Dec 22

Boating with Seniors

by Dillon Kato

Summertime in Montana is synonymous with being on the water. Whether it’s getting out in a boat you’ve owned for years, looking at buying or upgrading to something new, or picking out a boat for the whole family to enjoy, the water sports industry has something for everyone.

Dustin Bretz reminded all boat owners to take a few routine maintenance steps each time they launch a new season on the water. Bretz is the co-owner and manager of Bretz RV and Marine in Billings, which also has a location in Missoula.

Whether the boat has an inboard or outboard motor, it was likely winterized using antifreeze, which needs to be drained and properly stored.

“Often, people will have left the battery in over the winter, which can cause problems if it froze,” he said.

Beyond that, an owner needs to make sure the oil is changed and the steering, pumps and seals are serviced every few years to make sure nothing is broken or leaking.

“Then you get to the fun part, making sure you have all your fun stuff in the boat and ready to go, whether it’s fishing, tubing, coolers or wakeboards,” he said.

Around the Billings area, Bretz said there are three very popular locations he sends people to if they want to get out on the water, including the Fort Peck and Tongue River reservoirs.

His own personal favorite is the Yellowtail Reservoir in Bighorn Canyon, south of Billings.

“It’s the biggest-kept secret in Montana. It was originally slated to become a national park, but ended up being designated a national recreation area.

Seventy miles of sheer red rock canyon walls, it’s like the Grand Canyon filled with water,” he said.

Bretz said the type of boats his older customers are buying has changed significantly in recent years.

“It was a lot of fishing or maybe a ski boat that a couple would have. Today, that 55 and older crowd seems much younger,” he said.

These days, it’s just as likely those customers come in for a high-performance pontoon boat, something large enough they can take their kids and grandkids out with them.

“They want to be able to tow wakeboards and tubers and have a lot of people having fun with them,” Bretz said. He said he’s also seen a rise in the popularity of wakesurfing, where a rider is pulled behind a boat to get up to speed, then releases the rope and rides the wake like they are surfing. Bretz said some of his clients in their 50s and 60s, who were wakeboarding or slalom skiing 10 years ago stopped because it hurt when they fell, but have been drawn to wakesurfing.

“It’s become the sport that anybody can do, because you’re only going about 10 miles per hour,” he said.

In western Montana, Flathead Lake is in the midst of its busiest time of year. Dane Hollinger, owner of Bigfork Water Sports in Woods Bay, said by mid-June his fleet of rental boats was already booked for weeks in advance.

Hollinger said his older customers typically like the bigger pontoon boats, so they can bring their family out with them. He has boats that can have as many as 16 people on them, and can be loaded up so a family can cruise around the lake all day.

“They will pack a couple of coolers and do a ring around the lake,” he said.

Even those big boats, because they travel relatively slowly, are easy for people who’ve never ridden in a boat before to learn to drive.

There are also plenty of non-motorized ways Montanans have fun on the water. said Mike Gianos, a water sports salesperson with Sportsman and Ski Haus in Whitefish.

“Up in Whitefish, it’s a nice retiree zone. People come in who have a bit of extra money, and they want something to stay active or do with the family,” he said.

He said the most popular activity in the last few years has been stand-up paddleboards.

“It works pretty much for everybody because it’s such low impact, you don’t have to, say, get in and out of the inside of a kayak, which can be hard for some people,” Gianos said.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of people who like canoes and kayaks, too. Sportsman and Ski Haus sells special sit-on-top kayaks that are open, commonly called sea kayaks. Gianos said they are much easier for families and younger kids to use safely, and can still be easily loaded onto a car.

“One of the beautiful things is within 50 minutes of here, there’s 50 different lakes,” Gianos said.

Dillon Kato is a Missoulian reporter. He can be reached at

No comments yet.

Add a comment