When I'm asked why I came to Montana, my answer is "I always wanted to be a cowboy"........
While I was in a university in Tokyo, Japan, I started fly-fishing. Back then (and still is), the stereotypical fly-fishing in Japan was to fish small mountain streams for native Yamame (indigenous trout with very silky touch) and Iwana (char like brook trout). Before I got into that, I learned to fish carp in a Tokyo suburb river. That was really fun and I still think that was the very foundation of my fly-fishing. Carp weren't dumb. I had to learn precise presentation and mending. And the first fly pattern I learned was a "dry white yarn egg" that imitated foams that they were rising to. Once hooked, carp were so strong and ran like there would be no next minutes!! Even to this day, this tug-of-war experience helps me bring some big trout that I encounter once in a while.
I came to Montana State University - Bozeman in 2000. I studied Animal Science and graduated with a Masters' degree. Of course, I had known that this was the area where "A River Runs Through It" was filmed. However, I had a strong will and mission that I came to study and pursue my degree. I studied very hard. For some courses, I even covered undergraduate levels (by myself). Not to mention, I kept learning and developing my English as well. I wrote a Masters' thesis and graduated in December 2002. During this time, I didn't have money for hobbies either. So fly-fishing in the Big Sky Country had to be paused (little did I know I would come back in several years later). But I'm very proud of myself studying so hard. If the carp fishing in Tokyo is my backbone of my fly-fishing, these two years of hard work is the backbone and fundamental of my American life.
After graduation, in 2003, the next chapter of my life started. Like any other American students, I had hard times and difficulties to find a job and settle somewhere. I came to know a rancher in northeastern Montana and worked for his ranch. It was a short gig till I could find something more viable. Indeed that went on for the next several months. I was even on the road with my old Toyota and hopped around friends' houses and motels too. It wasn't a pleasant time of my life. I ended up in western Nevada, near California border. I got a job as an artificial insemination technician for dairy (milking) heifers. This was where I was finally able to settle in. After two years, I moved to central California with a more specified position/company as an AI technician. It was a career advancement however, the life and job in California were very hard and wouldn't be my things though I tried. This gig lasted just over a year. I considered moving back to Montana and would try a cowboy again. Timing was everything and I came to know the other company in the industry. They offered me a position in eastern Washington and I decided to give one more try. In January 2007, I moved to Yakima Valley in Washington and settled in a town called Prosser.
Looking back, the funny thing was that, both in Nevada and California, I was close to popular trout fishing streams/destinations that I learned later on with magazines. But then again, I didn't have time. Yakima Valley and eastern WA were not as big as Montana but it was much better than California. Yakima River runs through Prosser and I learned lots of fly-fishing could be done in the area. Job was much less stressful. With that finally I got money and time to resume my fly-fishing!!
I fished around eastern WA streams. At that point, I wasn't much interested in lakes that were plenty in the area (I often see some of those lakes in recent magazine articles). I first went to Rocky Ford Creek in Ephrata. It's a unique fishery. I recall, the very first time I went there = fly-fishing in a very very while = I had no clues of what I was doing and fell into the muskrat hole. But that was a wakeup call. From the second time and on, I got a hang of the stream and fly-fishing in general. Very soon, I got a very big triploid trout!!
At the beginning, I wasn't quite interested in Yakima River, which was considered one of top blue ribbon trout streams in the state. Perhaps because it looked too big for wading around. Instead I was attracted to some of its tributaries. I immediately and immensely fell in love with Westslope Cutthroat trout.
I also camped and fished a couple of similar sized streams in further east. I also resumed fly-tying. As all of my previous tying experience was long gone, I thought I might be able to tie right-handed. Not really.......... I tie left-handed as I've been and as I do many other things in life.
Life was good. However, something was missing.......... Brown trout!! As far as I knew and researched, there was no brown trout streams nearby or in WA. I started dreaming of catching brown trout. Suddenly it occurred to me that why wouldn't I visit Montana, where I lived but couldn't fish back then, and try brown trout........... September, 2007, I took a leave from the job and visited West Yellowstone, MT. I hired a guide. I fished a couple of Yellowstone National Park streams (technically Wyoming but who cares) and caught a brown trout!!
