Guides as Teachers

Guides as Teachers

The real pros do more than take us fishing.

  • By: Jim Dean
  • Photography by: Barry Beck
  • and Cathy Beck
Guides Teaching

It’s a waste of money to hire a guide to take you fishing. Say what? I’ll put it another way. If your reason for hiring a guide is simply to catch a lot of fish, you’ll be happy with the result most of the time. But if that’s your only goal, you’re squandering a superb opportunity to significantly improve your fly-fishing skills.

After all, here you are on prime water with an expert angler who has years of concentrated experience. He or she knows this particular water intimately, and also many tactics and other little wrinkles that work well not only here, but nearly everywhere you’re likely to fish. That guide is also almost certainly a much better caster than you are.

Yet, sadly, all that we typically ask of guides is that they row the boat, carry a good lunch (and ice for drinks), keep track of strike indicators and nymphs as we flop them from one side of the boat to the other, and maintain good cheer in the face of frequent, gargantuan tangles. Maybe this is an exaggeration (let’s hope), but it’s not much of a stretch. For every party of competent anglers a guide takes out, there are many more whose skills are limited (although their expectations aren’t). It takes a patient, thick-skinned soul to be a professional fishing guide.

Experienced fly fishermen who travel and fish new waters have long recognized the value of initially hiring an experienced guide to give them the inside dope on regional tactics and the best places to fish. That’s smart because a day’s guide fee, despite being a significant expense, is relatively cheap insurance considering the total cost of the trip.

Even so, relatively few anglers, experienced or novice, really get the most from our guides, learning everything they can teach in a long day of intense instruction. Some of us may be too proud—or embarrassed—to seek such help, or we may believe that a guide will consider it a tedious chore. More likely, it’s simply that we seldom think of guides as teachers. Yet teaching is what most guides love almost as much as getting paid. If they didn’t enjoy sharing their obsession, they’d be fishing alongside us on the river instead of smearing on a pint of sunblock and rowing a drift boat every day throughout the season with sometimes-grumpy clients who often have marginal skills.

The truth is, there’s not a fisherman alive who can’t benefit by tapping into the vast body of knowledge accumulated by guides, and the best and most enjoyable place to learn is on the water, coached by an expert. By the end of the day, we’ll be better fishermen (and we’ll almost surely have caught fish, too). The benefits can be even more striking for a struggling beginner. Most guides are more than happy to start from scratch with a willing and eager novice, to get them started on the right path.

In 2004 I took my son, Scott, with me on my annual trip to Idaho and Montana. He and I had fished together for years on our little stair-cased southern Appalachian streams back home in North Carolina, but he’d had only a brief taste of fishing bigger rivers. We were both excited that we were going to fish together on some of the fabled waters of the American West that he’d heard so much about from me.

Our destination was Last Chance, Idaho, and the Henry’s Fork River. Not only is this the location of the famed Railroad Ranch stretch of the river (now Harriman State Park), it’s also conveniently located for day-trips to Montana’s Madison and other prime waters. Scott was already a good fly caster, and I was pretty sure that I’d be able to quickly show him anything else he’d need to know. Father and son together in paradise; what could be better than that?

Two days later our expectations were unraveling. I could see that he was becoming frustrated, and he finally quit fishing and sat dejectedly on the bank watching several nice trout rising nearby.

“You know, Dad,” he said, “learning to catch these wild rainbows on the Henry’s Fork is like trying to learn to play golf at The Masters.”

That assessment was so accurate, pitiful and funny that we both laughed. Clearly, the original plan wasn’t working, most likely because parents, despite their best intentions, are notoriously poor teachers. Even if we have the skills, we tend to lack credibility and patience. But if I was not the best instructor for this situation, I knew who would be. That night while we were eating supper in the crowded TroutHunter dining room, I spotted my old friend, Lynn Sessions, who is regarded as one of the best guides around.

“If you have an opening this week, Scott and I would like to sign up for it,” I told him. “This is a whole new ball game for him, and his father is not being much help. Maybe it’s a family thing. Anyway, I’d like for you to show him how to fish this water, especially for rising fish. He wants to learn the various reach casts and how best to mend line and shake it out on downstream floats. You could also help him identify the bugs and choose the right flies, everything you think he needs to know. We don’t want to fish strike indicators and nymphs this trip—he’s done that. I’m thinking we could stop at good wading spots and let you two get out and fish. The only thing we’d need the drift boat for is transportation, and to carry the beer. What do you think?”

“I like it,” Lynn said. “It’s the kind of day I enjoy most. I also think you’re right about the limitations of Dad-as-teacher, too,” he added, laughing. “It’s a pretty common problem.”

A couple of days later, Lynn met us after breakfast and we headed to Ashton to float the lower Henry’s Fork between Ora and Vernon bridges. By the end of that day, Scott was confidently selecting the right flies and tying them on with a new knot Lynn showed him. He was also making wonderful reach casts, and getting long, drag-free floats. Best of all, he was catching just about every big trout he and Lynn stalked, and I was also picking up useful tips just watching them. It may have been the best money I’ve ever spent. For sure, it was one of the most pleasurable days Scott and I have ever shared on the water, and Lynn clearly enjoyed it, too.

On the last day of our trip, Scott and I fished a big pool midway through the Ranch. There were 16 other fishermen within sight, but guess who outfished the whole bunch, catching several big rainbows, including a measured 21-incher? It wasn’t me.

