Kelly Harrison: Big Sky on the Fly

By Trent Jonas Fly

“I’m from Missoula, Montana — born and raised,” says Kelly Harrison (@MontanaRiverFlyGal on Instagram). “I’ve always kinda fished. Especially when we’d go camping and things like that when I was a kid.”

Kelly comes by her fly fishing honestly — it runs in her family.

“My grandfather and aunt both fly fished,” she says. “And then in 2010, I got serious about it as a sport. I started learning more about entomology and heading out to places like the Jocko River to practice more.”

Meanwhile, Kelly also earned her business degree from the University of Montana.

“I was interested in the outdoor industry,” she says. “And I met an outfitter and was hired on in a management capacity in 2014. A year later, they gave me an guiding opportunity.”

At the time, there were not a lot of women working as fly fishing guides in that part of the country.

“It was a rare chance to guide as a female,” Kelly says.

Now fly guiding and teaching is Kelly’s main career.

“In the offseason, I work for Onyx Maps, so even when I’m not fishing, I’ve got my feet in the outdoor industry,” she says.

During season, Kelly stays busy, booking trips through both Gallatin River Guides and Stonefly Inn and Outfitters. She also teaches women’s flyfishing clinics.

“I guide all over Montana: the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, the Missouri,” she says. “But my favorite fishery is the Clark Fork.”

What she loves about the river is its diversity.

“It springs out of Upper Deer Lodge, and then it curves through so many environments and ecosystems that at any given time there is good fishing on some part of the river,” she says. “Even after you learn the river, it continues to challenge you and keeps you learning.”

Since she started, Kelly mostly guided from borrowed boats or a raft, but this year, she’s pulling the trigger and getting a drift boat.

“Adipose Boatworks is building it for me,” she says.

Brown trout are Kelly’s favorite quarry. “But having a bull trout hit your line is always an awesome surprise,” she says. “They put up a great fight, and then we always try to get them off the line and back in the water as quickly as possible.”

When she got serious about her sport, it wasn’t something she was expecting.

“Fly fishing kinda snuck up on me,” Kelly says. “And then I learned that I also really enjoy watching other people do it, too — which is really important as a guide. Seeing their excitement and their demeanor change when they’re on a fish is fun to me.”

Kelly still does plenty of fly fishing for herself, too.

“I really love fishing the west side of the divide, where there are fewer people and less pressure on the rivers,” she says. “But I’m still young in the industry, so anything I can do to make myself better is great.”

And even though it’s her job, fly fishing is still a way for Kelly to relax.

“It’s nice to escape from life — the computer, social media — and get out of your mind,” she says. “When I fly fish, I don’t think about other things.”

“And I’m always looking for the next bigger fish,” Kelly says. “Trying to catch something bigger or different from the last one.”


Trent Jonas
Trent Jonas

I love fishing, cookies, and being a dad. Most of the time.

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