Reflections on fly-fishing, and those who make it their career

[by Rene E. Limeres]

We’re huddled around a smudgy fire on a windwhipped, crisp September night, sitting on a gravel bar on the Zhupanova River in southern Kamchatka, when the leader of my group of guided anglers, a surgeon named Andrew, clears up a mystery that’s been on my mind since his group showed up in Anchorage for their fishing trip. How is it a bunch of blokes from South Africa, of all places, should come to be floating and fishing in Russia on one of the greatest trout rivers in the world? Andy is reading a letter from his late father, which explains how the expat from England brought to Africa a great love for the grand traditions of British fly-fishing, which he apparently tried to pass on to his only son. The very personal and tender note recounts some of their early angling experiences together and ends with his dad’s earnest hopes that someday Andrew might experience the kind of trout fishing that had kindled his lifelong passion as a boy in the British Isles.

So there it is.

I’m deeply touched that I’ve been chosen to lead their group, and in the flickering light of the fire, with the vodka of endless toasts working on my brain, my mind drifts back over my long career as a wilderness fishing guide. Some thirty years of showing people the kind of angling that dreams are made of.

“Like any great calling, a career as a guide begins with passion. A deep love of fishing and the great outdoors, and of the wondrous place you call home—Alaska…”

It’s been quite an adventure, truth be told—one that has taken me down all the great salmon and trout rivers of Alaska and a good many in Far East Russia. I’ve shared countless campfires and awesome experiences with some of the nicest folks in the world, and made many lasting friendships along the way. And I’ve made a living doing something I truly loved, which is no small accomplishment in this day and age. But to set the record straight, the guiding game is one tough racket—not the dream job many think it is. It’s a profession that entails great sacrifice and offers few of the more tangible rewards that the nine-to-five crowd enjoys. If I could do it all over again, would I choose the same path? I wonder.

Like any great calling, a career as a guide begins with passion. A deep love of fishing and the great outdoors, and of the wondrous place you call home—Alaska—and all the surrounding North Country. You take this supreme love and combine it with a mastery of skills and knowledge unequalled in any other profession; everything from fly casting to wilderness survival and orienteering, to boating and rafting, natural history, woodsmanship and knowing how to travel safely through bear country. (Not to mention, of course, the ability to whip up gourmet streamside fish dinners six ways to Sunday.) To all this, you add some necessary business savvy and launch yourself, with high hopes, into the guiding game. If you’re lucky enough, and have what it takes to endure the long hours away from home, the vagaries of Alaska’s fish runs and its notorious weather, and the mandatory long stretches of poverty between the short fishing seasons, you just might make it as a guide.

One of the most enduring myths about the business is that you somehow get paid to go fishing, like some gigolo. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as any longtime guide will tell you, you’ll do far less fishing as a guide than you did in your former life. For sure, most young guys start out in the trade with that fantasy in mind, but they soon learn which side of the bread the butter is on. Your job is to make other folks’ fishing dreams come true, not your own. And if you stay in the game long enough, you’ll actually reach a point, unbelievable as it may sound, where you derive far more pleasure from putting others into great fishing than you would yourself.

On this particular trip, acutely aware of the great distance and expense my group has undertaken to be here, I am especially anxious for everyone to have a fabulous time. On the third day out, at the end of a leisurely lunch break, Andrew gets his trout of a lifetime drifting a classic deer hair mouse down the riffles of a rocky side channel. A big, slab-sided rainbow whacks his faux rodent in a welter of spray and bolts downstream, giving Andrew quite a chase across slippery rocks as he frantically pursues the trophy he has come so far for. He subdues the fish at the bottom of the run, a hunky eight or nine pounder, heavily marked, with a gorgeous pink-lilac blush along the gill plates. It’s photo time, and the doc gets enthusiastic high-fives from everyone, along with considerable envy from his comrades, who will be gloating soon enough with big fish of their own, as the river delivers trophy catches to all in the next few days.

How much is that experience worth? More than you might expect. Another common misconception about guiding is that we charge too much and must be making tons of money. Not quite: our expenses are high. For example, we might move a half-ton of gear and a small crowd of people to a gravel bar a hundred miles or more from the road system. At least a third or more of the fees for fly-in trips goes to air taxi and cargo, right off the top. Then there’s wages for the other guides, expensive rafts, tents and other gear to maintain or replace, insurance, and on and on.

“When it is all over, at the airport, the hugs, handshakes and parting words only begin to express the heartfelt gratitude and feeling of camaraderie from what we have shared.”

My float fishing extravaganza with the South Africans winds down far too soon, but finishes in a blaze of Indian summer glory and phenomenally productive fishing. Late afternoon of the final day, we’re spread out along a gradual bend in the river, working a drop-off with egg patterns and flesh flies, hooking fat rainbows and Dolly Vardens left and right. A line of gaily clad fishermen, some making looping casts, others with bent rods, the river winding leisurely through golden, birch clad hills and meadows of bright fireweed, with a steady cascade of falling leaves in the gentle breeze, and the fragile and fleeting beauty of fall in the North create an idealic scene.

When it is all over, at the airport, the hugs, handshakes and parting words only begin to express the heartfelt gratitude and feeling of camaraderie from what we have shared. These guys got their money’s worth and they know it, and the pride I feel from doing honorable work and being the best at what I do can’t be measured in dollars and cents. So I say goodbye to a bunch of great guys from South Africa that I doubt I’ll ever see again, but whom I’m certain won’t ever forget their awesome trout fishing adventure of a lifetime and the guy who took them on it.

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