5 Questions with Tim Linehan: A Fly-Fishing Life in Northwestern Montana

Tim Linehan has now spent more than half his life on the rivers of northwestern Montana.
Photo courtesy Tim Linehan

A quarter-century ago, Tim Linehan did something that so many Eastern anglers have dreamed of: he packed everything he owned into his car and moved to Montana to become a fly-fishing guide. He and his wife, Joanne, operate Linehan Outfitting Co. in the Yaak Valley, near Troy, Montana. Tim and I have been pals since we bonded over our shared Granite State roots, and he agreed to answer some questions about his life in fly fishing.

1. When, where, and how did you start fly fishing?
I grew up in New London, New Hampshire, and as they were for lots of kids in rural areas at that time, hunting and fishing were at least part-time activities. For my sixteenth birthday, my folks bought me a Berkley fly-rod-and-reel combination, and from that point, I went crazy for the sport. I was very fortunate to have a mentor, a man by the name of David Seybold, who is an accomplished writer/editor and to this day one of the finest anglers I know. David is literally responsible for the foundation of my fly-fishing knowledge.

2. How and why did you leave New Hampshire for Montana? Why the Yaak Valley?
A few years after I graduated from the University of New Hampshire, I was working on weekends at the North Country Angler in North Conway, helping with their schools. The quasi-guiding gig opened up a whole new world, and I remember wondering if I was even capable of becoming a real guide. That winter, I contacted some folks and miraculously landed a job in Twin Bridges, Montana, which frankly thrilled and frightened me at the same time.

I drove out via the northern route and stopped here in the Yaak Valley to visit a friend of a friend. I immediately fell in love with this extreme northwestern corner of the state, since it looks and feels very much like New England in many ways. . .kind of like Maine on steroids. Needless to say, I never left this place, never made it down to Twin Bridges, and have been here now for over half my life.

Alongside a happy client, Tim shows off a fat rainbow from Montana’s Kooenai River.
Photo courtesy Tim Linehan

3. How did you get into guiding, and how did you decide to start your own outfitting business?
As I mentioned above, working at the North Country Angler fly fishing schools gave me a glimpse into what being a guide might be like. At the time, I honestly never thought becoming a Montana guide was in the realm of possibility. Fate and luck are largely responsible for my career. I showed up here in this little place called Yaak, and lo and behold there was a hunting and fishing lodge here, run by Bill and Judy McAfee, who were looking to expand their fly-fishing operation. They ran a terrific, successful operation, but I had always largely worked for myself, and much prefer to be responsible for my own destiny. After a few years with McAfee Lodge/Outfitting, Joanne and I decided to give it go for ourselves. We’ve been broke but happy ever since.

4. What are the biggest challenges facing an outfitter these days? What do you love most about your job?
The biggest challenges facing an outfitter these days are increased cost and staying visible and relevant from a marketing point of view. As with other small, family-owned and -operated businesses, it’s difficult to consistently maintain a viable profit margin. Operating costs rise annually, so it becomes a constant dance between raising rates and being careful not to price yourself out of your market. The standard cost of living adjustment would make obvious sense. But that would mean justifying increased rates every year, and that brings its own set of issues relative to return guests who have been loyal and are greatly appreciated.

Staying relative from a marketing point of view has also changed dramatically, what with the vastness of the Internet, social media, video, and the like. Twenty years ago, the industry relied primarily on magazine ads and trade shows for marketing and sales. Today, the marketing options are essentially unlimited. Where and how to spend marketing time and dollars has become much more complicated, and it’s much more difficult to determine the return on investment in each specific arena, as well.

Honestly, what I like most about my job is that when I’m on the water, my mind is quiet and the noise in my head is stilled.

2013 Orvis-endorsed Guide of the Year, Tim speaks at a recent Orvis Guide Rendezvous.
Photo by Tom Rosenbauer

5. What advice could you give someone who thinks they’d like to follow in your footsteps and become a guide/oufitter?
The first thing I’d tell someone who thinks they’d like to become a guide/outfitter is that it’s honestly darn hard work, darn long hours, and not always necessarily what you think it might be. So be prepared. I’d also suggest they treat it like a business because you have to make more than you spend at the end of the day. The trout bum thing only works for so long, and then, unless you have another source of income, the bills have to be paid. Lastly, if I can do it, anyone can do it.

13 thoughts on “5 Questions with Tim Linehan: A Fly-Fishing Life in Northwestern Montana”

  1. Tim is the real deal and is always there to lend support and advice. It was a pleasure meeting him at the OGR last year.

  2. Perhaps the nicest person I have ever met. I am truly lucky to call Tim a friend. Tim, Joanne and their Staff really do take service to the next level. JR.

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    Tim and Joanne are a wonderful couple, and we have enjoyed going back to the Yaak for 10 years. The Tim answering the questions is the Tim we know and have fun with on the river. Can’t wait to go back to the Yaak!

  4. Pingback: Tippets: Learning a Loop Knot, Clean Up Runoff, Linehan Interview | MidCurrent
  5. Tim and Joanne are all class all the time. They are the 100% real deal. They picked a great area too, no waits for launches, no drift boat traffic, – can’t wait to go back a third time. And their guides are extensions of them.

  6. My only knowledge of Mr. Linehan prior to today was from the pleasure of watching him in three 20 yr.old Trout Unlimited VHS tapes.
    You can’t not like the guy…..

    1. Hi Tim. I don’t know if you remember me but this is phil from burbank. I was just surfing the net and came across you on website. If you remember me email me and ill give you my number and we can text. Theres lots to catch up on.

  7. Tim and Joanne have an energy that can be felt standing next to them. Kind, patient, fun are only just a few words to describe thier force. Tim will talk to and encourage anyone who seeks his advice. He gets the “BIG picture” of our industry. On my bucket list is spending a day with him on the water and I row all day. When we’ll get there, I don’t know!

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