The Secret Life of Fishing Guides

You and your buddy wake up at 6am, slip into your UPF shirt, boardshorts and flip flops and fix a cup of coffee. You chat about the possibilities of the day, and are excited that after weeks of waiting, its finally here. It’s your first-time saltwater fly fishing, and although you’ve fished for trout and smallmouth on fly the last few years, you’re not exactly sure what to expect today.

It’s also your first time hiring a guide, and although he seemed cool during your brief phone conversations, you’ve heard a few horror stories about guides who have short tempers with beginners.

At this point, it’s 6:30am and about time to head to the ramp for the 7am meetup with your guide.

Your guide pulls in to the ramp about 15 minutes before you arrive and gets everything loaded in the boat. He’s been up since 5am packing lunch, loading rods, reels, bags, coolers, etc. into the back of his truck. He’s a bit tired, since he was up until midnight the night before tying new flies, building a couple new leaders, and untangling braided line birds’ nests from spinning reels.

You pull in and see your ride for the day tied up to the dock and your guide greets you with a wave. He recognized you right away even though you’ve never met. There’s a certain facial expression from people who are visiting a new boat ramp for the first time, that sets you apart from the locals.

Your guide meets you half way, extends his hand and introduces himself. After some small talk about the weather and the tides, he welcomes you aboard and recommends the best locations to stow away your soft cooler and dry bag. He tells you where the life jackets and fire extinguisher are and then chuckles about hopefully not needing to use either today.

As you idle out into the waterway, he asks about your trip down and how your accommodations were. He then asks about your fly-fishing experience, what types of places you’ve fished, and your favorite fish to pursue. You don’t realize it, but he’s sizing you up. He has guided everyone from 80-year-old women who could lay a cast on a pie plate at 90ft, to self-proclaimed experts that could barely get the leader out of the rod tip. He’s hoping you and your buddy prove to be pretty good casters, as he really wants you to have the best chance of catching that saltwater fish you’ve been hoping for.

You think back to the conversation you had with him weeks earlier about the best way to prepare for the trip. He told you to go out in your back yard and practice casting to 5-gallon bucket lids at 10, 30, 50 and 70ft. You were able to get close to the lid most of the time at 50ft and struggled a little hitting the 70ft mark. You hope it’s good enough and that your nerves don’t get the best of you.

Your guide knows that with anyone who isn’t a seasoned saltwater angler, they’re "on the water" casting ability will be greatly reduced from what they experienced in the back yard. He wants you to practice those 70ft casts, so that you can hit a 50ft cast on the front of a skiff with nerves and a 15-knot breeze in your face.

A few miles from the boat ramp, your guide hangs a sharp turn into a series of narrow winding creeks, and about the time that you realize you are completely lost, he comes off plane a few hundred yards short of your first fishing spot.

It’s go time. He slides an 8wt out from under the gunnel, makes a cast and shows you how he’d like you to strip the fly in. He then hands you the rod, grabs the push pole and climbs aboard the poling platform.

Your guide immediately starts disseminating information. The clock face, distances and directions. What to look for when searching for fish, where to put the fly in comparison to the fish, reminds you of the proper hookset method, and how to fight the fish. He tells you what he expects to find in this location dependent on the tide and time of day. You try to process it all, although it’s a bit overwhelming. That’s okay, he’ll gently remind you of all these things throughout the day.

He then reminds you to help yourself to the water and snacks in the cooler, and then recommends you make a few warmup casts. He’s sizing you up again.

Some days, clients can put a fly exactly where it needs to go, and guides pray for those days. Other days, the anglers have a medium skill level and the guide must work extra hard but is still hopeful. And then more often than one would think, guides end up with a caster who is in no way prepared the way they need to be. They completely fall apart with the slightest breeze and seem to tune out all instruction. These are the days that guides work the hardest and absolutely earn their pay. Not just because they physically must work harder, but also, they must entertain and educate even more to make up for the lack of fish catching.

Luckily for your guide, you’re a pretty good caster, and you’ve been practicing the scenarios he recommended for the last few weeks.

As your guide poles you along, he tells you about the different species of fish that can be found in the area and how they can leave signs of their presence. Pushes, wakes, splashes, mud puffs and so on. Then he goes on to tell you how the pushes, wakes, muds, etc. of the fish you are targeting are different than the fish you are not targeting.

“Redfish, 11 o’clock, moving left to right, 50ft, no 60ft”, he blurts out. “He’s at 12, heading to us, do you see the wake?” You fail to respond as you try your best to see what your guide sees. Since you didn’t respond, he asks again, “1 o’clock, coming towards us, now 40ft, you see him?” “No” you respond. “Point your rod out in front of you”, he responds. “Go more right, more right, stop, down a little bit, okay your pointing right at him, but he stopped waking.”  You finally see him, but what you really see is his tail kicking away from you with a trail of mud behind him. “He’s blown out, don’t worry we’ll see more”, says the guide.

This is part of the learning process, it happens every single trip. What you don’t realize is that he had the same conversation with his clients the day before, and he’ll have it again the next day. He tells you that the only way to get good at this stuff is to get on the water and learn, and that although back yard casting is great, your education doesn’t really start until you get on the water.

“10 o’clock, here they come.” This time you see them, but your cast lands more at 12 o’clock to the half dozen fish quickly approaching you. They don’t see it and before you can get a second cast, they see the boat and leave a huge wake as they rocket away. Your guide giggles, he’s been doing this for years, but it never gets old.

Over the next 6hrs you take shots at fish after fish, and you continue to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Finally, it comes together, and you come tight to your first redfish. Another one comes to hand not long after the first.

You’re guide let out a silent sigh of relief when you finally hooked that first one. Although you were getting a first-rate education on stalking redfish, the knot in his stomach was not going to go away until you finally hooked up. It’s all icing on the cake for everyone on the boat after those first few fish.

When the day is done, you make your way back to the boat landing and everyone is all smiles. You and your buddy are stoked because you got exactly what you came for and you’ve got the pics to prove it. Your guide is stoked because he is exhausted and in much need of a sandwich and a nap before his kids get home from school. As you ride back, you ask him for recommendations on a good restaurant to visit that evening, and he gives you a couple of his favorites.

You say your goodbyes at the ramp and settle up on payment. You’re not exactly sure what to tip, but you want to leave something because you know your guide worked hard and taught you a lot. You give him 2 twenties and shake hands.

30 minutes later you are back at your hotel and getting ready to jump in the shower and rinse the salt and sweat off you. Your guide is at the local grocery store picking up dinner for his wife and kids. He makes two more stops and uses up the 2 twenties grabbing a burger and filling the boat back up with fuel.

You jump into the hotel bed, stretch out and set the alarm on your phone to give you an hour nap before you go out for dinner with your buddy. Meanwhile your guide is in the driveway at home washing down the boat and all the fishing gear and still thinking about that nap that might not happen. His kids arrive home from school, and his wife not long after. They head out back to kick the soccer ball around and then in the house to clean up for dinner.

After dinner he edits some photos from that day and sends them to you, and thanks you again for fishing with him. He then tucks his kids in bed, reads them a story and tells him he loves them and to sleep tight.

Full of gratitude for those kids of his, he makes his way to the garage and pulls out the vise and starts tying up some flies and pulling a few wind knots out of leaders. It’s getting late and he needs to hit the bed soon, he has another trip in the morning.