Butler in a Boat

I am what you would call a low-impact fisherman, low-impact in the same sense that walking is a low-impact exercise and a recliner is a low-impact way to play football. I’m getting old…and I’m lazy…and those two characteristics combine to cause me to find the path of least resistance in all activities, and that includes my fishing. I am essentially Garfield in chest waders. But I love to fish, so I find ways to get the maximum experience with a minimum of effort. And when it comes to fishing effortlessly I have just two words for you: Fishing guide!

I get requests all the time from people who want me to take them fishing because they've seen pictures of me holding big fish. They figure I know where the fish are and how to catch them. But if the truth be known, the reason I've got all those pictures of me holding big fish is because I also go fishing with someone who knows where the fish are and how to catch them.

I fish with guides every chance I get, mostly because I like to catch fish. Sure, there’s the added bonus of fishing in Alaska with the most amazing scenery in the world as a backdrop, but I’m out there to catch fish, and because I’m not particularly good at it, I need help.

There are times when I fish on my own and I do have some success, but all in all, I prefer to fish with a guide. Here are a few reasons why.

1. He has a boat. I took a poll among all my readers and found that two of them own a boat (not the same boat -- different boats), two others have a friend who owns a boat (not the same friend -- different friends), and the other six are totally boat-less.

I've fished with a lot of guides over the past 10-15 years, and I can honestly say that not one of them was without a boat. You can certainly fish in Alaska without a boat, but you can’t get to the Deshka River or an un-crowded stretch of Kenai riverbank without one…unless you have a friend with a Cessna 180 on floats, and none of my readers even knew what that was.

I don’t own a boat and I have no plans to own one. They cost too much money to buy, too much money to maintain, and you need a place to store it, all commodities that are in short supply at my house. I have acquaintances with boats, one or two of whom I used to consider friends (I’m not bitter), and I've offered to share expenses on a fishing expedition, but so far no offers have been forthcoming.  A fishing guide has never refused my offer to share expenses.

2. He knows where the fish are. There’s a well-known story about a group of fishermen who had been out in their boat all night with no luck. Tired and discouraged, they were bringing in their nets when a young man standing on the shore shouted out at them to drop their nets on the other side of the boat. Figuring they had nothing to lose, the fishermen did as they were instructed and soon had so many fish in their net that it started to tear as they strained to get it back in the boat.  Now, that’s what I call a great fishing guide!

I have my favorite rivers to fish. Everyone does. I love fishing the Kenai for sockeyes, rainbows, and Dollies. I love fishing the Deshka for kings and Willow Creek for silvers. Even though I have a general idea of where the fish might be, it’s for certain that even if I spend all day trying to catch a fish on my own, it will be with little success. I am just that hopeless.

The guides I fish with know their rivers like the backs of their hands.  They fish them every day, sometimes twice. They know the holes where the fish hang out and they have a pretty good idea of when they’ll be there. They make it their business to know where the fish are because if they don’t know, then they’re out of business.

3. He knows how to catch them. I own nine spinning rods of various sizes, including three for ice fishing. I own two fly rods, one of which is broken. I have all kinds of spinners and plugs and artificial lures and beads and mooching rigs for eggs. I even have leather wading shoes and zip-up chest waders. If nothing else, I look good on the river…that is, if you can imagine me 50-pounds lighter, 30-years younger, and with a full head of hair.

You would think that with all that stuff (except the broken fly rod) I’d be slaying fish left and right. But sadly, I also own three nets, none of which have ever held a fish. One time I got close to putting a fish in the net, but I was trying to net a fish for another fisherman and the fish got away. I’m pathetic.

To me, the guides I fish with are gods.  They have a Ph.D. in the piscatorial sciences. They are fish whisperers. They have the gift of convincing fish to commit suicide on my line. They have the right gear for the right fishing…spinners, spoons, plugs, jigs, flies, beads, bait, fly rods, spinning rods, their bare hands.  They know when to use a green wiggle wart and when to change to a silver one or a red and blue Captain America. They know how to back-bounce with plugs. They know the right combination of spinners and eggs to use when fishing for kings. They know how to whip that fly rod back and forth and place that fly just where they want it. I watch with rapt attention, like a kid at a magic show. How do they do that?

4. They take care of all the icky stuff. When I went fishing for the first time as a kid I was told there were two basic rules: (1) You have to bait your own hook, and (2) you have to clean your own fish. Well…happily, there’s an exception to those rules, but it’ll cost you. And I’m happy to pay the price. A good guide does what’s necessary to make the fishing experience a satisfying one. That means he keeps the poles rigged, baits the hooks, untangles lines, gives instructions on casting and retrieving and keeping the rod tip up, keeps the fishing line away from the boat, nets the fish, bleeds it out, takes the pictures, and fillets the catch.

On a recent float trip down the Kenai, we were taking a break for lunch. It was a beautiful day on the river and I was sitting back with friends from the lower 48 talking about what a great trip it had been to that point. I wistfully commented that if I was filthy rich I would spend all my days floating the Kenai. My friend suggested, “Why don’t you become a fishing guide?” 

I replied, “Because that would require actual demonstrated skill in catching fish, which I don’t have. Besides, if I was filthy rich I’d be sitting here every day doing this,” referring to the fact that I was doing nothing at all. “If I was a fishing guide I’d be doing that,” pointing at the guide, who was busy with the task of re-rigging poles.

Fishing with a guide is truly an experience that can be classified as low-impact. Just as the designated batter rule in baseball allows a past-his-prime player to continue playing the game, a fishing guide allows us past-our-prime fishermen to continue catching fish. Fishing guides are what I call “A Butler in a Boat.” The good ones work hard at caring for all your fishing needs…and it’s as close as I’ll ever get to being treated like aristocracy.

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Chuck Brady is a self-described "lazy fisherman" devoted to getting the maximum adventure with a minimum of effort.  You won’t find him on the saltwater because he hates throwing up, but you will find him, beverage in hand, kicking back in a guided jet boat on the Deshka River fishing for kings and silvers, or relaxing on a drift boat (with someone else doing the rowing) on the Kenai, bouncing beads for rainbows and Dollies.