Buster Wants to be a Fly Fishing Guide

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One from my early years guiding. Photo Charlie Madrerohon

Every couple of months, for about the last ten years, I’ve been contacted by recreational fly fisherman around the country, asking me to give them advice on how to go about becoming a fly fishing guide.

Choosing to become a full-time fly fishing guide is a big decision to make, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Yes, there’s lots of perks that come with the job, but there’s also plenty of hardships. For starters, guiding can prove to be very stressful at times, so don’t think by you making the move to step away from your current job (to become a fly fishing guide), that you’ll be saying goodbye to all the stresses of everyday life (remember, it’s up to you to get fish in the net). There’s no doubt, as a guide, you’ll have the luxury of calling the beautiful outdoors your private office. It beats the hell out of crunching numbers in a tiny cubicle or doing a job that you absolutely hate, but it still doesn’t change the fact that guiding is still a job.

Most importantly, guiding doesn’t come with a retirement plan, it doesn’t usually provide health insurance, and it generally compensates you with variable pay. If you’re the kind of person that has a hard time saving or managing your long-term investments, guiding might not be a good fit. You also should understand, no matter how hard you work or how successful of a fly fishing guide you become, you won’t get rich. The majority of guides hack it for four or five years, then move on to jobs that pay an annual salary and have the potential for higher earnings. A very small percentage of full-time fly fishing guides figure out a way to sustain a long career, and make a good living. That being said, when done correctly, guiding can make you feel like you’ve got the greatest job on the planet. You’ll make wonderful friends and you’ll regularly feel the blissful rewards of creating life-long memories and teaching your fellow fly fisherman. You’ll find it a little easier to maintain your health, from the active lifestyle that guiding demands, and you’ll carry pride knowing you’re one of the local experts on your home waters. If you’re dead set on becoming a guide, I wish you the best of luck, and you’ve got an open invitation to contact me by email if you need further assistance. That being said, before you start chasing down the dream of becoming a fly fishing guide, I highly recommend you first review a comprehensive list of questions and facts that I’ve put together, which explains what being a full-time fly fishing guide is all about. You’ll need to ask yourself the question, “Will I honestly enjoy guiding if I have to put up with this every day on the water?” If your answer is yes, to all of them of course, then you’re probably ready to move forward and review my next series of suggestions that you’ll need to think about before you become a full-time fly fishing guide.

Do you feel like you have a calling to become a fly fishing guide?

The most successful guides, that I’ve met over the years, didn’t just wake up one day in their 30s, 40s or 50s, and decide that they were going to become a fly fishing guide. Almost all of them knew they wanted to be a guide at a very young age, and they started the process of learning the myriad of skills needed to make the dream a reality. I’m not saying that you can’t quit your job now and become a fly fishing guide, all I’m saying is the odds are probably going to be stacked up against you. Every year, the competition among guides gets higher and you have to really want it, if you stand any chance at all of becoming a successful guide. You need to carry a passion for guiding that’s unwavering, and you should have no doubts in your mind that guiding is what you want to do for a living.

Do you think you can be a good teacher and Maintain a patient personality?

Just because you’re a great fly fisherman doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good guide. In a nutshell, guiding is teaching out of the classroom. For you to be a good guide, you have to be talented at teaching, entertaining others, and above all, you need to be able to maintain your patience from the first cast of the day, until the very last. You’ll also need to be ready to explain and instruct clients in a number of different ways to get the job done on the water. No two clients are the same. Some are a dream come true, while others are a nightmare.

Are you ready to teach first timers and veterans that have lots of bad habits?

I remember thinking as a kid, that being a guide must mean that you get to spend your days guiding exceptional anglers and fly casters. After almost 14 years of guiding, I can tell you with absolute certainty, that the majority of your clients that will be hiring you will be novice. Many of the will not have picked up a fly rod before in their life, and a great deal of them will end up making you want to pull your hair out trying to teach them. I only bring this up, because there’s a lot of people out there that want to guide, but don’t want to put up with the challenges of teaching beginners. So do yourself a favor and ask yourself this question, “Can I be happy with teaching beginners for the majority of my trips and be content with only the occasional fly fisherman that knows what they’re doing?”

