“Where Should I Take a Beginner Out West?”

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Fly Fishing in US West

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Question: I am looking for a recommendation for a river where I can take a beginner. I will probably invest in a guide. I’m looking for a dry-fly fishery with lots of action. Smaller fish that hit anything is preferable to larger fish that are selective. I’m looking for a western river this time.

Ken, via email

Answer: I’ll begin my answer to your request, Ken, with a brief story. Only last fall a friend of mine and his adult son headed off, as part of a long vacation, for a guided day of fishing on a distant river that had really caught my friend’s fancy. The son was a true newcomer to fly fishing. Then, just a couple of weeks out, the river went bad (it can happen—flooding, drought, fish disease…). The guide suggested a private lake as an alternative, described the water and the fishing over the phone, and my friend and his son talked it over, then called back and said Yes.

How’d it go? Was my friend crushed when the river he’d dreamed about for months was a washout? Was his son disappointed after all the hype about that magnificent river? Did they both go slumped and sighing to their pathetic substitute fishing? Was the fishing on the lake a flop?

Well, in fact…they had a blast! They caught all the stout, high-spirited 14- to 16-inch rainbows they could have hoped for and the son learned that lake fishing offers everything a fly fisher could wish for (my friend already knew that). As we proceed, Ken, hold that tale in the background of your consciousness.

Oh, right, I forgot to state the story’s moral. It’s this: Keep an open mind when you’re looking for good fishing. Your best fishing option may be quite different from the sort you planned on. It’s easy to get mind-locked onto, say, largemouth bass in some log-and-lily-pad lake and consequently miss that a nearby smallmouth river is in a far more generous mood. Or to determine in a coldly logical way that you should limit your fishing to a renowned spring creek when it turns out you could have caught 50 fish to one by merrily tossing little poppers to outsize bluegills in gravel-pit ponds only a dozen miles away. Of course some fly fishers would rather go after crafty spring-creek browns and catch only one or two, or even none, than catch scads of bluegills—but you, Ken, are looking to keep a newbie happily occupied. That difficult spring creek, renowned or not, won’t do.

So in your case, I invite you to ask another question, but this time of yourself: How important is it to specifically fish a river, to fish a dry fly, and to catch trout? (Regarding “lots of action,” I’m absolutely with you on that—I find that beginners, not yet tuned in to the fine points of our sport, need that immediate reward, that encouragement of catching at least a few and preferably lots of fish.) However you answer that question you just asked yourself is correct; it’s a personal matter. But I do urge you to consider that although your preferred scenario makes a fine introduction to fly fishing, the whims of weather, fish, and plain luck mean that an open mind might reward you generously—might reward you both with more fish on the line, a better trip, bigger fun, and a reason for your beginner to go fly fishing again.

What if you wind up swinging soft-hackled flies just under the surface of the river instead of watching dry flies drift atop it? What if you fish a lake and not a river? What if you catch big crappies instead of trout? And here’s the topper: What if one of these alternatives produces far more action than your original game plan would?

Again, entirely up to you. But, maybe, give it some thought…

I’m glad you said you plan to use a guide. It can take some real time and fussing to figure out new waters, more yet for new waters in a new area—and yet even more fumbling if that area is far from your familiar waters near home. So while there’s value in researching beforehand the fishing where you plan to fish, make sure you dedicate about as much research to finding a good guide. There are lots of good, even wonderful guides out there, but there are also some stinkers. A bad guide will turn a fun day into misery by barking at you all day, criticizing your every tiny mistake—do you really want to pay money for that? You could get the same treatment for free from a nasty aunt or uncle, or even get paid for such abuse by taking up the guitar and playing in bars that cater to drunken 20-somethings (trust me, been there).

We have the blessing/curse (personally, amen to both) of the internet at our disposal today, and its on-line reviews can help us choose wisely when we go looking for a guide. If you’re new to such reviews, know that there will often be a few bad ones even if the rest are stellar, at least there will be if there are enough reviews, dozens up to hundreds. So look for the patterns. If you read several bad reviews and they all say the guide was arrogant, surly, and lacked patience, then that guide probably routinely behaves as they describe. But if there are, say, 15 great reviews and two weak ones and the two don’t agree on the problem, you may have found a guide who’ll do right by you. At least that’s how on-line reviews have worked for me.

Actually reading a review can give you a sense of the reviewer—fair, neurotic, honest, unreasonable… And that helps you evaluate the review.

Many guides and guide services are either run by or associated with fly shops. Same strategy: find a shop with strong reviews and you’ve probably found a good source for a guide. Of course, you can check for reviews not general but specifically of the shop’s guiding.

There are other sources. If you belong to a fly-fishing club, ask around for recommendations for both waters to fish and for guides who work those waters. (You can, of course, research rivers and their fishing on the internet too. And there are some fine fishing guide books out there, among which you can select wisely by, again…reading reviews on line.)

Now let’s say you’re past all that; you feel you’ve found a river, or at least an area you want to fish, and a guide or guide service you feel might be right. What next? I could probably provide a sound advice on this, but I figured the best advice here required a guide, a good guide, and one who’s been at his or her profession for a long time. So I asked Guy Drew, who guides mainly on Washington State’s Yakima River (Crow Creek Guide Services, Cle-Elum, WA).

Guy suggests you first check out your potential guide’s web-site. He describes his as “full of information,” which strikes me as just the sort of site that can help you decide whether to take the next step. The next step? Guy says, “I think initially a phone call is best, but leave a message with your contact number and the dates you’re thinking of if I’m on the river when you call.”

As to what you’ll talk about once you and the guide are finally on the phone together, again, Guy: “It’s great to know our clients’ levels of experience. We can tailor the trip just for those anglers.” After the call, he advises any follow-up business be conducted through e-mail. Somewhere along the way he wants to “know what their expectations are.” (Seems yours, Ken, are pretty clear.)

Guy adds that, “we [he and the guides he works with] don’t like pressuring people to be better anglers, but instead to encourage and give tips, and to focus on making our trips enjoyable.” Good to know, I think. This is the sort of philosophy I look for in a guide or guide service, but that’s personal—if you want a taskmaster for a guide, be my guest.

Guy says, “We have a private lake for big rainbows in case the river blows out or is just fishing badly, and just east of us we have a variety of lakes with great fishing. (Anything here remind you of a story I told earlier?)

At about this point in my pontificating, you may be wondering, Ken (along with every other reader), why I’m not listing specific rivers that suit your requirements. The answer is simple: I’m not cruel, and it would be to those rivers. MidCurrent gets, according to the most recent statistics, over 20 megabuzillion visitors per hour (though that number drops between midnight and four am)—I do not want to single out a few rivers for mobbings. A river, or a lake or probably a saltwater bay, can be loved to death.

Besides, as I’ve said, there are no guarantees in fishing—not even close. I could send you to a particular river at exactly the time of year I’ve had my best fishing on it, and you could arrive to find it slow to useless (again: flooding, drought, fish disease…)—or even under a special closure to fishing (it happens). When you plan a trip well ahead to far waters, you get what you get when you get there.

So invest some time in research, Ken, and you’ll almost certainly wind up with a fine guide on the just sort of river you seek, tossing dry flies with your newbie-fly-fisher friend to willing trout. But if when you get there the river’s off, you might ask about options…