Over the past 35 years in the outdoors I’ve been both the guide and the guided. Although I guided professionally for a number of years it has never been my career. But I’ve done it enough to know what it takes to be a good guide. A good guide can put you on to fish and animals; guard your life and reputation; make you laugh until you cry; and most definitely differentiate between the bullsh*t and the buckwheat.
My outdoor life started when I was 10 years old. My mother would drop me off at the government dock with my fishing rod and a dozen minnows – and a lifejacket that was somehow tied so I couldn’t slip out of it.
From there I went on to fishing and hunting on my own and with friends in the woods behind our house in Dryden. This was not a wee park with paved trails, but a true forest with wolves, bears and everything else. I learned to make a lean-to with balsam bows, cook beans and squirrels over an open fire, fish like a maniac, trap and snare critters, and skin all manner of stuff that once had a pulse. I learned to drink my coffee strong and black because as a kid I didn’t want to pack cream and sugar into the woods. But mostly because I’d read somewhere that that’s what real trappers do.
I remember shooting my first rabbit with a pellet gun and the adrenaline rush that came with it. I promptly brought it home and proudly presented it to my mother; who smiled and said she’d cook it for supper (and kindly suggested that we not do this every day).
This is the kind of grounding that makes a good guide. It’s also the reason we guides look at people like they have two heads when they do real stupid stuff in the outdoors. But I suppose that’s why the world needs guides.
It’s also the reason we should listen to guides. When I go somewhere I haven’t fished or hunted before, I listen to my guide. In fact I presume to know nothing except my name and absorb advice like a sponge. There is nothing like local knowledge. I also know that experienced guides toss you crumbs here and there until they figure out what kind of person you are. Once you’ve earned their trust; they might just tell you where the big girls live.
A good guide knows how to get along with most anyone. I’ve learned that patience is key. I’ve had people in my boat that I KNOW would not be alive today if natural selection was still a thing. But I looked after them because it was my job to help them enjoy and look somewhat good in the process.
Fishing with my dad, Earl, for most of my life has taught me many valuable things. Not in the sense that he is some kind of legendary fisherman; actually quite the opposite. He’s a very intelligent guy, but for some reason not a natural fisherman. I think it’s because it’s too simple for him. I’ve heard that many really intelligent people can’t fish – or screw two boards together – but somehow can do brain surgery or design bridges. That’s my Dad. He’s an airforce-trained electronics genius that uses words like resistance, amperage and microwave properly in a sentence that no one else can understand. Yet it took me 14 years to teach him how NOT to reel a walleye right to the tip of his rod. He does stuff like fall off docks with an SLR camera in his fanny pack, and get snagged on the same rock on three consecutive casts.
This is the kind of experience that forges character through long-suffering; not to mention a darn-good belly laugh.
Experiences with Dad have also helped me learn the nuances of how to help people not take themselves too seriously. I once had two likeable fellows in my boat that wanted to know all about my guiding experiences. One of them turned to me at one point and asked, “Have you ever guided people that were, you know, a couple of real a**holes?” I answered, “You mean, other than you two guys?”
On another occasion I had a pair of anglers on the river with me that had a booked a brook trout trip. One was a complete “newby” and the other a self-proclaimed expert. Whenever I gave advice on where and how to cast – and other helpful tips – the beginner followed my instructions to a tee. The other guy not so much. He’d make some comment about how he usually does things a certain way and basically rejected my help. Guess who caught all the fish? You got it. The beginner.
Guides also know the difference between truth and BS. If there ever was an outdoor pastime that is rife with layers of brown farm fertilizer it would be fly fishing. In this esoteric sport, there are lots of folks that are book smart, doling out latin insect names like “Hexegenia limbata,” but possess little if any practical experience or common sense. (Common sense being so rare these days that I now refer to it as “uncommon sense.”)
If someone says “The trout were hitting dark-coloured flies today.” A good guide will say “hmm” and take that information seriously. If someone says, “They were keyed in on size 2 Chupacabras fished deep on a 3x fluorocarbon leader.” The guide will also say “hmm” but file that information under the heading: “That be bullsh*t.”
Because guides spend so much time in the woods and water they know the difference between what you need, and what outdoor retail companies say you need. Manufacturers hope to convince you that the only way you’ll be successful is by using the latest and greatest item in their current line up (last years model was good, but not quite as good as the new-improved model). Guides simply use what works. Period. Even if it’s scratched, patched and all marked up. When it comes time to be replaced, they buy the same one. My chest waders being a prime example. Fifteen years of fish slime, gasoline, moose blood, and a random arrangement of silicone repair goop, give them a certain patina indicative of great experience. But they still keep me dry (mostly) and more importantly make me look like a guy who’s been fishing a few times.
Guides travel light too. They’ll tell you that if you need an index to find something in your packsack or tackle box, you’re carrying too much. But a guide WILL have a compass, matches, bug dope, first aid and rain gear; and the know-how to make a fire on a rainy day even if it takes a splash of gas from the outboard or a squeeze of hand sanitizer on a tissue to get it started.
So the moral of the story is this: listen to your guide. He or she has a PHD in “uncommon sense” and the ability to save the day, save your reputation, and even save your bacon.