Meet Matt McCannel, a trout guide who calls Colorado home. We spent the day with Matt on his home waters searching for trophy trout and talking to him about his 14 years in the guiding biz. We are excited to add Matt to our ongoing blog series “Behind the Guides” presented by Costa Sunglasses.
Flylords: Yeah, let’s just jump right into it. Why don’t you just tell us who you are and how you would describe yourself.
Matt: My name’s Matt McCannel. I guide for RIGS Fly Shop in Ridgway Colorado. I’ve been doing so the last 14 years, both down at PACO on the Uncompahgre River and doing 3-day trips in the Gunnison Gorge. I have worked for several major companies in the industry. Really, all I want to do is spend time out on the water with people who appreciate catching one fish as opposed to a lot of fish. Going after that one fish, in particular, is really what I look forward to every day and that’s what makes me get out of bed.
Flylords: Tell us a little bit about the area that you guide in and what makes that area unique?
Matt: I guide down at PACO on the Uncompahgre River, which is part of the Ridgway State Park system down here just outside of Ridgway, CO. It’s nice to only have about a 10-minute drive to work every day. For years, all we ever fished was 3 Weights and 4 Weights down there. We never caught anything decent where you need a bigger outfit. One day I was with a client, fishing the PMD hatch, and we’re throwing a dry dropper. This giant fish comes up and eats the dropper. That was the first time that I had seen a gigantic brown in this system. Anyway, I didn’t know what to do. The client sure as heck didn’t know what to do… So, long story short, somehow, by the grace of God, we ended up catching this fish. It really wasn’t a true giant, but it was about 26-27 inch fish. I mean … big fish. That was about 9 years ago.
Since then, I’ve dedicated all my free time to finding these big fish. Which is where the introduction of the ladder came in because I knew I needed to get up and get a high vantage point to see. One day I’m like, “You know what, I should bring my ladder from home and look into a super deep hole,” because I couldn’t see it well enough from ground level.
Flylords: Awesome. Tell us about the ladder, I mean, you hit on it a little bit, but can you explain that a little bit?
Matt: Okay, I only really carry the ladder when I’m guiding at PACO for my sight-fishing trips in particular. The reason for it, if you don’t see these fish, you are not going to catch these fish. You gotta be able to see them, they’re not going to move far to eat a fly, so I’ve even gone to the lengths sort of carrying a whiteboard with on trips just to draw diagrams showing exactly where the fly needs to be in order for the fish to potentially get hooked. Again, a ten-pound fish isn’t going to move a foot to eat some tiny little midge pattern. He’s going to eat it if all he has to do is open and close his mouth, which is where the ladder comes in, and really, guiding people onto that perfect drift.
Now, in a perfect world, somebody would make the perfect shot the first time. But it doesn’t always happen that way. The ladder just enables me to get a high vantage point in really any weather condition, and light condition. I can still see. Which, we’ve all been there, maybe trying to spot a fish on a cloudy, overcast day and maybe you have ten feet of visibility and you can’t see super deep. Of course, water conditions come into play there, too, but; I look at it as just a tool to get my clients set up for a good shot on the fish of a lifetime.
Flylords: In terms of a fish of a lifetime, and I know you talk about how you’re focused on catching that one fish vs. catching a number of fish. Do you have one fish or one moment that stands out kind of in the last 14 years of guiding as the most epic fish that you’ve landed?
Matt: Yeah, so that one fish that I’ll never forget was caught by a really good friend of mine and client Gene Star from Naples, Florida. Fishing extremely high water, back in 2012. I’d seen the fish before and I knew it was big. It was bigger than anything else I’d ever found down there to date. But this fish I knew was huge. My best guess was 20 pounds. Super high water, but being a tail-water, it was still perfectly clear, which was awesome. We needed that.
It took us four days to find this fish. Once we found it, came up with a plan, and of course when you’re potentially dealing with a 20-pound fish, having the right gear, throwing 8 weight rods as opposed to a 5 weight rod. Any trout sized rod isn’t made for a fish like that. To handle that weight, we were throwing an 8 weight and got pretty close to the fish. The first drift over the fish was my bad; I didn’t have the weight right. So the fly drifted about 2 feet over its head. This fish was holding in a deep pocket about 6 feet deep, and I made a weight adjustment. The next shot Gene made was about 2 feet to the outside of the fish. Third drift was right on the money. Fish opened its mouth; just inhaled the leech pattern, the fight probably lasted say 15 minutes. But Gene knows how to fight big fish.
Everything worked out. I actually was over my waders to net this fish because it was hanging out right around a stump that last little bit, so I actually kind of dove under the water to net the fish somewhat. Definitely got wet on that one. Put the fish in the net, and the 12-pound tippet that we were throwing broke right when the fish got in the net. Due to the calculations and measurements that we took on the fish, it came out to just under 20 pounds; I think it was like 19.8. So that was the most memorable fish of my career and definitely for Gene as well. Just crazy.
