I have guided a fair amount, and I have been guided several times. I have seen how a good guide saves a lot of guesswork on a day of fishing. This is especially true in fisheries like steelhead, where the difference between good runs and barren ones is often subtle and only determined by experience. On rivers like the North Umpqua, the difference between a good swing and a futile one can be only a few yards or even feet. Many of us don’t have the luxury of fishing for days on end to figure out a new fishery on our own. So, if you can afford it, it’s a great idea to hire a guide, at least on your first few days in a new fishery.
A good guide will put you in the right spots, at the right times, with the right lure or fly, potentially saving you many hours of fruitless and frustrating prospecting. In the common scenario when multiple bugs are hatching at the same time, for example, a good fly guide will quickly and confidently choose the right fly. The carefree knowledge that you’re in the zone can lull you into a zen-like state of mind where you don’t have to think; the guide does that for you.
Apart from using the right gear and tactics, if you hire a guide, you will most likely learn techniques that will help you on the water in the future. A guide will teach you how to get a drag free drift, how to set the hook, how to cast, how to spot fish, and numerous other skills that might take you a long time to learn on your own. Not only that, but you will probably learn about the animals, plants, historical sights and other natural history of the water you’re fishing. You might even hear a few stories and jokes as well.
If you’re like me, fishing involves a certain number of close calls, missed hooksets and breakoffs. I broke off my first big Florida Keys tarpon on the hookset, having heard for years how hard a tarpon’s mouth is. I yanked on the line violently on the hook set and snapped that twenty pound tippet easily. I was asleep at the wheel for my first North Umpqua steelhead, not knowing what to do when it rolled on my dry fly. I didn’t get any second chances in either case. Those were very tough pills to swallow. It’s easy to beat yourself up over those missed opportunities. A good guide will console you and encourage you to get back into the game after such heartbreaks.
Fishing (especially fly fishing) is often an expensive hobby. If you only fish once, or a few days per year and don’t have your own gear, hiring a guide, although often expensive, might even save you money, if you can use their loaner gear. Plus, you will probably get lunch and drinks out of the deal.
Some anglers really can’t physically fish on their own; rowing a boat, launching a boat, jumping out of the boat, wading, throwing and hauling the anchor and operating an engine all require physical exertion that not all anglers can muster. A guide will take care of all of these jobs for you (except wading), prolonging the time that you can stay on the water and giving you access to previously inaccessible locations.
Above all else, the guide’s local knowledge, be it in treacherous rapids or stormy seas, will ensure that you’re safe on the water. The Sol Duc River, for example, has several dangerous rapids that many find intimidating, and for good reason. Many people have lost their boats on that river. I have floated the river many times and still get nervous on the big bouldery drops. A good guide has floated each particular drift dozens, if not hundreds of times and will calm your nerves while keeping you safe.
When I was guiding, I met many people who had saved up for a long time, even for years, to splurge on a big Alaskan fishing trip. With me at the helm, they walked up the right side channels, drifted down the right high banks and cast into the pools that held the most fish. What those clients didn’t know was that I wanted them to catch fish more than they did. Those few days might have been their best days of the entire year. I think it was worth it for them to maximize their time, safety and efficiency on the water by hiring a guide.