My First Time: Craig Mathews

Craig Mathews fishing Madison River West Yellowstone

Mathews on the Madison River, early '80s

Big trout, new patterns, and a life on the water.

Craig Mathews is no stranger to the fishing community. In 1980, he founded Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone, and went on to pen nine books, including The Yellowstone Fly Fishing Guide—an authoritative resource for anyone fishing the Park. And as far as anglers go, they don’t come much more well-versed than Mathews. He’s fished all over the world and designed flies that are now staples in freshwater and saltwater boxes alike. Every Montana angler, whether they know it or not, likely has a couple of his patterns in their quiver. He’s also taken on an outsized share of conservation work in the state—if there’s a public fishing easement on the Madison, chances are good that Mathews was involved. But it hasn’t always been that way. Like many of us, Mathews, a once-Midwesterner, had to find Montana on his own.

So tell us, Craig, when did you start fishing in Montana?
It was sometime in the early 1970s, years before my wife Jackie and I moved to West Yellowstone. My family used to take summer trips to the area, and one such trip bled into the fall. At the time, there used to be a wall of photos at Dan Bailey’s fly shop in Livingston. To get your picture on the wall, you had to catch a fish over 20 inches. And one September day, I decided to get my picture on the wall.

I walked into Parks’ Fly Shop and spoke with Richard Parks. I asked him, “Where can I go to catch a 20-inch brown trout?” And he told me to fish the Gibbon River, and that those big browns should be coming up from Hebgen Lake. So that’s where I went.

And by God, the big browns were there alright. I caught several before calling it a day. It was just one of those magical days on the water. It was the first storm of the year, the snow was blowing, and there wasn’t anyone else fishing. It all felt a little surreal. But I didn’t end up getting my photo on Dan Bailey’s wall that day. It turned out you had to kill the fish to get your picture up, and I’d decided to release all the ones I’d caught.

But I’ll never forget that day. As I walked back to the road, I saw a large rock in the middle of the trail. But then it stood up, and I realized it was a bison plastered with snow!

After that, when my wife Jackie decided that we were moving to West Yellowstone in 1979, I didn’t bat an eye. Before you know it, she was the police dispatcher and I was the police chief. And I’ve been fishing here ever since.