Always Show Up, Never Give Up

Image by Joel Caldwell

For nearly 70 years, Tony Schoonen was above all else a bare-fisted brawler for wild country and his bone-deep conviction that “blue-collar people should be able to hunt and fish.”




Tony Schoonen cat-footed within 80 yards of his last bull, a solid six-point, four years ago. That was back when he was 85. Tony was alone on that hunt, but he did get some help packing it out. He shot his final elk two years later. When I asked him how many he’d killed all told, he eased off to the side a little bit the way you do when you’re on a hot set of tracks, and they start meandering like the bull is getting ready to bed.

“Well, the statute of limitations has long since expired,” he chuckled and paused. “You have to understand things were different back when I started hunting elk. There weren’t nearly so many of them. You could hunt hard for a week and not cut a set of fresh tracks. So, when you got into a bunch, you made the most of it.

He shouldered an imaginary rifle and swung: bam, bam, bam. It’s a pretty sure bet there would have been three elk lying in the lodgepoles. He hunted with the same Belgian Browning BAR .30-06 since 1956. What Luke Skywalker is to a lightsaber, that was Tony with his BAR. But that was all long ago, the ethic a product of earlier, leaner days.

“Times have changed, and it’s absolutely for the better. For elk and for hunters.”


“I’ve killed 92 elk.”

All but four of them lived and died on public land. What made Tony extraordinary, though, was what he did beyond the elk woods. It’s tough to imagine a more dogged champion for wild elk, wild trout and above all, opportunity for the common man to seek them.

Born the ninth of 10 children as the Depression cinched tight on America in 1930, Tony went to the orphanage in Twin Bridges, Montana, when he was six months old. He lived there for 13 years until Jack Seidensticker took him on as a hand on the family ranch along the Big Hole River. Tony already knew how to work, but it was there that he learned to hunt and fish and fell irretrievably in love with wild places.

He became one of Montana’s first licensed fishing guides, a profession he pursued every summer with an angler’s passion and a teacher’s patience across an almost four-decade career spent first in the classroom and then as a principal. He launched Tony’s Family Guide Service in 1960 and laid down the oars in 2012. He was 81. These days the outfit is known as Blue Ribbon Guide Service, but it’s still going strong in his hometown of Butte, run by his sons, Tony Jr. and Jack.

For nearly 70 years, Tony was above all else a bare-fisted brawler for wild country and his bone-deep conviction that “blue-collar people should be able to hunt and fish.”

Fed up with a hostile landowner who strung barbed-wire fences all the way across the Dearborn River right at the waterline – making floating not only impossible but, during runoff, potentially lethal – Tony teamed up with fellow Butte sportsmen Tom Bugni and Jerry Manley in 1978 to launch the Montana Stream Access Coalition. When attempts at diplomacy failed, the three scraped together their limited funds and hired Jim Goetz, the best lawyer they could find. They sued over the public’s right to access not just the Dearborn but every river in the state. The case eventually went all the way to Montana’s Supreme Court in 1984. And the court ruled for the people.

Because of that landmark victory, anyone can walk or float every foot of Montana’s navigable creeks and rivers no matter who owns the land those rivers run through. All you have to do is stay below the high-water line. Despite a ceaseless barrage of challenges, Montana’s Stream Access Law still stands as the staunchest in the nation. I’ve put that law to maximum use over the past three decades, and my life has been immeasurably richer because of it.

Want to see how it could have been without Schoonen and his fellow warriors? Look no farther than Wyoming and Colorado. There, whoever owns the land that a river flows through rules that water from bank to bank and has complete control over who can access it. Yes, provided you can find a public put-in and take-out, you can float through. But no stopping; drop the anchor to work a run and you can be cited for trespassing.

I have been fishing, floating and camping along the Dearborn for almost 30 years. Good friends once led my wife and I to an eagle pit trap overlooking the river. A stack of red ocher circles topped by an arrow pointing skyward mark the base of a 150-foot cliff. On top, young Blackfeet men went to prove themselves by seizing the tail feathers from the birds they revered. They would lie motionless in a shallow trough in the limestone, camouflaged with brush, a raw buffalo hump or jackrabbit staked out beside them. Then they’d wait as an eagle funneled down in wary circles, ever closer to the bait.

I proposed to my wife along the banks of the Dearborn, the air sweet with willows, dogwoods and cottonwoods. While hardly comparable as an act of bravery, it was a moment no less transformative. I try not to step into its waters without offering a quiet thanks to Tony for giving me that opportunity.
Four years after the stream access triumph he and his lifelong friend and hunting partner, Jack Atcheson, swung their sights to another galling inequity. They pooled their money and filed suit to open more than 5 million acres of Montana state school trust lands to the people who own them – all of us. This would open almost a million more acres of adjoining national forests and BLM land that were otherwise landlocked by private land. For most of a century, the landowner who leased those state lands for grazing held exclusive authority over who could access them to hunt, fish and camp. That ended when the judge sided with Schoonen and Atcheson.

