Fishin’ The Beav: A day with Tight Line Adventures

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 “When it comes to the Big Hole and the Beaverhead, people ‘round here love these rivers,” Justin says, pulling fishing line into his mouth to tie another triple surgeon’s knot. “And they don’t just ‘love’ the rivers—they’ll get in fistfights over ‘em. That’s real love.” He fishes through a gear box the size of a microwave, hunting for the perfect fly.

During high-school career fairs, Justin Hartman would joke that he’d like to get paid to go hunting and fishing all day. His guidance counselors would laugh and roll their eyes—but Justin is the one laughing now. After opening up Tight Line Adventures six years ago, he and his wife Sarah have made a big name for themselves guiding countless fishermen down the Beaverhead, Big Hole, and other rivers around Dillon. By the time he opened their expedition lodge in 2010 and began working as a duck-hunting guide, Justin had definitely achieved his high-school dream.

“And it makes sense: the Beav is one of the best trout rivers in the world,” Justin continues. “It’s worth fighting for.” Sitting on the tailgate of his pickup at Pipe Organ Bridge, Justin ties David’s line with a double dropper rig, giving us details about the local water and the roughly five million fish around his hometown. After playing ball for Missoula in college, he’s still got that ex-football player build, topped with a crop of short brown hair and a big smile that shows up easily. He talks with the kind of smooth, good-ol’-boy drawl that comes from years of drinking whiskey on a porch while watching the sun set over the mountains.

He takes us down to the water to show us the proper roll cast for his double dropper. The third time the line hits water, a feisty brown buzzes away with his fly. The rod bends and he laughs. “Well, jeez. I catch a lot of fish… you wanna reel it in?”

Pushing off, we settle into our positions in the boat, pulling out line, casting a few times—and then I feel it. There’s not just warm, but hot sunshine cooking down onto the back of my neck. The landscape is still a dingy brown and there are still baby snow banks hiding under the willows by the river, but the sizzling skin above my collar means one thing: summer is back. Lazy days floating down the Madison, daylong hikes through the Gallatin, getting lost in Hyalite—it’s all just around the corner.

“Jesus!” David says, pulling me out of my daydream. “Look at all the fish!”

Buzzing under the boat, there’s at least 20, 50… no, at least 100 fish swarming below us heading up-river. Maybe more. Maybe hundreds more. Thick clouds of fish shadows rip past, and I’m tempted to dunk the net in and pull out a dozen or two. Justin sees me eyeing it, and he just smiles. “We spooked ‘em with the boat, but don’t worry, there’s more. Promise.”

Downstream, Justin points out the best buckets and gives us a running commentary of casting advice as we float:

“Fishin’ on the left here boys… toss it just there past the slackwater… little mend, perfect, that’ll fish… oh, see her there? She’s a pig!…  come on fish, come on… boo fish! Come on, eat it… Come on baby, bite my fly…”

Once we hit our rhythm, our reels buzz as foot-long browns and rainbows rocket off with our flies—“Let her run but keep tension, keep your rod up, yup, just like that”—and it’s hard not to laugh. The warm, pre-summer sun cooking down through big blue skies, healthy fish coming in fast and hot, and plenty of miles of water left… Dreams of spending my whole summer just like this flash through my mind.

We pull the boat toward shore to sit down for stir-fry chicken and cold beer for lunch, and Justin gives us a little history of the water. “After A River Runs Through It came out in ’92 or ’93, fly fishing in Montana just exploded. Just went nuts. Thankfully, a few people got together and we started on a permit system, limiting the amount of boats out on the water.” David smiles and nods, but he keeps turning back to stare at the river.

We hop back in the boat and pull in a dozen more fish, but a few miles down, Grasshopper Creek is already victim to the spring run-off and its confluence with the Beaverhead turns our crystal blue water into chocolate milk. To give the fish a chance to see our flies, Justin ties on big, bright-red worms—but the water is too cloudy and our hot streak comes to an end.

Really, the fishing could’ve cooled down hours ago and I still would’ve been ecstatic. For the last mile, I just kick back with a beer and smile. They say a bad day of fishing beats a good day working, and I’m inclined to agree. David manages to pull a few more out of the murky water, grinning wide each time another fish wriggles in his net.

“Don’t you get tired of rowing incompetent fishermen down the river day after day?” I ask Justin as we duck under a bridge. He smiles and shakes his head. “No sir, I love it. Really, I wouldn’t trade it for the world… and you’re not incompetent, trust me. I had a client that forgot how to tell his left from right all day long,” he laughs. “I kept saying, ‘No, your other left. The boat’s left. Your Montana left!’ Nothing worked.”

By the time we hit the pullout, our hunger for fish has finally been eclipsed by our hunger for food. Once we load up the boat, we head into Dillon and stop by the world-famous taco bus for a post-float snack. After a round of chicken burritos the size of footballs, we thank Justin and head back to town—promising each other that there’d be plenty more trips to Dillon over the coming summer.

Check out tightlinemontana.com for more info.

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