Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Art of the Fly Fishing Guide

I was recently made aware of an article criticizing "bobber fishermen" on the Missouri and of course, had to put in my two-cents. First of all, let's just explain the continuum of fly fishing between the purists and the bobber fisherman understanding that it is a continuum so there isn't an A side and B but more of a line connecting A and B with everyone falling somewhere in between.

On one hand you have the "purists." These are the folks that see fly fishing in a way that goes back to the roots of where fly fishing began. In the most basic terms, it's taking natural materials to emulate what a fish eats. It's important to realize, the flies they use are made to represent different stages of a natural fly including nymphs, emergers, duns and spinners as well as terrestrials and other proteins like scuds, sculpin, crayfish, etc. A true purist doesn't necessarily fish dry flies only but does limit their presentation and techniques to more traditional methods, natural materials and rudimentary gear. Most often when we think about the continuum however, we do equate the purist's end of the spectrum with DFO's or dry fly only anglers.

On the other end of the continuum, we have the "bobber fishermen." It's been called the "bread and butter" of the Missouri River because it is the most effective way of catching fish with a fly-rod. It's not overly technical but you are still trying to emulate what a fish eats and present it in a way that is convincing, which for about 80% of the a trout's food source, is a nymph. Where nymph fishing has developed the stigma as a lesser form of fly fishing is with the introduction of indicators that look like bobbers a kid might use, dangling off a cane pole in the pond out back. The perception is, any Tom, Dick and Harry can catch a fish on a fly this way. However, even with nymph fishing there are more technical ways of presenting a fly and more effective methods and there are still skills that need to be developed in order to be successful.

(I think what I'm going to do for the rest of this article, in order to equally offend everyone, is as long as we are going to call the less technical anglers on the continuum "bobber fishermen," we will then call the more technical group, "fly-fishing snobs..." Or maybe just the bobs and the snobs.)

This continuum of fly fishing between the bobs and the snobs comes down to perspective and we all find ourselves somewhere in middle at different times depending upon the conditions, what the specific goal of the client is, and what the skill level of the angler is and just remember, EVERYONE STARTS SOMEWHERE. This is where it get's tricky for a guide and also where it's difficult to say one end of that continuum is right or wrong.

A woman I fished with told me once, fly fishing is an art as opposed to a science because there is no one way of doing it and in every phase there are different interpretations for every angler--flies can be presented differently, casting can take on many forms, and the flies themselves can be tied hundreds of ways to emulate the same insect. It's kind of like sex--everybody has their thing, you know? And what does it for one, might not do it for another. We all know the basics but some folks may have more experience and maybe are just better equipped but at the end of the day, we all just want to have fun, right?

In the article, "Is It Time For Bobber-Free Water," on the Field & Stream website:, Kirk Deeter uses skiing powder as an analogy for fishing dries and then having a groomer ruin the day much like a guide rolling past with clients throwing bobbers in a run putting fish down. In the article, Deeter suggests that we should have bobber-free water or times of the year where the snobs can have it all to themselves without the interference from the bobs.

We've all been there. I too, have had bobs roll by putting fish down. I've also had other snobs pull up to the same pod of rising fish we were fishing and ask, "Hey dude, do you mind if we throw at these guys too?" This isn't a question of methodology for me but more about etiquette. My initial reaction to Deeter is, as long as people are showing some etiquette, why does he care how a client or a guide is catching fish? Is it really because they are putting fish down, a conservation issue, or is it something deeper rooted all together?

The bottom line for most clients is they just want to have fun. We are hired to entertain and that entertainment can take on many forms. Yes, they do want to catch fish. That's why they hired a guide but there is so much more to it and I will tell you from experience that 30 fish in the net doesn't necessarily mean you were more successful than a guide putting 10 fish in the net. There are definitely other expectations clients have when fly fishing like becoming a better angler, being challenged, having a unique experience, experiencing the beauty of the river, and one of the most important things that is probably the most overlooked is not leaving traffic in the city to end up in traffic on the river.

