It’s a Guides Life – Part 2

For those of you who’ve read Part 1 of this series, thank you! Over 1,000 of you have now read it, making it one of the most popular posts I’ve written on the site so far. I wasn’t expecting such interest to be fair, but perhaps it was because I exposed my honest struggles with depression and anxiety and how my work life balance had become unhinged. Or maybe it was just because I said things out loud that many of you have felt yourself, but weren’t sure how to express. I’m not braver than anyone else, just old and wise enough now to know when enough is enough. But never mind that, let’s get on with the next chapter!

When the season finally got underway in June, our industry was already reeling from new salmon retention restrictions imposed on Southern Vancouver Island by the Department of Fisheries in Ottawa. I won’t get into the politics and whether it was wrong or right as that could consume many pages and it’s a subject that’s been debated to death already. But the actual impact on local business was real and for some operators, it was crushing. For myself, I questioned whether I had made a huge mistake choosing to be a guide in what was being touted as the “worst time ever” by others. But the decision was made and I was determined not to get mired down in the negative talk and instead take hold of the opportunity I had and go for it regardless.

As the charter bookings began to increase, I was keen to get my first paid trip under my belt and start the season off. I had hoped to be busy right out of the gate, but the uncertainty of the new fishing regulations had put some customers on edge and cancellations/re-bookings were affecting our team in Port Renfrew. As it happened, my first official trip was booked for the weekend of June 15 (the day after my 50th birthday) and smack dab in the middle of the first salmon competition of the season, the Fathers Day Derby.

Go time. Just a small part of the Port Renfrew charter fleet.

Just like any other “firsts” in life, I was nervous as hell. Nervous about the weather, the swell, the fog, the guests, and would I be able to deliver fish. Silly really, as I have lots of experience with boating in horrible weather and fishing on the west coast, but having the designation of “Professional Guide and Charter Boat Captain” I felt a tremendous weight on my shoulders. What if I couldn’t get them into fish? What if I was the ONLY BOAT that didn’t? So many what if’s that I slept very little the night before due to my excitement and my own induced pressure to perform.

When morning arrived the weather was predictably lousy. Foggy, overcast, and lumpy. I got the boat motors fired up and warm, loaded the ice into the fish box, programmed in the destination in the GPS and made sure that the gear was rigged and ready. My guests arrived and by a twist of fate, one of them was an employee I knew from the company I had just left. Instantly I felt at ease and it was if someone had given me a gift. I went from feeling like the dorky new kid in a strange unfamiliar school on his first day, to that same kid but with a buddy in tow.

Candy store for fish

The day went off without a hitch other than a few of the guests suffering from seasickness due to the swell offshore. Fish were caught, many laughs were had, and I arrived back to the dock with happy guests and a relieved skipper. Thanks to Randy Turner and his buddies out on a bachelor party for allowing me to get past that first trip, and helping to build my confidence as a guide.

As June turned to July, bookings ramped up and over the course of the summer I became busier and busier, and subsequently the odd day off became more and more scarce. Many guides work the entire summer with no breaks, so as to maximize the short season we have for salmon. It’s not uncommon to hear of stretches of 80-100 days with no time off. As I was boat number two in our three boat fleet pecking order, I was lucky enough to be snag about 60 trips, and only had one long stretch of about 20 days with no break.

This fish sure made his day!
Just a portion of the fleet drift fishing for Pacific Halibut
Chinook Salmon, caught and released off Swiftsure Bank
I think he was happy!
Not a bad day for myself and Head Guide Dan.

I cannot say enough about how thankful and grateful I am to all of the guides who helped me out as the newbie at the dock. Coming into the start of the summer I thought I knew enough about salmon fishing to be a decent guide having been actively fishing the west coast for the past 15 years or more. But as I soon came to discover, sport fishing and guided fishing are two different animals. I was humbled by the other guides around me who would consistently bring in larger and more bountiful catches than I was. They were fishing the same areas as me but had a toolbox full of knowledge and experience that I simply didn’t have and those things can only be gathered by practice and time on the water.

At the end of each day, most of the guides sat at the dock and discussed their trips over a beer or three. For me those relaxed and informal sessions with the other guides formed my daily classroom. And like all classrooms, sometimes (ok most times really, who am I kidding) I was the dummy in the corner. Take for example the term “Stupid Tickets”, imaginary violation tickets issued by the more senior guides to rookies each time they did something dumb. I think I earned at least one or two each day for months, even issuing some to myself when I knew I had really tripped over the obvious. For example, here are some common violations worthy of a stupid ticket:

  • Not following in a direct line behind another boat on the long trip to the fishing grounds, thus causing barf inducing wakes to hit the other boat(s)
  • Pulling up too close to another boat when drifting for halibut or when trolling for salmon
  • Failing to pay attention to your direction of travel when trolling in a crowded or foggy area, and causing others to wonder if you are going to ram them
  • Losing big halibut due to tying the wrong knot on your leader to the hook, or not using the harpoon but thinking you could just land it with a gaff
  • Incorrect use of the VHF radio
  • Running your boat too fast past cut plug fishermen
  • Calling “bites on” over the radio too close to the end of the day when fishing has been tough for everyone
  • Losing a fish when netting it due to poor technique, or breaking the net on larger fish
  • Forgetting to pull in your downrigger balls before heading off under power
  • Losing a cannonball, for any reason
  • Failure to dock on the first attempt
  • Not slowing down enough when a big fish is being played and losing it due to guest inexperience and too much tension
  • Asking how someones fishing went when they have a guest within earshot
  • And many…many more!

