Top Ten Survival Tips for a Broke Fly Fishing Guide Living in an Expensive Place.
Aspen. The mere whispering of the word congers up images of Paris Hilton, Man-Furs,
Range Rovers and million dollar homes. And for the most part, that would be 100 %
accurate. But Aspen, like any mountain resort town, is also filled with mountains and rivers that
provide great outdoor activities. Many wealthy people enjoy that - as a matter of fact, most
people enjoy that. Unfortunately, that “access” to the great outdoors, indirectly costs
You have to find a creative way to live in one of the most expensive places in the U.S..
Common sense told me that since I loved the outdoors and mastering legendary
trout waters like the Frying Pan, Roaring Fork and the Colorado, becoming a professional fly
fishing guide for a living was an obvious choice. But we guides are dealt a difficult set of
First card: Getting on the shop roster is not always an easy task, even if you do happen to be
one of the best anglers in the valley. I have been a guide with Taylor Creek Fly Shop in
Basalt for the last 18+ years and I only landed it because a) I got a good referral from a
buddy that was a guide there, b) I spent so much money there on new rods, flies
and every other thing I needed to "fish properly" (besides, I felt it gave me a bit of credibility) and
c) I was able to “talk the talk” and “walk the walk”.
Second card: You need money both for a place to live and so you can eat. This lifestyle can
be especially difficult if you are on the bottom of the guide ladder. It’s only when the
senior guides are not available when you get the trip. Being the low man on
the totem pole, you have to hope for a last minute booked trip or wait by the
phone all day hoping you’re next on the list to call. The lack of consistent last minute
trips or senior guides calling in sick or being on vacation, can lead to financial stress and
inconsistent diet. The only known consistency for a guide is understanding that
the last minute bookers are not typically the seasoned fishermen you hope for. And chances
are, these people will have recently watched "The Movie" and now they want their
spoiled 5 year old daughter and disinterested 14 year old son to experience what
catching a 20 inch rainbow is like - "just like the one Brad Pitt caught in A River Runs
Through It" while yelling across the river, “You haven’t caught one yet?” only ten minutes after
hitting the water.
But I digress. What I am trying to say is that guides need money. So I’d
like to share with you my ten survival tips on how to live, eat and breathe fly fishing as a
professional guide when you are broke and have to make it in an expensive area.
Tip # 1: Be nice, polite and humble. Nothing will keep you from getting trips or moving
up the ranks more than arrogance. Chances are, you are not the greatest fisherman
alive and you didn't really "land a hundred" or “get the biggest cut-bow in the Pan”. The fact
is, the guides in "real" fly shops are ALL great fisherman. The best thing you can do is
go fishing with the senior guides and prove you know how to fish. But most
importantly, be cool about it! This will pay off in spades. You are more likely to be the
first one asked to accompany the senior guide on group trips. That equals no bottom of
the totem pole which means more money.
Tip #2: Top Ramen is not all that bad. Really. Throw in some fresh vegetables and soy sauce
and you’re golden.
Tip #3: Having a truck is helpful. It provides a comfortable ride for your clients as well as
a great place to sleep. The forest service provides camp areas for up to 10 days or
more. Not only is it a practical mode of transportation and lodging, but that it just makes
for a good story when you decide to give up guiding in order to finally use your Political
Tip # 4: Beer is not food. Once you get a couple of trips and you make your first tip
above and beyond your guide fee, try not to turn that extra money into a series of
cocktails for the boys. You need that money. It won't be there in a few months. (Note to
the veteran guides: hang around the new guides, they’re rookie enough to always be
buying! By doing so, you can keep your tips.)
Tip #5: Network and always carry business cards. This is a must. Anybody on the river
that isn't already a fishing guide, wants to be. That instantly makes you the most envied
and the coolest person they know. Use that to your advantage. Your perceived
coolness, especially if you make the client think they caught that brown all on their own,
equated to referrals, shop status and money. Don't be a slacker trout bum, it’s still a
business. Always be selling (yourself)!
Tip #6: Remember, the rich are different. Embrace it. It is likely that a fleet of Range
Rovers show up and they all step out with enough gear to stock a new shop. That
doesn't mean a thing. The fish don't care and nor should you. They're people - just like
you (but with a lot more money). There’s no need to suck up. Treat them like you want to be
treated and, trust me, you will be rewarded by either a great tip or a new regular repeat client.
Tip# 7: Practice the three “T's” - Teach, Therapy, and Tolerance. Being a great guide is
not how good of a fisherman you are (although it helps), it's more about how well you
understand your client. I did a trip one year with a client that I had guided a few times
before. This trip she wanted to fish a little bit, but what she really wanted to do was to
learn how to drive a stick shift. So our day was planned out where we fished for an hour,
teach her how to drive my stick shifted-car for three hours, then fish again for an hour.
She was a client for years. She booked consistently and always tipped well but what I
found the most rewarding was never knowing exactly what we were going to do the day
I was fishing with her.
