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SheJumps 2021 River Finishing School Goes Swimmingly Well

On the shores of Big Hole River in Montana, anglers deepen their knowledge of fly fishing techniques and conservation efforts in the diverse valley.

Photo by Wade Fellin

Fly Guide Heather Hodson said it herself: “Fish don’t live in ugly places.” The phrase rings true at the first inaugural River Finishing School location in Big Hole River, Montana. Surrounded by warm autumn foliage, the free-flowing Big Hole River presented a beautiful setting for the anglers to learn. This particular watershed is home to five species of game fish, including some of the last remaining population of native fluvial arctic grayling.

The River Finishing School was a chance for intermediate to advanced fly anglers to build their skillset and knowledge on the water through a hybrid online and in-person course. The event was made possible by Orvis, Yeti, Patagonia, Montucky Cold Snacks, Costa Sunglasses, Big Hole Lodge, and fellowships provided through the organization Brown Folks Fishing.

Photos by Wade Fellin

“This trip was a lot of firsts for me,” explained Danielle, who began her fly fishing journey in 2015 and had not been on a guided trip before. “I’ve been trying to progress as an angler and become more independent on the water and this program did just that. I’m used to fly fishing with my partner, so this experience has really forced me to use these skills independently in action.”

With top-notch guides from United Woman on the Fly and Big Hole Lodge, the participants improved their casting, dial in the art of streamers, and worked on double hauls. “I personally did not expect to enjoy streamer fishing, but because of the open, welcoming and inviting environment that Hilary [Hutcheson] and her sister Whitney [Milhoan] created, it was such a conducive learning environment,” said Jackie, who started fly fishing while on a backpacking trip in Yosemite over ten years ago. “The thought that they put behind the programming and curriculum really showed. I wasn’t hesitant to try something new.”

Photo by Wade Fellin

There was also an emphasis on properly handling a fish from Keep Fish Wet, an organization that promotes the use of science-based best practices to catch, handle, and release fish. “It was so different learning on my own versus learning from such an expert guide that you really pick up on the nuances of things and learn to understand the why behind it all,” added Danielle.

Brian Wheeler, Executive Director of Big Hole River Foundation, also spoke to the crew about the efforts his organization has been making in Montana for environmental justice and conservation. “There is room for all of us, regardless of social or economic status, to be a part of this effort. It is utterly critical for people of all backgrounds to engage in protecting these resources because every single one of us depends on them for our health, growth, vocation, recreation, and joy,” he stated.

“At the end of the day, we’re simply borrowing these resources from future generations. We’re all members of the Earth Community, and adopting a ‘Land Ethic,’ includes respect for soils, waters, plants, humans, and animals and recognizing this interdependent community of which we are but apart."

Photo by Wade Fellin

Wade Fellin, another guide and owner of Big Hole Lodge, explained the environmental work his family and himself have put into the area through Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and Big Hole River Foundation. “It was inspiring to hear about, really invigorating, especially with what’s going on globally with climate change,” noted Jackie.

Photo by Wade Fellin

The dialogue encouraged Danielle to continue learning about the conservation activism happening around her home watersheds in Virginia. “While I love Montana, it’s difficult to make an impact from so far away. I want to take my experience as an angler to where I can make the most impact. My goal is to weave outdoor activity and environmental justice into any work I do moving forward,” she explained. “As we welcome a new set of anglers into the photo, we really emphasize making it more inclusive to BIPOC anglers. There are opportunities to connect the dots with environmental justice too because they are so interrelated.”

Both Danielle and Jackie expressed how they felt the River Finishing School is important to continue for others. “After this trip, my love for fly fishing has only deepened,” said Jackie. “It has been so important and meaningful to have a group of folks who are intentionally creating a space for me by putting in resources, time, and energy. My hope is that the relationships and community that was sparked by this event will continue.”


SheJumps is an inclusive organization. We welcome all women and girls (transgender and cisgender) as well as non-binary people who identify with the women’s community. SheJumps strives to be an ally in the fight against racism and acknowledges that our events and programs take place on traditional, unceded Indigenous lands.

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