It’s clear from the moment I arrive that there aren’t enough dead bugs on my windshield or dirt on my car to be perceived as a serious fly angler here. I’ve always been fastidious about my equipment, including my rig, but I have to admit I’m a little jealous of the beater next to me that’s covered in various dead hatches with the words “Fish or die” scratched into the caked mud on the window. That’s West Yellowstone, Montana: a fish-or-die kind of town.
Did I say town? More accurately, it’s an outpost. You stay here because you have to. You stay here because there are miles of outstanding, free-flowing, blue-ribbon world-class fly water surrounding this place. You stay here because West Yellowstone has nothing left to prove.
The digs are reminiscent of interior Alaska: dense, durable and unadorned, running wild with dogs. And the tourist cabins, though quaint, are scattered throughout the town and stacked into lots as if afterthoughts, hiding behind shops and restaurants like quarters for minimum wage staff or that crazy relative you don’t want meeting your guests but need to invite to the party all the same.
There are plenty of places to eat — saloons with slot-machine parlors, the requisite pizza and burger joints, and a surprising number of Chinese restaurants that accommodate the Asian tourists using the West Entrance of Yellowstone Park for their sightseeing adventures. Coffee can be found at the Freeheel and Wheel, a shop that sells bicycles, along with its bean juice. “There’s even a broken-down old school bus called The Taco Bus that has the best Mexican food in town,” says Brad Richie, owner of Madison River Outfitters, who started guiding here in 1978 for fly-fishing icon Bud Lilly. “It was a wild town when I first got here, but the streets are paved now.”
There are kitschy souvenir shops on every corner, and the grocery store is filled not so much with fresh food and produce, but with supplies, such as gallons of water, rope and ramen. The chip aisle is crowded, packed with product, and it has a one-way entrance, so customers have to peruse at the pace of the person at the front of the line. It was madness waiting to reach the Paul Newman pretzels.
But the fly water is the reason you come to West Yellowstone. “That’s what brought me here,” says Justin Spence, owner of West Yellowstone Fly Shop. “There’s so much water to fish. You can go a hundred miles in any direction and never fish it all. There are still places on my list I try to knock off every year, but at this rate I’ll need a couple of lifetimes to hit them all.”
The waters surrounding West Yellowstone are rich and diverse, running the pace from freestone and chalk streams to spring creeks, pristine lakes and geothermal-fed rivers. “And what makes it so unique,” says Spence, “is that these are all wild fish we’re talking about — browns, rainbows, westslope and Yellowstone cutthroat. Where else can you find that?”
Because the fishing is so good, the fly shops in West Yellowstone are arguably the best in the world. They have to be. There’s Blue Ribbon Flies, the legendary Bud Lilly’s, which has been here 65 years, Arrick’s and a dozen more. And if they don’t have what you’re looking for, you probably don’t need it. The guides working in these shops have had to scratch out a living in West Yellowstone, and they’re not ashamed to look like it — scruffy, unshaven, with a faraway look in their eyes that comes from staring at moving water too long. They’ve come here from all over, drawn to these prolific waters that pump the heart into the American West. And they’ve earned their chops selling the tourists T-shirts and sunglasses just so they could fish every waking moment they weren’t working, sometimes not eating or sleeping for days until they’re finally ordained as guides.
“I did everything,” Spence says. “I spent winters substitute teaching, tying flies, driving a truck, doing anything it took to stay here so I could fish the summer. I fished, worked, then I fished some more because that’s what you do. Eventually you realize you live here and you’re part of this town, so you open a fly shop.”
Spence opened West Yellowstone Fly Shop in 2006. It’s the kind of shop where people hang out after fishing to talk and tie. “Everyone said I was crazy,” he says. “How could I make a go of it with all of these other great shops around? But years ago Bud [Lilly] told me, ‘Care about the fishing, your customers and the people who work for you, and you won’t go wrong.’ I hire guides who love to fish and who love to teach fishing.”
“It’s passion and excitement,” says Arrick Swanson of Arrick’s Fly Shop, “and being able to share that with customers.”
Swanson came to West Yellowstone for the first time in 1980. “There weren’t a lot of great fly shops in Albuquerque back then,” he says. “What struck me when I got here was how serious the fly shops were … and the tying materials. Fifty-foot walls full of materials. Everyone ties and creates, and you have to be open to varying knowledge. Any kind of trout fishing is possible on any given day — small streams, big rivers, lakes — that’s what make the guides here so good.”
“When you live in West Yellowstone,” says Spence, “you forget how small this town is. And then you’re walking down the street and see bison or a moose walking down the street next to you, and you remember, oh yeah, there are no fences around Yellowstone Park. I don’t think there’s a place like this left anywhere in the world.”
“It changed me,” says Swanson. “When you see the color of the trout here it sends you back in time. You want to be a part of this place, conserve it, protect it. Once you experience West Yellowstone you don’t think about fly-fishing the same way ever again. It is to fly fishermen what Sturgis is for bikers. It’s mecca for fly fishermen. Quite simply, I wouldn’t want to live and work anywhere else.”
On my last night in West Yellowstone I ventured off the main drag for a deeper look into this boondock settlement of cowboy trout bums and obsessed guides. There was a family eating dinner at a picnic table in front of their rented cabin. There was a group of old guys practicing their fly-casting behind a fly shop, teasing each other about the lack of distance they were getting. There was a young couple — both with a papoosed baby on their backs — holding hands as they headed into the new tapas joint.
Just as I was beginning to think the place is civilized, a crusty Chevy pickup towing a drift boat took a corner on the street in front of me way too fast. The boat slipped off the trailer and skidded off into the middle of the street, leaving shards of fiberglass across the gravel. The driver and his buddy got out and viewed the damage, each shaking their head. “Damn, that’s gonna leave a mark,” the driver said.
His buddy smiled, lifted the cooler out of the back of the truck, placed it into the dry-docked boat, sat down on the seat and popped a cold beer. “I’ll wait here,” he said.
Odds are he and that boat are still sitting there.