Tip#8: Don't sleep with any of your clients (see fishing above). Nothing good can come
from this. Worst of all, you have turned a paying client into a non-paying client with
“benefits”. And if it turns bad, like it always will, and their husband or wife finds out, there
goes all of their referred client friends and any potential for new referrals from them.
Tip# 9: Have another skill. It can be anything from tuning skis to bartending to instructing
snowboarders to practicing law. Also, being a trust funder, salt-water fly guide, or a chef,
will work. It is not only important to have a plan, but as a fly guide in a touristic,
seasonal, resort destination, with unpredictable run-off and conditions, you must also have a
Plan B, and C all the way up to Z. Sure, some people can and do make it as a full time guide,
but only if you are willing to budget. Unfortunately, most guides are fiscally inept and easily led
astray by being surrounded by pro-deals and new gear in the shop - there is always that new
reel or new 9-weight rod you might need for that Christmas Island trip you’ve been saving up for. This one I know from experience.
Tip # 10: If you really love fly-fishing, you love the river and everything it offers. Remember that
you weren't born an expert fly fisherman and your clients want to learn from you. You’re on the
right path. It’s not hard to survive if you’re smart about it.
So if your ambition is to become a wealthy, full-time fly fishing guide, traveling around
the globe and living the lifestyle, go for it. The fact is, I live that life style. I may not wear
a Man-Fur or have enough money to date Paris Hilton, but I am rich in
experience and I have made a bank load of friends. The only cash I have is a CD in
my truck of Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Fly Fishing Guide – Taylor Creek Fly Shop
Saturday, March 10, 2012
The Roaring Fork. The Frying Pan. The Colorado. The Crystal. In the world famous Roaring Fork Valley, there are so many places to fish, and ways to fish, that it is an embarrassment of riches wherever you turn.
Long days floating the Fork throwing Drakes down into ‘Bonedale, or stalking the wily fish of the ‘Pan, squinting to try and ascertain what invisible bug, that I never heard of, they are sipping.
A foggy early morning on the Colorado, and the mist coming off the hot seeps in downtown Glenwood as you head downstream throwing streamers.
With all of the great fishing in the Valley, why would you ever look for more? Well, though you don’t have to, its there. Because having the good fortune to travel to the valley often and because many of my favorite fishermen guide in the valley, over the years I have learned that some of the best of the valley is a bit off the beaten trail.
Just downstream of Glenwood Springs and right along some of the best trout floats are many calm and serene backwaters. Looking at most of these, a trained eye would right away notice the lack of current and typical trout structure. Keep looking beyond the seam and into the bay, and you might see a carp tailing. And there’s more. Those calmer backwaters can be really fun to fish, and though you usually see a few carp, you can also catch bass, both large and smallmouth, the occasional big trout, chubs and as you go farther downstream, even the occasional pike and walleye.
These multi-species floats are fun, different, and offer another view of the river that you often don’t see when solely targeting trout. The more savvy guides prefer a well placed Clouser Swimming Nymph for these sight fishing opportunities, and outspoken oracle of all things, guide Gifford Maytham argues forcefully the virtues of a skillfully thrown #8 Halfback for these finned alternatives.
Another really overshadowed fishing opportunity in the valley is the small stream fishing. From streams closer to Aspen such as Castle Creek and the uppermost Roaring Fork, to Snowmass Creek and the upper Frying Pan. All of these fisheries can offer one thing that can be difficult to find on some of the other, more celebrated stretches…….solitude.
A very long time ago, during a summer soccer tournament, I wandered down and into Castle Creek only to find the biggest Mayflies I had ever seen hatching and fair to good size fish of four different species going berserk for them. Later that weekend, I went again to the high country and caught a nineteen inch brown on a dry fly in uppermost Snowmass Creek! Throughout the higher creeks of the Roaring Fork Valley, a topo map, a two or a three weight and a box or two of flies is all one needs to find lots of willing fish and sometimes a big surprise.
The last offbeat fishing pursuit that the Roaring Fork Valley has to offer is actually not quite in the Valley. Downstream from Glenwood Springs and then up into the western rim of the Colorado River Canyon are two reservoirs that offer up a cornucopia of different species and profound challenges. Rifle and Harvey Gap reservoirs are both full of bass, perch, crappie, trout and walleye. But if you ask some of the guides in the Valley what they are doing on their days off, they will tell you that it is the pike in these two reservoirs that they are pursuing. Long thought of as unsophisticated savages that will clobber anything around them, the pike in these two lakes will test even the most advanced fly anglers trying to convince a following fish to eat in the clear water. Talk to five guides in the Valley, and you will get some real disparity as to what it takes to make these up to four foot fish bite. You hear that a red and yellow streamer is all you need. Others say it is a windy and rainy spring day, and yet others still say that it is a perfect cast and presentation with a clear tip and black bunny in the warming mornings of April and May. I have caught great fish with all of these techniques, but never very many. These are some of the toughest and biggest fish that this state has to offer, and they will never come easy, and that is why we keep going back.
Written by Frank Smethurst, Flyfishing Sales Rep and Movie Star
Photos courtesy of Kirk Webb