From pupae to pike to perfectionist

A FEW MONTHS AFTER I’D MOVED to southwest Colorado to start my first guiding season, I was introduced to Mark Engler. My boss and head guide, Andy Lee, described him as the best trout angler he’d ever met. Coming from the best trout angler I’d ever met, this was cause for excitement and curiosity.

Over the first of what would be many PBRs together, I listened closely as Engler and Lee debated the merits of a greased Muddler. I couldn’t tell what was fact or fiction. Despite my naivety and rookie status, Engler was genuine and welcomed me into the guide community of the mountain town where we were based. For this, I am grateful.

Growing up in Pueblo, Colorado, Engler began fishing while still a tyke, accompanying his father via backpack on the Arkansas and Rio Grande rivers. Through grade school, he fished with both fly and spinning rod, but by the time he was enrolled at Adams State College (now Adams State University) in Alamosa, he had put his spinning rods aside. During college he expanded his range, exploring and deciphering the South Platte, Conejos, and Roaring Fork rivers before venturing south to the San Juan. Summers were spent in a camper on the banks of the Frying
Pan, and it was there that his subsurface game evolved. “It was a long, painful process,” Engler recalls. “With lots of drag.”

Education came the hard-but-rewarding way: trial and error, and eventually fish started coming to hand. Never one to pass up an opportunity to learn more, Engler then started looking at what the fish were actually eating. “I was pumping all these fish and watching midge pupae emerge in my hand,” Engler says. “When I noticed their shucks, that was when I got the idea for the WD40.”

Living riverside and fishing every day, development went quickly. “The WD40 is simple and easy to tie, with a slim design that imitates a lot of small stuff in the water,” Engler says. “I fish it anywhere there are small baetis or midges.” More than a few rivers fit that description. First tied in size 16, Engler simply downsized to match different flies.

“It made a lot of people realize that you don’t need a lot of stuff on a hook to make trout eat,” he says. “Nowadays I’m often fishing a size 20 in chocolate.” Umpqua picked up the pattern in the mid ’90s and now offers it in four colors, down to size 24.

In addition to a degree in industrial technology, college brought Engler two notable relationships: A girlfriend applying for jobs, and a friendship with masters student and fellow angler Joe Kresl. By graduation, Kresl and Engler had enjoyed many successful days on the San Juan together, and they saw an opportunity. Coincidentally, the one job that was offered to Engler’s girlfriend was also based in northern New Mexico, so in May of 1988 the two moved to Navajo Dam, on the banks of the San Juan. Engler began guiding for Abe’s Fly Shop, while Kresl joined the staff at Duranglers Flies and Supplies in nearby Durango, Colorado.

Years of technical tailwater fishing immediately began to pay off. Having the WD40 up his sleeve didn’t hurt either. “It was easy compared to the Frying Pan and Cheesman [on the South Platte, just west of Denver]. When I started, the smallest fly in the shop was a size 16 pheasant tail.”

Three years passed and Engler switched outfits, joining Kresl and co-owners Tom Knopick and John Flick at Duranglers. “At that time, we knew all the outfitters and guides on the Juan,” Knopick says. “I remember seeing Mark fishing in the evenings after his guide trips, which was unusual. No one else did that.”

Engler remains an integral part of Duranglers, covering waters across southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Fellow Colorado-based guide Frank Smethurst recalls working alongside Engler on the Gunnison. “As an analytical fisherman, he has few peers,” says Smethurst. “Most guides in the area have been schooled by, or out-guided by, Mark at least once.”

While Engler was establishing himself on the San Juan, he learned that northern pike lurked in a few local reservoirs. Having caught small pike, he was familiar with the species but the potential for large pike on the fly presented a whole new challenge. Everything was a learning process: heavier rods, bigger flies, and the reservoirs themselves. The learning curve was steep, but Engler drew on his experiences figuring out tailwaters. Several seasons went by with only a couple fish landed, but the questions of where, when, and why kept him coming back.

“I enjoyed going and trying,” he says. “Was I going to get skunked? Probably, but I tried to learn a little bit more than the day before, and that’s all you can do.” Oftentimes guiding until early evening, then pike fishing until dark, Engler began to put the pieces together, understand the fish, and have success. Lake fishing with a 10-weight and a 4/0 fly is a far cry from the 6X and size 26 micro-flies used on the San Juan, but he’s as adept at one as he is the other, and is a patient, effective instructor in both settings. In 2010, Engler obtained his captain’s license and has since been guiding anglers in search of large northerns on the fly via skiff.

“He’s the quintessential and revered pike guide in the territory,” says Van Rollo, a fly tackle sales rep in the Rockies. “He’s also a perfectionist and wants to get better at every aspect of his angling.”

I ran into Engler last summer at the same bar where we’d met years before. He was just off the Rio Grande, so we clinked glasses and I asked how his clients had done. He smiled and held up an index finger. I raised an eyebrow but before I could speak he formed a zero with his hand, followed by another. We laughed and then he told me how it all went down. Engler always has a fishing report and graciously gives his thoughts on the day. An angler is smart to listen when he shares these observations, for they come from decades of investigation and discovery.

Spend a day with Mark Engler and you never know what you’ll learn. Once, while waiting on our clients to arrive, I was watching him testcast a rod when a cat walked onto the lawn. He lengthened his cast and landed a piece of chartreuse yarn a foot in front of the unsuspecting feline. The cat stopped in its tracks and eyed the yarn. Engler was hunched over and eagle-eyed, as if about to feed a permit. He moved the yarn a few inches and the cat crouched. He twitched the yarn again but the cat relaxed and moved on. Engler turned to me. “Wrong color.”