No Guide Left Behind

No Guide Left Behind

Surviving a week at fishing-guide boot camp

  • By: Jim Reilly
The final day of guide school began like the rest: clear skies, a mild hangover and an early morning on the Yellowstone River. Our boat that morning was the USS Yorktown, a gunmetal-gray behemoth manufactured by Lavro that more closely resembled a v-bottom john boat than a drift boat. Jeff, our instructor, had pragmatically hitched up the Yorktown when we left in the morning rather than submit his personal boat to a beating at the hands of neophyte rowers. Aside from its ungainly size, the most distinguishing feature on the Yorktown was the wooden oars that were several feet too short, which made rowing awkward and inefficient at best. It was easily the ugliest drift boat I'd ever seen.

Floating in the Yorktown with me were Nick, a recent college grad from California, Grant, a retired Viet Nam vet, and our instructor, Jeff. In his late 20's, Jeff was the youngest instructor on staff at the Sweetwater Fly Fishing Guide School and the antithesis of the laconic dryfly-Zen-koan-spouting-Western guide of fly-fishing lore.

This is how Jeff talks when guiding: "You see that rock over there that looks like Florida, just past that gnarly bush coming up? Yeah, that one. Right in that dark water is Brown Town. I'm talking brown-TOWN. A huge fish is hanging out there, I know it. Get that hopper right next to the bank. Nice cast. OK, mend. Mend. Now EAT IT! EEEAT IT YOU FISH! THERE! Oh, MAN, he was on your fly. (No, really, man. It was your fly.) You've got to set the hook as soon as you see that head. Nice cast, though. Good drift, too. OK, let's reset. See that little glide coming up? Yeah, perfect. Now EEEEAT IT!"

I'd had a couple days of rowing under my belt by then and felt confident in my abilities, so I volunteered for the first shift at the oars. With Jeff's advice and instruction I could confidently execute most of the moves required: cross-strokes, ferrying, etc., and I had rowed my way through standing waves and into tight side channels without (much) trouble. We put a couple of fish in the boat throughout the early afternoon with streamers and the odd dry fly. ("No bobber fishing in my boat; we are targeting feeding fish today, folks," I told the guys in the boat--a statement I had cribbed from Jeff's shtick.)

Following lunch it was Grant's turn at the oars. Grant, who had recently retired to Montana, was taking the class primarily to learn how to row his new Clackacraft. Grant was a big guy, and by big I mean above and beyond 300 pounds. He also had a couple of bum knees awaiting replacement surgery. I mention all of this because it played a part in what happened next.

We were drifting down the middle of the river as it split and spilled over a broad, shallow gravel bar. To our right was a very fishy-looking side channel lined with rip-rap. It beckoned as we continued down the middle of the river, and its siren song proved irresistible, never mind that to make it Grant would have to row like a madman to get set up. Against my better judgment (and silent shouts of "No!") we went for it, and I quickly familiarized myself with the location of the spare oar and my life jacket, just in case…

Few jobs are as romantically idealized (and universally envied) as that of the fly-fishing guide. To his clients he is the person who, as they say, is living the dream--fishing all day, every day and rejecting a regular paycheck and benefits to follow his passion. Millionaires brashly, though not entirely sincerely, offer to trade their wealth in exchange for the guide's life.

But it doesn't take a fortune to learn the ways of a guide. For less than the cost of a week of guided fishing, the instructors at Sweetwater's guide school taught me the basic skills I needed to be a competent guide. Although the intimate knowledge of a river and the unquantifiable insight that separates good guides from great are things that need to be acquired over time, elementary mastery of guide skills such as handling drift boats and jet boats, and knowledge of first aid and knots, can be learned in just a week.

The curriculum at Sweetwater was simple: We were on the water every day--either in a drift boat or a jet boat (for those students wanting to work in Alaska). If you were not rowing or steering, you were fishing. With you in the boat were your instructor for the day and two classmates, for a total of four persons per craft. (Yes, it is possible for three people to fish out of a drift boat, but be sure to put the worst caster in the back.) Throughout the day we each took a turn rowing while the instructor advised and observed. When rowing you acted as the guide and, for the most part, did everything a guide would do--choose flies, rig leaders, set up casts and net fish.

