Dan Leavens (@StoneflyOutfitters), perhaps known better by his moniker, “Rooster”, is a one-of-a-kind human being. He hails from Twin Bridges, Montana, but you’ve probably seen him in photos in far-flung destinations where he spends his off-season hosting trips around the globe. Rooster is the owner and proprietor of Stonefly Outfitters, a multi-faceted fly fishing lodge, outfitter, and fly shop just south of Twin Bridges. After hearing legends of his escapades and personality, we knew we needed to sit down with him, pick his brain and listen to the stories he tells oh-so-well. Check out our interview with the one and only Dan “Rooster” Leavens, below!
Flylords: Who is Dan Leavens? Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What are your home waters like?
Rooster: I hang my hat in Twin Bridges, Montana – a town of only 300 people and one stop light. Suffice it to say that the trout outnumber everything around here other than maybe the cattle. I found this town back in the 90s and immediately knew I would live here. Twenty some odd years later and it appears that I’ve made at least one good decision in my life. With over 500 miles of blue-ribbon trout water within an hour’s drive, Twin Bridges is pretty hard to beat. Our local rivers, the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Ruby, Jefferson, and Madison certainly cast their own shadows in fly fishing lore – but it is some of our smaller, lesser-known water bodies that really make this area interesting.
Flylords: How did you earn the nickname “Rooster”?
Rooster: Rooster: Back in my twenties I ran a long-range charter boat in Southeast Alaska for a hillbilly from Arkansas named Jay Gustin. He took me in like a son and beset that name on me in short order.
For more on that subject – you bring the Tequila and we’ll talk…
Flylords: What is your earliest fly fishing memory?
Rooster: My grandfather, a WW2 – Iwo Jima vet turned dairy farmer, was a true steward of the land. He hunted, ran a trap line, and fly fished every chance he could and had a fly rod in my hand from about the time I learned to walk, and we didn’t have fancy Simms waders back then. We wet-waded in tennis shoes and Levis and often kept a few fish for dinner.
The earliest memory I have would be on The Millers River in Massachusetts – I was probably 8 or so years old. Eagle Claw Glass 5 wt in hand, and I had just tied on a Mickey Finn. Not just any Mickey Finn – but the one I had just tied the night before. The first fly I ever tied. I remember that first take like it was yesterday. The fish wasn’t anything special, but the look on my grandfather’s face sure as hell was. Thinking back on that day now brings tears to my eyes. I’d give damn near anything these days to row Raymond Whitaker through the Big Hole Canyon during the stonefly hatch.
Flylords: If you could only fish for one species for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Rooster: Don’t put that evil on me. I personally love the diversity of this sport. If I had to fish for only one fish I’d likely get bored pretty quickly and go find the local bar…
Flylords: How did you get your start in the fly fishing industry? What lessons did you learn along the way that are paying dividends today?
Rooster: Back in my Coast Guard days in Southeast Alaska I needed to make a few extra bucks to pay for the boat I had bought – so instead of taking leave to visit my high school girlfriend like others were doing (pretty sure there were more than a few in fact) – I would go and work as a guide for some of the local cruise ships. Pretty quickly I realized the pay was much better telling people to mend, than the US Governments “Hazardous Duty” pay.
As far as lessons learned along the way – I’ll say this. I’m still learning them – however, one phrase always rings true to me, “Don’t be a d**k”. It’s surprising what can be accomplished with an authentic smile and a few friendly words.
Flylords: You’re the owner/operator behind Stonefly Outfitters, a multi-faceted fly fishing business based just south of Twin Bridges, MT. Tell us a little bit about your growing fly fishing businesses.
Rooster: Like everything else in life, it seems one thing leads to another. The flyfishing industry is largely centered around networking, relationships, and the desire to catch fish in cool places. As our customer base grew, I was constantly being asked “Where are we fishing next?” The relationship between guides and anglers, in many cases, is thicker than blood, and luckily I realized this pretty early in my career. Diversifying and including fisheries in other states and countries happened very organically over the years. (plus I really dislike snow, and will jump at any chance to leave Montana in the winter). So, in a nutshell – guiding for trout led to steelhead season in Washington, Steelhead in Alaska, and hosting trips to destinations around the world. But it certainly doesn’t start or stop there. Throw in a retail fly shop and 24 toilets you need to keep clean and you’ll find yourself sleeping pretty well at night.
