February 17, 2022
This article was originally titled "Let's Go Fishing" in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. The opinions expressed are those of the authors who appear here and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies or views of Fly Fisherman. We welcome polite reader responses to the issues presented here.
“Fishing seems to be one of the few avenues left to Presidents through which they may escape to their own thoughts, may live in their own imaginings, find relief from the pneumatic hammer of constant personal contacts, and refreshment of mind in rippling waters. Moreover, it is a constant reminder of the democracy of life, of humility and of human frailty. It is desirable that the President of the United States should be periodically reminded of this fundamental fact—that the forces of nature discriminate for no man.”
– Herbert Hoover, from his 1963 book Fishing for Fun—and to Wash Your Soul
If anyone can appreciate Hoover’s writings on the therapeutic value of escaping your own thoughts, it’s President Barack Obama. Since he took office in January, Obama has been saddled with economic troubles similar in some ways to the issues that plagued the Hoover administration eight decades ago.
But until his Yellowstone vacation this past August, Obama—a city slicker who has spent his adult years in Chicago, New York, and now Washington, D.C.—had never enjoyed the “refreshment of mind” that riffles, runs, and rising trout can provide.
On Aug. 14, 2009, Obama finally discovered for himself what President Hoover was writing about when (as promised in an April 2008 campaign stop) he waded the East Gallatin River with longtime Montana guide Dan Vermillion.
The private trip (no media were permitted), held on a public stretch of water just north of the Bozeman airport, followed a heated town hall meeting on health care in nearby Belgrade.
“I think the fact that the president requested this be a private event gives his fishing experience a lot more integrity,” said Vermillion, a lifelong Democrat who owns Sweetwater Fly Shop in Livingston.
“He decided to go fly fishing to satisfy his own interest in the sport. He did not go fly fishing to gain some sort of political advantage. It leads me to believe that he will fly fish again. I just hope he does not have a lot of time for fishing for eight years.”
Obama’s first fishing adventure almost didn’t happen thanks to an unpredicted thunderstorm that wreaked havoc on Vermillion’s three weeks of planning.
Luckily for the president, the East Gallatin can handle a few raindrops late in the summer. And luckily for Vermillion, Obama isn’t a fair-weather fisherman.
“It was very refreshing to see our president in waders and in weather that would have sent most of us to the bar,” Vermillion said. “I think it speaks not only to the president’s interest in natural resource conservation, but also to his efforts to remain in touch with the world outside of Washington.
Vermillion said the president had a calming way about him, which resulted in an “easy conversation between two fly fishermen” over their 2½ hours on the water (fishing a half hour longer than previously planned).
But there were also times when the guide must have felt like he was in an Oliver Stone film—pulling up to the river in a motorcade of black SUVs, and Secret Service men around every bend of the river.
Security concerns prevented the president from taking a drift-boat trip, which was fine with Vermillion since it gave the two more time to talk about Montana’s generous stream access laws, not to mention what types of flies are best during poor weather in southwest Montana.
“While I think that President Obama’s time on the river will strengthen his commitment to sound natural resource management,” Vermillion said, “I believe his value system is simply more respectful of fish and wildlife and that he is much more committed to long-term, sustainable resource management. Whether he fishes again or not, his administration will be much friendlier to America’s fish and wildlife.”
The president’s commitment to conservation became apparent in March when he signed the second largest Wild and Scenic Rivers package in history. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 designated 86 new Wild and Scenic Rivers, totaling more than 1,100 miles in Western states such as Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, and California.
“He was dying to come here and go fishing,” presidential spokesperson Robert Gibbs said in a press briefing the following day. “Literally, every time we’d been to Montana … he said, ‘I’m going to come back here and learn how to fly fish.’ He was dying to do that and finally got a chance to do that, though he was a bit frustrated he didn’t get to hold one of the fish.”
The president hooked a half dozen fish, but did not bring any to the net. Instead, the two anglers settled for what they later called a handful of “long-distance releases.”
“While it is probably true that the president has spent most of this time in urban settings, he really seemed to enjoy the surroundings and the experience of wading up the East Gallatin,” Vermillion said. “He remarked several times about how he would like to teach his children to fish. He also said: ‘If it is this beautiful when it is pouring rain, I can’t imagine how beautiful it must be when the sun is shining.’”
Like many anglers in the late summer and early fall months, the two turned to hoppers and droppers. Vermillion’s recommendation? A tan Morrish Hopper and a beadhead Pheasant-tail Nymph.
“President Obama was a very good caster for a person who was really doing it live for the first time,” Vermillion said. “He had practiced before at Camp David, but I am pretty sure it was the first time he had fished in a river.”
Obama fished with a custom fly rod he received from his staff as a birthday present, and a Ross reel and RIO line. Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, a University of Montana graduate, helped set up the trip through a mutual friend of Vermillion.
Obama, who wore a Sweetwater Fly Shop hat, Simms boot-foot waders, and Simms jacket, also took a few casts with a 5-weight Sage TCX, which is now displayed proudly in Vermillion’s shop with the president’s signature on the cork.
“[President Obama] picked it up very quickly,” Vermillion added. “He did not struggle with the usual casting hang-ups such as breaking the wrist. I think that, if time allows, he will become a very good fly fisherman.”
And if the opportunity were to present itself again, Vermillion said he’d jump at the chance to get the president on some more trout.
“The entire experience was the most memorable episode of my guiding career, which has spanned 24 years,” Vermillion said. “I think I will always remember how I felt when he walked up to me and introduced himself. I have no idea how I will ever match the excitement I felt when he said, ‘Let’s go fishing.'”
Brian Milne is an outdoor writer who lives in California.