Meet Chuck Ragan, a fly-fishing guide and musician based out of California. Chuck’s operation spans across the Lower Yuba, Feather, and Sacramento River, as well as the Foothill lakes and specializes in targeting Striped Bass, Trout, Steelhead, Shad, Small Mouth, and Large Mouth Bass. Chuck has been a Costa pro and a great friend of Flylords for years.
FL: Who is Chuck Ragan?
Chuck: I am a Guide and Musician, but first and foremost the main gig and focus is being a PaPa. Although mama does most of the work since I’m off working the majority of the time.
FL: What is the earliest fishing memory you have?
Chuck: The first fishing memory I believe I have would be out in Texas at my Maw Maw and Paw Paws place. They lived and worked on a lake at the time somewhere outside Cleveland. I remember catching a big bluegill and I was so excited that I ran to tell my family who was watching me from afar. When I got close to ’em they were laughing and maw maw in her thick Cajun accent yelled, “Look behind you Cooyon!” Never letting go of my rod, I had unknowingly drug that fish through the dirt and pine needles to tell ’em about the big fish I had just caught! Maw Maw washed it off with a hose, we scaled it, and added it to the supper bucket along with a pile of others.
FL: When did you first spark an interest in fly fishing? Who was involved in this?
Chuck: There were a few people early on that sparked interest but I owe the majority of it to my brother Paul. Paul lived in Colorado for a spell and that’s where he first was exposed to it. He kept speaking to me of how amazing it was to catch fish off of flies he tied on his own. After peaking my interests he sent me a crummy little vice, reel, rod, and a shoebox full of fur and feathers and that’s where it began for me. That was over 20 years ago I reckon. I had dabbled here and there but it just wasn’t around me at all at the time until fast forward to some years later when I moved to Northern California where it was all around me. I kinda went all in right away and started connecting the dots between what I’d learned growing up and what I was currently learning with the help of guides and friends like Matt “Gilligan” Koles, Hogan Brown, Dave Barbieri, Tom Page, and Clay Hash.
FL: Growing up, what role did fishing play in your development? Was it a social activity, or something you did by yourself?
Chuck: My brother and I grew up fishing but fly fishing was something completely foreign to us really. We just weren’t exposed to it at all. On my mom’s side of the family, we enjoyed the bounties from the Gulf of Mexico, bayous of Louisiana and Texas Rivers. Our dad’s side of the family lived on the intercoastal in Daytona Beach on the other side of the state so we seemed to bounce back and forth from the Atlantic to the Gulf and of course into the woods. We were meat fishermen and the word “sport” wasn’t ever even considered to be related to it. You either fished or you didn’t and if you did it was simply about food on the table and in the freezer. At a young age with creeks in our back yard and always visiting other lakes or saltwater, my brother and I were brought up with it in a way that it was just something we did and where we came from. In a lot of ways, it actually wasn’t all that cool to some people. It wasn’t skateboarding and it wasn’t football.
FL: When did you know you wanted to be a guide? What events led up to that?
Chuck: I look back at how my mom and dad taught us on the water or our grandparents and in so many ways all I’m doing is continuing that tradition of sharing the bits of knowledge that have been passed down to us. I think I was first really attracted to the life at the age of 12 or so while being on a canoe excursion outside of Skagway somewhere I think. I remember really liking our guide and thinking, man is he living the life.
I’d have to say that it was most likely the early times I began taking friends fishing as well. I took a lot of friends fishing for a long time before ever officially becoming a licensed and insured guide and didn’t really realize until I began guiding officially that I had been more or less doing the same thing for quite a while. When I moved to Northern California in 2007, I began fishing these rivers around me and Matt “Gilligan” Coles of Gilligan’s Guide Service in Truckee was a great friend and huge help in getting my head wrapped around the fisheries and some methods completely new to me. I admired his lifestyle, I admired his demeanor and energy and in my mind, it was completely derived from him living that life of a river guide. That I believe is when it became something that I felt called to do.
I was still touring often but saw a future with kids and wanted to transition to a plan B as far as what I would do to support myself and my family. Gill was highly encouraging and told me to go for it though it was sometime before I actually went for it. Fast forward to a handful of years later, I met Hogan Brown who in more ways than one became a mentor to me in a lot of the programs I run in my business. He ended up being the voice that helped me determine that this idea of living and working was the positive path I was looking for. I witnessed Hogan living this life of balance between being a guide and a school teacher whilst raising a family.
That I admired. I was still in the music business and planned to not completely abandon everything I’d been building in that career for over half of my life. I realized I needed to find that balance and Hogan helped me see that path and how to begin the transition towards that balance.
FL: When it comes to your music career – how does it fit into your guide life? Would you consider yourself a guide who plays music, or a musician who guides?
Chuck: Earlier on in my guiding career it was certainly a part-time gig between my tours and life in music. Over the years and especially having our son, the guiding has become the full-time focus and music has become the secondary drive. As far as either of those things fitting into my life or more so my life fitting into those things, everything has to be laid out far ahead of time.
My family time, holidays, guide dates, and touring/recording schedule all get laid out a year prior. It’s the only way I’m able to do it and keep it straight and it’s still tough from time to time. Luckily the guide business is doing well enough where I’m not worried about filling trips one bit. I have incredible returning clients that I appreciate and adore that make it possible to keep the whole machine running. I do think it also comes and goes in moves in terms of priorities. For instance, Hot Water Music is about to release a record for the first time in years and throughout 2022 we’ll be playing more shows than we have in over a decade. All that had to be planned last year based around our family time and obligations. 2022 and in 2023 I’ll be guiding a bit less than I have been.
