In a short time, Michelle Titus went from a Bay Area city-dweller to a North Valley, horse wrangling “anglet”. When she purchased the top fly fishing lodge NorCal has to offer, she took on a whole new life as the “mom” and operator of a full house of fly fishing guides and guests. We sat down with Michelle to discuss her transition to her new life, and the fun world of fly fishing.
1. Tell us about the Clearwater Lodge.
Clearwater Lodge was originally constructed in 1921 by PG&E to house the employees who were building the power plant at Pit River. So, a community was formed down here. It was a large property; I think 14 homes, a lodge, an annex, a warehouse, blacksmith shops, etc. So, the lodge was central to life. Getting to Redding in the 1920s wasn’t easy so there was this entire community built here.
What remains here from the 1920s is the lodge, which was built in the arts and crafts style. It’s a special place. I feel, as the owner, I am entrusted with its care and upkeep. It’s not only a unique piece of architecture, but also, just a beautiful property. Over the years, the lodge has been reconfigured. I think in the past it was more or less a dining and recreation facility with rooms like a bunkhouse. It was for the executives and their families. The lodge now is comprised of seven individual rooms and bathrooms. Upstairs we have a large conference room, so it’s a perfect place for business meetings or private getaways.
We also have an annex, which is attached to the lodge by a little portico. It is a six-bed, two-bath European style bunkhouse. The building has got a living room with comfy couches, a TV, a poker table and a little fridge. It’s a great place for a group of guys and gals to have their own little getaway spot. A lot of cigars are smoked there during the season. The same thing goes for the front porch of the lodge. Guests tend to get back from fishing, grab a drink and just sit outside and look at the green grass and beautiful Sycamore trees. There are a lot of fishing stories being told at happy hour too.
I would describe the lodge as just being this warm, welcoming environment. I live in one of the homes on the property and the other is dedicated to the guides. They are really an integral part of the overall experience. The guides live on the property, have breakfast with the guests and are here eating dinner with them in the evening. It’s kind of a family, and I think that’s the sense you get when you’re here. You park your car and never get in it again. All of your needs are met. I’ve got 43 acres, and we use about 10 or 11 of those acres for lodging and the rest is just open space.
2. How did you get involved with Clearwater Lodge?
I purchased Clearwater in March of 2013. I’ve operated the lodge for two full fishing seasons and this is my second year living there. My daughter and I were staying at a Bed & Breakfast in South Lake Tahoe that we loved, and when we were leaving, I looked at her and said, “why am I not doing this?” I think I’ve always harbored this desire to run a guest ranch. I really enjoyed taking vacations. I loved the aspect of going fishing, riding horses and hiking during the day, and coming back and sharing a meal with everyone in the evening. I just had this feeling in my heart that it would be something I would truly enjoy.
My daughters were grown and I was no longer tied down so I went home, and looked for a ranch broker. At first, I thought I wanted a place in Wyoming or Montana because I wanted to be a cowgirl. Fly fishing wasn’t necessarily on my radar, but my broker had this Clearwater listing. I also realized at the time that I didn’t want to be that far away from my daughters and family in California. So, I brought my daughter up to Clearwater, and she said to me, “Mom, I’ll move here, and do this with you.” Almost right then, I closed on the Clearwater property, sold my home in the Bay Area and moved to the lodge.
3. What was it like to get the lodge going after you purchased it?
I was clueless in the beginning. I had no idea what was going on here or what this thing was. I was very fortunate because I inherited the existing staff. Meaning I kept our chef Noelle Wright who is beyond amazing. Guests are blown away by the quality of her cooking and she has 16 years of experience working at Clearwater. I also inherited the guide staff who were really thankful the lodge was going to fall into the hands of an owner that was committed to returning it to its former glory. So, I took this project on, and it was the wildest, craziest, best thing I’ve ever done.
My daughters have been involved in the lodge and fallen in love with it as their mom’s home and business. We now spend holidays here. It’s now a lifestyle for me. I spend every morning eating breakfast with the guests and I’m the last one to leave every night. Being able to provide guests with a warm, comfortable experience is really what I enjoy the most about running the lodge. It’s really different from the life I used to live in the Bay Area, but now I get to be a cowgirl – I have horses on the property for my own enjoyment. We have four dogs and nine cats on the property. It’s a bit of a circus and a zoo, but I think that also lends to the guest experience because this is my home, and when you’re here you’re a guest and it’s a personal experience.
4. What other things are there to do other than fish around the lodge?
We really do promote fly fishing, but we do sometimes get a spouse that doesn’t want to fish, but I’ll tell you what, they usually end up wanting to fish on the second day. Other than fishing though, there are some great places to hike around here. Burney Falls is right down the road, which I think should be the Eighth Wonder of the World. So, there’s hiking and kayaking too. The lodge is a few miles from the Pacific Crest Trail. We’re in between Mt. Shasta and Lassen Peak, so from a tourism perspective you have those two areas to explore. Nearby Fall River Valley is great for bike riding, and Fall River has an amazing golf course. Many of the surrounding communities are small, but if you are here and do not want to fish, there is plenty to keep you busy.
