Ron Sorensen lives the dream. As the owner and operator of Chocolate Lab Expeditions, Ron spends most of the year guiding out of San Martin de Los Andes in Patagonia, and when not in Argentina, Ron guides in Montana. Usually on the water, Ron is tough to pin down, so we were thrilled to be able to get an interview with him for The Venturing Angler:
Why do you guide where you do?
I ended up on the Madison, Henry’s Fork and in Patagonia by luck really. I worked at Randall Kaufman’s Streamborn Flies in Portland, Oregon on and off through high school, and with Randall’s written recommendation I applied for jobs everywhere. A dude ranch on the upper Madison just happened to be one of the few spots that responded. After 70 walk wade trips that first season in ’92, I was able to get a job working for Mike Lawson at Henry’s Fork Anglers. Randall knew Mike well, so he got me straight into the big leagues, when I should have still been a back up pitcher in Des Moines.
Initially the Fork seemed insurmountable, but on one of my first days in I.P., I floated with Lawson so he could see how I rowed and he brought Gary Lafontaine along. Mike spent the whole lunch sitting on the bank with Gary, grilling him on every caddis that floated by. Here was an icon of the fishing world and one of the leading experts of the Fork getting lessons on caddis from Gary. This set the tone for what the Fork was all about. I really appreciated Mike’s humility in his on going quest to understand the river.
Ultimately I stayed through 2008 for the challenge and variety the river offered, primarily focused on targeting rising fish with dry flies. With the schooling and economic requirements of a growing family we moved to Ennis, and I started running most of my trips up on the Missouri. After the Fork, the MO was a Disneyland for rising fish.
The opportunity to go to Patagonia was just as serendipitous, starting with a conversation one fall morning as I washed out my boat behind Mike’s shop. Four months later I found myself in San Martin De Los Andes. That part was just luck, but I stayed due to the hatches. We use plenty of big foam over the course of the season, but it’s the variety of hatches and fishing opportunities over the season that kept me interested and from moving elsewhere. As I was to find out, very few other areas in Patagonia offer hatches in the scale and scope compared to the area around San Martin.
What is your favorite fish species?
Trout still hold the top tier. They display such a variety of behavior and target so many different food sources — I find them inexhaustibly interesting. You can go out just about anywhere, anytime, and catch fish on a pheasant tail or prince, but to peel back the film of the surface and try to piece together what’s actually going on for a given day — that has kept me engaged through all these years.
I love to steelhead fish and cherish my fall trips, but that seems to be about the pace and rhythm of that angling, step/cast, the perfect swing, and letting your thoughts wander, or to be razor sharp on the steel point of the hook as the fly passes into a favorite bucket. It always seems like pure magic when I catch one, but it’s less studied and best in smaller doses.
I did fish permit for the first time a couple of months ago and instantly fell in love with that game. On the first tailing permit I saw I was already done for — it was electrifying.
What is your favorite thing about guiding?
One thing is to go out and get the sports into some fish, and that gets old pretty fast. The best days and for the clients I enjoy the most — there’s a process, they’re working on their game, adding tricks to their quiver, and open to sitting for a moment to see something new.
Ultimately (and it’s a cliche) but there are a lot of amazing people out there. You have all kinds of folks, engaged in all kinds of work, often some of the best in their field, but you’re on this instant leveling by sharing this passion about the fish. Anyone that fishes for very long realizes quickly that the trout don’t care how important you are at your day job. I think this is what makes most fly fishing clients truly palatable right off the bat, and then you can get to know one another. In addition, we’re in the unique position of having their undivided attention and time in the boat for the day, which seems to be an ever increasing rarity.
What is the most memorable trip you’ve guided and why?
Fortunately there have been a lot of memorable days, getting caught in a Patagonia wildfire while on a camp trip and having to row out in the dark with the stream side willows blowing up in 20-foot flame balls, driving home alone after a trip and coming across a sunset so striking you had to pull over, landing seven Limay brutes on dries with my Dad & friend/head guide Diego while scouting a new float, my very first experience on the Limay with my friend Shaggy, that day on the Fork with Lawson and Gary, it goes on.
But my most memorable actual guide day ran all over the spectrum — pretty crappy guide day actually, early on in my career, and Lawson nearly fired me. Father/ young teenage daughter that wasn’t really much interested. Dad insisted we fish the Ranch as his long time guide on the South Fork had said it was the best dry fly fishing anywhere. It was obvious this guy had no idea what that really meant. I suspected he was thinking he’d be catching 20-inchers all day on size 10 red double humpies. Walking in the top end of the Ranch we passed two nice young guys on the trail and chatted for a bit. They had been there for three days and hadn’t caught a fish yet. I gave them a couple of flies and hoped their luck would change.
