Cheesman Canyon (near the little crossroads of Deckers, Colorado, about an hour southwest of Denver) is an absolutely magical setting. It is a classic tailwater (The South Platte River here is a veritable trout factory). But the real attraction is the scenery: boulders the size of small houses strewn along the riverbanks…towering canyon walls…eagles soaring overhead. It’s definitely a place any angler should put on a lifetime “to-do” list. I make a point to fish it every other year.
But no more often than that. You see, the funny thing is, Cheesman Canyon is less than a 40-minute drive from my house. Why the disconnect? Because Cheesman can be a zoo, where angling etiquette is an afterthought. If you want to get really bummed out by how a few people can ruin an amazing angling situation…go fish Cheesman. Weekday, weekend…early morning, late evening…doesn’t matter, sooner or later someone will do something stupid, and it breaks my heart to say that some of the worst offenders are fly fishing guides.
Example: I fished Cheesman yesterday with my buddies Paul Zabel and Bob Altman. They had a few hours to kill on a Monday morning, so we decided to hike the Gill Trail, and fish the South Platte. Beautiful morning…water was high, but I got Paul and Bob established on one side of the river; I carefully waded across the stream and soon locked in on a rising trout along the bank in the “Emerald Pool.” As soon as I tied on my dry fly, however, a guide with three clients came splashing down the river, kicking algae through the run I was clearly planning to fish. Wait…it gets worse. Gritting my teeth, I bid “good morning” as they passed, only to watch this guide position all three clients in the run I was fishing, less than 20 yards away from me. There was plenty of open water, upstream and down… but apparently, this guide thought I was in his “office.”
Trust me, I’m not a space snob. I yield water. I don’t mind fishing around people. Rivers are public resources we all must share…that’s not only cool in my book, that’s the way it should be. But c’mon…when is enough, enough? I’m sorry, I think if you jump into water where another angling party is established, and start fishing runs those others might reasonably cast in, that’s a major foul. If someone fishes past a run and moves upstream, and you want to tuck up behind him/her, that’s fine. But if you jump right in and cut someone off, or if you jump in the same run where they might be working downstream… that’s not fine.
And if you’re a guide who pulls those moves, then shame on you. Your actions only speak to your shallow insights and abilities. (Okay, go ahead and send the hate mail…whenever I print that a place gets “hammered” or the fishery is threatened in any way, I inevitably get hate mail from the local guide or shop owner who thinks I’m a muck-raker, standing in the way of him (her) and the cash register.) Sometimes the truth hurts, and as far as Cheesman is concerned, the guides must figure this deal out, because they’re wrecking a good thing.
Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has written about fly fishing guides, revered guides, consulted with guides, and advocated for guides, more than I have. I think they’re the ambassadors of fly fishing. They’re my heroes. I’m a guide myself. And that’s exactly why I’m so PO’d about this situation (not just what I saw Monday, but what I see every dang time I fish the Canyon). I didn’t see a “guide” at work the other day…I saw a commercial fish peddler…a professional lunch carrier…a net handler. There were no lessons being taught (the three clients were all set up to play bobber-ball with nymph rigs, and most of you already know how I feel about that). Actually, the subliminal lesson was that it’s okay to poach other anglers’ water. And at least three do-it-yourself fly fishers got burned in the process, and three of this slacker-guide’s clients got cheated (though they probably didn’t realize it).
Is it time for more rules and regulations? Limit guide days? Make them fish dry-fly only? Limit the clients to two-per-guide? Make guides use no more than one fly at a time? I’d honestly hate to think so. The authorities already limit the guide permits in Cheesman. But this isn’t a pay-to-play venue, it’s a public resource…and some guides are stepping out of bounds.
The guides who think they’re entitled to water because they’re “working” are plain wrong…and bad for this sport. Mr. Guide, if you get beat to a spot, tough darts…wake up earlier, or work harder. Or (here’s a novel thought), improvise your approach. Yeah, you have that client (or two, or three) to look after, and they earn you the coin. But you also have a larger obligation…to the fishery, to all the other anglers who enjoy that fishery, and to the sport of fly fishing as a whole.
If you can’t figure that out, believe me, the rest of us anglers will find a way to make you understand.