Montana: A History of the (Unofficial) Capital of Fly Fishing

All Montana residents realize that the Big Sky State is the unofficial capital of fly fishing. But many don’t know when or how that began. As early as the 1930’s, Montana was known as a destination for fly fishermen, and that notoriety has only grown over time.

Fly fishing was originally brought to America by the Europeans in the late 19th century, but it took decades for it to catch on here. In the early 1920’s, fly fishing began to grow in popularity, largely due to contests that helped to raise its profile. The East coast and the Midwest were the first American regions to take the sport seriously, with the New England states of Maine and Vermont leading the charge. Fishermen waded through America’s waters with gear that differs from what we use today: back then, bamboo rods, brass reels, and horsehair lines were all the rage. Finally, in the 1930’s, word spread about the quality fly fishing available in Montana and our state’s world-class trout fisheries.

Then came Dan Bailey. Bailey opened a fly shop in Livingston in 1938, which became one of the region’s preeminent supply stores. In the 1950’s, fly fishing grew in popularity again. The advent of cheaper supplies like monofilament leaders, fiberglass rods, and synthetic lines became more prevalent, making the activity accessible to a wider range of people. By the time of Dan’s death in 1981, his store had become the largest manufacturer of artificial flies in the United States. Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop is still in business today, operated by his son John.

But Dan’s conservation work probably raised the profile of fly fishing in Montana even more than his famous shop. Dan dedicated himself to protecting and preserving Montana’s trout streams.

He’s best known for his successful grassroots efforts to oppose the Allen Spur dam project that would have dammed a major portion of the Paradise Valley and Yellowstone River south of Livingston.

Arguably, however, the event to bind Montana and fly fishing together in the minds of nearly all Americans was Robert Redford’s 1992 film, A River Runs Through It. The movie, and the Norman Maclean book it was based on changed Montana fly fishing forever. Prior to the book’s release in 1976, Montana rivers were a well-known destination for residents and small numbers of fly fishing tourists. The book’s release raised awareness marginally. But the movie was a game-changer, prompting a 120 percent increase in tourists and out-of-state anglers. This wave of interest prompted the conservation of the Blackfoot River and attracted women to the sport as well. The movie was filmed near Missoula, Montana, on the Big Blackfoot River, known for its emerald-tinted water and untouched scenery.

Since the early 1990’s, countless fly fishing businesses have emerged, and the trend continues today. Now, Montana is home to the Fly Fishers International Association and hosts a number of popular events dedicated to the sport. And, with the help of organizations like Trout Unlimited and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, fly fishing enthusiasts have successfully kept Montana top of mind for anglers everywhere and helped preserve our waters by promoting the importance of conservation.

I might have spent my weekdays as founder, funder, and chairman of CAbi, but I’ve always spent my free time enjoying the most beautiful activity I’ve ever known: fly fishing in our remarkably unspoiled state. Thanks to all of the people and organizations that protect the natural systems supporting healthy fisheries and their habitats, and make Montana the most beautiful place on Earth to cast a fly.

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