Hell, I'll admit it, I've thought about quitting my job, leaving the wife and kids behind and getting paid to fish! I could get rich! Except I'm too damn stubborn, am a horrible teacher and my knots suck. Plus, if someone else is paying ME I probably can't be fishing at the same time. So it is not for everyone. But it is for one of my buddies.
He's David Palmer, and I interviewed him a couple years back after his first year of guiding on the Bighorn - you can check out the interview titled Cow Patties, the "Lean", and Swedish Supermodels - That's Living the Guiding Life .
Well, I was lucky enough to get a second shot at David and finding out if he's still all in, or if he's found another way of life. Luckily (for me), he hasn't, and he's willing to share his experiences with us again and give us a taste of the grizzled vet fishing guide life. He probably hasn't changed, just is a little more recognizeable now - giving presentations, fly tying demos, tying up some flies, but his love is still on the water and teaching people to chase their dreams, mend their lines and keep their flies in the water in the hopes of catching the big one.
He's still guiding on the Bighorn River in Ft. Smith, MT - but he's two years more experienced and over 200+ trips wiser. So what has he learned? Here's our interview, enjoy!
Three full seasons under your belt, you are a grizzled veteran. Do you feel like one?
Relatively speaking, I’m still the rookie, but yes I’m starting to feel grizzled and more importantly, to smell like one. In July and August, I did 25 days each month with a 17 day stretch in July and a 20 day stretch in August. About 10-11 days into those, you definitely start to feel grizzled.
Do you look/feel better/worse than you thought you would 3 years in? What was the picture in your head of a 3 year vet?
Actually, both better and worse. Once the hot weather hits and you’ve had a lot of days in a row, there’s no social hour anymore. It’s eat a meal and go to bed. At the same time, I have more upper body muscle mass than I’ve ever had. I’m the lightly tanned, non-steroid version of the Incredible Hulk. The picture that I had of anyone beyond the first year is someone who knows where all the fish are and all the right flies to use. The reality is, just act like you know.
A nice fish, even being held by huge hands!
You aren't a young buck anymore like some of the guys out there - is guiding starting to catch up with you? Any lingering injuries that don't seem to go away?
Both last year and this year, there have been moments where I realized I can’t guide forever, at least not Bighorn style. Two years in a row I’ve ended the season with tendinitis in one shoulder and it takes most of the winter to get rid of it, but mostly because I spend the whole winter streamer fishing.
How many trips have you got under your belt (because I know you keep track of that sort of stuff)?
I did 108 trips my first year, 98 the second year (which turned out to be really good for how bad the economy was) and 115 this year. 120 trips a year would be reasonable if I could spread them out over seven months and never have wind or horrible floating moss.
How is guiding different after the first year? What have you done differently after Year 1? What have you left the same?
One thing that is different is a lot of the veteran guides realize you are probably going to stick around and some of the stuff that happens to rookies stops happening. The other thing that was different was the huge confidence boost I got at the beginning of the second year. In year one, the river was so busy and also, when I started I knew absolutely nothing about guiding. In year two, business was down so much that my first two days on the river, I was the only guide I saw all day, so there were no training wheels so to speak.
The river also opened up a lot the second year by people floating different sections. I just got to spend a lot more time away from the crowds and catching fish that you couldn’t get clients into the first year and again, that was a huge confidence booster. One thing I learned in year one is show up on time, be reliable and work hard. I’ve learned since then and still continue to learn is just how to work with people. One of my friends unintentionally gave me some of the best advice at the beginning of the second season, which is don’t let your frustrations show. People pick up on that and the day can head south fast. If you stay positive, you get through rough patches and have a great time all day.
Last time we chatted, you were squashing the rumors of all guides being homeless, long haired, unshaven and dog lovin' hooligans - do you care to rebuff any of those theories? (short hair still? clean shaven still? wife still with you?).
What do you call a guide without a wife or girlfriend? Homeless.
I still think most are transients and every guide is a dog lover. Ft. Smith empties out in winter. Even the full-time residents are gone part of the winter. I still have the same wife and she’s still very supportive of the whole thing, but there have been a couple marriage casualties and every guide that has a girlfriend introduces me to a new girlfriend the next time around, or so it seems.
