Story and photos by Nick Price
I am a fly-fishing guide and a photographer with a long-term project of taking portraits of guides anywhere I find myself with a camera and a fly rod. So far, that has ranged from my home turf in Sun Valley, Idaho, to Argentina, Cuba, New Zealand, Honduras, Chile, Mexico, Montana and beyond.
The guides shown here are just some of the 50 or more whom I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent time with — some in salt, some in fresh. Many are longtime friends; others welcomed me into their homes in faraway places having never met me.
Guides bring people to the fish, but they are far more than just taxi drivers — most of the time. They also tie knots, spot fish, read the water, suggest flies, offer advice on everything from A to Z, and untangle the various messes caused by wind and more. The good ones are versatile and can adapt quickly. Wading across a river with the client’s hand on my forearm for balance, I might splice together two pieces of monofilament while also preventing my angler from slipping and freewheeling downstream.
Guides often tie flies in their respective off-seasons. They tie these feathery works of art in poor light, on a small table with a rum drink, a joint or a beer, and a little music or a rugby game in the background. They hunch over in their chairs, often unknowingly, as though focused on some obscure minutiae in a dark tunnel miles away. They make sure there are precisely three tails on a trico and that the crab pattern is the proper color to match the sand. Details matter.
From Kiwis on New Zealand’s South Island to flats guides in the salt, guides rely on their eyes to spot a shadow, smudge or semblance of a black fin, all indicators of fish. Then they have to convince their client that not only is it a fish, but also where to throw the fly and how far — 11 o’clock, 40 feet. This is where the angler-guide bond is made for the day or week. Each needs to trust the other.
Guides from Around the World
As I write this, I’ve just finished my 50th consecutive day of guiding. It’s early August, and it’s hot. I live in south- central Idaho and work on Silver Creek, the Big Lost River, Big Wood River, Salmon River and others. The high, early-season water levels have receded to more tepid, low-water-year flows. Last week’s thunderstorm cycle wet the ground and, at higher elevations, brought grasses, lupine and penstemon back to life. If all goes as planned, I’ll string together just over 100 consecutive days of guiding this summer. It’s a normal season for me, but at 47, I feel the gut-punch of fatigue at the end of the day more than I did 10 years ago.
I had a client collapse with heat stroke this week, and for the first time while working, I dialed 911 for medical help. He ended up being OK. At the start of another day recently, another person asked what I refer to as The Question: “Does the river just loop around so we finish where we start?”
Guides often become de facto psychologists to clients. Men and women alike tend to open up on the water, spilling confidential thoughts and concerns to the anonymous guide who has gained enough respect so that they risk vulnerability, despite the messy truck, cracked hands and sun-bleached clothing.
I refer to fly-fishing as present tense syndrome. While engaged, it’s near impossible to get lost in thought about anything other than what’s at hand, which is why many of my most memorable moments fishing with guides don’t involve catching fish — although we do plenty of that, too. Good guides give it their all, not for the sake of a tip, but for the simple hope that their respective anglers will enjoy standing in the water, waving a rod back and forth and throwing a feathery creation toward a fish — and in so doing, lose themselves in the moment.
A few years back, I was in Livingston, Montana, on assignment for Anglers Journal to photograph guides having a drink or two at The Murray Bar after a day behind the oars. Dan Lahren, a Livingston fly-fishing legend, helped facilitate my shoot by assembling guides at the bar. Dan and I ended up spending a day floating the Yellowstone together. But one of the first things he did when we met up was check the floorboards of my Chevy Suburban to gauge just how much dirt was in my truck. I’m not sure if I passed the test, but there was a season’s worth of dirt and grime in every corner of my rig, and Dan seemed to give a subtle nod of approval after his inspection.
I’ve spent time on the water with each guide shown here. Each one is different, and each is the real deal.