Skip to main content
When he's not fishing, Chuck Ragan is often on tour with his band, Hot Water Music.

When he's not fishing, Chuck Ragan is often on tour with his band, Hot Water Music.

“More gold was pulled out of this region than anywhere else in California,” says musician turned fishing guide Chuck Ragan as he navigates the winding roads through the farmland foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This fertile earth before the Tahoe National Forest, some 150 miles northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area, is dotted with former mining towns, many of which didn’t survive after the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s.

In less than an hour, we arrive at Lake Oroville, a sprawling reservoir where houseboats are moored a few hundred yards off the bank. Coming out of a dry winter, the water is far lower than normal. The ramp is several hundred yards long, leading down to the water. Ragan launches his 20-foot aluminum G3 Deluxe Gator jonboat, and we’re off to a northern corner of the lake through the morning’s gray mist.

Chuck Ragan holds up a California striped bass, his favorite local foe. 

Chuck Ragan holds up a California striped bass, his favorite local foe. 

Ragan explains the float-and-fly technique he uses and how easy it is to learn. The previous day, he and his partner had put up triple digits of spotted bass in this reservoir. A fly-fishing newbie, my girlfriend, Jen, casts a Ragan Dead Drop Minnow pattern, tied with a No. 4 olive-colored Wapsi Super Jig, toward the gravelly bank. “That’s a fish,” Ragan says calmly, as the indicator disappears. Jen eagerly strips line, and within a few minutes she’s excitedly holding a healthy 10-inch spotted bass.

This is my first time fishing with Ragan; our friendship to this point has been through music. Ragan is a guitarist and vocalist in Hot Water Music, a punk band from Gainesville, Florida, that came on the scene in 1994 when he was 20 years old. As of late, Ragan has become a solo artist, pioneering a new generation of gritty, punk-influenced folk music.

Ragan thrives among this web of waterways created by the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers with his wife, Jill, and 7-year-old son Grady Joseph. When not on tour, he is constantly exploring the foothill lakes, Delta and Yuba River for trout, smallmouth, largemouth, and spotted and striped bass, as well as steelhead, but it’s the resident river stripers that Ragan loves most.

In 1879, schoolie stripers were shipped in whiskey barrels by railway from the East Coast to San Francisco Bay, and they flourished into a thriving fishery in these tributaries. “Nothing much pulls like them in fresh water,” Ragan says. “When a hefty fish triples in weight as it hits that current and rips that line from your hand, it’s like the first time you hooked one, over and over again. It never gets old.”

Ragan spent his formative years in the South, embracing rebellion, skateboarding and fishing.

Ragan spent his formative years in the South, embracing rebellion, skateboarding and fishing.

Ragan is in high demand as a guide, but many clients are unaware of his colorful past. Raised all over the South, Ragan’s father was a golf pro, his mother a gospel singer and ventriloquist of Cajun descent. The family moved Ragan and his brother every few years. In each town he discovered new bands and new waters. “One set of grandparents lived outside of Kyle, Texas, and the other on the Intracoastal of Daytona Beach,” Ragan says. “We fished a lot, fresh water mostly for bass, but we’d fish redfish and trout when we were on the coasts.” Landing in Sarasota, Florida, in 1987 opened the door to more saltwater angling.

As a kid, Ragan’s hands migrated from fishing rods to the fret board. He picked up guitar early on but wasn’t permitted to listen to anything deemed subversive by his conservative parents. He took the instrument more seriously at around age 13. By his midteens, Ragan had found a new love: skateboarding, which introduced him to the Bad Brains, Beastie Boys and other sounds of rebellion that drew him into a counterculture that didn’t mesh with his staunch, Baptist upbringing. His teens were marked with rebellion, family strife, trouble, expulsion and eventually consequence, as the law caught up with him at age 15. He’d run away from home with plans of heading to California when his family reported him missing. He was placed in a rehabilitation center with some of Florida’s most addicted, depressed, violent and otherwise misguided youth.

Ragan's skills as a fisherman came in handy when his bandmates were hungry on tour. 

Ragan's skills as a fisherman came in handy when his bandmates were hungry on tour. 

Ragan spent 14 months at the facility. Music, skateboarding and fishing were off the table. He wasn’t allowed to use a belt or shoelaces. The treatment got through to him. By the end of his time in rehab, Ragan was asked to stay on as a paraprofessional facilitator, counseling his peers.

He moved to Gainesville in 1994, where he wrote songs, picked up woodworking and immersed himself in fishing, gleaning all he could from mentors Kip Street and Bill “The Gill” Sorton. “I loved that time, but I wasn’t fly-fishing at all then,” he says. “I was a meat fisherman. We used bait. To me, catching the bait was as important as harvesting the fish.”

Hot Water Music found underground success in the late ’90s, releasing four of their now nine records and embarking on a grueling schedule of touring around the country and, eventually, the world. “Chuck was always the steady general we all looked to,” says marketing veteran Christina White, who worked with Hot Water Music. “If we were hungry on tour, he’d feed us. If we were cold, he could build a fire. He could open a bottle of wine about 50 different ways that would make MacGyver blush. He was quick with a good story steeped in bayou folklore. I remember him telling tales of fishing with his Paw Paw as a child.”

When not on tour with his band, Hot Water Music or his solo act, Ragan is taking clients out fishing.

