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So You Want to Be a Fishing Guide?

by Philip Monahan

Have a question you want answered? Email it to us at ask@midcurrent.com.

Question: I think I’m a pretty good fisherman, and I’d like to try guiding somewhere out West. How does one go about getting a job with a lodge or a fly shop?

Eric D., South Bend, IN

 

Fishing Guide

 

Answer: When I decided that I wanted to spend my summers a fishing guide—I was in graduate school at the time—I didn’t really know how to go about becoming one, so I used a shotgun approach. I applied to literally every lodge and outfitter I could find in Alaska and the Rocky Mountain West. In my cover letter, I explained that, although I had no guiding experience, I would be willing to do grunt work just to get my foot in the door.

Hardly any of the people to whom I’d applied even bothered to write back, which was kind of disheartening. But one day, I opened a letter from Alaska and was shocked to find a job offer. It was the first step in a career that took me to three different lodges in Alaska and one in Montana—places I never would have been able to go otherwise.

Being a fishing guide is the greatest summer job in the world; it sure as heck beats flipping burgers, mowing lawns, or working at the mall. If I had to do it over again, I would have started guiding a lot earlier—when I was in high school or college. The key is to begin laying the foundation at an early age by working hard to become the best fisherman you can be, by learning everything you can about fishing tactics and techniques, and by studying the biology and behavior of the species that you want to fish for.

The one thing that most prospective guides fail to realize is that “guiding” doesn’t mean “fishing.” When you take a paying customer out on the water, you are expected to be an instructor, a cheerleader, and—in some cases—a babysitter. The worst-case scenario requires you to choose the fly, tie all the necessary knots, teach the client how to cast, point to where the fish are, and then stand there while the client proceeds to do everything wrong. In some cases, the client will blame you for his ineptitude, and you’ll just have to smile and nod.

Because these skills don’t necessarily come naturally to everyone, there are a bunch of guiding schools that offer training in the finer points of guiding, from knot tying and drift-boat skills to important insurance issues and on-the-water safety. One of the best things about the more well-known guide schools—such as those run by Sweetwater Travel, Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge, and Fly Fishing Outfitters—is that they help their graduates find jobs. And when outfitters or lodge owners see that you’ve been through a respected program, they’ll have fewer doubts about hiring you.

But you definitely don’t need to go to a guide school to get a job. As long as you possess the requisite skills, know how to present yourself in a good light, and are prepared to work very hard, you have a solid chance of succeeding in the guiding business. I polled several lodge owners and outfitters, and each of them said he turns away a lot of young applicants. Usually, these youngsters are fine anglers, but they simply don’t have other important qualities that make a good guide. Here are the three most important things that an outfitter looks for in a potential employee:

  1. Maturity—Will you be able to handle yourself in tough situations without becoming flustered? Can you deal with rude or inept clients?
  2. Dependability—Will you show up for work everyday, prepare for each trip, and pitch in at the end of the day (boat cleanup, putting gas in the motors, etc.)?
  3. Angling Know-How—Do you understand the quarry? Are you familiar with the latest angling techniques? Do you have a passion that will rub off on clients?

No matter what kind of guide you want to be—a trout guide in Montana, a bass guide in Texas, or a salmon guide in Alaska—if you can prove that you possess these attributes, you should have little trouble landing a job.

Here’s a short list of guiding schools:

Sweetwater Travel Guide School—Livingston, Montana

Hubbard’s Guide Academy—Emigrant, Montana

Fly Fishing Outfitters Guide School—Vail, Colorado

Alaska Trophy Adventures Fly Fishing Guide School—Katmai National Park, Alaska

Colorado Outdoor Adventure Guide School—Colorado Springs, Colorado

 
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at OrvisNews.com.
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  • Mlindhorst

    Hi…I am thinking about becoming a fishing guide in mass….My question is do i need a license to be a guide?…Thanks….Mike

    • http://www.facebook.com/nate.kepler Nate Kepler

      Many states do require that you have a Guide License along with Insurance, and cpr/first aide. Some states require you to be licensed under an outfitter as well (i.e. Montana) I’ve guided in both Pennsylvania and Montana, and you need check you local laws to find out what is required. Don’t rogue guide (guiding without a license) most states take this very seriously. Just call you DFW, or Game commission, they can help you.

