“I started fishing at a young age with my dad and buddies,” said Don Puterbaugh.
Now 88, Puterbaugh is a master fly-fisherman and fly-tier, having taught classes and guided fly-fishing trips for over 45 years.
At age 80 he retired from being an official guide with ArkAnglers, the largest fly-fishing guide service in central Colorado. At the time of his retirement he was the oldest fly-fishing guide in North America.
“I really love this sport, and guiding is helping someone enjoy what you enjoy,” Puterbaugh said of his teaching time on the Arkansas.
“Fly-fishing is not difficult, but it’s different,” he said. “Fly-casting doesn’t require muscles, but there’s a finesse to it.” Although he’s no longer a paid guide these days, he is teaching his great-grandchildren how to fish.
“It’s a family sport, and it’s good exercise at any age, young or old,” Puterbaugh said. He still spends two to three hours a day fishing his seven-acre property on the Arkansas.
Over the years, he has developed what he calls “truisms by Puterbaugh,” his own clever tips about fly-fishing and life.
“Fifteen minutes of looking is worth an hour and a half of fishing,” he said.
The master advises anglers to not just run down to the water and start casting. Instead, take some time to look at the factors of the day, including the river, the weather and the insects.
Muddy water is not great for fly-fishing, said Puterbaugh, because the fish cannot see the insects. He said his standard for fishable water is when you can see 1.5 to 2 feet into the water.
Wind is not a fly- fisherman’s friend, as it causes surface water visibility to decrease for the fish, making them tricky to catch. Wind also means insects won’t be on the surface, and it can be challenging to cast.
Ideal fishing time is morning or late evening, said Puterbaugh. As a fisherman, you are less visible to the fish because of the sun angle. Water temperatures are also better at this time because fish don’t like to come out to feed as much at midday when the water is warm.
Entomology, the study of insects, is one of the biggest factors in a fisherman’s success, Puterbaugh said. A trout’s diet is 90 percent insects, he added, which is an advantage to the observant fisherman.
Observe or try to catch one of the insects present on the water. He said this tells you what kind of fly to use. If after a morning of fishing you find you don’t have a fly that resembles the current insect hatch, catch one and take it back to the fly shop to match it.
A second Puterbaugh truism for fly buying and tying is to match the size, shape and shade (color) of the insect.
“You have to outsmart the fish,” said Puterbaugh. “They change locations depending on all these factors. A thinking fisherman has better odds to catch fish.”
Puterbaugh has an extra piece of advice for anglers.
“I highly recommend they join Trout Unlimited,” he said. “It’s a great educational program with classes and group trips, and they do a lot to assist in making local habitat better for the health of trout.”
Another way to learn from Puterbaugh is by reading the books he has co-authored and illustrated. Although now out of print, the three books are still available at Salida Regional Library. “Fly Fisherman’s Primer,” “The Basic Manual of Fly-Tying” and “Expert Fly-Tying” are three that Puterbaugh co-authored with Paul Fling.
The books have few photos, and instead include Puterbaugh’s illustrations for clarity. “I’ve been drawing all my life,” he said. “I first practiced on brown butcher paper Mom would save for me from the meat she bought.”
Puterbaugh grew up in Wisconsin and later worked for the Navy in civil service. He came to Colorado on a three-week job, and while at the higher elevation discovered the pain from his rheumatoid arthritis was completely gone.
“When I went back to see my doctor in Wisconsin, he said to pack my bags and move,” Puterbaugh recalled. So in 1960 he transferred to civil service at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He has never had arthritis pain since. “It’s a miracle,” he said.
After years working at a fly shop in Wisconsin and at another in Colorado Springs, Puterbaugh opened the Columbine School of Fly Fishing in 1963. The school was the first of its kind for Colorado.
He moved the school to Hartsel on the South Platte River and enjoyed over 20 years of guiding in South Park and also on trips to Alaska. Eventually, he joined Greg Felt and Rod Patch at ArkAnglers and continued guiding.
“Don is an inspiration,” Patch said. “He’s been a great mentor at the shop and to me over the years,” assisting the business with his knowledge of fishing and flies.
Puterbaugh has been a resident of Salida since the mid-1980s. Valley residents and visitors can find his specialty flies at ArkAnglers, but his flies have gained fame around the world. Umpqua Feather Merchants sells many of his custom flies, including Don’s Pale Morning Dun and Don’s Blue Wing Olive.
Even with his extensive experience, Puterbaugh said he is still learning. “Every time I go fishing, I learn something new. You will be learning until the day you die.” Another Puterbaugh truism indeed.
“Fly-fishing is a joy,” he grinned. “You get tied up in it.”