The morning spinner fall was pretty decent and the Dad ended up missing two good fish — solid performance for his first time on the Ranch. Sadly, the nice Daughter didn’t have a chance.
As we walked out we caught up to the younger guys, and shared the trail for a while, their luck hadn’t changed and had been pushed out by the late morning breeze as well. I suggested they walk into the Box Canyon to nymph through the afternoon and try to catch a few. I followed the same advise and we dropped a boat in below the dam. I had to teach the Dad/Daughter how to nymph (Dad ONLY dry fly fished) and tried desperately to get them to react to the indicator’s stops and pauses. The bite was actually pretty impressive, so I was hopeful and kept at it in good spirits, and the daughter ended up landing a couple little ones. Dad sat in the back of the boat and basically couldn’t be bothered.
We came down into the Lunch Table run which has a beautiful deep trough running right down the gut of it, with a few big scattered boulders spread throughout its length. I was walking the boat, water up to my tits, encouraging the Dad to make a couple of shots — great spot, you could get a real big one here, etc. — and he spun around in the chair (he was still sitting) and shoved the rod in my face: “You catch one!!!”
I was young enough in my career to actually give it a go.
After my third strikeless drift it dawned on me the corner I had backed myself into. The fourth drift was painfully flat, not a wrinkle or pause to it, until at the very first tightening of the swing and the line went heavy. I bumped back on the weight and a massive bow immediately shot out of the water. Huge!!! It completed its back flip and crashed back into the water. A boat just upstream whooped as the fish started pulling me down stream. Turned out this other boat was another guide who had a photographer with him, so the guide (maybe Lynn Sessions?) netted my fish, juberant high fives, and we ended up having a short photo session with this 23/24″ beauty.
So I was beaming as I pushed and struggled my way back up to my anchored boat. As I finally caught hold of the gunnel, the Dad barked out “Take us in, we’re done.” So I rowed through the lower end of the Box, not quite sure if I should be pissed at the dude or myself, or just give in to the pure joy of having caught my biggest Fork fish to date. Not a word was said until I came around a corner and saw the two young kids from earlier that morning.
“Meet me at the shop in 20 min.”
“What’d he say?”
“Meet me at the shop in 20, I’ll take you fishing.”
And off they scrambled through the bushes and snow berries back to their car.
In short order I had Dad/Daughter to the take out, boat on the trailer, and we were back at the shop. Dad quickly walked around to the back of my truck, opened up the trunk himself and started taking out his gear. I got a look saying, “I got it.”
Also implied was, “NO TIP.” So I walked into the shop and told Jamie Green, the shop manager all about the huge fish I had just caught.
I didn’t realize it, but Lawson was back around on the far side of the shop, overhearing my prelude to “Old Man And The Sea” when Dad walked in and started giving Mike an earful about what a horrid day they just had. I missed this part as it coincided with the backflip part of my story back in the office with Jamie.
By the time I wrapped up my tale and headed back through the shop on my way out, Mike was in the register, and then handed the Dad some cash.
“Ah, a change of heart maybe?” I was thinking to myself as I pushed the door open, but then received a, “Hang around, we need to have a chat.”
Dad was the one smirking now as he whizzed by me, daughter in tow, hopped in the rental car, and blew back south to some super fancy lodge.
Mike was fuming. So he had given the dude at least some of his money back. I didn’t dare to ask. I had my tail so far between my legs I was chewing on it.
Four feet, paws up as I got the whole, “Never fish on a guide trip, losing proposition” speech. I waited for the, “You’re Fired” blow which Mike certainly seemed to be considering, but it never came, and at first opportunity I apologized and scampered off.
The two young guys were there in the parking lot waiting, watching all this go down, anxious to go catch a couple, but realizing something foul was afoot.
I corralled them into my truck without saying much. By the time we were back to the top of the Box I had choked my guts back down from all the changes in cabin pressure and was ready to fish again.
With a couple of pointers while I walked the boat, the guys were into fish, caught a couple of nice ones, and we made the most of the end of the bite. It was basically over by the time we reached the Buffalo River, but they were ecstatic, so we cracked some beers and float fished our way out.
With all the jagged lava rocks in the Box, drift fishing nymphs was always risky, and a sure fire way to go through gear. This time proved no different and soon enough the kid in the front had hooked his rubber leg onto a rock and line was screaming off his reel.
“WOW, got one!”
“It’s a rock …”
“No, big one!”
“It’s a rock, break it off.”
