Guided fishing nets unexpected rewards and skills

My wife and I spent the first week of our honeymoon in mid-April fishing a region unfamiliar to us – the mountains and valleys of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.

Though we enjoy exploring on our own, we decided to splurge and hired guides for the first three days. Guided fishing can have both expected and unexpected benefits.

The two most basic expected benefits are learning ones way around a new locale and an increased chance of catching fish.

My experience with guiding has been on both sides of the equation. As these adventures have accrued, my thinking about the guided experience and fishing itself has evolved.

I first guided fishermen when I was a twenty-something working in a fly shop. As a young inexperienced guide, I judged the day and myself based solely on the number of fish caught. I was rabid about catching lots of fish and considered the day a failure when my clients didn’t have the success I wanted for them. Interestingly, when fishing on my own, difficult days were (and still are) my greatest teachers, leaving me asking questions that lead to improved skills.

I became more realistic in my assessment of days on the water with the help of more experienced guides and the anglers who I guided. The guides shared that they, too, had tough days. The fishermen expressed thanks for knots untangled, laughs shared and stories told; their explanation of how much they had enjoyed the time we spent together left me feeling as though dozens of fish had been caught even when this was not the case.

The proverbial light bulb flickered and it occurred to me that maybe there was more to it than just catching fish.

I got to be on the other side of the equation a few years ago, during my first trip to Montana.

When our guide, John Anderson, co-owner of Anderson and Platt Outfitters, took my rod on our first day on the Missouri River and began doing what I usually do for others, I was confused. However, I went with the flow and decided the best thing for me was to let him do what his job title suggests: guide me.

It was a very good decision.

Though we were on a trout river, fishing flies similar to those I fish on my home waters in Pennsylvania, the deep river and fishing from a drift boat were entirely new experiences. Likewise, the methods John showed us were significantly different from what I was familiar with and his skills and knowledge netted us quite a few beautiful rainbows. Our days with he and his guides are ones I’ll never forget.

Out of that trip and one the following year to John’s home base in Dillon, Mont., to fish the Beaverhead River, I found myself with new friends, great experiences and left a more knowledgeable angler.

But the chain reaction begun years before didn’t stop with what I expected from guided fishing.

Fast-forward to our honeymoon planning earlier this year, when the unexpected benefits of hiring a guide began to show up.

As I got to know John during those Montana trips, I learned he and his partner Brad Platt are actually native North Carolinians from the Boone area in the western part of the Tar Heel state. When my wife and I decided to keep our trip within driving distance, I thought of what John had told me about the fishing in his home region.

A phone call to John allowed me to catch up on Montana news and ended with a contact phone number for his friend, Judson Conway, owner of Elk Creek Outfitters based in Boone.

We arranged to float the South Holston River for two days and to do an additional half-day of walk and wade fishing on one of the regions many mountain streams.

The first day found us at Price’s Store, a classic country store, complete with locals gathered for morning banter and fantastic bacon, egg and cheese on biscuit sandwiches and good coffee. Our guide for the day, Evan “Snapper” Merrill, set the tone for our trip by suggesting this meeting place and it just got better from there.

Our days spent with Evan, Judson and Connor “Rooster” Honea did exactly what we had hoped for – they guided us to new water, taught us quite a bit about the area and enabled us to fish the remaining days successfully on our own. We only scratched the surface of what the area offers and look forward to future visits.

Though that was the end of the trip and what we expected, the unexpected chain of benefits has continued to accrue.

Fast-forward one more time to early June of this year. I was at The Feathered Hook in nearby Coburn, chatting with fisherman from near and far. The fabled Green Drake hatch was underway, creating far more traffic than normally seen in this sleepy hamlet. As one group of fishermen left the shop, a single young man entered. It turned out he was from Boone.

An entomologist at Appalachian State University, he studies Sulphur mayflies on the South Holston and Watauga Rivers. He knows Judson and after a winding conversation about trout stream insects, fishing and a variety of other related subtopics, he handed me his business card and offered to take us fishing the next time we were in the area.

Little did I know where the path would lead when first I guided a fisherman on the waters of central Pennsylvania. The interconnecting web of friendships in the world of fly-fishing is one of the least lauded yet greatest gifts of the sport. United by the love we share for the rivers we fish and the fish that haunt them, tallies of the days catch often pale in importance compared with the richer rewards of those friendships.


Scott McKee writes about the outdoors for The Sentinel.