I killed the biggest mule deer of my life (so far) on a rugged chunk of the state land they unlocked. Those blue squares on the map have given my family dozens of other mulies, whitetails and pronghorns over the years. Whenever I’ve knelt beside one on state land, I’ve tried to remember I had that chance because two men believed that everyone should.

The moment that set Tony on the long road of conservation came in the early ‘60s when he rounded a bend on the Big Hole to find the river reduced to a trickle courtesy of a fresh-gouged berm that sent much of the river into an irrigation ditch. Appalled by the fact that a rancher could take a D-9 Cat and treat a river like his personal sandbox, Tony vowed to take action. The result was the passage of the Montana Stream Protection Act in 1963, which restricts county and state governments’ ability to rearrange streams and rivers. He followed that up by championing the Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act (commonly known as the 310 rule), which brings the same scrutiny to bear on private landowners.

In the midst of this, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed damming the lower Big Hole near the town of Glen to generate electricity and control flooding. Tony was convinced the river held greater power and value in its natural, free-flowing state and immediately began enlisting forces of opposition. Tony’s work to keep rivers in their natural beds had not endeared him to the ranching community. But some of his fiercest and most effective allies against the dam were ranchers whose bottomland would have been inundated. In 1967, he and kindred spirits drove a stake through the heart of the dam scheme.

Tony once told me, “You’ve got to get out there and fill your heart back up. That way you remember how precious these things are that you’re fighting for.”

Toward that end, he taught his sons everything he knew about tracking elk. Then never accompanied them on a track again.

“He was fine moseying along together until we cut a track,” Jack said. “Then it was over. He was strictly one man on one elk.”

Back in 1990, elk season was well past the midpoint, and Tony and Jack were both hungry to put a bull on the ground when they went prowling the Big Hole somewhere west of Wisdom. Hiking together, they struck a lone set of platter-sized tracks slanting up through the lodgepole jungle, not smoking fresh, but not old.

Jack said, “Well, I’m going after this bull.”

Tony replied, ‘Oh no, I’m going to take this bull.”

They glared at one another. Then at the ground. A stony silence passed.

“You’ve gotta understand, we’re both pretty hard-headed and tend to come out swinging,” Jack said. “He knew I was pissed, and I knew he was, too.”
Finally, Jack smiled and said, “All right, go take him then, old man.”

Jack dropped into the next drainage and never cut another track. After a few hours, he looped back around and hit twin sets, his dad and the bull. By then, both tracks looked like they’d just been carved into the snow with a skinning knife. Jack figured he might as well see how the story ended and started up their trail. Presently, Tony’s BAR spoke once. Jack found him moments later in what passes for a clearing in that country. Tony was kneeling, head bowed beside a six-point with beams thick as truck axles.

“That was the last really nice bull he killed,” Jack said. “Looking back now, it was perfect.”

Tony tied all his own flies, and when he killed a late-season bull like that with long, prime guard hairs, he would cut a big strip right behind the shoulders and treat it with wood ash. He loved to fish big dries and streamers, going smaller only when needed and switching to nymphs purely as a last resort.

“Probably his very favorite dry fly was what he used to call the Bloody Butcher, which is an old, old pattern from England that got modified Butte-style for the salmonfly hatch,” Jack said. “He would only tie it with elk hair.”

When closed-cell foam hit the fly-tying world, Tony immediately saw its virtues. He got hold of some foam the color of arrowleaf balsamroot just as the petals start to darken and substituted that as the body on a Sofa Pillow-style bug. The wing and hackle were still elk hair, with a squirrel tail. No fancy blood-soaked alliteration for that one.

“He just called it a Foamy. He used it for golden stones, but also just as a big hunting fly,” Jack said. “He loved those damn Foamies. And so did the big browns.”

As Aldo Leopold counseled, “He who kills a trout with his own fly has scored two coups, not one.” Make it a Foamy or a Bloody Butcher you tied from an elk you killed, and you can bump that up to a hat trick. (Even if, as Tony invariably did, you ease the trout back into the river and watch it become part of the river once more.)

Roy Morris, his ally in dozens of conservation struggles, said, “Friends my age and younger never took chances outdoors. Tony was way older than me, but he’d call me up and say, ‘You want to go fishing.’ I’d say, ‘Of course.’ And he’d reply, ‘Great. Bring rope.’”

Across more than half a century of guiding – and probing lesser-known waters on his own time – Tony never lost his appetite for showing people how to fish, or to fish better.

“He loved teaching people of all ages,” Jack said. “But what he loved best was to take kids fishing, loved teaching them how to fish. He couldn’t resist the magic of watching a kid light up when they got the rhythm of the cast – or hooked that first fish.”