When not on tour with his band, Hot Water Music or his solo act, Ragan is taking clients out fishing.

While on tour, Ragan would disappear, hooking up with locals to fish. “Florida, Michigan, New York, Texas, British Columbia, New Jersey, Idaho, Catalina, you name it,” he says, “I’ve fished all of it on tour. I’ve set up entire Northwest tours around the steelhead run.”

Though his fishing habits could give a tour manager agita, there were advantages to having an outdoorsman in the band. “I remember him cooking on tour,” White says. “He’d go out fishing with buddies, then come back and make a feast for the band behind some dirty club. He went offshore one time, then came back and made ceviche, grilled fish, salads … the works.”

By the mid 2000s, the constant touring was grinding on the band. Hot Water Music went on hiatus, and Ragan focused on his solo, acoustic act, recalling his folksy roots with an Americana sound based on his Southern upbringing. His solo music is stirringly powerful, a boots-and-beard persona telling stories of crisscrossing continents and waterways. In 2008, Ragan and his wife founded The Revival Tour, a free-form event with his contemporaries performing their own music in collaboration with one another.

The Grass Valley is home to Ragan and his family. 

The Grass Valley is home to Ragan and his family. 

Ragan and Jill, who is from the San Francisco Bay Area and shares her husband’s passion for the outdoors, met 15 years ago. They stationed themselves in Los Angeles before migrating to Grass Valley, a former mining town populated by folks whose lives are based around the local land and rivers. Ragan wrote music, fished and laid down his family roots. He became a drift-boat guide in 2015. “I wanted to guide before that, but I was still busy with music,” he says. “Knowing kids were coming into the picture, I naturally went to the only other thing I did regularly and felt confident in, which was taking people fishing.”

Ragan’s list of clients grew, and he became involved in his local chapter of Cast Hope, a non-profit that reaches at-risk youth through fly-fishing. “My friend Hogan Brown has been involved since their inception,” he says. “I absolutely fell in love with it. Cast Hope is such a simple concept. If kids are connected with the natural world at a young age, they’re going to fight for it. If they don’t experience it early, it’s out of sight, out of mind.”

Ragan didn’t want to spend 200 days a year on the road, missing life’s cherished moments. He was looking for an alternate plan. “Hogan’s a family man,” Ragan says. “He pointed out that I was taking my friends out fishing and spending more time on the water than most of the guides he knows.”

To help his clients catch more fish, Ragan worked out the float-and-fly technique with Ryan Williams, a fellow guide and fly-tyer originally from Napa, California. The methodology can be traced to east Tennessee. Ragan yarns about tackle shop owner Charlie Nuchols, who discovered that they could hook trophy bass on below-freezing days by putting the fly at specific depths in the water column below an indicator, a specially designed balsa float. The practice extended the season for Northern California, making bass fishing a sustainable year-round pursuit in the foothills.

“Ryan has, in many ways, done a lot of pioneering,” Ragan says. “Together, we’ve honed the method,” which he describes as “very reactive” and “sight-oriented.”

Jen and I catch several dozen spotted bass on Lake Oroville while Ragan tells stories of fishing the Gulf of Mexico, touring in a van, and his boy, Grady Joseph, who is developing a passion for fishing.

With touring on hold through the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ragan was guiding six or seven days a week. He and his wife purchased a property with a bass pond. When the world came back to life, Hot Water Music went back on the road with a new album, Feel the Void. Ragan performed 26 solo shows in a month around Europe this past spring. With more shows on the West Coast in September and in Europe in October, he again has to find balance between music, home life and fishing. “It’s hectic. Just a lot of moving parts,” he says.

But running wide open is Ragan’s natural speed. “I’ve always felt that no matter what we do, if we give it everything we got and do it with 100 percent passion and ethics, good things come,” he says. “Observe. Be persistent. In the end, if we pay attention, the mysteries of the natural world reveal themselves to us. Same in music. You can’t expect to write a record and all of a sudden shows are packed and money is coming in. You have to be content with your work first. Keep trucking and put your time in. Everything else will fall in place.”  

Related

_70A3133-2

Griz Country

Fishing in bear country is a calculated risk, even if they are rarely the greatest risk an angler faces.

prm-countries-contrast

Countries in Contrast

Fishing both sides of the Andes in one trip highlighted the region’s diversity

Tempest promo 4

Rooted

Meredith McCord, who has 168 IGFA records, credits her family, God and the wilderness lakes around Nestor Falls, Ontario, with her success in fishing and life

prm-healeys

Growing Up Viking

Since he was a boy, fishing has been a driving force in the life of Pat Healey, the head of Viking Yachts.

prm-AlexAdlerRapalaKnife02

The Knife That’s Fed Millions (and Me)

For the author, the Rapala Fish ’n Fillet has been a steady companion through the changing landscape of a fishing life.

prm2_GregorGillespie

The Fighter. The Fisherman.

Fighting has made him a better fisherman; fishing has made him a better man.

New Zealand rainbow trout

In the Moment

Social entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie discusses how fly-fishing has deepened his life.

A Tale Of Two Countries Part I - Chile

A Tale Of Two Countries: Part I: Chile

Pursuing large rainbows and browns through the wilds of Chile and Argentina

featured-IM_2014_054_1941

A Tale Of Two Countries: Part II - Argentina

Pursuing large rainbows and browns through the wilds of Chile and Argentina