By the time we got everyone on the same page, he had most of his line stretching back upstream, while I motioned for him to grab the line with his free hand and break off the fly. Unfortunately the kid didn’t see me rotating my wrist in the instructions, and the line burned straight through his palm, with a horrid hissing until he shouted “SHIT,” and the rod jumped from his hands out into the river.
“Oh no! My new rod!”
The kid in the back from Jackson Hole was just as aghast as he had only just gifted the rod to his college buddy. Clearly it had been an effort, and one well noted.
“We gotta to save it,” he shouted, as I slammed the drift boat against the bank between two piles of lodge poles.
The kid jumped out of the front of the boat, ran upstream, and was wading out dangerously deep as I shouted for him to wait up. Right then he was instantly swept off his feet and tumbled baseball cap over Converse back down to the boat where we fished him out.
I had marked the big rock the kid had hooked up to, so made my way to about even with it and gingerly waded out. Without waders and with a long net for balance, I bobbed downstream at an angle, scooping along the bottom with my right foot. Soon enough the colored float line was across my thigh, I grabbed the line and with a sharp jerk busted the 2X tippet.
“Dude, no way!! Thought it was a goner.”
The last of the float was all laughs and story telling. These two buddies would fish together from then on. They’d coordinate dates and hook up. At the shop they were both still excited enough to give me big bro hugs. They gave me the biggest $30 dollar tip of my career, piled in their beat up Accord, and then headed back south to some ragged apartment complex on the outskirts of Jackson Hole.
What is the funniest thing you’ve experienced while guiding?
There have been plenty, but a quick one happened while driving into Yellowstone Park with a couple. From Island Park this is 2/3 car tour and 1/3 fishing, so plenty of glass time to fill. The guy is a hard ass jerk to his sweet wife whose mainly just making small talk. He’s riding her all the time, plenty of moments when I’m about to leave him at the Buffalo jam. If he got trampled would I be liable? So at one point she asked:
“Ron, at what point of the season do the deer turn into elk?”
I’m trying to figure out if she’s actually being serious and steal a peak over to Don …
He’s looking at his wife, clearly disgusted by her stupidity, and shaking his head says:
“The fall, Marge, in the fall.”
What makes your guide service great?
Besides all I hoped to have passed on from everything I learned and try to emulate from the HFA crew (Bob Lamb’s tight daily operation, Smitty’s welcoming personality, Barker’s genuine character, Dom’s excitement with his latest pattern) and all the other great guides I’ve met along the way — it’s the real passion we all share for being out on the water. Lots of guys can catch sports fish, tell a couple of jokes, fish the banks all day, bro/brah through their days off, and make rent. When a guy like, say Steve Schmidt from Western Rivers FlyFishers, long time industry pro, spends time with your crew and ends up enjoying them as people, sharing his precious “time off” on the water with them, and respects their craft and knowledge of the water, then you know you’re onto something. The best we can hope for is to be some of the best at what we do and transmit the raw exuberance of our passion. If you can achieve that, then everything else falls in place. And people naturally gravitate to a crew that’s happy working together.
If you had only one day off all year, where would you fish and what fish would you target?
Wow, very tough one. My answer would be different if I had one river to fish for the rest of my life. But for one day, I’d probably choose to steelhead fish that perfect B.C. river I’ve never been to but have every bucket already mapped out in my head. I could let my mind wander all through those towering peaks and big forests, come into focus as my skater passes over the rim of the bucket, and a/every fish would be a surprise.
What are your favorite three flies?
Harrop’s CDC Thorax Duns — I love the way they land on the water.
I have a small foam mouse I love to fish. Here in Patagonia you can bring the biggest fish in the river up on it. It’s basically fully visual streamer fishing.
There’s plenty of great & effective patterns- medium sized foam beetles when there’s a little breeze, ants of all kinds, sight fishing with little lightly weighted marabou nymphs, etc., but I’d be happy if I could just fish the above two patterns.
What is the one piece of gear you couldn’t bear to leave at home?
Can’t leave your eyes at home. I’ve always used Smith’s Action Optics, and no other glasses I’ve tried ever seemed to be as clear or hold up as well. You can get by or suffer not having anything else, but without your eyes, you’re in the sand trap from the start.
Do you have any other passions?
Love live music, reading, and writing, and letting go and engaging in all those mediums, but none of which I’ve been able to do very much of since I started with double seasons in ’95. But by far, the best of all has been the family — Vanessa, Tito, and Olivia. It’s a constant work in process, trying to connect with them in more meaningful ways. Ultimately you realize the limitations are only your own, so that’s where it starts. You have what you build.
To learn more about Ron Sorensen and Chocolate Lab Expeditions, please click here.
And to hear our podcast with Ron, please click here.