It can happen to the best

You know there really isn’t anything that a person can say is fool proof. And I am just the fool to prove that.

I’ve owned boats for almost 20 years, and consider myself a decent skipper and certainly no rookie when it comes to hauling boat trailers or launching boats. I’ve backed boats and trailers down some of the gnarliest ramps with ice, green slime, logs (yes actual logs) and seaweed in all types of weather and lighting. I’ve been there watching the rookies make their 20 point turns and their 18 attempts to back down the ramp. I’ve witnessed boats sliding off trailers, motors not raised and grinding up the ramp, and motors at full throttle trying to back a boat off a trailer without having released the tie downs. Not to mention those part time captains who think that the best approach to the trailer is at a decent speed so that you don’t have to “waste time” cranking it up onto the trailer. After all, that would cut into their beer and smokes time right? And I can say with pretty good confidence that some of the most entertaining sights can be found at your local boat ramp. Don’t believe me? Go there with your lawn chair on a weekend, and just sit back and enjoy the show. You won’t be disappointed my friend.

So, here I sit all high and mighty never being “that guy” who makes an ass of himself at the boat ramp. Right?? Well as we can all attest even the best of us can be dumbasses. Take this example as a lesson learned.

It’s Saturday and I’m taking a buddy out in my drift boat for a trip down a local river. It’s a beauty day with the sun shining, and the boat ramp where I am launching is wide, clear, deep and easy to access. Piece of cake. When I get to the parking lot to unload I see a fellow drift boat fisherman with a wheel off his trailer and looking like he would rather be on the river than in the parking lot.

“What’s up bud, get a flat tire?” I helpfully ask.

“Nope…wheel bearing is shot. Completely screwed. Had to cancel my charter today because of it” he says.

Recognizing the guy, I introduce myself to him having seen him on the river at the boat take out a few weeks ago, and realizing we have a mutual friend. We bullshit a bit, talk about the fishing and what to use, and then I go about my business. I load all my stuff in the boat, along with my buddy’s gear (he has now arrived) and get ready to launch. I maneuver the boat and trailer expertly down the ramp, stopping just about 1/2 way into the water and then step out to unhook the boat and launch. It’s then I realize that I have forgotten to put in the plugs. Enter mistake number one.

Not to be the Googan at the ramp, I hop back in the truck to pull the boat out a bit so that I can put in the plugs. Once in the drivers seat I go to accelerate slowly up the ramp but as it happens my wading boots slip and I accidentally hit the gas a little harder than planned. Enter mistake number two.

Upon hearing (and feeling) weird noises, I nonchalantly flop out of the truck in time to see my beautiful drift boat floating majestically away, now free from the trailer and completely untied. I had forgotten to attach the bow line.

“She’s gettin’ away on ya man…better run up the dock and grab it’! the guide says from over by his one wheeled drift boat trailer.

I jump over the trailer tongue, up the concrete abutment, and onto the floating dock and rescue the boat. I hook the bow line securely to the bow eye, and guide the boat around the end of the dock and tie it off, looping the bow line around the dock rail, and then attaching the loose end to the rear casting platform.

“Disaster averted!” I say jokingly, already feeling like a tool. What an idiot I must look like. I gather up the last of the items to load into the boat, and then head back to the truck so that I can head to the take out some 14km away, with my buddy following me to bring us back here. I call out to my new friend in the parking lot as we leave and confirm that he will stick around to watch our stuff.

“No problem Adrian” he says “I’ll be here for a bit waiting for my buddy to come help with this trailer.”

“Great!” I reply, “we won’t be too long”.

“Hey..is your boat tied up?” he says, pointing over to the end of the dock, which I might add is located at the end of a lake and marks the start of the river. This is also located about 50 feet away from a weir and a lock that I need to pass through, which has (as expected) quite a bit of flow going through it.

“Oh yeah of course” I say, wondering what the heck he is on about. And then…glancing over…I see my boat gliding gracefuly away from the dock. Enter mistake number three.

“Holy shit she’s not tied on!” I say, now running down the dock but already realizing that it has drifted too far away to reach “God damn it I might have to go for a swim!” Watching the boat slide away, my heart was sinking fast not only because I felt like the biggest loser but because it was happening in sight of others.

“I think you’ll be able to grab it” my buddy says, “she’s drifting towards the bank a bit”. Now running up the dock I can see he is right, and it looks like my boat will hit the bank before it is sucked into the weir and down the river. Scrambling through some of the nastiest blackberry bushes ever and down a steep bank I made it to the water just in time to catch the boat. Now breathing hard and feeling a throbbing pain in one of my shins where I must have unceremoniously whacked it on something I walk the boat back to the dock, and tie the SHIT out of it.

Now I won’t pretend that I never laugh to myself when watching boat ramp follies and the gallant efforts of the weekend warrior. I’m as big a critic as the next guy. But I never expected to be the source of comedy at the boat ramp and to be honest things could have gone a whole lot worse. I could have smashed the boat on the ramp. It could have been sucked down through the weir and ended up who knows where. It may have even been sunk. Instead, all that happened was that my pride (and leg) was suitably bruised and I have learnt yet another set of valuable lessons.

