Where to Get Hooked Into Flathead Fly Fishing

Chatting with experts at a local fly shop can pay dividends for you, and the next person to cast a line

By Mike Kordenbrock
Nelson's Spring Creek. Beacon file photo

The pursuit of fish on open water is rarely a bad idea during a Flathead summer, but even good ideas can become better with refinement. 

It’s a safe bet that some of the best experts on how improve your odds of hooking a fish can be found in some of the Flathead Valley’s fly shops, small businesses dispersed throughout the area specializing in gear, guided trips and expert tips about where to go and what to bring.  

Stopping into a fly shop is a valuable leg of any trip for both aspiring and experienced anglers wanting to learn more about the region and its aquatic offerings. But a stop into a fly shop can be about much more, too. 

Hilary Hutcheson, the owner of Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, said that fly shops are where you can get oriented to the regulations, responsibilities, ethics and etiquette that come with fishing in this corner of Montana. They’re the kinds of conversations that shop staff will readily have with customers who want to learn about being a responsible visitor. 

Hutcheson has been guiding for decades and said that she’s seen the pendulum swing from people wanting to catch the biggest fish, or the most fish, to wanting to catch a meaningful fish. One such special fish for this portion of Montana is the westslope cutthroat trout, a fish that is native to the Flathead River ecosystem, according to Hutchinson.

But what happens when you catch that particular fish on a guided trip may be a surprise to some, in that the fish will be caught and released, and may only briefly come out of the water, if at all, in an effort to lessen the amount of stress on the animal for the sake of its health. 

For Nick Haas, the assistant manager of Lakestream Fly Shop in Whitefish, clients sometimes show up wanting to relive the experiences of Brad Pitt in the 1992 movie adaptation of Norman Maclean’s novella  “A River Runs Through It,” but the reality is this area has limited opportunities for wader fishing, and Lakestream doesn’t offer guided wader trips. 

But the hard-sided drift boats that Lakestream typically uses mean that you can wear comfortable clothes. And you should. Haas said that people often underestimate the steady stream of wind they might be exposed to out on the water. He also advises people to wear sunglasses and a hat, check if the guide will have sunscreen, and to bring extra clothing, including a jacket in case it gets cold or rains. Weather can, and does change out on the water, and Haas said Lakestream guides rarely encounter people who bring too much extra stuff for their trip. 

Most guided fishing trips in the Flathead come in the form of full or half day trips, typically with two people to a boat plus a guide. Those trips often include snacks for a half day, or lunch for a full day. Both Haas and Hutcheson said that candid discussions within the fly shop or outfitter about the experience you want from your guided trip can go a long way towards making it an enjoyable outing. Hutcheson emphasized that it’s oftentimes better to call in and chat, rather than simply book online. 

“So much of a successful day happens in reservations,” she said. 

And even if guides aren’t offering to help you catch the Flathead Lake monster, or transform you into a young Brad Pitt, something about getting out on the water and casting a line nevertheless manages to deliver a thrill. 

“The excitement is always there,” Haas said.

Fly fishing along the South Fork Flathead River. Beacon file photo

The following is a list of some area fly shops, but is by no means exhaustive. There are also numerous outfitters in the area without a physical store whose information can be found online. Information about fishing licenses and regulations can also be found on the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website at fwp.mt.gov.

Arends Fly Shop

514 Kokanee Circle, Columbia Falls



[email protected]

Bigfork Anglers

405 Bridge St., Bigfork



[email protected]

Lakestream Fly Shop

669 Spokane Ave., Whitefish



[email protected]

Lary’s Fly & Supply

604 Nucleus Ave., Columbia Falls



[email protected]

True Water Fly Shop

35 Fourth St. W., Kalispell



[email protected]

This article was originally published in Glacier Journal, our annual guide to summer in Northwest Montana. Pick up a copy on newsstands across the region.

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