I first met Buzz Cox in September 2011, when I visited the K-T Ranch (satellite property of The High Lonesome Ranch) during the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Western Media Summit in Colorado. I spent a day on the water with Buzz and the writer/conservationist Todd Tanner, and the three of us really hit it off, had a great time, and caught some gorgeous trout. The next April, Buzz received the very first Orvis-Endorsed Fly-Fishing Guide Lifetime Achievement Award at the Endorsed-Guide Rendezvous in Missoula, Montana.
The more I learned about Buzz, the more fascinated I was by his story. He had spent decades managing fly-fishing and wingshooting lodges in both the East and West, and he combined all the attributes that make a great guide: affability, confidence, and expertise. When I heard that he and his wife had made the transition to running Deep Water Cay in the Bahamas, I thought, “Well, now he has truly done it all.” So I dropped him a line and asked him if he’d answer a few questions about his remarkable career, a request to which which he graciously agreed.
1. How did you come to High Lonesome Ranch and K-T Ranch? How long were you there? Why did you decide to move to Deep Water Cay?
My wife, Rose, and I met Paul R. Vahldiek, Jr. back in 1996 at King and Bartlett Lodge in Maine, which we were then managing. He came up to wingshoot, and I guided him on his first trip. He was impressed with the operations of King and Bartlett and asked Rose and me if we would go out to the first ranch he purchased in Colorado to offer a critique and come up with a proposal for setting up a first-class wingshooting and fly-fishing lodge. We went out to High Lonesome Ranch the following year and did the proposal.
A year later, he invited us back to see the improvements, and we were impressed. In the meantime, we had gone out West to a couple of the Orvis Guide Rendezvous and had fallen in love with the West and the Rocky Mountains. In 1999, Mr. V. came back to King and Bartlett and heard from our chef that Rose and I were looking to move out West. Mr. V. asked me what our plans were, and at that time I asked him if he was interested in hiring Rose and me to work at HLR. He was interested, and we ended up moving out to Colorado and helping him build HLR from about 7,000 acres and seven full-time employees to 47,000 acres and about 40 employees.
About six years ago, we advised Mr. V. to purchase the K-T Ranch [pronounced kay-bar-tee—ed.] on the White River, which thankfully, he did. He then asked Rose and me to go over and start it up, and we worked there for five years. We were able to refurbish the historic ranch house and acquired long-term leases, along with our holdings, to five miles exclusive on the White River and three miles of spring creeks. We had the best guides in the valley, and they helped us build our clientele to where it is today.
Last September Rose and I received a call from Mr. V. saying that he was coming over to meet with us at the K-T and that he had a business opportunity to present to us the next day. He asked us if we would like to move to Deep Water Cay and help him get the business rolling. Before I could respond, Rose said, “Yes, yes, yes!” She has followed me everywhere I have asked her to go and felt that it was her turn, so here we are at a first-class bonefish lodge on Grand Bahama Island. We have been here for eight months and feel privileged to be part of yet another adventure in our lives.
2. What is your favorite story from your time at the ranch?
There are so many that I struggle to sort one in particular out. One would be that we lived four miles upvalley behind locked gates at the Homestead House, with true wilderness around and beyond us. We picked out an old Chevy shortbed four-wheel drive, and I put big mud tires on it. In the spring, especially, or after any rain, driving the road was high adventure—a hang-on-for-your-life ride. We made it every time but once. It had rained for two days straight, the creek was blown out, and the road was knee-high with mud. We struck out from the headquarters and got about halfway up the valley when I lost control of the truck. It slipped to within one foot of going over the bank down into the canyon, which was at that spot about a 30-foot drop.
We gingerly got out of the truck, expecting it to slide while we were still in it, but we were able to get out and away from it. On the ranch we always carried radios for communications and emergencies, and I reported to our ranch foreman, Jason, that we were stranded but we would try to walk the rest of the way. He said he would try to come get us with the road grader. So we started back to the road, wading in mud up to our knees, and by the time I reached the road I was carrying Rose on my back. Here came Jason with the grader, and I lifted Rose up into the cab of the grader and eventually Jason got us home.
There were many stories with wild animals, too. One evening, just before dark, Rose drove into the yard at the Homestead House, and there was a mountain lion sitting in her spot in the driveway. She waited for me to come along, and by that time the lion had left.
Another night, we woke up to the sound of an elk bugling outside the house. We got up and shined the spotlight out on the lawn to discover about 80 elk on the lawn and driveway. One of the bulls was big and was letting everyone know he was king. I got my elk bugle out and blew a few times, at which he got quite upset and started fighting with a couple of smaller bulls. So I kept bugling, and an even bigger bull came onto the lawn. Those two big bulls had one hell of a fight, which was an awesome sight, for sure!
3. What was your favorite season/hatch/etc. to fish and why?
At the K-T, I would say it was the hopper season and also fishing nymphs early in the spring, after the long winter. The hopper season brought out the large trout, and I will never forget seeing those big mouths come up and gobble the hoppers. My clients caught many trout in the 20- to 28-inch class over those years. I also like very much high-stick nymph fishing, and I caught some quality trout. It was very rewarding to teach and help clients to learn and be successful at this sport. The White River is and has been one of the best wading small rivers in the States, and I felt fortunate to be able to guide on it and personally fish it.
4. What was behind the idea of creating Lone Tree Spring Creek, and what was it like seeing that project come to fruition?
At HLR, we did a ton of creek restoration, and we learned a lot over those years. When I first saw the Lone Tree Spring Creek, it was mostly full of years of silt and the banks had been destroyed by cattle going to water. There were a couple of pools that actually had some nice resident brown tout rising. So that inspired me to have our creek-restoration guy come over and take a look, and a few sketches later we came up with a plan to restore it. The work was done late February and early March, and we put in 22 pools (mostly on corners), about 40 tons of limestone boulders, and a truckload of tree trunks in the right places. We also planted willows, and by spring that year, the creek looked like it had always been there.
The real reward was when we found nine redds on the creek that fall, with and two to five trout on each one of them. The whole creek is just less than a mile long, and it was the least expensive restoration I ever have been involved in. It has been a special place to catch decent to big trout, and it’s challenging, as well, since the creek is maybe 20 feet wide at the widest, with valley grasses right up to the water.
5. Now that you are in the tropics, what do you miss of the ranch life?
Over the years, I have been fortunate to fish the salt in Costa Rica and over here in the Bahamas quite a lot. I enjoy it greatly and always had wished that Rose and I could be some place exotic in the winter. Well here we are, but I sure do miss the mountains, the hunting, and all of the wonderful people we have worked with.
Fortunately we plan on going out to HLR/K-T late this summer. We are looking forward to it. But DWC is a great opportunity for us to finish out our career, and the bonefish are tailing on the flats right behind our house right now as I write this. Gotta go!