One of the proudest moments of my life happened in 2019, when I watched Brandon “Bean” Storin net a 9-pound bonefish for my wife, Mercedes. Equally proud was Capt. Richard Stanczyck, who was still in the process of training Storin to be an inshore fishing guide out of historic Bud N’ Mary’s Marina, which was established in Islamorada, Florida, in 1944. Earlier that training day, however, Stanczyck’s pre-launch pep talk to the student bespoke the serious undercurrent of what most of the world sees as casual recreation: “I hope you didn’t forget anything, or I’ll make your life a living hell.
Knowing Stanczyck’s dry humor, he was only partly serious. Knowing his deep commitment to, not only the marina he’s owned since 1978, but also the guide profession he has diligently promoted, his expectations were 100-percent genuine.
“If you want to become a doctor, lawyer, or a businessperson, you know where to go—you go to college, you get a degree. But there’s nowhere to go to become a professional (saltwater) fisherman,” Stanczyck said.
That was the founding principle of Bud N’ Mary’s University. Known locally as BNMU, this loosely structured but tightly focused guide-training program certainly includes plenty of tackle and technique stuff, but Stanczyck finds the most successful students are those who value the business side of fishing more than the “cool” factor.
Bottom line: longevity demands complete immersion in the culture of fishing, a sentiment broadly applicable to guide operations of woods and water, saltwater and fresh. Entry into Stanczyck’s program requires only a willingness to begin.
“It’s not a sign-up thing, it’s just a show-up thing,” Stanczyck thing. “There are some people who were born with fishing in their blood, and not everyone is meant for the world of academia.”
Excellent Place to Train Saltwater Guides
Storin and several recent BNMU “graduates” begin their studies at the marina store, where stocking merchandise, selling bait, and handling all manner of daily chores and challenges familiarizes newbies with fishing culture and weeds out the less-determined types. Daily exposure to the hustle and bustle of charter boats coming and going while you’re the one washing boats either develops interest or dilutes it.
Those who pass the core curriculum of marina work move on to mating work on the party boat (multi-passenger offshore vessel) and then advance to a private charter boat. Stanczyck pays for his students’ captain’s-license courses, and in some cases, prospects have the opportunity to join their mentor on international fishing trips for “graduate work” that sharpens their skills.
“We offer an excellent learning opportunity here, because every saltwater game-fish species in North America can be caught out of Islamorada—from blue marlin in open water to snook in the backcountry” Stanczyck said. “Also, they learn every type of tackle and rigging here.”
Storin, who has parlayed his guiding career into a tackle venture—a mini fishing rod he calls the Bean Pole—said he’s gained tremendous confidence through his BNMU experience: “I really appreciate the opportunity to learn a wide range of rigs and techniques that allow me to capitalize on the great diversity of species found in the Islamorada area.”
Grooming Guides from Experienced Anglers
Operating RainyDaze Guide Service on Minnesota’s Rainy Lake, Chris Granrud blends on-the-job training with experienced mentorship and provides an established framework that gives would-be guides a firm foundation. For starters, he makes sure prospective guides understand the various licensing and certifications needed to take clients on Rainy Lake. Because Rainy Lake is a border water on the US–Canada line, guides are required to have a US Coast Guard Captain’s License, a Transportation Worker Identification Credential card (what they call a TWIC card), CPR and First Aid training, and all the proper insurance. Also, because they often operate within Voyagers National Park, guides also need a park license.
“We’re bringing guys in who’ve been fishing for a long time, but they may need to learn some ins and outs as far as being an actual fishing guide and how to handle customers,” Granrud said. “We’ll have them paired up with one of our more experienced captains for the first month. The main captain will take the lead as far as picking up the customers in the morning and introducing themselves and explaining the day, the goals, and how they’ll be fishing. Then the training captain will lead everyone around and make the decisions as far as the moves and what they’re doing. After about a month of that, we’ll let the new guide free wheel on his own.”
One of the key points Granrud stresses is setting realistic expectations based on a customer’s wish list. Drawing upon his background in financial planning, Granrud considers frontend fact finding essential to delivering an effective plan.
“You can never really provide a solution for somebody without knowing what they’re looking for,” Granrud said. “Gathering the information, dissecting it, and spitting it out into a solution is really critical. It seems like the best guides are really good at doing that.”
Grooming Guides From Ranch Hands
Billy Chapman, who operates Anglers Inn sport-fishing lodges in Mexico and Brazil, agrees with the emphasis on expectations and notes that language and cultural barriers sometimes impede guide–client exchanges. Species selection is generally assumed—largemouth bass in Mexico, peacock bass in Brazil—however, when it comes to bait choice, general directions, offering beverages, etc., basic hand signals like thumbs up or down, pointing, and head nodding or shaking will fill in a lot of blanks.
Chapman instills this and other details by combining direct instruction with the pairing system—a four-month training commitment. Particularly with his Mexican bass lodges, he wants guide trainees to quickly master the ability to size up an angler's ability and adjust accordingly. The two big ones: boat control and positioning.
“The key (aspect of guiding) is to read the client; maybe one angler can cast sixty feet, the other can cast thirty feet, so you have to know your distance to bank,” Chapman said. “Also, guides have to know how to effectively run their Minn Kota trolling motors and when to shut down (the outboard) engine so they don’t run over fish.
“Also, I teach my guides to avoid running too fast. If you have an older customer, maybe they’re not comfortable running fifty miles per hour. So maybe you run only twenty.”
Why Training Is Needed
Beyond the fundamentals, well-founded guide-training programs address key aspects of the job that help ensure guide longevity.
Grounding: Over the years, Stanczyck has seen many would-be guides make their way down to the Florida Keys with visions of an endless summer lifestyle. The guiding profession, he said, demands a very different attitude and perspective.