You can also tell when there is a new hot waitress at Polly’s. Every single guide eats there for a week straight hitting on her. I mean Ft Smith hot, not Victoria Secret hot.
I hear you’re a poodle guy. Be honest, the biggest brown you've ever seen on the Horn - would it take one of those poodles as bait?
The biggest brown I’ve netted was a stout 22 inch male. I’ve had clients land a lot of 21-22 browns but this thing was a beast but still only 22 inches. I have a friend who landed a 27 inch male on a day off. I’ve yet to see anything that would take one of my poodles, but the geese babies get thinned out pretty quickly in the spring and it makes you wonder....
Have you guided anyone famous?
I still have yet to guide anyone famous but I get to talk to the people that do. I’ve met Fuzzy Zoeller twice now. One of my friends guided John Elway. My roommate guided one of the actors from Baywatch. Another friend guided Richard Childress of NASCAR fame. So far, I’ve guided the son of a famous mayor, the father of an actor on 30 Rock, a doctor who worked with John Wooden at UCLA and someone who was on the PGA tour (but not at the Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson level). I also guided the photographer who took the photo of the snow leopard for Apple’s packaging.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen someone do? Craziest thing you've seen in the
The craziest (or dumbest) thing I’ve seen someone do on the river is try to stop a boat in high water by leaning over the front and try to grab tree branches. The guy tried to jump out of the boat so he could grab branches and hold the boat, slips and falls overboard but has both hands on the bow of the boat and is hanging there. He continues to try grabbing a branch while the boat is just pounding him into the bushes. How he didn’t end up without a major injury is a miracle.
One of the craziest things I’ve seen in my boat was a friend, not a client. We dropped a rod in the river and couldn’t find it wading around. We pulled the boat back up and floated by where we thought it was. He spotted it and basically dove in and grabbed it. He was hanging onto the boat with one hand and his feet were in the boat but the rest of him is in the water reaching for the rod.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you?
I had a husband and wife and we are floating along fishing hoppers. The husband is in the back of the boat and hooks a really big brown right on the bank just up from the Drive In. For those that don’t know the Drive In, it’s the car bodies lined along the bank. The water upstream is fairly slow and placid and at the cars, it really picks up speed and has about a 90 degree bend halfway through it and then gets really funky. We are still in the placid stretch and I’m digging in with the oars because the brown is really putting the screws to us. The brown makes a huge run and I hear a “thunk” and the husband says something. I turn around and he’s got his rod and line but his reel is sitting on the bottom of boat.
The Drive In Hole
I’m trying to row with one hand and pick up the reel with the other and not get sucked downstream. I managed to pick up the reel, stop rowing and get it back on his rod but we get sucked into the fast water so I start rowing and he’s making ground on the fish. We get around the corner and the fish is finally about 20 feet away and then runs and rolls the hook out of its mouth. I thought for sure once we had the reel on and the fish was still there, we’d land it but it was on too long and out-maneuvered us.
What’s the biggest fish a client has caught?
So far, a 23 inch rainbow that weighed about 5 lbs. I had a client that had a rainbow on that was bigger, but for some reason, he reached out and grabbed the leader and tried to hoist it in the boat. That was one moment where I was briefly negative....maybe not so brief. He took it in good stride though.
Has a client ever wanted to keep a fish? Did you try to change their mind? What did they do?
Every so often you get someone who wants to keep a fish. Basically, I flat out lie and say it’s a catch and release river. If they know the regulations, sometimes they call me on it and then I say (and it’s true) that it’s the practice of the outfitters and I’m just abiding by their wishes.
One day I had a guy who just whined and whined about it. He just wanted to keep one. “That’s all I want, just one!” Seriously, he rivaled most little kids on the whine factor...literally, stomping his feet and whining. Finally I broke down and we kept a 14-15 inch brown. I wouldn’t let him keep anything bigger. About ten minutes later, he was whining even harder about keeping another one. I just stopped talking to him after that. I will never keep a fish for a client ever again. Most people are understanding of the practice and accept it or pretend to but this guy was so overboard and I had to learn my lesson the hard way.
You must have lots of repeat customers - who is your #1 client - the client you've done the most trips with?
