Photos by Nick Price
These days, the fishing guides in Livingston, Montana, are extremely concerned about the care and upkeep of the lights on their drift-boat trailers. Anyone who has owned a boat and trailer is familiar with the ongoing battle: Electrical wiring systems installed on a piece of metal that you frequently dunk in the water are prone to failure. As guides, we abuse the hell out of these things, backing them down steep, rocky riverbanks and rattling them in high-speed runs down washboard roads. Going an entire season without a trailer-light issue is a minor miracle. And it seems as if at any given time there’s someone in the group who’s in the parking lot in the evening trying to figure out why his left taillight is flickering.
Having a trailer light out in Livingston in the middle of guide season is a major liability, so we look out for one another. One evening last year, I was returning from a long day trip to the Stillwater River, a two-hour drive, and it was nearing dark by the time I pulled off the highway. As I made my way through town, I got three text messages before I’d parked:
Trailer light out.
Got a light out, dude!
The reason for the concern goes beyond guiding duties. Having flawlessly working trailer lights is also directly tied to our regular destination at day’s end, when a big neon martini glass flickers on and draws the parched and sunburned like moths. The Murray, the Blurry, the Slurry and, most often, simply the Bar.
On any given summer evening, every parking spot is stuffed with a truck towing a drift boat, and every stool is occupied by a slightly shell-shocked guy with a raccoon mask tan line and grimy baseball cap. Every fishing town worth its salt has its fishing bar, and this one is ours. The amount of time many of us spend here over the course of a summer is astounding. To walk through the doors is to enter a wormhole into a different, boozy dimension. All your friends are there. Someone presses a giant frosty vodka drink into your hand, and the bullshit commences. We sometimes try not to talk about fishing, but usually the moratorium fails after a few minutes, and we’re back at it. Someone has a story about something crazy a client did, or a particularly large fish that was hooked and lost (always hooked and lost), or a certain spot in a certain side channel that’s getting too low to squeak through.
On a long, free-flowing river like the Yellowstone, most of the time the success of your trip depends not so much on what fly or tactic you use, but on the stretch you pick to float. In the bar, everyone gets the lowdown from everyone else. Information and misinformation are volleyed about, and selectively picking through these two categories is how you formulate your plan for tomorrow. We track the span between happy hour and closing time in the number of squeezed-out lime wedges that pile up in the bottom of pint glasses. The bartenders tend not to clean your glass between drinks, so every piece of citrus is a tally denoting a fresh pour. Arcane bar rituals — everyone has theirs. I personally know that at seven limes it’s time to switch to beer. And then we’re all out back in the parking lot, and people are smoking one more cigarette, and someone looks at his watch and says, “Fuck. I’ve got to be up in four hours.” There are groans. Everyone has to be up in four hours.
We call it pulling a shift. As in, “How are you feeling this morning, pal?” followed by, “Ugh, not good. I went into the Blurry for one last night and ended up pulling a shift.”
During the past couple of years, our acute attention to the state of our trailer lights has developed from our general understanding that local law enforcement is on to us. When we say that keeping our lights working is a major pain in the ass, what we really mean is that getting a DUI is a pain in the ass, and driving around with faulty lights is a fairly reliable way to get one around these parts. The local cops know exactly what we’re up to. At least one of them used to be a fishing guide. They know that by 8 o’clock every damn one of us has drunk more than the legal limit, and one blacked-out taillight is the only bit of probable cause they need. It’s all fun and games at the Murray Bar, but there is a dark side, and this is it.
The number of fishing guides with DUIs, or dramatic stories of near misses, is staggeringly high and encompasses nearly everyone I work with. I’d say we do a fairly decent job of policing our own, but occasionally someone over-imbibes and pulls a runner before we can get his keys. None of us really wants to drink and drive, of course, so from June through September, on any given night in Livingston, somewhere there will be a fishing guide passed out in the back of his truck. Other guides, myself included, aware of certain Murray Bar-based inevitabilities, choose to simplify things and live within walking distance.
Legendary Livingston fishing guide “Dangerous” Dan Lahren has a saying: “Hang out with me, son, and I’ll teach you how to drink like a fish, and fish like a man.” After 12 years of hearing him say it, I’m still not sure what it means to fish like a man, but the drinking like a fish part is readily apparent. The fact of the matter is, during the course of a summer, I’ll guide hungover more days than not. Probably the ratio isn’t even that close. And among my crew of guide friends, I’m only a moderate drinker. Pretty much any fishing guide you ask in Livingston will tell you they guide better with a medium-sized hangover. I’ve given this a fair amount of thought, and I have to agree that it is true.
Hungover, I’m just a tinge goofier than normal. I’ll lead with the questionable jokes. My filter is a little looser — I’m a little looser in general. I don’t obsess about where to go and what to use, and I don’t worry too much about catching fish. Contrary to how it may seem, usually this more casual approach, occasioned by yet another Murray shift, actually leads to greater rates of fish catching. More overall fun.
