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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Season Two - Part I

photo: Cameron Mortenson
Guiding in northern Michigan starts with a great bumper sticker

This series begins, oddly enough, where the last series I wrote left off. "Lake Effect" chronicled a steeelhead trip where a friend and I hit tributaries flowing into all five Great Lakes inside a five-day window in early November 2013. I was so stressed to start that trip that it took 1,900 miles of gas station food, hangovers, and swinging flies to feel relaxed...

I didn't want it to end.

The drive home included nine hours of figuring out how to quit a job that had become the bane of my existence. The biggest problem was, this is northern Michigan. Real northern Michigan—not that south of M-55 pseudo northern Michigan. We just don't have a lot of work prospects here, but I knew I had to find a way out.

A long time ago, a friend suggested I should be a flyfishing guide. As appealing as that sounded, it felt like a pipe dream: like wanting to be an astronaut when you grew up. Then somewhere on the Ohio turnpike, a plan came together.

For starters, I chose five of the most common "professions" that serious hobbyists adopt to delude themselves into thinking they can quit day jobs and make a living. I'd open a guide service, supplement it with income from freelance writing and photography and second-shooting weddings, and maybe supplement those with some commercial tying and website building.

Where others failed to make a go, I would succeed by doing them all at the same time.  A DBA came the next week. Next was a trip to the bank to explore small business loans. I walked away with a stack of paperwork and the decision to start slow and fund everything myself through the paycheck from my nine-to-five. Then I got to the important stuff: business cards, bumper stickers, and a Facebook page. Three keys to succeeding in today's economy.

By February I'd bought a used drift boat, built a website, and even had my first trip booked. I got my guide license, insurance, and all the other official stuff out of the way. The snow melted, and it was time to fish.

There were a plethora of challenges I didn't anticipate about guiding. The pressure of putting strangers with little fly angling ability on fish was a new sensation. To me, not putting a client on fish was akin to a five-star restaurant chef not knowing how to cook canned corn. Yet, I knew that eventually I would have a trip where my clients didn't catch anything. I decided that when it did happen, it wouldn't be my fault. So I fished every day up to that first trip. Then I fished every day between that trip and the next, and so on. If I didn't have clients booked, I practiced guiding my friends.

But that presented the next challenge, my friends were experienced and knew how to do basic stuff like set the hook, or to lower their rod when floating under fallen trees.

My clients have been mostly first-timers and guys who have been flyfishing longer than I have... but only once or twice each year. I found out guiding wasn't just putting people on fish and letting northern Michigan do the rest. It was just as much about teaching, which I loved.

Watching someone go from learning what tippet is to catching fish is the best buzz in flyfishing. A close second is getting an angler in the boat who already knows how to cast.

Fishing Needs More Liars

I hit the restaurant at Gates Lodge the other day for lunch.  My friend says you don't go to a place like Gates to order a turkey sand...