Monday, March 23, 2009

Cow Patties, the "Lean", and Swedish Supermodels - That's Living the Guiding Life

Through the reach of the internet I have had the opportunity to meet some great people and great fishermen. Being a fly fisherman I tend to be focused on the water and don't chat with many anglers unless I bump into them back at the truck while rigging up/down. The internet kind of smoothes things out - you can view people's personalities on forums and gauge whether you think you could actually fish with them through posts or email. Sometimes you get lucky and find a permanent fishing partner, and sometimes you find that guy who you'll only fish with once.

I've done very well on the internet - I met my best fishing partner on a forum, some great tyers, some really smart guys and some plain old nice guys too. One thing these guys all had in common is that they all out fish me on the river. I've met Canadian Army guys, biologists, sales people, finance geeks (like me!), fishing guides, IT geeks, just about every walk of life.

One of those guys that intrigued me the most I got a chance to meet last year at our annual Bighorn River gathering in Ft. Smith, MT. His name is David Palmer and he goes by the handle Blackotter on the few fly fishing forums he is on. David is living the dream - last year he quit his day job and followed his passion for fly fishing and teaching and became a fly fishing guide. I was lucky enough to catch David on an off day last year (well - not sure he would have called it an off day) and fished with him on the Bighorn. Not only was he very knowledgable about everything from the town of Ft. Smith, but he knew the birds flying over head, and he expalined the different types of brown trout in the river and their histories. He also outfished us all 3 to 1.

Afterbay on the Bighorn.

We aren't quite in the fishing season yet, so David had some time to answer some questions I had about his first season of being a guide. His responses are pretty genuine just like he is. Check out his interview below:

What rivers do you guide on?
Right now, I guide on two rivers, the upper 3 miles of the Bighorn and then the next 10 miles of the Bighorn. There were other rivers I tried to get work on, but being a first year guide, it's tough enough to get your foot in the door in one place let alone many. The other part of the problem is in this area, the rivers are spread out. In Bozeman and Missoula, you have a lot of choices in a small area. Here, it's 90 miles one way or 90 miles the other way. This year and maybe next I'm looking to guide other places as I build a (hopefully positive) reputation.

Did you have any mentors?
A few and some whether they realize it or not. My dad started me fishing at a very young age and it starts there. I have a friend who used to guide and is an excellent fisherman. I owe a lot to him. I have a couple other friends who are also excellent fisherman and they were a very positive influence also. But as you go through the learning process and go down the river day after day, you watch others and see things that you like or don't like so there are others who became silent mentors, most likely unknowingly.

Help us out here with a rumor, are all guides homeless, long haired, unshaven, dog lovin' hooligans?
I don't know too many that are long haired. There are a couple though. It gets too hot on the Bighorn in the summer to have long hair. You see a lot more Marine Corp style haircuts than you would think even though I only know one guide who was a Marine. It feels like everyone is homeless because so few people in Ft Smith are full time residents. I stay in a place called the Mouse House. You can guess who the full time residents are. At the end of the season, most are off to other destinations so if it's not homeless, it transients.

Unshaven is relative. Almost everyone stays shaven early in the season. As the days go by, more and more shave less and less. When opening day for bow season approaches, you can easily tell who is getting ready to go bow hunting and who is still going to be guiding.

There isn't a guide that doesn't love dogs. Most prefer bird dogs. I have poodles and I won't trade them for bird dogs or anything else. I have a friend who loves dogs but his girlfriend wants a small "foofy" dog, which he won't get. So they compromised and got a rabbit.

How many guided trips did you make in Year 1?
I guided 108 trips in my first season. Many people told me to expect 50 to 75 trips. I don't know how I did it other than brute force will power.

How long had you been a fly fisherman before you became a guide?
I started fly fishing when I was about 14 or so with the spinning rod and bubble. It was quite a while before I actually used a fly rod. I had been using a fly rod for about eight years before I started guiding. Knowing what I was doing fly fishing is even shorter than that.

What made you want to become a guide?
Bad middle management. I was in computers prior to guiding and was involved with a project that lasted a painful five years. Nobody ever would stop and take a look at why it was so problem ridden (which was probably me). The only thing I looked forward to was going fishing when I could. For a long time, I didn't think I had it in me to become a guide but it turns out that sitting at a desk for twelve hours a day was just not for me.