Flylords: That’s a great story. It sounds like, in your opinion, are these the biggest trout in the world? In this system?
Matt: Boy, no, you can’t say that. Heck no. But I’ve figured out how to get a lot of clients into them over the years. Whether it’s the angle of the sun, the time of day we can see them best, you name it. Of course, that changes throughout the year with the height of the sun up in the sky. The biggest fish in the world? Hell no.
Flylords: Tell me if you had to give a piece of advice, one piece of advice for somebody fighting a trophy trout, what would that piece of advice be?
Matt: Number one thing, most common mistake that I always see … and there’s several, . Let’s start at the beginning…..setting your drag. Everybody sets their drag, in my opinion, way too tight. Too many drag pounds on the reel. Especially if you’re dealing with a ten-pound fish on 6x. You can always increase your drag if need be. It’s hard to go back the other direction once you’ve already snapped that fish off or you’ve pulled the hooks on that fish. By setting that drag light, you can always add drag to your reel throughout the fight if you need to.
Flylords: What are your favorite pair of Costas that you wear on the water and why?
Matt: That would have to be the new Sunrise Silver Mirror in the Fantail frame. They really give you those few extra hours in the day where you can still spot fish. It’s probably my number one go-to lens when I’m sight fishing for fish. Hands down.
Flylords: If you were to pick the best time of day to try and target a trophy trout, what would it be?
Matt: I don’t think there is one. A lot of people think, you know, especially predatory fish like these big fish are, we gotta fish them at night. Well, I don’t know, it’s my opinion, but I think that’s cheating. A lot of people might say using a ladder to spot fish is cheating, too, so everybody has their own opinion. Again, it’s about catching that one fish. I don’t think there is, in my fishery, a better time than others. As long as I can see them, and they’re in the right place, we have a legitimate shot at hooking one.
Flylords: If you got to the water and you didn’t have your whole fly box, and you’re able to pull a fly out of the air, but you could only pick one fly, what would it be?
Matt: Oh, God. I would probably say my “Beyond Nightmare Midge” pattern. All my flies, really, have been developed on that stretch of water. I’ve found that big, old, smart fish get spooked very easy. And a bigger fly will scare the hell out of them.
Flylords: Tell me, do you think wearing camo makes a difference when it comes to being able to land that fish and why?
Matt: So, camo. Does it help you to land the fish? No. Does it potentially get you closer to that fish? Well, I look at it as a tool. Maybe some people get it because they think it’s cool. It’s a tool for me that I use to get close to those fish. To get clients close to those fish. I’ll take any advantage I can get.
I mean look at the shoot we just did, Chris and I both had the camo on. The day before we hooked five giant fish. We only cast to the five fish. That said something right there. Yeah, that was a good day for whatever reason. The stars aligned and the fish wanted to eat the flies that we were throwing at them really well. But, when you can get within 15 feet of a fish to make a super-accurate shot, rather than a 30-foot shot, there’s a lot to be said about that. So camo works, in my opinion.
Flylords: Is there a fly line that you like to use that you think spooks the fish the least? Is that a thing?
Matt: Yeah, I would say so. But, super long leaders are more important. But when it comes to fly line, let’s see, the Scientific Angler Trout Taper, the Amplitude Trout Taper. It is probably my number one go-to line right now for pursuing big fish. The reason why is it’s got an extremely long head on it about 70 feet. As opposed to having, say, a 36-foot head where all that weight is in just 36 feet. All the weight of this line is spread out over 70 feet, so it’s not an aggressive line at all.
Flylords: Do you want to just give us a quick summary of what happened during the shoot?
Matt: During the shoot, I had a game plan, where I figured out where some fish that have been pretty happy, we’re going to be out and feeding. That didn’t work out right away. So, it was about an hour before we saw our first big fish, sometimes it takes all day, but we found one in a very tricky spot. He was actually behind this stump. But I know that stump and I know that if I have somebody make the right cast, the flies will actually go underneath the stump. And so it took about a half hour of trying. Chris trying to get that perfect drift and that perfect nymph combination.
We finally get it and I watched the fish drift out the back side of the log, tracking the fly. And watched the fish’s mouth open up and boom! It was on.
Unfortunately, that fish splashed around on the surface for a bit and then once he got his head about him, he figured out what was going on. He jetted right to that stump and snapped us off. It was bummer, but hey, you’re not going to stop a fish like that. That fish was easily 15 pounds, and on 5X it’s just not going to happen. The stump won that day, but about an hour later we found another fish. Pretty straight forward drift. This was really difficult to see. But we got that one done. It was amazing. Got him in the net, grabbed a few photos. It was perfect.
Flylords: If people want to find more info about you or want to book a trip with you, what’s the best way to get in touch?
Photos by Jesse Packwood of Team Flylords.