Tom Larimer & Jet Boat
TL + jet boat.

After years of fishing everywhere we can, and getting to know people in the process of doing so, we've been lucky enough to build relationships with some of the best and most innovative fisherman out there today. Some are professional guides, some are part-time guides, some are captains, some are just fisherman. All are brimming with experience, insight, and good stories. So we cooked up this idea to do a "20 Questions" segment with some of these folks. For now, it is just that, but we've gotten the not-too-subtle message from our first two interviewees that we need to learn to cork it after a while. So, we'll see.

Winter Steelhead
A fine Oregon winter steelhead.

Following is our interview, somewhere around 20 questions, with Tom Larimer -- guide on the rivers of Oregon's Columbia Gorge for steelhead and trout. To learn more about Tom, including links to his blog, check out his profile.

Hatch Magazine: What was the first fish you can remember catching?

Tom Larimer: First fish was a bluegill on a farm pond near my folks house in Wisconsin. I was hooked on the sport instantly.

HM: What's your favorite river to fish? What makes it so special? Feel free to not plug the main river you guide on. If you have to, that's okay.

TL: The North Umpqua holds my heart. It's the most technical river I've ever fished... Tough water to read, insane wading and big casts are rewarded. You better bring your "A Game" on the North. Plus, it's one of the prettiest river valleys I've ever seen. It's also about fishing in a place where so much of our steelhead culture was born. You can feel the ghosts of the river as you swing your fly.

HM: With good reason, every fly fisherman thinks steelhead and trout when Oregon is mentioned. What's the next-best (or better) species to target on the fly in Oregon?

TL: Smallmouth fishing in the NW is way overlooked. The John Day gets most of the attention but my experience on that river is lots of small fish, with a few big ones. My buddy Marty Sherpard from little Creek Outfitters guides the river and does know the secrets of finding the big boys. That said, the Grande Ronde, Yakima, South Umpqua, Willamette and Columbia are all world class fisheries. I'm sure there's more rivers out there that hold "Copper Thunder" as well.

HM: What's your favorite piece of gear at the moment?

TL: It's a tie between two products. I work for Airflo as a fly line designer. I just developed a new floating Spey line called the Rage Compact. It's by far the best two-handed floating line I've ever cast. We also just came out with a Skagit head for switch rods. Although the thing hucks on a switch, I've been casting it on longer spey rods as well. The Spey game is changing quick. Shorter rods and shorter lines will be in style in the next couple of years. You can read articles about both lines on my blog.

HM: If you could fish anywhere in the world, where would it be? Why?

TL: Russia... I love adventure. Plus, the wild trout and steelhead aren't completely fucked up by man.

HM: Speaking of man's impact on wld fish populations -- Oregon seems to have an ongoing, perhaps never-ending battle between wild/native fish advocacy groups (i.e. The Native Fish Society) and the state and other organizations that support an ongoing stocking steelhead stocking program. The last we heard, advocacy groups were actually suing the Oregon Department of Wildlife for violating the Endangered Species Act by running a hatchery on the Sandy River.

What's the latest? What do fly fisherman outside the area need to know about this conflict? Weigh in.

TL: Last I heard this thing on the Sandy was still in Public Comment. It's great to see conservation organizations working to save our wild steelhead populations. However, I fear we are going about it in the wrong way. The gear anglers have a perception of the anglers that care about wild fish. The Native Fish Society is referred to as the "Catch No Fish Society" in many fishing circles. The battle over wild fish can't be won in the courts -- at least at this stage. Those of us that give a crap about wild fish are WAY out numbered by those that don't. Conservation organizations need to brand themselves to the general public. If the tax payer knew what the were spending on hatchery fish, they would be outraged. Plus, many of these hatchery fish are being caught in both white man and tribal commercial fisheries. The government also subsidizes the commercial fisherman. It's crazy! We spend millions on Salmon and steelhead recovery every year, yet we continue to stock hatchery fish. Again... Crazy!

It's my opinion that we need to make compromises to win battles. In my mind, a river classification system is the answer. There are many rivers beyond saving at this point... Why not stock the hell out of them? Have rivers were a guy can take his kid fishing and whack a few hatchery fish. At the same time, we need to have strongholds for the remaining healthy wild stocks. Keep in mind, healthy is a relative term out here. Many of our "healthy" rivers have only 2% to 5% of the estimated run size they once had. That said, there are rivers out there -- like the Sandy -- that can be saved. These wild fish have a value that goes way beyond financial implications. However, I truly believe the wild fish will soon be completely wiped out if we don't start making compromises.

HM: Everyone has the "one that got away". Some of us have many. Tell us about yours. This might be your fish, or one of your clients.

TL: I lost a big tarpon in the Keys last year... Way to long of a story to tell though. Lets just say it didn't end well.

HM: What about the ones that didn't get away. What's the best fish you've ever brought to hand? Again, your's or your clients'. It's the fish we care about.

TL: A client of mine landed a steelhead that was in the upper twenty pound range a few years back. He is one of my favorite anglers to fish with so it made the experience pretty special. Plus, it took so long to land we had to run down the Deschutes in the dark. Running a jet boat on the D is an adventure during the day. Turn the lights out and it becomes even trickier. -We still talk about that night every time we fish together.

HM: What led you to your current, rarified profession?