When I'm guiding, there's no middle management. There's the clients, the guide and the fish and it's really hard to delegate to the fish.

There's nothing better than seeing the expression on an anglers face when he holds up his prized fish, except maybe the look on his face when that same fish slides through his fingers as he releases it back into the river.

Which quality do you think you must have the most of to be a good guide: ability to listen? patience? knowledge of entomology? great personality?
Personally, I think a good guide is a good communicator. Whether someone is fly fishing for their first time or going on their thirtieth year, the guide is in control of the day and needs to communicate to understand what the people expect, give them an idea of what the fishing should be like and offer alternatives. Patience helps too. People in my old life wouldn't probably not call me a patient person. But when you are on the river, things happen and there's no reason to get upset about those things. Personality is a good thing, but I think attitude is more important. You know of some guides because of their personality, good or otherwise, but the guide that has a good attitude isn't going to give up when things get tough.

...and the ability to duck with cat-like reflexes.

What is the funniest thing to happen to you in Year 1 of guiding?
I had two clients that had been doing well. We were wade fishing in a spot and the one upstream just kept hooking fish. I *really* had to take a leak but couldn't because he kept hooking fish. Finally I told him I had to go so I went up behind a bush and started going. I look over my should and he's got another fish. I hurry up and start running back down to net his fish and get right to the edge of the water where there was a lot of very fresh cow plop. I stepped right in the middle of one and went down hard...right into the middle of more cow plop. I was completely covered. I ended up having to throw away a jacket and shirt because it just wouldn't come out.

What is the funniest thing to happen to your client in Year 1 of guiding?
It wasn't my client per se, but a family a group of us were guiding. I had one brother in my boat and someone else had the other two brothers. One of the other two brothers, Mark, wasn't all there and the other two brothers would readily tell you this. Anyhow, Mark has to pee and walks ashore and in the spot we were in, it was quite a walk. He gets his waders down and starts going and the other guide yells, "Mark, be sure to watch for rattlesnakes!". Mark completely freaks out and forgets that he's peeing and his wader liners pop up and he's peeing in his waders and jumping around looking for rattlesnakes that aren't there. The other two brothers and I about pee ourselves laughing so hard. Mark gets himself together, pulls his wader liners back down and finishes. Then he walks all the way back out, pee all over the front of him and in his waders and says, "You guys catch anything yet?".

For some reason, funny things happen when someone has to pee.

What was your biggest learning experience of Year 1?
The biggest self-preservation learning experience is how to casually lean briefly to let a cast whiz by you and go back to rowing like nothing happened. Really good guides don't stop rowing, but you see the slight lean.

The biggest learning experience goes back to communication. I would have clients, especially beginners and novices, that would be doing fine and then something would happen and I'd say something and they'd do it again. The one I noticed first was they would be casting from the boat and make a cast too far up or downstream. I would say, "More toward the bank." and they would make the same cast they just made, but try to cast farther. I realized what they heard was, "Make the same cast again but closer to the bank." So I had to learn to say, "Your cast was too far up (or down) stream." and remind them of the general area they should be casting.

The other thing I learned was to let people have their space at times and do it for themselves. I had two clients and they both had fly fished for a long time, but one of them only got out once or twice a year so it was a re-learning experience. I was helping him and coaching him but he wasn't getting into any fish. I tell him I'm going to check on the other guy and I get about five steps away and he hooks a fish. So I start coaching him again and he's doing everything pretty good but not hooking any fish. So I turn to go help the other guy and get a few steps away and he hooks another fish. This happens about six or seven times in a row. Finally I tell him, "I'm going to tell you that I'm going to help the other guy and walk away and you're going to hook a fish" and he hooks a fish!

Even though I thought I was doing the right thing by being right there and trying to coach him and have him correct some of the small things, I was making him nervous. Once I had moved away, he relaxed enough that he was thinking of the fish and not thinking of doing something correctly. That was a huge lesson for me.

What will you change from Year 1 to Year 2?
Watching for cow poop when I have to pee.