As a guide, I think we should constantly be trying to fulfill all of these expectations and honestly, I think a lot of guys are missing the boat because they assume all a client wants is a bent rod. To their defense I think that comes from a lot of external forces like the outfitter asking, "How many did you get today?" Versus, "How was your day?" Or they go back to the lodge or the bar and listen to everyone brag about how many fish they caught (including the outfitter,) and they don't focus on the process and the journey or the overall quality of experience. It's because of this that I agree with Deeter when he suggests that guides getting paid what we get paid should be doing more than just, "netting fish."

(It's going to get deep here but stay with me.)

Fly fishing is to the outdoorsman as folk music is to the musician. Fly fishing used to represent the passion and pursuit of a select few. It was an ethos that was very specific to a group of anglers priding themselves on learning about their prey and actually emulating, with great detail, the food source of trout. They learned the hatches and the different phases of hatches. They learned where the bugs were hatching and thus, where fish would hold and how to read water. They learned the rise forms to discern from fish sipping duns versus chasing emergers or gulping spent spinners. An angler had to study the environment and the more they learned and the more skills they developed, the more success they had. They created a culture around the process and the techniques, and really understood it and had a deep appreciation for it. But like folk music, the masses became interested in it and people realized they could make money off of it.

Just about every genre of pop music has its roots in some kind of folk music. Blues turned into Rock and Roll. Country Western and Bluegrass became Country Rock and a Pop crossover kind of thing. R&B and Hip Hop was Rap. Even the band Mumford and Sons was folk music until the industry grabbed ahold of it and figured they could make a buck off of them and the same thing is happening to fly fishing. As the masses delve into the discipline of fly fishing, the goals change from interpreting and imitating nature to putting numbers in the net regardless of the technique or knowledge. Now, anglers set themselves apart based on the number of fish caught versus the mastering of a technique. What used to be a small group of anglers trying to emulate nature, has now become a bunch of dudes hanging out at Izaak's bragging about how many fish they caught, which is no longer a part of the folk culture but now has very much entered the realm of pop-culture.

Here's what happens though with music and with other artistic expressions. As the masses glom on and manufacture more ways of achieving more and more success based on pop-cultural definitions that go away from traditional methodology, the more the art of the act becomes diluted and thus, de-valued and that's what a lot of the snobs are finding themselves fighting and I don't blame them. Fly fishing, like art, was a way to set themselves apart from the masses. It was their little corner of the world and it's understandable that they would want to hold on to that. And, having a bunch of novices floating by watching a bobber is a huge threat to their artistic and cultural existence and their own little claim to symbolic significance. Their achievement of fooling a few trout by using traditional methods is being pissed on by all those dudes chugging beers while listening to Luke Bryan, chucking bobbers and roping fish as they float by.

The guides' dilemma in all this is multi-faceted. We want our clients to feel successful and to have fun. We want to fulfill their expectations and sometimes it's hard to convince a them, (and the guide him/herself for that matter,) that it's not that important to go back to the bar and brag about numbers but focus instead on the quality of experience. We all want to make a living but we also, if we have a stitch of integrity, are drawn to adhere to things like ethics and conservation and I will say I'm sometimes embarrassed and ashamed to be a part of an industry that participates in what's happening to the Missouri River. It's a shame to think about the abuse that certain stretches and certain runs get throughout the summer. It's embarrassing to catch fish that have been caught a dozen or more times that are missing an eye or a mandible. But is the answer to restrict the methods to dry flies only or is it more of a question of generalized pressure and if so, what do you think that leads to?

I've had this conversation recently with an employee of one of the shops that suggested all clients want is a bent rod and they come to the Missouri River because it's the best place to catch the numbers of fish and the quality of fish. My argument was that it wasn't necessarily true and that if he asked clients what they really wanted out of the day, he might develop a different opinion of that. I also argued that it's not a problem with the clients as much as it is the culture that we as guides and outfitters are creating and I think Deeter would agree. We are the ones that come back to the shop or the bar and have to brag about numbers. We are also the ones that become complacent with chasing bobbers all day because it's easy and we know how to catch a ton of fish that way and we think we're impressing someone. We perpetuate that culture and it's up to us to change it and if we don't, someone will in the name of conservation.

