Fishing for Change in the New Normal: How a Fireman finds peace on the river through pandemic and riots.
By Steve Calloway-Brown
Friendship with the Joe and Kyla sprouted naturally at the ski mountain this Winter. We both brought our 4-year-old sons on their first ski program at Sunlight Mountain near Glenwood Springs. As a native Colorado skier, bringing my first son to his first ski lesson was a lifelong dream. No matter how many mountains or races my son William will ski, that first day will remain a lifelong highlight. Joe and Kyla felt the same way bringing their Brock to his first lesson and our inevitable friendship started the moment we both looked out the lodge window to see if our kids made it out of the ski school to their first little hill. I had my concerns considering the fit my son threw about his long underwear on the way to the mountain, it was touch and go there for a while.
Turns out they travel to Costa Rica with their kids, we travel to Guanaja with ours. They also have a little girl, we also have a little girl. They just moved to New Castle, we just moved to New Castle. They love rivers, we love rivers. Joe is a fireman, I am a fisherman. Kyla is a professional put on hold with children, my wife Beckie is a professional put on hold by children. As you can see, from the first day of the best part of my skiing career, we were friends.
We met every Tuesday to watch our boys ski, and little girls play. We ran into each other at the hot springs. We made the first visit over their house on the Colorado River and the kids played like they’d grown up together. I learned that Joe and Kyla are river people with vast experience in whitewater rafting, multi-day floats, and kayaking. Our family is driven to the river by fish, we are always fishing. Joe told me how he’d always wanted to learn to fly fish, and he unknowingly bought a house on some of the best trout water on the Colorado River. His house sits right above a stretch that I love to guide, absolutely full of big wild trout. I told him I could have him casting in 1 hour and catching fish in 2.
Then the world changed, dramatically, almost overnight.
COVID shut everything down and sent most people home to quarantine. Not the case for Joe. He’s on a 4-on-4-off schedule with the Fire Department in Denver. My job seemed to disappear, while Joe braved the front lines in Denver. Our inconveniences seemed heavy with stock-piling groceries, staying healthy, and dealing with 3 young ones at home. Joe’s inconvenience was seeing his job completely change into something even more dangerous that he never saw coming.
We live in New Castle, maybe the best place to live through all this. Quiet, mellow, no central gathering places. Life is spread out. Joe goes back to work to find a new Denver. The pandemic brought out the worst in a lot of people, and Joe’s team has to play clean up, save the day, rescue all. Not a small burden.
On top of it all, my wife reasonably questions if I can keep bringing the kids over to Joe’s house, he’s on the front lines after all. Hard to argue. Although we’ve yet to reunite, turns out Joe has the right antibodies not to get the virus, plus frequent testing, he’s kept his family safe.
As my Spring guide season evaporates in a pandemic, I realize Joe and Kyla have the opportunity to fish all they want, from their back yard. 4 days on, 4 days off, 50% perfect which is not bad at all.
I’ve taught fly-fishing for 20 years, but never over the phone, I was up for the challenge. He told me he needs to buy a rod, reel, flies, and anything else. I told him that he didn’t need to buy a thing. I have many rods sitting around and happen to own half of a fly-tying company that makes the best flies on the river, an actual unfair advantage I was eager to share. Guide Flies are designed to crush rivers like the Colorado and I was stuck home with piles of them. This was my chance to fish through the fireman and Kyla.
Between my wife and I, we have a couple of dozen fly rods at the house, but most of them are broken, too much traveling and chaos with the kids to even send them back for repair. Even still, we had a few and I put a 5-weight together for Joe. I scavenged our fly fishing accessories for some tippet, indicator, fly-floatant, hemostats, and then did the really fun part, picked out the Guide Flies he would need as the Colorado River turned on for its Spring glory.
Mid-March on the Colorado is midge madness, with prolific midge hatches and fish feeding frenzy just below the surface. So I packed a container with our Guide Midges size 16 in all of our colors. I added some Guide Chernobyls and Guide Floaters to float the midges. I threw in our caddis nymphs anticipating the next hatch, along with some dries in case he really learned to cast.
I gave my first casting lesson over the phone and told him all the mistakes he’d make before he made them. Within hours I received videos of both Joe and Kyla hucking some line, it made my heart sing.
I then explained how to tie on a dry dropper with an improved clinch knot, and how to add tippet with a double surgeons knot. Within a few more hours I had a fishing report from them of several eats but no catches, their journey had begun. The excitement and enthusiasm in his communication reminded me of why I guided for so long. Clearly not the money, experiencing the joy of learning to fly-fish through other people every day is a life of joy, simple as that.
Before Joe landed his first fish, he was called back to Denver as COVID emergency ensued and the city of Denver experienced problems like it’s never seen. Problems only firemen can solve. Besides being on the front lines during a dangerous pandemic with two small children at home, Joe had to come face to face with Denver’s worst. People punching elders for toilet paper, meth heads ravaging insides of hospitals, emergency after emergency. Joe’s attitude has been and remains unbelievably positive but the reports speak for themselves.
“All I think about is getting home to fly-fish with my family, I can’t thank you enough,” Is what he said over and over again. I’m thinking, bro, we all ought to be thanking you, don’t mention it again, truly my pleasure.
During his visit home, the river warmed a little to perfection and the midge fishing was river wide. The next message was Joe’s first fish, then Kyla’s. Kyla is a photographer so even with her phone, she was able to capture some priceless images of pure childhood joy shining from Joe. The smile that makes everything worth it, no matter what.
The pandemic continued but the emergencies started to level off, the New World, no matter how frustrating it is, was starting to take shape and the panic was dissipating.
Snow started to melt and the river started to rise. Fishing remained good into a caddis hatch while Joe and Kyla continued their fly-fishing journey together.
Then the river continued to rise even more, along with the blood of our country. COVID was driving the country crazy, everyone on edge, strange violent out-lashes started springing up, then it got much worse.
The water hit its highest levels just as the world was violently shaken by the brutal murder of George Floyd, and the country caught fire. Joe’s job got unimaginably harder. He’s been volunteering on top of his 4 days because his team desperately needs all he can give, and the river is blown out anyway.
His last shift in Denver during the riots left him a bit deflated for the first time. People shouted at him, cursed at him, called him a [expletive] cop several times, threw a water bottle at him that led to an arrest, shouted all night at him so he couldn’t sleep. All the while relying on him to keep them alive. Joe is being victimized by the worst of our society, in the worst of times, yet he refuses to be a victim and does his job with kindness.
They’ve since bought a fly rod and are waiting for rivers and people to calm down so they can get back to the magical journey of learning to fly-fish in Colorado.
It’s not enough to call these guys heroes, they don’t even want to hear that. Let’s all speak up for the ones that are keeping us safe during the strangest times of our lives.
It turns out the outdoors are a safer place than we thought, as far as catching the virus. Fly-fishing is therapy for everything. Get out there and get some, and if you get a chance, let a fireman know how important they are with something more than words.