Remembering Clayton

Wild On The Fly travel director Clayton Bruce Sparks (above left) took his own life on December 15, 2008 shortly after returning from an exploratory fly fishing adventure on a jungle river in northern Argentina. Wild On The Fly founder Joseph Daniel delivered the following eulogy five days later to a packed house at the Shove Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Fly fishing has been called the quiet sport. And for most of its practitioners it is just that – a peaceful pastime. It is a wonderful way to spend a relaxing afternoon, wading up an idyllic stream waving a delicate wand with a tiny bait of feathers and fur attached, and strategically casting that artificial fly – all in accordance to a time-honored code of ritual and technique – in the hopes of attracting the revered trout of angling tradition.

But for a growing number of enthusiasts fly fishing is anything but peaceful. It is no longer defined by stuffy convention, and it is hardly quiet. It is instead a passionate pursuit of exotic, wild fish in wild waters, where the environment is untamed, the angling is super-challenging and the fish are sometimes bigger that the fisherman. For these modern-day angling explorers fly fishing is their passport to global adventure and cultural discovery.

It was into this exciting world, and consequently mine, that Clayton Bruce Sparks appeared on May 7 of this year in response to a help-wanted ad we had posted seeking a person to head our new fly fishing travel agency. Our fly fishing travel magazine, Wild On The Fly, was rapidly evolving from just reporting on exciting worldwide angling trips to actually sending our readers on them.

Clayton was in many ways an improbable candidate, he didn’t really know that much about fly fishing beyond catching trout in Colorado, and he was actually way overqualified in terms of education and employment history. But from the first moment of our first interview I detected a strong undercurrent of unbridled eagerness and curiosity that seemed ready to burst into a flood of total engagement if I simply gave the word.

But that didn’t come quickly. I had been burned before hiring enthusiastic anglers who just wanted to turn their hobby into a paycheck. I needed a smart employee with a strong work ethic who understood the fly fishing industry, not a trout bum trying to avoid getting a real job.

My wife Wendy and I interviewed Clayton three times and he was brilliant. I like to think I’ve gained some wisdom over the years in evaluating people and reading between the lines, but Clayton was one step ahead of me on everything with exactly the right answers to my questions and an impressive resume of professional qualities. His quick intellect and nonjudgmental nature were refreshing and his language and photography skills were real attributes. Wendy and I were frankly smitten from the start and the repetitive interviews we put him through were more to make Clayton think he couldn’t just waltz into our office and land the job on the day one. But the fact was he had.

Clayton loved working at Wild On The Fly. He told me that so many times it became embarrassing, but it was also reassuring. Here was a guy who was going to stick around and do the hard work necessary to master a new profession and become the expert required to be successful. Fly fishing travel agents aren't just born, the job requires an arcane knowledge of angling equipment and technique, fish behavior, world geography, weather patterns and environmental conditions, cultural sensitivity, languages, airline schedules, in-country transfers options, insurance and risk assessment, disease outbreaks and political unrest, group dynamics, competing destinations, etc. It was exactly the perfect mix of minutia that Clayton loved to wrap his arms around and bring into his keen sense of order.

Clayton's other extremely laudable quality was his genuine love of people. He would talk for hours on the phone with the endless stream of callers that you might imagine plague a fly fishing travel company with their personal tales of angling exploits. But he used this direct contact to fuel his steep learning curve of the industry. I was constantly amused and amazed by how quickly he converted naive assumption into supported fact. When I finally suggested that I thought he was ready to begin hosting group trips around the world you’d have thought he won the lottery.

Shortly after he was hired I took Clayton with me on an introductory tour of The Palometa Club, a saltwater fly fishing lodge we market in Yucatan, Mexico. Palometa is the Spanish name for a fish called a "permit" in English. For saltwater fly fishermen, permit are the coveted Holy Grail as catching one on a fly denotes a certain amount of expertise and earns you begrudging respect from your fellow anglers. Permit are truly a challenging quarry and many accomplished fly fishermen (including yours truly) have literally spent years trying to land one.

