Here To Fish, Not to Dress Up

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – Bob Arends thinks you might catch some trout if you stop making fly fishing so complicated.

Walk into his store and you’ll get what he means. He has two, maybe three, nets for sale. He doesn’t have the latest state-of-the-art vests or much of anything else in the way of clothing. He doesn’t think it costs $1,000 to catch a fish.

But he does have a lot of flies, each one meticulously tied by him. Good flies are essential, but Arends could do without the rest.

“Are you here to fish or are you here to dress up?” Arends said while leaning over his fly-tying vice at his shop in Columbia Falls. “That’s what we’re known for here – fishing.”

Arends runs a fly shop on the eastern edge of Columbia Falls and his wife operates a convenience store next door. The convenience store is called Gas and Cast. Between his wife, daughter, son-in-law, father and others, both stores are almost completely family-run. Arends offers hunting and fishing guide services, which the family helps out with as well.

Arends is the head guide and sole fly tyer. His reputation as an expert tyer is well-established, so much so that he was asked to hold tying seminars at the recent Federation of Fly Fishers’ International Fly Fishing Show and Conclave held in Whitefish. Some of the world’s best tyers were invited.

“I took that as an honor,” Arends said. “When you’re tying with the best of the best, you’re doing something right.”

Bob Arends expertly weaves fibers around a fly at his shop in Columbia Falls. “Here’s a new one,” Arends said. “I haven’t named it yet.”

Arends, who can be gruffly outspoken yet outwardly friendly at the same time, has fished most of his life and tied flies since he 12. He cares deeply about fly fishing and the role it can play in family. Everybody in his immediate family fly fishes and their vacations are often planned around the sport.

Modern fly fishing, or “techno-fishing,” Arends said, is in a sad state. People are told they have to drop thousands of dollars just to get into the sport and then nobody tells them how to fish properly, he said. He offers free casting classes for anyone who asks, weather permitting.

But beyond casting and choosing gear, Arends said even the concept of catch and release is skewed today. He doesn’t usually touch the fish nor does he use a net, saying that “a net has nothing to do with catch and release – a net has to do with retail.” When he or a client catches a fish, he removes the fly from the trout’s mouth with forceps without his hand touching the fish.

He thinks too many trout that are mishandled or roughly tossed around in a net eventually die, as the protective slime on their body is rubbed away. He certainly doesn’t take pictures with the fish.

“At what point does that fish take priority over your own personal ego?” Arends said.

Along with fishing, fly tying is Arends’ other passion. He has aisles and walls full of hackle and material for tying, far more than one would see at any other fly shop. For home tyers, his shop is the place to go. Though he has recently been busy building an addition to the convenience store for sporting goods, he still tries to get in five or six days of fly tying per week. In the winter he puts in 10-hour days, six days a week, pumping out up to 20,000 flies in a season.

Bob Arends starts tying another fly at his shop in Columbia Falls. Arends said he also ties batches of flies for special order.

“It isn’t that I have this vast selection of material,” Arends said. “More importantly, I know what most of the material actually does.”

Arends is vocal, often bitterly so, about Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks policies on trout management. He’s similarly disappointed with many actions by the U.S. Forest Service, which he says is making it hard today to access rivers for public fishing. But despite the problems he sees with the state of modern fly fishing, he hasn’t lost any of his passion for the sport or the fertile Flathead area that provides his favorite waters. While he does guide trips on other rivers such as the Blackfoot, he doesn’t generally see the need to stray far from home.

“Why are you traveling anywhere when the fishing’s great out your backdoor?” Arends said. “How do you do better than great?”