Written by: Steve Brown
Mist rises in giant plumes off the icy river. Snowflakes quietly fill the void with magic. Boots crunch the high-pitched squeak of cold snow and frost, leaving the only footprints besides 3 round re-occurring spots of a snow shoe hair and something chasing it the night before. Evidence of the chase disappears into the woods and only your foot prints remain, but not for long as snow covers the trace, persistent and slow. Finally, the river and all it’s hidden secrets to yourself, at least for the day, because you are the only one crazy enough to fly-fishing in the middle of winter, during a snowstorm.
Winter fishing on rivers bring us go back in time, a time when we were the only ones on the river. For many of us, before there was even a “fly-fishing industry”. A time when no one crowed each other, up and down the river was clear of anglers, because no one parked near each other.
Trout utopia’s like the San Juan River in New Mexico are now famous for shoulder to shoulder fishing, often over 20 anglers in one run, or you can get in dory line for the Texas Hole and wait your turn to plug some big trout stuck in a pond, getting railed by anglers all day long. Or, you can simply wait to fish the world class San Juan in the winter, with some warm gear. They say there is never bad weather, just bad clothing.
Winter fishing on the San Juan and many other trout fisheries is time travel into the wild beauty that brought us to the river in the first place.
As a rookie guide my boss, John Duncan from Telluride Outside gave me a thermometer and told me it was the most important part of guiding. At first I thought it was some hilarious joke about taking clients temperatures, and made a crass guide remark about which end of the client I should use for the reading.
“Actually Brownie,” Dunc replied, “River temperature is everything, it decides what hatches and when, this thermometer is on me, use it, get plugged in.”
Years later, I was the guide in the Black Canyon that knew stoneflies hatched at 57 degrees, it was my boat that switched to dry flies before everyone else, and my clients who crushed big fish on big dries because of a thermometer in the right place, in the water!
Water temperature is the factor in Winter fishing. Temperatures in the winter can be so low that life almost ceases to exist. Bugs barely grow, almost never hatch, and fish hide in cover almost hibernating, using as little energy as possible. Turning over rocks yields the tiniest bugs we see all year, and freezes our hand instantly, hands on entomology is almost impossible.
But fear not, Guide Flies comes to the rescue!
We have been guiding and fishing winters for decades and designed certain patterns crucial for these conditions.
6 Essential Winter Patterns:
RS-200: The Guide Flies RS-200 is an evolution of Rim Chung’s RS-2 invented on Colorado Rivers to represent many mayflies in different stages. He invented the fly to limit the many choices an angler is confronted with selecting a pattern. The RS-2 became the best pattern for emerging blue winged olives, pale morning duns, midges, and many other small flies that live in rivers year around. Guide Flies took Rim Chungs pattern and evolved it even more with wider- gapped barbless hooks, nano thread and Semperfli flash. The RS-200 is already proven on the most technical rivers during the most challenging times, like winter.
Guide Mayhem: The mayhem is a fly created in Telluride Colorado by Chris Walker. Chris was one of the head guides and tiers at Telluride Outside while he unleashed the fly that has given us the edge on all rivers, all the time. The foam back of this perfect tiny emerger gives it emerging powers underwater, once you sink the fly, it float upward, imitating the most vulnerable time in the life of a fly, the emerging stage. Guide Flies evolved this pattern into a better hook, allowing trophy fish to caught without bending the hook. We use premium Semperfli threads and wire to enhance this deadly pattern. This is a crucial trout fly all year long, especially in winter when things get challenging.
Guide Midge: Midges are the tiniest part of trout fishing and entomology that often intimidate anglers. What we can’t see is often the hardest to understand, and believe in. Midge fishing is often about faith. Even though we can’t see whats going on, we know midges are hatching year around, even in the coldest water conditions. Our Guide Midge comes in all the possible colors and sizes and tied with the best materials. Small black midges are a necessity at a minimum, then it’s important to have a few other colors and sizes for varying hatches.
Guide Rubber Leg Stone: While winter fishing is mostly focused on the tiniest bugs in our box, stonefly nymphs are also very effective. Stoneflies are the biggest meals in the river and they are typically on a 3 year life cycle, so they are always in the water, under rocks. Stonefly nymphs in the winter tend to be smaller so our Guide Rubber Leg Stone in size 12 is a must have for winter fishing, both in black and yellow/brown. This fly is also a great weight as we have lead wire wrapped around the body, under the chenille. Instead of weighting your nymph rig down with spit shot, use our stonefly to achieve depth, and catch more fish. Often the bigger brown trout in the area cannot resist a stonefly meal in the dead of winter.