A few years ago I was booked with an outfitter in Craig and when I showed up, he pulled me to the side and said, "Hey, I know you like that lower stretch but I don't want you to take my clients down there unless you're roping fish." He went on to say, "My fear is that you're taking clients down there just to get away from the crowds and you might catch a couple of these guys [he holds out his hands to signify a monster fish,] but you're not getting them into the numbers of fish. We want our clients to have bent rods all day."

I found myself becoming incredibly defensive and was now feeling like I had to brag about the numbers of fish we were catching, which was never my style but I felt trapped. Because of that, where we literally had the river to ourselves for a couple weeks, guides began pounding that lower stretch because it really was that good and my little honey hole and my little niche was no more.

A year later, I took clients from that same outfitter to the Upper Blackfoot for a wade fishing trip because they wanted to get away from the crowds on the Missouri and they only wanted to throw dry flies. We had a great day. We caught a bunch of fish and didn't see another angler. My clients were stoked but again, the outfitter approached me and said, "The fear is that you're taking unnecessary risks with our clients just to get away from people."

Again, I felt the need to defend myself but kept my mouth shut until later, (after a few beers,) when I got home and wrote an email and basically just said, "Why don't you ask your clients what kind of day they had?" I also wrote, "If you don't trust me with your clients, then don't hire me."

I didn't work much for them after that and within a year, was cut from their guide pool all together. That resulted in a few years of really trying to define what I wanted to be as a guide and eventually, an outfitter. I was working for 20+ outfitters and on a daily basis and found myself trying to figure out, not so much the expectation of the clients but more-so, the expectations of the outfitter. It was incredibly frustrating until I finally said, "Screw it, I have my style and my integrity and I'm going to do what I do best and if they don't want to hire me, they don't have to."

Since then, I did get my outfitter's license but the majority of my work still comes from other outfitters. However, instead of working for 20 or more guys, I now work for about half of them. I'm plenty busy but I know there are guys that don't hire me because I don't adhere to their guiding philosophy and I'm ok with that and still consider some of those guys friends. I am much more confident of my approach now and much happier working for guys I really want to work with. Some days we do chase bobbers. Some days we only throw dry flies but one thing I don't do is compromise the quality of experience or what I think is ethical, just to produce numbers. More and more outfitters from around the State do send business my way as well because they trust that their clients will have the experience they expect that reflects their philosophies too. In short, (maybe too late for that,) I've created a niche for myself that works for me but it's no different than a guide creating a niche by going up to the dam every day, roping fish. There are those people too and if that's what they want, they can hire someone that will give them that.

For my outfitting business; I know for fact there are enough folks out there that don't like to leave the hustle and bustle of the city just to sit in traffic on the river so I don't take them to those high-density areas and I don't hire guides that rely on that to catch fish either. I also know for fact that most folks want to learn something about fly fishing so I spend a good chunk of time actually teaching them about different techniques, the bugs, the water, and even about conservation. They feel like they walk away with something and the resource is better for it. I also impress upon people that fly fishing is about challenging oneself to become better at a discipline and that everyone fits somewhere in that continuum between snobs and bobs and you have to do what's right for you.

And here's the deal; I know there are some folks out there that are numbers people but it's not as many as you think. For a lot of people, that one fish on a dry fly that they actually targeted is worth 20 fish they caught chasing a bobber. That doesn't mean catching fish on dries is always an option but when appropriate, most people do want to at least try.

As far as addressing the idea of limiting the use of indicators, I think that's a little over the top and the guys that are threatened by the bobber fisherman might want to look inside as to why it bothers them so much. Be confident in what your own goals and expectations are and don't worry so much about the other guys. I think it's fair to criticize the idea of making numbers of fish in the net the measuring stick but then don't get into the trap of comparing yourself with the "neophyte guides" by suggesting your way of catching fish is more appropriate or somehow makes you better.

I truly believe the answers lie within the market itself. Other guides and outfitters have already jumped on board with the practice of offering unique experiences that go beyond numbers and those guys that are offering what people want will rise to the top--those stuck in traffic will remain stuck in traffic where you won't have to deal with them anyway.

Keep 'em where they live...

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