Landowner Insights

The Business of Fly Fishing: From Fly Fishing Guide to Ranch Real Estate Broker

When the phone rang, it was mid-June. I had an important fly fishing client in town. With my first day off in a long while on the horizon, I looked forward to resting my sore back and getting the oil changed in my truck before starting another 20-day run of guide trips down rivers near my home in Missoula.

The call was from Tom Hilley, a veteran ranch broker, who asked me if I would, given my knowledge and understanding of the fishing industry, participate as a consultant with him in a listing interview.

Reluctantly, I pressed him for details.

“A well-known fishing lodge on the Big Hole River might hit the market soon,” he responded. “I need your help. We are going to interview for it.”

A very busy outfitter but also an aspiring ranch broker, I saw this as my opportunity to get a foot in the door with the firm Tom worked for, Live Water Properties, one of the West’s premier ranch and land brokerage firms.

I popped a couple of Advil to soothe my back. My oil change could wait. “Tom, I’ll be ready bright and early.”

Looking Back at the Beginning of Missoula on the Fly

Sometime back in high school I hatched the idea of becoming a fishing guide.  After nearly a decade of rowing boats for various outfitters and with a little push from a mentor, I borrowed a small chunk of cash and struck out on my own, and the outfitting business Missoula on the Fly was born.

Like many small business owners, I barely survived my first year.

After countless hours of website work, combined with a little luck and good timing, my website began to outrank those of my more established competitors and traffic to the site sky-rocketed. When it came time to guide new customers, I worked long hours on the water to ensure they would experience the best fly fishing trip imaginable.

As my business grew, so did outfitting across the state, at an almost staggering pace.

Economic Impacts of Fly Fishing in Montana

State studies found that the expenditures on guided experiences in Montana contribute to a large portion of the state’s total tourism revenue.  So much in fact, that spending on outfitters and guides rose to the fourth highest spending category by nonresidents. Only fuel, restaurants and lodging — to which outfitting contributes — outpaced the outfitting and guiding sector.

In 2017, these visitors spent nearly $374 million, or 11 percent, of all visitor spending in Montana.


The Big Hole River

As we headed over the Pass, Tom and I discussed our upcoming meeting, with each of us briefing the other on the ‘bare bones ins-and-outs’ of our respective industries. Eventually the great Big Hole River came into view, a special river to me – I was married on its banks, and the largest brown trout I have ever witnessed in person was caught and released back into its waters. Flowing through some of the most scenic terrain in the West, the Big Hole’s tea-colored water drops at a heavy pitch through a valley dominated by ranches rather than developments.  Dense populations of wild trout, prolific hatches of dry flies, and unmatched scenery are merely a few of the wonderful reasons anglers seek out this river year after year.


The Complete Fly Fisher Lodge

The lodge we visited was The Complete Fly Fisher.  First opened in 1968, the Complete has been an iconic fly fishing destination for generations.  I was aware of its location only by boat, having floated past it many times, allured by its close proximity to the water and prime location just downstream from the confluence of the Wise River.

We arrived at the lodge to witness a familiar sight, the morning bustle of a flourishing outfitting business: a line of guide rigs with boats in tow, ice being dumped in boat coolers, and excited guests loading fishing gear into trucks and boats.  The anglers and guides were headed upstream for the day in pursuit of a mix of wild brookies, rainbows and brown trout.  I smiled. For once, I was on the other side of that last-minute rush.

Our ensuing tour of the place proved that this was a well-run operation, efficient and tidy, with ample lodging and plenty of space for guests to take in the expansive views and relax after a day’s fishing.

We sat down at a dining room table hand-made by the outfitter, our seats so close to the river’s edge, that I could see a cloud of caddis flies hovering above the water.  Naturally, I was drawn to look at a seam of current below them, a line of bubbles formed by the tip of an island positioned upstream, a likely spot for a feeding fish.

Prior to diving into the guts of a high stakes real estate listing interview, the outfitter and owner gave us a history of the lodge.  While staring with great admiration into the river, I couldn’t help but think about how many generations of anglers that must have enjoyed this same view before me: a view that will forever be protected by the adjacent property’s flood plain designation.

We finished our meeting and shook hands, and the Lodge’s longtime owner wished us safe travels back to Missoula. By the time we got home, we learned Live Water had earned the listing, and a short time later I was offered a job.

From Fly Guide to Ranch Broker

In total I spent 15 years as a fishing guide and after much reflection, the birth of my daughter, and a growing desire to pursue a new career, I accepted the job offer from Live Water and sold my guiding business, passing the torch on to a guide younger than me.

As he carries on what I created I can’t help but wonder who will continue the tradition of the Complete Fly Fisher.  Fortunately, I will get to be a part of its sale and look forward to helping find its new owner.


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