Rig, Row, Repeat

John Gierachi on Flyfishing with a Guide

Photos by Michael Dvorak

I thought guiding was a glamorous profession until I tried it. I’d imagined it as fishing for a living, which sounded too good to be true. But in fact, as a guide you’re not fishing, you’re helping other people fish, some of whom need more guidance than you or anyone else could possibly provide.

 Dan Fraisier (left), guide Gabe Schubert on the oars and the author (right) in Northern Wisconsin.

Dan Fraisier (left), guide Gabe Schubert on the oars and the author (right) in Northern Wisconsin.

My failures don’t make for good stories because they were more pitiful than spectacular. Simply put, I was no good at it and didn’t last long, but in my defense, I was working under a disadvantage. I was young, and although I’d done a fair amount of fly fishing, I’d never actually been guided and had no idea how it was done.

As it turns out, it’s done as many different ways as there are guides, although you might notice some regional similarities. When I first fished in Labrador 30 years ago, I was lucky enough to go out with some old-school Canadian brook trout guides. As this laconic bunch saw it, their job consisted of putting you in a canoe, taking you to the right spot, and netting your fish, but the often insurmountable distance between getting there and landing a brook trout was entirely up to you. I mean, you’re the fisherman, right?

Sometimes you could pry out an opinion by asking, “What do you think here—dry fly or streamer?” But even then, they were likely to shrug, implying it was your choice or either could work. Some sports from the U.S. who’d grown used to the more intrusive American style of guiding felt neglected. They didn’t appreciate that their guide was paying them the compliment of assuming they knew what they were doing.

The Different Types of Guide Personas

I actually preferred a silent Canadian leaning on his longhandled landing net to the in-your-face style of guiding that was sweeping Western trout streams at the time. I don’t qualify as an expert fisherman, but I’ve never felt the need to have a guide select my fly, tie it on for me, tell me where and how to cast it, and then yell “SET!” in my ear when I get a take.

But having failed as a guide myself, I understand that this comes from frustration. You quickly tire of motorboat dry fly drifts, granny knots, and clients daydreaming through solid takes, and you find yourself wanting to scream “SET!” too.

The most adamant about tying your flies on for you are the steelhead and Atlantic salmon guides, and it makes sense. In these depleted times, you can cast for days or weeks before you hook one of these anadromous fish and there’s plenty that can go wrong when you do, so at the very least, you want a solid knot.

The Gentle Knudgers

I fished a salmon river in Labrador with a guide who sort of let me choose my own fly (he winced at my first choice, grimaced at my second, and smiled at my third) but when I went to tie it on, he offered to do it in a tone that didn’t leave room for discussion.

We were fishing skaters that required a riffling hitch—a knot that puts the leader at a right angle to the hook shank, to the left or the right depending on the direction of the current. To true believers, this is the only way to make a skated fly create the serpentine wake on the surface that’s supposed to produce a take. The salmon I hooked was less than a mile from the ocean, still covered with sea lice and repeatedly jumped as high as my head, but the knot held.

I was on a river in New Brunswick once with a Mi’kmaq guide named Helen who I thought might let me tie on my own fly. She suggested a pattern—an Ally’s shrimp—and watched as I tied it to my leader with a Turle knot. She then took it, examined the knot carefully from every angle, then bit it off and retied it with a Turle knot of her own, that I thought looked exactly like mine. I caught two salmon that day and, again, the knot held.

I’ve only seen this go wrong once. My friend Vince and I were fishing a steelhead river in the Pacific Northwest with a guide who, as usual, insisted on tying our flies on for us. But then Vince hooked an enormous steelhead that jumped once in a big silver arc and ran back toward the ocean, peeling off half his backing before the line went slack. When he reeled in, the fly was gone and there was the pigtail at the tip of the leader that meant the knot had pulled loose.

I learned all that later. What I saw when I came around the bend was our guide sitting on a log with his shoulders slumped and his face in his hands as if he was contemplating suicide, while Vince patted him on the back and said, “It’s okay, man. It could have happened to anyone.”

The Drill Sergeant

Years ago, I went out with a guy on a river in Colorado who’d adopted a drill sergeant persona. It was a Hollywood version of a drill sergeant, since he’d never actually served in the military.

He barked orders and criticized everything from my fly choices to my casting, my rod, my leader, and the knots I tied. “You call that an improved clinch?” he’d shout.

