Outdoors

Kansans enjoy fly times in Colorado

Unemployed foresters in 1983, John Flick, left, and Tom Knopick took a chance and opened a tiny fly-fishing shop in Durango, Colo. It's grown into one of the best in the state. Flick is from Winfield and Knopick from Wichita.
Unemployed foresters in 1983, John Flick, left, and Tom Knopick took a chance and opened a tiny fly-fishing shop in Durango, Colo. It's grown into one of the best in the state. Flick is from Winfield and Knopick from Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

The fly-fishing shop sits in the heart of downtown amid some of the best fly-fishing in the Rocky Mountains. Even on an autumn weekday a steady stream of customers comes and goes through the doors of Duranglers. Some of those customers once came into the store with their parents and now bring their own children.

“It’s definitely a known quantity, one of the longest-running fly shops in this corner of the world,” said Ty Churchwell ll, a fly shot customer and the local coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a conservation group. “Every guide and serious angler around here knows that shop. There are some great folks running it.”

The “folks” that started the business in 1983 were a couple unemployed foresters originally from the flatlands of south-central Kansas, looking for a way to make a living while enjoying what they liked do when they went out to play.

“When we got out of school we were thinking it would be neat to have a fly shop when I retired,” said Tom Knopick, a 1974 graduate of Wichita North High. “I just didn’t think I’d be retiring at the age of 26.”

“Life brings you different things and you never know,” said John Flick a Winfield grad and Knopick’s partner. “We could have maybe ended up working timber down in the Amazon but we opted to do this. I had no idea we’d last this long.”

Knopick said they met at Kansas State and learned they shared the same major, fraternity and love of the outdoors. They became roommates when they headed to Colorado State to finish their studies. He said Flick contributed more than just his share of the rent.

“He’s the one who got me into fly-fishing,” Knopick said. “He’d been tying flies since he was six. I fell in love with it so that’s what we did every chance we had.”

Flick said as a boy he and his father had fly-fished many Flint Hills streams for native spotted bass and ponds and lakes for largemouth bass and panfish.

“I know we fished all the stocked (trout) streams in Missouri and Arkansas,” Flick said. “Probably 90-percent of our family vacations were out west in Colorado or Montana, fishing for trout.”

Both were doing forestry work on a large ranch in northern New Mexico when the logging operation closed. Forestry jobs were nearly impossible to get, so the friends looked elsewhere.

Knopick said they toured Colorado, looking for a town where they thought a fly-fishing shop might thrive. In 1983 Durango was close to lots of great trout streams and lakes, but had only two general sporting goods stores with little gear for fly fishermen. As well as the shop, they decided to offer guided trips, too.

They moved to the area, and Knopick said one would explore surrounding trout waters while the other stayed home and tied flies.

“We were long on time and short on cash,” said Knopick. “We were wanting to tie as many as we could and stockpile a bunch of flies for when the shop opened.”

Their first store was about 500 square feet, basically in the basement of a building. They opened on Dec. 10, 1983. That’s hardly peak fly-fishing season but Knopick said they opened in the late fall hoping to discourage anyone else from opening a competitive shop in Durango.

As always, there were challenges.

“The fishing part of it, and taking people, I had a pretty good background,” said Flick. “The business side, not so much.”

But they learned and expanded – as well as flies and fishing trips they have a wide selection of other angling gear and even clothing most fly-fishermen might prefer.

They eventually moved to a bigger shop in Durango and for a while had two other shops, in Telluride and along the legendary San Juan River, just across the New Mexico border. Both have been closed for several years.

Knopick said he enjoys just having the one shop open now, which is enough to keep a lot of people busy. On a good day a dozen or more guides may take clients fishing for Duranglers. The shop usually has several staff members working. They have a steady online business, too.

“One thing that really helps is that most of our guide staff has been with us 15 years or more,” said Knopick. “Some have been with us 25 years or more.”

The retail business is open all year, as is the guiding side of the operation. The San Juan River never freezes. Some of the area’s rivers are open, and can provide good fishing, in all but the dead of winter.

Both Knopick and Flick credit a good staff, and each other, with being able to travel around the world to – what else – fly fish when on vacation. Flick has fished for Florida tarpon for the past 25 years. His best on a fly rod was close to 180 pounds.

They also fish closer to home, sometimes several days a week. Knopick recently spent a full day float fishing the San Juan. The next he intended to fish no more than two hours on the Animas River, which flows through Durango. He said some of the best trout in southwest Colorado live right in the river in downtown Durango.

He finally quit after casting flies into the river after six hours.

“Funny how that usually works,” he said with a wry smile, when asked about over-fishing the intended time. “But it’s so nice having this good of a river right here. We have guys at the shop who will come down and fish over their lunch hour and often catch some nice fish. How can you beat a job like that?”

It’s a job he’s not sure he’s willing to give up in the near future, either.

“We’ll both turn 60 in November,” said Knopick, who still wears red high-top shoes as he did during his sports days at North High. “So we’ve thought about retirement. But I know I still enjoy what I’m doing. I’m pretty sure it’s been more fun than if we’d have stayed in forestry.”

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