MidCurrent Conversations: Paul Bruun

Paul Bruun

The son of a hard-hitting south Florida newspaperman, Paul learned to fish in saltwater but moved to Wyoming in his twenties and became one of the top trout guides in the country.

Direct download: MidCurrent Interviews Paul Bruun

MidCurrent:  We are speaking today with Paul Bruun, the legendary western Wyoming guide, journalist, and all-around interesting person who has more stories to tell than any five other people we know combined. He is fished with movie stars, and senators, and more fly fishing experts than most of us have even heard of. He is also a walking encyclopedia on fishing and hunting gear and outdoors culture in general. We are very pleased to finally have a chance to chat with him. Welcome, Paul.

Paul Bruun:  Thanks, Marshall.

MC:  There are lots and lots of things we could talk about, but we couldn’t fit it all into a single conversation. You have been a boat builder, a conservation fund raiser, a gear consultant… I think you were Patagonia’s first fly fishing guru. You have been involved in politics as a town councilman. I think you were even an Air Force Minuteman missile launch officer in your younger days.  And you have been guiding, of course, which has occupied most of your life. Through it all, you have been a writer. And journalism seems to be the common thread through it all. Where does all of that come from?

Paul Bruun Guide

Bruun doing what he does best — putting an angler on fish on Wyoming’s Snake River.

PB:   That was pretty simple. My dad was in the newspaper business. I learned how to do things around the newspaper as a kid. One day he said, “I want you to write something in my column.” This might have been around 1956 or so. We had had lunch with Jimmy Stewart, the actor. He said, “I want you to write a little something about that lunch.” He told me to format it in like a letter to one of my favorite cousins. I guess that started it. Either I have been lucky at it, or I have been trying to get out of it ever since.

MC:  Well that is great advice your dad had. He seems to have been a big influence in your life. He was quite a character himself, was he not?

PB:  He certainly was. He wrote sometimes five and six columns a day, in a little paper in Miami Beach. His job really was as an entertainment editor, which was reviewing night club shows and movies, restaurants, plays. Just about anything that lit up the entertainment scene in those days. Of course he also wrote about stuff that had nothing to do with the entertainment business. Then when he started his own newspaper, his column on the front page was very widely read. It was not always super complimentary to—let us say—people that he considered adversaries.

MC:  Who would have been his adversaries in South Florida at that time?

PB:  He saw South Florida as his child. Anybody that he did not think was doing the kind of job he felt important for South Florida to progress, that was at the time in the tourism business – anybody that was doing stupid, selfish things, which included a lot of people that were elected to public office. They had a problem with him. If he did not like what a mayor was doing in Miami Beach, he was so on the guy that people were starting to feel sorry for the fellow, asking him to just take it easy on him.

MC:  Now, you founded the Jackson Hole Daily, is that correct, in 1978?

PB: Right, we started the Jackson Hole Daily and it was a half-tab. Where if you take a tabloid paper and then fold it in half again, cut one end of it off, you have a small letter-sized newspaper that you could read with one hand. It would be what a New Yorker would call a subway fold on a tab up there. But it was very easy for tourists to read. When we started it, we started it for the tourist population here because there was no USA Today.

There really was not very much news getting in here. Then we found out that the local people really liked the paper as much if not more than the tourists. We redesigned it a little bit. It was very popular. It still is very popular. It is still a very nice little town where a lot of people know each other. Highlighting what people are doing here has always been kind of an enjoyment of mine. I hope it remains.

MC:  Of all the people that you have written about or profiled as a journalist, are there any that stand out?

PB:  One of the people that I will never forget when I moved here was a U.S. senator. He had been a governor, he had been a county commissioner and on the hospital board: a gentleman named Cliff Hanson. His family had been here forever. He was a rancher. He was what I would call a real statesman. He was a Republican because Wyoming has always been Republican. Yet, on a Wednesday morning he would walk into the newspaper that I was editing, and he might have had John Stennis from Mississippi or—I am trying to think—he might have a couple of Democratic senators from Arkansas.

