This post is from contributing author, Pat Burke.
I’ll be the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn when it comes to fly fishing. Saying I’m a seasoned angler may be a bit of a stretch, but I do spend a couple days a week on the water year round fishing my local streams as well as traveling to fish distant waters. Maybe it’s my frugal nature but I often resist hiring a guide when traveling to new water. Let’s face it. Hiring a guide is expensive and most of the time I’ve been able to make things work and get into some fish on my own. I feel like figuring things out on your own is half the fun. However, I did begin to wonder what I was missing by not hiring a guide. On two recent trips to big western rivers, I had the privilege of spending full days with experienced guides. On each occasion it ended up being some of my most memorable days of the trip.
You hear it time and time again that nothing beats local knowledge. I’m not talking about knowing the hot flies to use. With the advent of the internet it is simple for anyone to do a search and come up with all of the key patterns for a particular river. And even if they don’t, in most cases generic patterns that work on your home water will catch fish just about anywhere. Similarly the internet can provide access points, fishing reports, river flows, and the weather. So what is the point of hiring a guide when you already know how to fish and you can do your research online? One word – experience. Internet research is not a substitute for the experience and knowledge a guide contains from being on a river system day in and day out all year long.
Case in point goes for a trip I took to the famous North Platte Tailwaters last month. We had two days of back to back fishing that couldn’t have been more different. The first day was a float on the Miracle Mile with Guide Mark Simpson of Grey Reef Anglers and Wingshooters, while the second day was a self guided float down the Grey Reef section. For those who don’t know these sections of the river, the Miracle Mile is supposed to be the moodier of the two sections, with Grey Reef being the “numbers” location.
While shuttling vehicles for our float we discussed our expectations for the day with Mark. My good friend Sloop and I explained that we’d like to start the day by doing our own thing but we were ready to drop our tactics immediately and use Mark’s recommendations if things didn’t go well. Mark was fine with that and he actually encouraged it. He thought it would be beneficial to go with what we were comfortable with to start. It turns out we got in to great fish all day long using our rigs and tactics. So was it a waste to hire Mark? I’ll be honest, that incredible day was not on us. It was Mark’s knowledge of the river that yielded the results we experienced.
The Miracle Mile is a big river and he knew all of the correct lines to fish. He’d explain the upcoming water as we were approaching, pointing out where and how we should fish the particular piece of water. Then his superb handling of the boat would put us in perfect position time and time again.
That day with Mark went down as our best day of our Wyoming trip. It was just an incredibly enjoyable day where Mark explained the nuances of the river along with telling one great story after another. Sloop and I both agreed that it was money well spent.
In contrast, the next day we were no where near as successful. We rented a boat and three of us floated the Grey Reef section. Keep in mind this is supposed to be the easier of the two sections for catching fish. I’m not going to say the day was horrible because we did catch fish, but the largest struggle for us was not knowing the water. The river was hard to read from a distance and we’d often end up blowing up good water by running the wrong side or positioning ourselves too close or too far from where we needed to fish. It was frustrating and actually turned us off on what is arguably considered the best section of the North Platte river.
A month later I had a similar experience on the Yellowstone river fishing with my good friend Matt Grobe. We were lucky enough to get an invitation from his guide friend Don McCue. The Yellowstone is another big powerful western river that is known for being fickle. As we floated with Don, I was surprised by the locations he continually had us fish. As each new section of river approached, Don moved us over to fish the inside bends rather than the deep slots on the outside of the river. Being used to float fishing fairly shallow rivers in central PA, I almost always position the boat so the fisherman can fish the outside bend. At first I thought we were missing out on fishing the best water. My opinion changed quickly as we caught large fish in the sections I would normally avoid. By the end of the day, I was sold on fishing these locations on this river.
Once again we fished all of our normal tactics but I attribute most of the success to Don’s knowledge and his paddling skills. He took us to those softer inside shallow seams continually despite the deep outside bends looking better from afar. The times we did fish the outside bends ended up fruitless attempts on water that looked great. Matt and I switched up paddling with Don throughout the day, but it always ended the same. When Don wasn’t on the oars, very few fish were caught.
The other common aspect that Don and Mark both provided was the history of the rivers and great stories to pass the downtime. It really enhances the experience and keeps your head in the game when you hear one story after another about different sections of the river and the good fish that were caught and lost. In the end you build a much deeper understanding of the river and come to realize it’s true potential.
So back to the original question of whether it is worth it for a seasoned angler to hire a guide. My answer is absolutely! Hire the guide for the first day of your trip and learn where the fish hold, the proper lines to fish and position your boat, and gain an appreciation for the river through the guides stories.