When a Raft Guide Goes Fly Fishing


My first day as a fly fisher person started like so many others in my life right now. Waking at 5 AM to the dulcet sounds of a screaming infant after trying to process a full two minutes of ‘moooooooooom!’ into my half-awake dreams. With three kids under six, regardless of the adventure ahead, no day begins without an almost overwhelming amount of logistical prowess and conflict management.

And before I even got to the put-in, desperately looking forward to the feel of the water below me and the joy of having but one single task to accomplish, I realized that mornings like this are probably why everyone goes fishing. Story over. But really…

My domestic chores completed, I got to change hats, well, pants actually, and step out of my mini-van, excited for a river trip that felt a bit like a first date despite the fact I had met the river well over a decade ago and have had many intimate encounters with her since then. But any relationship can stagnate, and after twelve years of life as a whitewater guide in Colorado and Utah, I was looking forward to spicing things up a bit with a new perspective.

I was going to float the Roaring Fork River and learn how to fly fish. I’ve known many anglers over the years, devotees of the church of the fly rod, but have never had a chance to learn the art myself. I was too busy running the gnar, I guess. 

For today’s lesson, we were putting in at a favorite local spot known as ‘Westbank’ with plans to float ten miles into Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Although I had launched from that exact spot in a raft, ducky or mini max at least a hundred times at every possible level, I realized I was sort of standing around awkwardly like a tourist, trying to look interested in the new signage.

It was a beautiful day, and I quickly remembered I was always more comfortable by the water, so I headed down to the bank and spotted my chariot. An NRS flat bottomed Freestone was fully rigged, ready to go, patiently parked on the smooth, round rocks above an eddy. The put-in was unusually empty, but it was only May the Fourth, and the summer crowd had not yet realized that, unfortunately, winter was long gone.

Every year, this stretch of river was experiencing an ever-growing boom in popularity, and unfortunately, enough trash was lying around to prove it. While waiting for my guides to return from running shuttle, I picked up several small bags of litter and half a rubber floor mat, all of which I thoughtfully left in the back of the van for my husband to deal with when he swapped our cars on the way to pick the kids up from preschool in the afternoon.

I had arranged this trip with Ryan Davis, owner and full-time guide with Hookers, a fly shop and guide service in Glenwood Springs. Father of two and a lifetime resident of the area, Ryan displays a casual relationship with the river, at ease on the currents he has explored and respected his entire life. His company is small enough that when more than one boat is required, he calls for backup in the form of Aaron Calcott, owner and also full-time guide for Aspen Guide Service, who was our third on the craft for the day.

Both men had decades of experience doing what they do, and it was evident in the confident, comfortable way which they moved around the boat, the gear and me. Despite the fact I’ve rigged so many boats for so many different trips, for me, looking at the outfitting and gear was like waking up in a different room with no sense of orientation. I wouldn’t even know where to start. So much of it was just on a smaller scale—tiny scissors, fine lines and flimsy looking rods, impossibly complex hand-tied flies. That sense of miniaturized focus would be the theme of the day.

Having never held a fly rod before, and being barely competent with spinners, I had to get something off my chest before we even got in the boat, “So, just to let you know, I am petrified I will give one of you an earring accidentally.” “Nah, don’t worry about us, you won’t hook anyone,” said Ryan.

But from Aaron, I received a straight-faced story about how he had actually pierced his girlfriend’s ear with an errant fly a few years back. That was the first in a four-hour string of expert instruction, mixed with deadpan hilarity, topped with a few heartfelt confessions, and, I’m pretty sure, at least twelve bald-face lies. The banter between guides was something I could relate to, yet by the time the trip was over, I was no closer to distinguishing the lies from the truth. So at least that was similar to my previous river experiences.

Aaron began my tutelage at a casual pace while leaning on the side of the boat. Fly fishing 101 included information and skills to which I only half listened, as I was practically twitching to get off the beach. Even the sense of time was completely different when compared to my commercial whitewater experience, where the clock is ticking from the moment the bus hits the brakes at the put-in. Yet here, there was no sense of urgency. As the saying doesn’t go, ‘We have a short way to go and a long time to get there.’

I struggled a bit to retain the slew of new vocabulary. ‘Soft water,’ ‘feeding lanes,’ ‘seams,’ ‘mending,’ several kinds of drifting, ‘set,’ ‘break point,’ ‘cork,’ ‘float line,’ ‘nymphing,’ and even ‘European nymphing.’ (Which I’m still not sure wasn’t a fly guide’s version of a dirty joke.)

Where were the eddies and their fences, river left and right, thalwegs and sleepers? What about holes and laterals?

