Maddie Brenneman is having phone trouble.
“Can you hear me now?” she asks through the receiver. She’s using FaceTime Audio. Better connection, she says. Still, her words are choppy. “Hold on a sec. Let me try another spot.”
The sound of footsteps echo through the earpiece.
“How about now?” Her voice rings clear as a bell. “Sorry. I live in the mountains, and we get bad cell service because it’s so remote.”
As a professional fly fishing guide, Brenneman is much more connected to the waters…to the fish…to Mother Nature…than any type of signal or phone. Whenever the river calls, Brenneman answers.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Read on to hear more from Maddie about her life as a fly fishing guide in Colorado and how she came to love the growing sport.
Do you come from an outdoors family?
No, not really…more of an outdoor family in an average sense. My parents would take us to Canada as kids and we’d do a ton of hiking and conventional fishing. I didn’t learn to fly fish until I was in high school and college. My boyfriend Nick came from a fishing-focused family. He has two sisters who love to fish and his mom and dad too, so I got to learn from a wonderful family that loves to go fly fishing.
When did you start fly fishing?
I was 15 when I first started fishing with Nick. I don’t remember being nervous, but it didn’t click with me as something that I loved. It took awhile for me to actually get the hang of it, and that’s when I really started to enjoy it. It took confidence for me to love the sport. Looking back, I appreciate Nick’s patience. He never once got frustrated with me. He’s a good teacher and he’s extremely patient, which I am grateful for.
What did you think of fly fishing when you first started?
i was kind indifferent to it. i remember as a kid loving to fish with a worm and spin rod. I remember that [fishing experience] being so fun, so I was excited to try fly fishing, but I didn’t catch fish the way I did when I was little. I don’t remember disliking it or loving it. But I continued to fly fish with Nick.
Was there an “a-ha” moment for you as a fly fisherman?
I remember one time being at the end of high school, and I went out fly fishing with Nick. We were fishing in separate locations, and I caught five fish. That was a big deal for me because I was on my own. That was a moment when it all came together and it finally clicked.
“It’s a difficult sport. First-time fly fishermen can have luck in terms of catching fish or big fish, but in terms of skill, it takes everyone time and practice.” — Maddie Brenneman
When did you start to love fly fishing?
Looking back, I began loving fly fishing in college. I realized, ‘Wow, this is something that I associate with myself and not just with Nick.” It gave me confidence and it made me feel good to know that I had this really cool thing that I loved to do that was my own interest. Being a young adult and realizing what’s important to you in life and realizing that you get to choose those things…it’s important.
In college, I studied Business and Spanish. To be honest, I was a very immature student in the sense that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I always felt behind the other kids. Everyone knew what they wanted to do and where to go and I was like, ‘I have no idea.’ I was late on my college applications. When I got to college, I always felt a bit behind and not knowing what I wanted to do next. I chose Business because it seemed like the safest thing. If I could go back, I’d do something with more of an environmental study focus because I’m interested in that now.
But college was a great experience. I went to school in Tacoma, Washington, so we were in a beautiful area. We did go fishing in Washington, but a lot of it came over my summers when I’d go back home to Colorado.
Tell me about your job: where do you guide, how often, etc.. What are your day-to-day duties?
I have a season that I guide: April through November. I’m going into my fifth season this next year. It definitely is busiest for me in the summer months. I don’t guide every day. I used to guide every day of the season for my first three years, but this past year, I switched to a different location. Usually at the peak of the season, I guide three times a week.
On an average day, I wake up. Make coffee. Drive to work. Meet clients at 8:00 a.m., then we head out for the morning. We come back in for lunch, then head out again in the afternoon.
Usually the clients are people that I have never met before.
What makes a good fly fishing guide?
I think one of the most important things you need as a guide and a fisherman is patience. The worst thing I’ve experienced is a guide that is not patient. If you’re not having a great day and making a lot of mistakes, which is bound to happen, you lose the morale. If you’re not patient, the clients end up being more worried about the guide and what they think. It’s the guide’s job ensuring the client is fine and there’s no stress
You definitely have to read people. I can usually figure clients out in terms of their personality. As a guide you have to adapt to that. There’s some people that want you to be more “tough love,” but there’s some people that will require more hand holding.
What would you want new fly fishermen to know?
Fly fishing can be intimidating. A lot of people try it once with me, and I can tell they’re never going to do it again because it is a tough experience or they struggled. I want people to know that there is a learning curve and it takes a bit of time. It’s a difficult sport. First-time fly fishermen can have luck in terms of catching fish or big fish, but in terms of skill, it takes everyone time and practice.
What is the most challenging part of fly fishing?
