Albeit cliché, life is often like a river. It takes you where it wants to take you and fighting the current won’t help. Sometimes the waters are calm; so calm it’s as if we are looking into a mirror. Other times the currents are fierce—creating a surface so intimidating, bursting with swirling eddies, we are reluctant to enter its space. We experience rapids—intense and merciless—knocking us about, leaving us tired, cold and breathless, gasping for air. Life, like a river, is beautiful, powerful, sometimes relentless and unforgiving, but above all else, it is essential. Essential Durango recently experienced a day upon the waters of the San Juan, guided by Tom Knopick, co-owner of Duranglers Flies and Supplies. The metaphorical river that brought Tom Knopick and longtime friend and business partner John Flick to where they are today relied heavily on both good and bad luck, calm waters and rough rapids. Meeting as freshman at Kansas State University, both in the pre-forestry program and attending the same classes, a friendship formed. Life’s paths transferred them to Colorado State where they became roommates and, eventually, fishing partners.
John taught Tom how to fly fish. Between classes at school, Tom took fishing lessons. Following graduation, Tom secured a job in the forestry industry for a lumber company north of Taos while John went into the Peace Corps. Upon John’s return, the two rivers converged again; John landed a job at that same lumber company. The friends became, again, roommates, working and fishing together until they encountered an untimely rapid in 1983. The building market crashed, lumber lost its value and both men were laid off. But as it often tends to be, the period of rough waters was charting a new course for these men. “There were no jobs. We were unemployed, everyone was getting laid off all over the place… John and I had always talked about maybe someday opening a fly shop together once we retired. We just didn’t know we were retired yet,” Tom explained.
This retirement brought them to Durango in the summer of ’83. On December 10th of that year, the doors to Duranglers Fly Shop and Supplies were opened. While the dream to reality was a quick transition, business started slow. For the first two years, the partners spent many days sitting side by side, tying ties, perfecting the art, learning the trade. Business has definitely grown since then. The team of two has expanded to more than a dozen in-house employees and fishing guides who take clients everywhere from local rivers to other countries’ oceans. There have been three Duranglers over the years; one in Durango, one in Telluride and one on the San Juan. Although Telluride has since closed, that doesn’t mean the guiding is slow or that the fish are low. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The Four Corners area has so much diversity when it comes to tributaries and watershed, it is quite revered—not only for its biodiversity and ecosystems, but for its plentiful fishing of large, beautiful fish.
“Durango definitely has a reputation of being a premier fly-fishing destination and that’s what’s so great about it. There’s so many small mountain streams; there’s more small streams than you can fish in a lifetime,” Tom said. If you have a lifetime to fish, or simply an afternoon, there is so much to be offered. Rivers such as the Animas, La Plata, Dolores, Florida, Pine, Piedra, and the San Juan all tout reputations as the country’s premier trout fisheries—and that is despite recent environmental turbulence. Staff guide Rod Coddington described his own experience. “One of the coolest things about a guided trip up in Silverton is that you’re catching brook trout, but you can walk 100 feet, turn around and see a moose. We’ve seen mountain goats and other wildlife on our trips. It’s a pretty special and diverse place.” Area guides want to keep it that way.
Waterways have experienced much change over the last decade. John and Tom have been fishing the area’s waters for four decades, battling drought, fires, and chemical spills. Albeit concerning and heartbreaking, Tom has an optimistic outlook and only positive things to say about where the waters are heading. “Drought impacts fisheries, but fisheries are very resilient too. We were here through the drought in 2002 during the Missionary Ridge Fire and I would say that that was even a little worse than last year’s drought, and fisheries were affected, but they bounced back very, very quickly.”
Numerous factors affect our hydrosphere. Many waterways are regulated by dams which, understandably, have both negative and positive implications. Because a lot of fisheries are dammed, consequences can include changing water temperatures, which may disrupt native species. River flow can also be affected. During drought years, when rivers are not high enough, many fisheries become depleted, making waterways uninhabitable. Dams will then release water to maintain endangered and threatened aquatic species. “The San Juan had to maintain 500 CFS minimum for the threatened species so there were irrigation diversions—even with the Animas, Navajo Dam was releasing so San Juan could flow at minimum,” explained Tom.
Because of that, Tom said it was the best year for fish and fishing the San Juan in 10 to 20 years. And for him, it’s only getting better. Of course, good comes with bad. Waterways aren’t only dealing with drought, but other controversial issues like overfishing and chemical leaching. Tom, however, sees things improving. Regulations, and the surprising ultra-resilience of the fisheries, have fishing better than ever in area guides’ eyes. Since fishing the San Juan, both Tom and John have seen changes.
“We’ve been in business 35 years, but my partner John and I have been fishing the San Juan below the Navajo Dam for 40. The biggest difference we’ve seen over the years is that there used to be more water in the river than there is today. The fishery composition has changed a little bit too. It used to be almost exclusively rainbows [trout]…probably because there’s a little less water and so it tends to warm up a little bit more. The browns [trout] are doing better than they ever have, and there are more big fish in this river today than I can ever remember. “Why that is?” Tom asks and answers, “More people fishing and less water. I’m not sure...it’s a reverse of what you’d expect, but the fishery is in pretty good shape.” Winter snow levels will help, as will the cleanup efforts at headwaters up north. It comes down to keeping the environment at the forefront. Surprising as it may be, Tom says that wildfires caused by drought are a high threat to the health of aquatic life and the hydrosphere, even on top of chemical sludge. The ash that flooded the Animas last summer did significantly more harm to fisheries than the chemical spill that occurred a few years prior. Saving and protecting the rivers—and the outdoor sport we love so much—and keeping focus on the environment is key. Life is like a river. And if the spirit and fortitude of these Duranglers men has a lesson for us, it is this — enjoy the ride and let the waters take you where they will.
“Eventually, all things merge into one; and a river runs through it.” — Norman Maclean
Story written by: Jennaye Derge Photos Provided by: Jennaye Derge