Committed to promoting the business he loves, Stanczyck’s happy to pass along what he has learned—and what will help perpetuate his established service level. Of course, such opportunity is not wasted on the unworthy. It sounds harsh, but guiding of any type is far less about the guide than the guided.
“I do have standards,” Stanczyck said. “I always tell people, I can teach you how to fish, but I can’t teach character—-you have to be born with it or want to have it. I don’t tolerate anyone who has impeding issues.”
Time Efficiency: Granrud believes a paying customer should never doubt their guide’s mental mapping. The good ones never stop growing, but his training phase tightens the learning curve. “Because we’re on such a massive body of water, at 230,000 acres, fishing Rainy Lake is really complicated,” he said. “A (new guide) may be a good fisherman, but they’ll learn the ropes on our body of water, beyond just how to handle customers.”
Cultural Challenges: While guide services in the US typically find candidates with solid fishing backgrounds, Chapman’s operations in Mexico typically start from square one. Mexican law requires him to hire from local populations, which means he has to build a guide force from workers who have mostly agricultural background. “I’m starting with a bunch of green guides who’ve never driven a boat before. They’re cattle people and ranch people,” Chapman said. “I can’t bring a guy from Mazatlan who wants to work for me—I have to keep the jobs within those villages.
Changing Mindsets: Notably, one of the biggest challenges Chapman faces in training new guides for his Mexican lodges has been the concept of catch-and-release—a completely foreign notion to most of his new guides. Largemouth bass are an edible species, but foregoing consumption benefits a fishery with a larger population of fish and greater growth potential. Essential to his long-term strategy, Chapman has helped stock tilapia in lakes such as El Salto and Picachos. By investing in an alternative food fish, he’s been able to teach a sustainable catch-and-release practice that keeps more of those giant Mexican bass in the fisheries.
“I established this (catch-and-release) standard back in the eighties,” Chapman said. “The local residents believe they own the lake, so it was a significant challenge. Think about it: If you’re a local guy with five kids, you can go down to the river and catch a few bass to feed the family. “I tell my guides, if you throw that fish back, it has a reasonable chance of surviving, but if you take him home and filet him, he has a zero chance of surviving. So, if you want a job for the future, eat the tilapia and leave the bass for fishing.”
Consistency: Because RainyDaze customers are often shared among the guides, Granrud wants to ensure that return customers experience equally enjoyable trips regardless of which guide they get. “When our customers meet our guides in the morning, we try to have a universal approach— to how we run our trips, to service within the boats—so you know what to expect when you get a RainyDaze captain,” Granrud said. “If everybody’s running things totally different, it’s really not the same.”
Chapman has a similar focus and finds that tapping into his guides’ cultural tendencies helps keep the rods bent on multiple boats. As he explained, the community roots binding his Latino and Brazilian guides foster a natural teamwork attitude. Everyone shares knowledge so the entire fleet does well.
The other part Chapman stresses is hospitality—an invaluable trait transcending language barriers. From timely net skills, to snapping those bragging-rights photos, to promptly proving celebratory libations, a well-trained guide can turn any day into a pleasant memory.
“Personality has a lot to do with it,” Chapman said. “I stress this to my guides, you can’t always catch fish, but you can always give great service.”
Before pairing new guides with experienced mentors, Granrud takes time to indoctrinate his trainees with lessons heavy on efficiency. Knowing where to go means clients spend more time fishing and less time running—generally, the recipe for happy clients. Happy clients are often return clients, which bolster a guide operation’s marketing effort through referrals.
At the end of the day, guiding is entertainment and it’s hard to entertain if you’re not a people person. When it comes to sizing up a prospective guide’s potential, Granrud admits that, while fishing skill clearly matters, it’s not his number one criteria. In his experience, interpersonal skills, and mental toughness are more important.
“The best fishing guides are just great people; they love people and they’re extremely mentally tough,” he said. “No matter how amazing your body of water is, the guys that don’t have a strong mental game never last. “When someone pays you five hundred to six hundred dollars to go catch big fish and the day’s not going well, the guy that’s not mentally strong is frazzled at the end of the trip. You run two or three of those in a row, maybe you get a bad customer or you get a bad weather. . . If you’re not mentally tough, you’re not going to make it.”
Granrud stops short of saying he tries to scare off prospective guides, but he definitely paints a starkly realistic picture to make sure the individuals who represent his brand are ready to do so in any circumstance. Anyone can look like a champ when fish and fishermen play their roles well; but how about inexperienced, unrealistic, or impatient customers? Disorderly kids? Inattentive anglers that keep reeling rigs or fish to the rod tip?
“I stress it’s not like it’s you and your best friend,” Granrud said. “A lot of times, you’re fishing with people who don’t know how to reel or don’t know how to set the hook. If you get into a tough bite, are you going to be able to handle it?
“You have to be able to mesh with everyone, from the high-level executive who funds the trip for 30 guys and expects a lot of you, all the way to the guy who’s never fished before in his life. If you can manage that, you will last in this business.”
Other Guide-Training Programs
Complementing the on-the-job training system where prospective guides pair with experienced guides to “learn the ropes,” some operations offer more intense educational programs with classroom and field lessons. The latter tends to best fit fishing operations that require knowledge of etymology, fly tying, and drift-boat operation.
Exemplifying such programs, WorldCasters Fly Guide School offers prospective guides a formal week-long educational experience appropriate for the more technically demanding world of drift-boat fly fishing. Along with lessons on business elements, students learn about river classifications, whitewater-rescue tactics, drift-boat rowing skills, knot tying, and conservation.
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David Brown has more 30 years of writing experience and has written content across multiple media platforms including traditional magazine features, fishing-tournament coverage, marketing communications, and specialty publications.
From the Winter 2021 issue of Guidefitter Journal.