Welcome to our series called “Trout Bum of the Week,” in which we highlight some of the folks living the good life. . .of a sort. (See the bottom of this post for a link to the previous installments.) Most of the subjects are guides who have turned their passion into a vocation, spending their time in an outdoor “office” that may include a drift boat, gorgeous mountain scenery, and crystal clear water. Others do have day jobs but manage to spend every other available minute on the water with a fly rod in hand. Whether you aspire to one lifestyle or the other, it’s illuminating to explore the different paths these men and women have taken on their way to achieving “trout bum” status.
Kyle Wilkinson is the Outfitting Manager at Trouts Fly Fishing in Denver, Colorado, as well as one of their fly fishing guides. Born and raised in southeastern Kansas, Kyle received his first fly rod at age 10. Now, 20 years later, he spends more than 120 days a year on the water and has traveled extensively throughout the Midwest, Rocky Mountains, and multiple saltwater locations chasing any fish that will eat a fly. When not fishing or guiding, Kyle can typically be found relaxing with his wife, Katie, and their two Spaniels, Madison and Nelli, enjoying one of the 300 days of sunshine Denver receives each year.
1. When did you start fly fishing?
I started fly fishing when I was 10 years old. My grandparents used to take me every summer to the state parks in the Ozarks of Missouri to camp and trout fish. I think the first trip we made I was six or seven years old. Spinning rods and Powerbait were the game back then, but I can remember being intrigued by the fly anglers I saw. I knew it was how I needed to be fishing. A few years later, I got the most life-changing present ever from my grandma. It was an 8-foot 5/6-weight Shakespeare Black Beauty fiberglass rod with a foam handle. I can still remember the first bluegill I caught on that rod. Since that point, fly-fishing for a living was all I ever wanted to do.
2. What’s your favorite water?
I’ve been fortunate enough to fish a lot of places, both fresh and salt, over the past 20 years. If I was limited to only one piece of water for the rest of my life, though, it would be the Madison River. I worked at a fly shop in Ennis, Montana, during my college summers. It was there, right on the banks of the Madison, that I fell in love with Western fly-fishing and got my start in guiding. Not a day goes by where I don’t find myself daydreaming about that river. I’ve got multiple pictures of it hanging in my house, and I even named one of my dogs after the Madison.
3. What’s your favorite species to chase with a fly rod?
Anything in the saltwater that I can sight fish to. I’ve done quite a bit of saltwater fishing over the years, for a variety of species. I still haven’t landed a permit, though I’d say that’s my answer to the question. My adrenaline gets pumping like nothing else when it’s time to step up on the bow of a skiff and scan the waters for a permit to cast to. They’re elusive, they’re fast, they’re strong…and they’re just a flat out sexy fish. I’m still yet to go swing a two-hander for steelhead in the PNW, so check back with me at some point in the future to see if my answer has changed. I know that’s going to become an instant obsession from the first day I do it.
4. What’s your most memorable fly fishing moment?
I wish I had some crazy, adventure-filled story to put here, but in reality my most memorable fish is probably the first 20-plus-inch brown trout, which I caught on a salmonfly dry on the Madison. It was during my first summer in Montana, and as you could expect, the salmonfly hatch was a constant topic of conversation during the first part of the summer. I’d never experienced a salmonfly hatch before, although I was very familiar with it. I can still remember seeing that football-size trout, completely bloated on natural bugs, come up and inhale my fly. This fish had a mouth so big that he just casually sipped the bug in as if it were taking a size 20 BWO. I’ve caught a bunch of awesome fish over the years—from significantly bigger trout, to tarpon and bonefish, to roosterfish and snook, etc.—but there’s just something about the way that fish ate that 4-inch-long dry fly so confidently that still sticks with me.