Also to be more proactive in getting people's skill level up, especially for beginners. I always ask people if they had fished, how they fished, what they fished for but too often made assumptions that translated into thinking they'd know what to do fly fishing. It's a fine balance between overloading the person early in the day and telling them enough things to get them going. I don't know if there is a way yet because I found just going over casting and mending was too much for a lot of people so you start working on things as you are fishing.

Every fish has a story, and that fish never fails to leave a smile on it's anglers face.

What was your best fly pattern in Year 1?
Being on the Bighorn, it's a pretty limited selection. A Ray Charles was probably the best all around fly and a grey one at that. It seems like no matter when you stomach pump a fish, there are sow bugs, even in the thickest hatches. There are times when other colors work well but the consistency of a sow bug pattern is unrivaled for me.

What was the beer of choice in Year 1?
Whatever is free. If I have to buy it, it's Moose Drool. If I have to buy it and share it, it's Miller. In college it was common practice to get the cheapest beer possible. But when you are sharing your beer with clients and employers, you want it to be good enough that they'll still hire you.

What was the most common "weakness" in your customers game for Year 1?
The most common one, which occurs more in novice anglers but still some in more experienced anglers, is starting the cast with too much slack in the line. That's where a lot of tangles come from. People start to cast, the slack is there and they jerk the rod to get the slack out instead of going back slowly.

What were you surprised that customers picked up the quickest in Year 1?
The water haul. Casting is tough for a lot of beginners but you can show them how to use the water to load their rod and just flip a cast upstream. The funny part about teaching it is it seemed like the newer the person was, the easier it was for them to do.

The hardest thing for a lot of people to pick up is casting close. Everyone wants (or tries) to cast thirty feet or farther. But on the Bighorn, there are times when you can get really close to fish and you only need to cast the leader and maybe a little bit of line. A lot of people can't load the rod and make the short drift.

What is the name of your boat? Every guide HAS to name his/her boat!
Believe it or not, I don't. I haven't named anything in a long time. It probably goes back to my youth when we named a cow and a year later, it was dinner.

Who is better - the customer that says "Teach me" or the customer that says "More Fish"?
Let's face it, everyone wants more fish. I had two or three clients all season that said, "You know, I've caught enough for one day. I want to go have my cocktail now."

I don't think one is better over the other. The "teach me" client is fun because you can work with them, but not everyone has the same things to learn or that they want to learn. The "more fish" or the "THE fish" client makes you challenge yourself as a guide. Whether you get more fish or THE fish is another thing, but the challenge is fun.

Oldest client in Year 1? Youngest?
Nine year old Cassandra was the youngest. I'm not sure the exact age, but a few that were in their seventies. The bulk of the clients were mid-forties to mid-fifties.

Rumor has it you like the carp and whities - so be honest, what is your favorite type of fish to catch?
I love carp and whities. If it wasn't for whitefish, I probably would not have stuck with fly fishing. Their willingness to be caught is what kept me trying and improving. I also love small mouth bass. A fourteen inch small mouth fights harder than an eighteen inch trout. I've also hook a couple large catfish on the fly. It felt like pulling a tree up. But if I only had one fish to chase around, it would probably be trout just because they offer such a wide variety of ways to try to catch them and you are seldom standing someplace ugly when you do. Thankfully, I live in an area where I don't have to make that choice.

The Horn has some big white fish in there - what was the largest whitie your client caught this year?
The Horn has some very large whitefish, definitely a state record and probably a world record. The largest I had a client catch was about 19 inches and pushing 3.5 lbs. I've seen larger in there but the Bighorn is not prime whitefish water and targeting a big one is a lot harder than going after a big trout. The client that caught the big whitefish was absolutely thrilled.

Did you tell them that the whitie was the much rarer cousin (thus much harder to catch) of the rainbow trout?
If the client is new to the sport, I always give them a good explanation of what a whitefish is. A few of the more seasoned anglers seem to share the same disregard a lot of anglers have. For a lot of people, it's a fish and they don't care. Of course, there is the rare angler that loves catching them too. It's more rare to find a client who likes catching carp.

Every fish is released into the river, but remains in the memories of the anglers that caught it.

What was the craziest weather you saw last year while guiding?
It's Montana. Crazy weather is just part of the day. Wind is the most common thing. It'll be mostly calm one minute and a 30 mph wind the next. One of my last days on the river, the wind came up and was going about 30 mph and then hit 40 mph, died to almost nothing, changed directions and a 50 mph gust hit.

