Fish On!

By Hayley Connoly-Newman

I was not raised in an active hunting or fishing home. In fact the entire sportsmen community, especially involved in conservation, was completely foreign to me until I moved to Montana and started working for a conservation organization focused on engaging sportsmen. Working with so many passionate hunters and anglers, in addition to living near some of the most famous blue ribbon trout streams in the country, quickly sparked an insatiable curiosity to try and haul a trout out of one of these rivers. Of course I quickly realized that for many this was not just a hobby, but a culture, a lifestyle, dare I say a religion? Bottom line, these devotees are really into fish. The intensity, strong opinions and vast knowledge can be inspiring for a novice angler, but at the same time can be extremely intimidating and overwhelming. I can’t begin to recount how many times I have walked into a fly shop and felt like a complete neophyte. There is always the awkward silence between myself and the fly shop attendant, while he tries to figure out if I have any idea what I am doing. Meanwhile, I’m like a moth to the flame and get distracted by the astounding diversity of colorful and sparkly flies, losing all focus of why I went to the shop in the first place.

My past fishing experiences had been fun, but the day had always ended with no fish. I would tell myself that it was all about the experience, but there are only so many times a rookie angler can keep their spirits high before he or she loses all hope of ever catching anything but twigs and moss. I felt that I just needed to catch one fish to renew my faith in the sport. The only fish I had ever caught was when I was eight years old. My dad took me to the local reservoir and I hooked a small rainbow on a spinner reel. It was a great day, and we took the small fish home to enjoy the days catch. My dad’s best intentions soon became a nightmare when, after filleting the fish and finding roe, I took it upon myself to scream murder and proclaimed that we had killed a mama and all her babies. A few tears were shed that day, and the experience cancelled any future fishing expeditions for a number of years. Fast forward almost 20 years and I have a new found respect for fishing, especially fly fishing. The graceful nature of the cast, the knowledge of both the river and fish and the overall skill the sport requires are admirable.

I have learned basic casting skills and some knot tying, but the one thing eluding my fishing experience was the catch. I figured that the more I went out, the greater chance I had of catching a fish even if I was throwing my rod around like crazy, so in March of last year I pulled on the waders and stepped into the cool clear waters of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. One lost nymph and untangling some nasty knots later, we found an area that we knew there were fish. After roughly 45 minutes, I was reeling in my line to recast when I felt tension on the end. “Drats, got the weight stuck in the rocks again”, I thought to myself. But suddenly the tension on the other end of the line started moving, darting left and right. Fish on! At this point my memory becomes hazy, and a strange euphoric glow surrounds the next five minutes. I reeled in the fish with the helpful coaching of my friend, with my excitement and voice raising an octave for every foot the fish came closer. On the end of the line was a twelve inch whitefish, darting and jumping in and out of the water, its silver sides gleaming in the sun.

If I had pulled a trout out of the water that day it would have been momentous, but I can honestly say that I was just as excited to see that little whitefish on the end of the line. To finally experience the thrill of reeling in a fish, freeing the hook from its mouth and letting it go back into the cool depths of the river is beyond words. My next goal is to reel in a trout, whether it be a rainbow, cutty, brown or bull.

My journey of learning how to fish has made me realize a couple of important points. I’m sure the longer I spend in the water the more nuanced and specific my goals will become, but for now, any fish will do. I suppose that is the beauty of fishing. There will always be a new challenge, a new goal, and the small victories will keep you coming back for more. The same can be said for conservation. Of course I would love to win every battle over access rights, keep large tracts of land intact and roadless, and improve habitat for all animals, but it won’t all happen at the same time or the first try. I must be realistic and set small goals. As my colleagues and I achieve those smaller goals, new challenges will arise and the goals will become more focused and refined. The main thing to remember is to keep trying, whether it is the rookie angler hoping for their first catch, or the conservationist fighting for sportsmen’s rights.

The second point is the importance of mentoring, not only for kids but also for adults. No matter how challenging or ultimately humbling, I try new activities every chance I get. I don’t have the money to spend on a guide, and most of my friends that are accomplished anglers are working on the river. This makes it hard, really hard in fact, to get a foot in the door and gain a solid foundation in basic skills. I suggest if you find yourself with extra time and know anyone that wants to get outside, whether it be wading, floating, for a short afternoon, or a dawn to dusk day, invite them along. I can guarantee that they will appreciate it. To witness a new angler getting hooked on a sport you love is something not to be missed. And who knows, you may be able to partake in the raw excitement, overwhelming joy, or complete euphoria that comes with reeling in that first fish.

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Hellgate Hunters and Anglers
Our Mission is to conserve Montana's wildlife, wild places, and fair-chase hunting and fishing heritage.