I’ve had several people ask me about what it takes to become a fly fishing guide. I was only a guide for a couple of years in my grad school days out of a shop in Boulder that was then managed by the great Charlie Craven. But in that short time through my own experiences (and also due to Charlie’s shared knowledge), I gained some great insights into what makes a good guide. Here are a few tips you should consider if you’re thinking of becoming a guide…
1. Get legit. Every state has different regulations on what you need to do to become an official guide. You might need to take a CPR class, water safety course, obtain certain permits for specific watersheds, etc. In some states, you can be a freelance guide and in others, you might need to be affiliated with a fly shop or lodge. Find out what the legal requirements are first and make sure you’ve dotted all the “Is” and crossed all your “Ts” before even trying to get clients.
2. Know your stuff. It sounds obvious, but a lot of people want to get into guiding that aren’t really qualified. No one wants a rookie doctor to perform surgery on them. They want the most experienced surgeon in the hospital. People are paying good money for you to guide them and usually come in with high (i.e. “unrealistic”) expectations. If you shrug your shoulders when a client asks you a basic question like, “what kind of fish is this”, or seem like you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll not only look like a charlatan, but you’ll definitely lose repeat business (as well as a good tip). Know the water, know the bugs, know the flies, know the fish.
3. Know when to be a teacher and when to be a babysitter. Every client is different. Some will be experienced anglers who just want a chauffeur to the stream and have you let them do their own thing without interrupting. And some will need you to hold their hand all day. Never assume every client needs to be “guided”. Instead, ask some leading questions when you pick them up to gauge their level of expertise, then, form your game plan for the rest of the day based on that. There’s nothing worse than an intrusive guide telling an experienced angler what they already know (except for an experienced guide not telling a knave what they do need to know). It works both ways. Determine the skill level of your client before assuming anything.
4. Don’t work for the tip. Like I said above, there are all different types of clients. And it’s not limited to skill level. There’s also the personality factor. I once had a client who showed up on a catch-and-release stream with a cooler. I asked him what the cooler was for since I already had his lunch and beverages in a cooler. He said that it was for all the fish he was going to take home. After explaining to him that this was a C & R stream and he couldn’t keep any fish, he was pretty pissed off with me the rest of the day. He had never fly fished before and wouldn’t listen to any of my instructions after that so you can imagine he didn’t catch anything despite copious numbers of easy fish just a couple of yards from his feet. When we returned to the parking lot, he told me, “Sorry, I’m not going to give you no tip because we didn’t catch no fish”. Another time, I had a woman from NYC that had also never fly fished before. She was pretty enthusiastic and eager to learn–following my every instruction. She took in all the scenery and was clearly just as enamored with the overall experience as she was with the prospect of possibly catching a fish in the mountains of Colorado. She didn’t catch anything. But, after the trip, she treated me to dinner and gave me a $40 tip. At that time, the going rate for a good tip was maybe $50-$60 so it wasn’t that bad. I was fine with that and never gave it a second thought. About a week later, I got a letter from her with a note apologizing for not giving a better tip and a check for another $60. You’re going to get angels, assholes, and everything in between. But the best approach is to treat everyone equally.
5. Be a concierge. You need to be more than just a “fly fishing guide”. You need to be a butler, personal assistant, nurse, secretary, and sometimes, a gopher. If your client hooks themselves, make sure you have a first-aid kit on hand. Make sure you have water, food, and other bio-necessities like sunscreen and tissue to offer them if they need it. In short, either prepare for, or be willing to secure anything the client needs to make them comfortable. Remember, this experience is out of their realm–that’s why they hired YOU. It’s your job to change it from an alien experience to one they’ll talk about at cocktail parties the rest of their lives.
6. Be patient. Go in with the expectation that you’re going to be doing a lot of untangling of lines, re-tying of lost flies, and arm grabbing to prevent clients from drowning when they step into that hole. That’s just what it is. If you don’t have the patience to do that about 10 times a day, you can’t be a guide.
7. Don’t be a superhero. Standing on your feet all day, wading through cold water, and catering to your client’s every need can take a lot out of you. You’re only human. When the opportunity presents itself, take a break to sit, eat, or just clear your mind. The best time is when your client gets “in the zone” and is so focused that they don’t even consider it a “guided” trip anymore. To provide the best customer service, you need to be at your best and you can’t do that if you’re tired and groggy. Take advantage of those small windows to keep yourself on your toes, but be prepared to jump right in if the client asks (screams) for help.
8. Use barbless flies. I’ve been hooked by bad backcasts more times than I care to remember. A barbless hook comes out pretty easily on the stream. A barbed one might require a trip to the local hospital. For your own safety (and your client) de-barb all of your hooks!
There are many more tips I could share about being a guide, but those are the main ones I think are the most important. Feel free to share yours in the comments section below.