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Casting a long line
Iron Fly raises funds for kids’ and vets’ fishing programs
Dry flies and wet whistles
Roaring Fork Valley Fly Fishing Club president Tom Skutley shows Robin Vaughn, 6, of Basalt, and Cooper Hunt, 6, of Carbondale the tricks of tying a fly at a ‘Dry flies and wet whistles’ event held recently at the Capitol Creek Brewery in Willits. - photo by M. John Fayhee

Who knew that the seemingly simple act of fly fishing could reach into so many pools and eddies located on terra firma?

At first blush, it might seem that the Roaring Fork Valley Fly Fishing Club (RFVFFC) would be totally centered around stalking and hunting trout in the area’s gold-medal waterways, with occasional diversions to local imbiberies to swap lies about fish caught and the ones that got away. Well, there is plenty of that among the 120 or so people on the group’s email list. But the foundation of the RFVFFC lies with sharing the joys of fly fishing with kids and veterans.

According to Tom Skutley, who has been president of the club since it formed six years ago, the group is dedicated to outreach, and that outreach is focused to a large extent on bringing young people into the sport and helping veterans overcome whatever issues might be mollified, or maybe even rectified, by spending long periods of time interacting with the great outdoors with a fly rod in hand.

“We got started when the Roaring Fork Valley hosted the U.S. Fly Fishing Team National Finals in 2013,” says Skutley, who swears this is not a fish story — there is actually such a thing as the U.S. Fly Fishing Team National Finals. “At that point, I was wrangled into helping with the venues, finding places for the contestants to fish. All the competitors had 300-yard-long beats. We had beats at Aspen Glen, the Roaring Fork Club and the Gianinetti Ranch in Carbondale.”

The event attracted 60-some world-class anglers who each had three hours on the river.

According to Skutley, those competitors caught and released more than 4,500 inches worth of trout. That’s a football field’s worth of fish.

“Someone suggested we start a club,” Skutley says. “It sounded like a great idea, except that I didn’t realize I would end up being the president.”

Fly fishing club
The Roaring Fork Fly Fishing Club hosts six to eight ‘Dry flies and wet whistles’ events throughout the winter, during which members of the public can try their hand at tying flies. Beer drinking and the telling of unlikely fish stories is also encouraged. - photo by M. John Fayhee
It is a loose-knit organization.

“We don’t have dues, and we have no affiliation with any other groups,” Skutley says.

Despite its lack of formality, the RFVFFC takes its mission to spread the gospel of fly fishing very seriously.

During the winter, the group hosts six or eight events called “dry flies and wet whistles.” These gatherings take place at various area watering holes. (Yes, beer drinking and the telling of unlikely fish stories is very much encouraged.) Members set up a half-dozen specialized vises and invite members of the public to try to tie flies. Some of those participants are experienced, while others are absolute novices who might have given fly fishing zero in the way of thought had they not seen the Skutley and his cohorts sitting in the middle of a bar hunkered over vises tying vibrantly colored a material to an itsy-bitsy hook. Some participants are older, while some are children.

At an event recently held at the Capitol Creek Brewery in Willits, two 6-year-olds and a 3-year-old gave fly-tying a whirl. (Happily, there were no accidents.)

Skutley was delighted.

“Kids are the future of fly fishing,” says Skutley, who moved to the Roaring Fork Valley from Milwaukee in 1976 after turning down a promising career as a cemetery manager in favor of living and fishing in the Rocky Mountains. “This is an activity that, unlike baseball or football, if kids get into it, they can do it for the rest of their lives. And, if they get into it, they will probably become advocates for protecting rivers.

“Fly fishing encompasses much more than trying to catch trout,” he continues. “Kids learn about river ecosystems. They learn about bugs and hatches. And they have a great time doing it.”

“There’s a lot more to this than putting a chicken feather on a wire and getting a fish to eat it,” says RFVFFC vice-president Sheldon Doolan, a tile worker who grew up fly fishing in his native New Hampshire. “There’s a lot of technique. You need to learn the river. It’s not just waving a string in the air. You can spend a lifetime and still have a lot to learn.”

The Roaring Fork Valley Fly Fishing Club works with a wide variety of young people.

“We have fishing camps,” Skutley says. “We have a program called the Mayfly Project that’s for foster kids. We work with the Roaring Fork Conservancy and Aspen Middle School. Working with kids absorbs about 80 percent of our effort. It gets kids outside and away from their devices. A lot of local kids, their parents are working way too much and don’t have time to teach their children to fly fish. We just try to make sure they have fun.”

The rest of the group’s effort is centered on veterans.

“We are involved in Project Healing Waters, which we have been hosting for the past three years,” Skutley says. “We take veterans down the rivers with the help of our local guiding community. It is a very important project that involves a lot of volunteers in the Valley. We used to take the vets out to dinner after a day on the river, but we decided that it was better to just have a riverside barbecue. They want to stay close to the river. It is a very therapeutic project.”

The RFVFFC’s main fundraiser is an annual event called Iron fly, which is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Tipsy Trout in downtown Basalt.

Some people may reasonably think that the event’s name was taken from the old rock-and-roll band, Iron Butterfly. In actuality, it was taken from the TV reality show, “Iron Chef.”

Iron Fly, which usually draws 20 entrants in the youth division and another 18 or so adults, is a serious competition with a lighthearted underbelly. Last year, about 100 spectators watched the proceedings.

Basically, contestants are given a bag of material that may or may not contain traditional ingredients and asked to tie a usable fly in 15 minutes.

There are twists.

“First, bribery is encouraged,” Skutley says. “We don’t guarantee that bribery will influence the judges’ decisions, but we still encourage it. We also encourage heckling. There are really very few rules. Last year, we had the four finalists tying flies blindfolded. We have made them wear cotton gloves. We have had them turn the vise around so they have to tie the fly with their opposite hand.”

All told Iron Fly is a lighthearted undertaking that involves beer, camaraderie, bullshitting and focus on a skill that many people dedicate their lives to perfecting.

“Some people take fly fishing too seriously,” Skutley says. “But to me and to most people it is stress relief. You’re outside, you’re in a river. What could be better than that?”

The 4th Annual Iron Fly takes place Saturday, Feb. 2, from 4-10 p.m. at the Tipsy Trout (the former Riverside Grill) in Basalt. All entrants must pre-register at www.roaringfork.org/events.

Entry fee is $20 for the adult division. Entry to the kids’ division is free. Non-participants pay $5 at the door.

Participants need to bring their own vise and tools.

The event is co-sponsored by the Roaring Fork Conservancy.