FL: What are some areas where you’ve guided in the past – where do you guide now?
Chuck: I’ve only been licensed here in California. The waters I guide are the Yuba, Feather, and Sacramento Rivers as well as our foothill lakes. There were a few seasons I guided down in the California Delta but nowadays I stick mainly to our rivers close to where I live.
FL: What is one thing that’s special/ unique to guiding in your area?
Chuck: We have a vast amount of waterways that host a wide range of species both native and introduced, resident and migratory. It’s pretty special to be in the rivers that host so many different species that we target at different times of the year if not all year. I’d say another unique thing about our area and how I actually work is that if you are prepared for it, you can have a 100%, year-round operation. No off-season. No slow season. Our rivers do blow out at times but there are other options and fisheries as well as methods that I’m able to work throughout the year. It takes having a few different boats, a pile of gear, many different rods rigged and ready to grab and go but to me, it’s the only way to do it if this is the work and life I want to have full time.
FL: What does your ideal client look like? Would you say you get clients like these often?
Chuck: Great attitudes first and foremost. Confident ability in casting and playing fish is a definite plus. Also a willingness to adapt in any fishing scenario based on season or weather and of course the drive to visit and come fish with me multiple times a year.
FL: What has been one of the hardest lessons to learn as a guide, specifically in your area?
Chuck: Most likely it would be being prepared to adapt at a moment’s notice. Like I said, our rivers may blow but there’s always something else to transition to if you’re prepared and your clients trust you enough to lead them in the right direction. To be a year-round guide here, there need to be options open for when mama nature says “hell no!”
FL: How is it balancing family time and such a busy schedule?
Chuck: Honestly, it’s usually a nightmare and pretty difficult and unfortunately my sweet wife is the one who usually gets the short end of the stick. In fact your next interviews should bypass all these guides who see pictures of on Instagram and go straight to the real glue that holds our lives and work together.
FL: Can you walk us a bit through your daily routine?
Chuck: Sure thing. 3:30-4:30 am rise, feed my dog, answer a few emails, plan, pay a bill, restock gear or tie a few flies over coffee, by then it’s time to roll. The boat is usually hooked up and gear loaded the night before so I can just throw ice blocks in the cooler, grab my coffee and go. Depending on the fishery and time of year I’m leaving my house tween 5:30-6:30 am and meeting clients around 7 after a fuel stop. Most of where I fish I have to commute anywhere from 20min to an hour and 20. We get after it and either I’m rowing or running one of the jet boats. I’m happy to do either. It’s all based on the species my clients care to target.
Trips end between 3-5 pm, drop my clients off and then B-line it home. Some days I’m switching boats and gear at the end of the day. Drop off the drift boat, empty the trout gear and load up the jet and Striper gear. Most days this chore doesn’t happen until after the family goes to bed. When I get home from guiding I’m prepared to battle a 3.5” Spider-Man, Batman, ninja, or who knows who will be waiting to take me out. Dad duty begins when I get in. The boy and I will get into something and either play battle, fish our pond, hunt critters, or put our feet up and hang. Mama makes us some dinner and tries to wind down. After they’re down, I can switch gears or reset for the next day. Hopefully, within that time nothing needs to be fixed, maintained, or replaced on the truck, trailers, or motors but those moments always come our way from time to time.
FL: In the early early morn, when your hands are blistered and your back hurts; what (besides money) gets you out of bed and onto the boat?
Chuck: We’ll to be clear, it’s certainly not the money. Let’s be honest, one can make a decent living guiding but the work that goes into that and especially where I live and what it entails is substantial. In other words, if I was about the money I would have chosen a different path a long time ago. What gets me up and moving is the pursuit. The need for the outdoors, the drive to share knowledge that I’ve accumulated or that’s been passed down to me. To set a good example and continue a river etiquette that I believe is proper. To help influence positivity to kids or a younger generation who are lacking a connection with nature and of course contribute and help protect our local waterways so they’ll be healthy for the next generation.
FL: What is your favorite set of Costa frames and lenses?
Chuck: I’ve been wearing Reeftons for some time. They’re a great fit for my face. I Always start the day with Silver Sunrise and then switch as the light changes if need be.
FL: what advice would you give to a young angler looking to get into guiding?
Chuck: Be willing to sacrifice a lot if not everything to do what you love to do. Just like anything else in life, the best advice I could give is simply this: “We get back what we put in.” You can read and research all you want but nothing compares to time on the water. I’d recommend not cornering themselves to one method or fishery. Try other methods. Think outside the box. Observe other anglers and techniques even if it’s outside of the fly fishing world. I’ve learned so much fishing conventionally since I was a kid and even nowadays and have adapted those methods into a fly routine that works. Observing fish behavior. Sight fishing wherever and whenever possible. Get off the beaten path and keep the head on a swivel and work your ass off.
FL: Anything special on the horizon for Chuck Ragan?
Chuck: Staying the course in a life that I’ve found to be pretty special.
Thank you to Chuck Ragan for taking the time to chat with us. To learn more about Chuck, you can follow him on Instagram HERE or check out his website HERE. Also, Thank you to Costa for continuing to make this series possible and allowing us to share the stories of those that fuel this industry. To learn more about Costa Sunglasses, Click HERE.
All Photos shot by Flylords photographer: Jesse Packwood