Colo Mountain College offers guide classes |

Colo Mountain College offers guide classes

Jim Morgan
Summit County Correspondet
Vail, CO Colorado
Jim Morgan/Summit DailyColorado Mountain College's Timberline Campus includes an indoor stream where instructor Mark Cole shows how different flies move on and through the water.

LEADVILLE, Colorado ” So you want to be a fly-fishing guide?

But how do you know what the job really requires? It’s not like they teach a class.

Not true.

Actually, at Colorado Mountain College’s Timberline campus in Leadville they do.

The class is an offshoot of the recreational fly-fishing courses Mark Cole has been teaching for several years.

“It seemed a logical extension to expand into a guide program,” he said, explaining after graduation students from the outdoor programs find employment in the winter but are unemployed in the summer. “Guiding seemed like a natural fit as a way to provide year-round employment.”

Cole and Curt Bender, an avid fly fisherman and an instructor at CMC as well as a part-time guide, saw the need for the course after conversations with fly shop owners and outfitters in the High Country who talked to Cole and Bender about what they looked for in a guide.

“They’re always looking for ways to develop qualified guides,” said Bender, adding, “We saw it as a great fit as the college is located amidst many of the West’s greatest fly-fishing drainages.”

CMC’s footprint rests some of the best water in the West ” the Colorado, the Blue, the Roaring Fork, the Yampa, the Eagle and the headwaters of the Arkansas pass through Leadville. Along that same footprint are more than 30 fly shops.

A class for guides was clearly a good idea, they agreed.

The class includes 16 sessions including four field trips and is divided between classroom work and on-water sessions.

Most of the students aspire to be guides, although some, like Eric Riley, see it as an opportunity simply to improve their skills.

“I really just want to be a good fisherman,” he said.

But others, like Justin Dirks, who has been fly fishing for several years sees guiding as a fun and enjoyable job.

“I wanted to get an idea of what it takes to be a guide,” he said.

What it takes, said Bender, is more than most people realize. A competent guide must be a bit of a teacher, fisherman, entomologist, psychologist and businessman.

Bender and Cole know they can’t provide everything in the class, so instead they focus on basics which will serve the students well.

“When they finish the class I hope that they have a solid understanding of fly fishing, insects, business, leadership skills and first aid that any outstanding guide should possess,” Bender said. “And like any guide they will need to acquire local river and lake knowledge where they practice their trade.

“We can give them the fundamentals but they will have to become proficient on their local waters.”

There is universal agreement between students and the instructors as what is the most challenging part of the class ” teaching casting.

Casting a fly rod isn’t easy, at least not for someone who’s never done it.

Lefty Kreh, one of the sports legends, put it well: “For many new to the sport, fly casting seems like some black art where a magician utilizes a magic wand to propel the line and fly to distant targets.”

Kreh, an extraordinary caster, is quick to add that nothing could be further from the truth. What casting requires is a little knowledge of high school physics (a fly rod and for that matter any fishing rod is nothing more than a flexible lever), patience and practice.

“I’ve been fly fishing for 20 years and I’m still learning new casting and fishing techniques,” said Cole.

It took more than a year to develop the guide course. Bender and Cole looked at similar classes at other schools and universities but found most of them wanting.

“We felt that they were inadequate in several regards, particularly the outdoor leadership and business/ entrepreneurial side of the industry,” Cole said.

“Mark and I took this feedback and crafted the course content for the course, while I and another science professor developed the aquatic entomology course. The boating for fishing guides course (new this year) was developed with a whitewater guide trainer and the remaining courses were pre-existing – business, first aid and outdoor leadership.”

Guest speakers brought not only different points of view but broadened the base of knowledge to which students were exposed.

“I found the guest speakers one of the most surprising and insightful parts of the class, especially towards running your own guide business,” said Dirks.

In part, the more advanced students get exposure to being a guide as part of the class. Because there is no prerequisite it’s not unusual for there to be a mix of students who are relatively inexperienced and some who have been fly fishing for a number of years.

“I make sure the most experienced students start mentoring the other students,” said Bender, adding for some it’s very close to a real guiding experience.

“Last season we had a profoundly deaf student who guided another student during a practice on-river guiding session. Watching those two develop a successful means of communication was great,” he said.

That there is a mix of students is not an issue.

Cole said it’s rewarding watching students learn and improve their skills.

“It’s particularly satisfying to see someone come into class not knowing which end of the rod to hold and leave the class having caught fish … and for the more experienced students they leave with more confidence and with a firm grasp of the skill set they need at that level – casting, reading water, insect identification and matching the hatch,” he said.

The course is not, as some might think, easy. And there are students who have failed.

“Our students quickly learn the class is challenging,” said Cole. “It requires a significant time commitment to earn the guide certificate. Each year we have students who drop out along the way.”

Not only is it challenging academically, it can be challenging physically.

Cole tells the story of a May day on the Arkansas River when a snow storm blew in.

“I was walking the east bank looking for my students in white-out conditions when I finally found Justin (Dirks) with his back to the blowing snow. He was completely covered with the white stuff but he was gamely casting.

“He wasn’t hooking any browns in that part of the river but as long as he was willing so was the instructor.” It was, he explained, how it is to be on the river with a client.

For information on the CMC class, contact the school at

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