The Palometa Club is located at the entrance to Ascension Bay, arguably the best place on the planet to catch a permit. We used the angling community’s fanatical obsession with this fish in naming the lodge and subsequently marketing it to great success, booking nearly 200 people a year to the destination. When I first explained the permit phenomena to Clayton, and the angling zeal with which they are sought, I could literally see the wheels start turning in his head. Overnight he became obsessed with palometa and I could tell there was more there than just learning how to market the species. He was already maneuvering to catch one!

We were only in Mexico for a few days and most of the time was spent meeting with the lodge staff and guides and learning the daily operations in order to better sell the experience to prospective clients. But we did manage to sneak in a couple of afternoons of fishing and Clayton was stoked, thinking the time had come to show his chops. Four hours later he was completely demoralized. I had thrown him to the wolves and he suddenly discovered that saltwater fly fishing – casting a heavy rod into a 20 mph wind from a tippy casting platform to a very spooky fish you couldn’t even see – was a little more demanding than flipping a dry fly to a rising trout. I admit… it was tantamount to tossing your kid into the deep end of the pool and saying “swim.” But hey, the lad had to learn.

Clayton nursed his bruised ego that evening with several of the lodge’s medicinal margaritas and I watched carefully to see how he would handle this situation. This was a calculated test on my part and I was very curious as to the outcome.

The next afternoon we were at it again. Clayton insisted that I fish first and that he just wanted to watch and learn. It was a magical day on the saltwater flats of Ascension Bay and there were permit everywhere. In less than two hours I managed to hook, and then break off, three spectacular palometa. It was my best, and worst, day yet with this confounding species and after the third fish bid adios I sat down in disgust and told Clayton the front of the boat was his for the rest of the day.

All the while I was fishing Clayton had kept up an almost non-stop discussion in Spanish with the guides. He was asking endless questions and soaking up permit lore in his indomitable style, and the guides loved it. They quickly decided to take this gentle, inquisitive man, who spoke their language on a colloquial level, under their wings with the intent of turning him into a skilled saltwater angler. A few times – particularly after I had blown a cast or broken off a fish – I heard my name mentioned within the verbal chaos of rapid-fire Spanish, followed by laughter. It was obvious el jefe was the subject of some good-natured ribbing.

Late in the afternoon the Palometa Club guides took us to a shallow flat on the lee side of a small mangrove island where Clayton could cast out of the wind to schools of small bonefish, another popular and more accommodating saltwater species on the fly. As head guide Filberto poled our boat up onto the flat he suddenly became very animated and pointed out a school of bonefish suspended in a muddy plume of water caused by their rooting the bottom for crabs. Palometa! palometa! palometa! he exclaimed, indicating that the bonefish were being followed by a small group of permit. Having witnessed my despair after losing the three fish earlier that day Clayton was adamant that I try for them first.

I slipped quietly out of the boat and waded carefully to within casting range. My first shot landed perfectly and as one of the permit turned to eat my crab fly a small bonefish shot out the mud and beat it to the offering. Story of my life!

As I tried to steer the bone out of the school without spooking the other fish I yelled back to Clayton to come take a shot. Filberto was already ahead of me and had Clayton wading into position. His first cast was so laced with adrenaline it collapsed in a heap, but he calmed down and managed the perfect shot on cast two. Something instantly grabbed his fly and raced away at unbelievable speed. Palometa! palometa! palometa! screamed Filberto, and we all went nuts at the realization that Clayton had hooked a permit. Everyone that is except for Clayton who was standing there completely paralyzed in total shock as line peeled off his reel at an alarming rate. It wasn’t until Filberto gently reminded him that if he didn’t do something soon he would be out of line and the permit would be in Belize.

