Making a Living on the Flats

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Owen Plair

Lately it seems that everyone thinks guiding is the dream job.

Every day someone who likes to fish buys a brand new boat, pays for a website, posts fish pictures on Instagram, and calls themselves one of the top guides in the area. They usually have a full time job doing something else.  From Internet videos and social media, people think guiding is all glory, easy, and something anyone can do. You have to start somewhere but you cannot create a career with a fancy boat, a website and some good photos on Instagram. You make a career with experience on the water and by sharing with anglers your passion, experience, and knowledge of your fishery. Many people soon find that guiding is not for them, which is why guides are a select few.

“You are living the dream.” I hear that all the time, or “You have the best job in the world,” or even better, “You have the easiest job!”

There are so many people who think that being a fishing guide is the easiest way to make money and the dream job. Some people even have the audacity to say its not a real job… That’s like saying being a doctor isn’t a real job. Yes, it’s an amazing feeling creating a career in something you are passionate about, but it is far from easy, and always work. Imagine poling a skiff or rowing a drift boat 8 hours a day, 200 days a year. That physical labor is the easiest part of the business. That should give you a taste of just how much is involved with being a full time guide.

If you really like fishing and own a boat you could be a guide, right?

Not even close to true. Pursuing a career as a fly fishing guide is a never ending task and the reason the fee for a guide service is not cheap. You’re paying good money for a service that no one else can provide because it’s a job that not many people can do. Imagine not being able to work for 5 days because of bad weather. Not being able to put food on the table for your family.

The select few people who have been successful through guiding are the people who were born to become fly fishing guides, because guiding is a lot more than catching fish and making money doing it. I have been guiding full time for almost 7 years here in Beaufort, SC including a 6-month season on the Ponoi in Russia for Atlantic Salmon. As a young guide in the industry, one thing I’ve learned over the past years working, fishing, and hanging out with guides from all over the world is that we all have the same list of attributes. A common mission to pursue a career in fly fishing that was born from a passion. We are not guys who just like to fish, we enjoy watching others catch fish, and have an obsession for always trying to better ourselves as anglers.

I lived in a single-wide trailer for the first 3 years of my career. I was 18 years old. It was a real-life experience and trying to make a living in fishing was incredibly hard. I didn’t go to college and worked in the fly shop part time to pay bills and try to get new business. There were days I can remember emptying my bank account just to put gas in my boat before a trip and crossing my fingers I got a good tip afterwards to put gas in my car to get back home. When I’d have to cancel 3 or 4 days because of weather I wouldn’t be able to afford real groceries and things like Ramen Noodles, Naps Crackers, and tap water became a staple. Just keeping the electricity on was a task sometimes. I even thought maybe guiding wasn’t for me at one time.

Living trip to trip was not an easy start, even as a local born and raised here, fishing Beaufort my whole life. I used to wonder how in the world people made any money as guides and with a little time I soon learned. It took 3 years of dedication, passion, and hard work to realize what being a fly fishing guide was all about and to finally have the ability to make a living doing it. I built my business from fishing with people, creating long time relationships, and started to realize how lucky I was to have the support of so many anglers who truly enjoyed fishing with me. Those 3 years were tough but it was something I had to go through to start a business in fishing.

As a full time guide there are a lot of things happening behind the curtain you don’t see.

First of all the amount of time a guide spends learning what he or she knows is incredible. The number of years, days, and hours on the water spent researching and learning are more than most people will ever spend in two lifetimes. That experience is what you are paying for and why that experience is not cheap.

That one spot where you catch a trophy fish could have taken years to find and countless hours to figure out. A full time guide is obsessed with fishing and has a passion for constantly perfecting their strategies and constantly learning every day the best ways to stay on fish. Without that passion or obsession, there is no way you can be a guide because you have to always be on the very top of your fishery and know what’s going on every day of the year.

Being social, fun, and outgoing is part of the game. After 15 straight days, or more, on the water with clients your true colors start to show. If you are still having fun then you’ll stay on the top of your game no matter how many days you fish. You have to understand business and know how to market your business. How to show what you provide, and what you specialize in. You have to create your own market of people that want to fish with YOU because of what YOU provide, and where YOU guide.

