You can Fish!! But do you think you can guide?

fly fishing guide

But do you think you could guide?

Great instruction under the careful tutelage of Stephen Wilson .

In the summer of 2016 I asked myself, "could I be a fly fishing guide?"  I, like many of my fellow students, had been fly fishing for a good portion of my life and the thought of guiding had crossed my mind. I mean how hard could it really be? I know fly fishing. So putting some other shmoe on the edge of a river and hooking them up should be a natural extension. Right? Right!
Well.....sort of right.  Yes the skills and knowledge of how to angle in my local waters are very important, but I quickly realized that fishing wasn't the only aspect that I would have to focus on.  This was a fact I was about to learn. Fishing was actually only but a smaller portion of guiding then I had anticipated.

When we are forced to look at what it is that guides do, we don't fish much at all. What we are in fact doing is organizing someone else's adventures - someone else's dream trip. And we get the privilege to partake in creating someone else's memories! And while we accept the lofty position of dream weavers we are now forced into certain realities. The realities of safety and logistics!

Captain Ryan Shea and myself Carp'n!

Presented with the plethora of safety factors and the logistics of a simple day on the water it can certainly look overwhelming. Permits, licenses, certification, insurance, insurance companies, land access issues, picky overbearing lodge owners, etc. These are some of the logistics. Add to those, there are boats to maintain, put in and put outs to find, shuttles to organise, lunches to pack, hung over clients to get out of bed, check local regulations and so on..  And if you hadn't noticed, I haven't even mentioned fishing gear of any kind yet.

Now this is not to dissuade you from perusing a career as a guide, only to inform you of some of the realities. In my opinion the logistics that I have mentioned above pale in comparison to what I get to do for a living! I love my office – the outdoors. And I am very aware that people pay us to play in a place that we get to occupy on a regular basis. 

So, to the intent of this article.  As I said in the summer of 2016 I asked myself "Could I be a guide?" Enter the Sweetwater Travel Guide School. Yeah really – a guide school!? A school that was not only going to teach me to be a better fisherman but to be a right proper guide!

I do remember that I entered this program with a certain degree of trepidation.  I knew how to fish, but the rest of what I was about to experience was very foreign to me. I had never rowed a drift boat. Never run a jet boat. And more importantly I had never been responsible for safety of other people in such an unpredictable environment.

Within a very short period of time I knew that I had made the right decision to come to the Bighorn in Montana and study under the tutelage of Ron Meek and the Sweetwater Travel Guide School, whose instructors that put me at ease immediately. I doubt that you will ever find a group of men so humble and dedicated to guiding industry.  

Without getting into volumes of detail I will touch on some of the skills and knowledge that I obtained through the days that followed. 

Hospitality: These are some of the soft skill aspects that our industry does not necessarily touch on.  When we started the course it was very clear that taking care of your clients was going to be an ongoing theme.  How to make sure the people in your care were not only safe but having a good time. Simple things like conversation, local history, and other aspects of wildlife were taught as great ways to interact with your clients. And how a good shore lunch could make or break a mediocre day. 

Humility: As good as you might believe you are in the world of fly angling, always remember the goal when guiding others. We all started somewhere, so be patient with new and inexperienced anglers. On the other side of the coin are people that have potentially fished in places we might only have dreamed of and caught more species than we might even be aware of.  I've personally guided a few professional fly fishermen and by the end of the day they were guiding me. Pay attention and be humble - these are amazing learning opportunities!

 Logistics: Learning how to plan for a full day in a wild and beautiful place has a lot of challenges.  This will involve you as the guide getting up early and staying late in order to ensure a safe and memorable day for your clients. Sweetwater will adequately prepare you for these challenges. 

The Fleet at Cottonwood campground on the Bighorn.

Maintenance of watercraft: Instructor Brad Kastner has told many tails of guiding and the amazing adventures that we were about to partake in.  But it was a story about maintaining his boat that has stuck with me.  The story goes that he had gotten off the water a little later than usual and it was a long day. On his arrival back in camp he had interrupted his usual routine of cleaning out his boat and doing his daily maintenance. Figuring that his boat wasn't perfect but acceptable for the next day he went to bed. The next morning started like any other for a guide. - two middle aged women, lot's good conversation and great fishing.  However Brad discovered at the end of the day what a lack of maintenance and attention to detail would cost him. As the two women departed they told Brad what a great day they had and what a fantastic guide he was.  He had left quite a bit of sand in the bottom of his boat and at the put-out Brads clients thanked him for a great day but informed him that they were not going to tip him. That they were instead going to go buy themselves new fly line because theirs had been ruined from all of the sand in the bottom of the boat.  Lesson - keep your boat clean and in good working order.

  Knots: knots are the literal links between your client and the quarry they are perusing.  An improperly tied knot is the difference between a hero shot and a tall tale of the one that got away.  Sweetwater will drive this point home throughout the entire time you are there.

Fly tying in the evenings.

Casting and fly tying: You may be able to cast but can you teach someone else how to cast? We had the privilege of spending time with Brant Oswald.  Brant is an excellent fly caster in his own right, but he has a fantastic system that will not only improve your casting but one that he will teach you how to teach! This is was one of the high points of the course to me.  The skills learned from Brant are invaluable and I use them every time I teach someone to cast. Even if you have no desire to learn how to tie flies there are basics about flies that I believe every guide should know. 

Safety and first aid: This is a huge part of this education.  It cannot be overstated that what we do is at times can be dangerous for the un-trained and unprepared.  This is where I believe that Sweetwater training really shines! From the start of the day when you hit the water until you head home you will behind the oars or running a jet boat up and down the river in real world scenarios with your fellow students acting as clients! I believe baptism by fire is the best way to learn and with Sweetwater you'd better bring your fire retardant underwear! The safety of your clients is first and foremost.

