The skies were steely gray and an intermittent breeze was blowing from the West. The thermometer registered a balmy 38 degrees. With a storm front heading in, it seemed like a perfect day to hit our local river and make some winter casts. Fishing, come to find out, is really the only way to conduct an interview with one of Vail Valley Anglers’ lead guides, Justin Carr. Communicating via email or chatting at a coffee shop just didn’t make sense. Justin’s office is on the water. And that’s exactly where I would excavate some information from him about guided winter trips. Not surprisingly, our conversation digressed to other topics as well.
Justin Carr – VVA Senior Guide
Born in Kalamazoo, MI but moving through six different states before the age of 18, Justin ultimately landed in colorful Colorado in 1999. After graduating from CU-Boulder with a degree in architecture, he moved to the Vail Valley and has never looked back. For him, this area provides everything he desires in life. Family, friends, snowboarding, outdoors galore, ample room for his pup Tess to roam and of course, glorious fishing. And with fifteen years of local status under his belt, he knows our regional fisheries, let’s just say, VERY well.
Under the tutelage of his father, Justin picked up fly fishing at a young age. His passion for the pastime, through the years, has ramped up significantly (“I’m the son of a fly fisherman. And it kinda gotta away from me. So that’s his fault”). But it wasn’t until he was working for an architectural firm in the Valley when he started to get in really deep. He bought a boat. And with that, the slippery slope had him. Justin floated and fished incessantly. And then, he made the decision to put architecture on the back burner and guide full time. He’s been with Vail Valley Anglers since 2012 and is also a pro staff member with Scott as well as an ambassador for Umpqua, Simms and Abel reels.
Beyond providing countless clients with amazing days on the water, you may have seen Justin’s handiwork at the VVA fly shop in Edwards. At the front counter, free to all, is Justin’s fully illustrated Eagle River and Gore Creek map. This handy tool gives you a lay of the land and also provides information on flies, etiquette, knots and more. Justin’s illustrations can also be found on VVA hats, shirts, stickers and framed art. Check out his website here.
Seth: What can your clients expect during a day of winter fishing with you or any of the other guides?
Justin: Well, it’s really beautiful out and not as cold as people think it’s going to be. 40 degrees in the sunshine here feels like 60 degrees in the sunshine elsewhere. During our winter guided trips, we catch fish. That’s really what it’s all about. And the fishing is typically very good. There’s not a lot of other people out on the water. And a lot of the appeal is that the fish are grouped, they’re not spread out like they would be in the summer. So you get to fish ‘hot spots’. We usually nymph and throw dry flies. It’s a killer way to spend your day. Whether it’s a break from skiing or just a different pastime when it’s cold out. A lot of people don’t even think you can go fly fishing when it’s cold out.
Seth: What about gear? How should your clients prepare for a day of winter fishing?
Justin: In the winter, I encourage wearing lots of layers. Usually, I provide gloves but definitely still bring your own. Hand warmers are sometimes a benefit. Waders…always. Winter time is wader time.
Seth: Do you have some go-to winter patterns that you tie on for your clients?
Justin: I use different ones for different styles of fishing. So if we’re throwing dries, I’ve always been a fan of a Renegade in #18-20. And then for a very good midge hatch, I like a cream bodied hackle stacker midge pattern. It works very well. As for streamers, I like tying on smaller patterns such as small black sculpins or double baby gonga. And as far as nymphs go, I’m a fan of small perdigon tinsel bodied midges. It’s kind of my go to. They sink really fast. They’re like a new modification of a classic zebra midge. Jig hook with tinsel body.
Seth: What do you think about guiding in the winter versus guiding during the other three seasons?
Justin: I like guiding during the winter because it’s different. There’s a great variety of guiding because we have four totally different seasons. And they’re all open for fishing trout. As opposed to other places where you can’t trout fish all year. Like the Midwest. It keeps you on your toes. I always look forward to each different season.
Seth: So you don’t have a favorite?
Justin: I have my favorite hatches. Or styles of fishing. But not a favorite season. If you guide here, you’re able to guide twelve months a year. From spring floating, which is mainly nymphing and throwing streamers. To the mid-summer dry fly hatches and late fall hoppers. To some of the big marquee hatches in the middle of the summer. Whether it be green drakes or salmon flies. Being able to do it all is very entertaining. Having every different option and every different style as the year goes on kinda keeps you in the game. It’s fun. You don’t really get bored. You’re not always chasing a bobber. You’re not always doing one thing. Unless it’s streamer fishing…then it’s fine. I’ll do that all year long, everyday.
Seth: Do you think you can be a really good guide without being a really good angler? Or vice versa?
Justin: Really good? Or great?
Seth: Let’s go with great.
Justin: I do NOT think you can be a great guide without being a great angler. You can be a really good anything without loving it, right? So, if you really want to push through to the next level, you have to enjoy what you do. If you don’t like doing it and if you can’t do it well, then how are you going to teach someone else to do it well.
Seth: You guide the most during the spring, summer and fall? Taking out the most trips per week for the year?
Justin: Yes, starting in March. And then going all the way until November.
Seth: What about your personal fishing time then? Do you capitalize on the months when you’re not guiding everyday? Like the winter months? Or are you still able to get out during the busy season?
Justin: Well, this year’s been a little different than all my other years. Because of the little guy. September rolled around and I can’t just go fishing all the time. I’m still getting out there. But now, if I’m going to do some personal fishing, it’s the big trips when I can spend the most time on the water. When the days are longer, you can fish on your own after guiding. Past that, guides usually get a lot of good personal fishing time after March. You squeeze it in wherever you can really.
Seth: You’ll be able to get some solid time in on the water during big upcoming float trip, right?
Justin: Yeah. Nine of us are going to Arkansas in early February for about a week. Six VVA guides and a bunch of other hoodlums are gonna fish the White River for brown trout. We’re aiming for 30…that’s the goal.
Seth: 30 what?
Justin: Inches. We’ve got 9 dudes. Someone has to catch a 30” brown. That is the goal. But we’ll take 26”…
Book Your Winter Guided Fishing Trip Today
While some folks consider winter to be the off season, diehard fly fisherman know the truth. The winter can produce some of the best fishing of the entire year. It’s quiet and peaceful. And there is hardly a soul around. Plus, with only a handful of hatches going off, selecting fly patterns becomes streamlined. So, become one of the elite members of the local community and participate in the iconic Double Dip. Ski in the morning. Then book yourself an afternoon with one of Vail Valley Anglers amazing guides. In the words of Justin Carr, “who wants to ski more than 4 hours anyway?” Get out there and fish!
Keep ‘em wet, handle them sparingly and always appreciate where you are.
Seth Kulas, Vail Valley Anglers’ Content Contributor, @sticks2snow