Keeping track of bookings and being organized day to day; you are your own accountant/receptionist. Just like any business, guiding is all about return and referral business. This is how you build relationships, life long clients, and success in the guiding industry. You see new guides these days focusing on websites, google, and social media, thinking it’s how you get the most business. Yes, that helps you get a small amount of business but it’s all about the return and referral customers. You cannot make a career out of the internet, you make a career on the water with your anglers. When looking for a guide, a recommendation will always be the number one way people choose.

No matter what, fishing is always fishing.

One of the hardest parts of guiding is being able to cope with the days where it doesn’t happen and the fishing is terrible. These are the days where a good guide shows his ability and keeps pushing to make a good day out of bad fishing. You have to be one of the most optimistic people alive when guiding. Every day has to be a good day, in your mind. When the fishing or weather aren’t good, you capitalize on your knowledge and ability and do the best you can to find that “money spot” where it finally happens.

Then there are the days when you have an angler who is not experienced, and doesn’t have the skills to catch fish. These are the days when patience and education come into play. You must help them have the best opportunity possible. Saltwater fly fishing is not easy and takes a skill set most anglers don’t have. Longer casts, heavier weight rods, big flies, and most of all the ability to see fish.

Our job is to put you on fish and it’s your job as the angler to finish the puzzle. In the saltwater world there are days when we come back empty handed because of bad fishing, bad weather, lack of angling skills, or simply bad luck! Some of these days are humbling and show your true dedication. You come home, clean up the boat, eat dinner, drink a beer, then wake up to do it all over again the next day, because everyday on the water is a new day. You don’t ALWAYS catch fish and that’s one of the hardest parts of the job, because I truly share the same feeling with the angler on my bow. If the fishing is on fire, then I’m on fire. If the fishing is tough, then I’m just as bummed. But that’s when you have to have a positive mindset and always keep grinding because you can only control so much of the day, and try to the best of your ability.

I could go on for pages about why being a fishing guide is not easy and why its a “real job”. It’s not a job you take because you like to fish. It’s a job you take because it’s something you live for. Guiding is a lifestyle, because your life revolves around the next day on the water. As a young guide in the industry, I look up to those guys and girls who have been doing it for countless years, some longer than I’ve even been alive! I cannot fathom how much these guides have seen or experienced. The legends all started with a passion and made a career out of it. You know you’re a true fishing guide when you get off the water after a long day and cannot wait to get back out the next morning. It’s what you live for and what keeps you coming back to the water.

Owen Plair
Gink & Gasoline
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26 thoughts on “Making a Living on the Flats

  1. Amen, Owen. Regrettably self-promotion and misinformation by wanna be guides hurts the industry more than you know. I have been with many guides from AK through the Rockies to Florida and the Bahamas. I have been with many of the best and a few disappointing ones, the latter before I learned how important good research and reliable recommendations are the only way to select a guide.

    Your post is spot on and serves as a lesson for those in the business, those who think they want in, and those who use guides.

    I am very disappointed with the proliferation of wanna be guides here in North Georgia and their ability to create an illusion of success and a magnificent fishery where neither are true. All it takes is a Go Pro YouTube post on private pellet pig water and a snow job that misrepresents where and when the fish were caught. This is very sad.

      • I agree that it is absurd that so many “guides” show off the big stocked fish in N. GA private water, but you need to understand that there are plenty of us who guide newcomers to the sport through these waters. I can’t count how many people I’ve had who never fished with a fly, caught a few big pellet pigs, and then became addicted to the addiction we all share. It might not be very pure but that stuff is a great avenue for showing people our passion. Calling it a laughing stock is ignorant and misinformed.

        • Nothing wrong with chow fed fish. Nothing wrong with guiding to them. Nothing wrong with N Ga fishery. What is wrong is misrepresenting the fishery by, for example, showing pics of Haberdham County private water fish as typical of another county’s public waters. Sorry I mentioned this. Not typical of our guides here but it happens.