Guide Bugger: Throwing streamers to trout is a first and last resort to any trout, anytime. Most trout anglers eventually fall in love with streamer fishing because of the predatory and visible strike. Streamer fishing is aggressive, action oriented, and often draws the biggest fish in the river to eat, even in winter conditions. If it’s super cold, the retrieve is slower, but make no mistake, Guide Buggers work on aggressive trout all year long.
Egg Pattern: Sometimes winter fishing is so cold the midges aren’t even hatching, fish won’t chase a streamer, any fly pattern seems fruitless. This is why we have egg patterns. Fish are spawning year around, different species at different times. In other words, trout always eat eggs, and when there is little to no insect life in the river, eggs are a great option to catch fish anyway, especially in winter. Many winter fisheries can be unlocked with an ‘egg to the midge’ nymph rig.
So there you have it! Winter fishing is not only a great opportunity to make fresh tracks and have the river to yourself in complete peace, but can also be very productive given the right ammunition provided by Guide Flies.
Take all of the guesswork out of your winter fly selection and pick up one of our Premium Winter Trout Kits!
“We want to start a fly company out here,” Steve said to me just as my panga from Jones Key to the airport was about to pull off the dock. I grabbed my fly boxes, and started handing him my flies. These had landed countless bonefish and proved to be way better for those technical permit than any of the commercial patterns that anglers were trying out at the Faraway Keys. “I’m in, let’s start with these, I’ll call you when I get home.” Could this really be possible down here? There were a lot of things that had to line up just right if this was going to work. But, that was pretty much the conversation that kicked off Guide Flies for Steve Brown and me.
I passed the next three plane rides home filling my notebook with business ideas that had been in my mind for years. I had been in the fly fishing industry for a few years now, but I had been tying and designing flies since I was a young kid. As a manager of a popular fly shop, I had experience stocking shelves with all sorts of high and low end commercial flies. We were starting our own fly company from scratch. This wasn’t going to be any regular fly company importing flies from Asia or African factories. These were our custom flies that were landing some of the toughest fish in the world. Making the flies at right at the lodge meant new jobs for our friends on the island, and would provide excellent livelihoods. Saltwater and trout flies would the starting point. This wasn’t going to be easy, but it was going to be a hell of an adventure.
Steve had over 20 years guiding some of Colorado’s most technical trout rivers and he already had a few of the lodge employees trained to tie flies. Guanaja has some of the most beautiful and technical flats on the planet. It took years to get these flies just right and rarely did a client ever bring the right flies, they just weren’t commercially available. There was a problem with commercial flies and Guide Flies was going to be the solution. We had a big vision and now it was time to make the dream a reality.
The year before that conversation took place was when the real inspiration for Guide Flies began. I had trusted Steve Brown enough to jump on a 38’ snapper boat with Noah Thompson and a crew of fourteen Honduran guys I didn’t really know. This was after our helicopter ride fell through. I highly recommend you watch Beyond The Horizon if you want to see the back story on that whole story. (For the past few years we had been hearing stories from Rankin and the guides that there were dangerous little keys 160 miles east that were covered in 10lb bonefish and permit that would eat bare hooks). After a lot of work and backup plans, We headed 160 miles east to the Faraway Keys. I had no idea what we were getting into, other than there was going to be a lot of fish and some good stories when we got back. No one had really ever thrown a fly to these mythical bonefish schools or eagle ray surfing permit. We were going to be the first, basically writing the fly fishing field-manual for the Faraway Keys. The pressure was on. There was a film crew coming in a week, a season full of anglers including personal friends booked to stay at this remote new fishery and we had no idea what these fish were going to eat.
Archey and the crew kept telling me that these bones are so big they eat lobsters! Ok, we’ll see about that. He wasn’t kidding! It turned out they wanted giant, lobster sized mantis shrimp. Probably because they resemble the lobsters those bonefish spend six months a year eating when the lobster boats are docked at the islands. Noah and I had filled a 5-gallon bucket with two vises and all the saltwater tying materials we could fit. We’d pass the nights and rainy days sitting on lobster traps teaching the guys to tie and tying flies to match the big local shrimp and crabs. The bigger the better, but they had to land soft and move right. There’s a lot that goes into designing a successful new permit fly or a better permit fly. We had a lot of shots out here to test flies on and these fish were the ultimate test. Flies like the Psycho Mantis and Predator Mantis were born out here. They get to the target fast, cast easy and fool big fish. The permit needed to see them off a ray so visibility and a realistic movement are essential without being too crazy.
