It’s been a few weeks since my last post so I figure that there are at least some of you waiting earnestly for the final chapter in my three part series about my first summer as a professional fishing guide in the wild west pacific ocean off Port Renfrew, BC. It’s been fun sitting here recalling the events of the season and even more enjoyable receiving emails and notifications from quite a number of readers who truly enjoyed my candid observations of major life changes, and what this particular experience meant for me.
In my last article I covered just a small sampling of what was fun, invigorating and extremely satisfying about guiding, so as promised this post will focus on the not so glamorous side that also comes with the job. When I first set out on this adventure in June of 2019, I had a preconceived idea of some of the ups and downs I would face. But in reality there were a few things that I just couldn’t have anticipated. Even now with only 1 season under my belt I am sure that I have only experienced a small spectrum of things that can swing either to the very good, or the very bad. So if you are reading this through the critical lens of a very experienced guide with many seasons behind you, be gentle on me.
So without further delay and in no particular order, here are some of the harsh realities of being a guide, a list I am sure can be added to by those with more years in the seat.
Now this one might seem self evident, but there are some companies that have relief skippers for those days when you’ve possibly…em…partaken in too many beers with your fellow guides or been out with your guests celebrating an amazing charter. Or god only knows you may actually be sick – guides are not immortals!
The reality is that when operating a fleet of three boats, each with only one skipper, and you’ve got guests booked for all three….well…you gotta suck it up buttercup. Believe it or not, being out all day in the ocean be it sunny, foggy, rainy, windy or whatever, can be exhausting. You are exposed to the elements for a good 8-9 hours and that in and of itself can wear you down. But here’s the catch; not matter how crappy you may feel or how many hammers are relentlessly pounding your skull into powder, you still have to show up on time and give your guests the exact same positive experience you would if you had slept well and felt like a million bucks.
Are we having fun yet?
Oh yes and also add in getting up at 4:30 AM every day without fail is something that you have to be OK with.
Everyone who has spent time on a boat knows about the teeth jarring, spine compressing, smartie bashing action that happens when you’ve got to head out in nasty seas. Even with suspension seating there are some days that you hit that one wave that has no backside to it and you are launched unexpectedly into the ceiling and find yourself apologizing to your guests (who aren’t on suspension seats) as they pick themselves up off the floor. It’s not only embarrassing as a skipper but has the potential to cause injury so we are always on the alert.
Charging off into rough seas aside and taking green water over the bow is not the only cause of injury from the waves. Once out on the fishing grounds and working the gear for the guests, you are often dodging objects in motion that are sliding across the deck, just trying to pin you to the gunnels. Take for example those enormous fish coolers that sometimes come onboard, often filled to capacity with ice, food and beverages. These coolers can be as heavy as 100-150 pounds when loaded, so imagine how it feels when suddenly one slams into the back of your legs as you are tending to the gear in the back quarter of the deck?
Speaking of things moving around the deck, one also has to consider the guests themselves who have not developed sea legs and who’s exuberance for the days events can sometimes mean that you are dodging them as well! I learned to be self aware very quickly as to everyones movements but there were a few times I was body checked as I went racing for a rod to set the hook after I saw a strike.
The examples above are just my own experience, and as the season went on I learned how to quickly deal with the giant coolers, misplaced guests, and other moving objects. But I wore a few large bruises early in the season as I learnt the lessons of how to make sure to eliminate as many sources of risk that I could reasonably manage.
When a person transitions from working in a white collar office environment to a more blue collar “hands on” office, certain parts of your body are not conditioned to receive a whole new level of punishment. Add to this salt water, monofilament fishing line, sharp hooks, harsh sun, and bait brine and you have created the recipe for what I like to call “cheese hands”. Why cheese hands you ask? Well that’s easy – because you feel like taking a cheese grater to them at the end of the day to get rid of all the damage you’ve created and get back to having hands that don’t look like you’ve dipped them into acid.
Having fished lots for myself over the years I had experienced what happens when you handle brined bait for a few days. Your hands, especially your pointy finger and your thumbs, get very dried out and start to take on the colour of a white walker from Game of Thrones. After a month of working as a guide my hands had taken a beating including not only being dried out, but also receiving numerous line cuts in the joint creases from hand lining fish into the boat. Each new line cut would then dry out as well and thus delay the healing process. As the weeks went on it just became the norm. Some guides use Krazy Glue or Gorilla Glue to seal the cuts (after soaking your hands in warm water to soften them up) and I gave it a whirl with some success. It took about a month for my hands to return to normal after I finished the season, and now I look back at them as badges of honour!
Ok on this topic I believe I actually got off pretty easy this season, at least that is what I’ve been told by the other guides. We really didn’t get that much rain until the end of the season which is pretty normal for the west coast. And I came to expect fog every single day and for the most part I wasn’t disappointed. But much like the “no sick days”, there are not too many days (perhaps none) when you don’t go out due to weather and as a guide you are expected to go no matter what. The exception of course might be hurricane force winds or a tsunami warning, but other than that you go and make the best of it. As I was told by a few of the other guides, “you just gotta put on your big boy pants and get out there”. Fair weather fishermen need not apply to be a guide!
