Artwork by Brett Affrunti
I did my first guide trip in 2003 at age 20 on the Blackfoot River. I was working at a dude ranch outside of Missoula, Montana, a typical Midwestern transplant, as spastic and confused as a 1-year-old golden retriever. I was not a very good fishing guide that summer. Or the summer after that. Or probably even the summer after that.
As I quickly learned, the problem with guiding is that actually catching your people some fish is often secondary to the much more difficult process of interpersonal relations. As someone with introverted tendencies, the sheer amount of talking one is required to do on any given guide day can be much more exhausting than actually rowing the boat.
As far as I can tell, guiding is at least 70 percent client management, i.e. bullshitting. Chatting up the clients in the morning, correcting their poor casting form while leaving egos unbruised, entertaining them when the fish aren’t biting, chatting them up some more on the ride home and continuing the banter at the bar for the obligatory après fish cocktail hour. The fishing guides I know who are truly exceptional seem to actually enjoy this sort of interaction. The talking, the joking, the connections and bonding. It’s not an act, at least most of the time, and they get clients that return year after year, more for the camaraderie than the fishing.
I’ll not pretend that I’m the most social person in the world, but after 15 seasons of it, I have developed a decent line of bullshit. This was not an easy process for me, and I can clearly see that when I finally decide to call it quits, it will be when I no longer have it in me to be serially outgoing and engaging with people I’ve just met.
No one guides forever, in fact, and within the guiding industry, turnover is quite high for all the reasons you might expect. It’s hard work, the money isn’t that great, it’s a service job, and like all service jobs, the burnout factor is a real and present danger. Based upon nothing but anecdotal evidence, I’d say that most young guides getting into the game only last one to three years. If that. Every year there’s an enthusiastic new crop in town, and it’s to the point where I don’t seriously try to learn their names until I’ve seen them around for a few seasons.
In most trout towns, there exists the ever-changing cast of newcomers, as well as the core group doing it year after year. Everyone starts out as a newcomer, of course, but lately I’ve been trying to isolate what exactly makes a person stick around and keep living the guiding life when so many come to their senses after a season or two and go on to get real jobs. With this in mind I thought it might be helpful to identify several easily recognizable types of guides plying the waters of the Rocky Mountain West.
The Trust Funder
A newcomer to southwest Montana might get the impression that fishing guides are getting rich. All one has to do is take a look at any boat ramp on the Madison or Yellowstone on a busy summer day — rows of gleaming new Toyota Tundras towing sleek Adipose or RO skiffs. While some fishing guides might actually be getting rich from fishing, I don’t know any of these people. I do, however, know plenty who were relatively rich to begin with. Getting your guide license is a tried-and-true career move after screwing around for a few years at Montana State or the University of Montana, waiting for your trust fund to mature.
The Client’s Kid
Often this category goes hand in hand with a trust fund, but not always. A client’s kid usually has a fast track into the guide community for a couple of reasons. Most important, these individuals have often grown up being guided on the waters that they endeavor to someday work. In other words, they’ve been getting shown the goods for years, gleaning tricks and tactics along the way. Quite often client kids are damn good anglers and become good guides. At the very least, they tend to get a fair amount of guaranteed days. This is how it works: An established fishing outfitter has been taking Bob and his son Pete fishing for years. Now Pete is 20 years old, and he wants to give guiding a shot. Bob buys him a boat and a truck, and the outfitter reads the writing on the wall. If he wants to keep Bob’s normal two weeks in July on the books, he’d better find some trips for Pete. Thus, Pete is a fishing guide, instantly.
The Corporate Refugee
You like fishing? Dream about it when you’re at your desk? Ditch the suit and tie and go guiding! It seems like these folks are joining the ranks in droves. They seem perennially enthusiastic, even when the fishing is atrocious, and this makes sense, because even a bad day on the water beats a good day staring into the blank face of the corporate abyss.
The Kept Man
I sometimes joke that the best way to ensure guiding success is to marry well. This can be a very good setup. I know a couple of guides whose wives are doctors. Their trucks and boats are much nicer than mine, that’s for sure. They do, however, tend to go home from the bar earlier than I do. There’s a tradeoff here somewhere.
The Ski Bum
These are some of the happiest people I know. I think to be truly content as a fishing guide in the Rocky Mountain West you need to kind of like fishing, but really love skiing. Some of my friends that fall into this category don’t actually go fishing themselves; they just don’t care about it that much. They’re professional and good at getting other people hooked up, but it’s purely a means to an end. Winter is what they live for, and fishing is just a form of seasonal work that allows them to take the ski season off.
The Social Media Superstar
These guys spend a lot of time thinking about apps and search engine optimization. Usually they’re also budding filmmakers and photographers, and tend to travel to exotic locales in the off-season to create short films with edgy soundtracks and precise product placement. Apparently there is money to be made doing this, although I have my suspicions (see also, The Trust Funder).
Every fishing guide likes to think that he or she is God’s gift to the sport, but if we’re honest with each other, there are some people who are just extremely next-level talented. For whatever reason, some guides just have the ability to not only catch fish themselves, but get their clients into fish, no matter what. If you’re fishy, you’re fishy. This is something that goes beyond the realm of experience or even luck. This is the stuff of mysticism, and I think these people are closer to artists than the rest of us. This quality is something all guides wish they had, but few actually do.
This is the guide who mixes margaritas at lunch. He starts the day with questionable jokes and manages to get away with it every time. A party guide’s boat is unmistakable because the clients are laughing constantly. In early afternoon, the rods are stowed, the smoke is clearly not from cigarettes, and music is playing. Usually this guide brings his dog. Knows the girls. Can get you whatever you need. When the fishing is slow, this guy shines.
It’s no secret that almost no fishing guides in Montana hail from Montana these days. There are a few, though, and even at a young age they have an undeniably superior knowledge of the river, having literally grown up on its banks. These guys tend to be quietly confident, good guides almost across the board, but maybe with a bit of a tendency toward early-onset burnout. They can remember fishing with their fathers and grandfathers, having the rivers to themselves. Typical tourist malfeasance in August can set this guy into a tailspin. Often, for the local, guiding is just a facet of an overall lifestyle, the consummate outdoorsman. These are the guys who bag their elk every year and bring jerky for their clients to snack on.
There are more categories: The Southern Frat Boy, The English Major and The Fish Hippy, to name a few. And of course, the categories themselves are fluid, naturally shifting and combining as people’s roles in life change. Also, while I often refer to guides as he/guy, etc., I’m aware that there are a growing number of women entering the profession, and I work with a couple of them regularly. They don’t get their own specific section here because, as far as I’m concerned, they fall into the above types just as well as men.
Of the legions of new guides who show up every year, it’s difficult to say who will stay and who will go. Sometimes The Trust Funder surprises you. Sometimes The Local gets fed up and goes to work on a pipeline in Alaska.
When it comes down to it, the guide who endures isn’t the one who is the most technically proficient, or the most outgoing, or even the one garnering the most Instagram likes for his sweet fish videos, but simply the guy who can’t think of anything else he might realistically like to do. The one who can’t bear the thought of spending a summer anywhere other than behind the oars on the river of his dreams. These people come from all walks of life. You know them when you meet them. They’re some of the strangest people on Earth, and I’m glad to call them my friends.