Patrick and Darren were learning the Faraway Keys waters as guides and had designed a few of their own killer flies out there. That was three years ago. Today Patrick, his wife Claudia, his brother-in-law Johny and sister-in-law are some of the best fly tiers at Guide Flies. I first met Nathalie when she was working in the kitchen at the island. She’s now our head manager and a mentor to every person who works at Guide Flies. I had no idea at that time what we were laying the groundwork for.
Those vises on 5-gallon buckets on that little Heli-Salt basecamp turned out to be the inspiration for what we’ve done from then through today. The experiences you share with people when you are truly in the middle of now where and off the grid have significant impact.
The way he looks at her, the way he speaks to her, and how he puts her first every time is a true lesson in love and chivalry. His first concern every morning was getting a fresh cup of coffee to her. Her agenda precluded his in every situation. When I asked how long they've been married, he smiled with a twinkle in his eye and said, "Not long . . . 64 years." Their love shined with youthful antiquity, timeless, seamless, and infectious. Being in the presence of these lovers is an honor I will cherish forever. I believe that 64 years truly felt like a short time.
The way she says, "Jimmy," with her soft southern drawl, says it all. Although everyone refers to him as Jimmy Carter, Rosalynne seems to be the only one who calls him, "Jimmy." "Jimmy" might as well be translated as "baby." His friends call him Mr. President.
“Good morning Mr.President,” I said in a quiet voice as he walked into the lodge where I was tying him a bonefish fly in the dark hours of early morning. Coffee sounds gurgling, Willie Nelson singing Whisky River on the little Bluetooth stereo, and early birds starting to chirp.
There was a large school of bonefish that would come by the lodge at first light, a great way to start the President’s day of saltwater fly-fishing. The school’s feeding patterns were predictable, but what they were eating wasn’t. I was engineering different bonefish flies all season to keep ahead of this particular school. Whatever patterns worked one day, didn’t necessarily work the next, the prey was constantly changing color, size, and species. Crabs to shrimp to baitfish, and many variations.
“I also tie flies while listening to Willie Nelson,” the President told me as he watched me assemble his bonefish fly. “In fact Willie and I are good friends, we used to jog together.” Later I found out about some big scandal about Willie Nelson smoking weed in the White House when Carter was in office.
Whisky River faded into a live version of Midnight Rider by the Allman Brothers, my playlist on shuffle.
“Allman Brothers,” the President smiled, “more friends of mine. Did you know they played shows to raised money for my campaign?”
“I had no idea, but I sure have enjoyed seeing them live at Red Rocks many times, and now I like them even more.”
I focused on the bonefish fly. Small bead chain eyes to the weed-guard, the start of almost all our bonefish flies back then. Then I brought the thread to the tying point and tied on plastic dumbbell eyes, wrapped with an orange chenille egg sack - another standard move. Then came the breakthrough, gold. Gold crystal flash body was triggering the bite. Finished the fly with a cream bunny hair wing, olive tail. I tied two and led the President outside to the white hole, where luckily the bonefish had just moved into.
Secret service surrounded us, and we dissolved into the moment. Our rapport had been developed in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, so our communication was dialed in. I told him exactly where to cast, how long to wait, how to strip, when and how to set the hook, when to let em’ run, and when to bring em’ in. Every command played out like I was fishing myself and we caught bonefish, every morning, the same ritual for 6 days. Morning bonefish with coffee and Willie Nelson, breakfast with everyone, and President and his friends off in boats fishing around Guanaja for more bonefish and hunting permit.
Rosalynne stayed at the lodge and worked on a speech about a book she had just published.
Middle of day 3, I was running around the lodge putting out usual fires when the secret service stopped me, "Mr. Brown, Mrs. Carter would like to practice fly-casting, would you please help us facilitate this?"
"No problem." I dropped everything and hustled to the dock where we hang our fly-rods to find one for Rosalynne. Because all the boats were out fishing with the President and his friends, the only rod left was a fast action Scott 10 weight--not ideal for a petite woman. It was our only option.
"Mrs. Carter," I said, "the only rod we have at the lodge now is a 10 weight, have you ever cast one? It's pretty heavy."
"I think so, let’s give it a try." I walked her out on the concrete pier jetting out from the lodge where she could cast over the flats with a slight breeze at her back. I pulled off a bunch of line and handed her the rod. She began to cast.
I watched in awe as Rosalynne handled the 10 weight like a breeze, casting rhythmically, with a perfect loop. Her cast was like a heartbeat, a breath of fresh air, a metronome. For the first time in my guiding career, I had no advice, nothing to say but, "Wow, that's incredible, don't change a thing. You have obviously put some time into this."
