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Reflections on a Weekend Fly Fishing Among Women (Part 1)

Reflections on a Weekend Fly Fishing Among Women (Part 1)

The Women’s Fly Fishing Clinic at Hidden Canyon Lodge

Stepping into Hidden Canyon Lodge on a cool April evening, the first sensation I felt was one of warmth. A fire glowed in the hearth and a cozy sitting area—decked out in a tasteful hodge-podge of fly fishing memorabilia and old-timey antiques—buzzed with conversation. Drinks were being mixed behind the bar. Savory smells drifted from the kitchen. I felt my anxiety melt away immediately.

I’d come for the fourth annual women’s fly fishing clinic hosted each year in partnership with Wolf Creek Angler—a fly shop nestled in nearby Wolf Creek, Montana. Kicking off on a Friday evening with cocktails and dinner, the weekend ahead promised plenty of fly fishing, good food, and—of course—the company of my fellow female anglers.

Fly Fishing Montana's Upper Missouri River from a Drift Boat
Montana's Upper Missouri River has many moods, all of them beautiful.

I grew up in Helena, Montana, a stone’s throw from one of the world’s premier blue-ribbon trout fisheries: the Missouri River. These days, I work for Montana Casting Co., writing about fly fishing for a living. Those two facts always seem like they should be connected, but in truth I’ve never really considered myself an angler until recently.

It wasn’t for lack of trying on behalf of my parents. When I was little, my father put a fly rod in my hand at every opportunity—and he was endlessly patient. When I was older, I was lucky enough to meet a step-dad who never missed a chance to take the drift boat out and who spent his spare time building custom fly rods. In recent years, my mom has also become an avid angler. Now she rarely heads for the mountains without her fly rod handy.

In short, I was surrounded by people who loved fly fishing. I could see their passion for it and the excitement to share it with me. Because I didn’t want to disappoint them, I fished when they asked me to go fishing… But I never felt confident fishing alone, and that meant, despite years of off and on exposure, I was still very much a beginner every time I picked up a fly rod. And that was frustrating.

When the option to attend a women’s fly fishing clinic arose, I was nervous. I could feel old insecurities circulating in the back of my mind: what if I looked unpracticed? What if they noticed I was a “fake” fly fisherman? I already felt hesitant about the sport and I wasn’t sure I could match their passion or excitement for a weekend on the water. But there was also a feeling of anticipation. Perhaps this time around, I could discover what it might feel like to fly fish for myself.

Friday Night: Cocktails and Catch-Up 

Hidden Canyon Lodge is roughly a ten-minute drive from the fly fishing mecca of Craig, Montana. Tucked into an offshoot of the Missouri River canyon, it’s a few short strides from the Mountain Palace Fishing Access Site along Old U.S. Highway 191.

Modern luxury hides a storied past: built in the early 1900s, it began as the Mountain Palace Tavern—a once bustling stop-over for travelers between Helena and Great Falls. “Anyone over fifty still knows it that way,” Madeleine Cantoni, manager and executive chef, told me with a laugh during a phone call following the clinic.

Since the 1970s, it’s seen a stint as a biker bar, a period as the Fly Fisher’s Inn, and several years of dormancy before it was finally bought in 2016 by current owners Peter and Patricia Wooldridge. Heavy renovation and restoration of the original cabin structure resulted in a luxurious, Montana getaway perfectly suited to the fly fishermen who flock to the Missouri year after year.

Long days in the outdoors don’t always lend themselves to the cleanliest of clientele—but you wouldn’t have known it given the sparkling state of Hidden Canyon Lodge’s beautiful rooms. I dropped my bags beside a luxurious queen bed. Between the clean and comfy furnishings, heated bathroom tiles, fully stocked Keurig, and a generous handful of Werther’s Original candies, I was half tempted to spend the rest of my evening relaxing in the confines of my room.

Alas, that queen bed would have to wait. I stepped out into the crisp evening air and headed for the main lodge. It was time to say hello to the ladies.

Sundown at Hidden Canyon Lodge Along Montana's Missouri River
Sundown at Hidden Canyon Lodge along Montana's Upper Missouri River. 

The core group of women who attend this particular fly fishing clinic hasn’t changed too much since the first clinic in 2021. The end result feels more like a family reunion than a random gathering of individuals looking to improve their fly fishing skills. The introductory cocktail hour is filled with hugs and stories from the year past—but they’re not the only familiar faces. Three of the weekend’s four guides trickled in as the evening progressed: Libby Stultz, Kara Tripp, and Shalon Hastings—who’s been with the clinic from its very inception.