Clayton snapped out of it and then proceeded to do a masterful job in fighting his trophy under careful coaching from Filberto. When he finally landed the permit after a fifteen-minute battle Clayton threw his hands up in victory and rushed towards Filberto letting out the most amazing series of war whoops you’ve ever heard. His excitement was contagious and soon he and Filberto were jumping up and down like little kids, patting each other on the back and congratulating each other over and over again in Spanish. I just stood there and took pictures of the celebration. One of those shots is on the cover of your program today (and shown above). Although the permit he caught wasn’t that large it was still a permit and a crowning moment for Clayton. For me it was the beginning of a wonderful relationship.

For the next six months Clayton dove into his job with passion, arriving at the office well before me each morning and often staying late to work on a project. His knowledge of the industry increased exponentially and he was quickly becoming a true asset to the company. Yet despite this exceptional work ethic he wasn’t just all business and no play. He trained to improve his already formidable squash game and competed in several tournaments. He played competitive kickball all summer and fall and was an avid cyclist. He attended a weekly Spanish table to keep his language skills sharp and he wasn’t a stranger to the Boulder club scene, meeting groups of friends for socializing several nights a week. He seemed pretty lucky with the ladies and it was a rare Monday that I didn’t receive an earful on his thoughts about a particular gal. This escalated to a more serious level this fall as he met one woman in particular who seemed to be stealing his heart.

I’ve since discovered that Clayton was a list guy and his Daytimer and journal are peppered with "to do" lists, "what I’ve done" lists, "how I can do better" lists, and his favorite regular reconciliation of the "ten most optimistic things that happened today" lists. Despite a healthy cynicism he was an optimist, and even as the current economic crisis threatened America and the world, he was captivated by the intellectual exercise of how we could make the company thrive in these challenging times.

When I told Clayton that he would be leading a hosted a trip to northern Argentina in early December and another one to Patagonia this coming March he was thrilled and immediately began his brand of research and preparation, which of course included "equipment" lists, "books I want to read before I leave" lists and "what I want to achieve once I'm there" lists. His trip to Patagonia was especially appealing to him as I had asked him, once he was through hosting his clients, to visit southern Chile and compare several new operations there in the hopes of finding a lodge that we could market as successfully as The Palometa Club. Within weeks he had the most amazing itinerary compiled, complete with invitations from several lodge owners anxious for him to review their properties.

Clayton left on that first trip to northern Argentina on December 6. We now know that something very disturbing to him apparently happened, or at least seemed to happen, on one of the flights down there, and although he stressed out for a day or two he eventually got over it and soon fell into his roll of trip host, performing his duties with great enthusiasm. This was a challenging fishing trip, even for experts, as the species being sought, freshwater golden dorado, were powerful, voracious predators not at all easy to catch.

I kept track of the group's progress via e–mail with our Argentine outfitter and by midweek it was apparent that the trip was going to be a huge success. Our clients had each caught several fish including some of true trophy size. The only one who hadn't yet landed anything was Clayton and I joked with the outfitter that I hadn't hired him for his fishing prowess. The outfitter e-mailed back that yes that might be true, but in every other aspect Clayton was conducting himself as a real professional. I was very proud of him, and of course by week's end Clayton had mastered the angling skills to land two dorado of his own. One of our clients, Steve Duckett, who was fishing in a different boat than Clayton, said that the entire river valley echoed with Clayton’s howls of excitement.

I last spoke with Clayton on the phone just this past Monday. He had returned from Argentina on Sunday evening and although he was exhausted from jet lag and the rigors of the week he seemed in pretty good spirits. We talked for at least a half-an-hour about the trip and he gave me a play-by-play recount of some of the highlights. There was no mention of any problems or the earlier alleged event on the plane. I thought at the time that Clayton was really maturing into his position and I congratulated him on a job well done. I also told him to take the day off to recover and that I’d see him on Tuesday. Alas, I never saw him again.

Clayton, everyone in this church and the many others who couldn’t be here today are deeply and profoundly saddened by your passing. And I for one am royally pissed off. I don’t know where you are right now but I pray in my heart that it’s on some proverbial wild river and that the fishing is good and your victory whoops once again fill the air. We will miss you terribly.

Joseph E. Daniel

For more information on Clayton's death read Angling for Gold.