Words: Kaitlin Boyer
Photos: Brian Kwan
As the sodden Colorado spring unfurls into summer, ambitious anglers of the Front Range swarm the banks of the South Platte River. In hopes of having the optimal arrangement of flies that mimic the latest hatch, an eager pursuit begins and will only flourish with each fish caught. Juan Ramirez, a fly designer and fly fishing guide, is one of Southern Colorado’s most prominent anglers. On the river, Juan guides a range of clients for an ultimate Colorado fishing experience. On the fly-tying vice, his designs have gained national recognition and his hands-on instructional videos keep anglers tying and casting what the trout are hungry for. Through modern fly fishing concepts, combined with traditional angling philosophies, Juan is getting Coloradans on the water, and the trout to the surface.
Native to northern New Mexico, Juan says growing up ranch-style kept him busy as a kid and always outdoors. After learning some fishing basics at age 10 at an overnight campout at a local park, the fishing seed was planted and Juan never stopped. The Cimarron River kept him on the water, where the importance of the catch and release ethic was taught first-hand through the fish themselves.
“We caught them and kept them, and caught and kept, and then we didn’t catch anything,” Juan said. “Then we realized, ‘Oh, we caught them all’. You realize the fish are like money. If you spend it all, there won’t be anything left.”
His interest in fly-tying came later, when in college his brother’s friend from Montana gave him an old box of tying equipment and material remnants. Since the Internet wasn’t as readily available as it is now, Juan was dedicated to fly-tying instructional books and DVDs. After receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Juan was eager to learn more about fly fishing and pursued a position as a part time guide in Eagle Nest, New Mexico.
“I saw a fly shop about an hour away in the mountains and decided to check it out. I met all the people that worked there and established relationships with them,” Juan said. “There’s not a lot of fly fishers out there that are at that level that they are - I certainly wasn’t at the time. The guide at the shop saw that I was hungry to learn and he decided to take me under his wing and showed me around and got me guiding.”
In late 2006 Juan found Colorado Springs to be an ideal place to plant roots with his wife and three children. With the South Platte River an hour away, and a fly fishing scene that was up to par with Montana’s, Juan found himself right at home in Colorado.
“Aside from Montana, Colorado is one of the next states that people travel to for fly fishing,” he explained. “We have tailwaters, which are below dams, and we have a lot of them. With those tailwaters you will find bigger fish there. With the population of Colorado being larger than a lot of places, you have to have water. With that, they have created dams to control the tailwaters and you have cold water coming out, and you have fish that eat year round and lots of bugs.”
As an established guide at the Angler’s Covey in Colorado Springs, Juan hosts an array of clients, from experienced anglers to vacationing first timers.
“I get a lot of groups that have some time to kill while they are here on business or vacation, and decide to hire a guide and try it out,” he said.
Guiding may seem like the fly fisherman’s dream job, but Juan says that the pressure of clients catching fish can be stressful at times.
“I’ve had plenty of days where that fish comes within the last five minutes of the day, and that definitely helps to end the day right,” Juan said. “You really have to read how clients respond to what you’re showing and make sure you’re not overwhelming them so you don’t lose them right away. They are out there to have fun, so you want to teach them and maintain that balance of learning and having a good time.”
The most rewarding aspect of guiding to Juan is simply the pleasure it brings his clients.
“They’ll get in the water, get a rod, learn some new things, and learn how to fish,” he said. “For me, looking at that, what can I do that day, at that point, to make it better? I can show them something, and they catch a fish, get a great photo that goes into their photo album, along with all the other things that made their vacation great. So, just adding to that, that day of them choosing to come out, and happen to be with me. Trying to make it better overall, or just trying to show them something they didn’t know before - that is most rewarding.”
Though guiding is a gratifying aspect of fly fishing for Juan, he finds fly tying equally, if not more, enjoyable.
“... I don’t have to go anywhere; I can do it in my office,” Juan said. “The river is an hour away. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time to get out there, whereas tying can be done pretty much anywhere.”
Fly tiers are notoriously creative, and yet most tiers will share their recipes in true open source fashion. On his blog, The Hopper Juan, it’s evident he applies both creativity and serious dedication into his fly designing processes. As a member of the Montana Fly Design Team, Juan has created several fly designs that have been bought, cataloged, manufactured and distributed nationwide. Using a Regal vice, Juan combines synthetic and natural materials to design the perfect fly. Known for his use of foam in his flies, Juan has crafted signature patterns that keep buyers catching fish and wanting more.
“My signature pattern is the Hopper Juan, and it was actually the first fly I submitted to the company and they rejected it,” Juan said. “I kept pushing it and pushing and they finally picked it up and it’s been selling really well for quite a while now. It’s a dry fly with a foam pattern, a good summer-type pattern, fun to fish and it’s big and easy to see. That’s kind of where my blog came from, I just put it out there and started sharing it and developed a following, and now here I am doing videos.”
Growth in social media has been essential for the marketing of his flies and videos. Juan said it’s helped him to push his work out and get people to buy them, fish with them and then buy them again because they work. The advancement of technology and social media isn’t the only facet that has changed fly fishing in the recent decades. Juan explained that the improvement in equipment has not only created a vast economic increase in the fly fishing industry, but has opened up opportunities for women and youth to enjoy fly fishing too. Fly rods are designed with more modern materials such as graphite, and gear has been improved with comfort and warmth in mind by using breathable and lightweight materials that protect against moisture, sun and bugs.
These developments may have changed fly fishing, but Juan says they don’t change the angler.
“You see those people who look like they just walked out of Orvis, they have the latest and greatest, everything is fresh and new, but they can’t cast, they don’t even know how to cast,” Juan said. “You see it, and nothing is going to change that. But then you see Joe Schmo over there with an old bamboo rod that’s catching fish after fish.”
It’s apparent to Juan that it’s not about the competition or best products that keep the angler enticed; fly fishing is about bringing humans back to nature and taking solace in the pursuit of the fish.
“I think the most simple thing is, you’re standing in a river with water rushing past your legs and there’s fish that are in there, and you’re just trying to fool them. Whether you have the $10,000 worth of gear or you have $500 worth of gear, you’re just trying to focus on that one thing - the thrill of trying to fool a fish.”
Fly fishing is a wonderful confluence of art and science, and a good fly designer and guide like Juan can give aspiring anglers a glimpse into the perfect balance between the trout and invertebrates on a river, and help them understand where they fit in that perfection.