He would call me up and say, “Paul, I like that – I like that editorial that you had in the paper this week. I would like to put it in the Congressional Record.” When he would call it was not his secretary calling you it was the senator himself.

Paul Bruun

Bruun is a connoisseur of American food–especially food that is rich in culture and tradition.

I have what I call the “post office poll.” Everybody jokes about my being in the post office all of the time, but that is where I find out if people are reading stories, or if they are mad at you. In my post office poll, the sports car story and Carroll Shelby, whom I knew, were extremely popular; as was the Muffaletta sandwich. Then writing about food: I used to do that in the outdoor column. It got so popular whenever I did it that I started a food column along with it. Unfortunately, I became my own kind of best critic. Food was becoming a little more important than it should have been. I was putting on a little more weight than I needed to. We kind of cut the food column back a little bit.

MC:   Well we share the fascination with the Muffaletta. I think they have got to be one of the best sandwiches ever devised. Where did they actually create a Muffaletta? Is that an Italian concept, or…?

PB:  Well, it is an Italian family that was at the Central Market in New Orleans. The fellows would come in at lunchtime. They would take all the cold cuts and stuff. They would do it Sicilian style where they just hold it in their hands with cheese and some meat. The owner of the store said, “Why don’t we just put some bread down there. And make this a reasonable looking thing.”

MC:  You retired last year from guiding after, what, 37, 38 years?

PB:  Yes, I think it was 37 years.

MC:  There are very few guides who guide for that long. If you have ever been a guide, you understand why: it is a very difficult, demanding vocation. Not just physically but mentally; so, there must have been something that drove you. What was the thing about guiding that kept you doing it?

PB:  I think there were a couple of things. First of all, I like people a lot. I enjoy visiting with people and learning about them.  If you are a fishing guide, you get a chance to meet people you would never meet on your own just wandering around in business somewhere. Even writing a column somewhere, you are not going to get to meet the characters or the successful people.

But I think that what I found was so intriguing about guiding is this: if you and I were to go fishing today, we would have a good time. We would catch some fish. But we would not be pushing ourselves. We would not be saying, “Let us try this. And we’ve got to do this.” When you take somebody out to go fishing, you are not on an autopilot. You are sitting there thinking, “What’s the next thing I can do? Does it work? Where am I going to go tomorrow? This place is dying,” or, “This place is really good.” We would hold up for another day.

It is like a pool game. You are always setting up for your position and your next shot. You are working a lot harder, therefore you are learning a lot more. I think that is the key to it. Every day you go out there, you might have a person in the boat who has never been fly fishing before. But they say, “Well, why don’t you do this?” You go, my god, that is a brilliant idea. How did this guy who has never seen a fly rod before come up with this idea?

Paul Bruun and Steve Huff

Bruun fishing with guide Steve Huff in Florida’s Everglades.

You are always learning. When you quit learning, you are pretty much through anyway. I think that is what did it for me — the fun of the discovery. I look at the Mark Twain line about how smart his father got in just four years. It took me that many years—37 years—to figure out just a few things that I should have learned years ago. But, fortunately I did learn them. Now, I can build on them.

MC:   One of the things I learned from guiding and maybe about human nature is how important it is to always be ready for good things to happen. It is so easy to feel defeated as a guide. But when you are not ready for those really wonderful things to happen, then of course they do nothappen. And you are even more disappointed. Is there anything that you took from guiding that stands out like that for you?

PB:   Very much the same story. Years ago I took an old colonel from the Army fishing. I had been down the river that we were on the day before. It had been really good. I was just starting out. I felt like I really knew everything. In fact, I did at that time. But there was quite a bit more to learn. What I did not realize is that there was a big surge in rain the night before. The river came up. It was dirty; ground squirrels were drowned and floating by. Trees were coming by.

This fellow was kind of like a Hemingway character in one of those latter books, like the colonel he had in Africa. I felt so badly about it. I told him, I said, “You know, sir.” I said, “We don’t have a chance today. But we’re going to do the best we can.” At lunchtime I told him that he didn’t owe me anything for the trip; the trip was on me because I felt badly about it.

