This is the final 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, two, three and four.
In my last article, I covered the reasons guides don’t fish with their clients. Guides play a supporting role to the main act—pulling strings from the catwalk and taking a backseat to the accolades. But there could be no performance without a stage and its stagehands. The water and its fish set the scene for a glorious performance.
Choosing a resource-based vocation has drawbacks. A guide’s security relies on the presumption that rivers and the fish within them will be healthy enough to withstand an open fishing season. Mother Nature isn’t for hire and she doesn’t care about a guide’s financial comfort.
“The closure of the Yellowstone in 2016 due to the PKD [Proliferative Kidney Disease] outbreak was a wake-up call for all of us in the region,” recalls Montana guide Brant Oswald.
An ecological catastrophe, whether human caused or naturally occurring, or a shift in regulation has the potential to bankrupt businesses that depend on fishery health and angler cooperation. Such uncertainties intensify the significance of a guide’s relationship with the resource. While it’s almost impossible to predict most acute events that can depress or destroy a fishery, a guide can control much of their own impact by staying informed on policy and current threats.
Most anglers develop an intimate bond with nature before they start guiding. It’s likely this very relationship that persuaded them to start guiding in the first place. Brant sees it as a way to introduce guides and anglers to the more intricate aspects of the outdoors. “Spending time outside gives guides a chance to see so many things that most folks will never see. Guiding gives me a chance to show those things to a few of them.”
Guide Hilary Hutcheson takes it one step further: “I get to show my guests how to be the eyes, ears and voices that are so important in helping create policy that protects the resource.”
Hilary gave up her career as a news anchor to devote her life to the river and its health. She felt called to educate other passionate anglers about best practices for interacting with their cherished places. “I like being able to teach guests something new—especially if they want to learn more about climate change, public lands and how to become more comfortable being a steward of the land.”
A forward-thinking guide sees guests as potential teammates—future investors in the fishery. “Fly anglers tend to be optimists with an appreciation for nature and are often well educated,” said guide Sean Blaine.
Those who pay to be guided are often affluent, and wealth often correlates to power and influence. Thoughtful and skilled guides can help these folks realize the fragility of fisheries that bring them a day, or even a lifetime, of pleasure. In turn, those clients might carry that message to their own sphere of influence.
Successful guides have some serious clout in the industry. There’s a good reason guides get discounts on gear. Companies large and small know that guides are seen as experts and that the broader fishing community will follow their lead. Whether that means buying a particular brand of rod or supporting manufacturers that invest in resource conservation, guides wield real power to influence industry players.
Guide advocacy extends well beyond the gear choices they make. Many guides volunteer countless hours at board meetings, open houses, fundraisers and rallies. Even with limited time, they try to scrounge extra hours in the day to fight for their beloved fisheries and surrounding habitat. That volunteerism is not completely selfless, however. Smart guides know that their paycheques depend on fish and fish depend on healthy ecosystems.
Some guides reach a level of success that allows them to start their own companies with philosophies based in conservation ethics. “Today, more guide companies are stepping up to be part of the solution in protecting the resource”, Hilary continued. As the owner of Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana, Hilary spends a large chunk of her time volunteering at educational events through her shop and various other outlets. She serves as a national board member of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, is a climate activist with Protect Our Winters, and writes for a number of publications.
Hilary is an exception and a powerhouse when it comes to giving back, but she’s an example aspiring guides can look up to. While most guides don’t have the ability to support their fishery monetarily, they should feel a responsibility to protect the landscape from which they take. If a guide could conjure up half of the time and energy Hilary does, the industry would be better equipped to use its voice when good conservation policy needs support.
The primary tool guides have to protect their waters are the days they spend there. Proper fish handling and picking up garbage can go a long way on the water, especially when observed by an audience of impressionable anglers.
“Guides are in a unique position to interact with the recreating public as an authority without a badge. Experience speaks volumes and a good guide will be willing to educate a newcomer for the good of the resource,” said former guide and MeatEater Director of Conservation Ryan Callaghan.
New guides should consider their conduct on the water for audiences beyond their clients. When a new guide enters the scene with questionable motives, it can spark distrust and scrutiny from more established guides. Sean Blaine noted his concern about the rapid pace of guides inundating the industry, suggesting it may ultimately compromise the security of fishery health and client satisfaction. “As the demand for guide service has grown—at least in my area of Montana—the need for more guides has led to employment without any clear vetting process.”
It’s important for guides like Sean to educate newcomers about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into keeping a fishery healthy. Waterways have gotten busier, the guiding industry has become saturated and some fish are now listed as endangered.
There is a lot of responsibility that goes along with being a guide—teacher, mentor, leader, steward. A good guide knows that their role is so much more than bringing fish to hand. The truly great guides are patient, selfless, humble and dedicated. They work hard, care about their clients and advocate for their holy places—all while standing in the shadows and somehow managing to fit their cape inside their waders.
So, if you’re still thinking about becoming a guide, roll up your sleeves, compile a plan, get to know your fishery, remember to give back to it, and know that it owes you nothing. As Hilary says, “I fight for the resource but sometimes I treat my own self like shit.” That really gets to the heart of what it means to be a fishing guide.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.