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Making it in Big Sky: Gallatin River Guides

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Following a closure that spurred an adapted business strategy while Gallatin River Guides doors were shuttered due to COVID-19, owner Mike Donaldson and his staff have resumed operations serving anglers. PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKE DONALDSON

By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – A staple in the Big Sky community for more than 35 years, Gallatin River Guides reopened for business on April 27, just in time for eager, springtime anglers. After assuming ownership over a year ago, Mike Donaldson and his crew were thrown a curveball, having to close for over four weeks due to COVID-19. 

Adaptation was GRG’s strategy during the time that the store was closed. “In an effort to continue to serve local folks that needed flies and tackle we started a curbside pickup service,” Donaldson said. “Our manager, Drew Hay and myself, would take orders over the phone and leave them on the back porch for customers.”

Now, adhering to the travel and quarantine guidelines, GRG is once again operating at full capacity, offering their guide services and selling merchandise at their location along U.S. Highway 191. 

With the ripple effects of COVID-19 still lingering, Donaldson acknowledged the toughest decision facing him currently is employment opportunities. He intends to employ the usual number of individuals that he would any other summer. Donaldson recently exchanged emails with EBS to discuss GRG’s current business happenings.

Explore Big Sky: How has your daily work routine been impacted by COVID-19?

Mike Donaldson: Our routine has stayed the same but lately the things we are working on have changed. Even when the store was closed, we were here working on projects and getting ready for summer. Recently we have started the process of figuring out how to find the balance between conducting business and following guidelines to keep our staff, guides, customers and community safe. It certainly has been interesting but we are confident we can make it happen.

EBS: How often are you cleaning the shop?

M.D.: We have been continuously cleaning the shop throughout the day, every day, in a big effort to keep our customers and staff safe. All of our guides are also following routines to keep their vehicles, boats and gear clean and sanitized. It has definitely required a different mind set but it is really important to us and is now a part of our daily operations here at Gallatin River Guides. 

EBS: Shoulder season fluctuations aside, how do you believe the virus will continue to affect your businesses?

M.D.: That’s a really good question and a tough one to answer. It has literally been day to day since this whole thing started and we expect to see continued fluctuations through the remainder of this year. As with so many other businesses in Big Sky, our primary season runs from June through September and people generally plan trips during those months well in advance.  The next 30 to 45 days are going to tell us a lot about how our summer business is going to look.  It’s certainly going to be different than last year when a good share of our summer trips were on our calendar by the end of May.

EBS: Have you adopted any new business offerings or practices as you adapt to the ever-changing COVID-19 landscape?

M.D.: One of the things we have tried to do as a result of the current environment is create some new relationships within our community here in Big Sky. It has been an effort to do some cross advertising and help each other out in certain areas when we can. A lot of local businesses are scrambling to make the best out of this situation and it has been great to see everyone looking out for one another. Hopefully we see relationships grow as a result and last into the future.

EBS: Are you receiving an influx of guided fishing trip bookings as life solely returns to normal?

M.D.: Slowly but surely, we are beginning to come back to life. We are starting to see some interest and book trips for people that are planning summer vacations. The last couple weeks or so have been positive and we are gaining confidence we will see folks interested in getting out on the river this summer. A lot of people we are talking to are excited to spend some time outdoors and enjoy the activities Montana has to offer.

EBS: How many flies can you tie in an hour?

M.D.: Good question! It just depends on the particular fly I am tying. Easier patterns like a Zebra Midge or San Juan Worm if I am focused probably close to 30 or 40 flies an hour. Harder patterns like certain streamers or dry flies it could take over an hour to tie a single fly. When I was guiding full time, my winters were pretty much spent behind a vice tying thousands of flies for the upcoming guide season.

EBS: What is the most popular fly at the shop currently?

M.D.: We actually did a major overhaul of our fly selection for 2020 and have something like 100 new patterns in our bins this year. Over all our Czech and Euro Nymphing section is really impressive and popular right now. Over the last couple of years, we have seen the European style of nymphing really grow and have discovered it is quite productive especially on the Gallatin and Madison rivers. This spring our new selection of streamers has been a hit namely the Ménage Dungeon. We have seen it catch some monsters on the Madison River and Hebgen Lake.

EBS: How have the river conditions been of late? Are the fish biting?

M.D.: We are in our spring runoff at the moment so river conditions are changing daily. The Gallatin River has been fishing phenomenal with these slightly higher flows and off-color water. With all this warm weather in the forecast we will start to see windows where the Gallatin is just too high to fish. The Madison River this time of the year has an epic caddis hatch that has potential for a memorable day on the water. Overall fishing has been really good and we expect it to continue throughout the summer. 

EBS: What is the largest trout you have ever caught?

M.D.: The largest trout I have ever caught was a 23-inch brown on the Madison River. It was a super saucy fish that ate a Copper Zonker on a hard drag just above McAtee Bridge.

EBS: What is your favorite part of every workday?

M.D.: The favorite part of my workday is when all of our customers that have been on guided trips return back to the shop. It is very rewarding hearing about the day’s adventures and seeing how much fun they had on the river. Especially when it is folks that have never fly fished before and you can tell we just introduced them to a new hobby and life long pursuit. All of our guides are amazing and it is really cool to see how much people appreciate the effort they put in when taking people fishing.

EBS: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

M.D.: Never stop building meaningful relationships with customers and other people in your industry. Choosing to instead view competitors as potential partners and collaborators can positively impact your business in a big way.

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december, 2023

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06dec5:30 pm6:30 pmWomen's basketball open gym5:30 pm - 6:30 pm BASE

06dec6:30 pm8:00 pmArtist in residence with Jasmine Picker Bell6:30 pm - 8:00 pm Event Type :ArtsEvent City:Big Sky

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