Al Campbell, Field Editor

November 26th, 2001

Get Rich Quick - Guide
By Al Campbell

"I'm going to be a fly-fishing guide. I might not get rich right away, but that way I can fish every day and get paid to do it". I have actually heard a few people say just that. They don't have a clue about what a guide does, and I suspect they have never observed a guide doing what a guide does best; baby-sit clients.

You're right about not getting rich quick. In fact, unless you supplement your income some other way, you won't rise very far above the poverty level in most cases. I know that doesn't sound right, considering the large bunch of green stuff required to hire a guide for a day, but it's as accurate as a cruise missile.

Let's look at the numbers for a minute. I'll pick on a guide on the Bighorn River where $325 is about average for a day's guiding fee. Let's also say you can stay employed at least 5 days a week on average from April 1st to October 31st. That's being unrealistically optimistic, but we'll use those numbers anyway because there's a chance for a warm winter and you'll probably book a few trips during the other months to make up the difference, maybe.

Let's add it up; that's 30 weeks times five days per week at $325 per day. If you manage to keep it all, you'll make $48,750 per year before the taxman gets you. Fair enough wages I guess, but you won't get to keep it all.

If your trips are booked through a fly shop, they're going to take anywhere from to of your daily fee as a booking charge that covers the cost of meals, insurance, flies and other incidentals. That fee also covers moving your vehicle and boat trailer from the put-in to the take-out point. The average share the fly shop takes is roughly 1/3 of the fee. Hmm, that brings the yearly wages down to roughly $32,490.

Now, let's look at the personal costs you'll endure. There's the cost of a boat, spare equipment for clients who break theirs during the day, gas and upkeep on that vehicle that pulls your boat and makes roughly a 50 mile round trip each day, plus the waders, boots and other clothing you'll need to do your job. I won't add it up, but we just bit another 10% out of your annual salary.

Of course, you could try to do it on your own without a fly shop to book your clients for you. You won't have someone else taking a bite out of your income, but you won't have the benefit of the clients they attract either. You'll pay for the flies, the shuttles for your boat trailer and car (average for that amount of time would be about $2500) and meals (another $1500). You'll have fewer customers because they won't be able to book a trip with you from a fly shop (where most trips are booked). It averages out about the same. In both cases you'll have to buy health insurance and that usually costs more than $1000 per year if you buy the economy plan; and few shops have a benefit plan or retirement plan.

Ok, you won't get rich, maybe even fall into the low-income zone, but you get to fish every day, right? Not exactly. Unless invited to fish, it's considered unethical for a guide to fish when he/she is guiding. That means you get very little time to fish. And, after rowing and sweating in the sun at least five days in a row, you're not likely to want to do it again on your day off when you need to be working on your gear to get it ready for next week.

It takes a special kind of person to be a guide. You'll have to put up with all kinds of personalities, and many of them will be difficult. It won't be just the beginner who you have trouble with. Sure, you'll do a lot of teaching and beginners will expect you to provide fish on the ends of their lines, despite their lack of skill, but they aren't the only difficult ones. You'll also deal with people who want to fish dry flies only and won't budge from that position even when nothing is hatching. You'll meet people who can't see a fly, an indicator or the ring of the last rise you're trying to point out to them. You'll meet "experts" who can't hit the broadside of a truck at ten paces, but expect you to put them on fish within their casting abilities.

There'll be moaners and groaners and people who wouldn't be happy if it showered gold coins because the impact hurt too much. No matter what happens, no matter how bad the weather or water conditions are, the majority of your clients will expect superior results every day or they'll say you didn't do your job right or meet their expectations. I have names for those people, but I won't go into that here. The good clients make your day, and sometimes your week, but the bad ones stick with you for days, haunting your dreams with accusations that you either don't know what you're doing or you just don't care.

Of course, there will be days when everything is perfect; your clients know how to cast and present a fly well, the weather is great and the fish have a healthy appetite. If those days came around more than occasionally, I'd be back on the river rowing a boat. I met many good clients and we had some wonderful days, even when the fish weren't hungry. Some people are there for the experience and catching fish is secondary to enjoying the river and what the day brings. Too bad those people and days are in the minority; but there is one comforting thing about being a fly fishing guide. I can honestly say that I met far fewer people with rectal personalities as a fly fishing guide than I did when I guided elk hunters.

Just a couple more thoughts you might want to consider. Being outside on a daily basis does something good for your soul, but the weather and sun take a toll on your body. Nothing is more beautiful than the world God created for us to live in; and nothing is more nasty than some of the creatures that infest this world. Some of those creatures will be called clients. If you start each day dedicated to the thought that you are going to enjoy the wonders of God's creation, you'll have many good days. Eventually those creatures will wear on you and you'll find something else to do that doesn't task your patience as much. If you choose to be a guide, make sure you live each day as fully as possible.

That's it; five in a row ending with a basic view of a career as a fly-fishing guide. Get rich quick? Ain't gonna happen. Make a living? Probably, but you won't make a killing; unless the killing you do refers to mentally choking the life out of a client with a rectal attitude who desperately deserves it. Fish a lot? Who you trying to fool? You'll be drooling over the thought, positive that you could hook those rising fish; but your job is to baby-sit clients and provide the most productive day their skills and other conditions will allow. ~ AC

Previous Al Campell Columns
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