‘Man, you got the life!’ — The truth about being a wilderness guide

“Man you got the life,” my client said as he stared out at the river. He walked out to the bank and started to slap the water with his rod tip, while his fly line piled up three feet in front of him.

“Stop your rod tip a bit higher on the forward cast,” I said. He nodded and began to swing the rod over his head like a bull whip.

“I mean hell,” he continued, “You don’t have to worry about traffic, you don’t have to worry about meetings, or time cards, all you got to do is fish all day.” He lashed the line in an arc around his head and I caught a glint of flashing steel as his fly rocketed past inches from my face.

“Try to keep a good drift,” I mumbled as his line splashed into the river. He nodded and gazed intently at the mountains in the distance. Suddenly a trout rose up in front of him and miraculously inhaled his awkwardly floating fly. “Set!” I screamed. He jerked back on the rod like he was swinging an axe and yanked the fly from the trout’s grasp, sending his line into a tangle of tree branches behind him. I sighed, smiled and calmly climbed up the tree to untangle his line.

“I tell you what dude,” he said as I unsnarled his leader from the branches. “Let’s trade, you go back to New York and take my job and I’ll stay here and live the easy life.” I grinned as I tossed his line from the tree just as the branch beneath me broke and I crashed to the ground.

“Yep,” I gasped, trying to get my breath back, staring up at the sky and trying to figure out if the rock sticking into my spine had caused any permanent damage. “It’s definitely an easy life.”

Being a guide was something I had always dreamed about doing. Like almost everybody else who liked to hunt and fish, I saw guiding as a way to make a living just doing what I loved. I saw the images in magazines and on fishing shows of those grinning guys, high fiving their clients while they swigged beer and sprawled across the bows of boats. I looked at them and thought “Damn, they really got it figured out — why doesn’t everybody do this?” So I dropped everything I had at home and moved to Montana with the intention of living the easy life I’d always dreamed about.

After my first full guide season, I quickly found out an important truth …guiding isn’t easy.

Guiding is sacrificing being idle. It’s days, weeks, and months of early mornings and late nights. It’s climbing mountains, rowing rivers, slogging through mud, and ripping through brush. It’s being permanently sunburned and constantly bug bitten. It’s sleeping on couches, in tents, and on your buddie’s floor. It’s eating when you can and what you can. It’s being a good teacher and a good listener. It’s being an expert at everything you do, even when you have no idea what the hell you’re doing. It’s hours of back breaking labor and trying your damndest to make sure your clients are successful, and being able to take the blame when they’re not.

Guiding is not living a life of leisure but working your ass off to make sure that your clients can, for at least a couple days anyway. It’s about becoming an expert at casting, at fly tying, at following tracks, etc. and then teaching it to others. Because being a good guide doesn’t come from catching the biggest fish or shooting the biggest buck, but comes from helping other people catch the biggest fish or shoot the biggest buck and being happy that they do. It’s being just as happy with their successes as you are with your own.

To be a good guide is to be a good reader of people and knowing what they’re capable of doing in the field. Being a guide is being someone who can talk, laugh, and joke about nearly anything with almost anybody, while still putting them on fish or game without breaking your stride. Some of the best guides I know are men and women who aren’t particularly skilled anglers or hunters themselves, but are really just good with people and know how to put them in the right position to be successful. Learning and knowing how to do so takes a lot of research and a lot of time in the field. Guiding is about being truly dedicated to and loving the outdoors and wanting to help others to share in that love.

There are a lot of times in my life where I question my choice to become a guide. It usually happens after a tough day when the fish just wouldn’t bite and the forest seemed devoid of game. My clients who paid a lot for my services were disappointed and angry and not afraid to vent their frustrations at me.  My body hurts from a long season of barking my shins on trailer hitches, straining my back while rowing through rapids, and rolling my ankles and tweaking my knees while sliding down shale slopes and tromping along ridges and through forests. I’ll be short on sleep even shorter on cash and the only thing I can think about is how satisfying it would be to be able come home from work with some takeout Chinese and just binge watch some Netflix on the couch.

Then I’ll remember that sunset the night before, where the sky over the snow-capped mountains just seemed to be on fire, and its reflection on the water made me forget about everything else for a few moments. I’ll remember that smile a couple weeks ago, plastered on the face of a young kid who had never fly fished before as he held his first trout while I tried to take a picture without dropping the net or his phone. I’ll remember the sound of the elk bugle last season, when the bull suddenly materialized out of a no where in front of me, shattering the silence of a fall snow storm when the flakes were falling so thickly and silently, I thought the rest of the world had faded from existence.

I’ll remember these things and think that this is the guide life, and tomorrow is another day.