A Guide to Understanding Fly Fishing Guides

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Your Simple Go-To Guide to Understanding Your Neighborhood Fly Fishing Guide

I am a fly fishing guide.

This pronouncement is not something about which I’m overly proud, nor ashamed. It’s just a statement of fact.

Yet, those six little words drip with subtext when uttered in the presence of other anglers. We all know it. Even Hank Patterson gets it. Publicly proclaiming that you’re a fly fishing guide is likely to concurrently impress a few (far fewer than you noobies might think) and deeply irritate even more.

Best Fly Fishing Guide Ever

It begs the question though: Why are fly fishing guides either held in high regard by the few or so disliked by many more?

I think I know some of the answers. I’m looking forward to hearing it eloquently discussed in the comments below. However, until it’s explained to my satisfaction, I’m left to wonder. And, given the black and white (or black and blue) treatment we guides seem to get streamside, online and at the local fly shop, it seems necessary to share the guide side of the story.

So here’s your guide to understanding your neighborhood fly fishing guide.


Guiding is a Real Job

I love being a fly fishing guide. But I don’t love everything about being a fly fishing guide. Why? Because it’s a job, a real job.

Like most real jobs, fly fishing guiding involves trading time, knowledge, experience, tons of hard work and a whole bunch of flies for money.

Being a fly fishing guide means starting early in the morning gathering gear, lunches, gassing up, and cleaning the previous day’s river mud from floor mats. Being a guide means staying up late at night tying flies. Being a guide means maintaining an impressive array of rods, reels and other assorted tackle. Being a guide means maintaining a real-time information network. Being a guide means that your customer service and hospitality skills cannot take a day off. Being a guide involves teaching, lots of manual dexterity applied to wind knots and a heavy dose of psychology.

Understanding the profession the way I do, I’m not entirely sure why being a fly fishing guide is ever considered a big deal. Is it really the sort of thing that deserves such ire and/or occasional jealousy and reverence? Much like being an accountant, contractor, sales rep or IT professional. Being a guide is a job, a real job, but just a job.


Fly Fishing Guides Don’t Fish For a Living

Rule #1 in my guide service and most of the premium outfitters and lodges I know is: “Guides don’t fish with clients.”

Every guide that has ever guided more than a few days has heard “You get to fish for a living,” in a jealous or derisive tone. Well, sorry, it’s not true. Guides don’t fish. Guides show, teach, explain, and generally facilitate the fishing of others. Your success is our success.

This isn’t to say that as professional fly fishing guides we never wet a line. We fish a lot, but almost exclusively in our free time. We aren’t paid only for the 4 or 8 hour guide day, we’re paid for all the experience, insight and know how we gather during our “off” hours.

During a day with a client, guides often handle a rod to teach and demonstrate techniques, we even very occasionally help our clients (mostly kids or disabled individuals) catch fish, but good fly fishing guides don’t fish with clients.


Fly Fishing Guides are Conservationists

I would argue that guides are the most influential people in fly fishing in terms of teaching conservation practices like “catch and release,” “pack it in, pack it out” and “stop aquatic hitchhikers.” Many anglers, especially those new to the sport, first learn safe fish handling, invasive species prevention, along with ethical wading and angling practices from their dealings with good fly fishing guides.

When you spend as much time in the outdoors as a fly fishing guide does you can’t help but care about the natural environment around you. It just happens.

Even if the nature love doesn’t entirely sink in, conservation is an exercise in self-interest. Guides rely on clean water and healthy ecosystems. That’s our office and inventory shelf. It is simply necessary to be a conservationist if we want to keep being a guide. Luckily, we generally excel at sharing the practice with others.


Guides are People, Mostly Really Decent Ones

One of the early lessons I learned in managing a guide staff at a fly fishing lodge is that being a good angler has almost nothing to do with being a good fly fishing guide. Also, being a good person is directly related.

Outside of marrying extremely well and getting the chance to be a parent, perhaps the greatest social privilege in my life has been the chance to work and associate with a lot of great fly fishing guides who are great people. Now I do have to say that the places I’ve guided seem particularly rich in this area. Many of the guides I know have become many of my best friends. They are just solid humans.

Even outside of these lucky close associations, almost all of the fly fishing guides I know are exceptionally decent people. They do what they do because they love nature and people and they are generous with both.

Now, this said, it’s important to remember guides are people and people aren’t perfect (this sounds like the start of a conversation with my teenagers). Yes, this is where the negative perception of guides gets discussed.

Some guides can be arrogant, making the mistake of believing that they are special, smarter, or who knows, more in tune with the force. These guides generally don’t last or eventually figure out their arrogance is unfounded. Their paychecks help this process.