5. What are the experiences and qualifications of your guides?
There is a deep, rich history here of guides that goes back to the original Clearwater house. Two of our guides, Tom April and Mike Peters have both guided for over 25 years with the Clearwater name. They created the original syllabus and course guides for teaching people how to fly fish and teaching guides how to become guides. I think there are only two places in the Western United States where you can go through a reputable guide school, and Clearwater Lodge is one of those. Tom and Mike were the ones that made that possible. Nobody knows the nooks and the crannies of these streams better than our guides.
There is no pressure here whether it’s amongst the guides or me meaning that as a guide, if you don’t come in with X amount of fish at the end of a certain day, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. The guides here are professionals, and if there are fish that can be caught, their guests are going to catch them. Some days are better than others. There is never a guide that has two bad days in a row. I would say that these guides have beautiful friendships in which they support and respect each other.
There are times here when we have up to 20 guests so we are putting eight guides on the water and that takes a high level of communication and organization. It means these guys have to be friends, they have to admire each other and be able to communicate well with each other. They do that. In the morning everybody goes somewhere different, or if they are going to be in the same stretch of water, one group is going go in high and the other is going to go in low. They’re going to respect each other’s boundaries. I’ve watched this operate for the past two seasons, and have been so proud and impressed at their ability to manage their clients’ experiences. I’m proud of them, and it’s like I’m watching kids at play. Maybe that’s why I sort of consider myself a proud mother.
6. What’s it like being a woman in the male dominated world of fly fishing?
I’m going to say that I don’t think that fly fishing is completely male dominated. There are a tremendous amount of female fly fishing organizations. I get a lot of gals either wanting to learn how to fly fish or who are members of fly fishing clubs. There are women’s groups that come up here to fish. And yes, of course, there are certainly weeks where it’s just me and a bunch of male guides and guests. We’ve had plenty of other times where the population of men and women was equal.
Granted, women in the world of fly fishing are a minority, but it’s not out of the ordinary to have a woman involved in fly fishing. There are many well-known woman guides. I hate to stereotype, but I think women are great learners when it comes to fly fishing. They tend to listen and learn. They’re not egocentric about learning how to fish. They don’t feel like they have to power through things. They make really fine anglers in a very short period of time.
It feels great to bring a woman’s perspective to the guest experience, but I think it’s also nice to add a woman’s perspective to the guiding experience. I think, for me, there is a motherly drive around finding partnerships and like-minded people to work closely with to keep this industry healthy and alive.
We have great clientele. I think fly fishing is a gentlemen’s sport, or a gentlewomen’s sport. That tends to bring a clientele that is an awful lot of fun. I think as a woman, I promote the aspect of sharing your experience. We eat together and share stories together. Instead of it being a guy’s only, buddy-buddy setting, I tend to mix things up. When social hour is going on, I’m the instigator to get people together.
I’d say I’m like a mom. In fact, a lot of the guides call me mom. I think I have a motherly role and perspective that I take on here. I call the guides “my boys” and treat them like my kids even though a couple of them are my same age. And yes, the guide house is almost like a fraternity and there’s a lot of competition going on that happens amongst the guys when they get together. You get the jokes and the laughter; the teasing and competition – it all exists. I love that. I think it’s healthy and fun, and it makes for a great guest experience. I might be unique in my position, but it doesn’t ever feel like I’m a proverbial fish out of water.
7. Do you enjoy fly fishing yourself?
Yes! I was sort of a tomboy growing up, and as a kid, I would fish mostly on the south fork of Clearwater River. We didn’t actually do much fly fishing though. We ate what we caught so there was very little catch and release. As a kid, we’d go out early in the morning, catch our limit of trout, come back and clean them. Then, we’d throw them in the kitchen sink, and go to sleep. When we woke back up around 9:30, my Grandma would have them fired up for breakfast. So, I’ve eaten a lot of trout and now since working at the lodge, I’ve put back as many as I’ve eaten.
Fly fishing provided me with a completely new vocabulary, new equipment and a whole new language for me to learn and understand. I got it and I loved it, and now I’m hooked. I balance my life between my horses and getting out on the water, and fishing. I have been blessed by this group of guides who have encouraged me to fish with them. I got to learn side-by-side with the best.
There will be days when I’m standing in the middle of the river and I forget I’m supposed to be fishing. I’m just enjoying the scenery, and looking around at the birdlife and the wildlife. Usually, I’ve got a guide standing to the right of me saying, “oh, you didn’t get that one.” But being out on the Fall River, it is so gorgeous being out on that water with the reflections and the birds and the cows and the deer. I see catching a fish as a dessert – an extra. Don’t get me wrong, I love to fish, and when I doing it I’m in it, and going for it. I caught my first Steelhead on the Trinity last December and that was so exciting. I love the scene of a fish rising to a dry fly. The first time I experienced that on Hat Creek, I was hooked. That was a highlight moment for me. By the way, I’ve created a word up here. I call female anglers “anglets”. I love being an anglet. Both my daughters are now anglets, and I guess I’m a mother anglet.