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Image by Michael Aleo

My Life With Fishing Guides

The Drake
Fall, 2015

I met my first fishing guide in 1980 when I spent the summer waitressing in West Yellowstone, Montana.  Up until then, the only person I knew who fished was my Grandpa.  He hauled his aluminum boat to chilly Puget Sound on top of his Buick.  But in this town the streets were filled with trucks pulling boats with wood gunnels and oars.  I ignored the boats, and the men towing them.  They wore hats.  Only old men wore hats.  Especially old men who fished.  

One of those grizzled old men was sitting at the bar where I worked.  In the red-lit darkness, I saw a warped cowboy hat turn my way. Underneath the battered hat was a young man in a chamois shirt and faded Levis.  He flashed a dazzling smile at me and asked if I was new in town.  No man who looked like that had ever looked like that at me.  

When Mike blasted into West Yellowstone several years earlier, he was one of many young men attracted to the mystique of the West and the boom in fly fishing, hoping to carve out an outdoor life through guiding.  Montana fly shops sold fishing as a Western Experience where health and virility could be found in a day on the river.  The fishing guide was paid not only to get clients into fish, but also to entertain and instruct and embody an untethered life in the rugged outdoors.

West Yellowstone's fly shops employed a few local guides, but most were college boys from other states.  They had a decidedly transient nature, as though they were always ready to slip away to another state and another river.  I never considered what they did all day.  They were just beautiful men with boyish athleticism and sexy smiles.  Mike was legendary not only for his good looks but also for his swagger and success with women.  Local guys hated him.  Other fishing guides tolerated him.  And girls like me fell in love with him.  I started looking out the cafe window for his truck to pull up in front of the fly shop across the street.  Then I hustled my customers, slapping their tabs on the table before they could order dessert or another drink.  I changed my clothes in the restaurant bathroom and joined my girlfriends to cruise the five main streets of West Yellowstone looking for familiar trucks lined up outside the bars.  

People usually ended the night at The Frontier Bar to drink and dance to country rock and hopefully end up with someone else at closing time. Most fishing guides avoided The Frontier since it was also a good place to get into a fight with a hopped up local boy.  But Mike was there, stretched out on a barstool surveying the scene like a cowboy in a western movie.  His black hair was slightly damp from his shower and he was freshly shaved and in a clean chamois shirt, open at the neck.   Mike had sent headshots to modeling agencies in California, but no agency picked him up.   He was always camera-ready anyway.  His hair fell across his forehead, his chest was tanned and smooth, his green eyes regarded me with cool interest.  He was exactly what an inexperienced 20-year-old thought she wanted.  

Mike's cabin smelled of Irish Spring soap and Stetson cologne.  The kitchen table was littered with fishing hooks and feathers, the counter filled with empty beer bottles and open cereal boxes.  While Mike showered, I laid in his rumpled sheets and waited for him to emerge with a towel wrapped around his waist.  He would slither into his Levis and button his shirt over his toned torso.  Once his truck pulled away, I sifted through a box of photos by his bed.  Most were of Mike holding fish in various locales.  Whether he was in hip waders and a flannel shirt or shorts and T-shirt, the water behind was simply a backdrop for his splendid smile.  Digging further, I found photos of girls and read letters with feminine handwriting to torture myself.   One photo showed a girl stuffing the tail of a fish down her skimpy bikini top while licking its snout.  Sometimes I walked to Mike's cabin and found his door locked and crept back to my own place.  At the end of the summer, I went back to school with $2,000 in tips and a broken heart.  

In 1990, I quit my job and moved to Montana with a vaguely formed plan to work in the publishing industry.  But after two interviews in Helena, I drove down Highway 287 and pulled off near the Jefferson River.  It was late May and the river was swollen and surging against the bank where newly-awakened willows were pulsing with blood-red life.  I dug a beer out of the cooler and sat in my car with the door open as the river rushed past me like a speeding train.  Shaking off a lifetime of self-imposed expectations,  I shut the door and drove to West Yellowstone.


I took a job at a fly shop owned by two of Mike's guide buddies.  In the morning, I greeted the clients and introduced them to their guides, then made a list of the flies and leaders the guides had selected for the trip.  After the boats and trailed rumbled out of the parking lot, I spent the day straightening displays of silk-screened fish T-shirts and quick-dry pants and ringing up purchases.  At 8:00 in the evening, the guides starting pulling into the gravel parking lot.  By week's end I recognized the sound of a boat trailer bouncing through potholes and was ready to check in clients and add up tabs.  The guides smiled at me tiredly as they shook flies out of plastic cups and waited for me to count them while their clients roamed the shop floors and rummaged through racks of fishing shirts.  It was often 10:00 by the time the client shook his guide's hand with a folded bill tucked inside.

