a little over half an hour from Discovery Ski Area. The Clark Fork River gets its start 15 minutes from downtown and the winter fishing near Anaconda is consistent for big brown trout. The Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers are also nearby. If you love shrimp cocktail and large cuts of beef with real horseradish, this may be your winter hangout.
Big Sky. Nothing about this town is off the radar, but there are very few places on Earth where you can ski fresh powder in the morning, cast to rising trout in the afternoon, and eat great Pad Thai in the evening. The local trifecta: ski at Big Sky Resort, fish, eat and repeat. Housing isn’t cheap here, unless you want to share a place with six dudes and their sheepdogs. But since it’s only for the winter, it’s totally doable bro!
Bozeman. The world knows of Bozeman’s great fishing. The skiing at nearby Bridger Bowl Ski Area and its “ridge” is world class. Bozeman rents are reasonable on a Top Ramen budget and with the fishing nearby, what you save on gas could be spent on a date night once and a while.
Missoula. Your fishing options are grand with both Rock Creek and the Clark Fork accessible within 30 minutes. Add the potential for skwala dry fly fishing in March and spring snowstorms, it’s obvious why Missoulians think their town is Eden. Montana Snowbowl is the ski area and while it’s no Whitefish Mountain Resort or Big Sky Resort, once you’ve had a few drinks at Al and Vick’s, you’ll forget all about those other mountains.
Red Lodge. It’s off the radar, but it shouldn’t be. Rents here are affordable and the beer is great at the Red Lodge Brewery. As for fishing, if you’re willing to drive an hour and a half, the Bighorn is the best winter fishery in all of Montana. Skiing at Red Lodge Mountain is budget in many ways, and when the snow melts you’ll have money left in the piggy bank to chase tarpon in the Caribbean or to buy a shiny new Clackacraft drift boat.
Whitefish. Winter angling here is best suited for ice fishing, but the food and drink options put it on the list. There are also a few streams that are worth visiting, as long as they stay ice-free. Whitefish Mountain Resort receives a lot of snow and the mountain’s varied terrain fit the bill as a world-class resort. Despite the lack of winter fly fishing, the bar scene allows you to party like its 1999 after a day on the slopes or in the ice shanty.
The life of a fishing guide is one of envy. If it weren’t, then little motivation exists to survive the summer season – being a phantom to family and friends for months or finding ways to remain positive over clients missing hook-sets – the list is endless.
However, I’m a firm believer in karma. For fishing guides, our retaliation against convention comes in winter when we get to dink around for months being the masters of our immediate domain, living with the reality in front of our face and nowhere else.
Pat Straub is the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and Pat operates the Montana Fishing Guide School and the Montana Women’s Fly Fishing School.