Tom barely had his fly tackle inside the front door when I called. "How was your trip to Montana? Tell me all about the fishing. Did you get into the rainbows and brown trout? Were they taking dry flies?" After several more rapid-fire inane questions I calmed down, sat back, and got ready to hear all the juicy stories. Nothing gets an Alaskan fly fisher as worked up as hearing about dry fly fishing. Living in the land of subsurface streamers, we all long to see a giant trout nose up and sip a perfectly presented little mayfly imitation. Tom mumbled something about catching a few smallish trout in some heavily over-fished public water. To make matters worse, the fish weren't as interested in his flies as he had hoped. "Did you at least get a guide?" I asked. "A what?" he replied incredulously. To Tom, a lifelong Alaskan, hiring a guide was as unthinkable as hiring someone to drive him to work in the morning.
Which brings up the question, "When should I consider getting a guide?" As a fly fishing guide in Alaska and a traveling fly angler, I can vouch for the value of hiring a guide. My personal philosophy is to hire a guide when I don't have time to learn all the local flies, hot spots and techniques on my own. While many would argue that they enjoy the satisfaction of figuring out a new area and catching fish on their own, I have found that too many of these trips turn into Tom's scenario of few fish and lots of frustration. When fishing new waters I often find a guide, particularly the first day out. A good guide does more than just find fish. He acts as casting instructor, coach, companion and is a source of techniques to help catch local fish. I rarely come away from a guided day of fishing without learning something new.
Having seen the guiding situation from both sides, I have a few recommendations to help make your guided experience a pleasant one. Most problems that occur between guides and clients come about from a lack of communication. Before the day starts I try to determine what I want to get out of the day. I think about what species of fish I want to target. Do I want to go for quantity and catch a lot of fish or go for quality and search out the big, elusive fish? Is learning new techniques more important than actual number of fish landed? If so, I tell my guide up front. He can't read my mind and will appreciate knowing what it is that will make the day a success for me. Of course, I'm reasonable when I come up with my list. The guide knows the current conditions and can let me know if what I have in mind is doable.
How do I go about finding a reputable guide? Fly fishing shops in the local area are a good source. I know they have a vested interest in providing top-notch guides since every guide they book is a reflection of their shop. Local fly fishing clubs and avid fly fishers in the area also can be of help. They tend to be unbiased and know the good guides as well as the ones to avoid.
Finally, guides are a special group of folks. Square pegs and wing nuts are some of the nicer terms I've heard. They work long hours for not a lot of money so they can be on the water doing what they love. At the end of the day a nice thank you is always appreciated. And as our van driver used to say to the clients just before dropping them at our shop in the morning, "If you have a good trip, and your boat doesn't flip, and your guide's not a dip, don't forget to ... leave a gratuity."
Brad Elfers is a local fly fishing guide and owner of Juneau Flyfishing Goods.
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