Let Me Be Your Guide

Guide Jeremy Warter (right) and a client show off a Nushagak River king. One of the priorities you’ll have when planning an Alaska fishing adventure is choosing a perfect guide for your needs. (TONY ENSALACO)


The following appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:


Months of anticipation were obliterated sometime between the words “good morning” and dropping the boat into the river.

Within moments of meeting our guide for the first time, he made it abundantly clear that he was the boss. We were basically along for the ride. He described our rigid itinerary, which consisted of how we were going to fish – no exceptions. What time we would be off the river – no exceptions.

He told us doesn’t like to take pictures while we are fishing. He said that we could take all of the pictures that we wanted with the salmon that were kept from the trip – no release shots. He proudly proclaimed that he has been doing it his way for over 25 years and had no intention of changing the routine on this day. When my buddy Pedro Gonzalez worked up the nerve to ask if he could try some fly fishing, the guide immediately shot down any likely hope of that plan by rudely responding in a raspy voice. “You can bring your gear, but I probably won’t let you use it,” he barked at us.

Needless to say, any scrap of positivity that remained vanished before we were allowed to make our first cast.

I CONSIDER THAT EXPERIENCE as an anomaly. I have been out with a cross section of guides a handful of times and I found them to be extremely courteous and professional, and I would have no reservations about fishing with most them again. Let’s face it: They wouldn’t last too long in that type of business if they weren’t completely qualified and didn’t know how to get along with a wide assortment of personalities.

I also don’t think the outing was a complete bust. Despite our limited interaction with the guide, we caught our share of fish and I was still able to learn a few things.

Being a Great Lakes angler, I have never intentionally targeted silvers because most of the rivers in my backyard don’t host fishable runs of them.

The silvers I have caught in the past were welcome surprises while fishing for late-season kings or early-run fall steelhead. I purposely hired a guide so I could learn the nuances of catching silvers and was able to pick up enough info to set me up for the rest of the trip. So it was mission accomplished.

The blunder I made was allowing an employee of the lodge where I was staying to choose our guide without offering any of my input. The only request I had made was that I wanted to fish with the one who had the most experience.

Normally, that way of thinking would make sense. You can never go wrong with a seasoned professional, unless that particular guide happens to be stubborn and doesn’t feel that he has to conform to his client’s different needs and skill levels.

I personally felt that he might have been suffering from “burnout,” a condition that unfortunately happens to some veteran guides, as well as other occupations. It’s when the person has been doing the same task for a long period of time and loses the initiative to put out his best effort every time he performs. If I would have done my due diligence, I probably would have chosen to fish with someone else.

Don Hinkle (right, with Danny Kozlow) is known as a guiding icon on the Situk River near Yakutat. An experienced guide usually means a good day on the water. (TONY ENSALACO)

SO THEN, HOW DO you find a guide that is right for you? There really isn’t an exact blueprint, but you should know that different guides offer different experiences and will fit certain anglers better than others. The first question you have to ask yourself is this: Why do you want to hire a guide? The obvious answer would be to catch lots of fish, right? Yes and no.

Of course, catching tons of fish until you can’t lift a rod anymore is never a bad thing, especially if that’s your sole intention. Personally, I have never gone out with a guide because I just wanted to catch tons of fish.

The reasons why I have gone on guided trips was because I wanted to gather information about a new river, learn a different technique or discover how to fish for a species that I am not familiar with.

If I caught some fish along the way, then I considered that a bonus. In fact, one of my worst fishing experiences was with a guide who produced a six-man limit of king salmon before 10 a.m. It was because I didn’t learn squat. I booked a trip with a guide to learn how to fish an unfamiliar river.

When I told him my intentions upfront, he assured me that I would pick up a few things from him. What ended up happening was that we launched the guide’s boat from a private ramp that was 30 yards adjacent to one of the best holes on the river.

All the guide had to do was to run half of a football field upstream to position the boat above the hole, run out a dozen plugs behind the boat and wait for a rod to slam dunk. My party took turns fighting the fish once one of the rods doubled over – all in plain view of our vehicles. We never moved. My only takeaway from that trip was that I needed a car wash.

Reconnaissance and catching fish aren’t the only reasons why someone might want to hire a guide. Some anglers will go out with a guide after spending long days of hiking the streams or operating a boat themselves. They are looking to take a much-needed break.

I have met several groups of diehard DIY river fishermen who will schedule a saltwater excursion or even pay for a river guide in the middle of their Alaskan stay for that reason. In the case of the river guide, they are not looking for his expertise. What they are really doing is hiring a chauffeur so they can take a well-deserved breather.