5. What’s your most forgettable fly fishing moment?
My most forgettable fly-fishing moment happened during my first trip to Belize. We were fishing out of El Pescador Lodge, and the weather was not giving us any breaks. During the afternoon of the last day, it was completely gray and rainy. We were tucked back into a little mangrove pocket, killing time by trying to get some 3-foot-long blacktip sharks to eat a fly. At first glance, I thought this fish that popped out of the mangroves was just another shark. A quick double take revealed it to be a massive bonefish. I quickly ditched the shark set-up and grabbed my backup rod rigged with a Christmas Island Special. The bonefish presented itself perfectly at 60 feet, I made the cast, and it ate with zero hesitation. My guide was ecstatic as the fish headed for open water. About 75 yards into my backing the reel totally locked up, and the fish instantly popped my tippet. I was thoroughly ‘frustrated’ (that’s the nice way to put it) thinking my reel’s drag had malfunctioned. Upon further inspection, I noticed my backing was all knotted up down inside the reel. I had borrowed this reel from a friend as a backup and didn’t bother to really check it out before fishing. The guide estimated the fish to be at least 8 pounds, which is just huge for down there. I’ve probably caught close to 100 bonefish by now in my life, and that one is still by far the biggest I’ve ever laid eyes on.
6. What do you love most about fly fishing?
Well isn’t that the million dollar question that I’m still trying to answer myself? I’d say it’s the fact there is so much more to it than just catching a fish. In fact, I don’t know one fly-angler who only does it because they simply like catching fish. I love the way fly-fishing allows you to interact with nature’s natural rhythms, the places it takes you, and the people you meet along the way. It puts you in places and allows you to experience them in ways you most likely couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise. I also love the fact that it’s something where you’ll never be done learning. Every day on the water is going to give you a slightly different puzzle and it’s up to you to put the pieces together.
7. What do you love most about guiding?
There are a lot of things I love about guiding, but the overarching theme would be that I love helping people enjoy the great outdoors and teaching them something new. Most of all, though, I love seeing the smile on someone’s face after landing their first fish on a fly rod. The whole world seems to disappear when my customer is smiling and laughing as they stare down at a trout wiggling in the net. There is something so pure and refreshing about that moment. The excitement is contagious. Being in Colorado, we get tourists visiting each summer from all over, particularly back East and the South. Many of these folks have been dreaming about our day on the water for months! Knowing that I’m helping them create memories they’ll take back home and reflect on when they’re many hundreds, if not thousands of miles away from the Rocky Mountains is very rewarding to me.
8. What is your favorite piece of gear?
My current favorite piece of gear is my Orvis Safe Passage Guide Sling Pack. I carry a lot of gear, whether I’m guiding or personal fishing, and this pack has room for it all plus more. I can carry all the flies I need (and even some I don’t), plus my camera, lunch, etc. I’ve put close to 100 days on mine so far, and it still looks brand new.
9. What’s your go-to fly when nothing else is working?
I fish the South Platte more than any other river these days. This river gets a ton of pressure, and when nothing else is working it seems I can always scratch out a few with a size 20 non-bead, non-flashback Pheasant Tail Nymph. Sometimes this can still be my go-to fly even when other things are working, especially from late fall through spring.
10. What was your favorite fly fishing trip?
My favorite recent fly-fishing trip has to be my trip to Beaver Island this past summer. I was with a great group of guys—including Orvis’s Shawn Combs—and we caught more big carp and smallmouth than you could hope to count. This trip certainly can be tied back into question 6 though. Great fishing. Great location. Great company. It doesn’t get much better than that!
11. How do you define the difference between someone who loves fly fishing and a true trout bum?
Once fly fishing becomes the central axis on which your life revolves, you are a trout bum. It becomes a non-negotiable part of your life and odds are you’ve made (or will make, or would be willing to make) some pretty serious sacrifices to keep it that way. No matter what I’m doing —waking up, driving to the office (conveniently a fly shop when it’s not the river), eating lunch, eating dinner, going to bed —fly-fishing always seems to find a way to work itself into my head.