Casting For A Guide

Dec. 21, 2004
How to find the right fly-fishing guide.

Waders, check. Reel, check. Rod, check. Fishing vest, check. Flybox and flies, check. Flotant, check. Leaders and tippet material, check. Hat and raingear, check. Guide . . . . Guide? Most serious fly-fishing enthusiasts, it seems, go through a meticulous process of making sure their inventory of paraphernalia for catching their elusive quarry is of good quality and in top shape. But when it comes to getting the best fishing guide, the selection often is left to chance or a process that is hardly much better. "Found him in a magazine" or "Another guy I know used him" are common responses they give when asked how they found a particular guide. Too often, though, enthusiasts come up short in their selection of a guide. Either the guide failed to find any fish, or else he was too much of a stoneface -- mouth shut, hands in pockets all day -- to make the trip interesting. For some people, it's just a matter of the guide's being able to put them "onto some fish." Others may want a guide who is forward enough and able enough as a teacher to share a bit of technique. After all, fly-fishing, like any good enterprise, involves continual process improvement. We want to better our skills, develop a better roll-cast technique or more effective swing when nymphing -- a technique for trying to get a wet [sinking] fly down deep in a fast-moving deep river. Similarly, we may wish to learn a bit of history or cultural information about the area. Admittedly, finding the right guide (who can charge from $150 to $500 per day) is a subjective undertaking. But you can take a little of the mystery and chance out of it by learning from the experiences -- and miscasts -- of others. One fly-fishing executive, N.E. (Tuck) Vosburg, president and CEO of Pacific Steel & Recycling in Great Falls, Mont., advises getting a word-of-mouth recommendation and doing careful research beforehand. "I'd accumulate every bit of information on where to go and who to go fishing with," he says. "It's almost like hiring an employee -- you've got to go through a procedure of research, interviews, and checking qualifications." Vosburg suggests checking first with the local fly-fishing or anglers club. "The local fly-fishing group would probably find someone who's been there [where you're going] and done that," he says. He recalls a trip set up by his brother-in-law to England's Test River. The guide or "guilly" was decked out in plaid knickers, wool sweater, and sporty tweed cap. "He had fished this river for umpteen years and had published a book of poetry," Vosburg says. "He did just a wonderful job of teaching us the stream etiquette on that river. A lot of the fun for us on that trip was having a guide who was knowledgeable about fishing and was a personality as well." Another tip Vosburg offers is to check out the reputation of the agency, outfitter, or adventure group that is setting up the trip, especially if it's to an overseas destination. Executives can ask for names of others who have recently used the service and contact them for a fair appraisal. Laton McCartney, a New York editor and writer who also has a home in Wyoming and has fly-fished throughout the U.S., sees access as the most important issue when selecting a guide. "The main thing I want to know is if the guide can get me on private water," says McCartney. Many guides, he points out, have arrangements with local ranchers and land owners that allow them to bring clients to fish rivers or lakes on their property. For example, McCartney recently fished the Ruby River with Twin Bridges, Mont., guide Bob Butler. "He took us to a ranch owned by someone who lives in Washington and doesn't use the property very often." Of course, to get the lowdown on how to deal with people in a particular occupation, it never hurts to talk to someone who has "been there and done that." Bob Good, a well-known outdoor writer who has fished all over the globe and has done "as much guiding as being guided," agrees that "most of the best fishing opportunities are on private property. . . . "The big thing is to go by reputation. Ask for and check references, and not just anybody, but people who have fished with him lately. Find out if he's living on his reputation of years ago or if he's still kicking out the fish for clients." The instructor issue also looms large for Good. "Most fly-fishers would also like to learn some things," he says. "Ideally, you'd like a guide who is going to tell you about what's going on with the fish and how you should be making your presentation." More often than not, it's those streamside lessons that fly-fishing enthusiasts remember most from their trips, Good believes. Another tip is to carefully lay out what you expect. "You have to explain what it is you want, whether it's to catch big fish or a lot of fish," Good suggests. "Many times an unsatisfactory experience is as much the client's fault as the guide's. The times I've seen clients complain or have confrontations with the guide, it's often because the client knew what he wanted, but kept it to himself." The hours of fishing should be agreed on. "A lot of guides see the job as 8-to-5 and then go home," Good says. "With me, we usually don't quit until we drop. On the other hand, some clients want to quit early and take it easy for a while. They're on vacation. They don't want to kill themselves. All of this is part of establishing the ground rules in advance." In this respect, choosing a guide is a bit like a business transaction. "It's like any other negotiation," says Good, adding that clients always should let the guide know what they want and expect from the experience. But if you're headed to an area that is totally new, how do you find potential guides to evaluate? One of the easiest methods is to go online. One of the best Web sites, used by many fly-fishing devotees, is Orvis, the big fly-fishing equipment retailer. At, the company lists all of its dealers, any of whom can steer you to guides in their areas, as well as its Orvis fishing trips and vacations. Most useful when looking for a guide is the section of the Web site that contains the Orvis-Endorsed Lodge, Outfitter & Guide Program. There you'll find a map of the U.S.; click on the state you want, and up pops a list of Orvis-endorsed guides and outfitters. For instance, in Montana, always one of the most popular destinations, there are 22 outfitters listed, and a description of each. Typically these lodges also offer horse pack trips to mountain lakes, as well as trips down the state's many blue-ribbon trout rivers, including the Big Hole, Ruby, and Jefferson. For those seeking more information about guides and excursions, Orvis has a toll- free number (800-778-4778).

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