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Fly-tying focus: Kids tie flies in after-school club

Enterprise photos by Shawn Raecke

Fifth-graders from East Side Elementary School, including John Adams, 10, center, Declan Goff, 10, right, and Casey Fladager, 11, below left, watch Matt Wilhelm, education director for the Invasive Species Action Network, tie a caddis fly larva pattern during a Watershed Warrior project after school on Wednesday. Adams said the flies he ties are more reliable than store-bought flies.



Fly-fishing enthusiasts take note: A fifth-grader at East Side School might have invented the next Pink Pookie.


Darian Juvan, 10, works on her fly pattern during a Watershed Warriors fly-tying project at East Side Elementary School on Wednesday.


Mackenzie Watt, 11, who was at East Side School Wednesday tying flies in an after-school club that’s part of the Watershed Warriors program, tied a dry fly with a neon green body, a brown head and a purple feather that she’s had success fishing with. The neon green fly doesn’t yet have a name, she said.

“Once I tied a pink fly,” Watt said. “But I gave that one to my grandpa.”

The Pink Pookie was invented by Dean Reiner of Hatch Finders Fly Shop in 2000. He tied the fly as a novelty, named it after his dog and never expected fish to like it, but they did. 

Matt Wilhelm, a longtime local guide and education director for the Invasive Species Action Network, said some of the students he’s instructed in fly-tying at East Side have gotten pretty good, maybe even good enough to have their flies framed on the wall at the Murray Bar.


Alexander Boreham, 11, concentrates on tying his caddis fly larva pattern, Wednesday. 


Although he wasn’t sure how well Mackenzie’s fly would work, Wilhelm applauded her flair.

“She has the enthusiasm to create something on her own,” he said. “Whether it works or not — that’s up to her to discover.”

Mackenzie said she caught a 6-inch brown trout with the fly. She usually fishes with her grandfather, she said. She’s been fishing and tying flies since she was 7 years old, and has found a place to learn more about her hobbies in Watershed Warriors. 

The East Side School program uses hands-on experience with the natural world in and around Livingston to teach subjects in the fifth-grade curriculum, largely science related. 

“The  mission of Watershed Warriors is to provide hands-on, place-based, real-life application to school subjects while bestowing stewardship of and access to a common thread (the Yellowstone River) in our landscape and culture,” reads a flyer about the program. 


Mackenzie Watt, 11, finishes up tying her caddis fly larva pattern during a Watershed Warriors project. Instructor Matt Wilhelm commented on Watt’s effort and said she should be teaching the class.


Watershed Warriors was started by East Side teacher Chris Gillespie — who said she likes to dabble in fly-fishing — and Wilhelm. It includes an after school club called W20, in which the students were tying flies Wednesday afternoon.

Gillespie said fly-fishing works well to teach subjects like life cycles of insects and physics, which Watershed Warriors teaches during lessons about fly casting. On Wednesday, as Wilhelm demonstrated tying a caddis fly larva, he asked the students whether the caddis fly had a complete or incomplete life cycle. 

In unison, they yelled, “Complete!”

Gillespie said the students had seen live samples of caddis flies before attempting to tie the fly Wednesday afternoon.

Casey Fladager, 11, said he got a fly-tying kit for Christmas and plans to start tying more flies and fishing with his flies. He and Scott Tatum, a veteran Watershed Warrior, were trading tips about catching minnows Wednesday afternoon. The boys agreed they liked tying minnow flies, but what they liked even more was catching live minnows, putting them on hooks and fishing with them. 

“It works all the time,” Fladager said, “but you have to put them on and cast really quick.”

Tatum said he fishes the Yellowstone three times a week in the spring and summer, often using his own flies. He also likes tying woolly worms and said he once attempted tying a mouse. 

“(Watershed Warriors) really started me getting going,” he said regarding how he developed fly-tying and fishing as a hobby. 

“It will definitely be a big hobby of mine,” Fladager said.

“Yah, we’ll keep doing this when we get older, like when we are in high school,” Tatum said.

The Watershed Warriors will hold a fundraiser Thursday Jan. 16 at the Elks Lodge at 5:30 p.m. The event, sponsored by Trout Unlimited, includes a dinner, a raffle, a silent auction and talks on fisheries in the area. The students will also be selling their flies. 

For more information email Chris Gillespie at christina.gillespie@livingston.k12.mt.us.


Natalie Storey may be reached at nstorey@livent.net.