Apr 3rd, 2020
Matt Ramsey is one of our favorite people to be on a river with. Matt is an Oregon native and McKenzie River guide who has done stints in Alaska and Mongolia. When Matt is not on the river in Oregon he is a lodge host at Agua Boa Amazon Lodge in Brazil. We asked Matt a few questions about his business and career and here are his responses. Thanks Matt! We really appreciate your time and we look forward to getting outside with you again soon.
Where are you from and how did you get into fly fishing?
I was born (in 1970) and raised in Corvallis, 45 minutes up the road from my current home in Eugene. I started fly fishing at the age of seven with a fly rod purchased from a garage sale for $1. My dad was my first fly fishing buddy, and we started learning in the dark ages, without internet, fly fishing magazines, a local fly shop, etc. All that changed in 1981, when Michael Gorman opened the Scarlet Ibis Fly Shop in northwest Corvallis. The shop quickly became a focal point for the local fly fishing community, and by 1984, I was working after school at the shop, mostly sweeping and bagging hooks, but eventually including teaching fly fishing and fly tying classes, building custom rods, and leading group outings.
What are your home waters? Tell us about them and why you love them.
The waters where I spend most of my guiding season are the McKenzie and Willamette Rivers near Eugene and Springfield. The McKenzie is wonderful fishery to guide. It features a year-round quality wild trout fishery as well as seasonal summer steelhead and spring chinook runs.
The fishery is always changing throughout the year with a wide range of major hatches. And there are so many fishable miles of river that we can fish the wide shallow riffles and flats of the floodplain one day and the steep gradient whitewater of the forested upper valley the next. We access the river with and fish from a drift boat, so I never need to hit the gym after work. I’ve spent a fair proportion of my career guiding and hosting traveling anglers in far-flung destinations such as Southwest Alaska, Mongolia, and lately in Brazil, which is great. But the thing I love most about guiding around home is being able to be present with my family while making a living doing what I have always loved.
How long have you been guiding?
I’ve been an industry professional since 1985 and guiding full time since 1995.
What is your favorite thing about being a fly fishing guide?
They say that if you do what you love for a living, you never have to work. I’ve had some “real” jobs at times throughout my life, but they never really felt as “real” to me as fishing. As a traveling fly fishing guide, I’ve been fortunate to get to know some of the most remote and beautiful places in the world, to make lifelong international friends, and to do it all on someone else’s dime! And in building my local guide business, I’ve gotten to stay on the water doing what I love and also have a family and a home life.
The most important thing I’ve learned through all the years is that, when done well, guiding is the highest form of fishing. I’ve caught plenty of fish in my life. These days, being able to share the excitement and joy of catching a fish with and through my guests is the greatest thing about guiding. By focusing on the guests’ experience, my enjoyment of fishing is renewed daily.
What do you enjoy doing in your down time?
Surfing with my friends. The waves in Oregon aren’t great very often, but I love being a surfer. Which, I guess in a way could be the ultimate form of fly fishing: I’ve been swinging my wounded sea lion imitation around on the Oregon coast for over 30 years, but I’ve yet to raise a Great White (knock on wood). But I know some surfers who have…
What’s your favorite way to fish?
I enjoy all methods of sport fishing. Fly fishing is what I know best, and I love it in all its variety from dry fly trout, to spey rod steelhead; from tidewater kings, to pond carp. But I also like trolling herring in the bays for fall chinook, or chucking spinners for springers when they’re running nearby. All fishing methods require practice and skill, and I love challenging my fly focused upbringing with fisheries and techniques from outside of my comfort zone.
Who inspired you the most in fly fishing or life?
My father, Fred, has been my lifelong fly fishing companion. He also infected me with the travel bug early in life with travels to Hawaii, Australia, and all over the US, inevitably with a fly rod on board. It was also my dad who started my brother and me in surfing, buying us boards and wetsuits in Australia before we even knew we would want to try it. My dad has always supported me in my career as a guide, visiting all the cool places I’ve been stationed. And whenever I need to do a “scouting float” on the local waters, he’s always my first choice to man the front of the boat.
If you could give a few pieces of advice to someone starting out in fly fishing, what would you tell them?
The most important thing to remember in fly fishing is to ENJOY IT! Fly anglers in particular can often take themselves too seriously. No matter your level of proficiency, whether you’re beginner or an expert or a client or a guide, whether you catch the fish or you blow it, if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Where do you want to take your next personal fly fishing vacation?
These days I’m just looking forward to the next time I can get out on the McKenzie with my dad.
Any good fishing stories?
In 2013, I had the honor of guiding former President Jimmy Carter for a week at Sweetwater’s Tarialen Taimen Camp in Outer Mongolia. This was a definite highlight of my 18 seasons over there. Here is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote after that trip:
The chopper pilots seemed to land with a theatrical flourish this week, and out onto the prairie stepped two of the world’s most well-travelled anglers: President Jimmy and First Lady Rosalyn Carter. Accompanied by an entourage including several good friends, a bevy of Secret Service agents, and U.S. Embassy personnel, the Carters were in camp to try their hands at catching a giant taimen or two. It fell to me to guide them for the week. *Gulp*.
