Tom Montgomery is on the phone when I arrive, making travel arrangements for New Zealand or some such exotic locale. My first impression is an unexpected one: He looks like George Stephanopolis. And, like the former Presidential advisor, Montgomery appears much younger than his 45 years. He hangs up the phone and attends to a seemingly routine task that has him surprisingly baffled: removing the shade on his new camera lens. He holds the camera in one hand and the instruction manual in the other, turning his head from side to side.
“Align the red dot on the front of the lens…”
He tells me a story of taking apart an old Mitchell 300 spinning reel as a kid and being unable to put the thing back together again.
“Both Bruun and I are very different from John in that way,” he explains. “Neither of us have high competencies mechanically.”
“Let’s set the record straight,” Bruun would tell me later, after hearing the “professional-photographer-can’t-remove-his-lens-cap” story. “John is the master at tinkering, no doubt about it. But I’m ahead of Montgomery.”
When he finally gets the lens cap off, I ask what relationship he has with some of the other prominant fly-fishing photographers, like Andy Anderson.
“Andy used to call me all the time when he was starting out,” Montgomery said. “Now that he’s sort of gone racing past the rest of us, I don’t know who he calls – maybe the spirit of Ansel Adams.” Montgomery’s own big break came when he was hired to do the photography for a beautiful 1991 table top book called “The Nature of Flyfishing.”
“This is the kind of thing I was shooting then,” he says, pointing to a picture from the book. “Old hat, holding a rolled up cigarette – coulda been a joint. I don’t really dig all the fashion shit. I mean, if a guy wanted to wear some funky old snowboarding gear, I think that’d be sorta cool.”
The photo he points to is of A.J. DeRosa, a legendary guide in his own right who Simms, Bruun and Montgomery all speak highly of.
“Going fishing with A.J. is like winning a trip to Disneyland,” Bruun said.
Montgomery graduated from Vermont’s Middlebury College and went on to study at Oxford. But don’t let the brainy-guy thing mislead you. He can fish. And guide. He has done so in Montana and Wyoming for two decades, and even spent three winters in the Caymans. In fact, he was on his way back to a third year of guiding in Alaska before meeting Brunn and Simms.
“From the beginning, Tom just seemed smarter than a lot of guides,” Simms said. “Not that other guides weren’t smart. It’s just that he always seemed destined for… you know, a little more.”
It was Simms whom Montgomery ended up working for soon after they met.
“Paul was my really good friend and I’m sure I fished more with him,” Montgomery said. “But I truly did my guiding apprenticeship under John Simms.”
I ask what it was like working with him.
“Well, like most guides, John definitely had `his way’ of doing things,” Montgomery says. “But as time went by, I learned his way and I knew my role, which was to be part of his support team. He was the outfitter or whatever and I was the employee. But he always kindly gave me full pay. He never took a bigger chunk even though they were mostly his clients.”
Then, like now, there were several benefits to being a fishing guide, but big financial gain wasn’t one of them.
“I remember we’d split the cost of like a $6 bottle of wine because neither of us had any money.” Montgomery said. “I think John was driving a Ford Aspen that a client had given him and I was driving a Datsun 510 with a roof rack for my boat. The first four or five years I guided, I didn’t even have a trailer.”
When he finally did get a trailer, it was to carry his new boat that was sold to him by – who else – Paul Bruun.
“There weren’t really a lot of dories on the river yet,” Montgomery said. “Simms had a little Sea Nymph john boat and Bruun had recognized the virtue of that even though he owned a Lavro. John and I were of the mind that it was better to sit down and fish than stand up – just a stealthier approach. So Bruun accepted that logic and inventoried Stone Drug (where he was the sporting goods manager at the time) with several of these little john boats.
Bruun persuaded me to buy one and I was nervous because it was $330. I made him throw in the oars and he still says it was the hardest sale he ever made.”