My philosophy is that if I ever do retain a guide’s services, I would prefer to go out with him at the beginning of the trip. That way I can either get some sort of an idea of what methods seem to be working or know what stretches of river are fishing the best and what areas can be eliminated. The reason doesn’t matter; once you decide that you want to get a guide, the next step is to do some research.

(Above) Kristen (left) and Danny Kozlow with a limit of Alaska sockeye salmon. Understandably, as long as the guide gets them on some fish will please most anglers. (TONY ENSALACO)

THE FIRST PART OF our Alaska morning was spent floating downstream with hardly any verbal interaction. If one of us asked the guide a question, he replied in short and not so detailed answers that were of no help to us.

After enduring a couple of hours of awkward conversation, we finally came to the conclusion that it was best to cease communication altogether because of the obvious tension that was permeating throughout the drift boat. There was an imaginary wall of separation between us, even though we were sitting a few feet away from each other.

Fortunately, the day got somewhat better once we started getting into some fish. Bent rods and screaming drags always seems to alleviate any unresolved friction among anglers, so the strict regimen and the sparse small talk was temporarily forgotten.

Since I’m not big into photography, I wasn’t concerned about taking pictures of the feisty, acrobatic silvers we were releasing. As a hardcore river rat, I’m more interested in getting my lure back into the water and hooking up again rather than delaying a hot bite by digitally documenting any piscatorial conquests.

After landing a number of salmon, the trip actually started to become enjoyable, even though I could still tell that we were fishing under a time constraint. There was no doubt the guide was adamant about sticking to his agenda. He planned on making it back to the takeout on time.

Pedro and I would be getting into some fish from a hole we just arrived at. Out of nowhere, the guide would abruptly pull up the anchor and tell us that we were about to move downstream.

In fact, for most of the morning he never let us get out of the boat, even though we fished some areas that appeared to be more suitable for bank fishing. I suspected that the reason he kept us sequestered was to save on time. Then, he surprised us by acting out of character.

A little more than halfway into our float, the guide threw us a curveball by pulling over and beaching the boat. He ordered Pedro and I to disembark and fish an unappealing stretch of river several yards downstream. He also instructed us to bring the net with us because he was going to stay back and watch from his rower’s seat.

It didn’t add up that he wanted us to get our waders wet after spending the morning jostling with each other in the front of the cramped boat. All the while we were searching for innovative ways to make unobstructed casts around each other.

Don’t get me wrong. It felt great to finally get some elbowroom, even though we didn’t catch any fish out of that hole. In fact, it was one of the only spots that we couldn’t scrape up any action.

I have heard that some guides will purposely have their customers fish low-percentage spots so the guide can take a break. I personally know one who stops at unproductive holes to rest, and refers to such places as “sandwich holes.” They allowed him to eat an uninterrupted lunch without having to cater to his clients. I guarantee that was the guide’s intention for putting us on that particular hole.

As the trip was coming to an end, our guide seemed to become a little more friendly – and definitely more flexible. He even offered to pull over and give Pedro a chance to tangle with a coho with his fly rod. It was obvious that the guide was trying to soften the mood, so we perhaps might consider becoming more generous with his tip. Too little, too late.

Ensalaco is an experienced angler himself, but you can never stop learning from a local guide. “The selection shouldn’t only be based on which guide catches the most fish,” he writes. “It’s probably more important to find one that accommodates your personality and needs.” (TONY ENSALACO)

FINDING A GUIDE CAN be done in several ways. If your trip’s package doesn’t include a guide already, you can rely on a manager where you are staying to make arrangements with one of the guides that they normally work with. This will make the process easier, but it also limits your options.

One problem to be aware of is when you book a trip at the last minute and the best guides will, most likely, have already been taken. This can happen when planning a trip during the peak of the season, and the most popular ones have been reserved for months.

During busy times, lodge and hotel managers will often scramble to find anybody that is semi-capable of filling a guide’s role just to keep up the demands of their clients. I have been on rivers during the height of the run and it seemed that anyone who knows which way is downstream becomes ordained as a qualified guide.

Personally, if I was shelling out hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I would want to fish with a full-fledged guide. If you plan on hiring a guide during the historical peak of a run, then my advice is to book months – or on some crowded fisheries – a year or two in advance to be sure you are getting a professional and not a backup.

You can also find guides on your own. I have found guides by perusing the different outdoor publications like this one that have special planning sections that are divided by different areas or regions. A few of them even have sections dedicated to guide businesses.

This type of advertising can get you started in the right direction, but it only gives you a limited amount of information and will usually leave out important things like the cost of the service. And you still need to contact the guide for his availability.

Another way is to do a Google search of the body of water you would like to fish or an area that you plan on visiting, and then let modern technology do its thing. A guide’s website can give you more details, including the price of the guide’s fee and the days that are still open. You can also find out how long the trip will last, the best times of the year and the various species that are available and what you should bring, among other things.

