Your Guide Is Your Dog

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

I’m a big believer in DIY destination fishing, but I’m not a fool.

I traveled with a good friend to the Florida Keys recently. It was my buddy’s first time fishing the Keys. He’s a great angler, resourceful and all about DIY fishing. He’s turned me on to some great water and it was my turn to return the favor.

We fished for three days with Captain Joel Dickey. Joel and I are old friends, having spent a lot of time trout fishing together in North Georgia and North Carolina before he moved to the Keys and became a full time flats guide. He’s one of the fishiest guys I’ve ever known and within a decade became one of the best in the game. Fishing with Joel is a treat I always look forward to.

The Florida Keys is one of the most amazing fisheries anywhere. It’s also one of the most demanding. It’s a place where you can witness pure magic and utter despair. I’ve had some amazing days and some brutal boat rides. This trip turned out to be neither. The fishing had been great for several weeks and, as happens all too often, things changed.

Fishing in the Keys, more than anywhere else I’ve ever fished, is condition dependent. The day we arrived the weather turned, ever so slightly, for the worse and the fishing became very challenging. We caught fish every day, but we worked for them.

My buddy had come down with me hoping to catch his first tarpon. We checked that off the list early in the trip. It wasn’t a big fish but I assured him it was a good start. Better to land a small tarpon on your first shot than make a hundred unsuccessful presentations to the local submarine fleet. Get that fish under your belt before they have a chance to get in your head.

The Dread Pirate Dicky

The Dread Pirate Dicky

He also fed a permit. Even though he missed the hook set, it was a great visual eat close to the boat. We even saw the gills flair. That’s the one that will get inside his head, I’m sure. He had another agenda. He was eager to see the fishery and plan a return DIY trip. He’d have loved nothing more than for us to have come down with his boat and figured it out on our own.

There are a lot of places I’d be more than happy with that solution but the Keys isn’t one of them. I’ve fished the Keys for a decade or more, several trips a year. Even so, just the idea of piloting a boat through that maze of shallow water and endless mangrove islands makes me nervous. I’ve seen way too many boats stuck out there. You might blunder your way out of a tight spot, but the turtle grass you’d drag your prop through would take ten years to grow back. There’s way too much of that kind of habitat destruction in the Keys and I don’t intend to add to it.

All of that aside, it just makes sense to hire a guide. It’s an incredibly complex fishery. If you know what you’re doing, you might do well on a perfect day but when conditions get tough, it pays to have some experience on your side. That was never more obvious than on this trip. Things got tough in a hurry and Joel put us on fish, but he worked his trim tabs off to do it.

At the airport, I asked my buddy what he’d learned about the Keys. 

“I was shocked how challenging it was,” he told me. “You really have to be on your game, all the time. You’ve got to be like a dog, living for a bird. I love to bird hunt but not without a dog, it’s just so much harder to find birds. The guide is like your dog. We wouldn’t have even seen a fish on our own.”

At dinner, the night before we left, Joel got a text from his client for the next day. He laughed and showed it to me.

“Just got in. Do you have a plan?”

It’s funny we as fisherman sometimes make plans. Especially when it comes to places we’ve never fished. We all too often work out every detail based on experience or theories that have no relevance whatsoever when we get to the water.

It’s like Mike Tyson said, “everybody’s got a plan until they get hit.”

Like I said, I’m a big believer in DIY fishing. It has its own rewards and they are substantial, but I’m not a fool. I’ve seen things go painfully sideways way too many times and I know that nothing hurts worse than spending a bunch of money and time on a trip that gets all screwed up and having no one to blame but yourself. So, I have a plan and that plan is, when I go hunting in the Keys, I’m taking a dog.

Got a DIY horror story? Share it in the comments!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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8 thoughts on “Your Guide Is Your Dog

  1. New water can be challenging, indeed. The more challenging, the more important it becomes to hire a guide, or fish with and listen to friends who have been ther and done that.
    I know that I can catch fish, but since moving to the South, I’ve learned, through time on the water with friends and guides, how to fish a tailwater. I’m finally catching fish. It’s been an education. A relearning experience.
    Don’t kick yourself in the butt, learn it and earn it.

  2. I don’t know if this qualifies as a true horror story but I did get a chance to try a DIY bonefish outing on a family trip to the Turks and Caicos several years ago during the last week of December. While staying at the local Club Med I got the okay from my better half to try and hook a bonefish on a couple of afternoons while everyone else had other plans. I had tried to do as much preperation in advance of the trip as possible: check out internet posts, tie some of the more popular flies, look at YouTube videos etc… I actually talked to one of the few guides in the area and the $800 price tag put me off (I wasn’t about to push my luck with my wife). With a local map in hand and my rental car I took off. The roads get sketchy pretty quick once you venture off the main drag but I was able to locate some fishy looking flats. Long story short, I put lots of time walking but saw only one bonefish. I did hook 2 small barracuda and landed one. I didn’t get skunked but I did get humbled. I don’t know if I would do anything different next time. I had a narrow window of fishing time and that didn’t align with optimal tides. I wasn’t there only to fish and I did have fun trying.

  3. Some co-workers and I were sharing fishing stories and talking about this very same topic last week, I remember one of them being so adamantly against using a guide in the Keys and that he would only go DIY-Fishing in the Keys. I couldn’t have disagreed with him any more.

    The guides in the Keys are some of the best in the country, simply because that fishery is extremely demanding, Guided trip in the Keys aren’t cheap, but if you listen to the guide and know how to cast, they can put you on the fish of a lifetime, and that is something you can’t put a price tag on.

  4. Since there seems to be agreement that Joel is a dog…it begs the question “What kind of dog is Joel?” I vote a Bluetick Coonhound.

  5. Being a guide for 26 yrs (BWCA canoe fishing, 6 seasons in AK) my take on this is…….I can’t afford hiring a guide. Now don’t say you spend just as much diy on trip costs cause that ain’t true costs just as much to get and stay someplace whether you hire a guide or not. I’m the king if staying cheap, I’ve camped on beaches in the Bahamas, cheap hotels in Belize. Yes you will catch more fish with a guide if that is your goal, to catch lots of fish. 1st trip to the Bahamas it took me 3 days before I caught my 1st bonefish, but I landed 9 that morning, 1 being 29″. Researching your destination, tying the flies needed for where you are goin, finding accommodations, finding fish once you are there,. That Is FISHING! People mistake catching for fishing. Fishing evolves the whole process. I’m in “the process” of headin to Mahahaul, Mexico for the 1st time. Totally enjoying the “process if fishing”. Turns my 9 day trip into a 90 day trip! I’ll do some catchin too, but that won’t make it break the trip. I contribute to the local economy, I don’t cook, but try to never eat a meal from.a restaurant that has a cash register. I’m glad people can afford guides to go “catchin ” My livelihood depends on it. But don’t confuse fishing with catchin, they’re not always the same thing

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