In 2008, 2009, and 2010, I made lots of trips like this. I visited West Yellowstone and Livingston. I hired guide service to fish Madison and Yellowstone Rivers. From West Yellowstone, I fished Madison, Firehole, Gibbon Rivers and a few other waters within Yellowstone Park. In Livingston, I fished spring creeks = DePuy's, Armstrong's, and Nelson's.
I kept fishing aforementioned eastern WA streams too. Plus I finally started to learn and fish Yakima River in and around Ellensburg.
My fly tying kept improving through those years. I don't recall I bought flies (except some samples so I can mimic). I very much supplied my own flies for my own fishing.
I fished with nymphs (bobber & two nymphs!), streamers (articulated ones with sinking lines), and then dry-fly fishing, of course.
There are so many memories and photographs during this period, which I had been summarizing on a blog: https://leftyangler.blogspot.com (this was formerly linked under Blog/Fishing Report. As years passed by, this format grew too old. I intend to keep it as long as Blogspot itself exists.)
Again, life was good. Job seemed steady. But the life continuously evolves whether we like or not, or whether we intend or not. By summer 2010, I felt I was repeating the similar patterns, almost all like routines, for fishing in eastern WA and visiting MT/YNP. Perhaps I would look further west toward the coast and try steelhead and salmon? Then my employment conditions changed. I don't go details but one thing I can mention is that there had been no improvements in dairy industry, been involved for 7 full years. Same cycles (of dramas and stories) that I grew tired of. I resigned in October 2010. Of course, my fly-fishing was the part of this decision. In September, I was fishing one of tributaries of Yakima River. With 6-wt rod, streamers, and full-sinking line, I was targeting larger Westslope Cutthroat. By larger, I mean 14 to 16 inches that look good on the blog!! As I was stripping streamers, I felt I snagged a log or rock. Next moment, this supposed log started to move upstream.........!? It was a humongous fish!! Brown trout!? No, there couldn't be. Then.....it must be salmon!!?? My knees buckled like Elvis Presley from overexcitement and fear. I chased him upstream, rushing on the bank. It wasn't an ideal stretch for "beaching". Certainly my net hanging in the back was useless. Yet I found a tiny break on the bank where I could pull him in, otherwise I wouldn't know if there would be any more structures like that upstream and getting afraid of line or knot breaking. I was able to drag him in........ It was a fresh run King Salmon with the scent of ocean.
It measured 34-inch long and estimated 20-pound or so. I was fishing with a short leader composed of 20- and 15-pound test plus the streamer was tied on a salmon hook. From the mouth of Columbia River to where I was would be over 400 miles on the road distance. Besides that immense distance, he must have had passed more than several dams/ladders and all kinds of fishing tricks posed by human. I was so moved. And I felt "this is it. I caught the most of fish imaginable and available in this part of WA".
I was ready to move on for the new chapter of my life........
I wanted to move back to Montana. Through my fishing trips, I knew Bozeman had been developing (still going on), not what I knew, and rental property was more expensive than other towns. Also I learned that West Yellowstone had been basically a tourism town and would be very hard to just move in and make living there. I knew I wanted to live in Livingston, which had not been much different from what I remembered. I found a small rental house. I did not have jobs. I saved up some money during those four years. I would be OK for a year or two. I could fish around and see what would happen. I did have some ideas of what I could do and what might work for me though. My original idea was to be involved in beef/ranch breeding. This would be a seasonal job, spring and early summer, may be a limited amount in winter. I relied on a few connections through my previous employment and get to know some people. This seemed to be a viable "something to do" for a short period of a year. What could I do for the rest of the year? How about..............guiding? Sure, I would have been a very good fly-fisher in amature class but could I try? I knew this would be another seasonal job even if (BIG if) it would work out through summer. "You live only once" - that's the ultimate truth in our life. I decided to give a shot. It may not work out for me and I may have to look for a job, including getting back to cattle industry. Whatever would happen, if I could swear to myself that I gave my best, there would be nothing to regret or waste. I talked around a couple of fly-shops and outfitters and I obtained a Montana state guide license in the spring of 2011. I purchased a drift boat (and trailer) as well.
The year 2011.............. it was historically one of the highest snow accumulations and consequently highest flows in all the Montana streams. Yellowstone River was not ready to float until mid August. Even long time guides/outfitters were struggling to get guide trips in June and July. It was very hard to be a "new guy". I only had one official guide trip that summer. I still had some money from my saving and a cattle breeding job in that spring. All I could do was to go and fish Yellowstone National Park streams and float Yellowstone River with a few guides I befriended to improve my rowing and get to know the river.
It was miserable and disappointing. However one chance meeting changed the course of my guiding pursuit (it wasn't a career at all at that point)................
Toward the end of 2011 season, at one of fly-shops in town, I met Tom Travis. I had not really known who he was but I had already read some of his online articles. I even printed out and highlighted some. He's been guiding the area since before I was even born.
Now, clock back a bit. Though I talked to some shops and outfitters in the area, I really did not have any mentor figures. I did ask them some questions about fishing and guiding but their answers? Nothing useful. They may not have seen me as a guide, may not have wanted to associate with me, or perhaps may have wanted to keep certain things secret. But, to be blunt and honest, they just didn't seem to have answers or wouldn't take guiding seriously as a "professional" job. "Professional guides", that's what the most shop websites say, isn't it?
Tom was different from the very beginning.
Even to this day - over a decade in business - among all the people I have known or met, he's one of a very few who takes fly-fishing and guiding professionally. Besides his years of rock-solid experience on streams, he has knowledge and "words".
I met him for a few times and finally asked him if he could teach me what it takes to be a guide. He took me to DePuy's Spring Creek..............
Clock back to my teenage years, I was a difficult student for teachers - teachers I didn't like. I was good at all the subjects in the class. I could perceive the essence of theories or formulas. Some teachers recognized my ability and treated me accordingly. Those teachers, I respected. While others, their brains or knowledge seemed not much different from mine. I didn't listen to them at all. This attitude - not much has changed............. That is, I choose that I want whom to be my teacher. I wanted Tom to be my teacher.
Tom gave me words and idioms, that is, MANTRAS.
"Guiding is not a 9-to-5 job".
"Always have a plan and a backup plan".
"Learning & observation will never end".
Among all the wisdoms he has given to me and conversations we have had over a decade, following two mantras still stand out and are deeply notched in me.
"Spring creek is a classroom of fly-fishing".
A small stream filled with wild trout and abundant insects, there are so much to learn and observe. Everything is palpable and crystal clear - why & how it happened, including your successes and failures.
Another reason I took this word too seriously is that I needed my niche to get into the guiding world. There were hundreds of guides who had been rowing rivers way too ahead of me. But I realized there weren't many who liked or were really good at spring creeks. See if I could get in the game.
"If you can learn to read the waters of Yellowstone River, you can travel the world and be a successful fly angler anywhere in the world" .
This is a mantra originally given to Tom from his mentor/friend Don Williams - Livingston's legendary guide (I have not had an opportunity to meet him).
Even if I want to be a spring creek specialist, as long as I am guiding in and around Livingston, the mighty Yellowstone River has to be learned. After all spring creeks are the mere part of the Yellowstone. Boy, this is another body of water where "learning and observation" will never end. Considering the length, sections, seasons, and many other factors, in fact, mastering YR could be harder than spring creeks - if there's such a thing as a Master of YR. I know a few but even they can sometimes have hard times.
Fishing aside, rowing and navigating YR are equally important. This wild river can oftentimes be very mean to boaters. All the aspiring guides have to go through each sections, from Gardiner to Livingston and further east toward Big Timber, before they would actually take clients. Yet, in spite of this effort, unfortunately this river changes almost each year, dictated by runoff and some other factors. If one would be away from certain sections for a few seasons, it would be a totally different river.
If Tom's words are my mantra, his book is definitely a bible of the Yellowstone River.
The winter of 2011 to 2012, I took a seasonal job as a dishwasher in a resort. I gritted my teeth and swore I would be successful as a guide next season and onward. At the same time, I bought a Winter Pass at DePuy's Spring Creek and fished as many days as I could. It wasn't really meant to catch trout. I was there to learn the creek from top to bottom and experimented various methods and flies at each spot/section. I realized that I started to perceive things differently or see things I couldn't see previously.
This became my guide resume.
I did this winter pass for total 5 winters. Total numbers of outings would be over 300 days. That is quite a number under my wader belt!!
In 2012, I talked to several shops in the area. Parks' Fly Shop in Gardiner offered me lots of trips. Richard Parks is one of the oldest and longest outfitters in the area. Working for his shop and learning from him were quite opportunities. Besides river floats on "Upper River" (YNP boundary to above Yankee Jim Canyon), I started to take trips in Yellowstone National Park too. Here again, "reading waters & colors of Yellowstone River" was very important. On top of Tom's initial mantra, thanks to Richard and his employees, I was able to gain experience and knowledge so quickly.
For the next few years, I took guide trips from a few other shops and outfitters. I did make living as a guide and a fly-tyer.
Guide trips on spring creeks had not come until 2013. With limited numbers of rods available per day, prime summer days booked years in advance, and rod fee on top of guide fee, hiring a guide, especially a newly buddying one, might be a bit of gamble. I kept posting my fishing on DePuy's at my blog. One by one, I started to get direct requests.
Below: my very first day of guiding on DePuy's. What a humbling experience...........
From this day on, I've been guiding anglers on spring creeks through spring and the late fall. Every season or weather of the day brings us new challenges. I've guided clients with various fishing skills and expectations. Indeed "spring creek is a classroom of fly-fishing and guiding".
By the end of 2014 season, I was getting more requests on guiding spring creeks and inquiries from Japanese fly-fishers - I was forwarding these bookings to the shops. Being an independent contractor guide was a freelance and had been a good opportunity to make friends and teams with shops and guides I worked for/with. But also there had been some problems and inconveniences. "Is it about time for me to apply and become an outfitter?" By then I learned both advantage and inconvenience of being an outfitter. Advantage is nothing but communicating directly with clients and booking trips. Inconvenience is I would put myself into the circle of competition whether I like it or not. But I have had the greatest example of outfitter, my mentor Tom. He transacted some trips for me among his busy schedules. Besides, knowing myself and my own history, I figured I would get bored and grow tired of working under the same conditions, in this case, a contractor guide. I could see benefits and advantage of being an outfitter far bigger than its potential inconvenience. It was a time to step up and to make a career advancement by my own decision and will. I applied for an outfitter license to the state agency in the fall 2014 with a hefty fee. In January 2015, I drove to the state government building, took exams, and successfully passed. Since then, LEFTY ANGLER & FLIES has been a state licensed outfitter, guide service, and fly-tying operation.
I have had a few down years: PKD, COVID, etc., but over all, I've been very content to run my own operation. I don't compare to or compete with shops or bigger outfits. I have my own operational policy and keep developing my own clientele.
I like spring creeks, YNP waters, and river floats. Since I became an outfitter, I've been attending fly-fishing shows/expos as a demonstration tyer, a speaker, and a presenter. As you know, I made a self-publication, regarding flies and trout foods for Livingston's spring creeks. Online store.
Next story is about my fly-tying.
It was quite a pastime and the great way to supply my activity. My fly tying grew quite well by 2010. Since 2011, as I tried to make a way as a guide, I started to sell flies, if I could. I brought my flies to shops in the area, inquired to some wholesale companies, set up an online catalog, etc., etc., and one of my very original patterns got a spotlight. A large and attractor soft-hackle/wet-fly, Coyoted Pheasant Soft-Hackle made a small piece in a magazine and was in a production with one of major fly companies for a few year.
As I met Tom and decided to pursue spring creeks my own repertoire, I fished DePuy's a lot and collected insects. I mimicked some spring creek patterns. Then, based on various insect samples I gathered, I started to tie prototypes and fished with them for experiments. Buzz at his Spring Creek Specialists shop on DePuy's gave me some ideas and concepts on spring creek flies. I wasn't afraid of developing new patterns and testing them on streams any more. Besides spring creeks, I did the same on Yellowstone River and Yellowstone National Park waters.
By the spring of 2013, I developed a set of flies for spring creeks and assembled foundation patterns for YNP and river floats as well. Of course, I still come up with new patterns and keep adding new patterns from shops, guides, and information (books, magazine, internet). But the foundation and criteria of fly selections for my own fishing and guiding were already established by then.
