[Note: The following was first published in the February 2015 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
If you are an avid hunter, angler or someone who just enjoys being outside, at some time or other you likely have considered a career outside as a biologist, conservation officer, or guide. I considered all sorts of outdoor careers when I was growing up. Now, I was lucky. I grew up in a time when people and governments were waking up to the importance of the environment and the need to know more about it. So, I had many educational and career opportunities to choose from. Today, the opportunities for a young person interested in an outdoor career are more limited. One has to be hard working and persistent to land the few outdoor jobs that become available.
That is why I am always interested in how young people get the jobs they do in the outdoors. In recent years, I’ve visited several northern fishing lodges where guides take you to prime fishing spots to catch trophy fish. The guides are usually young men, with some exceptions, who are keen outdoors people. As a writer looking for stories, I’ve asked them about the guiding life. The following, in general, is what I’ve learned.
As we all know, open-water fishing seasons in Canada are short, especially in the North. Lodge managers have just a few weeks to provide their services and hopefully make a profit. Employees at those lodges put in long days making sure the clients are provided satisfactory, if not superior, experiences. It’s seasonal work, so guides must have flexible schedules to allow them to be away from home and other employment for several months. As one guide confided, “It’s not a job that encourages long-term relationships with the opposite sex.”
Guides don’t fish while they are guiding. Instead they ensure their clients have every opportunity to fish, including helping them with gear, landing and handling fish. Some clients have never fished before and require patient instruction.
All guides I interviewed were keen anglers who understood their vocation well. They knew all the latest fishing techniques, and ensured we had the best opportunities to catch fish. They did not mind the long days and thought it was a privilege to be doing what they were doing. As one told me, “I can’t think of a better place to be. I’m doing what I love and people here love what I’m doing.”
As with any job, the working conditions—e.g., hours, dangers, risks, employer support—can make all the difference in a successful employment. It’s a given that the number of hours worked during the long day are going to be many, with guides spending considerable time before and after a trip ensuring equipment and gear are clean and ready to go.
Generally speaking, guides know the dangers and risks they face on the job. Most employers require knowledge of first aid and survival skills. Weather can be an issue on any trip and can change quickly. Clients turn to their guides when the going gets rough. The ability to understand and calmly handle difficult situations is an important asset for a guide to have.
While clients are usually provided top-notch accommodations, guide accommodations can vary from living in tents or dorm rooms they share with other employees to having their own private rooms. Likewise, meals can vary from rudimentary fare (sometimes prepared by the guides themselves) to eating the same meals provided to the clients.
Wages are an issue with any job—you want to be fairly compensated for the work you do. Like working conditions, pay rates vary from lodge to lodge. As you would expect, more experienced guides generally receive higher wages than entry-level guides. However, some lodges will charge their guides for accommodations, meals and use of supplies and equipment, which can seriously affect a guide’s take-home pay.
If pay is low, guides depend upon tips to make up the difference. Although a guide might provide superior service, receiving a tip depends on the generosity of the client. A few lodges (definitely not all) pay their guides well and do not recommend clients tip. If you are going to a lodge as a client or guide, check with management about its tipping policy.
Catering to Clients
Along with fishing knowledge and dedication to the outdoors, guides must have interpersonal skills, the ability to converse with a variety of people and make themselves understood without offending anyone. Clients can come from around the world with various backgrounds including the very rich, who can be serious or not-so-serious anglers, and the “not-so-rich,” who have been saving up for years for this “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.
At one lodge I visited, a company had sent its best salesmen to the lodge as a bonus for a good sales year. Many were there to party. They had little interest in the fishing and often showed up at the boats drunk or hung over, serious hazards to themselves, the guides and those who indeed wanted to fish. One guide told me, “I was more a baby sitter that day.”
Sometimes ego gets in the way. A couple flew into a lodge to fish for trophy lake trout. The husband brought his own fishing gear and the wife borrowed gear from the lodge. In the boat, the guide helped the wife rig her pole, including attaching a lure the fish were currently biting. When asked, the husband refused any help, told the guide he had his own lures he wanted to try, and pretty well isolated himself in the bow. As always, the guide took them to areas he knew were productive. He told them how deep to fish and what techniques were working. The wife followed the instructions and began catching fish, many of good size. The husband ignored the instructions and fished the way he wanted to, not catching a thing. The guide could see the husband growing angrier with each fish the wife hauled in, but the man wouldn’t say a word or change to the more productive technique, despite the cajoling of the wife and guide. “I had doubts about that relationship,” said the guide. “But of course, I said nothing about it.”
Many anglers consider shore lunches to be part of the northern fishing experience. Lodges often require their guides to prepare such lunches for their clients. Guides pack all the cooking gear, cooking oil, side dishes, and sometimes firewood. The guides prepare some fish caught that morning and often use a variety of recipes. A good shore lunch scores a lot of points with clients, and guides often compete with each other for the best recipes.
The guiding life is not for everyone. If you decide it is the life for you, getting that first job and guiding experience can be difficult. There are guiding schools listed on the web that can teach you the required skills. Most are in the States, but there are some in B.C. and Ontario. Use the web to check their accreditation and whether outfitters recognize them. Some provinces require a guiding licence and certain kinds of insurance. Check with prospective lodges to see what they require. If you are persistent, you might find yourself spending your summers outdoors every day of the summer doing what you love to do.