Brewing on Colorado’s South Platte River
I took the afternoon off yesterday, seeing as I worked until after midnight Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. At first I felt compelled to throw some gear in the truck and head up to the South Platte to do a little fishing. Then it hit me – I suck – what I really need to do first is kidnap a couple of top notch fly fishing guides, pull the Vulcan mind meld on them, and THEN go fishing. Visions of Colorado State Troopers chasing me down 285 attempting to rescue ‘the victims’ soon put the kibosh on that idea, so I decided to wander down to the International Sportsmen’s Exposition and see if I could find a few guides willing to spill the beans (sans the kerfuffle I’d previously cooked up in my weary little mind).
As it turned out, good choice. I wound up spending time talking with Pat Dorsey of Blue Quill Angler, and Chris Ramos of Angler’s Covey, two of the most knowledgeable fly fishing guides there are when it comes to Colorado’s South Platte River. And as I soon found out, they are both great guys who exude genuine passion for the sport, and a forthright desire to pass that knowledge on to their clientele. That I’ve been skunked at Deckers once this year, combined with the fact they just shrugged their shoulders when I told them I’d forgotten my wallet, only added to my glee.
The guts of our discussion follows…
Gentlemen, tell me how long you’ve been fly fishing, how long you’ve been guiding, and where you got your start in all of this…
Chris: I’ve been guiding professionally for over ten years, and concentrating on the South Platte for most of that time. My father introduced me to fly fishing in Cheesman Canyon – I was around eight years old when he first started taking me out. I pretty much grew up fishing Cheesman.
Pat: Like Chris, I started at an early age – probably ten years old. I started out fishing the Gunnison watershed with my father – it was just a way of life for us. I’ve been guiding professionally for sixteen years.
What pushed you over the edge, meaning moved you to take up fly fishing as a full-time profession?
Chris: It’s funny…I was actually working at Pizza Hut and got laid off. A couple of days later Dave from Anglers Covey called me asking if I would do a corporate trip – since I needed the work I agreed. I never looked back – I’ve been guiding ever since.
Pat: I can remember seeing guides out while I was fishing with my father, and I’d always thought ‘what a cool way to make a living.’ I think the quality of life is unmatched.
Now you guys have lived in Colorado all your lives?
Chris: Yea, I was born and raised in Colorado Springs. And I love it here.
Pat: I’m as well a Colorado native.
You two guide a lot of different types of people, from the East Coast small stream folks, to the Florida bonefishers, to the out-of-the-box beginner. Tell me, how to you prepare for these folks? What do you take into account, from the raw skill set to the psychology of dealing with someone who just thinks they’re an expert?
Chris: For me, I take into account up front that everyone is a beginner, particularly when fishing the South Platte. It helps to have some previous fly fishing experience, and the skill that may go along with that, but I start off as if they are a beginner and work our way up from there.
Pat: I see a wide array of abilities, from the complete novice to really well-seasoned anglers that I’ve fished with for fifteen years. A large percentage of my business is return clients, so I’ve built a relationship and an understanding with these folks. What I think is really important, and I think Chris would agree, is getting the goals and expectations out on the table first thing. We shoot for those targets, and move on from there. If they want to work on dry fishing, that’s what we work on. If sight nymphing is the day’s game, we concentrate on that. It is their day, and I want to make sure they walk away as a better angler.
How many days a year do each of you guide?
Chris: About 150.
Pat: That’s where I’m at.
And, how many days to you fish for pleasure – I mean how many days do you get to go out fishing alone, just for the enjoyment of it?
Pat: I put in 45 to 60, and I’m all over it. I do destination travel with our shop to Alaska and British Columbia, where I get to fish for a week at a time.
Chris: I’ll probably do 20 to 30. I just have to get out there, to see what else is going on.
[Prefacing the next question by the fact that I can’t get anything done the week before a trip, bouncing off the walls in anticipation…]
How enjoyable is fly fishing as compared to the day you first picked up a rod?
Pat: I love it. Now certainly part of what I’m doing is getting out for research and development. I’ve got to know where those pods of ten and twelve fish are, because when I take my customer out I have to perform. That’s the bottom line. So part of it is R&D, and part of it is just to shake it loose a little bit. I mean I’ll take a couple of days and go fishing after the show…it’s a stressful event and I just have to go fishing. I go nuts if I don’t fish. I’ve been in the field a long time, and I still go crazy for it…I mean I just can’t get enough of it.
Chris: I actually enjoy guiding a little more than I do fly fishing on my own. I learned something valuable long ago, and I want to bring that to someone else. I almost need to teach others to find my sanctuary.
You guys obviously love Colorado. Do you enjoy any other recreational activities the state has to offer?
Chris: I ski. And I fish.
Pat: I’m pretty specialized. I fish of course, but I also golf a little. And I love spending time with my family. When my wife and I take a vacation, we generally take a fishing vacation.
Now let me ask you a little about your customer base. You build these relationships, and you teach. How many customers ask you to go back to the same places, or is it more of going out exploring new spots?
Chris: I think it’s 50/50. If they’ve had the pleasure of fishing Cheesman, and it was fishing good, they want back in. But it’s an even mix between that and those that say let’s hit someplace else.
