MY RESERVATIONS about the average fly-fishing guide are a lot like my reservations about the average spiritual guru. Both can be highly entertaining. Both can be idiots. Both charge for their services in either case. At its best, fly-fishing is a satisfying duet, played by a body of flesh upon a body of water. A fish makes it an even more satisfying trio. The average guide renders duet and trio inaudible. The average guide mediates so relentlessly between you and your fishing that it feels as if you and the river are divorcing and splitting up the property. The average guide plants an ego-flag on every fish, as if he's a mountaineer, the fish is the summit, and your stupidity is Mount Everest.
Your guide, like your lawyer, can offer hundreds of scary reasons why you need him: You don't know the river and he does; you'll get skunked and he won't; you'll drown if he doesn't float you, starve if he doesn't feed you, get poison-oaked, snakebit, bum-fupped, and vulched if he doesn't protect you. These are remote possibilities. Far less remote is the possibility that at day's end you'll hand your guide 300 bucks, shake his hand, and bite your tongue as you fight the urge to say, "Thanks that the insects you said wouldn't bite did, while the fish you said would, didn't. And thanks, 28 times in a row, for identifying that upcoming stretch as a 'sexy hole.' Thanks, too, for saying, 'Don't worry. The grub and brewskies are on me.' I've never lived for 16 hours on Busy Bucko crackers and Moose Drizzle stout before.''
I qualify all of this with the modifier "average." There are, of course, good guides out there. There are scholars and artists of the river, men and women whose lives I respect, whose intelligence I envy, whose humor causes loss of bladder control, and whose company I cherish. But I still reject the basic service. Guides accept payment to help clients circumvent their own ignorance. But ignorance is one of the most crucial pieces of equipment any fly fisher will ever own. Ignorance is a fertile but unplanted interior field. Solitary fly-fishing isolates us in this field and leaves us no choice but to cultivate it. A guide is like a farmer who, for a price, drives his tractor over and plants your field for you. He may know what's growing. But you sure as hell won't.
I ask you to consider the osprey, the heron, the kingfisher. These fly-fishing prodigies pass on the primordial art by feeding their young vomited-up trout, which naturally makes the young yearn for nonvomited-up trout, which in turn makes the young bolt upright in the nest and say: Eureka! I don't have to squat in this shithole eating puked-up fish all day! Look at my wings, my beak, my talons! I've got everything Mom and Dad have got! What the hell have I been thinking? I can go fishing myself!
Anglers! Look at your guides on their days off, unguidedly catching fish after fish! Look at your legs, your arms, your rod! Feel the heft and synaptic whir of your big cerebrum! You've got everything they've got! What the hell have you been thinking?Go fishing yourself! Dare to be the bumbling hero of your own fish story! Read like a fiend; practice like a fool. Find the best possible river on the best possible map, explore it, cast into it. If you fall in, get out. If you hook yourself, unhook yourself. Make a half-drowned, half-thrashed rat of yourself. It doesn't matter! And at the end of the day... Pay yourself! Charge an arm and a leg. Leave yourself huge tips. Remarkably painless, isn't it?
Gear | Northwest Steelheading
The Rod: Scott four-piece ARC, seven-weight ($560; 800-728-7208). While most companies will sell you a short, fast-action saltwater rod for landing steelhead, Scott designed the ARC series specifically to handle the tricky currents that hide these stubborn brutes. At ten feet long, it gives you pinpoint line control, and its medium-fast action casts both floating and heavy sink-tip lines with ease.
The Reel: Bauer M3 ($365; 831-484-0536). The M3's smooth cork disc drag applies consistent pressure on a running fish to prevent your tippet from snapping. Once he stops his run and turns, the large-diameter arbor can pick up line at a sprint.
The Line: Cortland 444 Steelhead Quick Descent ($46; 800-847-6787). You'll need Cortland's 24-foot sinking tip to transport your Green Butt Skunk into deep holding water lightning-fast.