  • Laura Hammarstrom

    My boyfriend recently went to guide school at Sweetwater. He guided for a few months in Colorado, but now the season has ended. What did you do for a job/ home during the winter months? Need guidance.
    I want to see him succeed with this, because he loves it, but a year-round income is needed.
    Thank you.

    • Troutfitters

      You need to either work a Flyshop for a while to get your foot in the door preferably where they fish year round. Or other work

      • http://www.facebook.com/john.m.sparger John M. Sparger

        That right there is the bane of the existence of fly fishing guides everywhere. If you are in Colorado, I would suggest looking at ski resorts, especially if your budget can handle it. They provide good stable work, and are glad to see ya leave in March/April, and return in October/November.

      • http://www.facebook.com/john.m.sparger John M. Sparger

        That right there is the bane of the existence of fly fishing guides everywhere. If you are in Colorado, I would suggest looking at ski resorts, especially if your budget can handle it. They provide good stable work, and are glad to see ya leave in March/April, and return in October/November.

  • hunter martin

    i am oly 17 and want to go and be a fly fishing guide out wast but dont now were to start looking. any halpe would be vary much need. thack you

    • Grammar freak

      Martin, you honestly need to learn how to either use spell check or look more closely at what it is you are typing before you become a fishing guide. Not to be a dick, but I do not know anyone that would pay for a guide that does not know how to spell.

      • hyl

        lol. lots of fishing guides can’t spell. But if you want someone to take a post seriously i do think you should put enough effort into it to make the post readable. if you can’t be bothered by that effort you probably arent ready to be a guide.

  • E.C. Powell

    Will they teach me how to lay down mean arse chum slicks at guide school?

  • Grace Geradts

    ok so I am in school and I really love fishing, nature, and hunting. I have a career project to do about jobs I am looking into. I wanted to know if you need to go through specific training and if you need a college degree to become a fishing guide. What is the education needed?

    • http://www.midcurrent.com Marshall Cutchin

      Grace, there’s no specific training for being a fishing guide (thought there are a few “schools” that pop up here and there). The only requirements in freshwater guiding are a love of fishing and, in some cases, a connection to a local outfitter, since some states require an outfitter’s license to take customers fishing. In saltwater, you’ll typically need a captain’s license.

      • Grace Geradts

        thanks! that helps me a lot!

        • bozothetown

          You also need first aid certification

  • Vaughn Taylor

    As many years as I have been logging river miles I have been asked to get an outfitters or guide license. While I would love to get paid for doing what I love, dealing with patrons seems like it would sour what I love. It seems that many of the self promoting gods of the line and water want the flocks of wallet wielding elite, not me, give me that person that has trouble getting that hundred dollars out of thin air, the person that has to use a plastic bag for rain gear! That’s the person that will remember the trip, these are the people I take for free, I never have charged, nor have I accepted anything but thanks.
    Now i’m getting more pressure to guide since I started building my own boats, trailers, rods and flies (sorry, I don’t sell yet, fun not work.). People think I would do very well, but my concern is my “Grump” factor, is a license needed for freighting? and do outfitters hire grumpy old guys that have more river sense than charm? I think that would be a better way to see if I want to guide or just continue doing what I love.

  • MissouriTroutHunter.com

    I’m a self-employed fly guide in Missouri, which is not what you’d call “destination fishing.” Most of my clients live within a couple hundred miles and are mostly interested in learning how to fish a specific river and/or just becoming a better fly-fisherman. I give plenty of lessons and teach plenty of classes as well. The out-of-towners are folks who just happen to be in the area on business or visiting family. In other words, this ain’t Alaska. That said, my steps for becoming established was this: (1) be good at doing it, (2) be good at teaching it, (3) be patient with client skill issues, (4) have a sense of humor, and (5) learn about marketing. Oh, and don’t quit your day job.

    That said, I’ve always been curious about what kind of living the lodge guides can earn during the season. I’m too old to leave the family for months to guide in Alaska or out west during the warmer season now, but I always wondered if the money was worth the trip. What can an Alaskan lodge guide expect to earn vs. length of workdays, days on the river per week, etc.

    • hyl

      I am a guide in MT, not Alaska, but i think they can clear a few thousand a month plus tips. And virtually no expenses – room and board paid for. Guides here can make a 200-300 per day plus about 80-100 per day in tips. But you have expenses – lunch, shuttle, flies, gas. Plus a place to live, etc.