Thank goodness for small miracles, the boat lives to fish another day!

When I looked at the dock, I realized that when I had tied up the boat originally the railing I tied it to was open on one end. So as the current pulled a the boat, the rope simply slid off the open end of the rail. As for the incident with the plugs and releasing the safety chain when I wasn’t ready to launch, well that was just plain stupidity on my part and a desire to “just get going”.

If you’ve read any of my older posts on “It’s a Guide Life”, you might recall the term “Stupid Ticket”. Well…fair to say that on this day, I earned a few of them. The point of my story I guess is that even rockstars can have an off day and you just need to take your lumps and learn.

4 Dark Thirty

It’s December on Vancouver Island. The days start and end dark, dreary and wet for the most part this time of year and likely for the next month or more. Sure we don’t get much in the way of snowfall around this unique rock on the west coast of Canada, but we make up for it in rain. Lots, and lots of rain.

And it’s cold. Not the minus 40 kind of cold where your contact lenses freeze to your eyeballs on the way from the parkade, or your snot freezes in your nose though. You won’t find anyone here throwing cups of water into the air to capture the water droplets freezing mid-flight. But it’s a damp “chill you to the bone” kind of cold that most new arrivals to Vancouver Island laugh off when they first arrive here until they’ve acclimatized. We’ve all met those people from the Prairies who tell us how lame we are because we aren’t skating on the local pond in minus 25 with 60 km/h winds. I guess we all have our war stories, right? But, on the plus side of things I do tend to wear shorts even in the winter and pants seem…restrictive.

So what does any of this weather related noise have to do with the title of this post? Well, it’s more a reflection on why I recently got up at 4:30am the day after Christmas when I was already wiped out from all of the family activity. Followed up by a long winding drive in the darkness and pouring rain, barrelling down highways and then logging roads that were so bad with potholes and washboard that I swear there isn’t a tight bolt left on my truck or filling in my teeth. And to top it off, a struggle through soaking wet forests so thick that you would swear that darkness was falling. Oh and did I mention the very steep and very slippery slopes that you need to descend without losing your footing and tumbling headlong over a cliff and into the a raging cold river? Yeah. You love it.

High water..raining hard..not ideal conditions

For those who aren’t afflicted with the Steelhead bug, the above seems ridiculous, unwarranted, unwanted, and maybe just plain stupid. But I assure you that those with the disease that is Steelheading and the search for the illusive unicorns this is nothing more than a typical winter Steelheading trip. It comes with a combination of eternal optimism and hope mixed together with the inhuman ability to endure wind, snow, rain, dampness, darkness, slippery rocks, fast cold water, and the risk of certain death if you screw up. You have to be passionate about these fish to put yourself through this wringer especially considering your options are low when it comes to finding and hooking one (let alone landing it). I recently heard John McMillan, the voice of the OP Fishing Podcast, biologist and Steelhead junkie, talk about a statistic called Catch Per Unit of Effort, or CPUE. It refers to a measure of how much time elapses between hooking a fish, a statistic that if most Vancouver Island (or anyone in the PNW really) were to calculate based on their Steelheading experiences could result in a glut of centerpin, spey reels, rods and tackle offered immediately for sale followed by mass intake at your local mental health clinic for depression. But I digress.

So there I was. Waking up from far too little sleep to the sound of my alarm clock going off at “4 dark thirty” in the morning and trying not to wake up my partner while she slept. I had my clothes laid out in the bathroom (multiple layers of long johns, fleece and wool), got my contacts stabbed with fat fingers into barely open eyes, and blood stream preloaded up with ibuprofen prior to the caffeine blast. With meds and caffeine onboard, light up the truck engine and roar out of the neighbourhood to meet your buddy, also afflicted with the Steelhead bug. Do I dare say STLHD-19? Hmm…might be too soon for that. Oh well, too late.

Every trip starts out this way in the winter. You wake up, both excited about the possibility of catching a fish and having a new adventure on the water and also thinking about how nice it would be to just fall back into bed with the one you love and go back to sleep. You have all kinds of excuses ready of course:

“Water’s too high/too low”

“The moon phase is all wrong, those fish won’t be holding anywhere”

“Water was really dirty last time, why bother?”

“My buddy says that there are no fish this year, so this is stupid right?”

“Kids were up all night, I can’t see straight”

“Celebrated too hard last night, shouldn’t be driving really..”

“Have you seen the dismal DFO returns and the forecasts?”

You get the drift. When it comes to going fishing and getting up early in the morning let’s face it, most people would rather go when it’s light out, sunny, and calm. But the weird thing is I must be the opposite because even though I love my sleep, I actually LIKE getting up early to fish.

Consider the early morning wake up call as your offering to the fishing gods. Your sacrifice of sleep, your exertions hiking in and the physical uncomfortableness of being wet and cold are just the price you must pay to hop on the bus that takes you to Steelhead nirvana. The ride there is often long and frustrating, and some trips the bus takes you to another destination (also known as Lake Disappointment or the River of Crushed Dreams). But sometimes if you’ve punched your ticket just right or have ridden that bus on just the right day you are rewarded and it’s well worth the trip.