This past June, we essentially repeated that process when Scott’s fiancée, Nikki Upah, traveled with us to Last Chance. Nikki’s skills were far more rudimentary—she was just learning to cast—but she was eager to learn, and Scott and I knew that a day floating the river with a good teacher would get her started right. No doubt she’d also better understand why her soon-to-be husband and his dad were such fly-fishing fanatics. Lynn had retired, but Brad Miller, just one of TroutHunter’s able guides, was available, and he was another old friend with years of experience.

Before we even got into the boat, Brad spent an hour working with Nikki on her casting, then he took us to a nearby riffle where he knew she would have relatively easy shots at some rising trout. By mid-afternoon, Brad’s instruction was paying off and Nikki was fishing with growing confidence. She didn’t land a truly big trout, but she hooked a real hummer late that afternoon that surged into mid-river and snapped her 5X tippet in a long, soaring leap. If catching a big rainbow doesn’t create an obsession, losing one sure as hell does, and Nikki is already upgrading her gear for a return trip.

As I watched Brad work patiently with Nikki, I thought of the many guides I have fished with over the years who have sharpened the skills and enriched the lives of budding anglers. Back in the 1980s, Bill McAfee had shown my neophyte daughter, Susan, the ropes on a similar trip, and they both enjoyed it so much that they stayed in touch for years, until Bill tragically lost his life in an airplane crash. Bill was one of Will Godfrey’s guides in Last Chance, and Will was my first guide and mentor on the Henry’s Fork way back in 1974, when his staff included Jerry Siem (now of Sage) and Glenn Brackett (who became Winston’s highly regarded cane specialist). I would have been hard pressed to find a more remarkable and talented bunch of willing instructors, and that tradition is still carried on in Last Chance by lots of terrific guides, including Marty Reed, Travis Smith, Brad Miller and others out of the TroutHunter. Just across Route 20, Mike Lawson has an equally fine staff working out of Henry’s Fork Anglers, and there are other good outfits there, too.

As rich as Last Chance is in these resources, the model of the teacher-guide is common throughout the West, and also in the East—indeed, virtually everywhere good fresh- or saltwater fly-fishing exists. On Andros Island in 2006, Prescott Smith (son of Crazy Charlie Smith, arguably the most famous Bahamas bonefish guide in history) spent several days showing my friend, John Killian, and me his revolutionary technique for casting in strong winds. Prescott uses an oval cast, never completely unloading an 8-weight rod, to power the entire line into 30 mph headwinds—and he can do this while standing on the deck of a flats boat running swiftly into that headwind. It’s an amazing feat, and he loves to show his clients how to do it.

As fly fishermen, we learn from many sources—books, casting clinics, friends, and certainly by fishing and figuring things out for ourselves. Yet hiring a guide principally as a teacher may be the best way to learn a lot in a hurry. Even one day spent in such company can reap unimagined rewards for beginners and experienced anglers, and an occasional refresher trip adds to that knowledge and tunes up rusty skills.

Nowadays, however, you may not get that full range of extended benefits from a guided trip unless you ask for them. That’s partly because the current, and nearly ubiquitous, use of strike indicators to fish nymphs on guided trout trips has changed the way many guides operate. This tactic has made it much easier for novice or occasional fishermen to catch trout. Because of this many guides understandably now use strike indicators as the default technique, with the result that they may spend less time introducing clients to other tactics. Indeed, many guides have a love-hate relationship with strike indicators—the technique satisfies more anglers, but it arguably dilutes the sport.

“I’m literally dreaming of little dancing colored balls and bits of fluff by the end of the season,” TroutHunter guide Travis Rydberg recently confessed. “I use indicators and they’re great because catching fish is the main service we offer, but I really get excited when someone wants me to show them more sophisticated tactics. The benefits work both ways, too. It’s not unusual for guides to pick up useful tips from even their most inexperienced clients. Constant improvement is the real game.”

If you’ve decided it’s time to kick your fishing game to a higher level by hiring a skilled teacher-guide, or if you have a novice friend or family member who is just getting started, there are some ways to get the most for your money. The initial fee for a guided day on the water will seem high—$300 to $500 or more, depending on the location—and that doesn’t include the typical 15- to 20-percent tip. But keep in mind that two fishermen can share that cost and the profitable instruction, and some guides agree to take a third angler and further reduce your share (this works especially well if you plan to get out of the boat to wade, which may be the best way to learn and practice tactics).

You’ll typically find more guide services, and arguably the most experienced guides, at popular destinations where fishing is a big-time attraction. It doesn’t hurt that the fishing is likely to be excellent there, too. Timing can also be important. Late spring or early summer is ideal because that’s usually when hatches are most predictable and when the fishing is at its peak on most waters.

You should have no trouble finding a guide to fit your needs. You may already be familiar with guides where you plan to fish, and know which ones have top-notch reputations. If not, explain what you’re looking for to the owner of the guide service and meet with the guide he recommends. It doesn’t hurt to talk to several candidates before you make your choice. Patience and a pleasant disposition—the qualities you’d look for in a good friend—may be just as important as experience, because the bond you establish is likely to be lasting.

It’s a good idea to book your guide a few months in advance to ensure getting the date you want, but by all means discuss your goals with the guide before you do so. If applicable, explain that catching fish is secondary to the instruction you’re seeking. Point out any specific skills you’d like to learn or improve. Mention that you’d prefer not to fish strike indicators more than necessary (though a quick introduction would be useful if this tactic isn’t in your arsenal). You can tell from the guide’s response whether he or she is the one for you.

Don’t be at all surprised to see your proposal greeted with a big smile. You’ve just made that guide’s day, and that favor is surely to be returned.

Jim Dean is the former editor of North Carolina Wildlife Magazine, and writes often about fly-fishing.