She proceeded to make perfect cast after perfect cast until I broke the meditation.
"Mrs. Carter, there are actually some bonefish tailing right now on the other side of the key. How about casting to a couple of fish?"
"That would be fine," she said.
We stepped into the flats with help from the Secret Service.
"Do you see the tails?" I whispered to Rosalynne.
"Yes," she nodded, "I see them."
The fish moved toward the concrete sea-wall, where a secret service agent hovered. I waved him back, afraid he would spook the fish. He sank back into the shade of a grape tree.
"Go ahead and cast a few feet to the right, 1 o'clock about 30 feet."
She peeled off some line and let the fly land exactly where I said. The bonefish faced the other direction, never saw the fly, and nervously moved away from our sight, into the vast reaches of the flat, our chance was over. It hurt me, but she was un-phased. "That was close," she said with a smile. "I need to work on my book now, thanks for the time Steve."
So went my chance to get the first lady onto a bonefish, but I was left with the experience of watching a perfect fly cast from a First Lady.
President Carter wrote an article about his experience in Guanaja and published in Fly Fisherman Magazine.
See his article here: https://www.flyfisherman.com/editorial/guanaja-bonefish/152032
Dave McKenna has been developing deadly fly patterns for years, that's part of the reason he and Steve started Guide Flies, to share amazing fly patterns that have only previously been known to a select few guides. We've been whipping them up for years and now you can too!
Mckenna's Rumble bug
This fly is a blend of every fishy nymph out there, and it works. Dave has been carrying these for years and has tested them across the country, and now you can too!
Buy the Rumble Bug, here!
Mckenna's Sexier waltz
If you don't have at least a few Waltz Worms in your nymph box, you're doing it wrong. These flies imitate just about any nymph rolling down the stream bed and work in may different color variations. Here you can see the grey and purple color-way which has become a go to point fly for almost all of our nymphing rigs!
Buy the Sexier Waltz here!
Mckenna's freestyle fall favorite
Last but not least, is one of Dave's variations on a classic swinging fly. This pattern has swung up countless anadromous fish, from steelhead to salmon. They've also been known to fool a trout or two!
Written by: Steven Calaway Brown
Landing on Guanaja felt like Christopher Columbus discovering the new world. Columbus did in fact land in Guanaja on his 4th voyage in 1502. He wasn’t looking for bonefish, but he probably found them in schools of unimaginable proportions.
Guanaja is a green, mountainous, jungle island surrounded by the wild Caribbean. A Jurassic feeling, beauty sublime, paradise found. Fly-fishing is as much about place and people as the fish, and Guanaja is legendary in all 3 categories. The people opened their arms to us like they had been waiting a lifetime. Hurricane Mitch 10 years earlier decimated the island and all hope of tourism, we were the first glimmer of hope in a place long forgotten. The fish were waiting too.
Our first weeks in Guanaja were true exploration of the fishery, we found bonefish, named flats, and started tying flies.
We had the usual bonefish flies used throughout the Caribbean, Crazy Charlies, Gotchas, the basics. And . . . they didn’t work. We exploded schools of fish with flies that were too heavy, spooking fish, and getting caught on the turtle grass. Late night sessions at the boat house led to our first breakthrough: We took the easiest fly to tie, and took away one step. We tied our first batch of crazy Charles without eyes, added a weed guard, and starting hooking bonefish, big bonefish. We could cast our blind Charlies into schools of tailing fish, not spook them, and trigger the bite.
Because of our local variations of the Charlie, and the fact that I have one eye worse off than the other, we called this fly the Blind Brownie. I wrapped the hook with crystal flash, then 20 pound mono to make an effervescent body, and used a pink or olive calf tail wing. Simplicity.
And so began the Fly Fish Guanaja tradition of creating flies for our anglers, a culture no other lodge offers in the Caribbean. This is how we started.
Our very first guests, Rippy Franchesci and Master Quinn showed up at Black Rock with nothing, all their luggage lost on the flight over. It was their first saltwater fly-fishing trip and they bought every thing possible. None of it arrived. Not their clothes, no wading boots, no tooth brush, no fly rods no flies, no nothing, not even a pot to piss in. But they had their dignity, somehow the loss didn’t affect them at all and they embraced the vacation from the moment they arrived. These are the best kind of dudes you can find, the ones who remain positive while others disintegrate.
Rippy and Master Quinn truly had nothing to worry about anyway, as we had extra everything, especially Blind Brownie’s with a couple of fly rods, all they really needed to take care of business.
