Wyoming Wildlife -

Fishing with Coach




University of Wyoming men’s basketball coach Jeff Linder has a passion for fly-fishing


It is supposed to be less hectic for Jeff Linder in mid-August, but on this sun-drenched morning he is ready to go. The 46-year-old Linder, who enters his fourth year as the University of Wyoming men’s basketball coach, gets to spend a few hours following one of his passions — fly-fishing.

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Jeff Linder, center, coaches during a game last season against New Mexico. (Photo courtesy of UW Athletics)


“Not nearly as much as I would like,” said Linder when asked how much he was able to fish this year.
A common answer from most anglers, but one expected from a man who has a demanding job coaching one of the highest-profile sports teams at Wyoming’s lone four-year college. The job is more than coaching games, which run from November through March each season. There are practices, recruiting, travel, meetings, media obligations, etc. On top of that, the world of college athletics is rapidly changing. Players have more freedom to come and go from schools — known as the transfer portal. Players also can make money off their own name, image and likeness, which has thrown a major wrinkle in terms of recruiting and retaining players.

Those challenges — and others — took a chunk of time away from one of Linder’s favorite pastimes this year.

“That’s the problem with coaching now is that before the transfer portal we usually had the month of May where you could get out and fish, beat the crowds and get out before runoff,” Linder said. “This past May and June, fishing got put on hold.”

Basketball and fishing have been a big part of Linder’s life since he was a kid, and in many ways both go hand in hand.

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Linder guided the University of Wyoming men's basketball team to the NCAA Tournament during the 2021-22 season. (Photo courtesy of UW Athletics)


Early years
Linder is from the Denver area and was introduced to fishing and the outdoors by his dad, Bruce.
“He loved to fish,” Linder said. “I didn’t spend a lot of time fly-fishing as a kid, it was more on the lake. We spent a lot of weekends camping, boating and water-skiing in Colorado and Wyoming.”
Those places in Wyoming included Guernsey and Seminoe reservoirs, along with some time at Curt Gowdy State Park outside Cheyenne.

Linder said he got into fly-fishing when he was in college at Colorado Western University — known then as Western State — in Gunnison. Linder played point guard on the basketball team. His roommate, Matt Smiley, was on the football team. Linder described Smiley as someone who “thinks like a fish” and said Smiley got him started — and hooked — on fly-fishing.

“If I wasn’t tied up with football and school, I was out exploring and fishing, and I kind of drug Jeff into that,” Smiley said. “He really enjoyed it and it was something new for him. I think basketball kind of dominated him at that point. It was something he really took to.”

Some of the best trout streams in the country are in and near Gunnison, but Linder and Smiley also spent a lot of time chasing lake trout on Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison in a used boat Bruce Linder bought for his son.

“We learned a lot from that boat his dad bought for us,” Smiley said. “In a funny way, it brought us closer together as anglers.”

Linder said Smiley is a “world-class” angler, and that’s not lip service. Smiley is the state-record holder in Utah for lake trout that was caught and released at 52.97 pounds and 48 inches long, which he set in 2019 at Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Smiley once held the Colorado lake trout record at 44 pounds, 5 ounces caught in 2003 out of Blue Mesa Reservoir.

Last year, Smiley broke the Colorado record for brook trout with an 8-pound, 9-ounce fish out of Waterdog Lake near Lake City, Colorado.

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Linder prepares to cast under a bridge along the Little Laramie River last summer. Fly-fishing is one of his favorite activities. (Photo by Robert Gagliardi/WGFD)


Coaching and fishing
Linder said the first time he touched a basketball was when he was 4 or 5, and played every day since he was 8 or 9. Linder realized in high school that coaching basketball was something he would pursue as a career.

His coaching career started as a volunteer coach at the University of Colorado in 2000, and there were stops at six other schools before he landed the job at UW in 2020 — just prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve been fortunate to be around the right people, and to be around people that understand you can be a really successful college coach and still understand the importance of your family,” Linder said.
Linder and his wife, Kelli, have four kids between the ages of 8 and 18. As Linder’s family grew and his career progressed, there wasn’t a lot of time for things like fly-fishing. However, some of Linder’s coworkers and job locations in Utah, Idaho and Colorado allowed him opportunities to get on the river.
Laramie may be small and isolated in the world of college athletics, but it has its perks for those who enjoy fishing. Being the head coach at UW adds a couple of other perks.

“One of the nice things is you get access to some private water most people don’t have access to, but at the very least I’m not having to fight crowds,” Linder said. “It’s a bonus for me to have the ability to drive 20 or 30 minutes to be on a river, or go up to the Snowy Range and fish some of the small creeks and be two hours away from different spots on the North Platte River where there’s world-class, trophy-sized trout.
“I’m not sure where would be a better spot to have access to such good water.”

Linder said he’s also fished the Laramie and Encampment rivers in southeast Wyoming, the Bighorn River near Thermopolis and the Salt River in western Wyoming. Linder hopes to try streams and rivers in the west and northwest parts of the state soon.

Linder credits his wife to allow him those opportunities to fish when they arise. He said his kids like to fish, but none of them have mastered the patience to fly-fish yet.

“They’d rather catch than fish, but there’s a big difference between fishing and catching,” he said with a wry smile.

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Linder has recorded a winning record in five of the seven seasons he's been a head coach at the college level. (Photo courtesy of UW Athletics)


A year to forget
The 2022-23 basketball season was one of the most highly anticipated in more than 20 years at UW. The Cowboys were coming off a 25-9 record and the team made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years. Most of those players returned, and three transfers from the Pacific-12 conference were added. There was talk of a conference championship and a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

That didn’t happen.

