Article: Working Classes

This article originally ran in the March 2006 edition of American Angler and is reproduced here with permission.

AS THE NAME IMPLIES, a guide school is where fly fishermen go to learn how to be guides. Or, to be more precise, guide school is where some fly fishermen go to learn how to be good guides. Typical guide-school curriculum includes things such as how to tie knots, how to be a better caster, and what to expect from various kinds of clients. A good guide school will go in to stuff like important business decisions-everything from how to choose a name and logo to what kind of insurance to carry in case you accidentally kill somebody. (Hey, guiding can get a little hairy.) And when the school is over, any outfit worth its salt will help place a student in a guiding job.

On the other hand, people teach themselves these skills all the time. People find jobs on their own, too. And, clearly, not every guide has been formally trained. So what kind of people do go to guide school? Is a guide school graduate any better than a graduate of the school of hard knocks? To get an in-depth look into what kind of animal a guide school really is, I did a little research and then actually attended one in its infancy. You might be surprised what I learned.

No Average Student

You might assume that the average guide-school student is a twenty-something hardcore angler who practices casting on his lawn and eats oatmeal to save cash for flies. After all, that’s the image of guides we all see in catalogs and ads-a bearded fellow named Gus or Chuck or Pete, who lives in a trailer behind the fly shop and he has pretzels and beer for breakfast. Grown men don’t achieve that degree of guide-ness without a lengthy run up as a deprivation-seeking trout junkie, so, ipso facto, the guide school student must be a younger version of Gus. But in the real world, guiding is a business, and there is no single kind of student.

Dave Ashcraft with a Madison River brown.

So let’s start off with Dave Ashcraft. Dave is the kind of Montana rancher who still talks with a bit of a Midwestern accent instead of a Californian one. He’s old school; he grew up around livestock and fences, tending his animals about the same way his father’s father did. He owns a nice piece of property in Montana’s Ruby Valley, but he’s smart enough to know the future of ranching is uncertain, and it’s likely to be even worse by the time his kids are ready to take over. Other Montana ranchers have converted marginal cattle land into dude ranches or outdoor lodges and made a sustainable business for themselves. Dave’s not the fringed-leather-chaps type, so he set up a fishing and hunting lodge, and then he set about learning how to run it. After a season troubled by personnel difficulties, Dave realized he needed to know more about guided fishing in order to hire the right kind of people. To do that, he signed up for the inaugural session of Greg Lilly’s School for Professional Guides in Sheridan, Montana.

Here’s the thing about Dave: he was a good natural fisherman, but he was no expert. He’d been fly fishing for years and years, but he’d never learned to double haul. After all, you rarely need to cast longer than 50 feet on any trout stream. Dave also knew a bunch of knots, but not the kind you’d use to set up a reel. Like most people, he just let the guys at his fly shop do that for him. finally, Dave had never so much as sat between the oars of a drift boat.

But some students are hardcore fishers, even if they aren’t experts. When it comes to guiding, such folks are often just trying out another role in life to see if this one sticks. Kim Trafton fits this model. In a sport dominated by men, Kim was already rare, but she became rarer still by falling into fly fishing so hard that she enrolled herself in the Reel Women Guide School in Victor, Idaho. And when Kim got out and landed a job, she convinced her husband to go to guide school, too.

A few students, like Jason Skoda, already know for sure that they want to be guides. For them, this is a serious professional school. Jason enrolled in the Sweetwater Travel Guide School in Livingston, Montana-probably the biggest name in the field right now. He wasn’t interested in learning how to fish, so much as in learning about boat and business management. And, hailing from Iowa, he needed to make some contacts in the West, the epicenter of the guide market. “I tried to get jobs before going to this school,” Jason says, “but whether it was because [potential employers] were getting letters from this guy in Iowa or my lack of references, I just couldn’t.”

Other guide school students are ex-pinstripe-suit types who just couldn’t take an office (even one with a corner view) any longer. There are even quite a few well-heeled anglers who have no intention of professionally guiding and just want to improve their skills. Guide schools are fairly expensive (they run from $1,000 to $3,000 or so depending on length), but compared even to a vocational education they’re a bargain. And, as Kim put it, you do get a peek at the “Secrets of the Guides.”

A Day in the Life

When you run a school that takes all kinds, you need to be prepared for anything. I sat in on a week of classes at the Greg Lilly School for Professional Guides. If the name sounds familiar, that’s probably because Greg’s dad, Bud Lilly, started and owned one of the finest shops in the West and is something of a national treasure. Like his peers Lori-Ann Murphy of Reel Women and Ron Meek of Sweetwater, Greg starts at the beginning, and it’s a good thing, too. Some guide-school students turn up with the ability to cast like a pro, but most don’t. “I guess it was just my naivety,” as rancher Dave Ashcraft put it, “but it never really occurred to me to use something like the double haul on a trout stream. Now I use it all the time to fight wind and just for control, you know?”

A student watches her instructor from a
raft on the Beaverhead.

A day in guide school usually has a predictable rhythm. You get there early because, hey, this is fishing. In the West’s small towns you never know when you might bump into a celebrity, so try not to gape if David Letterman slides into the booth next to you at the greasy spoon you’re using as a classroom. (Swank outfits like Lilly’s sometimes have a designated classroom space, too). Around morning coffee, you do the real gruntwork of guiding: amateur biology lessons on trout food sources. For those not from the West, the knowledge that you could be smacking cockroach-size stoneflies off your neck by lunch makes this a little less academic.