Some guides can be territorial and secretive. This recognizably annoying tendency generally comes from a place of protecting their job. See “Guiding is a Real Job” above. Guides will sometimes fish too close to get a client a fish. Guides will sometimes give misinformation to protect a spot or keep a particularly effective technique under the radar. Guides will sometimes cut you off in their boat to fish a seam first.

Some guides don’t always practice what they preach in terms of conservation and angling ethics. This kind of hypocrisy sucks.

Some guides sometimes act like asses in general.

All of these poor practices relate directly to the somehow surprising fact that, to my knowledge, all fly fishing guides are humans. (See the news and/or life for more examples of human behavior.)

I don’t condone the bad behavior and I wish I didn’t have to even mention it, but it’s real. So, I just ask for a little understanding. We’re working hard where and when you’re playing (granted on you hard-earned day off). The two activities look similar from afar (rods-a-waving, some desperation) but in reality they are quite different. Let’s all just get along and understand each other.

It goes both ways, guides. Don’t do the crappy things mentioned above. You may not be a guide for long, but some of us have to keep doing it (see “Guiding is a Real Job”).


Guides Don’t Live to Take You Fishing

In fact, it’s the other way around. Guides take you fishing to live. See “…Real Job” above.

One comment every fly fishing guide has heard from friends, family and even fleeting acquaintances is “I need to have you take me out fishing sometime.”

The problem with this conversation is that it rarely involves the necessary accompanying chat wherein we discuss compensation. It’s a bit like showing up to your dentist and asking him to do a root canal on his day off, you know, because that’s what he likes to do.

My friend and fellow guide, Bryan Eldredge, has become particularly adept at handling this situation. He very factually explains that he unfortunately rarely gets the chance to even take his own kids fishing.

Don’t get me wrong. Like most good fly fishing guides, I’d love to take the world fly fishing (and film a Coca Cola commercial while we are at it). But, like most real people with real jobs, most of the time I just can’t. I don’t even necessarily want you to stop asking on the off chance I do have a free day, but please understand it’s often difficult to find the time.

If you’re ever tempted to ask for a freebie fishing trip please refer to this article for a quick reminder on protocol for dealing with the fly fishing guide in your neighborhood (also see “Guiding is a Real Job” above).


Fly Fishing Guides are Good for Fly Fishing

You may vehemently disagree with this premise in the moment you arrive at the river to find a guide and two clients in your favorite run. But, step back and consider what fly fishing guides do for fly fishing.

Fly fishing guides generally introduce people to the sport in the right way (See “…Conservationists” above). In much the same way you’re introduced to seemingly secret golf rules by more experienced golfers, most new fly fishers learn streamside courtesies, safety and general conservation from their guides. It doesn’t always happen (see being human) but most good fly fishing guides offer great examples of these practices to new anglers.

In addition, fly fishing guides bolster the fly fishing business, bringing more people and more money to the sport. Yes, this does mean a few more people on the water, but it also means more spent in fly fishing R&D. That turns into more shiny objects, gadgets and jingle jangly things, and we can all agree fly fishers need more shiny objects, gadgets and jingle jangly things.

More awesome fly fishers outfitting themselves leads to more awesome fly fishing companies bringing us things like rods that weigh practically nothing and throw lines 100 ft, flies that look and act exactly like fish food and fly boxes that hold those flies magically tight.


Summary of the Guide to Guides

I’m not so naive to believe that this explanatory guide will change much in terms of the regard given to fly fishing guides. The prevailing reputation is probably well-earned and not entirely deserved at the same time, whichever way you look at it.

All I ask is that we fly fishing guides get a fair shake. We just want the same consideration given the HR managers, Jr. high teachers and customer service associates of the world when you hear what we do for a living.

Feigned interest masking general apathy will do just fine.


  1. Great article Jake. I think you did guides an injustice by hiring a male model for your pic though. It is difficult enough to deal with expectations to catch fish but now we must look like Adonis as well? #1GuideRules

  2. Great article Jake!

    I for one am impressed that you have been able to make guiding a sustainable job for so many years. Only an innovative, intelligent, hard working person could do it. All the best. Stop by and see me the next time you pass by Midway Utah. My home is right on the middle Provo, but I won’t ask you to fish with me. You can walk over the fence all by yourself. Or maybe take your kids.

  3. Here’s my take: Some guides’ egos have run a bit amok, and they sometimes seem to feel they have a monopoly on knowing how to fish well (“fishiness”) – totally rubs me the wrong way, even if there might be some truth in it. But a few years ago, I had a much bigger chip on my shoulder. I’ve now met enough that are fantastic people who have indeed helped me fish better. I distinguish between “career guides” and “college-summer guides”. The hot-shot ego-driven folks often seem to be young and only doing it for a season or two before they graduate and move on to a different career. Same with fly-shop bros – young hot shots. But the guides and shop employees who are making a years-long living often epitomize the all great things you mention, and about our beloved sport. Great post!

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