It’s easy to romanticize, difficult to accomplish.
And not just because of the hard skills required.
Boat handling, reading water, locating fish, casting, line management, entomology, fly-selection, landing net acrobatics, knots (tying and untangling), navigation, equipment repair, swiftwater rescue, wilderness medicine — you have to be expert at all these tasks. In fact, you’ll be expected to safely perform three or more of them simultaneously, in adverse conditions, with minimal apparent effort and no perceptible frustration.
There are, admittedly, worse things to have to practice.
A knack for angling only cracks the door, though. The world’s greatest fish whisperer will never make it as a pro if she’s not at least as good with people.
“We never hired guides solely on the basis of fishing skill,” said Jeff Streeter, a 43-year veteran guide of the Upper North Platte River valley who spent much of his career managing river talent for the Old Baldy Club in Saratoga. “We could teach them to fish. You can’t teach people skills.”
Eight hours, in a small boat, with two complete strangers, who may or may not know how to fish, but who certainly have fantasies, maybe even expectations, of reeling ‘em in hand-over-fist, from launch to take-out, comes with, let’s say… challenges.
Handle those, and you’ll get to share golden days with people who will enrich your life immeasurably. But you should also expect workdays full of loudly voiced opinions, outsized egos, mind-numbing questions, off-color jokes and cigar smoke.
At heart your job is to teach. Do so tactfully. Not everyone recognizes how much he or she has to learn. Likewise, you’ll need to see to your clients’ physical well-being — keep them in the boat, hydrated, fed and protected from the elements and flying hooks — without making them feel like toddlers.
That you can’t control the fish, or the conditions, may not always register, so over-deliver on those elements that you can control. Mind every detail. Use the best gear. Keep your rig ship-shape. Pack a great lunch.
It helps to cultivate relationships with a few, reliably cooperative, “pet fish.” Keep their whereabouts to yourself.
If you can accomplish that, you may, just, be able to earn a living at it.
You’ll have to wager a significant investment first, though — ten grand for a well-equipped boat and trailer, many thousands more in rods, reels, lines, flies, waders, coolers and tools. Plan on making it back in intermittent $400 to $500 chunks… minus gas, groceries, insurance and the booking outfitter’s take.
Tally the number of likely tourist fishing days this far north and the import of tips becomes clear in a hurry. Those intolerant of financial uncertainty need not apply.
To make the math work when he started in the ’70’s, Jeff Streeter, for example, ate muskrat and lived in a tent by the river for three years.
The lifestyle isn’t for everybody. But for the right candidate, nothing else will do.
“It gets romanticized, sure,” Streeter agreed. “But sometimes, it should be.”