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.

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. 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:

Hubbard’s Guide Academy—Emigrant, Montana

Fly Fishing Outfitters Guide School—Vail, Colorado

Sweetwater Travel Guide School—Livingston, Montana

Colorado Outdoor Adventure Guide School—Colorado Springs, Colorado

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

  1. #4 semi-important thing (unwritten):

    4. Grit and Determination—Can you handle professionally drinking 12 PBRs (maybe a few shots) on 4-5 hrs of sleep the night before and still have a pleasant and productive day of guiding – while demonstrating the essential skills of listening, speaking, hand-eye coordination (net jobs & knot tying), navigation and being slightly polite?

    1. Grit and determination have absolutely nothing to do with CHOOSING to drink 12 PBR’s and a few shooters of hard alcohol the night before being a professional out on the water with clients. That shows a very immature, unprofessional and foolish mind set. Any professional, regardless of the profession, would not put themselves in the above situation. Very bad example and very stupid question.

  2. Hi, what’s your spin on a young women getting into the field and getting hired with no guiding experience? I am researching guiding schools for when I am out of the Peace Corps but could use any advice/constructive criticism to put me on the right track to a potential career in the fly fishing industry. I really appreciate this Orvis blog and thanks for writing this article!

    1. Hi Kate,
      Female guides are becoming more and more common, though I don’t doubt that there may be some gender bias out there. I know from experience that there are plenty of badass women on the water: Lori-Ann Murphy, Jennifer Cornell, Cathy Beck, Rachel Finn, to name just a few. If you can perform all the functions required as a guide, I think you can find work. You might contact a few female guides and ask if they have any suggestions about dealing with the gender issue. Good luck!

    2. Kate,
      The guiding part of the job is actually very easy. Knowledge of the rivers that you are guiding is actually the kicker. Know your river(hatch cycles, tactics to use, seasonal changes, etc) like the back of your hand and the other stuff takes care of itself. I believe women can be equal or better guides than men. The nurturing part of a woman might be the reason. Take care of your client as you would like to be treated yourself. Safety first. Shadow a patient pro for a summer and see if you like the job. One of the main reasons I do it is for the connect to nature and the rhythms of life. I have to be outside. With guiding in Colorado, our staff has to be out in all elements, not just a bluebird day. You have to be able to adapt to constant change. If this appeals to you, contact one of the most patient guides on our staff, Katie Beamon. She guides our Kid’s Camps and Schools. Amazing Woman! That Job requires an even extra level of skill. Send me an email and I’ll put you two in touch with each other. I like to think our clients don’t even notice if you are a man or a women at the end of the day. One aspect to women guiding that no one wants to touch and will probably get me some replies is the use of sex appeal. The stories about women vs. men, that have literally torn fly shops, guide services, and friendships apart, could fill a best selling novel. Just know your river and all will be fine. Good Luck and hope to hear from you… t

  3. Great advice Phil. My story is similar. First guiding job in Alaska in 1981, fresh out of high school. Every summer through college, and a couple more after. Then longer seasons in MT, WY, and Canada. Then independent, full time, year-rounder since 1991 in UT/WYO and the Florida Keys. I knew it was for me after that first season in AK 33 yrs. ago. I do still fish a lot on my days off in the off season too. I have loyal clients who follow me annually. I’m grateful. I encourage all youth with aspirations to try it and see if its their calling. If not, the experiences are still invaluable. Do it when you’re young.

  4. Pingback: Tippets: Tying Transitions, Flood Concerns, Becoming a Guide | MidCurrent
  5. I will be changing my carrier soon and would like to become a trout guide in Northern California

    Any and all advise would be taken seriously.

    Looking for a mentor.

  6. Becoming a trout guide in California….

    Prepare for a lot of competition. The amount of guides in California is staggering, and let’s not forget about the continuing drought situation. Many rivers are not able to support angling right now due to temperature mortality.

    While there are no outfitter requirements in California, the guys who stay relatively busy volunteer at fly shops and are willing to learn and teach all of the fish species that California offers, not just trout.

    Another tough aspect about California is not only the amount of guides, but the sheer amount of anglers in the populace. Also, water here is not managed well and you will face ever changing conditions to the watersheds which can drastically change quality of fishing from year to year.

    In addition to the standard license, some watersheds require specific permits the number of which is set and you will not be able to obtain until someone dies or retires.

    It’s a tough business here, with a lot of people who *do not want to see a new guide succeed.

    Best of luck.

  7. No wonder there are more guides than people want to fish. My father was a guide for 30 years. I kinda fell into it from YEARS of getting yelled at about edicate, theory on what fish do and why, proper way to rig and use fishing gear, and most importantly spending over a 100 days a year on the water since I was 7. My father was asked to guide by an owner of a fish camp. He was asked basically because he could catch big speckled trout on top water year around. Something that is hardly seen in todays fishing. Basically my point is, it was once said that 10% of fisherman catch 90% of the fish. If you aren’t one of these people and can teach your customers to catch them then you’re not going to make it. With as many guides on the water as there are today, you have to posses those qualities plus be a hell of a business man that can keep prices competitive and still make money.

  8. Master Maine Guide, Western Maine mountains. I agree with all the above comments. I would like to add to the list a little knowledge about the flora and fauna in your area. Hard core fishermen are easier to guide – they are focused and generally know their stuff. More and more less experienced anglers are as interested in the “sizzle” as in the “Steak” They want to fish of course, but are also interested in the total experience. You can give them something to remember besides the fishing.
    A beginner can’t cast ten hours a day, and our job is to help them realize their view of the ideal trip.

  9. How soon can you start guide school? I am 15 and flyfish for trout and anything that swims in Wisconsin all year round. I am interested in getting a guide job in Wyoming where I fish every summer around Buffalo WY
    Some advice would be greatly appreciated my email is …

  10. How about advice for someone who perhaps is looking to learn to be a fly fishing guide in their later years – say after spending 30 years in another profession (military) and are just looking for something to occupy their time in a productive way and in doing so help others learn and enjoy fly fishing as a sport/past time? Is there an “age limit” when thinking about going to guide school?

    1. Knowledge, passion, skill and the ability to connect will always trump age. If you are one hell of an angler and possess the ability to teach others then I say go for it.

      Pour your heart into it and you will be rewarded.

  11. Any military vets on active duty attempt to do this while on leave…? Seriously considering doing this for fun and the experience.

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