A quiver of Winston Rods crammed into the truck
I have been taking fly fishing road trips for as long as I can remember. My most recent trip last week over to the Missouri was a reminder of how much things have changed over the years. Back in my twenties most of my fly fishing road trips were spur of the moment. They usually involved 2 or 3 other guys and a couple of dogs jammed into a pick-up truck. Money was short in those days so the beverage of choice was usually whatever 30 pack of beer was on sale, and the food budget put Ramen noodles at the top of the list. Hotels were out of the question so the tent was always with us. One of the more memorable trips was to the Beaverhead river in the spring. It was beautiful in Missoula, but we showed up on the Beav to find a foot of snow and the only clear ground to pitch the tent was right up against the FWP outhouse at the access. The wind had scoured a bare patch of earth next to the shitter. It was so cold that by 3 am we were all huddled back in the idling truck drinking beer and waiting for the sun to come up. I think we only caught one trout that whole trip, but we had a great time.
These days fly fishing road trips have a whole different feel. Now, with just two of us we can fill up a whole truck with all the gear we take. Not much camping anymore either as rental cabins seem to fit the bill with full kitchens and comfortable beds. Elk steaks, stinky cheeses, and bacon and eggs have replaced the Ramen with red wines and high-end bourbons instead of cheap beer. I still miss those hastily planned road trips of my youth, but I do enjoy the creature comforts of my trips today. One thing that hasn’t changed is my desire to travel and fish, the road trip remains a constant in my fishing life.
My new essentials
Fly fishing gear is constantly evolving and no two anglers have the same set-up when it comes to essential gear for the river. Of course, there are the very basics which everyone seems to carry, but I think that universal list might be incredibly short. Outside of nippers, hemostats, and floatant I think if you quizzed 10 anglers on what their other essential pieces of gear are you would get 10 different lists. The dry fly only guys don’t bother with split shot or strike indicators. Float fisherman have no need for wading staffs or small landing nets and lake anglers have all manner of funky sinking lines, tips, and other gear that stream fisherman leave at home. I was thinking the other day how my own essential gear has changed over time. As a fishing guide I need what I need, but I don’t want to lug around a bunch of extra stuff that is rarely, if ever used. I strive for efficiency with my gear. I would much rather have room for an extra box of flies than six different styles of indicator and latest knot tying tool. That said, there are some surprising things that have crept onto my list and I now don’t know what I would do without them.
The most recent addition is a set of permanent markers. I use these to modify the color of existing flies all the time. They’re great if you need to turn a hare’s ear olive during a green drake hatch or touch up a tan hopper to the yellow naturals you see everywhere. Even shading gold beads to black when fishing to ultra-picky trout. It has come to the point where I even tie certain flies quite generic knowing that I will color them up before I fish them. That set of makers is in my guide bag year round, no exceptions. Another recent addition to my gear kit is the Rio versileaders. These are great sink-tip leader systems that have a quick loop to loop connection. Now when we want to fish streamers instead of having to switch spools or reels we can quickly swap out a dry fly set-up for a streamer sink-tip set up in minutes. That saves valuable space in my gear kit and time on the water. The other evolution in my kit focuses on floatant. For years I only carried the standard liquid floatant in the small bottle. It works well in most situations but when I’m guiding I absolutely need my flies to float well all the time. The liquid doesn’t work at all with certain materials like CDC and it doesn’t help much with flies that have been “slimed” after catching a fish or two. That forced me to change flies a lot when the fishing was good and there were times when I ran out of fresh bugs and my clients had to make do with poor floating patterns. Now I have at least three different floatants with me at all times, the standard liquid, a special homemade concoction, and Simizaki Dry-Shake powder. Many of us live for great dry fly fishing and there’s no reason to miss out because you can’t keep your fly on the surface. My fly fishing gear kit is still relatively simple but it’s important to keep an open mind to new ideas because you could find something small that will greatly improve your fishing success.
Spring/Fall Gear Kit
It is hard for a lot of anglers to know what to bring and how to store it on their Montana fly fishing trip. Some folks bring too much while others show up with too little. If we boil it down to the essentials there are 3 things you never want to be on the river in Montana; cold, wet, or burned. I always carry quality rain gear, an extra jacket, and sunscreen whether it is March 1st or August 15th. What you bring on your fishing trip is important, but how you bring it is not to be overlooked either. A dry bag is the best way to carry your gear. Fishing out of a drift boat typically affords plenty of dry storage but if you find yourself in a raft there may not be any dry storage at all. Having your own dry bag will ensure your gear stays safe, and it keeps all your stuff in one place so you don’t forget a jacket or camera in your guide’s boat at the end of the day. I really like the Sea to Summit dry bags because they are so light weight.
So what exactly should you bring on your Montana flyfishing trip? I have two basic set-ups, one for the spring/fall seasons and one for summer. During spring and fall we are typically wearing waders and try to layer appropiately for the weather forecast. My dry bag during those seasons holds a warm hat, heavy rain jacket, packable jacket like a Patogonia Nano Puff, sunscreen, Buff, and at least one pair of fingerless gloves but usually two pairs. The key is staying warm and dry and this gear will do just that in virtually any conditions.
Summertime river gear
During summer the essential gear list changes a little, but not much. You will likely wet wade during a summer Montana Fly fishing trip so you will trade the waders for good water sandals. It is still important to make sure you stay warm and dry so a quality lightweight rainjacket and rain pants are a must along with a packable jacket. I have seen a hot 85 degree day turn sketchy when a thunderstorm rolled in with heavy rain, wind, and a 20 degree temp. drop. If you’re not prepared for that then a great day on the river can turn miserable in heartbeat. Of course, sunscreen is a must and a Buff or similar sunshade will keep the sun off your neck and face. These are just the essentials to keep you safe and comfortable on the river, but your dry bag can also hold your camera, wallet, and smart phone all in one place. Just remember it is better to have something with you and not need it than need it and not have it with you.