Outdoors: Serving as a guide has its challenges

As a university instructor and professor, I’ve spent a lifetime teaching students the fine points of math, science and history. While teaching in schools can be challenging at times, it doesn’t compare with the teaching that guides and skippers do on a daily basis when sports step out of their cars or cabins to “go fishin.” 

The skipper of a big party boat or a charter has a full plate when it comes to the capital costs of buying and outfitting a craft (think not-so-small business!), which are daunting at the outset. Operating costs are enormous and ulcer-inducing, but, if the skipper can find reliable and pleasant crew, at least there can be plenty of help.

Not so with the guide who is all by himself or herself with folks who anticipate results, sometimes at a game with which they have little experience. Whether it’s a wildfowl guide meeting you at a South Fork diner at 3 a.m. for a morning in a goose blind, a fly-fishing guide meeting you at dockside before breakfast for a day chasing stripers, or the guy or gal who takes you on a “musky hunt” or a day casting for salmon, the personal tutor has a huge task to perform.

We realized how huge only recently when some good friends from the bay area came to visit for four days and wanted to catch (or at least see) some muskies. As any fishing instructor knows, in an ideal situation, newbies need lots of action and lots of chances to succeed so they can work through their mistakes. That’s not the case for certain fish at certain times (think stripers) or certain fish almost all the time (think muskies and Atlantic salmon). It just isn’t like taking first-timers out fishing for fluke (in a pinch, drop a strip and spearing down to the bottom, hold onto the rod, and wait until the rod has a really good bend before you reel in the fluke) or scup (anticipate the tug and strike as soon as you feel it.)

The native guide tries to keep the tackle functional and simple, light enough to provide sport while making hundreds of casts, yet sturdy enough to handle the average fish. Fortunately, our friends were experienced anglers who had spent years on trout, salmon and steelhead along with some west coast stripers. Unfortunately, neither angler had experience with large esocids (the pikes) like those we would be casting over, and, to make things even more challenging, one of the two insisted on fishing with a fly rod, reducing chances of enticing a muskellunge dramatically.

The biggest problem for guides and instructors comes when clients or students have ingrained behavior or preconceived notions. You can tell the sport working a topwater bait never to strike on the splash, but, instead, to keep the lure working steadily until weight is felt on the rod. A fish with the length of a striper, salmon or muskellunge has to clamp down and turn; otherwise you pull the lure or fly away prematurely. You can tell the sport who has played large salmonids carefully right after the strike that you have to put lots of pressure on large esocids from the outset just to keep the hooks in place. Chances are they will disregard you and run right through the figurative stop signs from the third base coach!

Confidence is a huge factor. After hours of fruitless casting, many first-time salmon or striper or musky anglers stop paying attention, get careless with retrieves, or just lose confidence in themselves. It’s easy to say you have to concentrate from the first cast to the last, but so hard to do!

Considering the obstacles, this guide was pleased with his students. The one casting with spinning gear missed a good strike (struck too soon!) and lost the fish he did hook (not enough pressure!), but the persistent fly-fisher managed to hook up solidly and pushed his musky around the pool for a couple of minutes before the big fly came unstuck (not uncommon when fly-fishing for pikes).

The only truly frustrating moment came when the fly-fisher wanted me to set up a conventional outfit so he could take the wear and tear off his arm late one day. In order to set the centrifugal reel brake and show him how to retrieve a topwater lure, I tossed one cast across a pool where we had anchored and narrated as I cast and retrieved. On cue, a stubby musky of 40-plus inches (perhaps 15 to 20 pounds) crashed the lure. No guide ever wants to catch a client’s fish, but there was some consolation: at least they saw a musky at boatside for release.

At the end of three days they were, however, sorry to quit, so this guide finally felt good. You had the feeling that the sports had the fever now and couldn’t wait to go musky fishing again!