That was when I felt "stuck" or "hitting the wall" in terms of creativity and techniques regarding trout flies. I wanted to keep developing new patterns or techniques but at that point I felt I had reached the certain level and I would just repeat similar patterns/techniques over and over. I thought tying flies for other than trout might interest me and would give me new concepts and methods. How about steelhead flies? As I mentioned way above, I briefly thought about steelhead/salmon fishing in PNW. From Livingston, PNW is still a doable destination that someday I could give a try. I seemed to develop a new objective.............
Then a series of events changed the course of my interest, eventually my pursuit and even my life!!
In the spring of 2013, I went a bookstore in Bozeman to browse (or kill time) recent fly-fishing magazines. One of them had a few exclusive articles on classic flies.
One was about a step-by-step Atlantic salmon fly. Up until then, I only heard about Atlantic salmon flies and might have had seen some framed ones. I recall I had thought of them as large swinging wet-flies (which is not totally off). I purchased this issue and read repeatedly. It might be challengeable. If too difficult for me, I would have nothing to lose yet still gain some experiences. Seeing Atlantic salmon flies, I briefly guessed steelhead flies would be simplified versions for modern reproduction and actual fishing (which is not totally wrong at all either). So I decided "might as well want to learn gaudy Atlantic salmon flies".
Next, I again went to Bozeman and walked into an outdoor store. It has some locations spreading in western states and sells most kind of outdoor gears. In the Bozeman store, they have good amount of fly-fishing gears and tying materials. When I walked in there, they had a HUGE inventory reduction sale of a well-known wholesale supplier. I asked why. They told me they were changing the suppliers/vendors. I did pick up some trout fly materials but also there were many many materials for Atlantic salmon and steelhead flies such as dyed goose feathers, golden pheasant skins, dyed guinea feathers, etc., etc. I grabbed what I could find and what I thought useful.
Of course, I talked to Tom about my potential new endeavor. He just responded nonchalantly, as if he had already known, and loaned me some tying videos and books. He gave me another mantra: "If you can learn Atlantic salmon flies, your spring creek flies will be improved as well". I didn't get this much at that point................but later I did............
Based on videos and books from Tom and with some materials I bought without too much understanding, I tried to tie some!! It was very new and interesting to say the least.
The last piece of coincidences was another chance meeting like I met Tom.
In June, my guide season started on DePuy's. I showed up way ahead of my clients. Tom was already there and chatting with someone. He introduced this gentleman to me and said "he's a world-class salmon fly tyer". A few days later, I finished my trips and he came for lunch with Tom. I brought my crude attempts. He gave me critiques and gave me some tips. Now I really wanted to pursue Atlantic salmon flies and wondered if I could ask him to be my teacher.
Another few days later, I happened to borrow a book from a then neighbor.
It's a collection of Atlantic salmon flies by masters and known tyers from world wide, along with their own stories. I first flipped pages to glance. Toward the end, among American West tyers, my jaw literally dropped............... The gentleman I talked to at DePuy's was featured there...............
His name is Marvin Nolte of Bar Nunn, WY. This legendary book had already been over 20 years since its publication. Was I talking to this person?
Through the 2013 guide season, I kept thinking of Atlantic salmon fly challenges and materials I would be needing and buying after the season was over = fall till next spring. I bought enough amount of materials to get me work on fair number of patterns. Then I asked Marvin if he could inspect my flies and give me critiques. He agreed to supervise my challenge.
I feel the same regarding Marvin as with Tom. Tom must have seen so many aspiring guides who ended up giving it up after some years or at certain stages of their lives. I would imagine Marvin must have seen so many curious tyers who wanted to learn Atlantic salmon flies or even been asked to teach in various occasions but at the same time, many would have given up due to complications, difficulties, or perhaps financial reasons. I could have been one of many who would end up giving it up. In that case, I would waste Marvin's time and certainly my time and investments on materials. But if that would be the result of my 125% best effort, that would be it. Nothing personal but the fact.
October 2013, I started working on our first assignment, Green Highlander.
It was very (x 20 times) difficult, much harder than I anticipated. Well, I understood how to tie in materials and expected how it should look like "ideally", but it just wouldn't happen in spite of my book and video knowledge. Compared to trout flies, I could literally feel and see huge amount of time and materials were consumed. I asked Marvin for a tip or two = my level question. He answered me very thoroughly. And I felt I got a hang of it.