  2. Owen, in my business (Construction) I have a saying. “If it was easy, your wife would do it” I couldn’t agree more with what you said. If you don’t truly love it, it becomes a bore. I certainly couldn’t fish every day, especially with someone new every day. You left out the part, or maybe didn’t really want to say it………you need to be a psychiatrist too. Dealing with so many personality types, it gets exhausting.
    I for one will be over to fish with you however. I’m moving to Beaufort SC because I started seeing your blog……….long story………talked to you on the phone about your scout Costa………you probably don’t even remember. I started to look into places to move to retire, and picked Beaufort. Hope to start building that home this year. I remember what passion you had for what you did, that stuck with me……..long story short, I don’t want to be a fishing guide, but I’m coming down to fish, and day dream. Thanks,

  3. Really well said. Once upon a time, I was a guide and it may have been the hardest work I ever did. I only stuck it out for 6- years and became a Fisheries biologist (to feed my passion). I have been fortunate enough to fish with some great guides.

    Other guests at the lodge chastized me for tipping so much. To those folks, read this post again! Guiding is a very tough gig – darn hard work. And when fishing with guides who work very hard for me, I respect their experience and show my appreciation the best way I can. Heck, they have a PhD in fishing and I KNOW that my trips would not be nearly as enjoyable or productive without them!

  4. I think most the issue stems from people who want to be guides having zero business sense. They think an Instagram account and some fish porn means your a guide. I have no doubt that being a guide is tough work, but so is starting any business. I could easily argue that starting a restaurant is just as difficult, but I’ll spare you. I think guides who make a career out of it have the combination of determination and business sense, on top of the obvious things like fishing knowledge.

    Ralph A. – I don’t think you can knock the guys trying to self promote, as that is how you ultimately gain clients. If their business model is no good, they will fail, if not, they will succeed. I assume most will fail, but that holds true for all new businesses.

    • Kyle,

      No problem with accurate self-promotion and info on the fishery, but putting out something that misrepresents the guide and the fishery helps no one and certainly hurts the honest guides and those who are trying to keep it real about our fishery.

  5. A. I never thought guiding looked easy. Who are these people who thing a 12 hr day looks easy?
    B. Guides with positive attitudes get big tips from me. But if you leave my 80 year old dad in the broiling sun in the boat while you eat your sandwich in the shade, you get zero.
    C. Reading about how hard my job is would not make for a very interesting story.

  6. Okay, so I understand it’s still WORK, not PLAY.
    I also understand it’s called FISHING and not CATCHING, so when the conditions are bad etc. even the guide’s knowledge can’t save everything besides being a good host and all.
    But let me ask this: being a guide is a CHOICE and not a MUST? Putting food on the table can be done with other work too. Many of them being work as in tiring/exhausting, low pay, bad for your mood, etc. Getting an education is probably the best thing to do so one can fall back.

      • Yeah but getting a degree is a choice almost anyone can make. Being a guide is very rarely a choice everyone can make. I know a couple of “guides” that I work with and the only thing they had that I didn’t is a boat that they’re parents bought them out of high school. Boo Hoo you’re a “guide” you get to fish all day. I’d love to be out on the water all day instead of sitting at a console monitoring equipment and hoping nothing goes wrong but I made a choice to do that and had to stick with it. Everyone has choices, if you can make a living off guiding cool but if it’s that hard than get a regular job like everyone else.

      • Getting a degree is a choice that anyone can make being a fishing guide is a choice you can make if your parents bought you a boat out of highschool

  7. Great article! I guided throughout college and initially thought I had landed my dream job. Then I realized that guiding does not equal fishing. It was me catering to every need of my client all day long, which was different for every single person. The hard physical work wasn’t the toughest part though. It was staying upbeat, cheery, and optimistic every minute of every day. It was emotionally draining. And you live and die by tips, which sucks. That was the toughest part about it.
    I didn’t want to stop loving the sport because it had turned into just another “job”. So my hat goes off to the guys still guiding full time, because it’s a tough gig. I finished my degree and have a different job now. However, because I loved it so much, I do guide still for the fly shop on weekends during the summer when they’re busy, so I still get my fix in.