One morning, the wind was blowing strong right away and blowing upstream. It was so hard, I (and quite a few others) had to pull over to rest because it was so much work getting downstream. I sat there and watched people rowing as hard as they could and their boats were moving upstream against hard current.

Another day, we stopped for about 30 minutes and watched a thunderstorm. It was a nice morning but a thunderstorm blew over the mountain and nobody wanted to be in the middle of lightning so we watched it for a while to make sure it was going to stay to the south before we got too far downstream.

There was another time where we got off the river at the end of the day and it was pretty nice but you could see a storm farther up. The people that were up in that stretch of the river were getting pummeled by hail and where we were didn't get a drop.

Any guiding related injuries in Year 1?
Except for ego, none were related to cow poop.

I strained my shoulder one day trying to stop the boat while a downstream wind was pushing us and a client hooked and landed a nice 20 inch rainbow. I really had to dig in to slow the boat and felt the twinge in my shoulder and thought, "Oh sh*t!". It took about five days before it started to feel better and the thing that saved me was the wade fishing was excellent for the next few days so I didn't have to spend all day doing the row-around.

Guiding - harder/easier than a real world job?
A lot harder than a desk job. It's very physically demanding and also, you can't call in sick or show up feeling crappy and do it half-assed and just slide by. You have to give every client the best day of fishing.

Average hourly pay for being a guide - remember to add in sun-up to sun-down prep work?
Enough to live on, but I won't be buying river front property any time soon.

Biggest fish your client caught in Year 1? on what fly?
We landed five 22 inch rainbows throughout the season. The most memorable one was on a Downy Wonder nymph.

According to a client, we landed a 23 inch rainbow, but it grew 3-4 inches after it got released. I have markings in my net so I can eyeball the size pretty quickly but it was his fish and his story.

Which is greater in a day: # of wind knots or # of flies embedded in skin?
Knots by far. Almost everyone gets a knot or tangle at some point. I was only hooked a couple times. I was hit a few more. It all goes back to learning how to lean away and let it fly by. Guides wear big hats for two reasons, chicks dig it and it keeps the hooks out of your face and head.

Who would be your perfect client?
Swedish supermodel or women's Brazillian beach volleyball team. There just aren't enough women that fly fish.

Honestly, I'm not a perfect guide so I'm not going to put pressure on someone to be the perfect client, but the most enjoyable clients are the ones who appreciate the day for what it is.

When the day is over, the boat is trailered, and you pull away from the ramp - what do you do next? Go home, go for a beer, something else?
In Ft Smith, a lot of the clients are staying at one of the lodges so it's get them back to the lodge and enjoying the social time before the meal. Most lodges down there provide the lunch stuff for the day so you have to get that in so it can be cleaned and refilled for the next day. Then it's break down and put away any equipment that needs to. If I have to work the next day, it's get a meal and have a beer with a couple friends. About the middle of August, it's stay up another hour tying flies I have now run out of and need the next day. If I don't have to work the next day, it's go through McDonalds in Hardin, drive home, get up, wash laundry and get ready to head back. Once in a while, you get a day you can actually fish.

How long do you want to do this for?
Guides work for as long as essentially two reasons allow, they wear out or the wife/girlfriend puts the foot down. I'm hoping that neither one happens too soon. I know of one female guide but she's still guiding so I don't know if the same two rules apply.

Any celebrity clients in Year 1?
First year guides usually don't get high profile clients. A couple that probably don't qualify to some as celebrities, but one guy who was a retired professional cyclist. Another was the son of a famous mayor who has achieved some fame for himself.

David showing off a beautiful rainbow.

Any stories about other celebrities you might have heard through the grapevine?
I met Fuzzy Zoeller and spent a morning rigging fly rods right next to Gary Anderson. I spent one day within eye sight of VP Dick Cheney. I heard that Tom Selleck was supposed to be on the river at one point but never saw anyone that looked like Magnum, PI. The funny part is, when they are in waders, a hat and glasses, they are just another person on the river, except the Vice President. Then he's just another person in waders, a hat, sunglasses and surrounded by forty heavily armed people with a military helicopter escort.

