Montana to Mongolia
Fly Fishing the World with Dan Vermillion

BY PAT HILL

Livingston may be the base of operations for Montana native Dan Vermillion's guide services, but destinations for his fly fishing adventures extend beyond the borders of Big Sky Country to Canada, Alaska, and even far-flung locations like South America, French Polynesia, and Mongolia.
Vermillion, owner of Sweetwater Travel Company in Livingston, turns 43 this month, but he got hooked on fly fishing when he was quite young.

“I probably started fly fishing when I was about five,” he told the Pioneer. “I grew up in Billings…we had a ranch on the Yellowstone and we'd fish there. Then my dad started taking us into the Beartooths, where we'd catch cutthroat by the hundreds…that's really where I got hooked.”
Vermillion said that by the time he was 18 his family's fishing adventures already had him (and his brothers) dabbling in the world of professional guiding. 

“We started guiding in 1985,” he said. “I started working for lodges up in Alaska while in college. Then I came back to Montana, because I love to fish here…I guided here for a couple of summers, but sort of had my eye on getting overseas. Fisheries [overseas] that we all kind of take for granted now were just getting started then.” Vermillion said he guided in New Zealand in 1989-'90, and then helped manage a fishing  lodge in Venezuela in 1990-'91.

“Those were trips you'd go on when it was winter here, so I did a season in each place,” said Vermillion. “New Zealand was great, a pretty low-key, fairly easy job. Venezuela was an exceptionally challenging job…we were on the Colombian border, way back in the woods in a very difficult working environment. It was hotter than hell, and a long season, trying to keep clients motivated as a 22-year-old kid when they were all in their 40s.” Vermillion said that those early experiences in Venezuela still hold top honors when it comes to the most difficult guiding he's ever had to do.
After working in Venezuela, Vermillion was joined by his two brothers, and the three “went on to guide in Russia for a couple of years.” But Vermillion decided in '93 that he “should get a real job,” and he chose to attend law school at the University of Montana for the next few years.

“I went to law school from '93-'96, and when I graduated I went to work for a law firm in Billings,” Vermillion said. “I did that for about two years, but honestly, once this lifestyle, this [fishing guide] way of life gets in your blood, it's really hard to say goodbye to.” Vermillion's longing for his former days as a fishing guide was well-timed.

“At that time, my brother Jeff was just starting to poke around Mongolia,” said Vermillion. “He told me, 'We're going to set up a lodge in Mongolia…it should be a sweet operation…here's what you can catch here.' And you see those pictures and say 'Ah, man, I've gotta go try that.'” Vermillion said that at first he just went to Mongolia to fish, but he was so impressed with what he saw that he told his brother, “I'm in.”

“I quit practicing law and moved over to Mongolia for four months to set this operation up with him,” Vermillion said. “He did all the legwork, the hard stuff…we came in after everything was set up and helped run the lodge, and we've been now been doing it for 15 years.”

Though the Mongolia operation was the first fishing lodge established by Sweetwater Travel, the Vermillion brothers have since added two lodges in Alaska and three in British Columbia to their portfolio of fly fishing adventures. They work as exclusive agents for two lodges in Brazil, and are in the process of purchasing another lodge in the Bahamas. Sweetwater has another lodge in Montana on the family ranch, and they also do day trips out of their Livingston office. Vermillion added that the Mongolian venture that started their business is “still going strong.”

“For a kid who grew up in Montana, Mongolia is a special place,” said Vermillion. “It's an opportunity to walk into a country that looks just like what Montana must have looked like 200 years ago. There aren't roads…there are lush forests and beautiful valleys. There are ranchers there, raising cows and goats and sheep, but they're doing it in a way that's very nomadic and pastoral. It's a traditional culture that's evolving very well with the landscape…it hasn't been changed by people, the people have adapted to the landscape. And then you get into the river…and you catch 50-inch trout. Sometimes it's a little bit surreal…you have a hard time believing such a treasure still exists in 2010.” Vermillion added that the people of Mongolia are “so friendly.”

“They're the one group of people that consistently in our travels throughout the Bush years still liked Americans,” Vermillion said. “The Mongolians are still very thankful that we're not Russians or Chinese, and they're happy to have us there.” He said the first year he was in Mongolia, “we had some run-ins…people thought we were Russian, and the border police came in a little heavy-handed.”

“Once we got that cleared up, we've had very good luck there,” said Vermillion. “We've had no problems in Brazil either, and security really isn't an issue in British Columbia or Alaska, so we've been lucky there.” Vermillion said that luck has also lent their business a hand during the recession. He said that Sweetwater Travel's client base is “pretty much stretched across the United States and Montana,” and Vermillion describes his clients as “those who grew up fishing, and those who took up fly fishing in the '90s.” Vermillion said that a love of the sport is why the recession really hasn't hit Sweetwater Travel and other fly fishing guide services as hard as it did other businesses.

“One of the reasons the fly fishing industry has been more resilient than a lot of other industries the last couple of years is that people treat fly fishing as sort of a non-discretionary activity,” Vermillion said. “It's something they do every year because they love to do it…they figure out a way to take their [fishing] trip and cut back somewhere else. They stay committed to their passion. So we're lucky…very lucky.” He said that he meets people from many walks of life while guiding, such as President Obama, who went fishing with Vermillion in the Bozeman area last summer.

“I sure feel lucky I got to spend the day with the President fishing,” said Vermillion. “That's one of the great things about the fishing business. We get to go out fishing with people who do jobs that we'll never do…people you read about…not all of 'em are great, but most of them are pretty awesome. I'll talk about politics with a particular client, for instance…I love politics…and they'll talk with me about fishing, so we can usually teach each other quite a bit about our particular interests.”

