The worst guide in the world

Being a good guide takes much more than being a good angler
dylan tomine
Photo: Cameron Karsten.

OK, I’m just going to come right out and say it: I sucked at guiding. Oh, my clients caught plenty of fish. But if I were a doctor, you might say I had a lousy bedside manner. Or what an old coach of mine often referred to as a “piss-poor attitude.” The fact is, I could never stop thinking about whether or not various clients deserved to catch fish just because they could afford to travel and stay at an expensive lodge. That, and I was frequently impatient. And sarcastic. And irritable. But enough about my good days. I guess I thought guiding was about fish, and it turns out it’s about people. No matter how dumb they might be.

I tried to be a nice guy. I would tell myself these people are on the trip of a lifetime, that they were too busy to learn how to actually fish, that blah, blah, blah. It’s not like I’m a completely unsympathetic person. For example, when a client described his long-anticipated fishing trip with a famous Florida tarpon guide and how he found himself unceremoniously deposited back at the dock at ten o’clock in the morning for blowing two shots at big fish, I was filled with sympathy. For the guide.

What does it mean to be a fishing guide? I can’t answer for anyone else, but this is what occurred to me about three weeks into my first season: If you take something that’s inherently fun to do with people you like, and do it with people you don’t like for money … well, you see where I’m going with this. Needless to say, I would have made an even lousier prostitute.

That thought haunted me through five summers. Especially while peeling the price stickers off thousands of dollars’ worth of brand-new, top-of-the-line rods and reels and—after loading backing, connecting lines, and tying leaders—handing it all back to some rich dentist from Akron while he told me all about what a great angler he was. Did he deserve the fish we would catch?

Now, I don’t want to make prejudiced statements or generalize … OK, actually I do. What the hell. Here are a few things I learned: Doctors generally make the worst clients, followed by car dealers, and anyone from Texas. Women are the best clients—they actually listen—and will always outfish their expert husbands. Clients who really want to “whack a trophy” so they can “get it stuffed” always catch the biggest fish, no matter how hard you try to prevent it. Note to doctors, car dealers, Texans, expert husbands, and trophy whackers: I readily admit there are plenty of individual exceptions to the rules above, but if you’re seriously offended by this paragraph, you aren’t one of them.

Once, I had two doctors from Houston and a car dealer from Dallas and his wife as my foursome. Guess what happened? I spent an entire week staring at the back of the doctors’ heads, trying to determine if it was possible, through sheer concentration and mental telepathy, to make a person’s head explode. At the time, it seemed like a worthy research project.

The limit then was two king salmon per person for the week. By the end of the first day, they were limited out. This, despite numerous warnings from their guide before killing each client’s second fish that should they land a bigger fish at any time for the rest of the week, it would be released. Of course, three days later, one of the docs hooks an immense fish—the biggest I had ever seen from that river. A giant slab of chrome that would have weighed close to sixty pounds. To avoid the inevitable conflict, I spent the entire hour-long fight working to help the fish escape. But no such luck. When the fish finally came to shore, I was asked, cajoled, and pleaded with. I was offered money. I was even threatened with bodily harm. And you know what? I can’t even begin to describe the pleasure I felt when I twisted the hook loose and watched that fish swim away. Next day, the wife miraculously hooked one even larger, fought it with great efficiency, and happily released it without complaint.

What’s the point of the story? I don’t really know, other than it had to be a sign of something. Maybe that if all clients were women, I’d still be guiding? Or more likely that I was simply in the wrong line of work.

More signs: Secretly relishing clients’ discomfort from bugs or lack of adequate rain gear. Covertly exacerbating husband-wife conflict when the woman hooks more fish than her spouse. Purposefully seeking out the most exposed, windiest spots for clients having trouble casting. Trying to make people’s heads explode with brain waves … but we already covered that one. Anyway, guilty as charged.

So why did I do it not just once, but for five summers? I mean, other than latent masochistic tendencies? Because, in all honesty, despite my conflicted thoughts about guiding, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was an opportunity to be on the water every day, to intimately know the changing tides, river flows, and weather patterns. To live, eat, work, and fish with my best friends in the world, and yes, rare as they were, to enjoy some great moments with wonderful clients. Mostly though, it was because the fishing was unbelievably good, and I got to fish it every day of the season. Selfish reasons all, and in retrospect, I probably didn’t deserve any of it.

What did I deserve, besides a swift kick in the ass? Probably the lesson that being a good fisherman qualifies you to guide about as much as an affinity for deep-fried chicken hearts makes you a thoracic surgeon. With this realization, and much to the relief of everyone concerned, I quit the business for good. Now I’m free to concentrate on the inherently fun-to-do-with-people-you-like part and leave the guiding to those who are actually good at it.