But he knew his stuff. All day he led us unerringly from one pod of rising trout to the next like a pointer sniffing out coveys of quail; he could decode masking hatches at a glance and had an
eye for big, solitary bank sippers that I’d have walked right past. He was an old friend of the guy I was fishing with and had offered to take us out on his day off. He wouldn’t hear of being paid and I was glad of that so I didn’t have to wonder if a tip commensurate with his skill would be misinterpreted as encouragement for being a jerk.

I was a little apprehensive years later in Wisconsin when I went out with a smallmouth bass guide who was nicknamed “Sarge,” but it was only because his last name was Sergeant and he was as mellow and helpful as they come.

The Guide Game

Guides who work at remote lodges in places like Labrador, Alaska, or the Northwest Territories aren’t better or tougher than those who go home to sleep in their own beds every night, but there’s a difference in their level of commitment.

The jobs of a fly fishing guide.

Signing on for a season at a wilderness lodge is like joining the French Foreign Legion. You’ll be spending your time far from home, out in the weather by day and sleeping rough at night. (Usually the hooches where the guides stay aren’t as posh as the guest cabins, to put it mildly.) The job description says “fishing guide,” but they’ll also be expected to do whatever else needs doing: cutting firewood, cleaning out the boats, fixing outboard motors, repairing docks, patching leaky roofs, and so on. In Alaska, they’ll probably also end up carrying a firearm in case of bears, but they don’t get extra combat pay.

The isolated society of a fishing lodge has aspects of both a family and a job, complete with a pecking order and all the comforts and heartbreaks that come with both, and although
the whole enterprise is a service economy that depends on the clients, the fishermen themselves just come and go like the weather, only on a more predictable schedule.

Most of the guides at wilderness camps are young and energetic. They run boats, drop and pull anchors, tie on flies, net fish, untangle leaders, and trouble shoot their clients in countless other ways. At the end of a day they’ll often do a few chores and then sit up late around an open fire telling stories about boat wrecks, floatplane crashes, and bear attacks until the fishermen get sleepy and go to bed. Then they’ll stay up even later talking about the idiot clients they’ve guided. Occasionally some alcohol is consumed.

In the morning when we tourists blunder over to the lodge for coffee at what would be the crack of dawn if the midnight sun would ever set, they’re already up and bustling around,
fresh as daisies.

Sometimes the head guide at one of these places will be an old timer in his forties or even fifties but occasionally there’ll be an older, more seasoned rank-and-file guide in camp. I met
a guy like that on the Aniak River in Alaska recently. His name was Ron and he was an ex-Marine, although, like so many of the breed I’ve known, there was no “ex” about it. If any guide could have pulled off the drill sergeant routine it was him, but he was just the opposite—probably because he had nothing to prove—and he had those big Alaskan rainbows wired. He was also the only one in camp who wore his big-bore sidearm without a touch of swagger, carrying it as casually as the rest of his gear.

There are guides who make their job look easy

that their clients don’t even notice they’re being guided.

I’m told that when these guys finally come home after a season at a fish camp, there’s a period of decompression to go through while they reacquaint themselves with things like traffic, bright lights, noise, and television. I’ve seen guides fresh from the bush duck their heads when they enter a room as if, after months spent under an open sky, the ceiling—any ceiling—is too low.

I think the best quality a guide can have is adaptability, to both the bizarre range of clients they get as well as to the constantly changing weather, water, and fishing conditions that can make such a big difference. Japanese calendars in the 17th century once recognized 72 seasons every year, each lasting only a few days, and those who make their livelihoods on rivers begin to see their world the same way.

Some guides, especially younger ones, run the same program on everyone, but the best develop the ability to size up their fishermen at a glance and tailor the day to who they are and the sometimes vast difference between what they want and what they’re capable of. These are the guys who end up with a waiting list of repeat customers and seldom fish with people they don’t already know. And here’s a tip: Don’t play poker with someone who can read people that easily. If you have a tell (and most of us do) they’ll have it down in three hands and they’ll take you to the cleaners.

I’ve fished with a lot of guides in the 40 years since I gave up taking clients myself. A precious handful of them were absolute masters; so subtly and effortlessly good that it was only in hindsight that it dawned on me just how good they were, while at the time it just seemed like the day was going especially smoothly and I was really on my game. There are guides who make their job look easy, but only a few are so good their clients don’t even notice they’re being guided.

Among the others, most were anywhere from competent but unmemorable to exceptional and we usually caught fish if catching fish was in the cards. (No guide, however talented, can make the fish bite if they aren’t biting.) Now and then, a guide would be perfectly good but have an annoying quirk. The most common were those who talked too much and said too little, filling the stillness of a river with pointless noise like a radio left playing in an empty room.


This article originally appeared in the 2020 edition of Stonefly Magazine.