There were no typical students at guide school. My group had come from across the country to the little farmhouse on the banks of the Yellowstone River, where Sweetwater holds its summer sessions--other classes are held on the Bighorn River. We had one guy from the University of Montana and another from a prep school in New England. There was a commercial fisherman and his physician father, an alpine guide, a guy from California, a medical technician, and a Viet Nam vet. The oldest guy was in his 50's; the youngest was 16. Although everyone had "real" jobs of some sort, all considered guiding as a very real career option.

Ron Meek is the heart of the Sweetwater guide school. A tall, stout figure with an impressive beard, Ron is the headmaster, cook, coach and final arbiter of your fate at guide school. He has guided just about everywhere, including Argentina, Alaska, Russia and Washington. Besides running the guide school Ron manages Sweetwater's taimen camps in Mongolia. In spite of his imposing figure, Ron is nearly unflappable. For instance, he shook off an apology for being awakened at 2:30 am by a couple of rowdy students drinking beer and whisky on the porch by saying, "Aw, we've all been there." Nevertheless, Ron is stone-cold serious about teaching guide skills, and he does not tolerate fools. Like the best teachers, he is not a man you want to disappoint.

Jet boats are the watercraft of choice for Alaskan lodges, where they are needed to navigate shallow, braided rivers, and they are Ron's specialty. Before arriving at Sweetwater, I had thought jet boats to be those insanely fast boats that people steer through slot canyons in New Zealand. I was both thrilled and more than a little nervous about learning how to drive one. However, a jet boat, as used in fly-fishing, is simply a large, flat-bottom john boat with an outboard jet engine. Still exciting, but not quite the same thing.

Cruising up and down the Yellowstone in a jet boat was radically different than languidly floating in a drift boat. High speed is necessary for the boat to get on plane, or "on step," which is when it can ride in very shallow water. The high speed also means things can go from good to bad very quickly, so you have to plan ahead and constantly scan the water for boulders or other obstacles.

Ron walked us through basic jet maintenance and had us practice landing the boat on the riverbanks and islands. We then disembarked to wade fish side channels. Each student took a turn guiding the others--choosing flies, tying on leaders and netting fish--while Ron sat back and observed.

"You got to want it!" Jeff yelled as Grant rowed across the shallow gravel bar and the current bore down on us. We were now broadside to the current, floating over water almost too shallow to row in and drifting across the gravel bar into the bend. Grant attempted to straighten the boat with a stroke on the downriver oar, but he dipped the oar too deeply and it caught on the river bottom. The stuck oar lifted the side of the boat before flying out of the oarlock with a thunderous pop.

We had just lost an oar and the uncontrolled boat was drifting straight into the bend.

From my seat in the rear of the Yorktown, things were starting to look scary. In the front of the boat Nick and Jeff were both standing and preparing to fend off the impending collision with the rip-rap, while Grant haplessly rowed with the remaining oar. For my part, I reached under the rower's bench, grabbed the spare oar, snapped it together and handed it forward to Jeff. I then put on my life jacket, which was a tiny ordeal of untangling straps and snapping together various clips. Now "safe," all I could think about was that my cameras, rods and I were going for a swim.

In the months leading up to guide school I put myself through a rigorous physical-training regime of push-ups and pull-ups; I didn't want to be a nancy boy at the oars. Beyond that, though, I was most concerned about backing the boat down the launch. For insurance reasons however, the instructors at Sweetwater do all the boat launching, so that, at least, was one thing I didn't have to worry about.

On our first day on the water, I volunteered to be the lead-off rower. The oars felt cumbersome as I wrapped my hands around them and dipped the blades into the water and pulled. My strokes were splashy and awkward and I pushed more air than water, but in a minute or so our Clackacraft was in the middle of the Yellowstone River.