A lot of things change for me over time. When I’m guiding, there’s a ton of challenges because there’s so much pressure. But when I’m fishing on my own, I can’t even think of a challenge. It’s fun. The biggest thing you have to realize as a guide is that even though we do this every day, our client might have saved up for this for the entire year. I feel pressure to make sure they have a great day. One of the biggest challenges as a guide is that people come in with crazy expectations. They’ll expect to catch 30-inch brown trout. It’s challenging for them to realize they may not catch anything and change their mindset. There’s a lot of people who want a photo in their waders. They feel a bit of pressure if they don’t post a photo of a fish. I wish people would come in and realize it’s a hard spot to learn and it takes time to learn and invest.
How long did it take you to get the hang of fly fishing?
It took me two years always going out fly fishing with Nick, him always tying my flies on, telling me where to cast. After two years, I started to tie my own flies on. Once I had that moment and the belief that I could do this, I started to fly fish a lot more. So I’d say it took two years heavily guided fly fishing for me to really get it.
What tip would you give someone who wants to learn how to fly fish?
I would tell them that the best thing they can do, rather than investing in really expensive fly rods and reels, is to invest in three to four days with a guide. Let the guide know that you don’t just want to fly fish, you really want to learn to fly fish. It’s a whole different day if you explain that you want to learn. I try to teach people how to fly fish rather than take them fishing. After three to four days, they can go out on their own and catch fish. It takes the drive and desire to learn how to fly fish. When I was a kid, I didn’t know that this was something I would love. For the first two years, I wasn’t trying hard to learn. But after that point, I really wanted to learn and try.
Do you think fly fishing is a “man’s world”?
It is male-dominated. I recognize a lot of growth in the last five years of woman in the sport, and a lot of that has to deal with social media and women seeing that, which is great. But it certainly is a male-dominated sport. I’m very lucky to be a woman in fly fishing. In fly fishing, I feel lucky to be woman. It’s a community of really amazing people, and they are super welcoming. It’s never been a hard thing for me to be a woman in this sport. I’ve never been at a disadvantage of being a woman in the sport. Unlike some other sports, where men tend to be faster or stronger, but in fly fishing, it’s not about that. There’s really no physical advantage that a man can have in fly fishing.
What would you say to younger girls who want to get into fly fishing?
I would tell young girls that think its a cool sport to go with another friend. There’s a lot of female guides out there, and a lot of women who want to learn. That kind of community is great. I think it would be very intimidating for someone that has no experience or family connections to go into a fly fishing place and book a guide. The best advice would be to seek out other women in that sport who can offer advice; that is a great way if you are just getting into it.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about fly fishing?
The biggest misconception of fly fishing is a lot of people are confused and think, ‘If you release the fish after you catch it, don’t you think that’s mean?’ A lot of other people don’t realize that 99.9 percent of fly fisherman are conversationists. A lot of them give back, give time, and care about their rivers. It’s a good community for conservation and they want to do whatever it requires to help the fish be protected. Yes, it is an animal sport, but at the same time, people don’t realize how much conversation is involved in the sport.
Another misconception is that people are always amazed when I show them how small a fly actually is. They imagine big lures, but when you show them how small a size 22 midge is— it’s smaller than a grain of rice— it makes sense that it’s not harmful to the fish if you’re doing the right practices with the fish.
And I hear all the time that people think when you’re casting, that you are imitating a fly. To be totally honest, I even thought that as a kid. But no, you are just trying to get the line out.
What is a lesson that Mother Nature has taught you?
A lesson that Mother Nature has taught me is that I have recognized year after year how different our rivers look. For the last couple years in Colorado, we haven’t had enough snow in the winters. As a fisherman, you recognize how important the winter is for us in the summer. It changes drastically from month to month. If we don’t have enough snow in the winter, sometimes we get a short window of run off, so our fishing window is a lot of smaller.
Another one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how everything is really connected in terms of our seasons. Water temperature is so important in order to protect our fish. We don’t want to catch fish if the temperatures are too warm or else they will die. We have to recognize what is going on throughout the year; it affects the fish, and it impacts your career as a guide. I am definitely connected to the weather.
You also realize how dangerous certain situations can be. You realize how powerful rivers are. There’s always a chance where you could easily fall out of a boat or get stuck. Mother Nature has taught me through small instances how careful you have to be, even if you’re going fly fishing.
I’ve learned one person can make a difference, especially a negative impact. I’ve seen that in rivers. It takes one person to introduce a harmful species to a river, and that can destroy a river or habitat for everyone. It can take one person to make a mistake. This is super illegal, but if you put a certain species of fish into a river where it doesn’t belong, you can completely destroy the habitat for other rivers. You have to be careful. Certain boots are more likely to care didymo, which is a type of algae. If you don’t take the time to clean your equipment and go to another river, you can introduce that to the river, it takes up the oxygen and ruins the river. If you’re going to go fishing, you have an important role to play. You make such an impact.