  8. As a full time guide everything you said is spot on. I think the most challenging aspect on the water is keeping a clients optimism high even when they are struggling and or the fishing is tough. That said, there is nothing I enjoy more than breaking through that tension with a good fish. Partly because it gives meaning to what i’d been trying to teach all day but more because the client instantly realizes what fly fishing IS.

    Off the water the balance of keeping up with bookings, advertising and ordering supplies without going broke is harder than the toughest day on the water. I guess you know you are meant to be a guide when you view all of the jobs challenges the same way you view catching fish…maddeningly addictive.

  9. Very well written Capt. Owen. Pretty much like anything in life,
    “There are no free rides.” To be great at anything requires work, study, investment, and more work. I have had the pleasure of fishing with great guides and, unfortunately, some not so good guides.
    The difference is not in catching the fish, but the total experience of the day. From the initial booking to the hand shake at the end of the day. Great guides understand everything in between.
    I personally envy your profession as I love the sport and being on the water with people. I also thank you for words too often forgotten in this day of “I need it yesterday” and instant gratification.
    Thanks for your post and with luck, I hope we have the chance to share our passion one of these days

  10. I am a lawyer by trade, but moved to my section of the Texas coast specifically to learn the flats and become a better, more knowledgeable angler. I love to guide other fisherman because I honestly love other people catching fish just about as much as I do – particularly those who have never experienced the sheer joy of sight casting to shallow water species in a clear, saline environment. With that said, I could never guide for pay. At least not at this point in my life. I get mentally tired having been out on the water for days on end. When conditions deteriorate, I wonder why in the hell I am bothering. As an angler with relatively easy access to the water I can pick my days and the people who I fish with. As a guide, you can really do neither.

    I have watched some of my good friends who began guiding because they love fishing burn completely out – to the point where it took them years after “retiring” from the profession to pick up a rod and head back to the flats for fun. To be honest, that scares me more than anything. I am who I am because I am a fly fisherman. It is my identity, my reason (apart from my family) for climbing out of bed each and every morning. I NEVER want to lose that.

    Thank you for a great article and keep up the good work.


  11. I’m a career fly fishing guide in Maine. I have spent my life on the water and have been guiding for over 40 years. I’d retire but I love my JOB too much. Be honest and humble, work hard for your clients, teach them how to be better fishermen and you’ll have a great career. You’re their coach and if your a great coach they’ll come back as many times as they can. I’ve been guiding the same people for longer than I can remember and you will too.
    You put together a great article and you’re on track for an fabulous career.

    Tight lines

  12. Good Morning Owen–
    Just read your article this morning and even having never met you developed an instant respect in me for you. I don’t guide the fly exclusively, but dearly love salt water fly fishing and feel that your article pertains to all of us who fish professionally. I have been a guide for nearly 50 years–35 of those in Charleston and I could not conceive the number of “guides” I’ve seen come and go. (Couldn’t even count the ones here right now who will end up as short-timers)
    Keep your present attitude, don’t develop the Big Head nor the eletist Hot Shit personality and you will never go hungry long as new people visit our area–they will keep coming back to you. I have many who have been fishing with me for 20 and 30 odd years and have followed me to Los Roques to the Bahamas and up and down the east coast. Those people are my mainstay and the ones who feed me during the off season.
    I’d like to fish with you sometime, just to say that I have–catch or not.
    Have it good Man and keep those Lines Tight.

  13. When I started guiding in the 90s, I felt the same way. Now I just realize that no one gives a shit as most people have a tough job. That, and I am certainly not going to talk anyone out of doing what they want, or love. Keeping them close is always smarter than pissing them off. I realize how lucky I am and complaining about it, especially without humor, just alienates anyone that has to listen to it. Very few have compassion for anyone that gets paid, any amount, to be around fish, fly rods and boats everyday. I agree with them

  14. This is a joke. Being a guide is the easiest freaking job in the world. You buy a few rods, and a boat, and away you go. My Dad is going to buy me a boat, cuz i am graduating college this year. Either that or my own Del Taco. All this talk about customers- so what if they don’t like my style? I will make it because i am the best. I went to college so i can do better than any of these rednecks.

  15. Don’t forget to add “Trust Fund” to the list of qualifications it takes to be a successful guide in this article’s case.

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