Should I Fish With A Guide? The guide to fishing with a fly fishing guide in Ennis, MT
I have both worked as a guide and, during the “real job” phase of my life, have had the good fortune to fish with guides as a customer. Guides are expensive, and I’m often asked “If I know how to fish, will it really make a difference if I hire a guide?” My short answer is “Yes!” Hiring a guide will definitely make a difference. However it doesn’t mean I think you should hire one every time you go fishing. While they can make for a great trip, guides are also a bit of a luxury, and frankly they don’t come cheap. I have often thought about this, and figured I would share some thoughts about when and why you might want, or not want to hire a guide on your trip. In short, the answer comes down to a couple of key questions; How much time do you have? Do you know how to find fish at this location? Do you know how to catch and land fish? Do you want access to water others might not have? Do you want to learn more about all of the above? And finally, how comfortable/good are you with keeping yourself and others safe while out on the water.
Perhaps the most important consideration is how much time do you have. I have always been an advocate for putting in time to learn a piece of water. I get great satisfaction in learning a stretch of river over several seasons to the point that on any given day I can look at the weather and the water conditions, and have a pretty good idea about what I need to do to catch fish. But this doesn’t happen overnight, and in most cases where I had the chance to really get to know a stretch of water, I have also endured days that were complete busts. Days where I had not yet figured out where the fish would be or what they were feeding on. I recall various trips I have taken either on my own or with a fishing buddy where we spent hours, or even days traipsing around some new location in search of the supposedly incredible fishing, without necessarily catching a lot of fish. These were great experiences (that created some amazing stories), but the key here is do you have that much time? Many of us when we are on vacation, are traveling to an area we don’t really know, and only have a few days at best. This is where guides really shine. Quality guides have already spent the time getting to know the area and the water. Fish feeding patterns change for many reasons, and if you want to experience the best fishing possible in a new location on the day that you are there, a guide will improve your odds. I should also point out that on trips where I have planned to fish on my own for several days, hiring a guide on the first day of the trip has given me the inside track on what was going on and greatly improved my experience over the remaining days.
You have heard the phrase- “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will become obsessed with gear, fishing magazines and planning trips for the rest of his life…” or something like that? One of the realities of fishing is that 80% of most waters are virtually empty of fish, and a big key to success is getting your fly over feeding fish. Most guides do this very well. For myself, one of the most rewarding aspects of guiding are the times where my guests want to learn to read the water, and I get to spend time helping them to learn to identify where and how to find fish. It’s one thing to read about it in a book, but very different when you are actually out on the stream. Same goes for turning over rocks, sifting for bugs, and just learning how to actually “see” what the fish are doing. When it comes to fly fishing, casting skill is another big factor in determining success rate. I can often predict how many fish a guest is likely to catch just by watching them cast for a minute or two. If they are willing to take a break from fishing to improve their skills, the catch rate often increases substantially. I have always maintained that time and money spent on instruction will do more for your ability to catch fish than any amount of money spent on gear. If you let your guide know that you would like to improve your skills, most will take some time to help you with your cast, or any other work you may need to get up to speed. Not only will this improve your day, but it will also stay with you for future fishing trips.
Another benefit of hiring a guide is actually getting to where the fish are. The large rivers in Montana are generally best approached from a boat. If you want to float a river you will need a boat, and someone that knows the river well enough to take you down it safely. In addition, these big rivers can be very challenging to read. Having the drift boat in exactly the right position so you can make the perfect cast over the best holding water makes it much more likely your fly will generate a strike, especially from the larger fish. This is extra important on days when the wind is playing games with your cast. Even if you plan to wade fish, knowing where to access the river can be a game changer. It’s nice to travel with someone that knows the roads (or trails) and is willing to put the wear and tear on their vehicle! Also keep in mind that guides often have access to private property or water that is not open to the public. Getting to fish over “extra large” fish can be a real treat.
Something that a lot of people don’t think about when they are here on vacation is the simple concept of safety. Many of our rivers look deceptively flat. While there are places where a complete novice can rent a boat and navigate safely, rivers change with the seasons, and hazards can show up and be hard to notice. Every year there are cases of people flipping boats in water that I would describe as quite easy to navigate. Most of the time the result is just wet clothing and some lost gear, but occasionally the outcome can be tragic. Having someone who is highly skilled at the oars is even more important when there are rapids on the stretch you plan to float. A guide is trained in first aid, understands how to float this river, and while you may not even notice, will do a lot to ensure your safety.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for taking the time to explore an area. Knowing that I have figured things out on my own has been very rewarding, and the places that I have taken the time to get to know have become very special to me. But I also know that sometimes I head up blind alleys, hike in to lakes that have no fish, and spend hours thrashing away with the wrong fly. It happens. It builds character and it is all great fun. I would go so far as to say that if you never struggle to figure out water, you never really grow as an angler. However, guides speed up the learning process, and often add to the fun with their stories and local color. I’m a fan of both. I spend a lot of time “learning” my local waters, but still enjoy “treating” myself to the occasional guided trip.
Whether you want to fish with a guide, or just explore on your own, if you are in new territory, I always suggest starting with a local fly shop. They will be happy to give you some advice if you want to explore on your own, and generally have a group of guides that they know are experts on the local river. Be sure to talk with the shop and your guide about exactly what kind of experience you want to have!!!! There are many kinds of trips, and different guides have different strengths. I recall a well known guide in the Florida Keys who had a reputation for cursing out clients when they made a bad cast. He was also known as one of the best guides in the area for finding trophy tarpon. Anglers that really wanted a trophy would just put up with his bad manners, but I would never hire someone like that to take my kids out for a day. Communication up front really matters! This is especially important if you are a complete beginner and will need some instruction. If you tell the fly shop in advance, they will pair you with a guide that enjoys teaching beginners, and will probably select a stretch of water that is particularly well suited to newcomers to the sport.
One final note about fishing with guides. While the guiding fee may seem fairly steep, remember that you are paying for their experience, not just the hours they spend with you on a given day. Guiding seasons are short, and while we love what we do, no one gets wealthy from this business. It is also good to know that leaving a tip for your guide is customary just like tipping the waiter at a nice restaurant. The tip is not mandatory, but if you feel your guide worked extra hard to make your day a good one, a 20% tip is appropriate. You will find that most guides work very hard to make your day special, and its always nice to reward that effort.
Here’s to you having a great experience on the water!
By Scot Bealer
Scot first started guiding in the 1980’s, and has fished extensively through the rocky mountain west and many other parts of the world. When not on the water, he is typically out working with his wife, Lea Frye, doing wildlife photography. See their work at https://www.leaf-images.com, or follow them on Instagram @lea.f_images
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