Trout Bum of the Week XI: Doc Thompson

Doc shows off a New Mexico high-country brown trout.
Photo courtesy Doc Thompson

A couple years ago, we ran a series called “Trout Bum of the Week,” in which we highlighted some of the guys living the good life. . .of a sort. (See the bottom of this post for a link to the previous installments.) Here’s another round of profiles. Most of them 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.

Doc Thompson operates High Country Anglers, based in Ute Park, New Mexico, but as you see from his answers to our questions below, his interests and experiences range far afield.

1. When did you start fly fishing?

When I was 5-year old young pup, I would sneak out of my parents’ house to try fishing a little creek and the neighbor’s pond. I would get caught and grounded for it. I guess my parents thought a little kid shouldn’t sneak out of the house to fish on his own. My mom has a picture of me sitting on the porch pouting after being caught on the creek. My grandfather started taking me fishing on small rivers in the Missouri Ozarks when I was about 10 year old. A few times he would try to get me fly fishing, but if the fish weren’t active, I was skipping rocks or playing with bugs in the water. As a late teenager and through college, I spent summers working at the Philmont Scout Ranch in Northern New Mexico. That is where I really got into fly fishing and exploring mountain streams.

By the time I graduated college, the mountain streams and rivers of New Mexico were in my blood. I started working as the athletic trainer for a junior college in St Louis and had a job interview lined up for what I thought was my dream job with the athletic training staff in the St Louis Cardinals baseball organization. I had a tough choice to make between athletic trainer or New Mexico. They both sounded great. After internal conversations, hours on trout streams, and late night solo drives from MO to NM and back, I turned down the job interview. While I love baseball, fly fishing is my passion.

2. What’s your favorite water?

Most all of us have our secret “unnamed” stream we keep closely guarded. I call mine No Name Stream. A very tiny, remote stream with deep pools, pockets and no vehicle access. My friend and I have never seen human foot prints there other than ours. The fish aren’t big but never see the hands of others. It’s a chapel.

I can say that my favorite known waters are the ones I guide on. If I have to narrow it to one, it’s the Cimarron River here in northern New Mexico. It’s a small mountain river with a great population of wild browns and a few big boys, plus a wide mix of water characteristics, beautiful mountain views and a healthy insect population. I love to fish it and I love to guide it. It’s one of a couple streams that I hope is waiting for me when my time here is up.

But I can’t forget about the Lower Red River, Rio Grande, or the Rio Pico in Argentina and Chile, plus the lagoons of Ascension Bay. This is such a limiting question and one that reinforces my belief that fly fishers can be greedy, which is another story.

Doc and a client stop for a lunch in Rio Grande Gorge.
Photo courtesy Doc Thompson

3. What’s your favorite fly-rod quarry and why?

Brown trout. They can be cagey, unpredictably predictable. They make you think and keep you humble. They typically live in beautiful water. Seeing them crush a terrestrial pattern pumps out the cholesterol. Browns can also delicately sip in a tiny Trico with supreme grace.

4. What’s your most memorable fly-fishing moment?

I have many memorable guide moments. One of the tops was when I was guiding Tom from St. Louis. It was a typical New Mexico March morning, cold but sunny. We were picking up a nice brown here, a good rainbow there on nymphs We broke for an early lunch in anticipation of the early afternoon Baetis hatch. As we finished up lunch, clouds started moving in, perfect for Baetis. We were seeing good bugs and risers.

About an hour into the afternoon it started snowing, and fish kept rising. Within the next 30 minutes, it went from snow flurries and rising trout to a whiteout blizzard, plummeting temperatures, and no fish. I suggested to Tom that we should ease over to fish a foam eddy up against a cliff. I handed Tom a rod that I had rigged with a big hopper. He had a quizzical look on his face about fishing a hopper during a blizzard but we kept discussing the best approach for the eddy. Tom moved into position, made one cast, and the foam erupted. Tom set the hook, held on and finally landed one of the fattest 22-inch rainbows I’ve seen. After several congratulatory high fives and handshakes, we decided that was a great way to end the day.

A personal fishing memory took place about a year and half ago on my first steelhead trip with Matt and Rooster. We had each picked up a strike at the start of the morning, and Matt had landed one. In the afternoon, we decided we needed to do something to change our luck. We popped open a bottle of Kokanee beer. I had only taken a sip or two when it happened: The line went tight. All right, fish on. Suddenly, the fish took over and eased upriver as it boiled near the surface. Then there was a sudden U-turn, and the fish was cruising downriver heading around a bend to the point of no return. We jumped into the boat to follow it down. As we were moving downriver, the fish turned and began running back up river. Rooster was back-rowing like mad; I was trying to reel keeping pressure on. Matt was hollering. A number of minutes and runs later we finally netted the 20-pound steelhead. It took a while for it all to sink in.

This huge steelhead took Doc for quite a ride, upriver and down.
Photo courtesy Doc Thompson

5. What’s your most forgettable fly-fishing moment?

Unfortunately this is a recent one from earlier this year. I had just cleaned off a big tarpon fly and for some reason was holding the leader system about two feet up from the fly. The fly was dangling under my arm, when the next thing I know the fly is stuck in my arm. I don’t know if I pulled the leader or tried making a cast, it happened super fast. At first I thought I would just pull the fly out, but my friend Junior showed better judgment (for once) when he saw the hook was buried past the bend. We walked back to the lodge; I took a couple swigs of Cuban rum and Scotch to knock the edge off and then a shot of old Lidocaine in the arm before cutting out the fly.

6. What do you love most about fly fishing?

I love sight-casting to rising trout. It’s a mix of simplicity and complexity. The simplicity is to see the fish, cast to the fish and catch the fish. The complex aspect is the ability to think of absolutely nothing while concentrating on the process.

7. What’s your favorite piece of gear and why?

I have two favorite pieces of fishing gear. One is my Orvis Easy On wading boots, they keep my beat-up feet happy. The other is my Orvis fishing pack. It holds all the other key items plus lots of water. It’s been all over the country and world with me. It’s like a favorite shirt. I feel naked without it and that’s not a pretty thought.
8. What’s your go-to fly when nothing else is working?

Double P: proper presentation.

Doc chose fly-fishing over a life in baseball and hasn’t looked back.
Photo courtesy Doc Thompson

9. What was your funniest trip moment?

A few years I ago I took some people to fish Chile for a couple weeks. The fishing was great, amazing scenery, everything you would want a trip to be. Like many trips, the camaraderie can make a trip so much more. After almost 48 hours of dodging snow storms to get out of the States, we finally made it to our layover hotel in Coyhaique, Chile. Within minutes of checking into the rooms, one person clogged up his commode. I walked into the lobby just in time to witness Junior trying to mimic using a plunger to the non-English-speaking desk clerk! The most hilarious acting or mime scene I’ve ever seen! That same trip I had an embarrassing moment when Javier (one of our Chilean guides) and I had a mix up in lingo. Turns out there is big difference in New Mexican Spanish and Chilean Spanish, but that’s another story.

10. What’s your next dream destination?

I guess I live and guide in a dream since New Mexico is one of my favorite destinations. Every day on the water is a different day with new excitements. In a few weeks, I’m heading to the Louisiana Coast for redfish. Later this winter, I’m going back to the Yucatan for permit and tarpon: it’s been a reoccurring dream the last few years. I’ve been to Chile and Alaska, multiple times. I have been to Belize, and I have been spoiled at Firehole Ranch and many places in between. Maybe Canada, Ireland or New Zealand is next. Sometimes my dream destination is a place in my mind I can escape to when the paperwork end of guiding gets to me.

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