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The Fish Whisperer

What we can learn from badass angler and mama Giselle Fontanazza Hansen.

By Emily Stifler Wolfe

Giselle Fontanazza Hansen pulled her drift boat up onto an island near Pine Butte on the Madison River and her two clients, a couple in their 50s, got out to wade fish. 

Not long after, the man had a fish on his line, so Hansen turned to grab her net. Suddenly, puncturing the otherwise serene landscape, the woman screamed.

When Hansen turned back, she saw something she’d never encountered in her 25-plus years of fly fishing: Her client was fighting an osprey for the fish. 

“He has the fish hooked, and the osprey is grabbing his fish and trying to pull it away. So now, the guy has a fish and an osprey,” Hansen said, when recounting the events of that morning. 

After 15 seconds or so, the line snapped, and the osprey flew off with the client’s fish.

After lunch, right when the air was beginning to warm, the group saw what they thought was trash floating downstream. Hansen rowed over to grab it, and her client reached out to retrieve instead an unopened beer in a koozie. The man, who happened to be celebrating a birthday, promptly cracked it open and took a swig.

While Hansen grew up in Argentine Patagonia, she’s lived in West Yellowstone for more than a decade. As much as anyone, this outdoorswoman—at once a fishing guide, business owner, community volunteer and mother—represents the reasons people love living in southwest Montana, and why many are keen to move here now. The clean air, water and natural beauty of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Phenomenal outdoor recreation and safe communities. Opportunities for professional growth, volunteerism and philanthropy. And perhaps most importantly, the ability to live life on your own terms.  

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Engaging, warm and insanely competent, Hansen, 40, has been guiding fly fishing trips since she was 16. Growing up in Junín de los Andes, a town of 20,000 in northern Patagonia, she was the oldest of five children and worked alongside her dad and brothers as part of the family business, Flotadas Chimehuin. That’s where she met her husband Travis, a guide born and raised in West Yellowstone. She ski patrolled for six years in Chile, Argentina and Andorra while guiding fly fishing during the off season and then became a full time guide, working 180 days a year on the river between Montana and Argentina. 

In 2012, she spent a season ski instructing at the Yellowstone Club and worked as its first fishing guide supervisor. In that role, she helped establish the club’s fishing program, exploring its 15 miles of fishable water, building trails, training new guides, designing trips and setting the club’s standard for quality fly fishing service, said Geoff Unger, who hired Hansen back in 2012 and is still the Yellowstone Club’s fishing outfitter and snowsports manager.

“I tell my new guys, ‘She’s going to catch more fish than all of you,’” Unger said. “I have a ton of respect for her. She did an awesome job of taking some pretty green fishing guides and whipping them into shape. She has super high standards, and she gets the business. She’s kind of a badass.” 

Another friend, Lindsey Charlton, calls Hansen a fish whisperer. “Even if you don’t see fish, even if you never catch fish, she will make it happen. She’s like the fish whisperer.” 

Although Hansen has mostly paused her guiding career to spend time with her kids, now 5 and 8, she still guides 30 days a year at the Yellowstone Club and for other outfitters in West Yellowstone, in addition to outfitting trips for North American clients for her family’s business in Argentina. On top of that, she and Travis own and operate a winterizing and homebuilding company, manage a private 700-acre ranch on Hebgen Lake, and are remodeling their own home.

This is a woman who makes her own homemade ravioli and plants tomato starts next to her boiler when there’s still four feet of snow outside, placing them beneath UV lights and wrapping them in heated blankets. Someone who teamed up with other local moms in West Yellowstone to create a free Friday-afternoon club to empower and educate local girls, and who volunteers on both the local search and rescue team and the Hebgen Basin Fire District, where she’s helped Spanish-speaking residents with COVID-19 vaccine paperwork, bearing witness to more than 500 vaccinations in West Yellowstone. 

A woman with many hats, Hansen is a volunteer firefighter with the Hebgen Basin Fire District. PHOTO BY WILL POLANSKY

“On every volunteer fire department, there are a handful of those firefighters who you can always count on, and Giselle is one of them,” said James Jessop, the district’s assistant fire chief. 

PHOTO BY KAYLA WILSON

Jessop recalls Hansen attending a training on how to operate a pump while wearing her then 3-month-old son on her back—which, he assured, was completely safe. More recently, they responded to a structure fire and Jessop assigned her to the challenging job of managing the end of a 2.5-inch attack line, which Jessop says is normally a task for two people. 

“The hose is not extremely heavy, but it can feel like you’re pushing 50 pounds,” Jessop said. “It definitely takes some grit. She improvised a technique we taught her in training, [tying webbing] around the hose and hooking it around her shoulder. She was able to manage and didn’t complain.” 

While Hansen has found ways to quench her desire to help people and stay relevant as a guide, it wasn’t easy to put her professional life on hold to have a family. 

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At the height of her career, Hansen was the only female guide in all of Argentina, working in an area reminiscent of southwest Montana but with fewer people. Since 1995, her family’s business has hosted all-inclusive guide trips and has become known for its overnight camping trips, which feature multi-course asados served riverside with wine. Their customers return year after year. 

“Guiding is my profession,” Hansen said. “It’s a pride thing. I knew I was giving up my professional growth to start growing somebody else. I don’t regret it, but it was hard.” 

So, she took her kids fishing. Cabela’s is still posting photos of her, fish in hand, baby on her back, on its Instagram. And in one family video, Hansen is thigh-deep in an eddy, 3-year-old Maila straddling her mother’s slightly bent leg, back to her chest. Arms around Maila’s waist, Hansen shows Maila how to cast toward a deep pool. Their backs to the camera, both mother and daughter are quiet in their focus.  

PHOTO BY LAUREN ANDERSON, BY YOUR SIDE PHOTOGRAPHY

“When you teach a kid to bake a cake, most of the time your kitchen is a disaster,” Hansen said. “You lose so much time doing it, but you’re hoping in five years, this kid will be able to do something himself … When you’re teaching kids to fly fish, they are learning so much—how to return a fish in the water, how to treat a fish, and that you’re not going to fry it, so it will go and have babies and you can fish it again. If you don’t know nature, you can’t take care of it.”

As her youngest enters kindergarten, Hansen is bound to keep pouring energy and optimism into her work and passions. We can all learn a few things from her in the balance of life—even if that means there is no balance when you’re chasing your dreams.

“What I really like about having our own business and working for ourselves is that there’s no limit,” Hansen said. “You can do as much as you want. Whatever you think you can do, it’s going to happen. It’s all about you and how much you’re willing to sacrifice, or how much effort you’re willing to put in. That’s limitless.” 

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