Trout Bum of the Week LXI: Ken Kalil

Ken ties on a new fly while enjoying fall fly fishing on his home waters in Upstate New York.
Photo courtesy Ken Kalil

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. 

Ken Kalil owns and operates Kalil’s Upstate Outfitters in the Adirondack region of New York State and is a contributor to the Orvis River Reports for the Ausable and Saranac Rivers. A founding board member of the Tri-Lakes Chapter of Trout Unlimited and Board member of the Adirondack Chapter of Ducks Unlimited, Ken considers it his obligation to promote watershed conservation for many generations to come. On the rare times he is not in the water, he can be found training retrievers for hunting and retriever field events or on snow coaching cross country skiing in the Olympic region.

1. When did you start fly fishing?
Fortunate to have parents who grew up in two magnificent watersheds—the Fulton Chain and the Finger Lakes in the Adirondacks—I spent countless summer days of my youth fishing. In between jaunts fishing the Fulton Chain, I was constantly in and out of a family-owned store, eying the next lure that would fill my tackle box, often using up my weekly tackle allowance in one day. It was therefore no surprise that by the time I was five, I had decided I would make a living fishing. When not on the water, I fueled my obsession by bringing stacks of fishing magazines to school, which were taken away by my teachers because I couldn’t keep my nose out of them.

In 1982, my mother gave me a fly-tying kit for Christmas, and by the age of 11, I ended up with a pile of flies and a Horrocks-Ibbotson fly rod at my disposal. I learned to cast by wrapping myself up in fly line on the lawn in my backyard. My first fish on the fly rod were often smallmouth bass and panfish caught with the large collection of Muddler Minnows, which I worked endlessly to perfect. With my Caucci-Nastasi Compara Hatch Guide in hand, I learned about entomology by running along the backyard creek, collecting and identifying samples of mayflies—which were “accidentally” released into the rafters of my 5th grade classroom one day.

Ken’s fascination with fly fishing began at an early age, and he knew he’d build his life around the sport.
Photo by Todd Winch

2. What’s your favorite water?
I love all waters of the Adirondacks, especially my home waters on the Ausable and Saranac Rivers. I love the Ausable for its extreme diversity. With its turbulent pocket water and gentle flats, it has water for everyone. On the other side of the Ausable Valley, the Saranac River is extremely different than the Ausable. From the fish-feeding habits to the diversity of their diet, I am amazed at how different these two rivers are despite their headwaters being just miles apart.

3. What’s your favorite species to chase with a fly rod?
Any species that remind me of my youthful fishing excursions such as bass, carp, panfish, shiners, freshwater drum, walleye, steelhead, salmon, pike, or trout. Especially those warmwater fish that tended to be active during my childhood shirtless jaunts with sandals on my feet and fishing rod in hand.

4. What’s your most memorable fly fishing moment?
After 23 years of guiding and a lifetime spent on the water with a rod in hand, the memorable moments seem constant. I think some of the appeal of fishing for me is that it brings me back to days of youth. Like the time I dammed up the creek in my back yard and stocked it with perch, only to fish them out the next day, or the times when other kids were waking up on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons and I had set my alarm to watch early-morning fishing shows. These days, my most memorable experiences are created with other anglers by my side.

I have enjoyed: watching people overjoyed by the “hard-worked-for” fish brought to hand; seeing a young angler’s eyes open wide as a big brown trout eats their large grasshopper imitation drifting downstream; seeing my first incredibly large bluefish blitz off the beautiful coastline of Nantucket; helping a deer out of a rock crevice before coyotes got to her; fishing with kids and family; catching large trout from the same place my dogs retrieved ducks that I took feathers from and tied flies with to catch those fish; playing the spotter from high above while the angler sight-fishes a large trout and watching them complete the deal as the fish inhale their fly. I am constantly overwhelmed with grateful memories living this most wonderful life..

Ken (white sunglasses) doing what he does best: Teaching others about fly fishing.
Photo courtesy Ken Kalil

5. What’s your most forgettable fly fishing moment?
Watching rivers clearly being damaged by others’ irresponsibility and knowing full well the perpetrators can buy themselves out of fines. I have been extremely frustrated trying to draw the attention of state politicians as the damage continued to be done and knowing the damage could have so easily been avoided. It is because of these moments that I will continue to address these issues with every ounce of energy I have so that generations to come can enjoy the purest environment and these wonderful on-the-water activities that I am so grateful to enjoy.

6. What do you love most about fly fishing?
What I love most about fly fishing is the tranquility of the water and the timeless effect it has on me and others. I will always remember during tough days of my youth being pulled to open water and the effects of the wind and the beautiful settings in front me, filling me with an incredibly overwhelming sense of inner peace. Today, 40 years later, I love the constantly different card of conditions dealt, making one adapt to be successful, and all of the incredible cycles of life the water holds. I love the way fly fishing demands your mind being on nothing else but the fishing situation at hand and the way it continually takes away any sense of time.

7. What is your favorite piece of gear?
My Orvis Guide Sling Pack which keeps my gear easily accessible and has plenty of room for extra layers, a small thermos of coffee, and a stash of dark chocolate.

The waters of upstate New York offer fishing opportunities year-round.
Photo courtesy Ken Kalil

8. What’s your go-to fly when nothing else is working?
I have three flies I go to when nothing else is working: Zug Bug, Hornberg, and the Black Ghost. I am often reaching for old fly patterns—the same ones you will often find collecting dust in many fly shops—for the fact that I enjoy the history behind many of them and find them to be even more effective now than they were years ago.

9. What was your favorite fly fishing trip?
Any fishing trips with kids, as it is no doubt a huge pleasure to see them getting the same pleasure out of being on the water as I always have. I also love guiding trips with first time anglers, trips to the water with my retrievers by my side, and trips with any family members by my side.

10. How do you define the difference between someone who loves fly fishing and a true trout bum?

  • A true trout bum has not just a fleeting passion for fly fishing but a life that revolves around constant conversation of fishing and fishing business.
  • A true trout bum finds himself constantly hopping out of waders to take care of everyday priorities.
  • A true trout bum finds himself on the riverbank speaking with his mom on the phone with the sounds of many trout gulping flies off the water while the sun is going down.
  • A true trout bum finds himself back on the water shortly after ending his day guiding.
  • A true trout bum finds himself racing to bed late at night only to wake up at dawn to get back on the water.
  • A true trout bum gets a hard time after almost ruining the new vacuum cleaner with all the tippet scraps that were emptied out of his waders.
  • A true trout bum picks up the environment around him, regardless of where the garbage came from.
  • A true trout bum puts his opinions into action by putting every effort possible into getting involved in issues that affect his watershed.

A little rain doesn’t douse the enthusiasm of a true trout bum.
Photo courtesy Ken Kalil

6 thoughts on “Trout Bum of the Week LXI: Ken Kalil”

  1. Ken’s enthusiasm for the sport is just as evident in person. A visit to his shop will have you bounding back out onto the water.

  2. Was out on the water with this gentlemen last fall. Had an amazing time and can’t wait to do it again.

    Ken is a class act and full of great knowledge.

  3. I’ve never known a person with more passion and dedication to fishing as Ken. His knowledge and enthusiasm are remarkable. So very inspiring.
    …he was off the hook when I figured out how to fix the vacuum cleaner ha ha!

  4. I have fished with ken a few times at elk lake lodge trip . I have never had so much knowledge of fly fishing,and fun with one guide. He is like a brother to me, and i would highly recommend his service to all my friends and family.
    see you soon elk like 2018

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