All of these stupid tickets were issued in jest, and I didn’t take them personally but took them for what they were – opportunities to learn. I knew that I had a lot to absorb over the summer, and I guess if they really hated me they would have just ignored me completely.

As part of my first post, I promised to highlight the highs and the lows of my first season so to wrap this post up, here are some of the highlights of my summer, in no particular order.

Wildlife Galore

Port Renfrew and the waters off its amazing rugged coastline holds some pretty outstanding wildlife. I spent my summer in the company of thousands of seabirds, huge pods of humpback whales, killer whales, grey whales, sea lions, eagles, and of course some of the prettiest coastline you’ll see north of Maui. All of this while breathing fresh clean salty air, being bathed in both sunshine and fog, and watching mountains of ocean wash by me.

Caves along the shoreline, home to Ruby Footed Guilimots and Cormorants
Secret grottos to explore
Bald Eagle snatching up an offered Black Rockfish
Humpback Whale feeding on Pacific Herring
Big sea lion, looking for an easy meal

Boating

I loved running the Terminator. Sure she’s not the worlds fishiest boat or the most luxurious vessel, but I simply loved it. I loved hopping on board every dark morning and getting her ready for the day. I loved being her captain and taking my guests out in her. I felt safe driving Terminator, and as the summer went on and my experience as her captain grew I had more and more confidence in all weather conditions. Running a larger boat, that handled more like a transport truck than a sports car, was a great education for me and I hope to build on it. Using and relying on radar was a skill I honed after countless mornings motoring miles and miles though fog that at times gave you no more than 20 foot visibility. And since I am a boat person, I loved the cleaning, prepping, and taking care of the boat in my down time. While not a mechanic I did learn some new things when it came to maintenance and I will take those with me.

The office, board room, and liars club.

Fishing Skill

10,000 hours. That’s what they say it takes to become an expert at something. No matter what your skill level, there is always someone better, smarter, and more successful than you. Fishing is no exception to this rule and I have always maintained that I am foremost a student and only sometimes a teacher. Seasoned Port Renfrew guides like Steve French (seawindfishing.com), John “Welsie” Wells (hindsight fishing.com), Bruce Miller, and Dan Findlow were treasure troves of knowledge that they shared with me and provided a big chunk of my education. Just as helpful were guides like Matt Wiley (wileyssportfishing.com), Nelson Karger (ofishalcharters.com), Nick Hui (springrollsportfishing.com) John Rogers (vancouverislandfishing.ca), Blair Legalais (swelltime.ca) Markus Kennett (fish-vancouver-island), Bill Cooper (kingcoopsfishingcharters.com), Dan Harvey (pacificsportsfishing.ca), Des Hatchard (viciousfishcharters), and Brent Story/Chris Plunet (pacficprocharters.com) as well. What I learned from this cast of professionals will serve me well for years to come yet I feel that I have only touched the tip of the iceberg.

Sense of Accomplishment

As I have eluded to being a fishing guide is tough work, and that will be my main focus for the next post. For the past 15 years I’ve held on to the dream of what it would be like doing something that I am passionate about, and I can finally say that I have tried it and its left me wanting more. Guiding is something that you sort of love and hate. You love the adventure, the challenge and the sense of the unknown each time you hook something on the line or head out into the impenetrable fog banks. You love being your own boss, yet you yearn for that day of sleeping in and relaxing. If fishing by yourself is the gateway drug then guiding is the next step into hard core addiction.

A Common Bond

One final highlight for me was being able to share my enthusiasm for fishing and the wildlife around us with my guests. The degrees of fishing experience for my clients ranged from none at all to well seasoned and it was a pleasure to converse with them all during their time aboard Terminator. Like any job in tourism you never know what you are going to get when the guests arrive, and while there may have been some long days aboard the majority were great. When on board a small boat miles from shore, you really get to know your guests! I met people from the USA, the Grand Caymans, Ireland, England, and of course guests from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and even Newfoundland. They came in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life including surgeons and lawyers to trades people and retirees. Each one had stories to tell and what united them all was a love of fishing, a common thread which opened up many interesting conversations.

I also really enjoyed the community of fishing guides I was fortunate enough to be part of. As the rookie I did feel like the odd man out at first, and these guys are a tight group for sure. I still don’t know if I was really ever accepted into their inner circle, but I will say that I trusted them all to be there if I needed them, especially when far out at sea. Port Renfrew does not have a Coast Guard station, so help is not close by. But I felt reassured that no matter what personal relationships existed, nobody would would leave you hanging if you needed help. That extended not only to assistance on the water, but helping to fix problems on your boat at the dock, or giving you a particular piece of gear you needed urgently.

So that that’s a wrap for this post, next time up I will share some of the not so fun parts of the job! I’ve probably missed some of the highlights but I hope that I’ve been able to share enough with readers to give you a glimpse behind the curtain. Until next time!

None of this summer would have been possible without the support of my team at home. My amazing wife DeAndra, and my two step sons Matty and Russell.

2 Comments on “It’s a Guides Life – Part 2

  1. Hi Adrian,
    so fantastic to read these posts. Love that you are loving it!
    Thinking of a charter – how do I request you specifically as our guide?
    When is good time for halibut?
    cheers
    lori

    Like

    • Hi Lori! The best time is early in the summer, so late June early July. To book me you can request me through Island Outfitters, and they will make sure I am your guide. It can be costly, so if you can arrange some people to come with you it will be more affordable. Would be great to take you out Lori!

      Like

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