As this god awful year that has been 2020 ends and this new one begins we as fisherman should reflect back on how many people have been affected by the global pandemic and take a moment to think about those 4 dark thirty missions. Think about why it is that we all do them and the fact that we CAN still do them. The world might be gone to shit, but the things that are important like family, friends, and fishing are still there to remind us why we do many of the things we do. It’s for the pure love and joy of it. For the promise that today could be your lucky day. For the simple fact that being with friends and family sharing your passion for fishing is what makes you who you are. For your health both physical and mental. For your soul.

So how did my 4 Dark Thirty mission go on Boxing Day you might wonder? Was it worth getting soaking wet and freezing cold?

Hell yes it was.

I ended my season in 2020 with a good friend and two nice steelhead that will feed the addiction until I hit the river again in early 2021.

See Ya Later 2020!

Preparation builds Confidence

While most of us would prefer to be on the water as opposed to be sitting inside, sometimes conditions don’t allow you to do so. Now that can mean many different things of course, it can be commitments to work or family, poor weather, broken gear or boats, and even god forbid…injury. How you make use of your downtime can be key to making sure that when opportunities are presented, you can be ready to hit the water with everything you need to have a great time on the water.

I’m a fairly organized person so some of the things I take for granted in my world may not be true in yours. For example, when I come back from a day on the river and have wet boots and waders, my first stop is the drying rack for the boots, and to make sure that I hang my waders up inside out to dry, and then turning them back right side out later to complete the process. Nothing ruins a trip faster than rank, stinky waders that have taken on the wonderful smell of mildew, or have wet feet from the last trip out.

Another thing to consider are your reels. For reels, especially fly reels or the higher end saltwater ones with disc drag systems, make sure that you loosen the drag completely before putting them away. Failure to do this on some manufacturer’s reels can result in poor performance of the drag system over time, eventually leading to an “all or nothing” scenario. It’s a simple thing to do and will save you money and potentially lost fish in the future. If you have invested considerable money into high end reels, it’s a small investment of your time to protect them.

And then there is your tackle. For saltwater gear the best practice is always to rinse with fresh water after use and hang to dry but at the very least a rinse is critical. This will ensure that those critical lures, spoons, flashers and hooks will be in prime shape when you need them the next time out. And don’t be fooled, it can only take a day or two before the rust and surface corrosion can occur! Even a small amount of corrosion can affect the performance of your gear and even the sharpness of your hooks. And while you’re at it, give your fishing rods a quick rinse too.

Fly lines used in salt water should be rinsed as well, and a good cleaning several few times a year or more even after fresh water use with a cleaning agent will do wonders for the lifespan and casting smoothness of your line. You would be amazed at how much dirt and grease accumulates on fly lines even in fresh water just from regular use, and this affects how it floats, sinks, and moves through the guides. Trust me, a clean line will cast much further and perform better if it is well maintained. And with some fly line costing $100+, it’s worth doing. One additional benefit of stripping off and cleaning the lines is that it can also help reduce line memory, resulting in smooth presentations.

If you have an inflatable raft, make sure that you take time now and then to cast your eyes over the entire kit. Make sure that there are no weak spots, frayed stitching, leaking valves, or cracks in the rowing seat frame. Check that any frame attachment points are still solid and not at the point where failure could happen. Take a look at your on river repair kit – does it actually have anything of use? Could it be improved or are items missing? A good tip that I can pass on is don’t store your inflatable in the sunlight! Not only will the materials be subject to UV damage and fading, but you run the risk of the pontoon or bladders actually over pressurizing and bursting in the hot sun. Trust me on this one….it happened to me. My laziness cost me a day on the river.

Tying flies can be a good way to spend downtime

Finally whether you fish flys, terminal tackle, or any sort of jigs, take time to go over your assortment of pre-tied rigs and fly boxes to see what your inventory looks like. Check for frayed leaders, old hooks, worn out tackle, and missing gear. If you spend some downtime preparing your equipment it gives you time to set things up properly in the comfort of your nice dry warm house rather than in the dark and the rain on the river or ocean. Being able to fish with confidence means knowing you have what you need when you need it, and that you know it’s not going to be an exercise in frustration during valuable fishing time.

So those are just a few quick tips, for anyone reading who has more to add, please feel free to post your ideas in the comments section.

It’s a Guides Life – Part 3

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.

There are no such things as sick days!

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.

You’re going to take a beating. Literally.

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?

One of many bruises from objects moving about the deck in rough weather

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.

Bruised and swollen elbow from slipping and whacking it on the boat.

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.

Better give up your career as a hand model!

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.

Sexy Cheese Hands!
Not to be “left” out…the other hand faired as badly.

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!

The weather is what it is.

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!

Some days the heavens open up and it’s cold and wet.

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.

You’re soaking in it…

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!

Breathe in….

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!

Those with weak stomachs need not apply

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.

Rolling around on the ocean.

Being away from loved ones

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.

8 hours a day is a luxury

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.

And that’s a wrap.

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!

Until next season, time to fade into the sunset.

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