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Confessions of a Fishing Guide: Too Many People on the Same Stretch of Water

Putting your clients onto fish without putting too much pressure on the fishery.

Confessions of a Fishing Guide: Too Many People on the Same Stretch of Water

(Al Hassall illustration)

I have always admired fly-fishing guides and for a period of time, I worked as one. I don’t know how good I was at my craft, but my clients seemed to enjoy themselves, and they kept coming back over the ten years that I took them fishing on streams, lakes, and ponds around Vermont.

It wasn’t always an easy job, as there is a fine line that every guide has to walk. You need to put your clients onto fish, but without putting too much pressure on the fishery. It wouldn’t do to take everyone to the same spot, and then watch as the area gradually goes downhill.

This was a lesson I learned at an early age. The summer I turned 12 I was traveling with my parents and my younger brother in the Gallatin River Valley in Montana. I wandered to the bank of a gorgeous piece of that famous trout stream and started casting. And casting. And casting.

After a couple of hours without seeing even the remotest hint of a trout, I reeled in my line and sat down to contemplate the situation. An older gentleman in a truck next to where I was fishing had been watching me cast, and when I finally gave up he strolled over to me. He greeted me with a smile, and gently passed along the news that the very spot I had chosen to fish had been fished out for many, many years.

“Too many young fellows like you saw this place and figured it would be a good place to start their day,” he confided before he busied himself with setting up his camper to spend the night.

It quickly made sense to me. This place had absurdly easy access. Hell, the pullover where the old-timer planned on camping was less than 50 yards from where I had been wading and casting. Thus I learned the hard truth that too many people fishing on the same stretch of water is bad news for the fish and for any anglers who might try that spot later on.

I reported my findings to my father, and he agreed to hire someone to take us to less-traveled waters. We met our guide in the town of West Yellowstone, and that was when I first learned to fly fish.

It became an instant and complete obsession for me. I fished every day we were out there that summer of 1969 and caught rainbows, browns, cutthroats, and whitefish until I lost even the slightest interest in keeping count of them.

But more than the sheer number of fish, West Yellowstone also boasted an entire culture of fishing that was on a broader scale than anywhere else I’d ever been. It seemed like there were fly shops on every corner. At every one, folks were welcome to wander up to the counter and ask questions, offer advice, or tell lies to each other about the local fishing. It didn’t matter how old you were, or where you came from. A guide who didn’t have a trip might be manning the register when you walked in, and even a 12-year-old boy could pepper him with questions, and expect to receive enough info to do a little better on the stream the next morning. When it came to fly fishing, West Yellowstone was the most democratic place on Earth, at least to my young mind. Since then, I have judiciously hired guides to help show me around new waters and it has always proven to be worthwhile.




A watercolor painting of the smirking head of a fly fishing guide.
(Al Hassall illustration)

Of course, odd things can happen when you entrust yourself to strangers who happily snag your credit card with the promise of the ultimate angling experience. This is why discovering someone like Doug Pope, or “Pope” as he prefers to be called, is one of the things that can make a fishing trip all the more memorable.

Pope worked as a fly-fishing guide at Blue Ribbon Flies during the summer and that was where my friend Michael Russo and I hired him and his drift boat for a day of trout fishing one day in August a few years ago. The morning we showed up at the shop, the owner Craig Mathews asked us if we knew who our guide was for the day. When we told him that it was Pope, he got a funny look on his face.

“Is that okay with you guys?” he asked.

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We knew what we were getting into. Mike had hired Pope a couple years earlier, and figured correctly that while we both needed the help of an experienced guide to show us how to fish the big Madison River, neither of us had a hell of a lot of respect for authority. Thus, we required the services of a bona fide wise-ass. Pope appeared to be perfect for our twisted needs.

Pope’s manner of speech was a dazzling mix of stream-of-consciousness chatter, and detailed questions and answers. At times, he appeared to be having a conversation with himself, until you realized that he was bouncing ideas around his head, trying to decipher the clues on the water so as to best plan our attack.

While floating a beautiful piece of the Madison, Pope acted as a coach, calling out encouragement to both of us as we flailed away with our rods and heavily hackled flies. He was a textbook egalitarian in the way that he steered the boat, allowing both of us equal access to the shore. This still meant that each of us spent half the day casting backhanded to allow the other to throw his fly on the forward cast, something that entertained Pope to no end.

His coaching techniques could be a bit unnerving at times. In fact, I’ve received more encouragement from a traffic cop handing me a speeding ticket. When I missed a particularly good strike, Pope reached out to where I was standing in the boat, put his hand on my shoulder and offered a sympathetic smile.

“You okay? Do you think you want to keep going today?”

It’s comforting to have a guide/coach so in tune with the trauma associated with being a mediocre fly fisher. Pope could be philosophical, cryptic, and even caustic—sometimes all in a single phrase. On one of many failed attempts to hook a trout, I quietly cursed the fish while marveling at how cleverly it had eluded me.

“Poor Peter,” Pope clucked as he rowed the boat through the next rapid. “He thinks the fish are smarter than him.”

Pope was also a diplomat. I was curious about the habits of Pope’s other clients. Despite Mike’s look of abject horror, I plunged ahead with a question that might have greatly offended any other guide.

“Hey, Pope!” I called back to him. “Do any of your clients use ultralight spinning gear when they fish with you?”

“Oh don’t worry,” he replied nonchalantly, “Those people won’t bother you out here.”

The three of us drifted unhurriedly down the Madison—Pope offering up equal portions of advice and abuse at each bend—and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that we pulled the boat out of the water and dragged it up onto Pope’s trailer. Mike and I repaired to the cooler to seek out the relief that only cool malted beverages afford.

I looked over and saw that Pope was sitting on a bench, busily untangling something. I grabbed a beer, walked over, and set it down next to him. He smiled and continued with his work. I reached over to the fleece on my fly vest and removed a couple of flies he’d lent me, one of which had helped me catch a respectable brown trout a couple of hours earlier.

I stretched out my hand, offering the flies back to him. With one swift motion, Pope snatched up the flies between his thumb and forefinger, stuck them into his mouth, and resumed untangling the line in his other hand.

I looked carefully at his lips. The flies were nowhere to be seen. I walked back to where Mike was standing and dropped my empty beer can into the cooler.

“Did you get those flies to him?” Mike asked.

“Yup,” I replied, “He ate them.”

The joy that comes from encountering Pope in his native element is found in observing and interacting with his behavior. The guy really should be under psychiatric observation, but he takes people on fishing trips instead.


Peter Cammann has been a freelance writer for 30 years. He is the author of two instructional books, Fishing Vermont’s Streams and Lakes and Ultra-Light Spin-Fishing. The Kindle book SlipKnot is his first novel.

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