Sunday, April 17, 2011

On Guides, Guiding, and Being Guided

Fly fishing is a business. Think about that for a moment. There's almost a certain ridiculousness to the statement, but it's true nonetheless. Fly fishing is indeed a business. A sizable group of people, a whole industry in fact, is devoted to the pursuit of fish with the long rod. There are the manufacturers of the gear we use, the retailers who purvey that gear, rod designers, fly tyers, tippet dispensers, and a whole host of other folks responsible for bringing the sport of fly fishing to an appreciative market. Somewhere in that list we are obliged to include guides, those folks whose job it is to service - while on the water - the piscatorial needs of novice and veteran bug chuckers alike.

I've never been guided nor have I ever been a guide, but I think I can speak on guides with some authority. I worked in a fly shop for a number of years, and in that time I facilitated hundreds of pairings between guides and their sports. I knew which clients were best suited for each of the professionals. For example, Dan worked only with elderly clients. He had a fused spine and limited mobility, and would always take his sports to spots where the water was soft and the wading surefooted and simple. Randy was better suited to the young and nimble. He was a small stream guy who knew his clients could catch 40 or 50 brookies in a day of rock hopping along Furnace Brook. Greg was a north country hillbilly, and the stereotypical mountain man. He was grizzled, something of a curmudgeon, and he knew by name every fish in the rivers he haunted. Greg didn't have the patience to teach, but if the sport already knew the rudiments of casting and reading water then Greg was the man with whom he wanted to be on the water. There were other personalities too, but these three received the lion's share of the business.

Could I have done their job? Probably not. First of all, I am much too secretive about the places in which I fish. I share my knowledge - bits of information gleaned over 30 odd years of aimless wandering - with only a select group of friends and acquaintances. In my lean and hungry times I've been tempted to guide on the rivers I love, but when it came right down to it I've never been able to introduce a perfect stranger to my water, regardless of the promised sum. A good guide must be willing to give of himself in a way I never could. As for guiding on some other angler's water ... well ... that just seems the height of hypocrisy. The guides with whom I worked - the best of them anyway - never took clients to water that was shown to them in confidence.

Second, I wouldn't want to bet my fortunes on something so fickle as a fish's appreciation of an angler's presentation. Mother nature makes no guarantees, and too often I think, clients have unreasonable expectations of their guides. The guide might be a fine teacher, one who demonstrates the tying of complicated knots, etymology, and local lore. He might row for hours on end, and then force himself to smile through the client's derision when a day on the water proves fruitless. I'm just too short-tempered to deal with that kind of nonsense. I hate to be cliche, but there's a reason we call it fishing.

Of course, these are all things done by competent guides, and few guides are genuinely good at their jobs. I suppose as much is true of every vocation or profession. Only a few folks ever take the time to master their craft, most are mediocre and neither excel nor fail, and some are downright dreadful; it's the Bell Curve of the working world. Truly bad guides show up late to the river, and stink of Genesee Cream Ale when they arrive. Bad guides fish - uninvited - alongside their sports. Bad guides pretend familiarity with fish species they've only ever experienced once or twice. Bad guides never clean the empty Slim Jim wrappers out of the boat, or bits of beef jerky from their Copenhagen stained teeth. Bad guides do not model courtesy; they encroach on other anglers, and back-troll through the runs that spey guys are working in a methodical cast-step rhythm. Sadly, bad guides abound.

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