Montana vacations are a dream for anyone who loves fly fishing, or horseback riding, or hiking, or wildlife viewing, or...we could go on, but we'll stop there.
Let's just say that Montana tourism is all about outdoor recreation and outdoor adventures, and it definitely delivers. But for our first vacation in Montana, we had one thing in mind - fly fishing.
Okay, actually two things, fly fishing and feasting our eyes on some seriously big views. Coming from Washington DC, we are lacking in the kind of hugely expansive views that we figured a state nicknamed "Big Sky Country" would deliver.
Montana is a fly fishing mecca. It's the home of a whole host of famous trout rivers - the Madison, the Yellowstone, the Gallatin, the Beaverhead, the Missouri - and many more that are not so famous.
This state has one of the largest wild trout populations in the country. While other states rely on hatcheries to populate their rivers and streams, Montana's trout are healthy and spunky enough to reproduce on their own.
To protect this unique resource, catch-and-release fly fishing with barbless hooks is practically a religion here.
As if Montana didn't already have enough, Yellowstone National Park is a major Montana tourism attraction. Even though the vast majority of the park is in Wyoming, both the North and West entrances to the park are in Montana, and many of the most popular fly fishing spots are right near the Park's northern border with Montana.
Yellowstone is well-know for excellent fly fishing. The Madison River and the Yellowstone River flow right into the Park, and the Firehole River is completely contained in the Park. And then there are the creeks - Slough Creek, Pebble Creek, Soda Butte Creek, all popular spots for fly fishermen.
As we started reading about Montana vacations and the many options for fly fishing, we quickly became overwhelmed and frustrated. We wanted to do it all.
There is so much to do, so much to see, and so much water to fish. The options are endless: the Madison, the Yellowstone, the Gallatin, the spring creeks, wade fishing, float fishing, lake fishing, horseback fishing trips...we realized we would have to focus.
With so many excellent rivers to fish, it's not enough to know you want to fly fish in Montana. It's important to narrow down a location.
We were only planning on staying for a week, Saturday to Saturday, and we wanted to fly fish and visit Yellowstone National Park. The idea of driving from place to place and staying in a different hotel each night didn't appeal to us (we wanted to relax some on this trip), so we looked for a home base that would be convenient to excellent fishing and Yellowstone.
We researched a lot of options, but Livingston and the Paradise Valley won out. This seemed like an area that would give us plenty of fly fishing opportunities combined with some culture, fine dining, and those beautiful, wide-open views we were craving. (And we were not disappointed.)
We read a lot about Montana ranch vacations in and around the Paradise Valley and dreamed of a luxurious, all-inclusive vacation where everything is taken care for us. We considered staying in one of the many B&Bs around Livingston, and we researched hotels, motels, and rental homes in the area.
In the end we opted for a couple of nights at the Murray Hotel in downtown Livingston and then spent the rest of our Montana vacation in a cabin near the Paradise Valley.
Considering we had never fished in Montana, a couple of days of guided fishing seemed like a good investment. We figured we would fish with a guide for a couple of days and then fish on our own in the Park and around Livingston the rest of the time.
We found a fly fishing guide company in Livingston and booked a day of fishing on Armstrong's Spring Creek and a day of drift boat fishing on the Yellowstone River.
We flew from Washington DC to Bozeman's Gallatin Field Airport.
Read our page on Montana Airports for more information on Bozeman and the other airport that is often cheaper to fly into.
Biggest thrill at the Bozeman airport: There were real live cowboys there, just going about there business, picking people up or dropping people off. We don't get to see many cowboys in Washington DC. On a rare occasion we might see somebody wearing a cowboy hat, or a pair of wranglers, or cowboy boots, but never all three at the same time.
The Bozeman airport was full of cowboys, fly fishermen (and women), and hunters. We saw lots of people carrying fly rod tubes and bags and about as many with gun cases.
Unless you are staying at a ranch or other resort where they take care of your transportation, it's very important to have a car or SUV. Montana is a state of great driving distances - a 40-minute drive is considered short by local standards.
We reserved a Standard SUV on Hotwire a few weeks before our trip and ended up with a Nissan Pathfinder (plenty of room for two people) at about half the price it would have cost us to rent directly through a car rental agency.
The majority of roads we drove on were paved and in good condition, but the road back to the cabin we rented was gravel and wash-boarded in places and the roads we took to access the Boulder River were gravel and mud and wash-boarded. The SUV was a good choice for us, but had we been fishing with a guide the whole time, we would have been okay renting a car.
With Hotwire, you reserve the class of vehicle you want and agree to the price and pick-up location and they let you know what rental agency you are using after you have paid. The only downside I can see to renting a car with Hotwire is that you lose some flexibility. You can't change or cancel your reservation once you've made it, but their policy says they do make allowances for delayed or canceled flights.
Here is a list of the gear we packed for fishing:
We bought our flies in Montana.