Any advise for a wanna-be fly fishing guide?
I have two pieces of advice. The first is, find the most difficult fishing situations and try to over come them. If you don't fish streamers, go fish streamers and figure out how to catch a fish on a streamer. One client I had was a young man who had aspirations but he wasn't very good at dry fly fishing. I told him to go find hatches and fish hatches.

On the Bighorn, everyone knows the obvious good spots. On busy days, they are packed so I would use those days to fish spots where I didn't see people fishing. Many times I found areas that fished really well. I had to learn to adjust my tactics in places and realized where there's water, there's fish. Then I started guiding and realized I hadn't found nearly as many spots as I thought. The caveat to finding a little niche is if you use it often, people will notice and pretty soon, someone else will be standing there.

The other piece of advice is some that someone else gave me. If you are truly thinking of becoming a guide, take two friends out that may not be skilled anglers and leave your rod. Tie knots and flies, take them through areas that you think have fish. Actually guide. I took my mother-in-law. We were almost not on speaking terms by the end of the day, but it certainly gave me a good sense of what a day was going to be like. Thankfully I don't have to spend holidays with clients so I don't get as stressed out with them.

I'm going to make a sports comparison here, because they do have some similarities - do you get butterflies in the morning before meeting your client? If not, when did those butterflies end?
I almost threw up the morning of my first guide trip, I was so nervous. I almost couldn't row because I had the jitters so bad. Thankfully, we hooked fish pretty quickly and I thought, "Phew, this won't be so bad." After that, I still got nerves but nothing like the first day. I got nerves a couple other times with clients that had pretty high expectations and again for one of the high end lodges. I still get butterflies from time to time but that let's me know that I'm not getting complacent. It was the first year in a long time where I woke up every morning looking forward to going to work.

How many times this year have you said "wow, that's never happened to me (or my client) before" and then it did happen again?
I had a lady client who was having a hard time casting. She managed to cut through a strike indicator and then a couple hours later, did it again. There's also the North Dakota Double as we call it. The client in front hooks a fish that runs up stream and it gets tangled in the line or leader of the person in back. The first time it happened, you think there's no way it'll happen again. I had it happen three times one day.

Give us your favorite three fly patterns (besides the Ray Charles mentioned earlier) for the Horn?
Not a specific pattern, but in general, midges. I've always fished them in the winter and book-end months but never fished them throughout the year. I found that fish eat midges every month. A specific pattern that covers midges and a lot of other bugs is the JuJuBee Midge. I'm glad someone told me about that fly.

Another great pattern is the Downy Wonder nymph. It works great for beatis, caddis, pmds and pseudos.

The most under utilized pattern on the Bighorn and probably anywere is a streamer. I don't go too far out of the box on patterns. Buggers and zonkers work great. People don't fish them because it's work casting and work fishing them. The Bighorn breaks a lot of rules when it comes to what fish will eat at what size they get. Lots of big fish will eat sow bugs and scuds because they are a big protein meal. But a truly big fish is still a hunter and is looking for that big meal.

What about bad clients and hard days? Every guide has a "bad client" story.
I have heard a couple stories and I did have one day that was not entirely pleasant, but it was something out of my control that set everything in motion. I did what I tried to do every day and that was get people to catch fish. But it was one day out of a whole summer so I don't dwell on it.

The hard days for me this year were two and both for the same thing...I had two different clients bring their fathers who were terminally ill and it was their last hurrah. One I found out about a few days before and the other I found out at some point during the day. You know there isn't much time left and they just want one last memory. You just try to make it as good a day as possible.

If you are interested in hiring David (Montana guide #12456) as your guide on the Bighorn, he can be reached at or you can contact the outfitters he works for at:

Jeremy Gilbertson, Gilbertson Outdoors
Billings, Mt
Montana Outfitter 8836

The Bighorn Trout Shop, Steve Hilbers
Ft Smith, Mt
Montana Outfitter 504

Thanks David for being a good sport, a good friend and a hell of a guide! Hopefully we'll be tipping some Drool at the Bighorn gathering in a few weeks!

All pictures were taken by David Palmer.

1 comment:

wyoflyfish said...

Great interview on both sides of the pen here guys. I really enjoyed the piece.