Guiding Lessons

In The Trout Diaries Derek Grzelewski described the horror of guiding. He had many bad days, but one stood out. After countless missed opportunities he finally found his client a sitter of a trout. It was feeding enthusiastically in technically simple current, and at ridiculously close range. And still the clueless klutz couldn’t manage to put the fly in front of the fish. For Derek it was the last straw. I laughed out loud as I read this story, and imagined that I could never be a guide. Still, I used guides quite often. Sometimes there was no alternative. In Iceland (FL#76) visiting anglers are more or less compelled to use guides when fishing for Atlantic salmon. In Montana (FL#71) hiring a guide isn’t compulsory, but it makes sense if you want to drift a river – how else are you going to organise a boat? In Japan (FL#78) guides serve as handy translators. And in Nevada (FL#80) they are a convenient source of fishing ladders. I’ve learned a lot from the guides I’ve used, not just in terms of fishing skills but also in terms of what it takes to be good at the craft. For a start, all have reached a point in life where they get as much enjoyment out of seeing their clients catching fish as they do catching fish themselves, sometimes more so. They’ve also learnt how to cope with their clients not catching fish. For them, the joy of helping people overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds trumps all. For years I didn’t think I could ever emulate this Zen-like attitude. The real turning point came when a friend, Jim, arrived from overseas. Despite his age, Jim desperately wanted to catch at least one wild trout from the Tasmanian wilderness. I took him to a favourite water in the Western Lakes. Walking in was straightforward, if slow, but bashing along the scrubby western shore completely wore him out, physically and mentally. By the time we reached the end of the beat, dark clouds had rolled in and the wind had got up. Had I been there by myself I would have ambled off to a nearby tarn where the sheltered pinrush marsh was bound to have some tailers. But walking another few kilometres was not an option. All we could do was head back to camp, along the much gentler eastern shore. Because I love sight fishing I didn’t want to fish blind, but after noticing the odd, subtle oncer I swallowed my pride and got Jim to punch a dun slightly upwind over the lip. “Make sure the fly stays on the seam of the windlane,” I coached. “Maintain natural drift.” And then he was on. The rush, the rush! Jim ended up raising several fine trout, and each take brought both of us unbridled joy. I had finally reached the cherished Zen moment. I suppose it was fortuitous that this happened just about the time RiverFly asked me if I wanted to join their guiding team. FRUSTRATIONS Over the ensuing years I have grown to accept that most clients just want their guides to find them some fish, pure and simple. But I have also discovered that my fellow guides, the likes of Peter Broomhall, also manage to help their clients become better anglers. (In truth I too have benefitted greatly from their instruction.) So what are the main problems clients have to overcome? Let’s get straight to the point: most of us are poor casters. Look, guides don’t expect you to be able to throw tournament casts, but you do need to be able to present a fly quickly anywhere from one (yes, one) to 12 metres from where you stand and consistently land it in front of the fish. For most people the main problem is not letting the back cast fully unfurl before commencing the forward cast. They also have a tendency to lay the rod too far back. (For anything less than 12 metres, the rod should never swing much beyond vertical.) Most guides can help correct these faults – if the client is prepared to listen – but it would be infinitely better if everyone practised their casting before they went fishing. (All of us would fish better if we set aside one day a year for professional casting tuition.) The next most common mistake is a reluctance to actively participate in the hunt. If you are forever lagging behind, eyes down turned, you’ll never be in any position, or frame of mind, to make a cast when the guide points out a fast-cruising or difficult-to-see trout. In the Tasmanian highlands good guides can generally find you a few ‘easy’ fish, but you won’t earn bragging rights until you are able to convert the ‘half chances’. I notice, too, that the most successful anglers are always asking questions: Why are we fishing the southern shore today? Why are we using this fly? Why does the windlane always form here? SUCCESS The key to satisfaction is meeting expectations. The key to delight is exceeding expectations. Good guides keep your spirits up without ever overplaying the prospects of success. For their part, clients need to maintain a realistic expectation of what they might achieve. Tassie’s Central Plateau is the most technically challenging place I’ve ever fished – that’s one of its attractions – so you need to learn to enjoy the trout that outwit you as much as the ones you actually land: you simply can’t fish well if you allow yourself to become negative. Similarly, it pays to train yourself to notice and savour things other than the actual fishing. A platypus scratching her back. A mob of wallabies bursting from a squat. A snake hunting duns along the foreshore. One morning in the wilderness, Peter and I woke to a foot of snow. Our two clients, from Brisbane, immediately rushed onto the moors and started throwing snowballs. Later they filmed themselves making snow angels. “Our