Johnny Spillane, left, helps Dean Leahy get the hang of fly-fishing Monday morning near Steamboat Lake. Spillane said he guides fishing trips for Steamboat Flyfisher three or four times a week when he’s in Steamboat.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Johnny Spillane, left, helps Dean Leahy get the hang of fly-fishing Monday morning near Steamboat Lake. Spillane said he guides fishing trips for Steamboat Flyfisher three or four times a week when he’s in Steamboat.

When not training, Johnny Spillane guides for Steamboat Flyfisher


If you go

Want to fish with Johnny? He said he goes out three or four times a week when he’s in town. Just ask by calling Steamboat Flyfisher at 970-879-6552 or checking in online at

— It was the second time that day when runoff fly-fishing had seemed like a genuinely good idea.

I already had spent considerable time doubting the practice.

I was still trying to nail down the finer points of casting and, for that matter, the greater ones, too. I had hooked myself twice, but things were looking up as my hands finally had warmed after a cold morning rain and a spat of small hailstones washed over what seemed then like my ill-fated expedition.

I was standing 50 yards from shore in water deep enough to evoke a quizzical look and a “you might be out a bit far” shout from my group’s guide, Johnny Spillane, who in and of himself constituted the day’s first revelation that this was all indeed a good idea.

That’s when I caught my fish — my first on a fly rod. He didn’t fight back much — he was too small to stand a chance — and I dragged him back through the waters to the muddy bank of Steamboat Lake.

I had no idea what to do with him. As rainbow trout come, he seemed barely fit to be an appetizer, but we weren’t going to keep any anyway. It probably was best for all parties that he escaped soon after I reached shore, hanging on just long enough for me to snap a photo, but not long enough for anyone to see he existed.

Still, I considered it a gold-medal effort on a day that turned out to be perfectly tailored to Olympic puns.

Early morning, big surprise

I trudged into Steamboat Flyfisher two minutes late for my 8:30 a.m. fly-fishing tour, the world still blurry from a late night celebrating the arrival in Steam­boat Springs of good friends and fellow Andale (Kan.) High School alumni Dean Leahy and his wife of eight months, Kay.

Spillane was waiting.

“Hi, I’m Johnny,” he said with a huge smile and an outstretched hand.

All I could think was, “Wow. That’s true,” before finally introducing myself.

Spillane said unless someone asks what he does during the winter, he doesn’t tell them.

That means at least some of the people he guides have no idea that the young guy with the shaggy dark hair who is quick with a net and eager with instructions is a four-time Olympian and three-time Olympic silver medalist, a world champion and, especially this past year, a fixture on the Nordic combined World Cup podium.

I knew, though.

Dean had insisted on a guided fly-fishing trip when he called to arrange the visit weeks earlier, and joking about fishing with an Olympian was my initial reaction.

But I didn’t consider that realistic, and my first useful reaction was to try to talk him out of the idea. The Yampa River was roaring and off limits, and it seemed if we were going to pay for a fishing trip, that iconic river is where three rookies like us would be happiest learning.

But Dean and Kay don’t mountain bike. They don’t really hike. They like to hunt and fish, and after a week of racking my brain, I couldn’t come up with any other acceptable activity.

So we signed up, joined at the last minute by co-worker and friend Nicole Miller to make a party of four.

Things started looking up as soon as I opened the shop’s door that morning — Dean the nurse anesthetist, Kay the psychologist and Joel and Nicole the journalists, following the lead of Johnny the Olympian.

Riding the tide

You can learn a lot about a guy on a drive to Steamboat Lake.

Spillane is busy. He trains every day, even Monday after spending more than six hours with us (we were promised four) and heading home to cook an anniversary dinner for his wife of exactly two years, Hilary.

He loves to ride his road bike, often six hours at a time, heading far north in the county and on the Gore Gruel. A series of shoulder injuries keep him from enjoying the jostling nature of mountain biking, but he is well read up on the Steamboat Marathon and its top finishers and thinks he could do well in the race.

Maybe next year.

Now, he’s still riding the tide of February’s Olympic glory. He traveled later in the week to Chicago to speak with a group about sports injuries and has spent the past couple of years refining a motivational speaking style, one of several similar efforts he hopes can sustain his family when competitive skiing finally takes a back seat.

And he likes to fly-fish, calling in to Steamboat Flyfisher to let them know he’s available to guide whenever his globetrotting schedule allows.

Reeled in

I was the first to catch a fish, but despite Spillane’s increasingly dedicated efforts, that ended up being the only thing I had to boast about.

From our posts in the lake, we slowly cast our way into a rushing creek, and we spent the rest of our trip prowling several similar creeks and streams around the lake.

In that environment, my friends feasted.

Dean caught his first fish and so did Kay, one even smaller than mine. Nicole caught three fish in 15 minutes and another later, and Dean added a second.

Spillane’s focus roamed over our entire group, but soon he spent more time on those of us with the smallest count. He handpicked places along the stream, pointing to spots in the river and showing us how to hit with our flies without ever just doing it himself.

We caught a lot of plants and trees, sticks and two rocks, but we caught on.

Kay caught another fish, making it nine for our group.

It rained and hailed, shifted from cold to warm and back again. I fell hard in the mud and, considering my experience casting at the time and location in the lake, caught perhaps the day’s most unlikely fish.

We all had different reactions to fishing with Spillane. I called home immediately afterward to report on the day to my parents, by this point well versed in most things Steamboat, especially the town’s 2010 Olympians.

They were appropriately impressed.

I later heard Dean calling his family, too.

“Yeah, we caught some fish. The guy worked really hard for us,” he said. “Apparently he’s an Olympian or something — won some medals, I guess. But, yeah, we caught fish.”

I’d contend he was underselling things.

After a day fishing with him, I bet Johnny wouldn’t.


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