We had switched to spinning because fly was a little bit out of the question. He had on a quarter-ounce bass lure. I said, “Just lay it down below the boat, and wiggle it back and forth.” He got a four-pound brown trout. He was the happiest guy in the world. I was thrilled, and I also never gave away another trip again until I was on the trailer on the way home, because I learned you can turn things around in five minutes and end up with a terrific day.

MC:   So, never give up.

PB:   No, are you kidding?  People are saying, “It is getting dark. When are we getting home?” I say, “We’ll get there. We will just make a few more casts here.” Something is going to light up. If you are driving home, you are not going to catch anything.

MC:  If you could fish with only one fly for the rest of your life, what would it be?

PB:   Well, it is a pretty easy question. I think it would be obviously a fly that would go well dry, it would go well wet.

I think it would probably end up being a fly they call out here a Trude, named for a fellow that was a businessman up in Chicago years ago.  It is basically a downwing-style fly with a peacock herl body. You can have a Royal Coachman-type body with red between two tufts of peacock herl. Or it can have an all-peacock-herl body.  Or, it can have a gray hare’s ear type body. It probably has a brownish type hackle and a white downwing. You can drag it around under water. You can skate it around on the surface. You can fish it perfectly as a dry fly. Even though it is an older-style fly, I end up using it an awful lot. I think that would probably be what I would sink or swim with.

MC:  I think you once also told me that you liked flies that you could see, right? We tend to underestimate the importance of being able to see a fly, and to see drag on a fly.

PB:  The drag is especially important if you are dealing with cutthroat trout or fish that like to chase things around.  Brown trout and cutthroat trout tend to do that. So seeing what you are doing is very helpful. But then again, there is another very old-time fly called the Carey Special that is kind of dark. It just stays under the surface a little ways. It is not as easy to see, but it certainly works too.

MC:  That really appeals to your love of wet fly fishing, right?

PB:   Yes, wet fly fishing is something that I truly enjoy. I learned very fast when I used to do seminars for fishing clubs and at fishing shows that you could talk until you were blue in the face about wet fly fishing and you did not get very many repeat customers at your shows. People want to see a dry fly or else.

MC:  You were asked at one point to write the introduction to the Patagonia catalog, in 1986. You were a little reluctant to do that, right? Because you felt like the average Patagonia customer was an “extreme” outdoor athlete.

PB:  The owner of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, asked me to write this article as if I were talking to him the way I do when he and I are fishing together. Not as a magazine article. I said, “Yvon, the people that read your catalogue and really are your highlight buyers are these very radical and extreme people that climb around on ice, and, you know, sleep on mountains, and, you know, do 50- and 100-mile runs.” And I said, “I’m not quite like that.” And he said, “Look.” He said, “What’s the coldest weather you’ve ever fly-fished in?” And I told him it was probably maybe eight or ten below zero. And he says, “What’s the hottest?” And I said, “Oh, probably about 111 or 115 out in the Colorado River around Needles.” He says, “You don’t call that extreme?” He said, “Why don’t you go ahead and write the story, and I’ll worry about the rest of it.”

Smallmouth Bass

As we recorded this interview, Bruun was on his way to a favorite secret smallmouth spot, from which he sent us this late picture.

MC:  Getting back to that idea of the extreme athlete—I think our sport has taken  ownership of some of the extreme element in the pursuit of trying to get young people involved in fly fishing. Do you think that fly fishing still holds interest for young people? Do you think that fly fishing has seen its peak? With your background in all kinds of fishing and hunting, you’ve got a kind of a unique perspective on that. I don’t know if you have an opinion.

PB:  Marshall, I have an opinion on everything. Whether it is right or wrong is usually the question.

The young people that I see that are entering fly fishing are entering it at the same style and level as they do everything else. It is not the old Ray Bergman and Joe Brooks and Jason Lucas felt hat and pipe. It is guys that are slamming big streamers with very fast action rods. Trying to get to the biggest fish, the best fishing in a big hurry. Burning up a bunch of Pabst Blue Ribbons on the way.

