So, You Want to be a Fishing Guide? Part Three: Qualities of a Good Guide

So, You Want to be a Fishing Guide? Part Three: Qualities of a Good Guide

This is the third installment in a five-part series outlining the experiences of working fishing guides and what it takes to survive a dream job. Here’s where you can find part one and two.

Guiding takes more than passion and skill for fishing. A talented angler understands fish. A talented guide understands fish and people. The latter tends to be more complicated than the former. Most clients expect to catch fish, or at least have opportunities, but not all measure a day’s success by body count. Many guests experience truly sublime appreciation for a fishing day through wildlife sightings, picturesque scenery, acquisition of new skills and camaraderie. More often than not, that appreciation and joy comes from the deft but subtle capacity of their guide to communicate effectively what needs to be done. She helps them achieve that sense of peace and satisfaction, regardless of how many times the net gets wet.

In part two of this series, we established that most guides don’t do this work for the money. In part four we’ll explain that they also don’t do it for their own fishing opportunities. Guides need to thrive on their interactions with people, and almost 100 percent of the guides I spoke with told me that their favourite aspect of the job is the relationships they forge with clients while shaping those people’s experiences on the water.

“We help people, not only to become better fishermen, but also to make their dreams come true,” said Jako Lucas, world-renowned fishing guide.

If you want to be counted among the ranks of elite fishing guides, you absolutely must be able to understand what’s in the client’s head. As John Gierach wrote, “the only thing a psychiatrist can do that a good guide can’t is write prescriptions.”

Amy Hazel, longtime guide and owner of the Deschutes Angler Fly Shop, shares that level of intimacy with certain return anglers. “These clients have become friends, and many have now become as close to us as family. Over the decades we have watched their kids grow from babies to teens to adults—we have celebrated together, and we have mourned together.”

Of the people I interviewed for this article, almost all of them had been consoled or even saved by a client-turned-friend. In fact, most guides have at least one story about a client who helped them through an emotional or financial hardship.

Such relationships don’t build themselves. While an excited client can set the morning up for success, a grumpy or unrealistic one can start the day off rocky. Good guides will read the expectations of their sports quickly and quietly respond as needed. Tense interactions will spoil a day on the water as fast as a poorly tied knot, and not all guests are experienced, skilled or likeable. A day on the water with someone who’s desperate to get a photo of a trophy fish makes for a stressful day, especially when the fish aren’t actively feeding or the angler’s expectations exceed their ability. A good guide knows how to diffuse tense situations—when to speak or be quiet, offer advice, or stop the madness with a beautiful shoreside lunch.

Experienced guides also learn to be selective about their clients. Second-generation Maine guide Ryan Brod explains, “The screening process is important to me, and at times I’ve made mistakes. I don’t have the mental make-up to tolerate eight or ten hours in the canoe with a jerk. I’ve gotten better at phone screening, to the point where I’m only fishing anglers I truly enjoy being around.”

While selectivity can be the key to a career guide’s happiness, not all guides have the luxury to pick and choose their clients. Novice guides usually start out working for a fly shop, outfitter or lodge, and they have absolutely no choice about who they take fishing on a given day. “Back when I was getting started, I had to endure all kinds of abuse,” said former Alaska and Montana guide Miles Nolte. “I’ve heard more racist and sexist and generally offensive shit while guiding than at any other time in my life. I once had a guy threaten to commandeer my boat if we didn’t start catching more fish.”

Much of a guide’s ability to handle a season’s highs and lows depends on their capacity to remain cool under pressure and scrutiny. A mature guide won’t internalize petty slights, whereas a less-composed one may snap without thinking through the long-term implications of their reaction. Seasons are short and can require months-long stretches of work without a day off. These stretches can wear down even the most tolerant guide. As small as the client pool is, word gets around when a guide behaves unprofessionally, so it’s important to understand that while guiding may be the right path to take, it may not be the best path right now. Prospective guides need to consider their ability to let obnoxious clients roll off their backs and not let a bad day or a bad interaction shake their confidence.

That confidence is central to guiding success. Guiding is, by nature, competitive, and guides who get too caught up in comparing themselves to their peers and colleagues are in for long, stressful seasons. California guide Jordan Romney spent his first few years competing and comparing himself to other guides. Around the 3-year mark I started to realize that all these other guides I was competing against were now my buddies. My mentor, who has now passed on, taught me that I am only ever competing against myself.”

Beyond having a masterful understanding of the human psyche, guides must love being on the water all the time. Even serious anglers may underestimate the challenges of being out there day after day. That level of dedication requires a unique relationship with water. Ryan embraces that relationship. “It’s part of my identity. I’m motivated to spend as much time on waters I love as possible, and it’s nice sometimes to be compensated for it.”

Guides who love being on the water are rewarded with a knowledge of fisheries that few get to enjoy. “What keeps me going is the intimate relationship I form with the resource,” said second-year guide Josh Ziegler. “Feeling as though you understand something that is so dynamic and ever-changing is a neat experience.”

Developing a relationship with watersheds and the creatures within them is an integral part of guiding. It can take years to learn a fishery’s patterns and migrations. Clients expect that their guide has invested enough time to consistently find fish, but many factors remain beyond a guide’s control. Low returns, tricky fish, bad weather and high water drastically impact a guiding season. Guides who make it year after year have access to, and knowledge of, all the fishing options and waterways in their area, so if Plan A falls apart, they can move to B, C or D. That capacity and flexibility not only allows guides to find fish when conditions are tough, it helps prevent burnout and boredom.

Jordan guides a wide range of rivers throughout the fishing season in California. The constant relocation stokes his enthusiasm for guiding and problem solving. “When one area is wrapping up, a new one is starting. Things for me never get stale, and I don’t get burnt out on the same piece of water all year.”

As you expand your offerings to new fisheries, make sure that understanding includes local standards of conduct. Whether it be in a drift boat, walk and wading on shore or poling a flats boat, familiarize yourself with what is (and what isn’t) appropriate practice for guides and anglers before subjecting clients to uncomfortable situations.

Make sure to learn the universals of guiding etiquette, as well. For example, sometimes you will need to demonstrate what you want the client to do, but without actually hooking the fish. Few things are less professional than the guide catching a fish that her client is failing to catch. Remember that guiding is not fishing, a topic I’ll cover at length in the next installment of “So, You Want to Be A Fishing Guide.”

If you have any questions about the guide life that you’d like to see explored, send them to I’ll answer a select few of your questions on social media after the series is published.

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