kids back home are going to love watching this video!” It’s no coincidence that these guys ended up catching fish despite the weather. Attitude is everything. BEST MEMORIES Several of my best days guiding were at Lake Ina. One of my favourite clients, Tony, a retired geologist, came to Ina every year of my tenure, usually with his adult son Miles. He insisted on using a ridiculously lightweight rod, and I insisted on ribbing him. It was part of the fun we had together. Once, in anticipation of an approaching storm, when I advised him to stop fishing and rug up, he reached deep into his daypack and produced an umbrella. “I’ve forgotten my raincoat,” he admitted shyly. The great thing about Tony is that when he catches fish, his delight is palpable. The first time he hooked a black spinner leaper is one of the happiest moments of my guiding days. I also basked in Tony’s pride as he watched his son’s angling ability improve exponentially year after year. Mind you, the limits of goodwill were tested on our last trip after Miles landed his sixth good fish and Tony had yet to elicit a single take. At the end of that day, in quickly deteriorating weather, a random fish leapt once. No one really expected that it was catchable, but Tony waded towards it, out over slimy cobbles, and cast anyway. Then, ‘Clop!’ Understandably, Tony’s strike was somewhat overenthusiastic. He slipped and staggered backwards, arms flailing. I had a split second to prioritise my reaction. Should I save the camera around Tony’s neck? Prevent his complete submergence? Do everything possible to keep tension on the rod so that he might possibly land this most necessary of trout? In the end, we somehow managed to do all three. High fives. Laughter. What a victory. Gerard was visiting from New Caledonia. Our first day together started off with fish leaping for black spinners. Then a northerly sprung up and the spinners disappeared. Hours later, just when we’d decided to call it quits, we spotted a fish cruising hard-in along the wave-washed southern beach, literally inches from the shore, snipping beetles from the cresting waves. Despite the wind, Gerard’s fly landed perfectly, but the waves dumped it on the beach. Not to be deterred, the trout shot in and tried to pluck the fly from little more than wet sand. It was forced to give a flick of the tail and a quick wriggle, but suddenly it was back in the water. And then the reel began screaming. At the time, it was the biggest trout I’d seen landed at Ina, and certainly the most thrilling. Apart from special events like these, I thoroughly enjoyed the days I rafted people down Brumbys Creek and the Macquarie River. It was a godsend being able to manoeuvre the raft to compensate for imperfect casting – we nearly always caught good fish – and even when the fishing was unusually tough, everyone raved about the drift itself and went home smiling. TIPS FOR WANNABE GUIDES Most people think guiding must be the life of Riley, but although most guides love what they do it’s bloody hard work. If you don’t believe me I’d urge you to read books like Miles Nolte’s fantastic Alaska Chronicles. If you still think you want to be a guide, make sure you go on a few guided trips yourself, both locally and overseas, and take care to study the way the seasoned professionals operate. Good guides work long hours for modest pay. They also put the interests of the client above their own, understanding that nobody wants to be taken off the water in the middle of a hatch. Although your guide may already have fished ten days in a row and be exhausted, he or she will always respect the fact that you are fresh and keen. And that you may well have paid more than you could really afford. Good guides always have spare everything and are generous with flies, lunch and conversation. They understand that little things matter. Finally, because the trout and weather can be fickle (especially in Tasmania), good guides understand that it pays to incorporate something special into the trip. Camping in the wilderness and drifting down rivers, for example, are worthy experiences in their own right, regardless of how many trout are caught. HOW GUIDING BENEFITTED ME In my normal fishing life I get to pick the eyes out of the weather. Guiding proved to be a real leveller – I couldn’t avoid fishing in adverse conditions, and I had to make it work. But it was great to be reminded that you can usually find a fish or two no matter what. In one year’s guiding I learned more about fishing in poor light, freezing cold and howling wind than I did in the previous decade. In the same vein, it was an education spending day after day on the one lake (Ina), experiencing not only the change of the seasons but the way the seasons changed with the passage of years. I now understand why the old hands at places like Lake Sorell and Arthurs Lake were able to consistently out-fish the young guns. The best of it, though, was learning to enjoy spending time with people who were sometimes my polar opposites, both politically and socially. All of us had to make it work – you can’t spend days on end camping in the wilderness and allow yourself to become surly – but it was much easier than I ever imagined. We simply looked for common ground, which always started with our love of fly fishing and radiated out from there. I have come to believe — truly believe — that if everyone fly fished there would be a lot less aggression and chaos in the world, and a whole lot more laughter and mutual respect. Hell, there might even be some chance of world peace.

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