There’s still a relatively limited number of female guides on the river, so getting enough of them to lead this clinic annually is one of the challenges Jason Orzechowski (co-founder of Wolf Creek Angler and owner of Iron Fly Outfitting) and Shalon face each year when organizing the event. “We do have other female guides on the river,” Shalon told me later, “but they’re booked.” This year, they asked the cheerful and easy-going Luke Koerten to guide the fourth boat.

Though I didn’t end up sharing a boat with Shalon, I did get the chance to pick her brain the following week during a phone call. I was interested to hear if she’s faced any challenges breaking into a community that has long been male-dominated. She took a moment to answer—she’s got a warm, thoughtful presence about her that immediately puts me at ease—then said, “It’s been great, to be honest.”

Prior to becoming a guide, she already had roots in the fly fishing community. After owning and operating small businesses in downtown Helena for years—including the popular coffee shop Hub Coffee and Taco Del Sol—she saw a rising demand for fly fishing instruction among female anglers. In March of 2018, she helped kick off Last Chance Fly Gals, a nonprofit working to connect female anglers with community, education, and meaningful experiences. Shalon went on to start Fly FisHer Adventures (currently offering personalized instruction for women anglers in partnership with Iron Fly Outfitting) and become a certified guide, citing the support and teaching of other guides as an important factor in her success.

Jason attended the first meeting of Last Chance Fly Gals as a sponsor. Just six years prior, he'd moved his family to Montana to pursue fly fishing as a career and embrace the outdoors lifestyle. After a year of guiding and managing a fly shop for Montana River Outfitters, he purchased the fly shop from MRO, remodeled, and opened Wolf Creek Angler in the spring of 2014. Now, WCA is a go-to source for guide services, shuttles, watercraft rentals, gear (including an impressive selection of fly patterns), river info, and great advice for making the most out of your fly fishing adventures. The idea for a women's clinic came to Jason after seeing the massive turn out for the Last Chance Fly Gals meeting, and he approached Shalon about it soon after.

Since the first successful clinic in 2021, it’s morphed from a station-heavy course in fly fishing basics to a small community of gung-ho female anglers who reunite on an annual basis. Shalon has come to look forward to the experience each year. “I marvel at this, and it happens at other women’s clinics I do… The women just mesh.”

That “meshing” was on full display night one around the dinner table. The initial awkwardness of getting reacquainted soon devolved into fluid conversation jumping between work drama to new puppies to exciting fly fishing adventures—many of which came from Kara’s reflections on guiding in Chile and Argentina. (The size of the trout and the force of the winds at Patagonia’s Jurassic Lake both seem truly legendary.)

At some point, Kara posed a question to the group: “What’s been your biggest high and your biggest low from the past year?” There was a collective moment of silence before someone started laughing. “Getting right into the deep stuff, aren’t we?” But the women around that table didn’t shy away from the deep stuff. One by one, we all shared.

The highs were beautiful—new found job satisfaction, a grandbaby on the way, an adorable puppy joining the family, or simply getting to be there for a weekend of fishing on the Missouri. The lows were hard—family members battling cancer or other diseases, difficult transitions in relationships or jobs. For a moment, we all got to see one another for the complex human beings that we are, and it was humbling.

Example Dinner Menu at Hidden Canyon Lodge in Montana
Example Hidden Canyon Lodge dinner menu featuring night two's feast

The night ended with some delightful huckleberry cheesecake—the sinful punctuation to a multi-course dinner including fresh Caesar salad, spinach-stuffed chicken over pilaf rice, and hand-picked wine pairings. (I feel it’s worth mentioning that several participants throughout the weekend cited the food as a significant factor in returning to this clinic year after year. Madi takes pride in the lodge’s culinary offerings. She, along with the other chefs she manages, are encouraged to be creative…and it’s yet to disappoint.)

Filled up on good food and good company, we all headed to bed with the promise of a wide-open river and flashing trout to lull us to sleep.

 ...

We'll be dropping part two of this three-part series next week, so stay tuned! In the meantime, a shout out to the organizers, partners, and guides who made this clinic possible:

Thank you to the staff at Hidden Canyon Lodge, who constantly worked behind the scenes to provide us with delicious food, pristine rooms, and friendly customer service. Thank you to our guides for sharing your endless patience, knowledge, and passion for fly fishing. And thank you to Jason, for your behind-the-scenes dedication in organizing this event. All of these wonderful people have found ways to embrace their love of fly fishing while also sharing that passion with others—check out their businesses below!

Questions? Comments? Fly fishing stories? Share them in the comments section below! 

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