The City Guide
It’s 7:10 in the morning not so long ago and I am headed into work. A year ago that would have meant getting out of bed, maybe taking a shower, putting on my guide shirt, grabbing my vest and rods, load up the truck and be at the fly shop with a total of an 8 minute commute. I would meet my clients for the day and go fishing wherever I felt it would be great on the Gold Medal waters of the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers. That was my “work” for 18 years.
Today, I get out of bed, definitely take a shower, get dressed in my monkey suit, grab a coffee, get stuck in traffic, get aggravated and then try be the best employee I can be in the new city job I have recently taken on. I like the first paragraph of this story much better.
The changes I have made to move to the big city are all for good reason, I was fishing for love and I landed her in Denver. So I made this commitment and moved from the Roaring Fork Valley to the “Big D” to begin my life with my bride to be. All of that is good. Here’s the catch though. This change of lifestyle does make guiding and my love of the river a bit, if not a lot, more difficult. So, it begs to be asked, how does a mountain guy, fly fishing guide adjust to his new surroundings?
He doesn’t. What he does do, is try to view the world through trout colored glasses.
This summer, I was pining to go on the Fryingpan River, remembering the how the water rushed around my waders with the occasional caddis fly going up my nose. I had to get a fix. So I went down to South Platte River right here in downtown Denver and found an eddy behind a trashed grocery cart freshly thrown into the river. I took a number of big inhales through my nose to get a whiff of the fresh smog from a nearby factory to help transport me back to the place that I love. To my surprise it didn’t work. But I was still optimistic.
Just the other day on my way into work, I stopped in the coffee shop directly across the street from my house called Stella’s. I go there every day to get a medium cup of danger monkey dark and chat with whoever is behind the counter. This place is just like any other coffee shop in any other small town. The other morning I noticed a pick-up truck with the license plate ‘6X20RS2’ (referencing the fly pattern, an RS2, and the size of the fly and tippet). Now that is a very specific vanity plate. A big smile came across my face and I just had to go and find out who this person was. I strolled around and found the only guy (this is not sexist statement, there was only dudes in the coffee shop) that fit the “I like getting a line wet” look.
Let me stop here for a moment. There are always two perspectives when you live in a destination resort area; the locals and the tourists. I have always been a local, very rarely a tourist. So, it is not uncommon for us locals to strike up a conversation with someone that you might not know and talk about anything – fishing, skiing, biking, whatever. They are often just excited to be there and to get an inside scoop on what’s going on out there and what bug is hot.
I say to this guy, “Dude, is that your truck? You must fly-fish. That’s pretty light tippet.” This is when I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. A curt “Ya-and…?” is all I got. Nothing, zilch, nada. I found myself standing there awkwardly, not as a knowledgeable local guide with an information starved tourist or as tourist with tourist getting ready to swap fish stories, but instead as the guy interrupting said dude with newspaper. Awkward. So I mentioned that I was a guide – still nothing. I got my coffee, did the customary guy head nod and went on my way somewhat jaded.
But I am not discouraged; there is hope.
The great part of moving here is that I live by Wash Park. An incredibly beautiful open space in the center of Denver, filled with volleyball players, freshly parented 30 somethings with BMW baby joggers, yoga pants and iPhones. Off in the distance I see two people, both with fly rods, casting on the grass, horribly. “A-ha” my inner guide senses whispered to me. I walk up and ask, “How’s it going?” sheepishly, doing my best not to look like weird random park conversation guy. “Where are you going fishing?” I ask. They look at me and mutter, “Nowhere yet, just practicing.” the worst caster say’s. “That’s cool. Can I show you a couple tricks that might help? I do a lot of this……I’m a guide out of Basalt.” I say. “Ya, so you fish in the pan? Come on over.” they reply. The guide in me is satisfied.
I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I said it has been easy to be so far away from the activity that I love so much, but I will say that it will always be a part of me. Guiding is so much more that just taking somebody fishing. It’s about relationships and sharing common interest. I may not be near gold medal waters anymore but I can still share and teach the art of fly fishing. That is, if fly-fishing in a random patch of grass, doing my best to be a city guide counts.
18 year Taylor Creek guide, 1st year city guide, life time teacher
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 money.
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 cards.
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 Science degree.
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 abusiness. 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 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.