Tuesday, April 14, 2009

then and now

April 14, 2009 in Sports

Local fly fishing prodigy has gone global to live angler’s dream

Hooked at an early age
Rich Landers / Outdoors Editor

Now: Gonzaga men’s basketball coach Mark Few beams over a 50-pound Alaska king salmon he landed with the help of fly fishing guide Joe Roope Jr., who’s soaking wet after belly-flopping on the lunker to keep it from breaking off in a log jam. “Few’s a competitor on the river, too,” Roope recalled. “We all wanted that fish.”

He rose to the occasion in the Coeur d’Alene Holiday Inn parking lot 23 years ago like a stubborn trout drawn to a drifting fly.

Joe Roope Jr., a partner in the two-man operation called River Run Fly Shop, put on a pleasant face and shook his client’s hand before crawling back to his nest in the rear of the pickup’s king cab.

Meantime, Joe Roope Sr., the other partner, checked the tie-downs on the drift boat before driving onto Interstate 90 toward Montana’s Clark Fork River.

“Reminds me of a good mule,” said Joe Sr., glancing back at his already-snoozing son. “Put him in a field, he works; put him in a barn, he sleeps.”

Too many 16-hour days will take the fire out of any guide, even an 18-year-old fishing prodigy who sold the first fly he tied at the age of 12.

But young Joe bounced to life at the Clark Fork as though he smelled the action to come. He spotted three gulping trout downriver before he’d pulled three times on the oars. The first 18-inch rainbow of the day inhaled the client’s Size 18 Grizzly Wulff on the third cast.

They caught the last fish of the day 10 hours later after Joe had rowed, tended the net, barbecued a shore lunch, and spotted fish without a break.

Then came a two-hour drive home, sorting equipment – perhaps partying with his buddies – and getting ready for the next clients eager to catch trout.

“I was a normal teenager in the sense I was always in a sleep deficit, but that’s about it,” recalled Roope, 41, who owns Castaway Fly Fishing Shop in Coeur d’Alene.

In middle school, while his school mates were at basketball camps and baseball diamonds, young Roope had already formed a business – Little Dutchman Flies – and was well on his way to a career that was merely an extension of a sportsman’s lifestyle.

Roope has landed tons of big fish since then, from king salmon in Alaska to bonefish in tropical waters as well as celebrity clients ranging from PGA Tour winners to Gonzaga men’s basketball coach Mark Few.

A friend of a friend introduced Few to Roope in the early ‘90s.

“They said he liked to fly fish and that’s all that mattered to me,” Roope said. “At that time, Mark was just an assistant coach, making $20-some thousand a year, I’ll bet, if not living on food stamps for all I knew.

“We hit it off, and now we fish as friends.”

Roope said his father taught him how to tie flies “probably so I’d fill his fly box so he could do more fishing.

“I was an introvert, the kid in the back of the class who didn’t say anything. I lived in my own little world, but when the theme was fly fishing, I bloomed.”

That was the ticket to an uncommon connection with adults.

“My big break came at 12, when I was invited to a Federation of Fly Fishers conclave in West Yellowstone by Darwin Atkins, a big name in fly tying.”

Before long Roope was rubbing elbows at fly tying vises with tying gurus, such as Dave Whitlock, Lefty Kreh and Frank Johnson who started Streamside Anglers in Missoula.

“For some reason, tying flies really interested me when a lot of normal kid things didn’t,” Roope said. “And once I got to fish, it was all over. It became an obsession.”

Roope said he still remembers catching his first rainbow out of the Coeur d’Alene River on a Memorial Day weekend.

“I also remember the red velvet of the first bar I went to,” he said. “I was too young to drink, but I was trying to become a member of the North Idaho Fly Casters.

“It was a good ol’ boy club at the time; they met at the Athletic Round Table, smoking cigars, drinking Scotch and talking fishing. They didn’t have kid memberships. I had to pull teeth to be part of the group.”

Indeed, a club member introduced young Joe to his first vice: bamboo rods. “That’s been a lifelong problem for me,” he said, referring to his taste for a piece of equipment that’s time consuming to build and expensive to buy.

He flexed his wings as a guide by taking his brother and new sister-in-law on the first trip down the Coeur d’Alene River in his first johnboat.

“I rowed them down the river and we had a great time,” Joe said. “That’s when I first thought I was going to be a guide.”

An Orvis shop owner in Ennis, Mont., licensed Roope as a guide under his outfitters permit and turned him loose on the Clark Fork.

“I was 17, the minimum age for being a guide at the time,” Roope said.

Joe and his father both failed to pass the Montana outfitter exam. “Neither of us could get the mule packing part,” he explained. “My brother was the only male in the family who could pass all the tests.”

The rise to success was not without its speed bumps.

Working for an outfitter in a shaky second party agreement in 1992, Roope was guiding two anglers in the walk-in section of the St. Joe River when one of the fellows had a heart attack.

“He had to be air-vaced out,” Roope said.

“To make things worse, the other client was an undercover agent there to root out this new rogue guiding outfit on the St. Joe.

“All the paperwork wasn’t right for my license and I got cited and fined. It was right before my dad died.

“When the undercover agent, Joe Blackburn, came to the board of outfitters hearing I figured I was done for it as a guide. But Joe stood up and told them it was one of the best fishing trips he’d been on and that I deserved to be an outfitter.”

Roope lived the angler’s dream in the period just before his dad passed away.

“I had a winter job opening the lifts at Silver Mountain and making the first tracks down the new snow, but I had to give that up for guiding bonefishing trips in the tropics,” he said.

“I’d do saltwater, then head to Alaska for spring steelheading for three or four weeks, then back home to row a boat on the local rivers and work in the shop with dad into August, then head up to Alaska again for silvers.”

From 1995 through 2004, Roope logged 67 weeks at Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

“I was the only white-boy guide in a Fourth World country 100 miles north of the equator,” he said. “But in 1999, I was the first guide to build a free enterprise lodge there. Before the dot-com bust, there was plenty of capital.

“I sold the place to a partner. It was either that or not stay married.”

Argentina is Roope’s latest fishing frontier, but he says he’s spending less time guiding nowadays and more time managing 18 guides and working in the fly fishing industry.

“I’ll talk to anybody about fly fishing, but I let my excellent staff deal with entry-level anglers, the building block of the business.

“Last year I guided about 25 days, mostly on referrals, then I fished another 25-30 days on my own with friends.

“Funny how it goes. My wife Suzy and I have a 2-year-old son. Mark Few told me for years that as good as I had it as a guide, I shouldn’t miss out on being a dad.

“Now I realize why sometimes a guy just can’t break off for three days just to go fishing.”

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