Ryan McClure of Glacier Bear Lodge was kind of a guide-in-waiting when he fished with the author before becoming a licensed guide. “He did everything right,” Ensalaco writes. (TONY ENSALACO)

ONCE YOU HAVE NARROWED it down to a few choices of potential guides, the next step is to have a conversation with him. This is to find out if you are going to be compatible with each other. I think it should be conducted similar to a job interview, but with a unique twist.

You are the one doing the hiring, but the guide is going to be the boss. Of course, you are not going to make an appointment to sit him down in an office and drill the guide with questions. An in-depth phone call would be a smart thing to do. Explain to him what you are looking to get out of the trip and ask him what he expects from you.

If your intention is to relax and enjoy the vistas while you wait to reel in the fish as the guide does all of the work, but he expects you to have a more hands-on approach, then maybe you should search for someone else.

Another variable that needs to be addressed is the cancellation policy. Sh*t happens – it’s Alaska, after all. Horrible weather, blown-out rivers and emergency fishery closures are some of the risks you take when visiting the Last Frontier.

I once scheduled an early-spring steelhead trip that almost had to be delayed because the roads leading to the river were not accessible due to the 10 feet of snow that was covering them.

Guides had trouble accommodating the trips that had to be canceled and rescheduled, and some fishermen who expected to be fishing from the guide boats were out of luck that week because of the lack of availability. Make sure you find out about alternative options if you are forced to change the original plans.

You are going to ask questions, but don’t forget to talk about yourself. Guides can be versatile but often specialize in certain styles of fishing. You might be talking to the most knowledgeable guide on the river, he might only be proficient at gear fishing and you’re looking to wave a fly rod. Otherwise maybe you should find someone that better fits your needs.

Another thing you should also inquire about the guide’s policy on keeping fish. If the service runs a strict catch-and-release operation and you’re interested in filling your freezer, then, well, you know.

You need to be honest about your ability and stamina. Most anglers see themselves as experts, even though they might be new to the type of fishing they will be doing. If you’ve never done it before, be upfront with the guide so he knows what to expect.

Guides deal with clients of all skill levels and know how to prepare ahead of time to have the right equipment and customize the day to match skillsets.

Tell the guide about your fishing endurance and please let him know if you or anyone in your group have any existing health ailments. The guide is responsible for you, so explain what you can and cannot do. Fishing in Alaska can get pretty intense between the long days and the countless battles, so it can get pretty taxing on an angler if you’re not mentally and physically prepared.

Remember that the main goal of your guide search is to discover compatibility. You will be spending hours in close proximity with someone who you just met, so you need to make sure that your personalities will mesh. You don’t need the greatest or most seasoned guide to have a great experience.

I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH to take one of the most memorable trips I ever had this past spring with a young guide who hasn’t even had a full year of experience under his belt.

I was fortunate to have shared a boat again with Ryan McClure, the maintenance manager at the Glacier Bear Lodge in Yakutat, Alaska (866-425-6343; glacierbearlodge.com).

The last time I fished with Ryan he’d been working on becoming a certified guide. Since then, Ryan became licensed and did some guiding last fall during the silver salmon run.

The day I fished with Ryan wasn’t an official guided trip, just two dudes doing some steelhead fishing together. I was anxious to see Ryan get into some ocean-bright steelies, which he did, but he was more interested in working on his guiding skills.

The last half of the day turned into a guided simulation, which Ryan passed with flying colors. He did everything right. He piloted the boat like he has been doing it longer than the years he has spent on this earth. He was knowledgeable about the town as well as the fishery. He also demonstrated his versatility when he pointed out different things along the river.

Most important, he was a hard worker and tough as nails. The weather took a turn for the worse in the early afternoon, and even though Ryan spends most of the year in the 49th state, he wasn’t aware of how to dress for the miserable conditions.

I could tell he was uncomfortable and offered to cut the day short, but Ryan refused. He stuck it out like a consummate professional and even managed to land a 35-inch chrome buck on his new centerpin outfit despite being completely drenched.

Ryan is studying to be a helicopter pilot, but he definitely will be a big success as an Alaskan fishing guide. I recommend booking a trip with him while he is still available.

ALL GUIDES AREN’T CREATED equal. Choosing the right one can definitely make or break a trip. The selection shouldn’t only be based on which guide catches the most fish. It’s probably more important to find one that accommodates your personality and needs.

Alaska has a tremendous amount of fishing guides, so searching for one can be as overwhelming as the state itself. By doing some research – followed up by a conversation or two – you should have a good idea if the guide is right for you. ASJ

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