For the first day or two, your casting and knot-tying lessons will take up the mornings, while the afternoon is devoted to the real deal: fishing. Casting instruction is a lot different than casting itself, and guide school focuses on the instruction part. Most guides spend at least part of every day teaching someone how to cast better. First, the guide-school student is the subject of the casting instruction. He or she is taught to control loop size, how to turn on and off the tailing loop (the preferred setting is “off”), how to double haul, and finally more advanced techniques- such as the reach, pile, and tuck casts. Once everyone has elevated their casting to an acceptable level (and under the tutelage of certified casting instructors such as Lilly, that happens fast), the tables are turned and the students become the teachers. Once it’s the students’ turn, you change classrooms and head to the river, where ‘clients’-usually lucky friends of the instructors or journalists-will be the subjects of the students’ attentions.

The drive up the valley is an education in and of itself. Guides are expected to know things like the names of local mountain ranges, common bird types, and where to get the best microbrew after a day in the hot sun. For a student aiming to guide professionally, it helps to choose a school in the area the he wants to work, or all this information goes to waste. Some outfits, including Lilly’s, have experimented with hiring naturalists and college professors to lead these tours. All of this is just the window dressing, however, because the real learning starts when you get to the river.

Rocking the Boat

Greg Lilly’s Top Ten Guide Skills

1. Accomplished casting and fishing. A good guide must know his sport.
2. Teaching and coaching. A client should leave feeling he or she has learned.
3. Above-average patience. Good guides must work with all levels of angling.
4. A sense of humor. Successful guides must learn to roll with the punches.
5. Work ethic. Guiding is not a nine-to-five job.
6. Motivational ability. Sometimes a guide must be a slave driver to keep his sport fishing.
7. Cheerleading ability. Guides must be encouraging, upbeat, and complimentary at all times.
8. Boat safety. Never risk a client’s safety for fish.
9. A good ear. Guides must listen and observe their
clients to help them meet expectations.
10. Flexibility. Successful guides must adapt; every day on the water is a new day.

First things first: you have to get your boat in the water. Backing a driftboat is one of the many things most people just assume they can do, even if they’ve never tried it. It isn’t as easy as it looks, and nothing screams amateur like jackknifing on the ramp. Kim Trafton offered a little insight into the realities of being a female guide student on that ramp: “When you’re launching the boat, all the other guides are there and they’re busy, but their clients, usually all men, are just standing around. For some reason, being a woman working on the river makes you the center of attention, so it’s like you’ve got this spotlight on your every move. You don’t want to mess it up.” Even for male students, the moment can get a little hairy, but chances are, if something goes wrong, your instructor’s been there before.

After some fits and starts, every student will manage to get the boat in the water, hopefully unscarred and with dry scuppers. Now is when the fun begins. New oarsmen often fall into two categories: those who take to it like a duck to water and those who take to it like a duck to, oh, baseball. For rowers with no experience, the first few moments can be make-or-break. On a river like the Madison, where even experienced guides tear the bottoms out of fiberglass drift boats, students need a patient hand and a lot of advice. Drift boat management is the kind of skill you build over time, but it helps to know the rules. “Row away from trouble,” Lilly patiently intones throughout the day. “Work the boat to aid the angler. You are fishing through them.” The worst thing a new rower can do is get crossways in the current, and sometimes instruction breaks down to the basics: “Right oar. Now left.” By the end of the day, however, you can see noticeable control, improvement, relief. Oh, and a lot of stretching. “My shoulders were sore for three days,” said Dave Ashcraft. “Almost the minute we put in, the ‘client’ hooked a nice fish, but then we cleared the ramp and the wind hit. Oh crap, I thought, this is going to be harder than it looks.”

Greg Lilly works the seine net.

And it is hard. Guiding isn’t for everyone. Scott Schumacher of Sweetwater Travel Guide School estimates that 50 percent of students who actually intend to guide wash out of the profession within a year. “It’s a lot harder than they think,” he explains, “and there’s not a lot of glory in day-to-day guiding.” But the one thing that every guide school student, man and woman, echoes is that the presence of the experienced hand in the back, softly encouraging them, gives them the confidence to get down the river. Of a swift, occasionally treacherous section of the Beaverhead next to an Interstate riprap wall, Dave said, “I was thinking: don’t put it into the wall, don’t put it into the wall. But the whole time my instructor was right behind me, giving me advice, and I knew we’d make it through just fine.”

The School of Life

So back to the original question: Is a guide school graduate better than one who came from the school of hard knocks? Think about it like this. As with most professions, guides are products of the company they keep. A man like Greg Lilly grew up with access to some of the finest water and the finest instruction anyone could ask for. As Bud Lilly’s son, he rubbed shoulders with some of the best anglers in the world. Of course he’s good. But a regional guide doesn’t necessarily get that opportunity. A man who lives his entire life guiding one river in, say, Kentucky, is bound to be an expert on that one river. But is he going to be able to elevate a client’s casting? Will he understand fisheries and fishing skills he doesn’t absolutely need to know to catch fish on his own water? Is he likely to provide a complete guiding experience, or is he just there to make sure you catch fish? The answers to those questions depend on the guide, of course. Many self-taught guides of hard knocks are excellent anglers and successful professionals.

“Occasionally we’ll get someone in here who could probably teach the guiding portions of the class,” says Sweetwater’s Schumacher. “But that person won’t necessarily know anything about running different kinds of boats, or doing CPR, or entertaining a client. We also teach people skills, and some people are better at recognizing when they have them and when they don’t.” Guide-school graduates have had comprehensive instruction in a variety of fishing-related disciplines. Graduating from a school is worth more than just a feather in the cap. Graduates get the resources of the school in job placement, and they have the rounding needed to be able to guide anywhere from Alaska to Florida. Does that mean all guides need to attend guide school? Certainly not. But the next time you’re looking for a guide, you might ask if the person attended guide school, especially if the guide is unknown to you. It never hurts to know in advance you are in the hands of a professional.

For more information about Guide Schools or guiding, visit the Board.

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