New guides often ask me if there is a secret to surviving in the fishing business. I think many expect me to dazzle them with talk of magic lures or flies, cutting-edge fishing techniques, and secret spots. Some seem to hope I’ll tell them the key is owning the latest gear. Others think it’s about outfishing the other guy.
You can hear a pin drop when I tell newbies that the path to longevity in the guiding industry isn’t getting the bites, but it’s what you do between the bites.
Sure, the ability to constantly produce fish is important. So is good gear, knowing the right spots, and having a few tricks.
But anybody can be a hero when the fishing’s hot. What about when the bite’s tough? That’s where success is defined. The bottom line: You must be able to show people a good time regardless of the action. Otherwise, you’ll have a short career. Before I started guiding, I remember I’d be out on the river fishing with friends, and two particular guides always seemed to be yelling at their clients. I can clearly see the faces of those people—arms folded, faces taut and probably thinking something like, “Why am I paying this guy to be rude to me?”
After seeing that day after day, I realized that I was catching about the same number of fish as the grumpy guides were, yet I knew I am fore more friendly. Hmmm. Take people fishing. Be personable. Make sure they have a good time. It seemed like such a simple concept, and I’m living proof that it works. I started guiding fishing trips full time on August 28, 1998, and haven’t looked back.
One of the hallmarks of being a great guide is the ability to keep people entertained. Take an interest in geology, biology, birds along the river, and local history. Be the best storyteller and part-time comic you can be.
For just that reason, I’ve studied the history, birds, and geology of where I guide. With this jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none approach, I can usually keep my clients laughing or interested enough to pass the time until the next bite. I know just enough to be able to point out the cool rock formations on the bank that were once reefs in an inland sea. And I can tell the tale of how Murderers Bar got its name during the Gold Rush. (A deadly fight over a woman between 49ers and Indians on California’s American River.)
I know just enough about birds to be able to identify the species commonly seen on my guide trips—and give the folks an interesting tidbit or two. It can be as simple as pointing out a merganser and telling the gang that they are the only ducks that sport teeth.
History is usually good to occupy a few minutes of time. I’ll mention the 1,500-pound sturgeons that used to run up the river before the dams were built. (It’s true!) Or maybe I’ll talk about how striped bass came to the West Coast in the 1800s carried in bottles on a train. (Also true!)
But one of my favorites to tell salmon charters is the story of Jurassic salmon from a couple of million years ago. They weighed more than 300 pounds. (Yup.)
Google and Wikipedia are great tools to help you brush up on your local history, geology, and flora and fauna. You don’t have to hold a PhD in those subjects to be entertaining. Just focus on things that you find interesting. Your clients will react to your passion and be interested as well. As a fishing guide, you’re going to hear your share of jokes from customers. Jot the best ones down so you can use them another day. Some crews love a good joke or two. A belly laugh on a slow day can really help keep team morale up. Avoid off-colored jokes: You do not want to offend or make any customers uncomfortable. You will lose customers if you do.
Speaking of potentially offensive subjects, steer clear of religion and politics. People take both very personally. And again, we ultimately want people to have a good time. Keep the conversations light. That’s when to tell a story to pivot from a dubious subject.
Clients often have a romanticized idea of the guide life, and you can play that up by sharing some tales from the water. I literally have a story from every bend of the rivers I fish. I have been at it so long, and the yarns flow easily. I can get the dudes eating out of the palm of my hand with adventure tales, like the time a floatplane almost landed on us or the one about a guy who jumped out of my boat to ride a swimming moose. You can’t make this up!
If you’re a guide who is just starting out, your catalog of stories is probably pretty thin. Make the effort to have at least a few fishing stories in your back pocket. Heck, make them up—these are fishermen.
Start by thinking of the craziest stuff you’ve seen on the water. Think about the biggest fish you ever hooked, and you’ll have a few to launch in the inevitable lull. Good storytelling is an art. It takes practice. If you work at it, the skills will earn you repeat customers. If someone has a great day on your boat, even though he didn’t catch many fish, you’re likely to book him again.
Tips to Connect with Clients
You will have people from all walks of life on your boat. Various heritages, ideals, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, and political affiliations. Felons and philanthropists, billionaires and blue-collar workers, cowboy poets, IRS workers, bodyguards, politicians, musicians, and professional athletes have been aboard my boats. If you want people to fish with you year after year, you have to connect with them. The trick is finding that common interest or experience.
I always peek at new clients’ social media accounts. I’ll scroll to find something that might make for good conversation. If I find any common ground—we’re fans of the same sports team, we have similar hobbies, or like a certain style ofmusic—I’ll literally make a note of that and bring it up at some point. It may seem like a little thing that you both love deep-dish pizza or John Grisham novels, but those nuggets can be pure gold.
Also, keep a cheat sheet on your customers. I’ve found that clients really appreciate being remembered. So, on my phone, I’ll jot down things during the trip that I can ask them about on the next trip. I see hundreds of clients a year, and there’s just no way to remember everyone, let alone specific details about every single person. That’s where the notes really come in handy.
If you ask a customer how their new job is going, if her kid still plays third base, or how the Maui vacation went, you’ve got a customer for life.
One of the really nice aspects of forming these bonds with clients is that they often turn into lifers. Once you make a strong connection, they know they’ll have a great day on the water regardless of the fish count.
They become loyal.
JD RICHEY has been guiding on the rivers of Northern California and the clear waters of Lake Tahoe since August 28, 1998. His videos and podcast are linked at guidefitter.com/jd-richey.
From the Fall 2021 Issue of Guidefitter Journal.