 Then they handed me a rod with three flies on it. Well, two larva and a worm facsimile, really. For the first five or ten minutes, I was channeling a little Ricky Bobby: ’I’m not sure what to do with my hands,’ as I was told to stand in a little metal cage at the front of the boat and cast.

So cast, I did. And in the same way a parent soft tosses a wiffle ball artfully to land directly into their child’s outstretched glove while still celebrating the ‘catch,’ Ryan and Aaron took turns maneuvering the boat with such skill as to put my line exactly where it needed to be in order to facilitate a fish-on and build my confidence.

I’m pretty sure I sounded like a ten-year-old girl gushing over a pony when I landed my first, a smaller rainbow, trout.

 “Oh my god, it’s so beautiful! Look at those colors, it’s gorgeous, isn’t it pretty?” Hook out, photo snapped, released fish and, ‘Get ready for a short cast in that soft water on the left.’

 Did he mean that eddy on the bank or behind the pourover? Either way, I promptly hooked the bushes on the shore.

Although both guides insisted throughout the day that I was a ‘natural,’ I struggled repeatedly to ‘set’ the hook, and would have landed many more fish if I had responded confidently to each twitch of the line. My hesitancy came from several places.  

First was the fact I really wasn’t expecting to catch many fish, so the interest of such clever, aquatic-based lifeforms in my bumbling attempts to outsmart them continually surprised me. Second, the conversation was distracting. Again, as a guide who was used to talking up a storm to keep a boat of Texans in the tipping mood, I wasn’t sure what the social protocol was for actively fishing. So I chatted and questioned probably more than is customary and was summarily distracted by the interesting answers I received and missed another few hits as well. Finally, and probably my biggest issue, was if I were to respond to every cue from my line, I couldn’t even glance downstream!

In fact, this seemed like the biggest difference in the river attitude between whitewater and fly fishing—the scope of your focus becomes much, much smaller.

While the Roaring Fork River at 800 cfs is by no means a gnarly stretch, there are riffles and waves here and there, and my habit is to continually scan downstream, looking for hazards, for fun, and constantly charting my next moves. There were many moments when I braced, cringing for a jolt and scrape, forgetting the much shallower draw on the flat bottom Freestone, which would slide forgivingly over a sleeper or seven. 

But of course, reflecting on this, I’d zone out, only to hear, “Pull, pull, pull!” and react with a half-hearted tug, half a second too late.

I’m also easily distracted by pretty clouds, wildlife, and interesting rock formations. And the day itself was nothing short of awe-inspiring with crystal blue skies, the puffy white clouds of early summer, green busting out of every twig on the banks and several impressive clouds of hatching caddis. I wasn’t allowed to look at any of this. Damn bobber. I, instead, got the opportunity to focus on the nuances of the smallest currents and the tiny residents thriving within them. Needless to say, a lot of fish got off easy due to my struggles with river ADHD.

My second catch was pretty respectable. But I wouldn’t kiss the fish for a photo, and neither would they. I have nothing against slimy kisses (see: three kids under five), but it seemed a little cheesy, and I was still trying to look tough.

I even had a great ‘one that got away’ story which Ryan assured me I’m allowed to also embellish considerably. Let me just tell you, it was a monster. Or a ‘football.’ I couldn’t tell which description was the legitimate lingo. Either way, once hooked, it leaped at least two (or twelve) feet out of the water several times, thrashing spectacularly. It was definitely over twenty inches. Again and again, I was reminded to ‘point [my] cork at the sky,’ ‘strip the line,’ no, ‘put it on the reel,’ and I missed landing it twice. Eventually, the line snapped, and we lost our only fly of the day. (Not to say I didn’t try to lose more as I caught the bottom, the bank and several more branches over the next few hours.)

While discovering the fun fact your hand can start cramping just from holding a rod, I also learned a little more about a user group I had rushed by a hundred times before. When pressed, both Ryan and Aaron had a few things to say about my usual crowd, mostly in regards to ramp hogging, but they also expressed concern for the exponential increase of fishing guides on this local piece of a much larger picture.

With the demand for adventure recreation opportunities sky-rocketing in the Rocky Mountain states, and the amount of water available in the Colorado drainage low again from a disturbingly dry winter, I asked for their candid thoughts on user impacts, permit systems and downstream shareholder concerns from the perspective of a fly fisherperson.

“By the time July rolls around, this stretch of the Roaring Fork is getting pretty crowded,” Ryan said. “It’s not permitted—we pay a per use fee to the DOW. So instead of people hiring guides who spend every day on this section, they find someone local to them and both travel up here, often from Denver or Vail. As the rivers drop, by August, every float trip in the state has to be either here or on the Colorado. That’s a lot of people fishing here who don’t live here.”

The confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers in Glenwood Springs is a compelling case study in the growing necessity of sustainable management plans for our natural resources. The town itself is becoming a major hub for outdoor adventure, surrounded by the White River National Forest, and its growth is symbolic of the nation’s intense fascination with all things ‘outdoors.’

For an off-the-river example, hikers from across the state and country find their way to Hanging Lake, on the I-70 thoroughfare through Glenwood Canyon. The steep, 1 ¾ mile hike up to a pristine travertine formation, ‘hanging’ lake is famous on calendars and Instagram accounts and can experience an astounding 1,100 visitors on any given summer day. The delicate and incredibly rare riparian area is constantly trampled by visitors looking for the perfect selfie. Trash is left on the trail, and Search and Rescue has received significantly more calls to aid unprepared hikers in the past few years on this stretch alone. Because of this, the National Forest Service is creating a plan in which access to the trail will be through a permit system, and visitors will have to be shuttled from Glenwood proper.

Other once remote places across the state are experiencing similar growth and many are now being relegated to visit via permit: Conundrum Hotsprings was locked down last year, and places like Mt. Elbert and the Upper Colorado River, are also looking at looming regulation meant to reduce impact. These are literal examples of being loved to death.

When it comes to commercial use on the local section of the Colorado River, permits are completely spoken for. ‘User days’ for Glenwood Canyon are portioned out by the Forest Service to a set number of local companies with no room for new pay-to-play trips unless a company goes under.

Yet to access the Roaring Fork river, the gold medal waters into which I was awkwardly casting, a fishing company need only pay the DOW a fee/use, and a commercial whitewater company doesn’t even need to do that. The ease and availability of this means by the end of the summer, anglers are sometimes crowding each other from Aspen down to Glenwood.

Add to this the increasing animosity of defensive landowners, angry about irresponsible users taking advantage of the ‘float through’ laws of Colorado, who start to actively lobby against the entire boating community because of their negative experiences. And finally, top it off with the nearly terrifying prospect that the demand for water in the Colorado basin will soon exceed the actual flow amounts, even for a good year, and the insight of a local fly fisherman captures one of the greatest struggles of the modern west.

How do we share this precious water?

After my day on the water with Ryan and Aaron, the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies went weeks without rain and daytime temperatures soared above 95 almost every day for well over a month. The waters stayed clear without rain, and the lack of silt allowed the temperature of the water to increase dramatically. Because this intense heat stresses out fish, the DOW first requested all commercial trips leave the water by 2:30 in the afternoon. It’s likely they will move that to 11 AM in the next week. Private fishermen are being asked to carry thermometers with them and stop fishing if the temperature of the water reaches 68 degrees, but there are no regulations to enforce this.

I didn’t have an answer to the questions I asked that day, and I still don’t as I write, but I was glad to hear that many anglers are actively engaging with local, state and national discussions about this very issue. Despite being parents of young children and owning their own businesses, both Ryan and Aaron volunteer their time with local non-profit groups dedicated to conserving this precious resource. This level of dedication and outspokenness by individuals who love and understand the rivers we call home give me hope for the future.

After floating Cemetery rapid, which reaches a respectable class III during runoff, a beautiful hatch rose up from the slow water near where Three Mile Creek merges with the Roaring Fork in a protected spawning ground. Caddis flies wafted into the sky like a living buffet cloud, and for a while, the fish were too full to give my submerged offerings even a passing glance.

Near the end of the trip, I could tell my focus was waning as I gratefully sat down to untangle my third line snag in fifteen minutes. Looking around at the soft water and listening to the steady, quiet, banter of my guides (which I’m pretty sure was only making fun of me maybe 15% of the time), I enjoyed a brief sense of belonging to a different peaceful world, a parallel universe thriving in the same place I knew, after the echoes of party-barging, stoke-fueled whitewater adventure hounds had faded.

Fly fishing is the invitation to step out of time filled with distractions, to-dos, urgent communications and unfixable problems, and instead be immersed in a beautifully complex world of shifting currents and the needs of its quiet inhabitants. To think at the speed of fish.

Once we hit the final eddy and ran a short shuttle, I had to go back through my pictures to get the full count of fish landed, as I lost track during the day itself.

When I mentioned this, and asked if they remembered, they both expressed the frustration they feel when, at the end of the day, their clients are only interested in the numerical, quantitative total of the day. As in, ‘I only caught (fill in the blank fish) and they were exactly this big.’ To them, and many other practitioners, it’s quite apparent fishing is joy in itself as long as there were probably some fish around the vicinity who were maybe looking at your line.

In this attitude, I found the greatest similarity between our respective river-centric passions. For those who love rivers, it’s not the numerical value assigned to the end of the day which defines success. Not the number or size of fish caught or rapids run, not the miles floated or the cfs totaled. It was a good day if you were on the water.