Are you willing to work 7 days a week and work 12-14 hours shifts?

There’s lots of preparations prior to getting on the water that add to the overall work day of full-time guides. A guide’s day begins well before a line is wet or a drift boat dropped into the water. You’ve got to tie lots of flies prior to the trip, you have to clean and organize your gear (tackle and boat), you’ve got to prepare lunches for clients, and you can’t forget about scouting water or doing recon to make sure you’ll be putting your clients on the best water. All of these chores add to the work day, and although you may only be on the water for eight hours, you still have to count the time on the road and the time spent prepping before the trips. When all of your time has been accounted for, and your expenses are taken out, you’ll find out that the pay for a fly fishing guide isn’t as much as the price tag of a brochure suggests. Last but not least, if you have a family, you have to be ready to sacrifice your time with them. Weekends are popular times for clients to book trips with guides, and that means you won’t be available to spend quality time with the family throughout the year.

Are you willing to move away from your family and friends?

This isn’t the case if you already happen to live where there’s great fly fishing opportunities, but most soon-to-be guides will have to be cool with the idea of moving away from family and friends to guide full-time. I learned the importance of this, first hand, and it’s one I wish someone would have forewarned me about, before I chose where I was going to guide for my career. I live and guide where there’s marginal trout water, but I chose to stay close to my family and friends because they’re very important to me. Unfortunately, choosing to do so ended up really hurting my ability to build a strong guide service. I’ve built up a loyal following of repeat clients but the majority of my clients book one day at a time. It takes a lot to clients to fill up the calendar year. This is for a couple reasons, the first being that my location isn’t a destination fishery. People don’t flock from all areas of the country to come fish my waters. They mostly come from neighboring cities and states, and although it provides me with pretty steady work, it’s not enough for me to fill my calendar a year in advance, like a lot of my guide buddies around the country have no problems doing.  A key critical success factor if you choose to become a fly fishing guide, is choosing the correct location to guide. I’ll talk more about this subject later on in the post.

If the above didn’t scare the idea out of your head of becoming a guide, you may have what it takes! Below are my next recommendations if you’re legitimately ready to move forward becoming a guide.

Suggestion #1: Go to a fly fishing guide school

This is mostly for guys/gals wanting to become a trout guide, but I’m sure you could find a professional saltwater outfitter/shop to put together a similar saltwater fly fishing school if you looked hard enough. Going to a professional fly fishing school is important for three reasons. One, it allows you to spend valuable time with other professional guides and learn from them. Two, a certification from a respected school will provide you some street credit, which will come in very handy when it comes time to look for a guide position. Three, in a lot of cases, the school will help you find your first paying gig and get your foot in the door. That’s, of course, as long as you’ve proven to them that you have what it takes to be a guide. If you’re not willing to spend the money or time to go to a professional fly fishing school, there’s a really good chance that you’re not cut out for guiding.

Suggestion #2: Sacrifice a minimum of a full year to learn the water you want to guide on. 

Time and experience on the water are invaluable when it comes to getting you ready to start taking paying clients. Furthermore, it will go a long ways with earning respect from  other guides in the area, since they’ll see that you’re paying your dues. Your time on the water will allow you to learn the water, but it will also give you plenty of time to show your respect (through good etiquette on the water) with other guides. You never know, if you build a good reputation for yourself you might get hired on by another guide, or at the very least, get called by them for help.

Suggestion #3: Get a job at a fly shop

You might not work at the shop forever, but it’s a great way for you to network and learn the fly fishing business. If you work hard and prove yourself to be dependable, it shouldn’t be too long before you start getting overflow trips. And that’s perfect for you to start getting some guiding experience under your belt. Plus, it’s a great way for you to make friends and learn from other guides. When I look back, I really didn’t start becoming a good fly fisherman or guide until I started spending time hanging out with other professional guides.