TL: I've always known I was going to be a fishing guide. I've been obsessed with it since I was really young. As a boy growing up in Wisconsin I loved chasing salmon in the Great Lakes. I read about the bounty of Alaska when I was about 12 years old, and it became a dream to own a charter boat up there. I picked up a fly rod at the age of twelve and it changed the game for me. Ultimately, I started West Shore Guide Service at the ripe age of 22. Shortly after, I starting guiding in Alaska during the summers. After a couple of years of doing it my own, I got a job working in Michigan for Ray Schmidt. While I love fishing in the Great Lakes region, my love for two-handed casting ultimately brought me to the Northwest. It will be 16 years behind the oars this fall, amazing how time flies!

HM: What would you say to other fly fisherman out there that aspire to be a guide?

TL: Expect to be poor, guiding is a labor of love. Be 100% sure you want to make your passion your avocation. It changes you. More so, never let your head get too big. Most of the guys I know that let their ego get out of control end up burning out pretty quick. Always remember why you got into the sport in the first place... Fishing is supposed to be fun! Your clients aren't looking for anything but that.

HM: False modesty must be checked at the door. What's the key to being a great fishing guide? If it helps to say that the question is "what do you think the key is", then fine, that's the question.

TL: Listening to your clients expectations and doing your best to exceed them. If you do your very best with the things you can control, anglers will know you're working your ass off for them.

HM: What are the best and worst parts of the job?

TL: Best part... Being part of a memory. I'm in many Grip and Grin shots holding a fish with a client. Those photos sit on desks in offices, on a wall in the den, hanging on the fridge -Wherever. People look at those photos and remember a good day in their life. I was a part of that. It's a pretty cool deal. The worst part... Making lunch, answering a lame question on the phone at 5:00am, fixing boats, and my bank account in February.

HM: What's the worst/craziest thing that's ever happened to you during a day of fishing, guiding or otherwise?

TL: I epoxied my brand new drift boat to it's trailer. Way too long of a story to tell!

HM: Some guides say they haven't had one. Hard to believe. Whether you have or you haven't, what makes a terrible client? Also, what makes an ideal client?

TL: I hate it when I guide an angler that just doesn't appreciate how hard I'm working to get them into fish and make their day a great experience. All of these guys (haven't had a bad woman ever) - all of these guys are shitty fisherman. They think just because they hired a guide the fish will start committing suicide. It's more than that... Just saying thanks for lunch goes a long way in my book.

HM: It goes without saying that you've probably seen your first-timers and novice clients pull some unbelievable shit. We've all been there. But what about the decent fisherman you guide? What is the most common mistake you see otherwise skilled fly fishermen make?

TL: Regardless of the skill level, anglers that don't observe miss a lot of what's going on. I read a fly fishing book as a kid and the author wrote something that has always stuck with me. He talked about not stringing your rod until you've spent at least ten minutes watching the water. Todays fast pace world makes everyone frantic! Anglers need to let go of the hustle and bustle and slow down, a river is no place to be in a hurry. Put the fly rod down and you start noticing stuff you easily would have missed if you just charge down to the river and started fishing. You might see a hatch of tiny mayflies, you might see a rising fish you would have walked over, it might just be a chance to get your nerves settled. My friend Rebecca Garlock, "The Outdooress Blog" calls it tuning into the river. -The anglers I respect the most have the best observation skills.

A few years back I was guiding trout on the Deschutes. My client was a very good caster and we were having a great day of dry fly fishing. As we worked our way up some greedy bank water, we found a very large trout sipping spent caddis. He was positioned in a foam line right next to a big grass clump. The cast had to be perfect. My client made four or five drifts right on the money but the fish wouldn't eat. I switched flies about four times and still we couldn't get that big boy to commit. We couldn't believe it! Then I noticed something unusual... Every time the trout rose, he ate to his right. "I wonder if he's blind in his left eye?" I pondered out loud. I had my client watch the fish like a hawk and instructed him to cast only when the fish wandered away from the grass tuft enough to get a drift on his right side. Sure enough, the first time the fly drifted to the right of the fish we got the big eat. When we landed the 18" rainbow, we confirmed my suspicion. An osprey had left his mark, probably years ago, and he was blind in the left eye. I'll say it again, observation is the key to being a successful angler.

Spey Cast
Spey casting for winter steelhead.

HM: What about you? Everyone has a weak spot in their fishing skill set. What's yours?

TL: I work too much and need to get on the water more!

HM: What's the biggest negative change you've noticed in fly fishing in the last 10 years?

TL: We need to get more kids into the sport. The 'River Runs Through It' phase has come and gone. As that generation ages, we need new anglers and new advocates of wild fish and wild places.

HM: What's the biggest positive change you've noticed in fly fishing in the last 10 years?

TL: Women in fly fishing! I spoke at an "ALL MEN" fly fishing club a few years ago. They didn't appreciate it when I asked them if they were gay. The "old boys club" has never sat well with me. I'm very happy to see more female anglers getting into fly fishing. They're voice is just as strong in the world of conservation.

HM: We're assuming that you having something else in your life besides fishing. What's your M.O. when you're not on the water?

TL: Outside of guiding, I've got my paws in a lot of honey pots. Casting instruction, hosted travel, photography, working my social media network and running the biz keep me out of trouble. And yes, every once in a while I steal away an evening and head for the river myself.


Unfortunately there are no "truely" wild fish left on the Sandy. Every one of them have some hatchery genes in them.