By Patrick Straub EBS Fishing Columnist
“Do you want the good news, or the bad news first,” Eric, my auto mechanic of over 10 years, said as he wiped motor oil off his well-worked hands.
“Just give it to me straight,” I said, envious of his ability to be direct. In my profession as a fishing guide, telling people their cast sucks and that’s the reason they catch less fish, is not the best way to navigate a day of guided fishing. So Eric gave it to me straight because he’s a car mechanic, not a fishing guide.
“You’re turbo is failing and when it fails it will ruin the whole engine,” he said. “Two hundred thousand miles is a good run. It’s time to get a new rig. There’s no hope for the old one.”
I’ve spent most of my adult life, and a good bit of my teens, fly fishing, and all outings required a vehicle to get to the water. In more than 20 years as a local fishing guide, I’ve owned or borrowed and guided out of every type of car. Here’s some advice on choosing the best fishing vehicle.
Your wants and needs are two separate things. I want to chase permit two weeks out of every month, but do I need to chase permit 15 out of 30 days? Choosing a vehicle is similar—how often will you realistically need to trailer a drift boat or drive twenty miles into the Gravelly Range to fish the upper Ruby River? Is there currently a functional jet boat sitting in your driveway, or do you just wish there was? Trucks, SUVs, minivans, and wagons all can be functional fishing rigs, but an honest assessment of your needs gives you the most long-term satisfaction.
Are you in it for the long haul? If you own a boat or plan to own a boat, consider a truck or larger SUV with the ability to tow. In southwest Montana, a drift boat or raft is the craft of choice. A vehicle with a six-cylinder engine will tow any drift boat or raft safely and efficiently. Bump up to an eight-cylinder engine and you can cruise up Bozeman Pass at a brisk 80 mph. Anything larger is not necessary unless you’re towing your boat in tandem with your 24-foot camper trailer.
Run with the pack or walk it alone. If you want the choice of your rig to announce your presence as an angler, the choice is simple: a four-door pickup truck with a topper, rigged with a rod rack or two and maybe a cargo box. A full-size truck with rod racks already gets people asking, “I wonder what flies they’re using?” If you prefer to fly a little under the radar, consider a truck without a topper or an SUV. If you want to really keep them guessing, consider a minivan or a wagon.
Rod storage is important. Rooftop rod racks are useful, yet they draw attention to your vehicle. An SUV or a wagon allows rods to be stowed inside, which ensures quick access but detracts attention so a passer-by sees your parked car and thinks is this an angler, or someone out tossing sticks for their dog. There’s value in keeping other anglers guessing.
Ground clearance is crucial. Consider locations you will fish. If you primarily fish on foot, and fish rivers where well-paved and well-maintained roads are the norm, an SUV or wagon will suffice. If you travel a lot of dirt roads or two tracks, choose vehicles with at least 8 inches or more of ground clearance.
Gas and global impact. Driving to fish is a reality and gas isn’t free. Fish need sustainable habitat to survive for us to have the opportunity to fish, yet the need to haul a boat or have high ground clearance may drive the need for a beefier rig. Evaluating gas usage and its larger impact is important—burning carbon to go fishing is inevitable, but just like you wouldn’t fish a seven weight rod on a spring creek, honestly assess your needs, then purchase and enjoy it.
As Eric said, it’s time for me to get a new vehicle and I’ll begin searching soon because fishing season never ends. However, Eric’s bluntness will resonate because when I’m on the water soon I can’t say to my fishing client, “Your cast is failing, there’s no hope.”
My client could reply, “Your guiding is failing. It’s time to get a new guide.”
But if they did, their last ride with me would be in a new car.
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 is the founder of the Montana Fishing Guide School.