What Makes a Great Fishing Guide March 26 2017

Montana fly fishing guide school

The best share similar traits

Few, if any, places on earth harbor miles of trout streams as densely as this small radius that we call home. Many people moved here for that reason, and for others like myself who grew up here, the area’s trout water has kept us here. And what has kept me here, able to carve out a pretty special lifestyle as a guide, has been sharing our waters and their trout with others.

Whether you loathe it, love it, or could go either way, living alongside fly-fishing guides is a part of reality in southwest Montana. There is a false perception shared by many people when they see three people in a boat on a Montana river: They must be on a guided trip. On most rivers, guided fishing accounts for less than 30 percent of angling use. On the Missouri River, one of the state’s busiest, the 30 percent mark is eclipsed only slightly during peak season.

Despite the low percentage of overall use, it seems like fishing guides are everywhere. The stats prove they are not. But after twenty years in the biz, I keep seeing the same ones over and over again. Here’s what makes them great.

Work ethic. Yes, you read that correct. The best fishing guides have a tireless work ethic. They spend time on the water when others are at the bar or playing on Tinder. They hurry home to tie flies if a special pattern or variation was the cause for success. They have clean trucks and boats and take pride in both. The best fishing guides smash the myth of the beer-can-crushing-streamer-chucking-beater-truck-driving dirtbag because they are too busy helping people catch fish.

Adaptability. Guides who make a living doing this know it’s about being with people, not fishing. Guides who dabble but ultimately don’t cut it think it’s only about fishing. The best guides rise above their own personality and enjoy being with everyone. They work with their clients to understand them and have the maturity to adjust to a variety of personalities. As the day unfolds, the best guides are strangers at the start of the day but best friends by lunch.

Problem-solving skills. The best guides, whether fishing on their own or guiding clients, make it look easy. Easy is accomplished by layers of deciphering what the trout are eating, where they are holding, and how a relatively inexperienced angler can get a trout to eat their fly. By factoring in all the variables—ability, fishing situation, comprehension skills of their anglers, wind, glare on the water … and the list can go on—guides who impress when others disappoint do it because they think about fishing constantly, working to solve the mini-mysteries of a trout stream.

They know how to have fun. Fishing is fun. It is recreation and a break from the daily routine of life. As the saying goes, “the worst day of fishing beats the best day in the office.” For fishing guides, the water is their office. Great guides understand fun and play is an essential element to a day on the water. Catching fish is fun indeed, but the catching can come and go throughout a day; the top-shelf guides are enjoyable to be with even if the catching stinks.

Fishiness. I’m a believer that certain people are born with a set degree of “fishiness.” But what the heck is fishiness? It’s how easy catching fish comes to certain people. I’ve seen it in my boat and with the guides I’ve hired—some people just come to catching fish more naturally than others. To be a great guide, it helps to have an innate level of fishiness. There are plenty of great guides who fall in the middle of the fishiness scale, but they have mastered the above traits.

Ambassadors and conservationists. Fish need quality habitat to flourish. Fish, and the habitat they depend on, cannot defend themselves against the increasing threats of climate change, extractive industries and encroaching development. The best guides take pride in standing-up for their resources. They are members of national and grassroots organizations. They prioritize stewardship and education. Litter is hard to come by on rivers frequented by guides—even though they’re just a fraction of users—because the best guides pick up after others.

As my beard grays and my eyes fade, I’ve seen many come into the guiding profession. For every person who thinks being a fly fishing guide is what they are destined to do—like the 20-year-old kid rejecting traditional work as a lifetime corporate ladder climber—there are those of us who come by it naturally.

The life of a great fishing guide is not an easy one, as the sign in my kitchen can attest: “We interrupt this marriage to bring you the fishing season.”

Pat Straub is the co-founder of the Montana Fishing Guide School, the author of six books, including “The Frugal Fly Fisher,” “Montana On The Fly,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing.” He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky and he co-owns Montana Fishing Outfitters.