Fish Tales: Confession from a Guide

A while back I marveled to a colleague on the complexities of matching up 20 fishing clients with 10 guides in less than 30 minutes. Typically the clients are guests of a CEO, ducking out of a convention or involved in a seminar where the "bottom line" is a code word for dropping a Wooly Bugger into a deep pool with a sink-tip line. Rolling up to the hotel parking lot and joining the ranks of the other guides and their rigs, I was always amazed at the process that matched 30 men for a day's outing. Social Darwinists would have a field day watching this natural selection.

On a personal level, I had already discovered a form of this "natural selection" between men and women by way of the "Invisible Velcro Patch Natural Law of Selection". I believe that dysfunctional adults wear an invisible Velcro patch attached to their shoulders. Healthy males and females have tiny patches enabling them to thread their way through a crowded dance floor. Confident of finding their soul mates, they hum the refrain, "Some enchanted evening, you will find a stranger across a crowded room." Their search for a soul mate and their ultimate success is principally the result of a small patch that doesn't reach out and grab weirdoes, losers, neurotics and other dysfunctional individuals. Dysfunctional individuals like myself, on the other hand, have invisible flaps the size of a mud flap on a 16-wheeler. Thwack! We have a match. We have lift-off! Mission soon to be aborted.

I have suffered through this matrimonial, mating phenomenon more times than I care to admit, but it is even more interesting to watch the natural selection take place in a parking lot where 20 powerful titans of capitalism match up with 10 self-assured Montana river guides. The consummate guides arrive early and position their rigs after first reconnoitering the layout. When the men file out after breakfast, these professionals efficiently scan the group, weeding out the unworthy neophytes. The tailgates of their trucks are down to display hundreds of fly boxes holding a myriad of traditional patterns, as well as their own secret killer flies. They shake hands with the first group of men and casually dismiss the gawkers and gushers. They know their man when an individual picks up a pattern, inspects it carefully and comments, "Have you ever tied the thorax with rabbit fur and used partridge feathers for the tail rather than mallard fibers?"

The joke tellers and football fanatics match up quickly. These extroverts bond instantly. On any given day on the river with a large group, you can hear laughing and joking all day. I was always envious of these men. Regardless of how poor the fishing was, both clients and guide enjoyed each other's company, as if they were long-lost fraternity brothers. Another quick match-up is made between the high-performance salesmen and the hyperactive college guides. These guides attend college one semester a year with a lot of cutting classes during the Skwala hatch. They are passionate and intense about the sport. Witty and self-assured, they work the parking lot like evangelists. Pro-active and assertive, these young men resemble a more sophisticated version of Mike Fink, the famous river boatman. "I can catch more fish than anyone in Montana. I can thread the eyelet of a size 22 Adams at sunset. I can out drink, out fish and whup any man who says the contrary." Well, exaggeration aside, they exude charisma.

The quiet, confident guides in the Henry Fonda tradition patiently wait for their men. Before anyone notices, these stoical men part from the group and quietly go fishing. My tactic was to wait patiently for the newcomers to the sport who were seeking a teacher and instructor. I never could seem to play any other role so comfortably. It was usually thrust on me. "Go talk to Dave Archer over there. He's a schoolteacher. He'll get you all set up.... You don't know how to cast! Well, hell, you're in luck. There's a schoolteacher right over their leaning up against that Avon. He's fixing someone's old fly fishing outfit that the guy inherited from his grandfather when he was 10 years old. As soon as he is finished, ask him to teach you to cast over there on the lawn. He's your man!" I was always the last one to roll out.

Sadly disappearing from the guide ranks are the old timers who seem to be guides transported from a Faulkner novel. They don't mix well, and their rig and boat usually display signs of use and abuse. The antithesis of a yuppie fly fisher, they wear worn, old denim shirts or threadbare western shirts with a circular, worn spot in the shirt pocket that holds their chew. Rarely do they adorn themselves with the accoutrements of fly fishing. They stand by idly working a pinch of Copenhagen waiting for their guys to show. The wad of chew keeps their jawbone and cheek constantly in motion. Almost as predictable as Old Faithful, their left shoulder dips slightly, they pull down their head in a slight, downward dip and launch a brown luggie. Puuut! Launched from the side of their mouth, the brown spittle bursts from the side of their mouth, stalls in mid-flight and plops unceremoniously on its unintended target.

When they talk to a client, their jaw rotates in a circular fashion as they squint their eyes a bit. If they are interested in what you say, there is a slight nodding of the head, which precipitates a premature release. Puuut! Quietly intense, they capture the persona of a frontiersman. Many clients find these guides' demeanor appealing, especially after spending years confined in a high-rise office building. "Puuut! You pilgrims ready to catch some fish?" Once on the river the clients succumb to their piscatorial prowess. "Shhh, over there. See him? Not the little guys flashing at the tail end of the log. The big guy next to the rock below the log. See 'em. Yeah, Old Brown Bart. You son-of-a-bitch. You outsmarted that New Yorker last week, but I got me a Bostonian who's gonna stick you!"

"Yeah, I see him," says the client, hands trembling.

"OK. You're only going to get one cast with no margin of error for slop. You've got to make a reach cast up against that log, but not so close to the edge that your fly gets sucked under. Puuut! Yeah, easy does it. Mend that line just a little. YEAH! Fish on! Puuut! Hey, you in the back, you ready to catch a fish?"

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