photo of mourning doves

Sooner or later, in idle daydream or secret fantasy, every serious fly angler wonders What would it be like to guide for a living? The idea holds a distinctly off-the-grid appeal, for nothing about the job is conventional. It’s a seminomadic life of irregular hours and seasonal work, hinging on the whims of weather and fish. There’s not even a formal career path to follow. You can’t major in guiding or join a union. Learning to guide is more like becoming a triggerman or a topless dancer–you make the most of your native assets and pick up the rest on the job.

At least that’s the way it used to be. In recent years, a handful of guide schools have set up shop to teach aspiring newcomers the essentials of the trade. And people, lots of them, are signing up. Since I’m currently engaged full-time in becoming the laziest man on earth, I’m not really in the market for a new career as a guide. But I’m curious about the people who are, and why, and what it takes to make it happen. So setting personal ambition aside, I enrolled in the Sweetwater Guide School to take a weeklong training course and find out.

The base of operations is an 800-acre ranch out of Greycliff, Mont., homesteaded in the 1870s on prime bottomland bordered by the Yellowstone River and low hills rolling to the distant backdrop of the Beartooth Mountains. We headquarter at the Harrison House, one of three on the property, a vertically rambling, prairie-stark old Victorian of impeccable Western pedigree; it was the site of a locally famous murder a century ago and an equally famous retaliatory lynching in what is now Hangman’s Gulch.

I’m not sure what to expect when I arrive: the rigors of angling boot camp or, my worst fear, a flyfishing dude ranch in gimmicky masquerade. It proves to be neither. When the eight other participants show up, the whole gig takes on the comfortable vibe of a deer camp, informal and almost horizontally laid back. School director Ron Meek casually gestures toward a wall of food in the refrigerator and a dangerously overstuffed pantry: “You’re on your own for breakfast and lunch. If you see it, you can eat it.” But after long days on the river, the staff instructors mercifully dish up dinners–pork tenderloin, steaks, barbecued ribs, and other sorts of humble fare to sustain the working guide. Come evening, we adjourn to the porch and practice the easier parts of the profession, double-hauling a few cold ones from a backyard cooler and polishing up our lies.

Though we’ve all come to learn the skills of guiding, not everyone, I soon discover, aims to be a guide. Ken Wilson and his 17-year-old son, Kendrick, already experienced and well-traveled anglers, have signed up, Ken says, “because we wanted to improve our fishing skills and wanted to do it together.” Kendrick, though, thinks that at some point he might like to try his hand at guiding in Alaska.

Ed Cyr has just retired from the last of his three careers–as a sergeant in the Army Reserve, a county sheriff, and most recently a Washington state tax collector. He already fishes the Columbia River from his own jet sled but has come to better his boat handling.

For Karen Reed, a 40-something flight attendant, the school is her husband’s idea. He wants her to learn to manage a drift boat, she tells me, “so I can row, he can fish all day, and we’re both happy.” Sorry, she doesn’t have a sister. I asked.

This mixture of goals turns out to be typical. The school has 250 graduates to date, about half of whom took the class as an advanced flyfishing or boating course. The rest, like the rest of this group, came to train as guides.

Regardless of motive, the drill’s the same. Study commences at 8:30 sharp, after we eat breakfast and pack lunch coolers, including extra water on very hot days. “A lot of your clients will be elderly or out of shape,” guide Dave Goff cautions. “Bring lots of water and make them drink it.”

Some mornings, seminars head the agenda. We log time around a fly-tying table, where instructor Tracy Peterson walks us through eight or nine “guide flies” that take trout virtually everywhere. He also conducts a session on stream insects, though as he acknowledges, “You don’t need to tie flies or know bugs to be a good flyfishing guide. But both give you an edge.”

We take a class on fishing knots and, on a savagely hot morning, get lessons from Brant Oswald, whose list of credentials as a casting instructor is longer than a fly line. Though he coaches us individually on our technique, the ultimate focus falls on the client. In this case, we’re learning how to help square-one beginners–who may represent 40 percent of bookings– throw a fly well enough to catch something. And this emphasis, perhaps as much as anything, sums up the governing philosophy of the week: It’s all about giving your clients the best possible experience on the water.

To that end, safety, for both guides and anglers, is stressed in all matters, from entering and exiting boats to pinching down hook barbs to working around floatplanes to client injuries. Many states require that a guide complete training in emergency medical procedures. And so our single longest seminar is a crash course run by Doug Lobaugh, a barrel-chested captain at Livingston Fire & Rescue and a 17-year EMT veteran. When this two-legged hurricane blows out of the room hours later, we’ve got our mandatory American Red Cross certifications in First Aid Basics and Adult CPR.

By far the bulk of our training takes place in the field, and each day we split into groups of four to hit the river in two drift boats and a jet boat, periodically stopping to wade-fish. Then, by turns, one student plays guide for the other two as an instructor looks on, gives advice, and corrects mistakes. Pretending to authority on a river I’ve never fished feels a little fraudulent, but to become a guide you’ve got to learn to act like one.

My first victim, who prefers to be known only as Lynne, is from Chicago. She concedes that she’s no fishing expert and has joined the class both to ratchet up her fly-rod skills and to lay some potential groundwork for the future. Like her husband, she’s an avid bird hunter, and they’re considering joining, or managing, or even starting up a cast-and-blast operation some years down the road, possibly one geared to female clients.

At the moment, though, she’s ankle-deep in a riffle, poking through an open fly box, wanting to know what’ll work.