Pat: I get a lot of people that want to go back in the canyon. It’s such a beautiful place, and it’s hard to beat for that reason. But I try to get my folks to look at different rivers, say the Blue, the Colorado, or the Williams Fork. It’s trying to get them a whole new set of challenges and problems to work through. The Platte is one of the most technical of all fisheries, and it’s nice to be able to get folks to apply some of what they’ve learned to other rivers.
[Prefacing the next question with the technical challenge one faces with both hooking and landing fish in Cheesman Canyon…]
First of all, what are your favorite flies for Cheesman Canyon?
Pat: I like Mercury Midges, Sparklewing RS2s – it’s really hard to live without those. For dries my favorite is the Sparkle Dun. Small is the key – I’ll go down to size 24s quite often. Small and sparse.
Chris: I agree with Pat’s choices, but would add the Flashback Pheasant Tail – that’s a go-to fly for me. Also, the Cheesman Emerger, and the Parachute Adams – you can never go wrong with an Adams on almost any river out here.
As far as the technical aspects, after you deal with all the structure and so forth, how do you handle guiding folks through the issue of landing fish while standing on slabs of granite, with tight bends close by?
Chris: Particularly if we’re hunting for bigger fish, I try to go over a plan with them ahead of time. Some of these bigger fish are sitting right in the chutes. So we lay out a plan of where to move before we cast to those fish. A lot of times a customer hooks one of them, and looks over at me all wide eyed. I call over to them ‘run’, and then the plan clicks.
Pat: The primary thing I emphasis after you hook the fish is getting his head up. You have to go over with the client how to steer fish around all those rocks in Cheesman – there are a lot of obstructions out there.
Some guides, particular some of those flats guides way down south, have a reputation for barking out orders – sometimes they really stress clients out. Do you guys play tough? Or do you treat most clients with kidgloves?
Chris: I think a lot of it is reading the customer up front – understanding how far you can push them before you get into critical situations. Like Pat said, you have to prepare ahead of time – know the client’s expectations. I’ve never yelled at a client and probably never would – if it got to that point I’d probably ask them if they wanted to call it a day.
Pat: Following up on our previous points, you have to make a quick determination of their ability. You align their ability with the water that you fish. If you have a novice angler you may not want to put them in a really tight spot – you’d rather put them in that riffle run or mid-channel shelf where they really have a good chance of catching that fish.
Speaking of the South Platte, this is a waterway that gets an extreme amount of pressure. What can all anglers do to ensure this great fishery is going to be around for future generations?
Pat: As a professional guide, part of my job is to be a steward of the environment. One of the responsibilities is to convey good etiquette – practicing catch and release, using barbless hooks, wetting your hands before you handle fish. That guarantees the future of our sport, and teaching that to our customers is extremely important. Chris and I are competition, for certain, but we’re all in this together. There are times when my customer will have a fish on and he’ll net it for me. His customer gets a tangle and I help him out. Yea, we’re competition, but we’re also buddies and I hold Chris in the highest regard as a professional. I want his customers to see that as much as I want my own customers to see it. Again, we’re all in this together.
Chris: I agree with Pat – it all goes back to etiquette. We’re in such a beautiful place, and we as guides can show people what it’s like to be here, what it’s like to be in our world, and how they can help preserve it.
What do you guys see for the future of the sport, and in particular, how can we all develop the enthusiasm for the sport we all already share with the younger crowd?
Pat: Kids are the future of flyfishing – we’ve got to convey that passion. That’s where it started for me, and I want to share that passion with kids – to get them excited about fly fishing. Then, take it to that next level – etiquette. Talk about the benefits of catch and release, being a steward of the environment. It doesn’t take long for someone who goes out with Chris or myself to realize…we love our jobs. It’s passion, and for me, on a daily basis, I fish through my customers. While he or she is holding the rod, I’m driving. That’s what’s so rewarding, feeling in part responsible for the fish they are catching. Like I said – it doesn’t take long to understand I love what I do.
Chris: For me growing up, being outdoors and fly fishing was just a way of life. Every weekend came and it was just expected we’d be going camping or fishing. I’ve talked to a lot of kids about what they like to do, and often I hear they like to play video games and things like that. Now they probably aren’t afforded the opportunity to be outdoors all the time like I was. But if I can get a kid and just get a fly rod in his hand – show him what it’s like to fly fish – they’ll put down that video game. I’ve gotten emails from parents who sent their kids out with me – they say all their children can talk about anymore is going fly fishing.
Consumate professionals. Passionate without bridle. Stewards of the environment. Teachers, and mentors to young and old. These gentlemen have it made, sharing what they know with others and chomping at the bit for more, every step of the way.
I want to thank them both again, for taking time out of their hectic exposition schedules to talk with me. I learned what makes guides tick, and gained yet more appreciation not only their skill with rod and reel, but also their skill with people. Doing their homework, understanding, planning, and interacting. With an aim to convey what they know, and do it for no other reason than loving it.
You can catch up with Pat and Chris at the Blue Quill Angler and Angler’s Covey booths, respectively, situated on either end of the pubic casting pool at the International Sportsman’s Exposition, going on today through Sunday. More details are available here.
Editor’s note: We forgot the coffee, but the conversation made up for it. Thanks again guys!