Meet Hilary Hutcheson, a fly fishing guide based in Columbia Falls, Montana. Hilary guides the summer months on the Flathead River, owns Lary’s Fly & Supply, and commits herself whole-heartedly to climate action. The Flylords team was lucky enough to spend a day on the water with Hilary. It was inspiring to see her guiding, fishing, and sharing her knowledge of the river and passion for the environment.
Flylords: What is your favorite part about being a guide?
Hilary: I love witnessing people discover something exciting in the wild. I love being with them as they react to the adrenaline part of fly fishing. It’s the stoke for me. As a team on dynamic water, my anglers and I are always finding something that gets our hearts pumping. It’s the best when they uncover something new and rad in themselves when they accomplish something they didn’t expect. It’s fulfilling to me when they’re clearly moved by what we’re privileged to experience in this insanely cool place and honor it through protection.
Flylords: Any tips for aspiring fly fishing guides?
Hilary: Most aspiring guides have already been told that it’s not enough to be a good fisherman; that they have to read water, be a patient teacher, and genuinely enjoy being with people. But, beyond that, I would suggest that new guides put themselves in the client seat first by buying a few guided trips at full retail and really paying attention to what goes into the operation. Talk to the guide about what she likes and dislikes about her job, what she is trying to do differently, what challenges she sees ahead for the industry, and why she shows up every day. Look into the business details of guiding. Like, taxes, insurance, specific licenses and permits, boat and gear maintenance, reservations software, accounting, industry competition, and longevity based on resource quality.
Flylords: Favorite fly for freshwater fly fishing?
Hilary: Here on the Flathead we fish a lot of fun attractor patterns. I tie one that I call the Whitewater Skrull. Skrulls are the extraterrestrial shapeshifters in Marvel Comics. My Whitewater Skrull pattern is kind of a variant of the Turk’s Tarantula but with a foam-based body and a longer, crystal flash tail. It’s a shapeshifter because it becomes a different fly throughout changing water scenarios. So, it can be super buggy as an adult stonefly, then looks sexy in the swing like a drowned hopper, and then becomes a minnow on the retrieve. It’s awesome in high and fast water since it doesn’t need a consistent drag-free drift. Here’s a video on how to tie it:
Flylords: You are vocal about your passion for climate action, what sparked this passion?
Hilary: I wouldn’t say I’m passionate about climate action, but I’m passionate about humans. And humans are in trouble. My activism was sparked by witnessing first-hand how global warming is negatively impacting the oceans and rivers I love to fish, and that led me to learn more about how the poorest communities are suffering the most from climate change caused by the richest countries. I really do not enjoy putting on a suit and going to Washington, DC when I could be fishing instead, and I don’t love constantly auditing my habits or spending time talking about the large corporations that are responsible for the majority of human-caused climate change. But I do it, not because I’m passionate about activism, but because as a guide I’m in a unique position to testify on the many changes I witness on the water, and to amplify the voices and actions of affected stakeholders. Truthfully, it’s not losing recreational fishing habitat that keeps me up at night, it’s the realization that people with the smallest footprint are taking the brunt of the irreversible harm caused by the largest polluters.
Flylords: As a fly fishing guide, what do you see your role in slowing human-induced warming from greenhouse gasses?
Hilary: As a fly fishing guide, my role is to bring people closer to nature so they’ll be driven to fight for environmental justice–that being, a world in which all people enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process. There’s a privilege in the opportunity to take part in fighting for the systemic change that’s needed, so I’m grateful for the chance. This includes advancing nonpartisan policies that protect the environment. So, I try to be a trusted messenger who is keen on scientific resources and ready to answer questions and steer clients toward their own activism. I don’t get on a soapbox–I don’t have to because clients and other anglers are leading the conversation. They’re eager to do more and to hold big polluters accountable. I remind them, and myself, that as privileged anglers we travel in planes and drive trucks and we’re not perfect, but we can work toward progress. We worked hard to bring my fly shop, Lary’s Fly & Supply to carbon neutrality, and we’re interested in helping the industry consider its carbon footprint and hold big polluters accountable. All guides can speak to their elected leadership, and I’ve appreciated the good example, training and leadership in doing so from Protect Our Winters, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Captains for Clean Water and AFFTA. I’m grateful to brands like Costa that support these efforts and amplify climate action messages through media, like DROP which came out earlier this year. https://
Flylords: Tell me a bit about your involvement in climate action; how do you combine fly fishing and climate action?
