Doug McKnight is the sort of guy you dream of fly-fishing with. He’s disarmingly funny, deeply knowledgeable and intensely affable—blending a country boy’s easy manner with a surfer’s sense of stoke. He’s also, I’m told by the best fly-fishermen I know, the first person to talk to if you want to fish in or around Spanish Peaks and Big Sky, Montana.
“I came to Montana many, many moons ago,” McKnight says, as if telling a story around a campfire. “I fell in love with the place, went away, and eventually it called me back. The next time around, I made it home.”
McKnight, an artist who paints in oil, pastels, pen and pencil, is currently a program manager for Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures—a renowned fishing-focused travel agency, operating out of Montana. Though he considers himself on a “guiding sabbatical,” McKnight is as insatiable for his beloved sport as ever. In the late spring, summer and early fall (until their fingers start to freeze), he and the Yellow Dog crew fish constantly.
“I was raised just north of Philly, but Montana is in my bones by now,” McKnight says. “And fly-fishing has always been front and center. Twenty years ago, I guided in West Yellowstone and I’ll be out there before dawn again tomorrow and the next day.”
Which is all to say that, if you’re based near the soon-to-open Montage Big Sky and looking to fly-fish in the region, McKnight is the perfect person to offer some advice. Montage Magazine asked him about the importance of expert advice, which rivers to visit and his secret spots.
Montage Magazine: If someone’s coming to Big Sky, Montana, specifically the Spanish Peaks area, where do you start them out?
Doug McKnight: First of all, Spanish Peaks and Big Sky—that’s an incredible region for this sport. You’re basically right on the Gallatin and the Upper Gallatin, which is one hell of a river—a spectacular fishery top to bottom. The Upper Gallatin is absolutely full of bugs. I’ve gone by that stretch in my truck and my windshield wipers literally can’t swat away all the bugs. And just to clarify, where there are bugs, there are fat fish.
Then, from Big Sky, you’re a hop, skip and jump from west Yellowstone, which is basically [a] mecca for fly-fishing in the Western United States, bar none. You’ve got several sections of the Madison River right there, amongst other options. I’ve never heard of anyone who loves fly-fishing visiting and not falling in love with it.
MM: With so many options, if you were taking a friend out or guiding a trip in that region, how do you decide where to fish?
DM: It really depends on the time of year and where we’re going to meet, how far people want to drive, et cetera. It’s not like we have to struggle to find fish. Plus, anyone who guides or has guided always have spots in our back pockets, which we’ll share … depending on certain factors.
MM: Factors like how much you like them and how good they are at fishing?
DM: Yep, absolutely. Both of those.
MM: For someone who’s passionate, but also a fly-fishing novice, is step one always to get a guide? To have a great experience and not spend your day in the literal and metaphorical weeds?
DM: It never hurts to hire a guide in this sport or this state. A lot of our rivers out here, you go walk by them and there’s a lot of space between fish. Even in the best of circumstances, when we’re in a float, you can go 200 or 300 yards down a bank and have a couple of eats [also known as bites] in that stretch. So a lot of getting a guide is about covering water.
MM: Does that mean a drift boat is the way to go in that Big Sky-Spanish Peaks-west Yellowstone area?
DM: Certainly; hiring a drift boat is a great way to cover water and make the most of your opportunities throughout the day. Of course, when conditions are right, working the banks is a great way to fish. When the water is high and pushy, it pushes fish to the banks. It just really depends on the time of year. That’s also why people get guides, you know?
MM: What do you caution guests visiting the area to consider?
DM: Honestly, it’s about being respectful of what’s up here. That’s all. Being respectful of the resource[s] and being gentle with the fish.
MM: Are there secret spots on the rivers that you’re in love with?
DM: I really like … [the] Yellowstone River. I mean … it will scare you when you’re rowing, but it’s really an incredible fishery. I don’t feel bad talking about it either, because … it’ll humble you. And if you’re not humbled, you’re going to get humbled. There’s something there for everybody—from easy floats to incredibly challenging floats and fish that will get under your skin for sure. (yellowdogflyfishing.com)
By Steve Bramucci
Feature Image: Working the banks of the Ruby River (Goodluz/Shutterstock.com)