Suggestion #4: Submit some applications for some fly fishing lodges

One of the best things I ever did was work a season as a fly fishing guide in Alaska. Guiding and working seven days a week for four months straight, not only allowed me to really improve my fishing and guide skills, but it also demonstrated to me how hard I could work if I put my mind to it. Guiding at a prestigious lodge also strengthened my resume and opened many doors in the fly fishing industry that previously were locked.

Suggetion #5: Make a goal to become an independent guide with your own business

One of the biggest mistakes I made, other than choosing to guide in the wrong location, was not building my own guide service from the very get go. I got to the point where I was dependent on the fly shop for 100% of my work. What happens if the fly shop goes under?  What happens if you have a falling out with a manager or owner? If you don’t have your own clients or business that you’re building in the process of taking referrals from other outfitters, you can very easily paint yourself into a corner. As soon as you’ve got some experience guiding and you’ve figured out this is something you want to do full-time, your next objective is to create your own website and guide business. If successful, one day you’ll be able to hire on your own guide staff, and that will allow you to increase your annual income.

Suggestion #6: When possible, guide where you don’t need permits on your home waters

I’ve got a good friend that lives out west who’s a phenomenal guide. Problem is, where he guides, permits are extremely limited. It would cost him thousands and thousands of dollars to get a permit, and that’s only feasible if one actually became available, which its not. He recently had a falling out when a fly shop was sold, and he was forced to get hired on by another outfitter. It doesn’t matter that he’s one of the best guides on the river or that he has well over a decade of experience guiding, because he’s now being forced to start at the bottom of the totem pole and work his way up in the company. Soon-to-be guides need to think about this, when they’re choosing where they’re going to guide. If you don’t have the ability to ever start up your own guide service and will always be forced to hand over 1/3 or more of your daily rate to the middle man, you may be better off choosing somewhere else to guide.

Sugesstion #7 If you want to make the best money in guiding you need to go saltwater

My first love is guiding for trout, so if you’re dead set on chasing trout, by all means go for it. All I want you to know is saltwater guides have it pretty damn good. Yes, they have to pole their asses off on the flats, but they also don’t have clients come to fish their water without hiring them either (for safety reasons and lack of location knowledge). Saltwater guides charge the most in the business, and they also book the most days on average per client. So when my average booking for each client is two days, my saltwater buddies book 5-7 days at a time. That makes it a whole lot easier to fill your calendar, and for the most part, repeat business for saltwater guides is very high. The guide season also is very long, which means they don’t have to sit out during the winter like a lot of trout guides.

Sugesstion #8: Have a good looking website, that stays updated, and utilize the blogosphere.

With today’s technology, you can’t always depend on word of mouth, and most of us can’t afford to set up a brick and mortar business to get walk-in traffic. The best way to grow your guide business and spread the word about yourself is to have a quality website and blog that’s regularly updated. It’s also a great way for you to network.

That’s my advice to all of you thinking about becoming a full-time fly fishing guide. I’d request that all of you guides out there that follow G&G to comment with your own advice and tips. In the end, I hope this post will help us attract or replace the retiring professionals into our industry and deter the wannabe’s that cause all of us headaches on the water.

Keep it Reel,

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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11 thoughts on “Buster Wants to be a Fly Fishing Guide

  1. Kent,

    Good article that touches on some important considerations. The one factor I think is missing is that it’s very hard to make a full time go at guiding if you limit yourself to just one fishery, salt or fresh. True salt guys charge more but their overhead and initial investment is substantially more. Price a center console or flats skiff, add in higher insurance costs, licensing, maintenance, fuel etc.