The point of being a guide is to ultimately build up a lot of repeat clients. I have a few but what amazes me is when I get a request and it’s a friend of someone I guided. That almost means more.
Ted is my #1 client. I got him by sheer fluke my first year because his regular guide was having some health problems. He comes four days each year. Ted is not only great because he’s a three-peat, but he’s a great fisherman who lets you guide him. He doesn’t have to catch a million fish and he takes the time to just stop and enjoy the moment.
Tough questions now - Let's say I'm a client of yours, I've had a good day, caught some fish, even some big ones, I learned how to cast better, mend better, you netted a bunch of my fish and I drank some of your beer - how much tip should I leave you?
My friend that gave me the advice about not showing your frustration also told me that if you are working for tips, you are working for the wrong reason. He’s married to a doctor so it’s easier for him to say that.
Personally, I think anyone in any service industry should be treated fairly and tipped fairly but in accordance to the service they provide. Naomi Campbell said she doesn’t get out of bed for less than $10k a day. I will get out of bed for considerably less.
Is there an "insult" tip amount?
There is. As a client, you know it because your guide stops talking to you and turns down your request the next time.
Sometimes an insult tip is meant to be just that. A lot of times, people just don’t know better. But I know of (former) clients that can’t get guide trips anymore because of their tipping reputation.
What is the largest/smallest tip you've ever gotten? Ever turn down a tip?
I have never turned down a tip. There’s been a couple where I thought about it, but ultimately you don’t because while you personally probably won’t get that client back, you want the outfitter to get that client back.
The largest tip I’ve ever received left me speechless. I’m grateful and appreciative for just about any tip, but twice I’ve been tipped the same amount and it left me beyond words both times that someone was that generous.
What is the hardest part of your day?
It depends on the time of the year. On a windy day in the spring, it’s when I wake up. About the end of August when you’ve just eaten your 85th roast beef sandwich, it’s lunchtime. After 15 days in a row, it’s calling my wife and telling her I just booked five more days.
Ever thought about quitting guiding?
I have yet to have the “I just can’t take it one more day” day, but not being a young pup, I know that my time is limited whether I snap and call it quits or just decide that it’s time....and then go all Brett Favre about retirement.
Over the past 2+ years the water has been crazy high on the Bighorn, how is fishing in high water?
People find it hard to believe, but the fishing is spectacular in high water once it stabilizes. The river stays clear (except on days where they bump the flow), the temperature goes up, more food gets kicked up and the fish just have to eat more. Once you figure out the structure that the fish are holding to, you are netting fish all day long. It’s the perfect time for beginners and novices.
Do you have any tips for those days where the water just isn't right - too high, off color, too weedy, too low, or the lake is turning over?
The solution to most of these problems is more lead. If the river is high, more lead to get to the bottom (and a longer leader). If it’s off color, more lead to get your flies down (and flies with more color). If it’s weedy, more lead to punch it through the weeds and get to the bottom. In low water, less lead of course and a lot of swearing as the shallow riffles grind off the bottom of your boat.
Describe your most epic day out there on the Horn?
Ballpark estimate was 75 fish one day this spring. I made a comment to one of the clients about how we were going to try a wade fish spot and the water was cold so the fishing might start off slow. It took all of two casts to get the first fish and I don’t think three minutes went by without one of the clients hooking a fish.
We had lunch and moved downstream hoping for some risers. We found a huge pod on baetis. After three more hours of stupendously solid fishing, we finally decided we had to get downstream. I looked at the bottom of the river and noticed our footprints. We only moved three to four feet in three hours. You never get three hours in the same spot behind a pod of rising fish and yet, it happened.
In our first interview you said that you would be more "proactive" in Year 2 - have you become more proactive and how have you?
It’s probably the most important thing I’ve learned in guiding. If someone is doing something wrong, correct it right away. They catch fish sooner, make fewer mistakes and spend a lot less time frustrated. One thing people do wrong is trying to cast with too much slack.
My first year, I’d tell them after the tangle. Now, I remind them to take all the slack out of their line before they cast. If I see them thinking about trying it, I say something so they don’t attempt it. It doesn’t really matter the skill level either because most people want to learn or want a refresher. If I see someone about to do something wrong, I stop them as soon as I can, explain and/or demonstrate it and that reinforcement seems to be a better tool than the frustration of having to stop and untangle.