Hilary: There are some aspects of climate change that fly fishermen zero in on better than others. For example, we see how climate change is altering runoff, reducing streamflow, aiding species hybridization, damaging spawning, increasing nutrient loads in rivers, and creating water temperatures that are fatal for fish. So, for me, it’s not possible to fly fish without addressing climate, and conversely, I’m not going to be able to understand climate impacts so directly if not for my intimacy with the river.
Flylords: How do you think other anglers can get involved in resource protection?
Hilary: More and more guides and anglers believe resource protection is as important to their fishing success as casting and fly selection. In the Northeast, they’re standing up at fisheries management meetings to talk about the importance of not overfishing the menhaden baitfish that support stripers. In Florida, they’re dialed and vocal on the science behind their fight to restore the River of Grass. In the Pacific Northwest, they’re putting trips on hold to take pressure off the suffering native steelhead populations. There are examples all over the country of the importance of involvement. And fly shops often become headquarters for conservation information and action opportunities. A fly shop is a great place to find resources for how to contact your elected leadership, how to connect with a conservation non-profit, or how to learn about a local environmental issue.
Flylords: What change would you like to see within the fly fishing industry to be more environmentally conscious?
Hilary: The fly fishing industry can be effective in promoting green banking, electric vehicles, updating the electric grid, sustainable agriculture and carbon neutrality within our own association. And I’d like to see us put more pressure as a group on the fossil fuel industry and large corporations that make up the majority of impact, rather than let the big polluters tell us that it’s our fault because we used a plastic straw or left our Christmas lights on too long. Also, fly fishing companies are always working with thin margins, so we recognize that environmental policy changes are also made at the margins. So, as part of the outdoor community, we can have a mega impact at those thin margins when we drive participation in influencing policy. Policy makers recognize the economic importance of the outdoor community, and we need to keep reminding them that we’re powerful and growing. A positive change that I’m seeing is that top brands in the industry are only signing ambassadors who are sincerely committed to resource protection.
Flylords: You grew up in the same area of Montana that you still guide in today. What inspired you to stick around?
Hilary: I love continuing to kick the dirt my parents chose for us. My parents set my siblings and me loose (with safety considerations, proper training, and gear) to explore Glacier country, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have been raised on public lands. I never get tired of it here, and I could never see it all even if I had many lifetimes. Being able to work on the river with my children on public lands is the greatest joy. And working together to do our part to leave it as we found it and have a ton of fun in between is what floats my boat.
Flylords: The Flathead River System is super unique at an ecological level– could you tell us a bit about its history and what makes it so unique?
Hilary: The Flathead is in an area known as the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, which stands out globally as richly diverse biologically at all levels. It’s one of the planet’s few remaining intact ecosystems with ecological strengths like adequate area for wildlife to move freely between diverse habitats over a broad range of terrain; healthy watersheds and wild river floodplains that can handle extreme weather changes; and the large carnivores that have always been recorded there. It’s a zone that has not suffered a known animal extinction in the past 200 years. That stokes me out. And the Flathead is under the protection of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Fewer than 1/4 of ONE percent of our nation’s rivers have this federal protection, so for all three forks of the Flathead to enjoy it is a big deal. When people come here and see these rivers without injuries from extraction, they tend to see the value in offering Wild and Scenic protection to more wild rivers across the country.
Flylords: Switching gears a bit… What sunglasses are you wearing today and why do you like them?
Flylords: What is next for you?
Hilary: I just wrapped up the guide season and started work on a new film that I’m super excited about. It’s a historical, Japanese American cultural piece with fishing involved so I’m absorbed in the research right now–it’s super fun and kind of an emotional trip.
Big thanks to Hilary for all of her insight and an amazing day on the river. Thank you to Costa Sunglasses for featuring so many amazing guides in our Behind the Guides series! Photos and interview from Gloria Goñi, @lapescadora.