A preseason and season-ending injury to one of the Cowboys’ best players started the domino effect. More injuries followed, and during the season the three transfers left the team. The Cowboys finished with a 9-22 record. After the season, more players transferred and Linder had only three scholarship players on the roster.

But that’s not all.

Bruce Linder became ill in June 2022 and his condition worsened as the 2022-23 basketball season progressed. Linder missed some practices and games to be with his dad and family in the Denver area. In the early-morning hours of March 9, Bruce, 71, died from complications from his illness. Jeff was there when his dad passed. Less than 24 hours before that, UW’s basketball season came to an end with an 87-76 loss to New Mexico in the opening round of the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas.

“It was hard and something not a lot of people around here knew about early on,” said Linder of his dad's illness. “It came to a head in January and it was unexpected to get to the point it did.

“At the same time I was fortunate that I was close enough that I could be there with him. For the university administration to understand what I was going through and to allow me the opportunity to spend time with him and my mom meant a lot. There will be more games and things like that, but in terms of time spent with family, you don’t realize how precious life really is until you watch someone take their last breath.”

In the months after his dad’s death, Linder had to fill the holes on his roster. This season’s team features 11 new players and two new assistant coaches.

“Last season is really hard to describe,” Linder said. “I never had to go through a year like that. There were a lot of things I couldn’t control, injuries being one of them.

“But at the end of the day I’m the head coach and it’s my record. You can’t point fingers, blame and make excuses. I had to look in the mirror and realize there were things I could have done differently and better. I’d much rather learn lessons by winning as opposed to losing. Sometimes you have to go through that to get to a place you couldn’t get before.”

Last season was only the second time in Linder’s seven seasons as a head coach he finished with a losing record. In his first season at Northern Colorado, where he took over a program that had a depleted roster due to rules violations by the previous coaching staff, Linder’s first team went 11-18. The next season the Bears went 26-7 and won the Collegeinsider.com postseason tournament.

Smiley expects a similar — to use a basketball term — rebound for Linder this coming season.

“He’s an incredibly resilient guy, and that’s why he’s gotten where he’s gotten,” Smiley said. “He doesn’t give up on things. He works through them.”

Day on the water
The fishing outing with Linder in mid-August was at one of his favorite places — the FishOn Ranch near Centennial — about a 30-minute drive west of Laramie. The ranch is located on the Little Laramie River and is full of good-sized rainbow and cutthroat trout. Linder knows this ranch and stretch of river well.
It didn’t take long for Linder to hook into his first fish, and the bites kept coming. There was a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when he landed and released each fish — an even bigger sense when one was a rainbow trout that pushed 25 inches long. There also was a little frustration when Linder failed to hook a fish, or couldn’t get one to chase his streamer.

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Linder hooks his first fish of the day at the FishOn Ranch along the Little Laramie River. (Photo by Robert Gagliardi/WGFD)

Throughout the day Linder shared his experiences on this stretch of river; how he reads the water and spots fish and what seems to work to entice a bite. There was no talk about work or anything else — just fishing. Not all that different from when he is coaching his players in a game or at practice.
“The beauty of fly-fishing is you really have to focus on the river and what’s going on,” Linder said. “It’s a lot like coaching where each day is different. The river changes. One day fish may be feeding on something, and the next day it might be different. It’s like a competition between you and the fish.”
Smiley added the things that motivate Linder as a basketball coach are similar when it comes to fly-fishing.

“I think he really enjoys the aspect of figuring it out, learning and getting better,” he said. “For him it’s about finding success, which he always seems to do when you look at his career and all the way back to his playing days. Fishing is the same thing. He’s become a really good angler from a guy who really didn’t start until he was in college. He’s always learning and growing and success is something that drives him, whether it’s athletics, fishing, job or family.”

At the end of the fishing outing, Linder looked at his surroundings — the picturesque ranch, its well-maintained green areas and some of the spots on the river that resulted in fish and said: “Another great day on the river.”

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Linder with a big rainbow trout he caught and landed on the Little Laramie River. (Photo by Robert Gagliardi/WGFD)


Skunked
For anglers, getting skunked is a bad thing. However, Smiley told a story about a fishing outing earlier this year that may have been a sign that better days are ahead for his friend.

Smiley talked Linder into joining him in May for a day of lake trout fishing on Flaming Gorge Reservoir. 
“We left the house around 4:30-5 in the morning and we got two blocks down the street and this skunk ran across the road in front of us,” Smiley recalled. “I hadn’t seen skunks in this area before. I was like, ‘I don’t know what this means. Is it like a black cat running in front of you?’ Jeff said with the year he had it might be the worst omen, ever.”

Instead, Smiley said Linder caught a 30-plus-pound lake trout on one of his first drops of the line before full sunrise.

“We went on to catch a bunch of big fish, and he probably caught two or three of the biggest lake trout of his life,” Smiley said.

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Linder holds a massive lake trout he caught earlier this year at Flaming Gorge Reservoir. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Linder)


Linder looked into the skunk encounter and reported back to Smiley that in a lot of cultures around the world the skunk is a sign of good luck and prosperity.

“We’re hoping the skunk that ran across the road the day we got to go fishing together was a turning point for him,” Smiley said.

— Robert Gagliardi is the associate editor of Wyoming Wildlife.

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