While I was skimming through  the shop's fishing books, one of the guides stopped and nodded at the bookshelf. "The only book worth looking at is that one."  

He gestured at a slim paperback called The Curtis Creek Manifesto.  It was illustrated with a cartoon fisherman being chased by a giant fish head.  I glanced at him suspiciously.  But he looked at me without smiling and said "I'm Dan" in a voice that was true and steady.

Dan seemed like a kid in his T-shirt and Asics Tiger tennis shoes, but at 27 he had already been guiding eight years and had a full roster of loyal clients who would only fish with him.  He drove a brown Ford truck with a topper and pulled a plain wooden boat.  Everything about him was nonthreatening.  Dan's idea of flirting was helping me return flies to their bins and quizzing me on their names. I started to join him and the other guides at the bar where they talked about fishing and demonstrated casting techniques with sharp gestures of their arms.  Their hands gripped imaginary rods while they described the fish their clients caught, the fish they lost.  They told stories of clients, of good days and terrible days.  Of bad weather and bad fishing and clients who expected them to change both. 

My first date with Dan was an evening float on the Madison river.  I stood at the bow of the boat and jerked my rod back and forth in what I thought was a competent casting technique while he silently rowed and watched me.  

He pulled the boat over to the bank and brought the oars in.  "Let's start over," he said.

Dan showed me a cast's rhythm and form, where to pause and where to apply power, how to work line out before releasing it.  I felt awkward and clumsy, but in less than five minutes I was kneeling in the water clutching a glistening fish.  

We were married the same year A River Runs Through It was released, and Robert Redford's set could be seen in the back of our wedding photos. This was the real fly fishing boom, and my life was now wedded to it.  We went from a lean winter budget to summers that were flush with guide paychecks and cash from Dan's tips.  Any time I needed a twenty, I took one from the stack of bills in his underwear drawer.  But now our time together was lean.  Dan spent long days with people of varying skills and temperaments who expected to catch fish in any conditions, refining their technique without injuring their egos, entertaining them with stories of a life on the river.  By the time he came home he was spent of words and energy and drank a cold beer in front of the T.V. just so he could do it again the next day.  And the next.  Sometimes twelve days in a row before he got a day off to clean his boat and truck, change his oil, get his hair cut.  And when out of town friends and family expected him to take them fishing, Dan never said no.  I resented not only the loss of income, but also how this taxed his physical stamina.  Dan's goal each season was at least 100 trips, and by mid-August he was drained of strength and energy.  But hiding this was also part of his job.

"The clients don't know I've already had 100 trips," he said.  "To them, this is the first day."  

When the owners of the fly shop decided to sell, Dan and another fishing guide scraped up the down payment and put up everything we owned of any value to buy it.  At 42, Dan was ready to be off the river, but running a business had a high learning curve.  His guide buddies were now his employees and their personalities looked different from the other side of the counter.  One of Dan's buddies had entertained him for years with stories of calling clients assholes or sending them downriver so he could sleep off hangovers.  But now when the same guy stumbled into the shop in a rumpled Hawaiian shirt and bleary eyes, he was a financial liability.  The shop didn't profit from the guided trip, but from the client's add-on purchases at the end of the day.  Happy clients stayed to shop, and came back the next year.  If a guide wasn't getting request trips, he probably wasn't giving his clients the type of day that brought them back.  Dan went from being the guy everyone wanted to fish and drink with to being The Man who could fire you. 

Fishing guides are now at least twenty years younger than me--kids who take a hundred trips down the river in the summer just so they can survive the winter.  Who don't have retirement accounts or health insurance, but drive new trucks and own a fortune in top-of-the-line rods and reels. They saunter into the shop with tanned faces beneath weathered hats, shirts tight against broad shoulders and open at the collar, smile politely at me and call me Mrs. Lohmiller.

Dan and I go salt-water fishing with Mexican and Belizean guides who greet us cheerfully and carry our rods to the boat.  They motor us through gleaming waters, their expressions hidden by dark Polarized sunglasses and colorful Buffs.  We are dependent on their life-long knowledge of this water and the life within it, so we let them take the reins.  Fishing guides will always be the swaggering cowboys of their country's waters, masters of a world of youth and freedom people yearn for and occasionally visit.   But knowing what this world costs, we always tip them big.

My Life With Fishing Guides: Work
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