Most recently we have included a guide school to our program as a result of a tequila-driven conversation with one of my best friends and mentors, John Hudgens. We were in chukar camp up in Idaho and about the time the conversation started getting fairly slurred – Hudge asked me what I am doing to give back to the industry that has done so much for me. This led to Roosters Guide School – the way I see it, if I can help jump-start someone’s career simply by doing what I love to do, it’s a natural fit for my business.
Flylords: Did you always know you wanted to own your own lodge and guiding operation? How did the Stonefly Inn come to be?
Rooster: I remember reading Field and Stream back in my childhood years thinking “I sure would like to be a professional in the fishing world”. Fast forward 40 years and I’m still wondering if I will get to that phase……
As far as The Stonefly, I used to stay here back in the 90s when it was owned by Chuck Hemingway. We hit it off pretty well and I found myself spending more and more time in Twin Bridges. One thing led to another and I bought Chuck’s house, the fly shop, and the cabins one March day in 2002 on a handshake and a whole lot of faith. It didn’t seem proper to use the Hemingway name, so I chose our trout’s #1 food source.
Flylords: What is the best thing about owning your own business in the fly fishing industry? The worst part?
Rooster: The best part about owning my own operation in the fly fishing industry is that I am my own boss. This is also the worst part, no question. When things don’t go as planned, I can only blame myself.
Flylords: You’ve traveled around the world a time or two chasing all sorts of fish species. How did you get started with destination fly fishing? What was your first angling adventure outside of the US?
Rooster: Back in 1992, I chased this good-looking college gal that had joined the Peace Corps down to Costa Rica. When I arrived in San Jose I discovered that she had been eating plenty of rice and beans and as a result, the fire went out, at least for me anyhow.
So off to Quepos, I went, with a 10 weight, a few hundred bucks, and VERY limited Español. I still remember drinking beers that night with Cholo – a captain that befriended me and let me ride shotgun on his charter the next day. Like I said – one thing always leads to another…
Flylords: Let’s pull the curtain back on “hosted trips”. What are they? What does it take to successfully plan and execute these adventures as the “host”? What do you think the biggest benefit of booking a hosted trip is?
Rooster: Hosting a group of anglers to some far away destination laden with Palm Trees, turquoise water, beaches, foreign language speaking locals, and all-you-can-drink margaritas sounds pretty exhilarating. Some might even call it “Living the dream”. While the book looks pretty good on the cover, you get in there a few chapters and you may not pick it back up again. There is a distinct and palpable benefit to all parties involved on a hosted trip and I feel fortunate to have been on all sides of the equation over the years. I’ll try and break down a few of the major benefits.
- As a lodge owner, you get to pass off some of the marketing/admin/expense dollars to the host. You’ll pay it out in commissions, but it’s more than worth it to have a true “host” onboard for the trip. It takes the stress off of the owners and head guides when a “host” can rig tackle, entertain customers, organize guides, tie flies, pour drinks, tell jokes, give casting lessons, take some good images, make coffee in the morning, organize flights, handle tip distribution, run a dinner conversation and have everyone re-booked before they get on that little airplane off the island. Money well spent as a lodge owner. That’s IF the host actually gets it done. If he or she doesn’t – well those dates may not be available next season.
- As a guest on a hosted trip, you have an industry professional at your beck and call both prior to and during your trip. Your host should have been to the destination a few times, and know the guides, the water, and the fish. They should also know their customers and merge together a like-minded group of individuals. Someone hosting a trip should be sure and go over all the travel/documentation requirements, assist with flight planning, handle the invoicing in US dollars, ensure you have the proper tackle, gear and flies as well as arrange hotels/transfers. For example – on my last hosted trip to Seychelles – the ONE GUY that didn’t let me help plan his travel booked his return flight to Milan, Italy rather than Dallas, Texas. Italy is cool and all, but…
- As a host – you should plan on being really fucking tired at the end of the week. First one up, last one to bed. Why I even bring fly rods is often a mystery to me – as most of my time is spent in the middle of the boat, playing tunes, making cocktails, poling or rowing the boats, rigging gear, giving casting lessons – basically helping the guides in any way possible. As it turns out – that sort of thing pays in spades over time. And I’m not talking in currency. I’m talking about getting prime tides in Seychelles, early starts on the permit flats of Belize, extra days on the steelhead rivers in Alaska, and being treated like a local by the Mexicans.
Hosting a trip, going on a hosted trip, or having a hosted trip at your lodge should be a great experience for all three sides. I’m of the opinion a quality host that earns their commissions is no different than a guide that has their calendar booked 2 years in advance. They’ve earned it and the opportunity to fish with them should not be taken lightly. A word of advice to potential guests – ask a lot of questions before you put that check in the mail. “Fake it till you make it” has become common in the fly fishing world and you do not want to be on the wrong side of that.