Tony fished all over Montana, but his home water, his favorite by far, was the place where he first fell under the spell of rivers, the Big Hole. He and his sons fished there for the last of a thousand times last September, just as the willows and cottonwoods began to glow. They made sure to go to the locals-only stretch.

Back in 1998, Tony helped spearhead the Big Hole and Beaverhead river recreation rules, held up by many as a model and a yardstick for other rivers too popular for their own good. One of the things those rules did was divide the Big Hole into eight zones. The uppermost reaches are closed to all float outfitting. In the lower seven zones, each one is closed to all guided float trips one day a week. The two most popular stretches of the river are closed to all guiding on Saturday and Sunday. On top of that, weekends in those two zones belong strictly to Montanans, with no floating by nonresidents allowed.

“Dad was extremely proud of the fact that he always put fish before fishermen. And that he always put fishermen before outfitters and guides,” Jack said. “Even though he made a good chunk of the money that fed our family as an outfitter, he always believed that the rivers belonged first and foremost to the people, and nobody should have to write a check to go fishing.”

“Dad was extremely proud of the fact that he always put fish before fishermen. And that he always put fishermen before outfitters and guides,” Jack said. “Even though he made a good chunk of the money that fed our family as an outfitter, he always believed that the rivers belonged first and foremost to the people, and nobody should have to write a check to go fishing.”

One of the sorry truths of conservation is even when you win you have to keep fighting the same damn battles over and over again. After buying land that engulfed eight miles of the Ruby River in southwest Montana, zillionaire James Cox Kennedy thumbed his nose at the stream access law and had barriers built that sealed off three bridges over the Ruby in 2004. Those barriers denied blue-collar anglers access through the public right of way to get below the river’s high-water mark.

Back to court Tony and his cohorts went, originally suing Madison County. They reminded county commissioners that recreational use qualifies a public county road for a prescriptive easement and pushed them to uphold their duty and tear down the barriers. The discord see-sawed back and forth for a decade, ultimately landing in the Montana Supreme Court. When the 5-2 decision came down, the justices ruled in favor of the public’s right to go to the river and fish.

Early on in the dispute, a real estate developer and fellow landowner in the Ruby had aligned himself to Kennedy and the cause. This man had long argued that private property rights trump public access, and did so again at a hearing in the State Capitol in Helena. He became so inflamed that as the parties were all walking out into the parking lot afterwards, he grabbed Schoonen by the shoulder, shaking him and shouting in his face. Bad idea. The man was 20 years his junior, but Tony never hesitated. He spun and swung from the gut.

Technically, it wasn’t a KO, but the developer lay splayed on the pavement and nobody was having to hold him down to keep him from jumping back in the fight.

Given his bellicose nature and ferocious commitment to principle, Tony was often at odds with even his longtime conservation allies. I’ve spent the last 30 years helping to edit Bugle, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s magazine. Tony became a life member of RMEF in 1987, when the odds of the fledgling group surviving were still up in the air. Over the years, I received more than a couple phone calls and hand-written letters letting me know he thought RMEF had gone in the ditch on some stance or the failure to take one. You never had to wonder where he stood on an issue.

But we saw eye to eye on more than a few. One of the finest came on the morning of Aug. 27, 2019, as an exuberant knot of people gathered along the upper reaches of the Dearborn, the same river he had fought to open to public access 35 years earlier.

The crowd ranged from lifelong ranchers to firefighters with a passion for backcountry elk and mulies to U.S. senators. They came together to celebrate the dedication of 442 acres of newly minted public land purchased by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and protected as national forest. That acquisition not only created new access to the Dearborn but also encompassed a voluptuous mile of Falls Creek, including the 60-foot plunge that gives the creek its name.

Most of all, though, this property provided a gateway to 27,000 acres of incredible backcountry on the shoulder of the Scapegoat Wilderness that had been sealed off for decades. Now anyone willing to cinch up their boots or saddle is free to look up Falls Creek toward Bear Den Mountain and the high, wild ramparts of the Scapegoat beyond, and go there.

Tony was too sick to be with us that day, but his daughter, Becky, was, and he was there in spirit, too. Exactly seven weeks later, on Oct. 22, he crossed his last river. He was 89.

As dawn broke on the day that he went into the hospital, Tony was out savoring his stream access rights along the Big Hole with Ginger, the latest in a long line of Labs. He killed three mallards with three shots. On Tony’s final day, Roy Morris came to visit and seek his counsel on strategies to keep the Madison River from being loved to death. No longer able to speak but comprehending everything, Tony nodded or shook his head like an old brown trying to rid itself of a Bloody Butcher.

The last time I talked with him, I asked what advice he had for those of us working to make sure the things he loved go on. His reply could well be his epitaph: “Always show up. Never give up. If you’re determined, you can do it. Don’t ever stop fighting.”


A proud life member of BHA, Dan Crockett lives in Missoula, Montana.


This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 issues a year right in your mailbox. 

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