“This one,” I lie without hesitation, walking that fine line between perfect confidence and pure cow pie that is sometimes part of the job, because Rule No. 1 is: Your clients must have faith in you. Lynne proves easy to guide and listens well, if not wisely, at my request changing dry flies, adding droppers, then going deep, then changing spots. I’ve got my other client unproductively occupied in a similar fashion. A strong downstream wind, turbid water, and lockjawed trout aren’t helping matters, and under mounting performance anxiety and shriveling self-esteem, I shuttle the 100 yards between my two anglers, toting an absurdly superfluous landing net.

Playing guide is a lot harder than it looks. By noon I’ve racked up more miles than an NBA ref, my sports have racked up exactly nothing, and I’m completely out of ideas. Lynne tells me not to worry about it, but it’s a relief when the afternoon shift change comes.

When you’re not running the show, you’re acting as a client, a role that must be taken with at least some seriousness to have any instructional value for the student guide. Drawing upon a natural aptitude for being catered to, I warm to the part of client immediately, showcasing a lifetime’s worth of bad flyfishing habits under the camouflage of pretending to be a novice. It’s hard on the guide, but it’s my job.

The burden falls, one afternoon, on 20-year-old Sam Aiken, a block mason (“like my daddy and his daddy”) who grew up hunting and fishing in North Carolina. He’s the kind of young hard-charger I expected to find here. Beneath a quiet reserve and a polite drawl peppered with “sirs” and “ma’ams” vibrates a guy so fired up about becoming a guide that I worry he’ll burst into flames. With a lean, rangy build and forearms thick as dock ropes (laying all that brick, I guess), he looks like a guide already.

Because he is young and eager, I can’t help but yank his chain a little, hamming up the role of rank beginner and trotting him through his paces. He patiently shows me how to cast, explains how to work a run, and never once steps out of character, which is vital because Rule No. 2 is: Be professional. Remember that the job is as much about teaching as finding fish. Though he’s never been West before, he taps into that native fish sense that some guys just have, gives me instructions, and gets me onto trout.

At night, he ties flies or taps away at a laptop, working on his resume. The school maintains a network of outfitters, lodges, and fly shops that call when they need guides. Demand often outstrips supply, and before the week is over, Sam has a job offer in his pocket. It surprises no one.

The Yellowstone here is a big river, best fished from boats, banging the banks with oversize Woolly Buggers and steroidal rabbit-strip streamers. It’s like slapping the water with a wet hamster, but we roll some good trout. The fishing serves double duty as instruction in angling techniques and as training for the oarsmen.

There’s much more to handling a drift boat than merely floating downriver. You must hold off the bank at a constant, castable distance; adjust for wind and squirrelly currents; call out the fishy spots coming up; back-row to slow your clients through the prime water; maneuver the boat to help weak casters put their lines in productive drifts; keep a self-protective eye on their back casts; watch their flies for follows or strikes; and net fish–all with an economy of effort that will see you through the day.

These are the finer points that Woody Linihan has come to learn. Already an experienced angler with good rowing chops (he once built a drift boat), he practices the moves that separate a splash-and-giggle boater from a fishing guide. And from his 20-year career as a bartender in Las Vegas comes a stream of stories, of barflies and bouncers, of high-stakes players and blue-haired slot monkeys. This helps with Rule No. 3: Show them a good day, if not with fish then with something else. Personable, upbeat, and relentlessly entertaining, Woody tells me, “I don’t see guiding and bartending as all that different. They’re service occupations. The customers come to relax and have fun. It’s your job to see that they do.” But he’s dead serious about becoming a guide. “It’s time to reinvent myself,” he explains, “doing something I love.” The stakes are high for him, and at age 40 with two young kids, he has no illusions about the uncertainties ahead. But he means to take his shot.

Where drift boats prove impractical, on big rivers in remote destinations, guides run motorized craft. Already a scarred survivor of several tragic relationships with the internal combustion engine, I have misgivings about my stint at the tiller of a 55-horsepower outboard jet-pump on an 18-foot johnboat. But Rob Norman, my partner for the day, can hardly wait. He’s up to his armpits in the lower unit as we get lessons in removing the intake housing, clearing debris from the grate and water path, and treating the various mechanical ills that can befall you on the water.

Rob, more than anyone, has committed to walk the walk. At age 32, he has chucked his 11-year career as a paramedic in Austin, Texas, moved all his stuff into storage, and come here to learn the ropes. Inspired by guides on a trip to Alaska, he returned home thinking: “What better way to spend your time than teaching people something that could change their lives? Flyfishing did that for me.” He obeys Rule No. 4: You must love your work because your clients won’t have a good time if you don’t. When I ask about guiding, he speaks instead of fishing as a quiet escape, as a spiritual refuge, perhaps as a necessary counterweight to screaming sirens and heart attacks.

Despite my apprehension, jet-boat day chugs by without incident but with frequent quizzes. “How would you fish this water?” Meek asks, pointing. “Where would you station your clients?” And so on, as we learn to read the river, run the chutes, and practice back-trolling. Despite extra tutoring, it’s obvious that I suck at this. I’m scheduled for a second session later in the week but swap it for additional drift-boat time and two beers.

After five solid days of coaching, it’s impossible not to get better at almost everything. And we all do. On the final morning, each of us is summoned to the office for an exit interview. One by one, my companions emerge waving certificates of completion. I graduate too, with what is now known as a “social promotion” but in my day was called the “Gentleman’s C”–an unspoken agreement in which I’m passed from the course under the strict condition that I never attempt to use the credential. But I have other plans and inquire instead about the career opportunities for a professional client.

Meek says he’ll get back to me.

WANT TO GO? Sweetwater offers six weeklong guide-school courses a year between March and October. Each is limited to nine students, and the cost is $1,900. For more information, go to or call 866-464-8433.