April 11, 2011
A Guide's Life
I went into this thinking I knew everything I’d ever need to know to be a guide. I could row a boat, I could fish, I could BS with the best of them, and in a lot of ways this is all you need to know to be a guide. Early on I resented the cold stares of the old-timers (not really that old, but they’d been at this game a whole lot longer than I), their sharp eyes hidden behind polarized glasses, their scowls hidden by a week’s worth of stubble. But now I understand that it was never me they resented, but rather the business of being a professional; the fact that this twenty-something-year-old kid represented another trip lost they might have gained had I not decided to join their profession. To the true professionals – those that have made this a way of life for, well a lifetime – I’m just another barely un-acned kid who will either burnout or file for bankruptcy, but in the meantime I’m stealing their trips. I’d argue that I’m serious, I’m committed, I’ve got what it takes. But they’ve heard that story a hundred times. Almost every day I run into somebody who “used to be a guide, but I got out when I could” or “yeah, I guide occasionally…do it on the weekends, but my real job is in education.”
What you’ve heard is true; this is a rich man’s sport and a poor man’s profession. The old joke goes like this: how do you make a million bucks in the fishing industry? Start with two million. Most guides are either in the red or just barely getting by, hanging by a thread and hoping the transmission doesn’t go out, or God forbid on the Deschutes, the air-conditioning.
To be successful in this business, you have to have a dawn-to-dusk work ethic, and no matter what you must stay positive. The wind can be blowing forty miles an hour with sideways rain, the fish haven’t been biting all day long, and as a guide you have to ooze confidence. You have to give off the vibe that this next cast is going to be the one.  It’s this same optimism that tells us we can make a living doing this.
And while an awful lot of our clients say they wish they could trade us jobs, say how they’d love to have the freedom that we do; the reality is we are just as tied to our jobs as the average cubicle committed office type. We have to take every trip we can get, because we never know when the next one will come. This job isn’t as easy as it may seem, but it’s more rewarding than I’d ever thought possible. Before I started, I didn’t realize the feeling that came with helping someone catch their first fish, or the joy that comes from opening up a world of possibilities to someone who that morning was a stranger.
As guides we may not get paid vacations, health insurance, or retirement benefits, but we do have the benefit of living life on our terms. Guides are an independent bunch, we don’t tend to be followers, unless the crowds are leading to better fishing, even then we’d probably go find fish on our own and do it our way.
I’m twenty six and four years into my dream job, but I still don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up. Like a lot of guides I’m stuck in a state of limbo, not ready to give up the dream, but not sure if I’m ever going to actually make any money. Every year I spend away from the real job market, the higher the probability of me either staying a guide (for lack of other skills) or doing a job I hate. I told my wife, Holly, my biggest fear was her getting pregnant. Not because I don’t want to have kids, I’m ecstatic about one day being a dad, but because I’d have to give up guiding and take the best available job in the real world I could find. Then I’d be kid-committed to a job.
Every once in a while she complains, and I tell her I’ll go get a real job, but we’re both bluffing; she’d rather be poor and have me be happy, than rich and the both of us miserable. That’s not to say I’m not making money, I am, but when you’re on the outside looking in, you don’t realize all the costs that go with the job. There are boats, trucks, gas, shuttles, lunches, drinks, snacks, flies, new tires, repairs, insurance, taxes, license fees, and sometimes the list seems to go on forever.
 This job is feast or famine, oftentimes we work two to four weeks hard, and then have a difficult time finding trips for the next four weeks. It’s funny, during the slow times the mind starts to wonder, you begin to think that maybe you should go find a real job, but during the hectic trip-after-trip times you think you have the best life in the world. Now how many jobs are like that, where the busier you are the happier you are?  Every trip, there is a moment that reminds me just how lucky I am; sometimes it’s a fish caught, or a really fun client, but more often it’s simply rowing down the river with the beautiful canyon surrounding and a slight breeze in the air.
I’m living my dream and loving every minute of it. The reality is if you ask me where I see myself in ten years, the answer is right here. Because the further I get from the real world, the closer I get to something real.

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