    As someone who does both I can tell you that in the end my net in freshwater, even at a lower per day rate, is higher than it is in saltwater. My drift boat trailer bearing goes, I know what that’s going to cost. My engine on my center console doesn’t start, who knows? Then there are the blow out days from wind that wouldn’t have blown out on the river and in the case of a flats guide, the heavy overcast & rainy days that could keep you at the dock.

    All in all, excellent article that should give the aspiring fly guide some serious things to think about. It’s a service business where you have to always do right by your client. In the end, it has to be a passion.

  2. Hey Kent,
    Very nice article. I just posted a series on my Facebook page on Guides, Who are these Guys, and what makes them tick,
    Along with series 2 What to look for when hiring a guide.
    I am for the most part retired from the guide business. After 40 years as a full time guide I found that I just don’t have the stamina anymore.
    I really like your article and it raised a lot of good points that I get asked as well from younger anglers who would like to become a fly fishing guide. I will certainly direct them to your post to get a good idea.

    Thanks again and hope to hear back from you.
    Don Nichols

      • Kellie,
        Yes you are correct. and I used guys as a generic term. I know of many awesome women guides around the country. Please except my apologies if you felt left out, because you weren’t.

        • its ok, i was just messin with ya. im a female in a male-dominated field. its just the way it is. im not offended at all. tight lines.

          • Kellie,
            I understand you completely. I have always encouraged women to fish. My wife is an extraordinary fisherman. (you see I use the generic term here too) It’s only because it rolls off the tongue better than fisherwoman. No disrespect intended. You have an opportunity to advance education of fly fishing to more women, young and old alike. You go girlfriend. I hope I get to meet you someday.
            Add something to my Facebook page. it’s the website link you see under my name.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Review |

  4. this is a great article for anyone even THINKING of getting into guiding. another good point would be to join the local fishing clubs. i am a member of my local chaper of TU, as well as colorado women flyfishers. joining these clubs will give you great opportunities to volunteer for stream cleanups, fly fishing and fly tying shows, and most importantly, to teach beginners/women/kids to fly fish. thats exactly how i got into guiding. i was constantly volunteering for the different clinics and seminars that CWF put on. one day, the president of our club said “you know what, you are so great with teaching people to fish, you should guide!” i had a real passion for fly fishing and didnt want to sit at a desk all my life, so 7 seasons later, here i am. i have worked for several different shops/outfitters in my area, and like louis noted, at a destination fishing lodge. i had to live there almost full time (fortunately it was less than 300 miles from home, but still not a “commutable” distance). i was away from my family/friends A LOT as it was in a pretty remote location. i also gained experience doing lot of things besides just pure guiding because i was managing the fly fishing program while i was up there. it was a really great experience and i definitely recommend it to anyone considering this. now that i have some real experience under my belt, i am to the point where i am going to start a website as was also suggested.

    anyone who wants to be a guide: join those clubs, volunteer for those clinics and clean ups, “guide” your friends and relatives for the price of a lunch or some beers, pay your dues. remember, you aint gonna get rich guiding, but like the article says, you definitely have the “corner office”! and, of course, fish, fish, fish! good luck to all.

  5. LOL!!

    Love it!!


    The bigger picture is its a business. Therefore, the real key is being more than all you pointed out nicely. That is being an MBA.

    Therefore no more about business, like COA, ROI and CSI.

    If you don’t even know what that means…. pass

    If you know what the means, master it more than being a guide.

    The problem in guiding is not catching fish, its catching customers.

    How many new customers do you, get? How many return. How many bring you more customers.

    Know your cost of doing business. ROI !! If you did you wouldn’t do one day trips. Nor guide for than $1000 a customer for a full weekend.

    Think out the time it takes to book a trip!! Think out all the cost. If you can’t do 200 trips a year at $500 a day equals $100k however that works out to the same lifestyle as $50K worker in the city.

    Most guides, never gross of $100K a yr, Most don’t make $100k in 10 years.

    Guiding is for retired floks, not young people that can make more waiting tables.

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