The first evening, we caught some lenok and grayling before a rain squall brought us back into camp. Just as I was taking off my waders, I got word that the President would like to go back out for some bonus time. I ran him across the river to wade the home pool, just the two of us. Despite being a very accomplished angler and fly caster, President Carter was having a bit of a time with his vintage Fenwick 8wt trying to huck muppets into the wind. I suggested he try one of the camp Spey Rods. Even though he had never used one before, he took to it right away. He instantly understood how to make a roll cast and water haul into a powerful overhead cast that soon had him burping the reel and pulling out ever longer strips of line. He was like a kid in a candy store, and was clearly wondering where this rod had been all his life. For any fly fishing guide, there are special experiences that remind you why you are lucky to have chosen this path. The week with the Carters was just such a time. I got to stand shoulder to shoulder and thigh deep in the river with President Carter for the entire week. And one thing I learned is that you don’t get to be President of the United States by being a wuss. This guy just turned 89 on October 1st, and I am not exaggerating when I say that he out-fished and out-efforted every other client at the lower camp this year. He would cast the entire nine-hour day, fish or no fish, with a grit and determination that were frankly intimidating. And while others in the party would grouse about the slow fishing, he truly relished the process and punishment of hard-core taimen fishing.
President Carter caught several nice fish in the 2-to-3-foot class, and had a few chances at trophy class taimen through the week (more, in fact, than any other angler for the season), but as often happens, these eluded capture. However, the President did catch one fish that will be remembered for a long time. It was around midweek at the end of a long day punctuated by only a couple of strikes in the afternoon. Bayara and I were tag-teaming the guiding duties for the day and we both agreed on the last spot: Fred’s Bend slough mouth, where my father had caught his best taimen many years ago. In the evening light, and at the end of the run, last cast. . . finally: a solid strike from a heavy fish on the Cyclops fly. The President struck hard and the rod bent deeply. Fish On! After a stout battle, with several leaps and head shakes, Bayara slid the net under a broad-shouldered trophy-class taimen. Clearly the best fish of the week, and indeed the best of the season at the lower camp. Everyone was stoked! The “chase boat” with the Secret Service detail aboard swooped in for the photo shoot. I handed my camera to guide and chase boat driver, Ganzorig. Backing the President into a golden beam of evening sunlight, I knelt to pull the great fish from the net. Gripping the wrist of the tail, I took a moment to pull the mesh of the net from the taimen’s jagged teeth before lifting it up for the assembled paparazzi. To borrow from another former president, at his moment I was picturing the banner unfurling at the lodge and me in my flight suit arriving back in camp to declare, “Mission Accomplished!”
You know how in life, there are certain moments where you’d give anything to have a do-over, a mulligan? Moments that play over in your mind as you lie awake at night staring into the dark? Scenes where you run through all the possible and obvious ways that things could have turned out differently?
Yes, it’s true: I dropped President Carter’s best taimen before any photo was taken.
The fish bucked as I cleared the net from its teeth, and the tail squirted from my grip. I sprang to all fours and scrambled after the escaping taimen as it threw a rooster tail across the shallow gravel bar. Twice I touched it, but couldn’t cup the nose. In a final desperate effort, I dove headlong into the water like grizzly on a sockeye. Completely submerged, I wedged head and torso under the chase boat, felt the fish under me, felt it bump and squirm past my grasping hands, and it was gone.
Returning to the surface, waders full, hat and glasses askew, I encountered a very different scene than the one from which I had momentarily departed. The President’s trademark grin had been replaced by a look one might have after inadvertently biting into a cat turd. Ganzorig and Bayara stared off into the mountains in the distance, completely avoiding eye contact. The Secret Service agents’ mouths hung agape as they looked alternately at the President and at me. Sitting numbly on the bow of the chase boat, I said something like, “I’m sorry, sir. That was a great fish.” And President Carter said to me, “Shake it off, Matt. We all know how big that fish was.”
Where can people fish with you?
I always love showing people around on my home waters, chasing trout and steelhead on the McKenzie and the Willamette. I think that when this Covid-19 crisis ebbs, local fishing trips will be welcome distraction and a great way to reconnect with and appreciate the freedom we’ve all taken for granted for so long.
For those anglers looking forward to a return to international fly fishing exploration, I’m planning to return to Brazil early next year as a resident host at the legendary Agua Boa Amazon Lodge. After all my years in Mongolia, this is a pretty cushy gig for an older guide like myself (I’m like a golf pro), and the fishing is simply unbelievable! If you’ve ever dreamed of sight fishing for trophy peacock bass in crystal clear water over white sand flats in the equatorial rain forest, this is the place. Max Salzburg at Fly Water Travel always puts together a great week or two of guests. He’s been there and knows the fishery well.
Anything else you want to tell people or any shout outs you want to send?
I’m proud to be affiliated with Fly Water Travel. Brian and Kenny and all the great members of their team have earned their street cred in our industry by their commitment to ground-level experience in all of the fisheries they represent. Their focus on providing their clients with no-hype, reliable guidance in fly fishing travel is why they are trusted by outfitters and clients alike. I know that any clients they send my way will be well prepared and informed about the details of the trip when they arrive for the first day of fishing. When we all get back to traveling and fishing again, I look forward to working with Fly Water Travel to provide anglers the chance to reconnect with fly fishing adventure.
Awe shucks….Thanks Matt. We appreciate your kind words.
When it is time contact Andy at 800.552.2729 for more information on fishing with Matt in Oregon or contact Max to spend time with Matt in Brazil.