Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Angler Interview- Phil Monahan

I have been pretty fortunate to be able to guide Phil Monahan this past summer. For those of you who don't know Phil, you are still probably familiar with some of his work. Phil was the editor of American Angler for 10 years and is now editing the Orvis News blog. He is definitely a great guy to spend a day in the boat with. I hit him up for today's Angler Interview and here is what he had to say:

Phil- showing his talents as a gator rider and brown trout hunter...
How did you get into fly fishing?

My grandfather was a big sportsman, and he got me and my older brother, Brian, fishing when we were quite small. I fished a lot in local ponds in southeastern NH growing up, but then I went away for high school and college, where I didn’t fish much. Then I returned to my home state to go to graduate school at the University of New Hampshire. Brian lived nearby, and he had discovered fly fishing. He taught me to cast one snowy afternoon in his girlfriend’s backyard, and I was hooked.  Aside from my brother, who was often busy, I had no one to teach me, so I learned by trial and error. I went fly fishing thirteen times before I caught my first trout.

Do you remember your first outfit?

My brother handed down his $12 Eagle Claw fly rod combo, which I used until I splurged on a Sage Discovery combo about a year later.

When did you head west to fish and guide? And where did you end up? 

In 1992, I got to the point in graduate school where they paid me, rather than vice versa. Therefore, I didn’t need a summer job that would make a lot of money, so I decided it would be fun to learn how to be a guide. I sent out 110 cover letters and resumes to every fly-fishing operation in the West and Alaska I could find. I received a total of three responses, but one was a job offer from a lodge in south-central Alaska. So I headed up there, with no idea what I was getting into.

The guy who hired me turned out to be both insane and bankrupt, which is a particularly bad combo in a lodge owner. He sent me out into the bush to “get the lodge ready for the season” all by myself. I had never been to Alaska before, and suddenly, I was all alone in the wilderness. Long story short: I worked out there from May 20 to July 14, but the lodge never opened and I never got paid. 

However, I had met a few people on the river, and through their assistance, I got hauled out of there, back to Anchorage, and got an interview with another lodge owner named Duke Bertke. He hired me on faith, and I finished that summer at Chelatna Lake Lodge, one of the most gorgeous lodges in Alaska. My summer (and budding guiding career) turned from disaster to spectacular. I spent another summer at Chelatna Lake, worked a season at Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge in Paradise Valley, and then finished my guiding career at Rainbow River Lodge on the Copper River in southwestern Alaska.

Every guide has some great stories… what was one of the best days of guiding you had?

When I worked on the Copper, I once guided a pair of judges from California—one a state Supreme Court justice. They’d been friends for 60-something years and been fishing together almost as long. We caught a lot of fish, but more fun was their banter and their stories from their lives on the bench and in politics. (According to them, the great U.S. Supreme Court justice Earl Warren never uttered the name “Nixon” without prefacing it with “that sonofabitch.”) 

In one part of the day, they were casting big Kauffman Stoneflies under indicators in a long glide, where we could see a bunch of rainbows holding. One of the judges was crushing it—20+-inch rainbows, one after another—but the other couldn’t get a bite. They tried switching spots, switching rods, and even switching hats, but the same guy kept catching all the fish. It was just one of those weird “fishing karma” things that’s totally unexplainable, and they had a good time with it, which made my job fun.

On the flip side, do you have any nightmare clients that you remember and what was it that has stuck with you?

When I worked at Hubbard’s, I guided a lawyer from Texas who wanted to fish Slough Creek in Yellowstone Park. We drove two hours there, but when he didn’t catch a fish in the first ½ hour, he said, “Let’s go back to the lodge.” I pointed out that we could see any number of cutthroats in the water. He handed me his rod and said, “Okay. Let me see YOU catch one.” On about my fifth cast, I hooked a nice trout. With the rod bent, I turned to where he was standing on the bank. He said, “I’ll meet you at the van,” and made me drive him all the way back to the lodge so he could fish the stocked pond on the property.

Having spent time out west and on the East Coast with a wide variety of anglers, do you see a difference in angler attitudes between the two?

In the West, fly fishing is much more tied into the overall outdoor lifestyle of skiing, boarding, mountain biking, etc. Eastern fly fishermen are their own unique club, set apart from those other enthusiasts.

You have been involved in the fly fishing industry for quite some time now and it has undergone some serious changes. What do you think the biggest changes and challenges that you have seen over the years are?

The Internet has changed pretty much everything from the publishing industry to merchandise sales to the dissemination of information. In an hour on the Web, you can learn almost anything about the sport, get the cheapest price on any gear, find a great fishing spot, and discover exactly what fly and tippet you should use there. That said, I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing. There are a few big problems with this model:

1. How can you tell the difference between good and bad information? Anyone can post anything to the Web, and with no editor to vet the info, you stand the chance of the old garbage-in-garbage-out problem. This explains the rise of sites such as and
2. Internet discounters hurt fly shops . Fly shops do a lot more than sell stuff. A good fly shop is like a clubhouse, a meeting place, repository of local knowledge, and center of expertise. Saving $25 on a fly rod isn’t worth giving all that up.
3. There’s something to be said for learning something slowly, rather than all at once.
Phil with a gorgeous bowfin from this past summer!

You and I talked about Warmwater Fly Fishing magazine when we were fishing for bowfin on Lake Champlain (appropriately). It was definitely a magazine ahead of its time. Do you think that now is the time for a re-emergence?

It’s a tough time launch anything like that as a traditional magazine, and folks still haven’t accepted the notion of paying for online content. I think we’re still a few years away from figuring that all out.

I am sure a lot of people must ask you this, but since you work at Orvis now, do you get a chance to play with lots of new toys before they hit the market? Is there anything fun coming down the line to look forward to?

Although I’m friends with all the guys in Rod & Tackle, I’m not really privy to all their fantastic new products until it’s time to write about them. I can certainly use anything I want, which is great.

After spending some time on Lake Champlain this summer, what did you think of the diversity of the fishing and do you have plans to return next summer?

I thought it was an amazing place, and I’d love to explore the many different fisheries available. I especially want to find some pike.

Ok, time to bring up unpleasant memories… what fish(es) that you got into but didn’t land haunt your nightmares? Tell me their stories…

When I was about 12 years old, I was fishing for largemouth bass with a worm under a bobber on Country Pond, in Kingston, New Hampshire. There was a huge patch of lily pads, and I was fishing from shore. I caught a little tiny bluegill, and in a fit of adolescent frustration, I decided to use the tiny fish as bait. I hooked it behind the head and then cast the ridiculous rig as far out into the weeds as possible. A couple minutes later, the bobber went WHOOMP! Straight under. I set the hook and battled some kind of beast (bass, pickerel, ?) for about five minutes—my tiny spinning rod bent double—before the line broke. I really wanna know what the heck that thing was.

I love asking this one: if you could go anywhere in the world to fish for anything, price is no object, where would you go and what would you target? 

Iceland to fish for brown trout, char, and Atlantic salmon.

Thanks a million Phil!  I will have you out for pike next spring for sure!


  1. Great interview, Drew and thanks for sharing, Phil. I love the bluegill on a bobber story. Iceland is also one of those places I would travel to and fish.

  2. I agree,

    Well done! I subscribed at one time to Warm Water Fly Fishing and have every copy. I really miss it and anything remotely similar. Though from Idaho, the esoteric calls to me, ie., bowfins, and we have great warm water fly fishing as well. You are lucky to have met him.