But if you’re ever on a guided trip, happily flinging your flies from the front of the boat, and you suddenly feel a strange pressure building inside your skull, take a close look at the person on the oars. If he or she appears to be deeply focused on, say, the back of your head, with maybe a poorly hidden, demented grin forming, watch out. It’s probably someone a lot like me. Your only hope, then, is to ask yourself this one simple question: Do I deserve this?

Excerpted from Headwaters: The Adventures, Obsession and Evolution of a Fly Fisherman ©2022 by Dylan Tomine. Reprinted with permission by Patagonia.


Been there. Lasted 2 days for money. Life if too short. I'll take people fishing and attempt to have them catch fish but if they won't listen, I'm outta here.

Jack ass !

Given this ‘guides’ boorishness and general arrogance I actually wish I was in the front of the boat with him. That was on that final cast I might accidentally send a butt monkey burning into the back of his head. What a dolt. Go do something else where you don’t have to interact with the public. The fishing world would be a much better place.

I’m not a doctor or car dealership owner or other form of wealthy man. But I’ve had the great privilege of being guided on many trips around North America - Oregon, Ontario, British Columbia, Mexico, Labrador, Costa Rica… either scrimped and saved by myself or lucky enough to be invited through a work function. Guided trips help you learn a lot and not waste time slapping around unfamiliar water. The entire reason I fly fish today is because of a patient, instructive, and infectiously upbeat guide who took the time to make it a great experience my first time. Andy was his name and I was invited by a friend to go wade the Soque at Blackhawk in Georgia and though it was very frustrating as a noob, thanks to Andy by mid-day I was “hooked”. I’ve been fly fishing ever since. I’ve since had or been around guides like you who can’t help but telegraph how much they resent you and wish they could just push you overboard and ”do it right”. These people can single handedly ruin what you correctly describe as the trip of a lifetime for someone who paid good money for the experience. Just as bad, they are a liability to the outfitter or lodge owner that is struggling to be profitable and attract guests. Luckily I’ve had far more great guides that I learned from and shared great memories with - and have tipped well and returned to fish with again. So from all of us noobs just looking to get into the sport, and all of the experienced fisherman who don’t need a great day ruined by your attitude, and all of the industry business owners who depend on good guides for their livelihood - we collectively thank you for moving on. Don’t let the float plane door hit you on the way out.

Thanks for the enjoyable article. I think more guides have figured out that guiding women is a privilege. Hopefully my M.D. doesn't get in the way.

Hate filled. OK. So, this is exactly wgat the new flyfishing writers and magazines think of the people . And, this hit piece originally came from Patagonia...another organization gates its own customers. And, don't tell me this is satire. This is exactly the hate spewing belief of all involved.

Having lived and fished there for almost four years, back around 1993 or so I considered starting a sports fishing activity in Zanzibar. There were none at the time. I gave it a lot of thought, and finally, knowing I would have to put up with some unpleasant clients, and fearing it would kill my love of fishing, I decided against it. A wise decision on my part!

We are beset with too many guides like the author who think they are entitled to charge a fortune for very mediocre service based on a market rate set by a few outstanding professionals. If teenage apprentices charged like teenage apprentices, there would be a lot less frustration among the client base.

I fished with a guide like this a few months ago. Really miserable experience.

This is amazing and sums up exactly the reasons I could never be a guide even if I possessed the other skill sets I would need. Thanks for the laughs...

What an annoying, waste of time article.

From the opposite perspective, I'm a "seasoned" fly-fisherman with 45 years and have been blessed to travel. I've probably used less than 10 guides in my time. Without a doubt and not even close, I had my WORST guide this year. I've been fly-fishing more than twice as long as he's been alive, but he "knew" (internet/podcast wisdom) more than me about every aspect. The first mistake was the outfitter pairing him up with me and my 30 yr fishing buddy. When he walked over to" look at my tippet" only to change the fly that was working to "try a new creation" resulting in no bites in 30 minutes, or his 6 knots that failed, or tying on an old rusty fly with a dull hook and telling me "sharp hooks aren't important", I didn't attempt to telepathically explode his head. But I do confess that for the first time in MANY years I did have urge to punch the "young punk" in the face!! As the week wore on, I used as much of my tackle that I brought, sharpened my own hooks and would cut and re-tie his knots.
My BIGGEST advice, ALWAYS recommend or ask BEFORE changing a fly or make other changes. We pay for your "guidance", but unlike the dentists or car salesman, some of us that can afford expensive trips have grown up fly-fishing and are quality fishermen.

A well-written insight into the psyche of the salty, chip-on-the-shoulder @sshole culture of dudes (almost all dudes) that choose to recreate for a living e.g.: fly shop workers, ski patrollers.

Do the clients 'deserve it'? Ha! Do you? Because you chose to sit in a drift boat full time , and they chose to be a dentist; you somehow deserve it more? They're the reason you get to sit in a drift boat every day, you moron. Maybe that dentist will conveniently miss with the novocaine to see you squirm next time.

I'm glad that dude's out of guiding. f*ck him.

Exactly right. This sense of superiority is absurdly misplaced. What this masks is the near impossibility of building a lifetime career on fishing. It is essentially the same odds of being a pro basketball player. This means that the ranks are disproportionately filled with kids and the result is all the problems attendant on having kids run things.

A guided trip is an extravagant splurge for me. To know my guide may be rooting against me sucks. I guess maybe I should save my money in the future. I would hate to give a generous tip (which I always do) to a dickhead like this author.

Sick view

Dylan, I love you man!
Sounds like my first heliskiing experience where intermediate rich skiers since Franz Klamer. After digging one French dentist out of a tree well and being left without so much as a "Thanks" I quickly lost my appetite for that. And, I agree too, when I was teaching skiing women were the best students - often far better that the boyfriends who put them in lessons.
For those who got wind knots in their knickers over this piece, may I suggest you missed the point? Being a customer doesn't mean permission to be an entitle ass. Just because Dylan called bullshit doesn't make him the bad guy. The madder you are, the more you should think about your behavior. If you don't thank Dylan, your next guide probably will.

This was a hilarious article, and accurately sums up why I never want to be a guide (even though I've had guides try to hire me while in their boat). It's a little funny how offended some people are by this article, but there is no doubt you were a bad guide!

It does, however, blow my mind the way some people either A) disregard the rules and try to keep fish they can't/shouldn't, and B) don't listen to their guide. Number one tip for any angler on a guided trip: LISTEN! The person you're paying to take you fishing generally knows what they are doing. If you want to do something other than what they tell you, tell them why. Be clear and communicate. You might learn something, or demonstrate that you're fishier than you look.

I've been lucky never to have been cursed with a truly awful guide, but I've seen plenty of doubt on one's face. Keep fishing, try to listen and learn, and the experience is better for everyone.

Great article, it really encompasses the feeling of being peopled out but not fished out. Love the comment section.

There is a lot of hate for this article but I enjoyed it. It was refreshingly honest and not the same old vanilla writing that seems to be the normal these days.

I read this essay last night in Tomine's book, Headwaters. It's a good book but I found this particular essay to be problematic. I figured it was probably also online, so I'll put my comments here.

We all know about the entitled, rude client. We've heard the stories. I get that guides sometimes end up being babysitters. And obviously unethical and illegal behavior is not acceptable. We all get this. It's not easy being a fishing guide.

But this essay doesn't really stop there. The author suggests that casting skill is somehow a reflection of one's character. This is actually a common occurrence in fly fishing literature. Nonetheless, it's absurd and false. Somehow someone is less worthy of fishing because they aren't as skilled as someone earning a living off it? I've met such guides, and they are typically as entitled and arrogant as the worst of their clients.

I fish a lot. I'm also self taught and it shows. I'm clumsy. I blow casts, frequently. Still I catch fish and have fun. I've devoted my life to conservation. I respect the fishes and waters. My failures at casting have nothing to do with much of anything.

I've occasionally fished with guides. I think the best get that different clients have different expectations, motivations and values. Some, believe it or not, care very little about catching fish.

When my dad turned 75 he wanted to something special with me, something that was important to me. He was, at best, a casual angler and had not been fishing at all in probably 20 years. We ended up going to a lodge in Alaska, a huge expense for him but worth it at that time in life. I cringe to think of ending up with a guide like this, someone who could have destroyed the trip. Luckily, the trip turned out to be a special memory for both of us. I will cherish it to my last days. And it has nothing, zero, nada, to do with how our casts landed or even fish caught (although we caught plenty).

I have no doubt there are clients who do not deserve fish, who fundamentally don't get it. But there's also this: I have seen guides who see the number/size of fish caught as their own achievements. They are the ones who need the big numbers and big sizes, not their clients. They're competitive with other guides. So they get frustrated and angry if the client blows a cast, even if the client doesn't care. So who really doesn't get it?

I'd say competitive, unkind guides aren't worthy of the fish or the river. I don't care how great their casts are, how great their skills. Bring some humility. Show respect, not only to the casting but to other people.

Yeah it’s probably better for the fishing community and industry that this guy is no longer guiding. While I understand that the article was meant to be facetious and that some people can be frustrating, some guides truly forget that the fish comes second to the experience. Ending a trip at 10am because an angler who had likely never fished for tarpon before missed opportunities at a large, unfamiliar, intimidating species is absolutely unacceptable. I’ve been turned off of certain types of fly fishing based off of horror stories of guides yelling at their customers if they miss or lose fish, it just ruins the experience. A good guide will get his or her clients on fish every day, a great guide will ensure that the client has a good time even if no fish are caught.