In Livingston, the new guys on the scene tend to leave the bar early. I was that way when I started. They go home and clean their boat or, God forbid, tie flies and watch fishing videos. Generally they show up bright-eyed and chipper, in clean clothes, only to get fished circles around by the veteran who stumbled from the Blurry at 1 a.m., passed out for a few hours, then got some coffee and pounded a tallboy in the Albertson’s pharmacy parking lot to take the edge off before picking up clients.
A general word of advice to fishing clients out there: If your guide shows up in the morning freshly shaven and unwrinkled, and starts showing you flies he tied the night before, be wary. Chances are the good guides were at their Murray bar, whatever it may be called, letting off steam and talking with the other guides about what worked and what didn’t, formulating a loose plan for the next day and gaining confidence in their ability to pull it off regardless.
Most guides I know don’t drink on the river when they’re working — well, maybe a beer at lunch, but that’s it. We cling to this self-imposed restriction as if it’s some evidence that we have a handle on things. The clients will often offer, and when they do, we turn them down, adopting a noble tone, looking out toward the mountains as if acknowledging the majesty of our surroundings. “Thanks, but no thanks,” we say. “I don’t drink on the river.” Of course, I might not drink on the river, but you damn sure better believe that the best part of my day is hitting the boat ramp, saying the magic words (“Reel ’em up, boys”), dropping anchor, shipping the oars, digging through the cooler for the sixteener of Kokanee that’s been under ice all day and downing the whole thing on the walk up to the truck.
It’s no secret that fishing and drinking seem to go hand in hand. In every town where people fish, from Ketchikan to Key West, you can find the same cheesy bumper sticker: “Insert town name here, a quaint drinking town with a fishing problem!”
At end of the day, fishing guides are making a living, such as it is, doing something fun. And if anything excuses or mitigates our propensity to drink, it is the impulse from which our consumption stems. I think plenty of other professions tend to breed hard drinkers, as well. I’ve guided countless individuals who work in finance in New York, and those guys take boozing to the next level. However, as far as I can tell, the thing that differentiates a fishing guide’s drinking from a financier’s drinking is that, for a fishing guide, most of the time the drinking is primarily celebration, a continuation of an overall enjoyable day. With the Wall Street types, it’s a way to release or cope with gut-wrenching stress.
The last thing I want to do is glorify alcoholism. In fact, a good portion of my impetus for writing this is to do the opposite. People in my community occasionally get caught up. People I’m close with have had, and continue to have, serious problems with the overconsumption of alcohol. For the past several years I’ve helped instruct a guide school on the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers. We teach men and women, young and old, how to row drift boats and drive jetboats, how to read water and handle client expectations. It’s a great program, and we get a lot of excited people from all over the world. We hook them up with jobs in the guiding and fishing industry.
At the end of every week, we have a general talk about the pitfalls of guiding, common mistakes. One of the major points we stress, especially with younger guys, is how easy it is to get sucked into the party. “Drinking is a real problem in the guide business,” we say. “You have to be careful.” We generally tell them this while sitting on a back porch overlooking the river at the end of the evening, every one of us holding a beer.
The reality is that, as a fishing guide, you are constantly surrounded by people who are on vacation. They have a great day with you on the water, and of course they want to buy you a celebratory cocktail after a hard day’s fishing. Wriggling out of this invitation can be a tricky thing, even if you want to. Your clients — no matter if you just met them that morning, and despite the fact that they’re Republicans from Texas — have become your best friends. You’ve talked about a wide range of topics, experienced all the normal highs and heartbreaks of a day of sporting adventure. A good guide, consciously or unconsciously, fosters the illusion that he’s just one of the sports, going fishing, having a great time. With this in mind, a simple drop-off at the hotel at the end of the day somehow seems mercenary. It’s a sudden intrusion of reality, a reminder that this whole time one of us has been providing a paid service, is in fact not your friend and definitely doesn’t share your political leanings. So we go to the Murray for a drink, the way friends do, because it smooths the transition.
At first the clients and guides all drink together, swapping stories about the day, and then slowly the groups shift and recoalesce. Guides together, clients together. Then the clients leave for dinner, and it’s just the guides. And herein lies the problem: Eventually, after their trip, all the clients go home, back to their lives in places that aren’t quaint little drinking towns. We, however, remain. Booze-soaked Peter Pans — the perennial inhabitants of an endless vacation in Neverland.
At some point, of course, the bar closes. The bar always closes. But until it does, we drink as if it won’t. In Livingston, Montana, if only in our dreams and the stories we tell about ourselves, we fish like men, and we laugh about it like kids. We drive the river road into the sunset with the windows down, a cold roadie wedged between our legs, untroubled, unswerving, our trailer lights glowing perfect maraschino red.