The Yellowstone below the town of Livingston, Montana, is an amazing stretch of river that is often bypassed in favor of the Paradise Valley section. Although the scenery might not be as postcard-perfect as the up-river miles, there are plenty of fish here. We caught fish all day, every day for six days. There are no real rapids in this stretch, but there were plenty of hydraulics that seemed impossible to me, and when we encountered them the instructor would take over (at least at the beginning of the week) and row us through.

Things went OK for about a half hour before I screwed the pooch. We had entered a side channel and the river became narrow and very shallow. I misread where the current seam (which corresponds to the deepest water and where you want the boat to be) flowed over a shallow riffle, and we ended up drifting sideways with no way to right the boat. A situation like this can be dangerous: The boat can strike a submerged rock and send a passenger overboard, or an oar can grab and be ripped out of the oarlock (as I would see firsthand). The boat was scraping and banging its way down the channel, when Alex ordered me to jump out and grab the side to stop its movement. After I had finally arrested the boat, Alex told me to walk it out of the channel; we then switched rowers. A combination of chagrin and relief washed over me as I took the front seat and was handed my rod. I gave myself a "C" for my first day on the oars.

By five, we were off the water and back at the farmhouse. Lounging on the front porch with sunburned faces and throbbing callouses on our palms we talked about the day on the river. A thunderstorm had blown through in the afternoon, and Gilbert, a student at UM, said he felt his rod vibrate as the lightning crashed around him. I saw this same storm darken the sky, and asked Alex what a guide should do if caught out on the river in a bad storm. "Take it like a man," he said.

Dinners during our guide-school week were orchestrated by Ron and executed by the students. Hamburgers, lasagna, steak and salmon were the usual fare, and much welcomed after a long day on the water. A beer run might be made into Big Timber for a case of Rainier and cigarettes for the idle hours after dinner. Those guys who hadn't gotten in enough fishing during the day would walk across the field to fish along the banks of the Yellowstone where it flows behind the farm. But most of us just stayed up late into the night drinking beer and telling stories. (The week's best tale, by the way, was set in Bangkok and involved an exotic dancer, a blow-gun and balloons.)

Jeff, with the spare oar in his hand, tried to fend off the boat, but our momentum was too great and we crashed into the rip-rap and spun off. Jeff shouted for Grant to switch places with him and the two awkwardly shuffled around each other. Jeff got into the oarsman's seat and slid the spare oar into the oarlock, but as Grant tried to lift and position himself on the forward seat he slipped and landed on the floor of the boat with tremendous force. His fall completely destabilized the boat and the forward gunwale was but inches above the water as we continued to drift towards the rocks.

The spare oar gave Jeff a measure of control, but the boat was so heavily weighted on the side where Grant had fallen (and was still sitting) that if we hit another rock, we'd take on water and surely flip over.

Grant finally lifted himself onto the seat, which balanced the boat and gave Jeff enough control to row us away from the bank. After that, we had to recover the lost oar that was floating upriver from us. Following several failed attempts, Nick, in the front of the boat, finally snagged it and brought it on board.

The only casualty of this mishap was the Sage RPL that I'd borrowed from my boss; it snapped in half while I reached for the missing oar (for obvious reasons I was not very not pleased about that).

The situation could have been a lot worse, and I attribute the fact that we suffered nothing worse than a broken rod during the ordeal to Jeff's cool demeanor and expert handling of the situation.

It was only later that afternoon, as Jeff and I were fishing our way up the shore of an island, that he confided to me how alarmed he had been.

"Dude, we almost died back there," he said.

But at the time--after we had recovered our oar, caught our breaths and gotten squared away again--Jeff impressed me greatly by insisting that Grant get right back on the oars. I thought this showed a real commitment to teaching the students.

Needless to say, I left my life jacket on the rest of the day.

For more information on the Sweetwater Fly Fishing Guide School, visit sweetwatertravel.com, or call 866-464-8433.