Stephen Brown With a great trout right out of the gate!

Fishing: This is not the last point I will make.  But it is at the end of this article for a reason.  It is important to be technically proficient in the art of fly fishing.  Equally important is the need for an open mind to new techniques.  The instructors at Sweetwater CAN FISH!! So make sure you pay attention and take in everything you can. While it is important to be know your stuff  it is not the end all be all of a great day on the water.  In the words of Ron Meek " I have fired guides for being late, being rude, being unprepared or being drunk or hung over. But I have never fired a guide because they didn't catch fish.”

Networking and Comradery:  To start a career

Jack Wickman, Brad Kastner, Sue Villenue and myself after a great day on the water!
Ryan Shea With his biggest Bulltrout to date.

 guiding can be fairly easy. Maintaining a career in guiding is very difficult, but very rewarding! You will meet some fantastic people at the guide school.  Remember them! This is the beginning of your network. If you plan to have any longevity in this industry your network will get your name around and ensure your future.

In this amazing network, I have made some lifelong friends.  Within a year of Sweetwater some of my friends have come up to Canada just do what we love! FISH! Ryan Shea with his business partner Nate Carr of Brookdog Fishing, managed to find Ryan's best Bull trout to date.  We met at Sweetwater.  I’ve had some contact with most of the people that shared the spring class of 2016 with me. 

Within 2 months of Sweetwater I had found work as a guide and I am still having success getting work thanks in part to the Sweetwater name! As a result of all of this I have become a professional in the best sense of the word.  My client reviews are good and I try and remain humble and strive to always get better. Through the world class tactics that Sweetwater Travel Guide School employs I feel I am prepared for a long and fruitful career as a professional fly-fishing guide!

Quotes from the Spring Class of 2016

"The instructors from Sweetwater are full of knowledge, and the curriculum is very useful. The experience alone pays for itself!"  - Jack Wickman

"What sweet water guide school provided for me was a great avenue to fine tune my fly fishing skills, while also meeting great people, and giving me a foot in the door in the industry. After sweet water guide school I had an immediate hook up with guiding at the Goodnews River Lodge in Alaska for that summer. I felt prepared for the job, and that’s saying something when you’re heading into the Alaskan bush for the first time!" - Stephen Brown

"Just when I thought I was getting good at this craft, i found myself humbled after a few hours at the Sweetwater Guide School. I looked around and realized I was surrounded by people who knew tricks and techniques i hadn’t heard of before. My classmates were from all over the country and all of them had something to teach me. I remain in touch with a few of these guys today and consider them friends".- Ryan Shea, Brookdog Fishing Co.

Shane Olson is a Professional Fly fishing guide

Owner of  And MyFlyGuy Fly shop in Coalhurst AB, Canada

PH: 403 360 15 12 or 403 360 1466


  1. Loved reading this article. I just came back from a 3 day trip to a private lake with a friend of mine. She hired a fishing guide for a full day to take us out to all the different hot spots to catch walleye. She was much luckier than I was at catching fish and I think in part had a lot to do with the guide who was giving her a lot of one on one. Keeping an eye on her rod and giving her tons of tips on throughout the day. He very rarely asked how I was doing or if there was anything he could do to help me. At one point I had a fish on and as he put it a big one, so he grabs the net and tells me to keep a tight tension on it while I am reeling in, then my friend got caught up in his rod and he leaves me to go help her to get untangled while also slowing down the boat. When he slowed down the boat my line went slack and he comes back and says you let your line down,. Needless to say, I lost the fish and was so mad but kept it to myself, but he basically said it was my fault that I lost the fish. He made little effort to talk or even make eye contact with me the whole trip when I would say or ask the odd question. I do not know if wearing a life jacket while trolling is mandatory but he did not wear his nor did my friend. And when we weren’t using the small motor to troll or if we weren’t getting many bites he would use the big motor on his boat to drive at a faster speed to take us to another spot to fish. I did not see him wear his life jacket at that time nor did he tell my friend that she should wear hers. Coming back after the end of the day he did wear his life jacket but my friend did not. I have to say that I felt very hurt and truly left out the whole day and did not have a great fishing experience with the guide. My friend said that may be because I was quiet my silence to him was intimidating. So I wanted have you ever encountered someone who was shy or who was quiet? If so how did you go about making that person feel apart of a great first fishing experience? Do you think I am overreacting? I want to write him a review but not sure how to go about expressing the experience. Would appreciate any feedback you could give me.

    1. Hi Belinda. Thanks for the comments.
      Being a fishing guide can be a rough gig at times but that doesn’t excuse bad hosting. I don’t think your over reacting. What you paid for is a great day in the outdoors. That may or may not have involved catching fish, but a good guide will still make a bad day fishing a good day in the outdoors regardless. Your review might not focus on the fishing, but rather the neglect of the guide towards you and the poor crafting of your experience.
      I’m not sure about the boat laws where you were, but when we’re moving from one spot to another I always make sure all of my clients wear there life jackets.
      As for quiet people. I love em! They are usually the most interesting to converse with once you get them figured out. It really sounds like your guide made little to no effort to figure you out.
      Reviewsare very important to me. It’s how I grow and become a better guide.
      So don’t hesitate to leave a constructive review in the hopes that guide will take it to heart and get better.
      Thanks for reading the article Belinda. And I hope this helps.

      Please don’t hesitate to ask me any other questions in the future.

      Tight lines.
      Shane Olson.

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