Their luggage arrived midweek unharmed, once again proving the power of positivity. This was the first case of our guests getting “Guanaja’d”: an endearing term that means: at some point on your vacation something you reasonably expect to happen, won’t, or something you except not to happen, will.
For example a meal you planned on having just wouldn’t be available, Rippy and Master Quinn accused me of running Brownie’s Fat Camp because we got Guanaja’d so many times relying on restaurants or even our own staff from the early days. We were the only tourists in Guanaja, as such, we really couldn’t have any expectations. Expectations are the path to getting Guanaja’d, wherever you are.
Written by: Steven Calaway Brown
Fly Fish Guanaja started on the North side of Guanaja, on a smaller island called Black Rock. Unlike most Caribbean islands made out of sand, Black Rock is made out of black rock, hence the clever name.
It all started with the Danger Monkeys, an elite group of degenerates based out of Durango, Colorado that came to help us explore the fishery before the start of our first season in Guanaja. I hooked up with Joe Delling and the Danger Monkeys guiding in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River. Joe Delling is a legendary guide from Durango, a former lodge owner in Chile, and more importantly, a key ring leader of the Danger Monkeys. From the Black Canyon to Black Rock, a load of fly guide pirates.
The Danger Monkeys helped tribes like the Garbutt Brothers in Punta Gorda, Belize explore and open their permit fishery. They trained locals, then followed up with clients and vacations. The only cost is the amount of fun they have in the process, which is monumental and immeasurable. Simply put, the Danger Monkeys throw down, party down, tie flies all night, and fish like maniacs with unparalleled fervor. They open doors you never knew existed, then blow them off the hinges.
The first night at the lodge the energy was full throttle, the FFG crew united with Danger Monkeys and everyone was in full force, the times of our lives. A bunch of bros on a private island on the verge of re-discovering a permit fishery that had been left alone for 9 years. Salva Vida and rum poured like a tropical storm and Margaritaville was in session.
Before their luggage hit the floor, fly tying material poured onto the dinner table. The Danger Monkeys were so excited to show their new material, patterns, and ideas. A frenzy of crystal flash and feathers swirling the lodge, a tornado of creation, the first Guide Flies session in Guanaja.
I’d never seen such a stoke for fly-tying, or so much fun in the process. My bewilderment was obvious and AC asked, “Isn’t this what you guys always do?” AC, the man, the myth, the legend, hailing from the San Juan River. AC puts the ‘danger’ in the Danger Monkeys with his horseshoe walrus mustache and deep passion for permit fishing and fly-tying.
“Honestly, I haven’t tied a ton of flies.” I replied, “I’ve been so busy with getting this project off the ground.”
AC looked at me like I had breasts growing from the top of my head. “Get with it bro, this is what it’s all about.”
I understood and was hooked into the deeper level of what makes us fly anglers. It’s all about tying.
Danger Monkey week was a mixed cocktail of fishing, exploration, laughing to tears, at least one random hookup in a broken down disco bar over the water, and new fly patterns that led to Fly Fish Guanaja’s first 2 permit, caught on the same day, with crabs designed the night before.
Last day of the week and nobody had caught a permit. In fact, Fly Fish Guanaja was yet to catch one. We had 3 weeks and remained blanked on permit, a growing concern considering we were starting and bonefish and permit lodge. We stayed up late the night before designing a new crab based on our trials and tribulations of the week.
Early morning we sent the Danger Monkeys out with our guides while I stayed at Black Rock and fished the river mouth.
Tide rushed in with the sunrise, silver bait crashed and the water was live. Schools of bonefish, tarpon, snook, jacks, and even permit share the river mouth feeding grounds on a moving tide.
Standing in the river mouth as fish passed through, the breeze and sunrise at my back. Letting bonefish feed on by, watching tarpon roll within casting distance, feeling water splash from the crash of snook pounding bait, letting it all go, taking in all in, patiently still for the chance of seeing a permit.
Water was root beer and the fish appeared like black oil, the definite shape of a permit tail slid by close enough to grab, headed in an arc to my 2 o’clock. I ducked down and rolled a short cast to my 4. Solid black tail sliced upward into the air, its head went down to our crab. Face down, ass up. Pink lips opened to suck in last night’s crab creation, right in front of my eyes.
Meanwhile, on the South side of the island AC was landing what he thought to be Fly Fish Guanaja’s first permit also.
We had a lot to celebrate that night at Black Rock, the beginning of so much, we had no idea what was to come, least of all, Guide Flies.
GRANDPA AND THE GATEKEEPER