Believe it or not the sun is also not necessarily your friend. Personally I have always found that fishing is less productive on a sunny and calm day. Overcast days are “fishy” for me and maybe that’s just my groove. But the sun and the glare on the open ocean is also extremely hard on your skin and your eyes, making forgetting your sunglasses on a sunny day not cool. Neither is getting skin cancer on thin skinned parts of your face such as the tops of your ears and the bridge of your nose. So you have to be careful with the sun and although having a great tan after the season wraps up is awesome, having skin cancer is not. Some guides use “buffs”, almost all wear hats, and those who are smart use some serious sunscreen. I did a little bit of everything but a hat was essential and after seeing first hand some bad sun damage on guides who have been at it a long time I could see it was no joke.
As everyone knows, the end of your charter means laying out the catch and cleaning it for your guests. That means on good days an hour of cutting off heads, gutting, rinsing, filleting, processing, and wearing as little of the blood and guts on your own clothes are you can manage. Being around fish all day means that your clothes begin to take on a life of their own and pretty soon you are blissfully unaware that you smell just about as bad as the fish cooler. Just imagine the horror when you forget your fishing bib pants inside your truck in the hot sun for a few hours after work while you eat and socialize, and then open the door and receive a bath of hot stinky fish breath! It’s not pleasant!
Some guides seem to wear the same outfit every day. Perhaps these are sacrificial garments or maybe they bring them good luck. For me I tried to wash my “wet gear” once a week but found that even a trip through the washing machine left them with a unique lingering odour of their own. It really didn’t bother me of course but I was hoping to avoid too many comments from guests about how bad their guide stunk!
I’ve lost count of how many of my guests got seasick. It seemed like almost every trip had at least one, if not two guests that couldn’t hold onto to their breakfast or lunch. Lucky for me I have never been seasick in my life and it appears from my observations that it kinda sucks! Once it starts it rarely stops despite calmer seas and I felt bad for all of my guests who were sick from the ocean swells. Even those who I knew had likely contributed to the issue due to overindulging the night before. Oh and for those who are wondering the male/female ratio of hurlers…seasickness doesn’t see gender.
On the plus side it never bothered my stomach when someone got sick. Perhaps it was my years of “training” watching my friends and roommates get sick during University (and being the root cause of it) but it’s one of those things that certain people just can’t deal with. It’s like the domino effect for some..once they see/hear one person getting sick….it’s a chain reaction. So if you are that person who immediately starts dry heaving when someone else is barfing, you better stay at home.
If you are single with no significant other, close family, or kids in your life then you can skip over this one. But for anyone else who has loved ones that you are not able to be with because you our away guiding trust me it’s tougher than you think. Being gone all summer meant I missed out on my step kids and their baseball games, tournaments, barbecues at home, swimming in the lake, and hanging out in the backyard. I missed my wife and our quiet time, and being able to share the events of the day with each other. As much as we tried to keep connected each day over FaceTime it wasn’t easy to feel as connected as we had liked. With each weekend this past summer consumed with my other half travelling with her boys for their baseball season it wasn’t possible for them to come see me even though I was only an hour and a half’s drive away. And on the odd single day off my trips home were rushed and not relaxed.
With a good supporting family it can work, but you have to be prepared on both sides to sacrifice some things. That being said it is a short season for most guides and you’ve got the remaining nine months or so of the year to enjoy that family time and build up the memory bank to tide you over. For some it works, for others it’s tough.
I’ve touched on this in my previous two posts from “It’s a Guides Life” Parts 1 and 2. The length of your day as a guide is at a minimum 9 hours, and some days it can extend to 12 hours or more. Many variables can factor into this such as the guests themselves, how good or bad the fishing is, bad weather, time needed to repair gear or the boat, fish processing time, cleaning the boat, prepping for the next days charter…and so on. This is not a clock in at 6 and out at 2 work environment folks. The reality is that your days are long, and sometimes they are not enjoyable.
For me it was less like work and more like fun and the long days didn’t get me down. As the season went on I became more efficient in my work thanks to the help and guidance of the other guides and within no time I felt that my routine was working well enough that the very long days dwindled down to more manageable ones. Since most guides are paid per day and not per hour you are in complete control of how long you want to be working after the guests go home. All the guides I worked closely with were all proud of their businesses and their boats and took good care of both. If that meant a little extra time either on the water or at the dock, they did it without complaint because it is their passion and their livelihood.
So there you have it, my brief and for certain not all inclusive list of things that aren’t glamorous about being a guide. I should point out that even though I’ve listed quite a few there are a few more that are related to the type of guests you get. But that is not industry or guiding specific as let’s face it those type of guests, customers or clients exist everywhere in life no matter where you work and so I have opted to leave that out.
I hope that over the past three posts that I’ve been able to give you a look behind the curtain into the life of a fishing guide. It’s not a job for everyone that’s for sure but I have few to no regrets about my first season guiding and I am hoping to expand on it by dipping my oars into fresh water guiding this winter.
Part 3 of “It’s a Guides Life” marks the conclusion of the series, but stay tuned for more adventures as the winter steelhead season will soon be on us here on Vancouver Island. Please subscribe to my blog for future posts, as you will be notified via email each time a new one is up. Thanks for stopping by and reading!