The Fishing Guide – diplomat, shrink and human fish-finder

You have to feel for the modern fishing guide. They’re the ones who aren’t wearing the latest Simms, Orvis and Patagonia at the launch site. Their clients are. They’re the ones who don’t strut around with rods in their hand talking about the amazing Peacock Bass in Brazil or the Taimen in Mongolia that took a lure the size of a duckling. Out of all the goretex-ed, felt-booted, baseball-capped, polaroided, khaki-clad people milling around the launch sites, the take-out ramps and the lunch spots, they’re the ones who don’t look like they’re trying to look like fishermen.

A hero shot of my quarry by my hero guide Wade Fellin

Their tax returns might say under Occupation: Fishing guide, or Outfitter or Sports guide. But that’s like Eric Clapton writing musician or Lewis Hamilton terming himself a driver. Theirs is a complicated mixture of hard-won water expertise, outdoors lore, client relations, diplomacy, psychological counselling, the food service industry, the haulage trade, photography  and the patience to say discomfort in the rear when they mean something altogether different.

All their skills have to be grounded in diplomacy which, as we all know, is the art of telling lies while appearing to be telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. (See a rough guide to Guidespeak at the end of this post)

Let me find you a fly you can lose in the next ten minutes that I won’t care about

Consider this. The average guide might drive a boat on a trailer, sometimes scores of miles, launch it, retrieve it and drive it back home on a daily basis.  He (or she, increasingly, and happily) then guides an angler, or two, for a day, usually between shortly after breakfast to shortly before the client’s cocktail hour and bragging show. In that time the angler might spend, if lucky, as much as one hour actually catching fish and bringing them to the boat, bank or shore. The rest of the time he/she is seeking fish, and the guide is trying to “put them on fish”, which means bringing years of intimacy with the waterway into a one-day experience and hoping the fishermen, given the right fly and instructions, can connect with his or her  quarry.

The guide faithfully record’s the angler’s expert skills

In America, this is often done in a boat, which means physical exertion to keep the boat within casting range of the fish, keeping an eye on moving water for fish and obstructions, keeping an eye on the angler(s) for  their (self-inflicted ) obstructions to catching them;  maintaining a steady mix of fishing and general banter  and all this in the confined and tightly-packed space the length and half the width of a small car. Then, increasingly, the guide is expected to take the “happy” or “hero shot” with the client’s smartphone or camera, try to keep the fish alive while various Olympian poses are struck, get it back into the water still breathing and then start looking for the next victim.

The camera never lies

This goes on for eight hours interspersed with lunch, which the guide “prepares” (buys the raw ingredients from Safeway – bread, cheese, pickles, salami, ham, potato chips, beer, water) ; or which the lodge where the angler stays has prepared. This can involve bringing a portable table, table cloth, silverware and a disarming selection of salads and dishes prepared in the same kitchen that will fashion the angler’s gourmet dinner. In some places the guides actually pack a barbecue and wine cooler.

The Big Hole Lodge is famous for its lunches.  Here are its ribs.t

In the time they are together the guide is in charge of the fishing, eating and drinking and safety of his client. The client is the one who pays the money. The guide is the one who provides the service. It works best, according to the guides I know, if the client actually has moderate fishing ability and is generally open to being helped. And throughout, diplomacy I the key. The guide might be the waterside equivalent of a chess grand master, but he still has to be polite and encouraging as the client moves unerringly into a checkmate trap.

Clients are often not good with their cameras

But many guides say the people they get are wannabes. They have become hooked on the post-River Runs Through It wave of fly fishing popularity that mixes “frontiersman” outdoor life, self-seeking mysticism and a fishing tackle industry that tries harder than toothpaste or detergent makers to have some new, shiny and must-have widget every year. They’ll fish maybe three times a year but put “Fisherman” next to their names on LinkedIn. I heard about a young New York investment banker who turned up with a tackle bag bigger than his ego on a mission to add a “hero shot” of him and a fish on his office wall to join his other trophy kodachromes of sky-diving, skiing and the like. But he couldn’t, in the words of the person who guided him in a boat, “cast further than the end my oar” and pronounced himself deeply unsatisfied with the guide and the experience.

Guides are expected to be impervious to weather conditions. The client is always right.

I’ve shared dining tables with people who have made some completely bogus relationship between how much they have paid and how many, or how few, fish they have caught. Someone, not me, had to guide them.  And the guide and client are generally strangers. So sensitive handling and showing interest in what the client wants to talk about are also part of the guide’s skillset. The guide starts off much like a taxi driver delivering his client for a fee and, if he is lucky, a tip that equates to a bonus because the guide has done good work. He or she probes the client gently to map out areas of common interest or experience, because spending eight hours within a landing net’s length of each other without conversation would be too much like a day out on the Marie Celeste.  It starts off as a sort of cocktail party badinage but can become an exchange from which both parties go away feeling they have learned something new.

Getting the fish in the water alive and breathing is best left to the guide

Nanny, shrink, nurse. The guide often has those roles too. This is a family blog site so I will not relay stories about the extraction of fish hooks from delicate anatomical parts. But I do know that some clients, slightly giddy on the oxygen of fishing and landscape, start to say things out loud about their lives that they would not ordinarily divulge until way after the fifth martini or only to their therapist under hypnosis. I’ve been lucky with guides since I started using them 35 years ago.  The client relationship can twist the dynamics of the encounter at first but over the years it becomes incidental and much more like friendship.

I can think of only one poor guide and he was an Irishman who took me and my son out on a boat on Lough Currane, Ireland’s premier sea trout water. It was a balmy hot day with little wind but it was the only day my son and I had free. We met him at the boat dock. He was elderly and clad in agricultural fashion and might have come straight from his tractor. Or off the set of Les Miserables. My son and I climbed into the boat and he followed, casting off and firing the outboard. “You’ll not catch anything today,” he said after taking the fee and counting it. “Too bloody bright and hot. You’d be better off swimming.” That’s exactly what you don’t want your teenage son to hear on the one day he has to fish. It’s precisely how NOT to handle a client and the sort of thing that can be left until it becomes apparent to the client as well that the day’s all wrong.

But he was right, as it happens.




That’s the first time in the last two hours you cast your fly anywhere near the bank.


Make that twice.


I don’t believe it. That’s three good casts this morning.

JUST A LITTLE(to the left, right, back, forwards)

You are fishing in completely the wrong spot and don’t have a clue what you’re doing.


That was a perfectly respectable and beautiful fish you just lost through sheer incompetence.


I only have a basic First Aid kit and am not qualified to stitch your groin back together if you don’t get both legs in at roughly the same time.


An electric chairlift is not part of my equipment.


They certainly caught you. I’ll pretend to take one and use it later while we use one of mine that actually looks like something fish eat instead of something the dog just threw up.


How many beers did you have at lunch? That’s the third time you’ve told me about the divorce from trophy wife three and the two midgets in the San Diego nightclub.


You are supposed to be deceiving the fish, not beating them into submission.


You nearly took my nose off with that cast but it landed closer to the road than any fish.


But you might as well be using a broomstick.


You’ve just cast my last decent hopper pattern into a tree so I am going to have to row upstream against a raging current in a sleet storm, anchor the boat, and climb through nettles and up a nasty thorn bush to get up the tree and get the fly back so you can lose it again in half an hour’s time.


I just want to get out of this boat and go into the woods for five minutes and weep quietly, then I’ll be okay.




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