This term has a whole different meaning in today’s world than it did for many years in the guide community. Today, it means a personal bubble of protection that surrounds and insulates us-- from others and from the ever-present risks of a global pandemic. For years it meant only one thing. It was symbolic, and it was the distance between the rower’s bench and the bow of the boat. We would always joke that, ideally, down the road, we would all like to move six feet forward in the boat--a metaphor for moving forward in life. It represents the idea that someday we’ll be able to take guide trips versus providing them. This was realized for me in 2019 when I moved from guiding in the One Fly to actually being a contestant. Many asked me if there were any differences. Before the event, I would have said, “Not really. It’s all the same. It’s just fishing.” In hindsight…it’s everything!
The build up for the guides in the One Fly starts weeks in advance and changes by the day. We play with patterns, test the spots, think about a strategy, and experiment. We make up our minds and change them all the time. We look at the weather, pray for stable flows, wish for our favorite sections, and try to anticipate every possible situation. We want to win. Eventually we draw our sections and our anglers, and all that thought and preparation starts to form into a real plan. Sometimes it plays out just as it did in our minds for weeks. More often than not, we have to react, adapt, and account for things unforeseen. On the days of the event, it’s early rising and the anticipation of meeting anglers. It’s introductions and exchanging pleasantries. It’s conversations in parking lots. It’s quickly assessing abilities and experience, and expectations. It’s whispered strategies and that one looming question…the most important question. What fly? The day itself is a mix of anticipation, excitement, and stress. It is always fun, unless you experience that moment – a crack on a back-cast, a leader that lands too softly on the water, that long cast that catches an overhanging limb in fast water, a fly that migrates from the end of a line. I have seen and felt all of these things in my fifteen years of guiding in the One Fly. Most have been exceptionally good times.
I believe all the great guides are smart, competitive, and driven. They seem to share a common profile. Anglers, on the other hand, seem to come in a wide range of flavors. Some just like to be out on the water, enjoying the high mountain air, and catching a few fish now and then. Some want to catch every fish in the river, or the biggest fish in the river. Some are intense. Some are carefree. Some are addicted to fly-fishing, and some are just giving it a try. A great guide needs to understand all of this and try to make it all work. We call it “boat chemistry”. The boat is a team in so many ways, and it helps when everyone is rowing in the same direction. Generally speaking, an angler is going to do better if everyone is doing well and working together. You can call it fish karma or something else, but from a guide’s perspective, at any giving moment, it doesn’t matter who’s catching…as long as we’re catching. The right opportunities will arise for everyone throughout the day. You just need to see which opportunity is right for which angler. So, on my first day as a contestant, I had to think who I wanted to be in the boat…which kind of angler. I didn’t want to be the agro angler, but on the other hand I wanted to make a good showing. I wanted boat chemistry. I decided to make that my focus. I would sit in the back of the boat most of the time and do my thing, letting the guide and front angler make the most of their day, and I’d give it my best.
Now, for most of us guides, a day off fishing is pretty rare and a leisurely affair. In most cases a six pack of beer is in more trouble than the fish. This felt a bit different. I was a fantastic ball of nerves and anticipation as I met my guide and fellow angler. I had never fished the section I drew on the Upper Snake. Prichard to South Park is known as a dink fest with a smattering of measurable fish. I decided to make the most of it, picking a Parachute Adams variation tied by a friend. The other angler chose a larger foam pattern. As we started down the river, I found myself rooting for the angler in the front more than I was watching my fly. The inner guide in me was coming out. I can’t tell you how many times I had small fish on, almost by accident, while watching other fish come up to the big foam. I did have a couple of heart-breakers and narrowly avoided a heart attack or two. When, after 30 minutes on the water, my first nice fish of the day decided to jet into a log jam, my inner guide voice laughed and said “You’re done!”, but the fish swam out on its own. Maybe it was some of that fish karma paying off? I pulled the trigger early on some other nice fish that would have made the difference in the end, but you know what? It happens to all of us. Every angler has their moments of what-ifs and should-haves--that’s The One Fly.
On the second day I was on my home waters, with my own fly, and in my favorite section. This was going to be the day I could make up the difference on my buddy Brian Byerly--more on that later. It was perfect out! We had clouds, temperatures were down, and flows were ideal for the time of year. I knew exactly what to do! This was my river, after all. My angling partner again had chosen a big foam pattern. Two anglers working with our guide laid out a perfect plan, and it worked! Boat chemistry… We caught an unbelievable number of fish that day, and the laughs and fun were flowing. I had a goal to reach for my team, and that was realized early. It just turned into a day of fishing with friends and having fun. That is the one thing I enjoyed the most about angling versus guiding. I think that’s the part of the One Fly that I felt in a different way for the first time. As a guide you feel the pressure of two anglers each day. You’re competing against your fellow guides and worrying about things that are completely out of your control. On this day, fishing was just fun!
In the end, our team came up two points short of third, and I got second overall. Did I mention I gave Brian my fly to use on the same day I was fishing the South Fork? Yeah that happened. Did I mention he came in first? Yeah, that happened. Did I mention the multitude of dinks that got off the hook or nice fish I set early on? Yeah that happened. But, you know what? I had more fun in those two days than I’ve had fishing in a long time, and it was because of the people I was in the boat with and the attitude I chose to show up with.
Now originally, I said we all wanted to move a few feet forward in the boat. Well, I moved a few feet back instead. I think I made the best choice, and that kind of holds true to where we are today. We’ve moved a few feet farther apart, and it isn’t exactly where we want to be, but we are making it happen. On the river, I got to watch the whole show going down. I wasn’t just about me. We have had to do that in our lives in general these days. We’ve had to slow down, stop the rushing and running, and concentrate on things and thoughts that matter. Slowing down, thinking about friends, cheering on the success of others, and just enjoying the small things helped my days on the water and have helped us get through these trying times. Even though I didn’t win, and even though we have all lost something over the last year, I came out for the better and had an amazing time. Slow down, enjoy others, and revel in your small successes because they add up to great things.
Final thoughts…Guiding is an amazing job and so rewarding, but fishing is way more fun! Never underestimate a five-inch fish’s worth… and don’t give your buddy your fly in a tournament. Kidding Brian..