Do you spend every day off in the outdoors, or dreaming about doing so? Then I bet at some point you've considered turning that passion into a job and becoming a guide. The inevitable questions should then not the be 'could you?', but 'should you?'
6 years, hundreds of clients and thousands of fish later, I have decided to hang up my boots for good. So how did I find life as a Fly Fishing Guide, what did I learn along the way and would I do it again?
Although this is based on my life as a Fly Fishing guide in New Zealand, the principles and thoughts as easily translated into other outdoor guiding pursuits. In this Part 1 of 2, I discuss how it all started for me, what effect guiding had on my passion and the realities of what it’s like to be a guide.
How I became a guide:
I fell into it guiding ‘accidentally on purpose’. I had left my life in the North of New Zealand to move to the South Island and fish all the rivers I would see in the photos, gin clear water teaming with huge trout!
With some extended time off after leaving my first business, I moved my life to Wanaka and spent every waking hour either fishing or thinking about fishing. It finally got to the point where I thought, “I love this so much, how can I do it more” and it seemed guiding was the logical next step.
My initial reservations were those that most guides first consider, “Do I want to do this as a job and risk turning my passion into work?” Well that’s a long story, but the fact is at the time I loved just being out there, I wanted to try something new and focus my time on building a lifestyle rather than another time-consuming business.
I decided to start slow and just have a dabble first. I did this by contracting to a local luxury lodge, which mostly took wealthy clients heli-fishing. Not surprisingly my first season was an amazing whirlwind, exploring the South Island by Helicopter is almost every angler's dream so it was a incredible introduction to the industry.
From then on, I set up my own operation to guide clients on single and multi-day trips. Although initially the majority of work was just one-off day trips, over the years the ‘expedition’ type trips started to increase and I was spending over 100 days guiding a season, mostly between November - March.
When reality bites...
Over the season I would usually guide between 70-90 people, most of which were beginners, some considered themselves intermediate-advanced in their home land, but by New Zealand standards they were almost certainly beginners!
(I actually used to ask people skill level on their booking form and it was usually the ones who rated themselves highly that needed the most work!)
The reality is that Fly-Fishing for Trout in the South Island is one of the most challenging things in the sport. Clear water and big, smart fish meant that for most, hooking a fish was an achievement, getting one to the bank was at times, a miracle.
The enjoyability of the day generally hinged on the client and their tolerance for learning and failure. As is natural, frustration often built in, but it was those that took it on the chin, had a laugh and just enjoyed the moment are the ones that were a pleasure to guide (and usually had the most success).
This is not only true for Fishing in NZ, generally those who get overly frustrated struggle to focus and only make it worse for themselves. Easing this concern was a very key to ensuring the day was not only successful but ultimately enjoyable for all.
A key thing to consider before becoming a guide is your tolerance for uncertainty. From clients to weather, competition to travel restrictions, guiding is a very hand-to-mouth existence where you are only guaranteed the job you just finished. Clients' travel plans change, weather can wipe out any prospect of fishing and maybe a pandemic will strike and your work dries up indefinitely overnight! (true story…)
Being able to brush off a bad experience or work around disruption is one thing, but you also need to be able to manage the clients expectations when things don’t go to plan. This could be their once in a lifetime chance to fish in your country, or they may have saved for years to afford a trip. How would you feel if all this became not only a problem, but one you are expected to resolve?
And others you felt like just giving up and going home...
Is guiding really "living the dream"?
My feeling is most people enter guiding with a degree of naivety, just as I did. Expecting that being out in the wild everyday will be the best thing ever and it can’t really feel like work if you love it. Well that may be true for some (I know of just a couple), but more likely than not, the season is a grind and by the end of it you're glad to see it over.
Inevitably, by the end of the season I would be counting down the days until the end, one by one as if it was impending retirement. However the main difference I found with guiding compared to a “normal job” is that after a long winter off-season, I always looked forward to getting back into fishing. Being on the river was still my passion and I would start the season fishing for myself and it would come around when I would look forward to having clients again, helping them learn and sharing the day on the river with new and interesting people.
So when you start to consider the guide lifestyle, keep in mind that it’s not going to be sunshine and lollipops. It will at times feel like hard work and it can have a serious effect on your desire to get out there and spend time doing it yourself.
I will expand more on this in Part 2 where I discuss why I decided to stop guiding and how I look back on the last 6 years in the industry.
But for now, here is video from my last full guiding season before Covid struck: