Guide Lesson Number One: Never Take A River For Granted

Here’s what I learned my first day as a fishing guide. I learned that the customer is not always right. And I relearned an old lesson; never, ever, underestimate a river.

We were on the Big Hole, mid-June, the salmon-fly hatch, with seven California doctors and one wheelbarrow handle magnate. They had fished with the same outfitter for a week each year for twenty years. As the newest guide, I drew an aging, overweight plastic surgeon who we’ll call Grumpy. They always gave him to the rookie. Along with Grumpy, I got Larry, a laid-back cardiologist who knew he would only have to fish with Grumpy one day, and was happy to get it over early in the trip.

Now Grumpy could have been a poster boy for an AMA campaign depicting health “don’ts.” He was a chain smoker. He was easily 100 pounds overweight. His fishing vest and bag were crammed with candy bars and soda pop. In between wheezes and drags on his ever-present cigarette he somehow managed to keep the candy bars and pop moving through the system.

Grumpy needed help getting into the boat, and once there, he sat in the front seat looking for all the world like King Farouk on his yacht. His casting technique amounted too little more than a flick of the wrist designed to send his big sofa pillow fly into the nearest available hunk of brush.

Now the Big Hole was really rolling that year. The water was high, real high, and brown, and moving so fast that I was constantly leaning back into the oars in an attempt to slow us down a little bit. There was no let-up on the water.

I didn’t pay much attention to Larry in the back seat, although I saw he was catching a few fish, and slipping them back into the water without fanfare. I spent most of my time early in the float trying to row back upstream to save Grumpy’s flies. It wasn’t long until my forearms started cramping from the uphill rowing, and worse, it seemed that Grumpy was holding me responsible for his lost flies and bad luck. I was intimidated.

 Then his bladder gave out. Grumpy wanted a pit stop.

When the Big Hole is rolling like it was that day, it isn’t possible to just pull off anywhere. You need some slack water, with a clear path back into the river. I didn’t see any handy.

Well Grumpy was insistent. When he saw the little backwater coming up, he pointed to it and demanded we put ashore. From what I could see, stopping was no problem, but getting back into the current would bring us dangerously close to a large jagged snag on the edge of the current. If we hit it, it would be big trouble. Against my better judgment, I pulled in.

Waiting for Grumpy and gazing downstream at the snag, the sour taste of apprehension grew in my stomach. My worst fears were realized the instant I shoved off and saw I could not row hard enough to avoid being driven into the snag by the current. Still I rowed, but it was not enough.

A large branch hanging three feet above the water would sweep Grumpy off the boat. I shouted for him to duck. He couldn’t bend over. As the limb hit him, I ducked and caught a glimpse of Larry doing the same. There was a dull “thwack” as wood met corpulent flesh. When I looked up, Grumpy was still there, ashen, clutching eight feet of rotten cottonwood limb.

 “Sorry about that,” was all I could come up with.

 One of the other boats in our party drifted past. Guide and fishermen, witnesses to the whole thing, eyed us with amazement, jaws agape. I was dizzy with relief, but I hadn’t learned yet.

 Grumpy put in another request for a comfort station. This time I saw a gently sloping grassy bank where I thought I might be able to make kind of a running stop. It would be like steer wrestling, leap off the horse, dig your heels in and bring the steer to ground.

 I got in as close to the fast-passing shore as I could and made a dainty leap over the side. With the brown water, I was unaware that the gently sloping bank was abruptly cut away at the water’s edge. Immediately I was over my head, hanging onto the side of my boat which now raced sideways downriver, another snag not far down the line. My customers looked to me like frightened children, frozen in place. Neither one reached out to help, but somehow I pulled myself in and settled, dripping onto the seat.

  “Changed my mind, we’ll stop later.” They never did say anything, but I don’t think they bought it.

 We finished off that day by watching another guide in a brand-new Mackenzie boat miss a tight take-out above a bridge.

The water was flowing within a foot of the bridge that is normally dry by ten feet. So when guide, boat and bridge collided, the man disappeared and the boat literally exploded against the bridge from the force of the water. It came out the other side in matchsticks.

 Some distance downstream, the man was able to drag himself close enough to shore that we could haul him out. But it was way too close, and but for dumb luck, my customers and I knew we could have fared much worse earlier in the day. We were all shaken. The next day we fished calmer water.

 I’ve guided Grumpy a lot since then. And I’ve gotten to know and like him. Once in a while, when I’m feeling frisky, I’ll row uphill to save a fly for him. But when it’s time for a pit stop, I pick the time and I pick the place. And I never, ever, take a river for granted.

(First Published in the Missoulian, May 12, 1988)

Categories: Fishing, Guiding