Considering the fact I was born in a suburb of Toronto, Ontario, I have a surprisingly and rather lucky diverse history in the fly-fishing industry. I grew up spending my summers in upstate New Yorks, Catskill Mountains, fishing the waters around our family farm. This area is the stomping grounds of the famous instructor Joan Wulff. Rivers like the Beaverkill, Delaware, Esopus, and countless others offer some very cool fishing opportunities.
Fishing these technical rivers on the fly with my cousin Nathaniel Gillespie at the young ages of 10 proved to be frustrating at best for us. Success was measured more on a scale of not burying hooks in ears instead of fooling educated trout. However, once in a while, we happened on to some bug hatches wherein even we could catch fish. Maybe that’s why I am so hooked on challenging fisheries to this day. Back than we always had the best time going days and days flogging water without touching a fish.
Both Nat and I became enamoured by the sport over those years, and the obsession took over much of our childhood. Tying flies and watching fishing shows passed the time in between adventures. Our first big break came at 16 with a job offer in Yellowstone, Montana, at Bud Lilly’s trout shop. I was lucky enough to be a dual citizen which allowed me the opportunity to delve into the much larger market in the US.
Here, we honed our skills by hanging out with guides and fishing with real anglers who caught serious fish. We spent all our free time hitting the small creeks, but our favourite stream was the Gallatin. The views in this part of Montana are some of the most scenic in the world: here, we actually figured out that, with proper technique and pattern selection, we could be extremely productive every time out. All our efforts began to pay off, and we were finally out-fishing other anglers and solving the puzzles on the water ourselves.
From here, Nat moved on to conservation work with Trout Unlimited, and I started my journey as a fishing guide. While attending University of British Columbia, I worked at an iconic fly shop in Vancouver called Ruddicks, learning from one of the best ambassadors of the sport of fly fishing in Canada, Kathy Ruddick. Kathy was an incredibly smart, talented angler who carried such earnest respect in the Vancouver fishing scene that it was easy to look up to her. She was very supportive and trusting of her staff, and her attitude empowered all of us to do well for her.
After I graduated, I took my first job as a guide on the famous Blackwater River in central BC at MacKenzie Trail Lodge. The stories behind this lodge would make for a great movie, so I will leave that for another time. My manager was a young Mike VanWormer (A.K.A Vdubs, and the beard), and together Mike and I were launched into the full spectrum of running a lodge including the world of very competitive marketing. The owner decided to unleash us on the sport show circuit, often alone. We immediately thrived at this and took many a booking right there and then at the shows. We had some legendary trips in those days both travelling the show circuit and fishing. From size 22’s on the Taylor river in Gunnison, to long casts on Pyramid lake, and all the way back home fishing the Thompson, and floating the Dean.
After a few years working there, I met some clients who were able to secure me a position in Alaska at Alaska Rainbow Lodge. This was 1999, and the lodge was trying to transition from a gear fishing operation to strictly fly fishing. They hired four young guns to help propel this (one of which was a 23 year old me). After a rocky start, I was able to find my stride in year 3 and was promoted to Head Guide honours. The owner, Ron Hayes, took me under his wing and mentored me for the next eight years. By this time, I had gained a very good understanding of the Bristol Bay watershed, fishing countless days on the American, Kvichak, Alegnak, Moraine, and Battle, as well as up and down the peninsula: Ilnik, Cinder, and Ugashik. However, I wanted more: I wanted to take what I learned here and use it as a model for my own operation. In 2008, with the help of a truly great partner, I was able to purchase Frontier Farwest Lodge. The rest, as they say, is history!