A row of fly fishing poles up along a wall.

 When Hollywood Came to Big Sky Country

What began with a book about flyfishing…

They arrive in Western Montana from midsummer to late fall to fish the snow-fed streams and lakes. They carry flyrods made of high-grade fiberglass or bamboo found in a remote jungle of Vietnam. They pack floating lines, leaders, reels, felt-soled boots, and waders—everything required to present handtied imitations of insect larva and flies to the native trout.

The rivers here need no introduction. They are known to anglers worldwide: the Upper Missouri, the Upper Yellowstone, the Blackfoot, Wolf Creek, the Gallatin, the Madison. How did they achieve this status? At the top of that list is the surrounding grandeur. From the majesty of Glacier National Park to the otherworldly beauty of Yellowstone—the view never disappoints.


And then there’s the area’s literary and cinematic past.

That story begins in 1976, with the publication of A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, by Norman MacLean. The namesake novella famously opens: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and flyfishing.” The story, of course, is about more than flyfishing. It encompasses the family’s connection to the natural world, the relationship between brothers, and the loss of those we love but don’t understand and are powerless to save.

Maclean and his younger brother, Paul, learned the art of flyfishing from their father in the 1920s and 1930s. For Paul—a respected journalist but also a gambler and bourbon addict—the local streams provided psychic refuge; fly-fishing was a source of solace. But this wasn’t enough. In May of 1938, Paul was found dead in a Chicago alleyway, beaten to death with the butt of a pistol. Decades later, Norman, would write his brother’s story.

MacLean’s classic novella would become the starting point of Western Montana’s growing fame. In 1992, A River Runs Through It became an epic feature film directed by Robert Redford. It starred the majesty of the Bitteroot Mountains and its surrounding rivers and streams.

It also starred a very young Brad Pitt as Paul.

Those wide-angle shots of the actor casting an s-shaped line midstream at dusk on the Gallatin River sparked interest in the mysterious art of flyfishing in general and Montana in particular. And that interest was about to explode.

Two years later came another big-canvas Hollywood movie with more than a few commonalities. Once again, the film was based on a classic book set in early-twentieth century Montana. Once again, it explored the relationship between brothers. Once again, the star was Western Montana. And once again, the costar was Brad Pitt, now two years older. This time, the film was Legends of the Fall based on Jim Harrison’s novel by the same name.

fly fisherman, Montana

So why did the filmmaking gods choose Western Montana? 

The short answer: This realm of the American West is of an order of magnitude beyond beautiful. It is, as they say, movie-star good looking. It offers the kind of beauty that draws the eye of the filmmaker just as it fires the imagination of the traveler, the angler, the writer, and the reader who longs to be immersed in the magic of beautiful places.

In the end, the books and films offered the kind of promotion that no amount of money can buy. The books captured the area’s character in lyrical prose. The movies presented it in vivid Technicolor.

The attention brought the best kind of change to the area—that is, almost no change at all. It drew the naturalists—a category of traveler who treads lightly wherever they go. They travel to connect with each destination the way the angler seeks to involve themselves with a stream, its insects, and the trout that feed on them.

And then the naturalist leaves, utterly enthralled, poised to share the experience with anyone who will listen.

Our vacation homes in Whitefish

Without question, the best way to experience Northwestern Montana is with a vacation rental, using the retreat as your home base. Are you bringing the flyrod? Click the filter to present our Whitefish homes that are “waterfront.” This will bring up riverfront homes as well as homes on Whitefish Lake and Flathead Lake. There’s nothing quite like being on the water in that first hour of the day. Looking for a local guide? Perhaps a float trip? Check out Montana River Anglers. They offer the guided walking/wading excursions as well as drift boat trips on Northwest Montana’s iconic rivers and streams.


view from Oasis Lake House in Whitefish, MT
view from Hunt's View in Big Sky, MT

Our vacation homes in Big Sky

A vacation rental in Big Sky offers access to an incredible selection of rivers and streams—from the Gallatin to the Madison to the Yellowstone. Several guide services, including Gallatin River Guides offer drift boat excursions as well as wading trips. It’s also perfect for serving as a base for exploring Yellowstone National Park, with the West Entrance less than an hour away. Looking for a private, customized experience through America’s first and most stunning national park? Yellowstone Luxury Tours offers luxury tours complete with an experienced guide.