Vermillion may love politics, but fishing trumps politics in his book any day; he said he's happy he can make his living pursuing his passion. 

“It's kind of like running a ranch,” said Vermillion. “It's a great lifestyle, but it's a tough living. We work really hard, and at the end of the year, we always make money, but it's not the kind of thing you can retire on when you're 50.”

Vermillion said that by the time he was 18 his family's fishing adventures already had him (and his brothers) dabbling in the world of professional guiding. 

“We started guiding in 1985,” he said. “I started working for lodges up in Alaska while in college. Then I came back to Montana, because I love to fish here…I guided here for a couple of summers, but sort of had my eye on getting overseas. Fisheries [overseas] that we all kind of take for granted now were just getting started then.” Vermillion said he guided in New Zealand in 1989-'90, and then helped manage a fishing  lodge in Venezuela in 1990-'91.

“Those were trips you'd go on when it was winter here, so I did a season in each place,” said Vermillion. “New Zealand was great, a pretty low-key, fairly easy job. Venezuela was an exceptionally challenging job…we were on the Colombian border, way back in the woods in a very difficult working environment. It was hotter than hell, and a long season, trying to keep clients motivated as a 22-year-old kid when they were all in their 40s.” Vermillion said that those early experiences in Venezuela still hold top honors when it comes to the most difficult guiding he's ever had to do.

After working in Venezuela, Vermillion was joined by his two brothers, and the three “went on to guide in Russia for a couple of years.” But Vermillion decided in '93 that he “should get a real job,” and he chose to attend law school at the University of Montana for the next few years.

“I went to law school from '93-'96, and when I graduated I went to work for a law firm in Billings,” Vermillion said. “I did that for about two years, but honestly, once this lifestyle, this [fishing guide] way of life gets in your blood, it's really hard to say goodbye to.” Vermillion's longing for his former days as a fishing guide was well-timed.

“At that time, my brother Jeff was just starting to poke around Mongolia,” said Vermillion. “He told me, 'We're going to set up a lodge in Mongolia…it should be a sweet operation…here's what you can catch here.' And you see those pictures and say 'Ah, man, I've gotta go try that.'” Vermillion said that at first he just went to Mongolia to fish, but he was so impressed with what he saw that he told his brother, “I'm in.”

“I quit practicing law and moved over to Mongolia for four months to set this operation up with him,” Vermillion said. “He did all the legwork, the hard stuff…we came in after everything was set up and helped run the lodge, and we've been now been doing it for 15 years.”

Though the Mongolia operation was the first fishing lodge established by Sweetwater Travel, the Vermillion brothers have since added two lodges in Alaska and three in British Columbia to their portfolio of fly fishing adventures. They work as exclusive agents for two lodges in Brazil, and are in the process of purchasing another lodge in the Bahamas. Sweetwater has another lodge in Montana on the family ranch, and they also do day trips out of their Livingston office. Vermillion added that the Mongolian venture that started their business is “still going strong.”

“For a kid who grew up in Montana, Mongolia is a special place,” said Vermillion. “It's an opportunity to walk into a country that looks just like what Montana must have looked like 200 years ago. There aren't roads…there are lush forests and beautiful valleys. There are ranchers there, raising cows and goats and sheep, but they're doing it in a way that's very nomadic and pastoral. It's a traditional culture that's evolving very well with the landscape…it hasn't been changed by people, the people have adapted to the landscape. And then you get into the river…and you catch 50-inch trout. Sometimes it's a little bit surreal…you have a hard time believing such a treasure still exists in 2010.” Vermillion added that the people of Mongolia are “so friendly.”

“They're the one group of people that consistently in our travels throughout the Bush years still liked Americans,” Vermillion said. “The Mongolians are still very thankful that we're not Russians or Chinese, and they're happy to have us there.” He said the first year he was in Mongolia, “we had some run-ins…people thought we were Russian, and the border police came in a little heavy-handed.”

“Once we got that cleared up, we've had very good luck there,” said Vermillion. “We've had no problems in Brazil either, and security really isn't an issue in British Columbia or Alaska, so we've been lucky there.” Vermillion said that luck has also lent their business a hand during the recession. He said that Sweetwater Travel's client base is “pretty much stretched across the United States and Montana,” and Vermillion describes his clients as “those who grew up fishing, and those who took up fly fishing in the '90s.”

Vermillion said that a love of the sport is why the recession really hasn't hit Sweetwater Travel and other fly fishing guide services as hard as it did other businesses.

“One of the reasons the fly fishing industry has been more resilient than a lot of other industries the last couple of years is that people treat fly fishing as sort of a non-discretionary activity,” Vermillion said. “It's something they do every year because they love to do it…they figure out a way to take their [fishing] trip and cut back somewhere else. They stay committed to their passion. So we're lucky…very lucky.” He said that he meets people from many walks of life while guiding, such as President Obama, who went fishing with Vermillion in the Bozeman area last summer.

“I sure feel lucky I got to spend the day with the President fishing,” said Vermillion. “That's one of the great things about the fishing business. We get to go out fishing with people who do jobs that we'll never do…people you read about…not all of 'em are great, but most of them are pretty awesome. I'll talk about politics with a particular client, for instance…I love politics…and they'll talk with me about fishing, so we can usually teach each other quite a bit about our particular interests.”

Vermillion may love politics, but fishing trumps politics in his book any day; he said he's happy he can make his living pursuing his passion. 

“It's kind of like running a ranch,” said Vermillion. “It's a great lifestyle, but it's a tough living. We work really hard, and at the end of the year, we always make money, but it's not the kind of thing you can retire on when you're 50.”

 

 

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