Besides, our assignment patterns, I found patterns I could try with materials I had. Up until then since my amateur years, I enjoyed my whiskey as I tied many trout flies. However, since the day I started with salmon flies, I have never had any alcohol while I am working on (eventually quit drinking entirely, that would be another story).
Through the winter of 2013-2014, my day was like this:
7am: wake up, make & drink coffee, start working on a salmon fly = halfway through or finish up what I had done the night before.
11:00am: call DePuy's Spring Creek to fish in the afternoon (and the following afternoon) with the Winter Pass, make & eat lunch, a brief rest without falling asleep.
12:30pm-1pm: check in DePuy's and fish till 4 to 4:30pm.
5 to 5:30pm: home, eat dinner, clean up, and trying not to fall asleep.
7 to 11pm: working on a salmon fly.
Afterwards: enjoy a small whiskey and sleep.
The fishing part wasn't every day but the rest of daily schedule went through winter till next spring.
Like anything else, the more I did, the better I got or the more I got a hang of it.
Through Marvin's tutorials and Atlantic salmon flies themselves, I did gain techniques and skills = how to manipulate materials. But looking back, these could be gained if one is engaged a while and actually is an easy part. What I truly gained and learned are: visual assessment and how much to know, learn, and care materials.
Besides modern books by Poul Jorgensen and Mike Radencich, I became interested in historical literature by George Kelson, T.E. Pryce-Tannatt, and so on. Eventually my interests grew into "history of fly-fishing" though nowhere close to Tom's collections and knowledge.
I became so attracted and engaged with Atlantic salmon flies and by the time I had to tie and restock my trout flies for the 2014 season, I even felt sad.
I needed a few small adjustments as I was staring back at considerably small flies. Then I felt how easy and less technical it would be, compared to my new pursuit..........
But as I sat on my tying bench and started working on much tinier hooks and flies, I realized I was seeing things much differently. I could apply what I gained with Atlantic salmon flies to trout flies: material manipulations and thread control. Especially number of thread wraps!! For example, do you know how many thread wraps are used for mounting the married wings? = THREE!! Three meaningful & well-intended wraps. Not to mention, all the techniques on my finger tips and visual assessment were still there. So without really thinking, I was using less thread wraps and handling already familiar materials with much more accurate touches. My trout flies evolved into a totally different level. What Tom told me earlier came to make sense.
I have not lost interests or passion for salmon flies at all. In fact, the more I do, the more I learn. I experimented and developed some framing methods too.
As for trout flies, when I'm really into a production mode, I can summon tremendous concentration and get the numbers done in time!!
Nowadays I promote my framed salmon flies. I have dressed fair amounts of classic patterns. Please refer my Atlantic salmon flies information pages and online store.
An activity/event that is kind of a combination of my guide service and fly tying is the fly fishing shows or expos. As I started to run my own outfitting operation, I became interested in attending the public events. This became an interesting and important part of my cycle.
For the first few times, I did have an ambition to promote my guide service and flies, booking trips and selling flies/frames. But as I kept visiting, the ambitious business oriented attitude waned. I mean, I still and always wish to grow my business but I came to learn that I would grow business if I keep doing good jobs constantly - in person and online - not only at these public events. Trying to grow business with once-a-year events is too easy and nearsighted, so to speak. Also I got to this idea and attitude as I have interacted with great tyers, authors, and guides/fishers in those events. They are there to show their skills, share knowledge, entertain audience, and interact with other demonstration tyers and speakers. The most importantly for their own fun. If it's based on an ambition to grow business and seek fame, it wouldn't be fun.
Shows/expos I have attended and usually sign up for demonstration tying and seminar are:
Western Idaho Fly Fishing Expo in Boise, ID - usually early to mid January.
East Idaho Fly Tying Expo in Idaho Falls, ID - late March to mid April.
Wasatch Fly Fishing Expo in Sandy, UT - mid April.
I'll see you there!!
So, this really sums up my fly-fishing life. I will edit or add as time goes by.
For the timely updates, please find me at Facebook and Instagram and follow my blog!!