Trout Bum of the Week XL: Todd Tanner

Todd Tanner cradles a remarkable Dean River steelhead.
All photos courtesy Todd Tanner

Welcome to our series called “Trout Bum of the Week,” in which we highlight some of the guys living the good life. . .of a sort. (See the bottom of this post for a link to the previous installments.) Most of the subjects are guides who have turned their passion into a vocation, spending their time in an outdoor “office” that may include a drift boat, gorgeous mountain scenery, and crystal clear water. Others do have day jobs but manage to spend every other available minute on the water with a fly rod in hand. Whether you aspire to one lifestyle or the other, it’s illuminating to explore the different paths these men and women have taken on their way to achieving “trout bum” status.

Todd Tanner is a freelance writer and former fly-fishing guide whose work can be seen in every issue of Sporting Classics (in which he writes a column), as well as a host of other sporting publications. A native of New York State, Todd now lives in Bigfork, Montana, where he also heads up Conservation Hawks, an organization whose mission is “defend our sporting heritage and pass on a healthy natural world to future generations of Americans.” I’ve included a couple of CH videos starring Todd here. As you’ll see below, he’s also a bit of an iconoclast, with strong opinions that he’s not afraid to share. (For as long as we’ve known each other, Todd and I have been arguing about whether or not “Henrys Fork” requires an apostrophe. As editor of this site, I’ve taken the liberty of removing them from his copy, per the United States Board of Geographic Names. I expect a comment from Todd below.) 

1. When did you start fly fishing?
I started fly fishing back in the ’80s, when catching trout on my spinning rod got a little too easy. Turns out I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, because I fished two or three times a week for a couple of months before I hooked my first trout—a Housatonic River brown—on a fly.

2. What’s your favorite water?
That’s a tough one. I love the Dean, which is just spectacular, and I really enjoy the Missouri here in Montana, as well as a couple of smaller spring creeks that probably shouldn’t be named. I guess if I had to pick one favorite, though, it would be the Henrys Fork. I guided on the river for five years back in the early to mid ’90s, and I still fish it every chance I get. There just isn’t anywhere else where I can hunt big trout in such a perfect setting, and where the fish are so challenging to catch. There’s also a part of my heart that refuses to leave Last Chance, Idaho. I’ve spent so much time with good friends (and great anglers) on the Henrys Fork that there’s really no way I could pick anywhere else.

3. What’s your favorite species to chase with a fly rod and why?
Wild trout. Why? Because they’re far closer to perfect than I’ll ever be, and because they’re designed, anatomically, to feed on the surface, and because they’re simply—and almost magically—beautiful.

Tanner puts the wood to a big fish on the Dean.

4. What’s your most memorable fly-fishing moment?
Another tough question. I guess I’d have to say the time I went up to BC for a steelhead story and after a full week on the water, and with only an hour left to go before dark—and an hour left before the end of the trip—I hadn’t touched a fish. Instead of flailing around in desperation, I actually waded to the bank, took a leak, grabbed a swig of water, composed myself, and waded back out into the river with as much mental clarity as I could muster. I made one cast—a shortone—and hooked a fish that literally beat me up for a solid 6 or 7 minutes. He actually spiderwebbed my 8-weight. I only landed him because my buddy, Troy Jones, ran down into the tailout of the pool and made such a commotion that my newfound friend decided not to swim all the way back to the Pacific Ocean. He ended up measuring three finger-widths past my second stripping guide—42 inches, maybe 43—and we figured he was a minimum of 25 pounds, and quite possibly over 30. I’ve held some awesome fish in my hands, but given the situation, and the timing, that buck has to be right up at the top of the list.

5. What’s your most forgettable fly-fishing moment?
Back when I was guiding on the Henrys Fork, a client put his wallet, with all his cash and credit cards, in his unzipped wader pocket and then lost it while we were fishing the Ranch. Lynn Sessions, who owned the fly shop, and I walked back in that evening and looked for it, but we couldn’t find it. Then I ended up taking the same guy out again shortly thereafter, and without him telling me, he threw his rain jacket—with all the replacement cash his wife had just wired him—in the bottom of my drift boat. When we got to the top of the Box Canyon, he looked in my boat and asked, “Where’s my jacket?” I responded “What jacket?” Things went seriously downhill from that point in time. We drove back down Highway 20 to Last Chance, but the raincoat, along with a large sum of money, never materialized. As you can imagine, the rest of the day didn’t go very well.

A Henrys Fork fanatic, Tanner knows how to present dry flies delicately.

6. What do you love most about fly fishing?
I love the way that wading into moving water and casting a fly rod puts me in synch with nature. For some reason the rhythm of the casting and the rhythm of the river tend to mesh, and when things go the way they usually do, it’s almost as if I find myself in the middle of a very subtle yet graceful dance, or perhaps even a moving meditation. It’s a special thing, and it’s the one place in my life where I’m so comfortable and so in tune with my surroundings that I always feel blessed. It’s almost like stepping into a Tolkien novel; there’s something truly magical about standing in moving water and casting a fly rod.

7. What’s your favorite piece of gear and why?
Since I write about gear, and since I fish lots of different stuff, that’s an extra hard question. I’ll make things a little easier and simply share my favorite piece of Orvis gear. It’s the current Helios 2 9-foot, 4-weight tip-flex, paired with a 5-weight WF fly line. I know Orvis isn’t going to want to hear this—and it wouldn’t surprise me if this particular answer generates an e-mail or two in my in-box—but with a 5-weight line, that particular rod just shines. It’s a joy to cast, and it will handle just about anything—dries, nymphs, streamers—that I care to throw. It’s just a hell of a rod, but you need that one-size-heavier line to make it really come alive.

