So You Want to Be a Fishing Guide?

Question: I think I’m a pretty good fisherman, and I’d like to try guiding somewhere out West. How does one go about getting a job with a lodge or a fly shop?

Eric D., South Bend, IN

Answer: When I decided that I wanted to spend my summers a fishing guide—I was in graduate school at the time—I didn’t really know how to go about becoming one, so I used a shotgun approach. I applied to literally every lodge and outfitter I could find in Alaska and the Rocky Mountain West. In my cover letter, I explained that, although I had no guiding experience, I would be willing to do grunt work just to get my foot in the door.

Hardly any of the people to whom I’d applied even bothered to write back, which was kind of disheartening. But one day, I opened a letter from Alaska and was shocked to find a job offer. It was the first step in a career that took me to three different lodges in Alaska and one in Montana—places I never would have been able to go otherwise.

Being a fishing guide is the greatest summer job in the world; it sure as heck beats flipping burgers, mowing lawns, or working at the mall. If I had to do it over again, I would have started guiding a lot earlier—when I was in high school or college. The key is to begin laying the foundation at an early age by working hard to become the best fisherman you can be, by learning everything you can about fishing tactics and techniques, and by studying the biology and behavior of the species that you want to fish for.

The one thing that most prospective guides fail to realize is that “guiding” doesn’t mean “fishing.” When you take a paying customer out on the water, you are expected to be an instructor, a cheerleader, and—in some cases—a babysitter. The worst-case scenario requires you to choose the fly, tie all the necessary knots, teach the client how to cast, point to where the fish are, and then stand there while the client proceeds to do everything wrong. In some cases, the client will blame you for his ineptitude, and you’ll just have to smile and nod.

Because these skills don’t necessarily come naturally to everyone, there are a bunch of guiding schools that offer training in the finer points of guiding, from knot tying and drift-boat skills to important insurance issues and on-the-water safety. One of the best things about the more well-known guide schools—such as those run by Sweetwater Travel, Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge, and Fly Fishing Outfitters—is that they help their graduates find jobs. And when outfitters or lodge owners see that you’ve been through a respected program, they’ll have fewer doubts about hiring you.

But you definitely don’t need to go to a guide school to get a job. As long as you possess the requisite skills, know how to present yourself in a good light, and are prepared to work very hard, you have a solid chance of succeeding in the guiding business. I polled several lodge owners and outfitters, and each of them said he turns away a lot of young applicants. Usually, these youngsters are fine anglers, but they simply don’t have other important qualities that make a good guide. Here are the three most important things that an outfitter looks for in a potential employee:

  1. Maturity—Will you be able to handle yourself in tough situations without becoming flustered? Can you deal with rude or inept clients?
  2. Dependability—Will you show up for work everyday, prepare for each trip, and pitch in at the end of the day (boat cleanup, putting gas in the motors, etc.)?
  3. Angling Know-How—Do you understand the quarry? Are you familiar with the latest angling techniques? Do you have a passion that will rub off on clients?

No matter what kind of guide you want to be—a trout guide in Montana, a bass guide in Texas, or a salmon guide in Alaska—if you can prove that you possess these attributes, you should have little trouble landing a job.

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