Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Family and I are off to take a crack at a Panhandle hunt for goose and pheasant with an outfitter who is an unknown quantity to us.

In "Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing" John Gierach writes that "Now and then you'll hire a guide and that's about all you'll get: a boat and someone to row it." Of course, he also writes: "If you decide to be a guide, I think you should do it for reasons other than that you love fishing."

Guided trips are a bit of a minefield of expectations for me. Growing up, we never did or even really contemplated guided trips. We knew some guys that guided, on a part time basis, but didn't make those sort of hunting or fishing trips. Heck, we hunted with those guys other times. Having a professional to help you out, get access to property and scout out the situation, seems like it ought to result in a sure thing, though it shouldn't and doesn't.

As an adult, I've been on a few guided fishing and bird hunting trips. The initial experience down in Belize set a high bar. We were down on our first trip there and had never done any saltwater fly fishing. The hotel had an arrangement with some local guides and we booked a trip for flats fishing and completely lucked out with the guy who showed up. Severo had some gear and took my father and I out to some flats surrounded by mangroves and channels where he rigged up an 8-weight fly rod and had us cast to show him what we could do. Once that was established, he began to pole us to various little pods of bonefish, eventually finding a small mud and staking-out up-current so we could cast into it. After we had both caught a few bonefish (and for your first bonefish, "one" is significant and "few" is very significant),

he asked "Do you guys want to try for tarpon?" What else could we say but "sure"? We ran back to a large lagoon where a series of four-foot tarpon systematically refused the few flies we could get in front of them and the large mirrolure thrown as a back-up (neither of us could throw with a 12-weight at that point). Despite the lack of cooperation of the fish, it was an afternoon of high excitement: first the tarpon would appear, as it grew closer, Severo would guide his panga so that we would intercept the fish, a cast would be attempted, after the rejection or failure to get the fly by the fish, we'd throw the plug, then the fish would ignore that and we'd look for another. The sense of anticipation as the lures were presented to the fish is impossible for me to adequately convey.
The next day, we went out with Severo and trolled around a reef for snapper and other reef fish, then for barracuda, all great light-tackle fun. Since that trip we've fished with Severo and his brother any number of times and always had a good trip.

Alas, other trips have not met the high expectations set by that trip. In southern Belize, we were taken on long boat rides punctuated by walks on empty flats by a guy who knew how to run a boat, but didn't appear to have much fishing experience or knowledge. Schools of bar jacks and other jacks were pinning baitfish against flats and tearing them up, but he continued a fruitless search for a flat with bonefish or tarpon on it instead of putting us on some of the easier fish. Finally, late in the second day and after repeated requests, he stopped and poled us to meet some of the jackfish. Since neither tarpon nor bones had been seen, we were happy for the chance to bend a rod. A later trip to the same region and we stayed on a caye with its own little flat and managed to find lots of shots at bonefish and quite a few at permit right there.

Waterfowl hunts have been mixed as well. One East Texas duck hunt went fairly well, the guide had a nice piece of property leased and a good blind and we got into a few ducks. My sister was also treated to lots of opinions as to why hunting is ok and a more than a bit of condescension, probably an unavoidable hazard for women who hunt but not something you really want to pay for. A later trip in flooded timber was worse: the guide brought his adult son along as an assistant, they sitting in either end of the blind. They insisted we keep down and keep our heads down until the ducks were right upon us, then opened the shooting themselves. "Take-bang! bang!-em!" Several ducks were killed, but I only pulled the trigger once and all our chances were at birds flaring from the opening volley. I think the guide and his son had a pretty good hunt.
My father and sister have made several goose hunts on the east Texas rice fields. You get up and out early then set hundreds of decoys in the gooey mud and fire ants, typically to watch flocks of snow geese several thousand strong ignore the spread. In three or four trips they've been unable to get a shot. Of course, the huge flocks of snow geese over there are notoriously hard to decoy. A Panhandle Canada goose hunt a few years back was worse. The guide set a group of us out in a cut-over corn field and set up his decoys, then called and flagged as flocks of Canadas came our way. A hundred birds peeled off and began to circle over us as we lay out on mats in the stubble, the birds talking and drifting down, only to flare repeatedly just out of range. It turned out that the guide's young dog was unable to contain himself and was running through the spread behind us. Sixty pounds of Lab tearing around will flare geese, don't you know. Fun to lie there and watch the birds come in and hunting is not all about killing, but it isn't just a matter of going out to run the birds off, either.

My experience with guides on common waters or lands has given me some pause, too. Years ago we were hunting western Colorado and would run into guys in a large tent camp that an outfitter had packed them into on horseback. Of course, we were parked at the end of a road only half a mile or so up above them and the gear was brought in before the season on four-wheelers. Not exactly false advertising, but those guys were paying a fee that bought them a bit of a ride with respect to the difficulty in getting to their camp,if not in other ways.
Some guides have a sort of proprietary attitude- because they are out every day and have to make a living off a particular patch of water, they don't hesitate to crowd the rest of us for their sports. When I fished the San Juan in north-western New Mexico quite a lot, I ran into a fair bit of that from guides. The most egregious example that springs to mind was one afternoon in March when I'd found a pod of rising fish a bit down a deep channel. The San Juan is mostly a matter of nymph fishing, but winter and early spring afternoons the blue-winged olives will sometimes hatch and get a rise going. After a (fun) morning of catching fish on nymphs, the spoiled 'Juan angler might head down to Baetis Bend and try to find some fish on a dry fly for variety in his sport. In this case there was no way to get right up to the half-dozen fish on foot. Consequently, I was upstream in water near my wader tops and making about as long a cast as I could manage, trying to throw some slack into it so I could drift a #20 Adams to the fish in a natural fashion. Hard fun! I had hooked one fish and was working on another when a guide in a drift boat with two clients came by. Instead of passing, he rowed back up until parallel with the fish and about thirty feet off, then anchored and proceeded to direct his clients to cast to them. Rude!
Not to paint all who guide with the same brush. The vast majority of whitewater rafting guides I've been on trips with have been professional, competent, and fun. My only grief there is that they have started getting a little young in the last few years. I like these guys because they still have a few long-time Terlingua based guides who wouldn't start to be tempted to call me "sir". For that matter, I was on the San Juan another afternoon waiting to see if a hatch would develop in the same spot as had happened the previous two days about that time. Sure enough, BWO's started showing up and fish started rising. I had a prime spot staked out and clipped off my nymph rig and strike indicator, tied on some more tippet and a dry, and began fishing. This guy came by with three clients, an eighty-something grandfather, forty-something dad, and teenage son. He asked if I minded if he placed his clients around me, to which I of course responded "no problem". Kim placed the grandfather first, helping him find his footing and warning him not to venture out further, then bringing the son and grandson up past me a decent distance to get them in position and casting. Before he could get them sorted, the grandfather had a fish and began wading out to it. Concerned for the slippery rocks, deepish water a couple of feet out, and the man's unsteadiness, the guide ran down to him, netted the fish, released it, checked the fly, then came back up. No sooner than he had father and son placed and untangled, the scene repeated. As he chugged back up past me with a little grin, I looked over his shoulder to see his oldest client had yet another fish on. I laughed and pointed him back that way, which was met with a wry shrug as he trotted back down to the old gentleman, who clearly had some ability with a fly rod. Hard working, and polite, guide.

I think I can imagine some of the difficulties of guiding and the grab-bag of people you have to deal with in the course of making very little money and doing a lot of work. Nonetheless, for a regular-Joe type sportsman, a guided trip is a big deal and higher expectations are near unavoidable. With any luck, this upcoming trip will prove satisfying for everyone, guide and client alike.

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