When Your Passion Catches the Big Fish: The Story of Sisters on the Fly

If you’ve seen A River Runs Through It, then you’ve seen where the remarkable women-only, travel-adventure business known as Sisters on the Fly got started — or, rather, got hooked.

It was there, on the great Gallatin River, where the Robert Redford outdoors film was largely shot, that a fishing trip inspired another fishing trip inspired real-life sisters Maurrie Sussman and Becky Clarke’s passion-driven venture that’s gone on to be featured in the pages of O, The Oprah Magazine, and seen on TV’s Megyn Kelly Today. It was there, on the great Gallatin River, you see, that Maurrie Sussman fell in love with fly fishing.

“I stood out in the river. It was quiet. It was unbelievable,” Sussman says of her inaugural fly-fishing trip to Montana with her then-college-aged son. “I’d always loved the outdoors and Montana with a passion. And I’m out there casting. Your fly goes up in the air, and then it turns and drifts into the water. It’s so magical.”

Sussman, who divides her time between Montana and Arizona, called Becky in Idaho, and told her “she must do it,” too. And so the sisters, who grew up under the rugged influence of a fighter-pilot father and an always-game mother who loved to bait fish and hike, took off to the Gallatin; Maurrie’s son, Austin, who was at school in Bozeman, and who’d caught the fly-fishing bug first, met up with them there.

“We packed up a great cooler-full of wine and cheese and grapes … and had a really fun time,” Sussman says.

Around 1 p.m. that day, the sisters were ready to cut bait, as it were, and, Maurrie Sussman says, “watch the buffalo on Ted Turner’s property” from their boat. Maurrie’s son urged them to keep at it. The three of them got to talking about the different goals and objectives of men and women: “We don’t need to catch all the fish,” Sussman says of women, “we really don’t need to.”

A seed had been planted. It would fully come to life when soon after Maurrie Sussman bought and spruced up a 1958 camper trailer, and took it on the road with friends bound for her sister’s.

“Everybody went nuts,” Sussman says.

The road trips to Idaho branched into road trips to Montana, which, of course, led to fly-fishing trips.

“Every time we did something our girlfriends always wanted to go with us,” Sussman says.

And then those girlfriends asked their girlfriends. And then Maurrie and Becky found themselves doing the wrangling, if not the cooking, for the ever-increasing brood. When the sisters asked themselves if they should start charging for the grub, it was time to rethink — and re-envision — their hobby.

Sisters on the Fly was established in 1999, just two years after Maurrie’s first fly-fishing trip to the Gallatin. The business model stayed true to those initial outings with girlfriends: There were camper trailers; there was camping; there was fishing — and there were no men allowed. (No children, either. And there’s nothing personal against either men or children; the sisters simply want their core audience to leave behind their everyday lives, and fully lose themselves in the great outdoors. As if to prove there are no hard feelings, some Sisters on the Fly events are designed for women and their “Sister-Misters.”)

Today, Sisters on the Fly boasts more than 6,100 active, dues-paying members from across all 50 U.S. states, plus Canada and New Zealand. Last year, Sussman says, the company hosted more than 600 events. The Sisters on the Fly Website and email keep the members connected. Along the way, the business has evolved — you don’t need a camper to participate, you don’t even have to go fishing. You do, however, have to “be nice.” (That’s one of Sisters on the Fly’s inviolable rules, along with no men and no kids.) There are five employees now, not including Sister No. 1, Maurrie herself, who previously worked in the hotel industry, and tends to Sisters on the Fly “every friggin’ day,” seven days a week.

“The thing that makes it work is that I love it,” says Sussman.

Love is the main ingredient in Sisters on the Fly’s secret sauce. Just as it’s part of the business’ origin story, it’s part of every lasting Sisters on the Fly friendship formed on the road, around the campfire and down the river. Do something you love, the model teaches us, and whether it’s establishing a start-up, or joining an adventure group, you’ll love what you’re doing.

“It has to be something you love,” Sussman says. “And you don’t give up, even if you get mad — and if you do get mad, go fishing.”