They’re called drift boats, dories, rafts and sometimes just Mackenzies, but however you want to describe the vessel, floating Colorado’s big water rivers for trout can provide some of fly-fishing’s best catches.
Where to Go
Cutthroat Anglers The Cutthroat Anglers staff in Silverthorne has experience floating big water and guiding on small streams and reaches more water in Colorado than any other guide service. For fishermen and fisherwomen looking to improve their own technique out of a drift boat and maybe learn to row their own raft or dory one day, Cutthroat’s spring and fall Guide School classes offer thorough week-long training, with plenty of time mixed in to cast a few lines yourself. Going back to school has never sounded better. 970.262.2878 fishcolorado.com
If you’re one of the many who think that learning to fly-fish comes with a steep and long learning curve, consider yourself stuck a few years behind the times. A couple of decades ago, when I first picked up a rod and my grandfather tied on a small piece of red yarn to the end of the line and had me casting at stones in a dirt road for an entire season, learning to fly-fish was a patient process. In fact, looking back on it, it’s a wonder that I ever liked it in the first place.
Today, there’s little need to spend your time casting where any 12-year-old would know there are no fish. “A lot of clients we take on the river,” says Cutthroat Anglers guide Mitch Melichar, “can barely cast a nine-foot leader out of the boat, but they can still catch fish.” Melichar’s not unleashing a verbal lashing on his poor clients either. As anyone who’s ever fished with him knows, Melichar can be the best boat mate a beginner or seasoned fisherman might ever have—made of equal parts cheerleader and teacher.
The cheerleader in Melichar would argue that from a drift boat, with the right guide, even the most novice of fishermen and fisher women can have success on Colorado waters.
For starters, the fly and the boat are moving together, requiring much less need to cast and recast at the trout beds and runs. And then there’s the guide; a seasoned guide can maneuver the drift boat to maximize the angler’s view of and angle at a productive section of water. Many times, a short cast is all that’s needed in order to drift your fly through an entire run and in front of more fish.
Getting more anglers in front of more feeding fish is part of what Cutthroat Anglers does best. Through the creation of their Fly-Fishing Guide School, many anglers are already benefiting from their teachings even if they’ve never stepped foot in the Silverthorne-based fly shop. That’s because, once each spring and again in the fall, Cutthroat spends a week training up to eight men and women how to row better, fish better and certainly guide better. In turn, some of those graduates go on to guide both in and out of Colorado.
The week is filled with 10-hour days, most of that time spent floating the Colorado River along with possible jaunts to the Arkansas and Roaring Fork rivers. When they’re not on the water, students and guides are usually preparing for or rehashing the day’s trip from the riverbank. “I started floating on my own,” says the effusive guide Clint Rossell. “Then I had a big scare on the Eagle River, and decided that I need to learn more about rowing in order to become a better fisherman.”
Before Cutthroat Anglers’ school, there were only a handful of guide teaching programs in the country and none in Colorado, so fishermen and women looking to learn to row a drift boat, like Rossell, were often up a creek…so to speak.
Given the inherent danger involved in taking a drift boat down rivers with up to Class III rapids, the biggest benefit anglers receive by going through the guide school is the supervised on-the-water rowing time they spend at the oars.
On each raft or drift boat there is at least one Cutthroat guide and at most two students. With the guide standing behind the rowing student, providing instructions and feedback, the other student is able to stand at the bow and get in a half-day of fishing. Given that each student must have a minimum of 50 training hours in a boat with a guide in order to qualify for a Colorado white water guide certification, the school is made up of five 10-hour days spent on the river.
At the end of the week comes the final exam, where each student takes out their own boat, guide and client on board, for a day of rowing and fishing with them at the helm. It’s their job to get the client on top of fish, to rig their lines, net their fish and safely return them to the ramp at the end. There’s pressure in that responsibility.
And after rowing hard for the previous five days, creating new calluses and waking up with cramped and contracted fingers each day, that final day of pressure most likely leaves each and every student with a little more appreciation for all the guides they’ve used in the past.
It also leaves them a better fisherman or woman. After spending nearly 12 hours a day with the Cutthroat Anglers guides, getting to watch them cast a line or set a hook and pick their brains during lunch or on the ride back to the shop, the students can’t help but walk away better anglers.
So even if you never plan on being a guide yourself, going through guide school may be the best thing you can do to improve your fly-fishing skills. Plus, as my grandfather once taught me, it never hurts to have a “Plan B” to fall back on.