Sure, if you keep throwing a big fly long enough, you are going to catch something big. But you’ve got to do something in between that. I’ve watched these guys doing this. Productivity is nowhere. Whereas if you come in with a number six or a number four that you can throw easily and keep under control—mend it, and slow it down, and speed it up—you are going to catch a heck of a lot more fish. But it is not as athletic.

It is just like watching a guy who is a skateboard artist. Then he gets on a surfboard. You are comparing him with let us say the great Hawaiian guys that are so beautiful on a surfboard. These guys are making 30 quick snappy little turns; zipping around, and spinning, and doing this and that. Whereas there is a guy out there just making these big cool, easy turns. Making it look like artwork. I think that is what I see today is the change. It is a short, choppy skateboard-type fishing as opposed to somebody who really throws a nice line, eases into a position and makes two casts, and hooks a nice fish.

That is where it is going, it looks like. Now whether they are going to stay with it, I do not know. I think they are in it because it is outdoors.

I think it has a certain appeal. But I am not sure that it is going to carry. It is not going to look the same when it is done. I think that nature in itself and outdoor preservation is in a lot of trouble overall, because I do not think the numbers of people are getting outdoorsand are going to be around to do what has to be done to preserve what we have. I know that sounds kind of negative. I am hoping that I am wrong. I think it might sustain itself. But it is not going to overwhelm anybody.

The numbers show that fishing licenses and hunting licenses in sales are going down. Yet everywhere I go it seems pretty darn crowded. If the numbers are going down, there are either a lot of people that are still fishing and hunting without licenses. I have not quite figured that out.

MC:  There are two more fun questions I would like to ask you. One is, you got married in 2009 to Jean Williams, who seems to know almost as many people in fly fishing as you do. She is a wonderful person, whom I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with. What brought the two of you together?

Paul Bruun Jean Williams

Paul and wife Jean.

PB:   I was doing some work for Orvis at the time. The gentleman that started the Orvis rendezvous and the Orvis Endorsed Guide program was a gentleman named Vern Bressler, who was from Jackson. He would ask me to come and make presentations for these guide rendezvous. He told me one time, for instance that in the critiques of all the guiding programs that Orvis had embarked upon that lunches were probably the weakest area that they had. He was always joking with me about the lunches that I would do on the river.

He asked me to do a presentation on lunches for one of the rendezvous. At that rendezvous, Jean was in attendance and had come up from Colorado where she was working for an Orvis-endorsed outfitter. After the talk, she had more questions than anybody I have ever met. Everybody was out trying out the new gear, the new this, the new that. She wanted to know about this and that and about the little tables we were using for lunch, the little cookers, and all of that.

She was very just kind, and interesting, and not unattractive, of course, but such a nice person that we just kind of got to be friends. We were friends for quite a while. We would see each other at the rendezvous and at some sport shows. But she was working so hard, she was hard to get in touch with. It took awhile to finally convince her to slow down a little bit and go fishing.

MC:  Which did you manage to do?

PB:   I was. I was able to do it, but like I said – that was a challenge.

MC:  I know a lot of people who watched that from the sidelines and really thought it was a match made in heaven if there was one. Congratulation again on that catch.

PB:   Thank you.

MC:     The last question, which is one I always ask people I interview: What do you have in your pocket while you are fishing?

PB:   I have more stuff than you can believe. Usually there is a Swiss Army Knife. There is a ClipIt serrated-blade, one-handed-opening knife. There is a cigar lighter. There is a container that keeps little plastic toothpicks in case we have some beef jerky or something that just drives you crazy all afternoon. ChapStick, which works both for sun block on your nose and ears and lips and in a pinch works as fly floatant. Usually a little bit of dough, because if you get broken down somewhere you might have to hand somebody some money to get home or buy some gas or something. Usually I have my car keys zipped into a pocket somewhere so that if I get tumbled out of the boat or something, I will not lose them like I did in the last big boat wreck I had.

I find that my keys are hard to find after you swim in a whitewater section—you do not have very much left in your pocket. I have suggested to my friends at Patagonia that they include more than one zipper pocket for at least the pants that I am going to try to wear.

MC:  It sounds like you have given away half of your secrets of being a great guide. They are all in that pocket right there.