Some of the best “fishing bums” I know are the worst guides. They’re superstars with a rod in their own hands, but guides don’t hold rods—they hold tillers, push poles, oar grips or nets. The measure of a good guide isn’t if she can catch fish, it’s if she can get others with far less skill and knowledge than herself to catch fish. Many a passionate and talented angler has guided for a few seasons, only to quit because guiding “ruined fishing” for them. Those poor souls should have done some homework before jumping into this profession, because once they burn out on guiding they’ve not only lost their job, they’ve compromised their love for fishing as well.
Guide and instructor Brant Oswald taught schools with Mel Krieger and Orvis in the 1980s. Over the years Brant has seen many anglers come and go, most of whom believed that guiding would feed their fishing habit. “I see a lot of students who think guiding is just like going fishing with friends every day, except people pay you for it and you get your gear at a discount.”
California guide Jordan Romney had the same preconceived notion: “I thought I would get to go fishing a lot more. Instead, I am just around people who fish all the time.”
This is a common misconception of aspiring guides. Fishing guides don’t actually fish, at least the good ones don’t. Good guides know they’re paid to lead their clients to fish and then work with them to hook up. They understand that guiding is a selfless act—that they’re a director behind the curtain while the main act is on stage. Yet there are still some guides who believe it’s acceptable to make a cast when the fishing is hot, or when the client encourages it.
Guide and filmmaker Jako Lucas struggled with the temptation but always refrained from fishing while on the job. He guided for four years in the Seychelles before ever making a cast there. He swears this abstention focused him on guiding his clients within their own limitations rather than his own.
“Your client did not pay a lot of money to see his guide catch fish. As much as I’ve had clients tell me to make a cast, I’ve held back,” Jako said. “You never know when you’re going to get that fish of the week. Fishing with guests can turn ugly.”
The truth is that there’s never an appropriate time to fish while guiding. Even when the fishing is on fire, most clients want their guide to manage the boat, offer casting tips, land their fish, or just talk to them. There are times when a client chooses to fish alone in silence—but the last thing they want to hear is the splashing of a steelhead that their guide has just hooked behind them.
“When I first started guiding, one of my mentors told me this: There are three rules to guiding,” said former Alaska and Montana guide Miles Nolte. “Rule number one, don’t fish. Rule number two, seriously, don’t fish. Rule number three, when you break rules number one and two and hook the biggest fish of the day, make sure you break it off before the client sees it.”
The rule is unwritten but adopted by serious guides who know that fishing with guests usually results in a lose-lose situation. If a guide hooks a “client’s fish,” it comes across as a lost opportunity. If they don’t hook it, they run the risk of looking as if they lack the skills they’re trying to teach—or, worse, that the fish aren’t even there.
Another common misconception that aspiring guides carry is about the caliber of anglers they’ll generally be guiding. “I figured the people who hire guides are the people who have good skills and really want to learn the fishery in depth,” Jordan said. “In reality, it’s the opposite. I generally guide beginners who don’t really have a desire to get to know the fishery, they just want to get to know the fish in the fishery.”
When guiding beginners, it’s especially important to know how to communicate. “I recall wasting a lot of time trying to teach techniques that didn’t match up with a client’s skillset, or using an approach that wasn’t producing the results I wanted,” Brant said.
Too many tips and too much advice can frustrate and discourage clients, so a guide needs to choose her words wisely. Sometimes a demonstration is necessary for a visual learner, but a guide should never allow the hook to stay in the water long enough to catch a fish.
Aspiring guides should also consider the likelihood that they’ll outgrow their fishing obsession. Most anglers come out of the gate eager to spend all their time on the water, but this drive can fade over the years.
Montana guide Joshua Ziegler admits that there was a point in his life when he thought all that mattered was fly fishing. But family and other priorities eventually overtook his desire to spend every waking minute on the water.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized life is much more dynamic than that,” Joshua said. “If someone is out there aspiring to be a guide, they need to go through the trout bum phase—which is cool until you’re fifty and still, as Chris Farley would have said, living in a van down by the river!”
Many anglers progress from hardcore to relaxed observer at some point in their lives. A combination of age, experience and exposure all contribute to the softening. Before long, 5 a.m. starts get pushed to 8, lunch breaks are taken and self-benching occurs after enough fish have been caught.
Many people who decide to guide don’t realise that they may eventually grow away from the eat-sleep-breathe-fish mentality. It’s a welcomed evolution by most anglers but can be a dispiriting one for a full-time guide. Before someone decides to make the plunge into full-time guiding, they should be aware of the possibility of coming to dread a full day on the water. If they understand that their role is to pull strings from the catwalk rather than shine on stage, they’ll be much better prepared for a long and hard-earned guiding career.
“I used to want to fish all day, every day—it’s what got me into the business,” said traveling guide Rob Kessler. “Somewhere it changed, and now I enjoy watching people learn to cast and catch fish more than fishing myself.”
If you have any questions about the guide life that you’d like to see explored, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll answer a select few of your questions on social media after the series is published.