Fly guides and fishermen are the strangest of beasts. In the soul of most hunters of fish, there is a torment that rages in the sublime space that separates ego and humility. This battle will make the best of men or women stretch the truth. Many anglers and fly guides will do this while espousing with pious supremacy how every fisherman lies except themselves.
Tape measures and smartphones have become the truth serum of the 21st century for anglers. The phrase; “Did you tape it?” can make the most expert (according to himself) angler stop mid-sentence. When this sentence is paired with; “Did you take a picture?” The effect on the storyteller is like watching Kryptonite super glued to Superman in the movies. Even the most ardent fish story teller wilts after they are called out by the utterance of those two sentences.
Unfortunately, the biggest, blatant fibbers are fly fishing guides. Shocker! Not really. I have worked with many different guides from Alaska to Chile over the years.
Five of those guides tell the truth to their clients about the size of the fish they catch. My favorite personal anecdote about a guide’s “bigger fish for a bigger tip” mentality took place while I was working in Alaska. Thinking about this incident is making me smile right now knowing this is why we started Always A Good Day.
The lodge where I worked prided itself on getting the clients out on the local water within an hour or so of their arrival. This was a great custom that really got everyone revved up, particularly the new clients. On this one particular day, the van rolled in with a bunch that looked like they just finished an outdoor gear catalog. They stumbled out into the Alaskan sun from the van with one new client clutching a Filson duffel bag with the price tag still dangling from it. I knew that he would be mine for the afternoon.
Bill was an optometrist from lower Manhattan. He was large, 260 pounds or so, with horned rimmed glasses and an endless monologue of fishing stories. He had insisted on using a 5 wt. rod, one I would love to have used in the lower 48. The rod was far too small for most of the fish we chased, but he had assured me he had caught lots of 20 plus inch fish on it before. I guessed correctly that it might have only been one.
Onto the beach we roared, him bailing out of the front of the sled like we were storming the beaches of Normandy. As was typical for those who didn’t follow instructions, he caught his foot on the boat’s gunnel and fell face first into six inches of water. Suppressing a laugh, I helped him up and made sure that his rain jacket had kept the water out. Luckily for him, it was a warm day and the water didn’t find its way inside his waders. After a little, embarrassed laugh from Bill and a large one from myself, I tied a fly on his leader.
Blatant honesty and control by the guide are a must in a place like Alaska where lurking behind every rock is something that will bite you, stab you, or sting you. I told Bill to listen carefully and he would be safe and catch fish. After the face plant into the water, he was very attentive.
Anyway, Bill managed a cast while still jabbering away in my ear from above. He was a good 8 inches taller than me and his droning tone that was raining down left me almost zombie-fied. Luckily, he hooked a trout on his very first cast, not that this is unusual in Alaska. Bill’s little 5 wt bent almost tip to tail. The overmatched reel screamed as the line turned into backing as the spool turned at such a rate that I swear I saw little wisps of smoke rise as he tried to palm the toy-like reel. Several times I jerked his hand away just as he was about to slap his palm onto the spinning metal. He leered sideways at me and told me his personal guide in Montana told him how to palm a reel. I told him he wasn’t in Montana and there was a better reel in my pack that I would be putting on his rod after he landed this fish. Hinting that he should use the 7wt. I had a spare rod garnered me a look of disdain from the giant fisherman. Silence ensued for a couple of minutes while he pondered our relationship as he fought his first Alaskan trout while I stood next to him.
The trout was pretty average by Alaska standards. It was exactly 21 and 3/4 inches long (you will understand why I remember in a moment). Nice fish anywhere.
To me, it was another day of wearing waders, nothing I hadn’t seen a kazillion times before. However; to the Alaska newbie, their first Alaska Rainbow is often times the largest fish they have ever seen on the end of their line. Bill was no different. I am pretty sure his heart was pounding a hole in his chest when I grabbed his leader and corralled his fish.
I am glad he wasn’t a bear or I would be dead at that moment. He charged me like a hungry boar in the springtime, grabbing the fish as he knelt beside me, his girth knocking me into the water. Saving myself from going over with a very soaked left arm, I smiled and let him have his moment. Bill’s camera strap was dropped over my head as I was still trying to right myself. Hurriedly, I got up and directed him on how to hold the fish without hurting it so he could have his picture. The next words were priceless.
“How long is it? 27, maybe 28 inches?” he said as tears formed in his eyes. Unfortunately; Bill had drawn the wrong guide. Mr. Reality was about to pay a visit to Bill within minutes of him landing his first trout in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
“Bill;” I said gently as I snapped a photo. “Bill it is about 21 and 1/2 inches long.” I left out the “only” in front of the 21 and 1/2 because it was his first trout in Alaska.
“No way!”; he almost yelled. “This is the biggest fish I have ever caught. It is at least 6 inches bigger than any trout I have caught in Montana and I have caught 22-inch rainbows on the Madison. My guide told me so!” He was deflating faster than the Hindenberg did that fateful day in New Jersey.
“Bill;” I was really trying to be gentle now. “I am a pretty good judge and I am probably within a half and inch.”
“There is no way!” he said with a tone that was a tad condescending. No one likes condescending. Slowly I started digging with my right hand through my Filson guide vest, almost unconsciously.
“I will bet you a paycheck that the fish is within half an inch of what I said it is;” dramatically I pulled a tape measure out of my pack as I finished.
“Ok! deal! I am holding you to it!” he said as he cashed my check in his mind while I stretched the tape out as I knelt next to the trout.
There are certain moments in a person’s life that they will always remember. He probably has slow-motion nightmares of me bending down with my ten cent sewing tape next to his fish. I sensed Bill cringing as my left hand held the metal tab even with the nose of the fish and my right hand slowly pulled the vinyl tape straight and tight. This scene probably replays in his cerebrum on cold winter nights over and over after a bad day of shifting lenses in front of cranky old ladies’ eyes. I looked up and smiled as the tape went tight. What I saw was a smile and an acknowledging nod from Bill. From that moment on I was his for the week of his stay and I knew it.
The fish was measured just under 21 and 3/4’s of an inch. Bill had me take a picture of him holding the tape on his fish. He emailed the photo his guide in Montana that night he told me the next morning. The following evening he sent the poor guy a picture of a much larger fish with that first one. Our bet was never settled, although he claims to this day that he bought me enough drinks that I was fully compensated. He did send me a picture a month later of his guide taping an 18-inch Brown with my tape, the one he had requested I give him at the end of the stay.