Flylords: In 2020, you launched your Guide School program at your lodge. What can aspiring guides expect to learn as a part of that program?
Rooster: My intention with the guide school is really quite simple. It is not an “everyone gets a trophy” situation. Not everyone passes. Not everyone is guaranteed a job or placement in the industry after 5 days of instruction.
That said – the students that actually do “pass the test” are in the collective minds of the instructors – very solid individuals with a lot of promise and are virtually guaranteed employment either right here at The Stonefly or with one of many outfitters around the world that I have been fortunate enough to establish a relationship with.
Sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? While it’s not meant to be intimidating, I certainly will not give my stamp of approval to someone that clearly doesn’t possess or understand the dynamics of being a fly fishing guide – simply because they paid the bill and went through the motions.
My school is not quite a boot camp or rescue swimmer school, but we demand the best out of our students. We keep the class limited to 6 students and can offer some serious one-on-one instruction throughout the week.
At the end of the course – EVERYONE will leave with better ethics, a better angler, boat rower, tackle rigger, caster, fly tyer, communicator, cook, mechanic and have a broadened sense of the term “guiding”. We try and remove the romance from it and make sure the students really grasp the idea while growing an appreciation for what it actually takes to become a guide with a booked calendar.
I would say that my instructors, John Hudgens and Eric Shores are arguably two of the best fly fishing guides I have ever seen in action. To have the opportunity to learn from the best shouldn’t be taken lightly – and quite frankly I don’t think I charge enough to pay them what they are really worth in the capacity of an instructor.
So what can an aspiring guide expect to learn?? That is entirely up to them…
Flylords: What do think is the most important part of being a fly fishing guide?
Rooster: I think the answer to this lies within each individual. Guides are as diverse a group as the guests we take fishing. We all have our strong suits, and it is important to recognize and capitalize on them. That said – in my opinion – a guide that has the ability to be a chameleon is going to grow a larger following than a guide that is opinionated and has tunnel vision. Let’s face it, at the end of the day the fish just are only part of the equation.
Flylords: How has the fly fishing industry changed during your career? What is your opinion on the rapid growth of new anglers and businesses in the industry? Do you think it’s for the best?
Rooster: In the last 30 years we’ve seen so many changes in our industry, ecosystems, culture, and economy that it’s virtually impossible to put a finger on what exactly has changed, for the better or for the worse. If I started rambling on about how things have changed simply because of Instagram – y’all would need to upgrade your servers to accommodate the bandwidth. And I’m not talking solely in a negative sense. I mentioned earlier that since fly fishing began it was largely a social event and as a result a means for like-minded individuals to come together and enjoy the arteries of the earth. This is one thing that has not changed over time. The subsequent networking and growth, as a result, have just compounded in the last couple of decades with the advent of social media. This is both good, and bad. Let me clarify and break this concept down. There are more fishermen than ever these days. A serious upside to this is there are more voices to fight the encroachment of environmentally unfriendly adversaries. This also means there are more people buying gear, tying flies, booking trips and unfortunately standing in your favorite run when you get there. Let’s not forget that for the most part we are all like-minded individuals and theoretically should all get along. Fly fishing is not a competitive sport, in general. It’s an escape for most of us and should be treated that way. Never in the history of fly fishing has ethical behavior been more paramount than it is now. You have to take the good with the bad in life, and this is no exception. Remember to not be a dick, smile, shake hands and never let the fishing get in the way of a good fishing trip. I’m not sure I answered your question, but I’m not changing my response.
Flylords: What’s next for you in 2022? What hosted trips do you have lined up that you’re excited about?
Rooster: 2022 is going to present some challenges again in Montana. Our snow levels are less than ideal, and if it doesn’t rain much this spring we will see some challenging conditions come late summer. May, June, and July will obviously be great trout fishing, but as the summer heat takes over things will get tough. Personally, I’m going to lay off the trout in Montana for the month of August and spend a couple of weeks hosting permit anglers in Mexico and Belize. There will be plenty of water in the Caribbean Ocean in August. The Stonefly will remain open and the guides here will sort out some good fishing, somewhere – but necessity is the mother of invention and it makes me happy to keep my crew working while I expand our saltwater and travel side of the business. As far as hosted trips, on top of the weeks I have in Mexico, Belize, Seychelles, and Alaska, I’ve added a couple of new destinations to the calendar – Tierra Del Fuego sea-run browns and Bolivian Dorado will add an exciting freshwater facet to our program. I know I’m looking forward to some new scenery!