8. What’s your go-to fly when nothing else is working?
I understand why you’re asking this, and why people might think it’s important, but in my mind, it’s a silly—no, make that a “lazy”—question. An old teacher of mine used to say, “If you want to learn about the owls, go ask the mice.” Along those same lines, my friend Steve Mate once told me about one of his favorite clients. The guy was a rank beginner, but after being off on his own for a few minutes while Steve worked with his wife, the guy walked up to him and said: “There are a bunch of insects on the water. I don’t know what they’re called, but the trout are only taking the ones with their wings laying flat on the surface. Do you have any flies like that?” Steve handed the guy a little Rusty Spinner, and away he went to catch his first Henrys Fork trout. When I try to impose my will on the fish—when I try to give them the fly that I want to give them—my success goes way, way down. I try to pay attention, and I’ve learned that everything around me is telling me what fly I should throw. If I could be so bold as to offer a little advice to other anglers, it’s to use your awareness and focus on what you’re seeing. If you do that, you’ll learn that your “go-to” fly changes dramatically depending on a whole host of subtle indicators.

9. What was your favorite fly-fishing trip?
Probably the time that Billy McConnell and I fished the Dean out of John Blackwell’s Dean River Lodge. We got chased by a grizzly bear one night after dinner—I actually ended up running away from an angry griz in a pair of deerskin slippers—and, through some rare combination of good fortune and divine intervention, we all lived to tell the tale. The crazy thing about it all is that the grizzly bear story was only the second wildest thing that happened on that trip …

Tanner with the cast of “Cold Waters,” including his son, Kian.

10. How do you define the difference between someone who loves fly fishing and a true trout bum?
I’m probably the wrong guy to ask. I mean, sure, I read Gierach’s Trout Bum and The View from Rat Lake back in the late 80s (loved them), and then I moved to Montana in 1990, became a fly-fishing guide, started to write about fly fishing, and I’ve been doing the whole hard-core trout thing ever since. But for me, this particular question seems a little backwards. I know too many jaded anglers who’ve somehow lost the spark, who fit the trout bum mold—and who can walk into the river and just wail on those fish—but who have lost that intimate connection with whatever it was that they used to feel. The word we should focus on is “Love.” The guys who blow me away—and with luck, maybe I’ll stay in this category for a while longer—are the guys who love it. Who lust for it. Who live and breath and dream it. It doesn’t matter if they’re strong fly fisherman or not. I couldn’t care less if someone is a great caster, or a great angler. I want to fish with guys who love fishing for trout; who revel in the experience; who slip into that predatory trance with an amazing, singular focus; who tune everything else out and tune in the real world; who focus on the water and the fish and the incredible natural beauty that graces us whenever we’re lucky enough to wade deep into a stream or river. If you love it, and if you’re willing to stand up and fight for it, then that’s all that really matters.

11. Anything else we should know?
Yeah, there’s something I alluded to in that last line that probably needs a little clarification. As anglers, we have a serious moral obligation to treat the resource—the streams, the rivers, the lakes, and the landscapes that surround them—with the utmost respect. We also have an obligation to protect the places we fish and to stand up against anyone or anything who would harm or degrade our waters. If there’s one thing I’d like to see, it would be for more anglers to give something back, to put their energy into conservation, and to defend our fishing from the never-ending onslaught of modern civilization. Unless we get our act together, our kids and grandkids will miss out on the incredible angling that so many of us currently take for granted. In particular, we should all support at least one or two conservation organizations. I’m partial to a group I started, Conservation Hawks, but organizations like Trout Unlimited, Federation of Fly Fishers, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership also do really, really important work. Just keep in mind that we all have that obligation to give something back to the sport we love.

6 thoughts on “Trout Bum of the Week XL: Todd Tanner”

  1. “There’s something truly magical about standing in moving water and casting a fly rod.”
    “If you want to learn about the owls, go ask the mice.”

    Great. Well said.

  2. My first really nice fly rod was an 8′, 4 wt. Orvis Superfine that I picked up more than 25 years ago from Phil Demetri’s little fly shop on the Housatonic. When I started fishing that rod, I never would have guessed that I’d end up guiding anglers, or writing about fly fishing, or being featured by Orvis as yet another in a very long line of fishing bums. I was just hoping to catch a few more trout. In reality, it’s pretty obvious that those trout actually caught me.

    Many thanks to Orvis – and especially to Phil Monahan, Tom Rosenbauer and Steve Hemkens – for shining a spotlight on Conservation Hawks, and for standing up for so many incredible trout streams and spectacular landscapes. When you buy gear from Orvis, you not only help support strong conservation efforts, you defend the angling we all love. That’s incredibly important, and Orvis deserves serious kudos for all their conservation work, and for their ongoing commitment to fly fishing.

    Finally, since Phil Monahan went ahead and deleted all my Henrys Fork apostrophes, here, in honor of Mr. Monahan, who’s both an old Alaska guide and an official Nanook of the North, is an Apostrophe of a different sort:

  3. Pingback: Can This Man Turn Hunters & Anglers Into Climate Activists? | Minnesota Conservation Federation

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