Classic Pro Tips: How to Become a Fly-Fishing Guide

The author poses at the headwaters of Alaska’s Gibraltar River in 1995.

When I decided that I wanted to spend my summers a fishing guide—I was in graduate school at the time—I didn’t really know how to go about becoming one, so I used a shotgun approach. I applied to literally every lodge and outfitter I could find in Alaska and the Rocky Mountain West. In my cover letter, I explained that, although I had no guiding experience, I would be willing to do grunt work just to get my foot in the door.

Hardly any of the people to whom I’d applied even bothered to write back, which was kind of disheartening. But one day, I opened a letter from Alaska and was shocked to find a job offer. It was the first step in a career that took me to three different lodges in Alaska and one in Montana—places I never would have been able to go otherwise.

Being a fishing guide is the greatest summer job in the world; it sure as heck beats flipping burgers, mowing lawns, or working at the mall. If I had to do it over again, I would have started guiding a lot earlier—when I was in high school or college. The key is to begin laying the foundation at an early age by working hard to become the best fisherman you can be, by learning everything you can about fishing tactics and techniques, and by studying the biology and behavior of the species that you want to fish for.

George Daniel spends hundreds of days on the water as a guide in Pennsylvania.

The one thing that most prospective guides fail to realize is that “guiding” doesn’t mean “fishing.” When you take a paying customer out on the water, you are expected to be an instructor, a cheerleader, and—in some cases—a babysitter. The worst-case scenario requires you to choose the fly, tie all the necessary knots, teach the client how to cast, point to where the fish are, and then stand there while the client proceeds to do everything wrong. In some cases, the client will blame you for his ineptitude, and you’ll just have to smile and nod.

Because these skills don’t necessarily come naturally to everyone, there are a bunch of guiding schools that offer training in the finer points of guiding, from knot tying and drift-boat skills to important insurance issues and on-the-water safety. One of the best things about the more well-known guide schools—such as those run by Sweetwater Travel, Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge, and Fly Fishing Outfitters—is that they help their graduates find jobs. And when outfitters or lodge owners see that you’ve been through a respected program, they’ll have fewer doubts about hiring you.

But you definitely don’t need to go to a guide school to get a job. As long as you possess the requisite skills, know how to present yourself in a good light, and are prepared to work very hard, you have a solid chance of succeeding in the guiding business. I polled several lodge owners and outfitters, and each of them said he turns away a lot of young applicants. Usually, these youngsters are fine anglers, but they simply don’t have other important qualities that make a good guide.

John Herzer of Blackfoot River Outfitters celebrates with a client.

Here are the three most important things that an outfitter looks for in a potential employee:

  1. Maturity—Will you be able to handle yourself in tough situations without becoming flustered? Can you deal with rude or inept clients?
  2. Dependability—Will you show up for work everyday, prepare for each trip, and pitch in at the end of the day (boat cleanup, putting gas in the motors, etc.)?
  3. Angling Know-How—Do you understand the quarry? Are you familiar with the latest angling techniques? Do you have a passion that will rub off on clients?

No matter what kind of guide you want to be—a trout guide in Montana, a bass guide in Texas, or a salmon guide in Alaska—if you can prove that you possess these attributes, you should have little trouble landing a job.

Here’s a short list of guiding schools:

Fly Fishing Outfitters Guide School—Vail, Colorado

Three Rivers Ranch Fly Fishing Guide School—Ashton, Idaho

WorldCast Anglers Guide School—Jackson, Wyoming

Blackfoot River Outfitters Guide School—Missoula, Montana

Colorado Mountain College Fly Fishing Guide Certification—Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Sweetwater Travel Guide School—Livingston, Montana

Colorado Outdoor Adventure Guide School—Colorado Springs, Colorado

Montana Fishing Guide School—Big Sky, Montana

Vail Valley Anglers Guide Training Program—Edwards, Colorado

Cutthroat Angler Guide School—Silverthorne, Colorado

Tahoe Fly Fishing Outfitters Guide School—South lake Tahoe, California

RIGS Fly Fishing Guide School—Ridgway, Colorado

Mac Brown Fly-Fishing Guide School—Bryson City, North Carolina

Frying Pan Anglers Guide School—Basalt, Colorado

9 thoughts on “Classic Pro Tips: How to Become a Fly-Fishing Guide”

  1. Who says those who can’t fish, guide and those that can’t guide, write blogs? : ) JK PM

    I love when people say stuff like that. Your piece really highlights what I am learning as I pursue my CI through the IFFF. To be able to cast well is one thing, but to teach someone else to cast well requires a set of teaching skills which is something else completely. You really have to know your stuff inside and out and then be capable of being patient while someone tells you that you don’t know what you are doing. Very difficult sometimes, but the positives always out way the negatives.

    Nice piece. Important points that everyone should stay aware of when getting into this field.


    1. Yeah, Tim, I second that. I’m also studying for my CI and I spend the same, if not more, time per month working on my teaching skills as I do working on my casting skills. The ability to communicate a casting skill to different types of learners in different types of moods is just as challenging, if not more so, than doing aerial mends or hitting 75 feet.

      Not sure if you’re aware, but the CI exam is actually changing in two weeks. I think you can find the updated test on the FFF website.

    2. Nice article! Customer service and appreciation are so important, not just for the moment but also for those important reviews and repeat clients. Keep smiling!
      Mark Cobb
      Sky Lakes Wilderness Adventures

  2. I agree, I learned a long time ago the customer paid me to learn and if we caught fish, I earned a tip. Teaching is number one…

  3. Thanks for digging this up Phil. It was a enjoyable and inspiring read. I’ve cruised through the websites for the schools you listed. None are too far away and they are in same ballpark in pricing. However, I’m curious if you might be able to suggest one in Oregon. I like the idea of learning close to home waters and learning more about the industry in Oregon. Any suggestions on guide schools in Oregon that have a great reputation?


  4. Well done Phil. I’d add being a good teacher of both casting and fishing techniques to the list. An important part of learning to be a good guide is to hire & fish with some of the best guides out there, cheap tuition in the long run.

  5. Good article, I started the guide training school at Fly Fishing outfitters in Colorado, in 2001.
    We spent day one in a classroom, discussing guest service, nothing was said about fishing, moreover fulfilling the guest expectation.
    Which is one of the most important factors of having a successful day.

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