Conservation is a huge issue on the Horn - with water flows seeming to be all over the place, catch and release, guiding fees, etc - are you a conservationist and what is your soapbox issue?
I’ve become a lot more low key about the river. The BuRec is going to run it how they run it and no force in the universe is going to change that. All I can do is show up and adjust to the conditions. One thing they’ve done is flushed the river really well and brought back a lot of good hatches and some people seem to overlook that. But it has killed business in June even though the fishing is spectacular.
The one issue that I’m starting to get more vocal about is making the Bighorn a barbless river, at least the upper 13 miles. The fish population holds up really well to the fishing pressure, but after a while, you find too many fish that are really scarred or injured because of barbed hooks.
I need only three words to describe the Bighorn?
Flows mostly north
Ok, poop was a central theme in the first interview - give me your best poop story from year 2 or 3?
I wish I had one. The incident the first year was so traumatic, I avoid poop at all costs. Actually, I’m glad I don’t have one. That day had enough cow poop to last me a while.
Complete this sentence, "a great day on the Horn is when..."
...you end the day at the boat ramp with the same number of people you started the day with.
What kind of questions do you get asked by your clients?
There are about 6-7 standard questions you get asked regularly and then a mix of others. The most common question is, “Is this your boat?”. Every guide gets asked that. My answer has shifted to, “Sort of, I have a 99 year lease.”
The question that’s always perplexing to me why people ask is, “How deep is the river?”. They always seem to ask as the riffle is grinding the bottom off the boat, so obviously fairly shallow in spots, but also obviously deeper in spots. I try to explain that in a meaningful way but when I have the right client, my answer is, “I’m not sure, but it’s deep enough to go all the way to the bottom.”
The weirdest question I’ve been asked is, “Is this the Provo River?”. The question I’d love to give the most sarcastic answer to is “What do you do in the winter?” to which I want to reply, “Mind my own business.” but I just can’t get myself to say it, even when I’ve got clients that would find that funny.
The historical questions get much more thorough and boring answers.
Wind sucks, but Montana/Wyoming and wind go hand in hand - you got any crazy wind
I *hate* wind, but it’s a part of the job. The wind was blowing so hard one day, we got to the Grey Cliffs and couldn’t get downstream (sound familiar?). There was a guy about half way down that was pinned against the cliff by the wind. He got knocked out of the boat somehow and couldn’t get back in because he was being hit so hard by the boat and had no place to stand because of the drop off there. I rowed into the wind as hard as I could and it still took us about 15 minutes to reach him (covering about 200 yards). Luckily, he was able to get back in the boat before we got there.
There’s been similar days but without the excitement of a water rescue. The wind can be brutal some days.
Best fly pattern on the Horn - still the Ray Charles?
You’d be a fool to not have a Ray Charles on. It’s the one fly that will catch fish every day of the year. During high water, I run two Ray Charles boat ramp to boat ramp. One grey and one pink. Some days I get crazy and run one pink and one grey.
The Downy Wonder Nymph is a great fly too. It’s a great baetis emerger, but doubles as a really good black caddis emerger too.
Have you noticed that fish are taking different bugs than 2 years ago? Are they getting smart to certain fly patterns?
The fun part about the last two years is a lot of hatches have come back so now you can fish PMD nymphs, trico nymphs and yellow sally nymphs (well duh, and the dries too!). The times I think fish catch on to a pattern is when one starts to work really good and then in a few days, everyone is using it. You’ll get a short stretch where it isn’t working as well because fish have seen it a few thousand times. People stop using it as much, the fish forget and go back to eating it. The trick is, don’t tell people what your hot fly is and the word won’t get around as quickly.
Have you named your boat yet?
Still nameless, but does have a couple custom fish stickers on it now.
So you guide - do you work in a fly shop? Do any presentations? Do tying demos? Sell your flies? Where can people find your work?
I cannot stand retail. I’m just not made for it. I do tying demos for the local TU club, fly shops and sport shows. I’ve done a casting seminar each year at the sport show but don’t draw much of a crowd because they schedule me on Friday afternoon when no one is around.
I’ve just done my first big presentation and have done a couple smaller ones in the past. I don’t sell my flies because I’ve learned I just can’t tie that much. I fill my own boxes but there’s no way I could do 10,000 flies in a winter. I’m not a fly innovator so it’s not like my designs are going to end up in Umpqua or IdleWylde.
Thanks to some heavy handed hooksets, people found some of my work in fish lips this year, especially my secret black caddis pupa. Okay, so I invented one fly. The work I’d like to get noticed is my photography. I’ve tried hard to get some good and different photos but I’ve really got no idea how to make any meaningful income off them.
Favorite rod maker? Why?
My favorite rod is Echo. It’s a great rod for a great price with great customer service and they have a really wide selection now.
Favorite reel maker? Why?
I really like Lamson. They are an awesome reel and use the same drag in every model where others really cut back on the drag system when they cut the price.
Best fly line? Why?
I’ve used SA, Rio and Wulff. They are all good but I like the Wulff Triangle Taper because it roll casts really well and it’s white. You can see it in all light conditions.
Why isn't there a David Palmer buff, or David Palmer lip balm or David Palmer toilet paper out there yet? When you going to accept a sponsorship? Maybe an Orvis tattoo? Or how about selling space on the side of your boat for an advertisement? Everyone has a price Dave - what's yours?
I won the carp tournament in 2008, finished 2nd in 2010 and won the biggest lips prize in 2010. I’m really not understanding why some of the larger marketing agencies haven’t been calling. My tournament partner and I have a book in the works though....Glistening Lips. My price is a case of Moose Drool or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. FIRM.
Another repeat question from Year 1- want to make sure nothing has changed - Guiding - harder/easier than a real world job? Any (new) advice for wanna-be fly fishing guides just getting into the sport?
Harder than what I used to do, probably not as hard as being a surgeon. In guiding, you are trying to go 100% all day. There’s no downtime to run an errand, check the internet for scores, etc. It’s being upbeat all day long and putting that effort out all day. I’ve never had a job before where it took 100% all day.
So many people have a really romanticized notion about guiding. It is a physical, grinding, emotionally taxing job. Don’t be disillusioned with how hard you have to work. Also, the same advice I got, don’t show your frustrations and don’t be critical. It serves no good purpose.
Give me a "wow, that never happened before, and I doubt it ever will again" moment from year 2 or 3?
The hopper fishing of 2009. 30-50 fish a day throwing hoppers to the middle of the river all day long for over two months. That will never happen again. The defining moment of how “Wow!” it was is I had a client whose skill level was very low. I was coaching him on getting the hopper just far enough away from the boat. He makes one really bad cast and gets a nasty tailing loop. I’m yelling at him to stop casting so it doesn’t become a jumbled mess. It’s all out on the water and his hopper is sitting on his line. I tell him to strip everything in slowly so it doesn’t get worse when a brown hammers his hopper and we end up landing it. An 18 inch brown ate a hopper off a fly line that looked like a plate of spaghetti...and we land it. Never again.
When you grow up, what do you want to be?
Either a hand model or financial advisor for professional athletes.
How much longer you going to do this?
I thought 3 years and realized it’s just getting started so 7 to 10 years if my shoulder can take it, or the hand model agencies really start calling.
You realize you are famous now right (being on my blog!)?
Yes, although not Oprah Book Club famous, but I appreciate all the support you give me!
If you are interested in hiring David (Montana guide #12456) as your guide on the Bighorn, you can contact the outfitters he works for at:
Jeremy Gilbertson, Gilbertson Outdoors
Montana Outfitter 8836
The Bighorn Trout Shop, Steve Hilbers
Ft Smith, MT
Montana Outfitter 504
Also check out www.bighornflyfishing.com for more information on the Bighorn.
If you want to see David's blog check out Oar Whore - a well named blog for a guy who rows more miles a year than I walk or run in a year!
Thanks again David for being a great sport, a good friend and allowing us to find out your deepest, darkest secrets! I'm hoping to get up there this spring and hang out with you - I'll buy the Moose Drool!
All pictures were taken by David Palmer.