Sporting Life

Sporting Life

Ice Out Bozeman

  • By: John Gierach
  • Illustrations by: Bob White

sporting life

Ice Out Bozeman

A gathering of fishing guides livin’ the dream.

I don’t have a GPS in my pickup, but I found the route to the place where I’d be staying a few miles outside of Bozeman, Montana on the AAA Web site. The directions were right on the money for the better part of 684 miles—up until I turned off Highway 85 onto a series of dirt roads, at which point they went terribly wrong.

Apparently the computer had been programmed to just make something up rather than admit it didn’t know the way. This struck me as an almost endearingly human trait. Finally a man on a bicycle pointed the way to a massive log house with several obvious fishing-guide vehicles parked outside: large crew-cab pickups with trailer hitches and rod caddies, and tackle-company stickers covering the back windows. This had to be the place.

I’d been invited there to attend the third annual Ice Out event, a kind of convention for fishing guides put on free of charge by Simms Fishing Products, which is headquartered in Bozeman. According to Peter Vandergrift, Simms’ guide-desk manager and the event’s organizer, 520-some guides from around the US and Canada had registered to attend, along with another hundred people from sponsor companies like Winston Rods and Ro Drift Boats. Bozeman has doubled in size since I first passed through in the 1970s, but even now 600-plus extra fishermen would make a dent, although they wouldn’t exactly stand out in a town where trailered drift boats are a common feature of what passes for morning rush hour.

When we talked about this on the phone I asked Peter about the possibility of fishing (I was already thinking about playing hooky.) He allowed as how some people did sneak off to wet a line and rattled off a list of nearby rivers—the Yellowstone, Gallatin, Madison, Big Hole, etc.—that sounded like the standard Montana dream-trip itinerary. Then again, Ice Out was scheduled for early April, with the rivers just going into runoff; not the best time to fish in the region, but that was the idea. If they held this event at the height of the season when guides could be out making a living, no one would come.

I think there were seven of us staying at the house, but it was hard to be sure as strange faces came and went over the next few days. I met Rod and Arlo and Ernest; the latter was from south Texas and the only person I talked to at the event who guided with spinning rods instead of fly tackle. Marty and Brian were steelhead guides I’d fished with in Oregon. Robert and his 17-year-old golden retriever, Belikin, were from southern Colorado. “That’s like ‘pelican,’ only with a B,” he said helpfully, “after a brand of beer from Belize.”

It only took these guys a few minutes to establish that they all either knew or knew of each other, or had outfitters, friends, clients or industry reps in common. To some, guiding is just a summer job that beats flipping burgers in a dopey hat, but among those who have gone on to make it a profession there’s usually no more than one degree of separation.

At one point Peter had referred to this place as the ambassador house—making it sound like a moderately classy hotel—but what he meant was that everyone staying there except me qualified as what Simms calls a “guide ambassador.” That is, a guide with “10 to 50 years’ experience who helps us promote Simms at the highest level.” That was a little vague, but I got the idea. In a different kind of business, these would be the guys with salesman-of-the-year plaques hanging in their offices.

I’d been offered the option of my own room in town, but the house seemed like the obvious choice. For one thing, it was right on the Gallatin River. For another, I didn’t want to be one of those correspondents who file their stories from the safety of the hotel bar; I wanted to be embedded with the troops. Someone said this was like the set-up for a reality show: six guides, an old dog and a writer stuck in a house together, only there’d be no prize money for the survivor. Someone else peeked into the refrigerator and was happy to find what looked like about 80 cans of beer, presumably courtesy of Simms.


THE EVENT WENT ON FOR THE NEXT three days and if you wanted to—and some did—you could attend scheduled functions, including cocktail parties, from 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning until way past bedtime. The first morning I had a big breakfast at a place called the Kountry Korner and then went on the Simms factory tour. I was unfamiliar with the process of making waders and assumed they’d be stamped out robotically, but in fact the work resembled tailoring more than anything else, and was done largely by hand by people the company refers to as “wader artisans.” That sounds like corporate hyperbole, but this is actually skilled work that not just anyone off the street could do. Most are trained in several different jobs and are periodically shuffled around to head off repetitive motion injuries, which are the assembly line equivalent of black lung disease.

Afterward I sat at a picnic table and watched wader- and raincoat-clad volunteers step into an enclosed mobile shower, equipped with fans and clear plastic walls, that simulated two or three minutes of monsoon-level downpour. Of course the real test of rain gear is a week’s worth of 10-hour days in a steady drizzle, but it looked like fun, everyone came out dry and smiling and the point was made.

There were two cocktail parties that day—one at 4:30, the other at 9:00—but very little evidence of public drunkenness. That evening coach Bobby Knight gave a talk called “Perspective from the Front Seat” (where the client sits in a drift boat). He mostly just talked about basketball, but no one seemed to mind.

The seminar schedule hinted at some of the day-to-day concerns of a working guide. “Marketing your Guide Business,” “My Gear, Water & Tactics,” “Planning for a Life in Guiding: financing, health and guiding green,” “Fishing the World Without Any Money,” “Correcting the Cast” and “Correcting the Two-Handed Cast.” (That would be your client’s cast, not your own.)

Other subjects might have included taxes, insurance, liability issues and marriage counseling, but there was only so much time.

I didn’t last all the way through the “Product Feedback Sessions” where guides frankly evaluated waders, boots, rain gear, boat bags and such, but what I did see seemed to verify any “guide tested” claims. A few comments were laughably picky, but most seemed perceptive and useful: the kind of thing that could only come from people who use this stuff as tools of their livelihood and who put hundreds of days of hard wear on their gear in a single season.

The guides sat, stood and sometimes came and went carrying bottles of water or cups of coffee. There were maybe 50 to 75 of them in the room at any one time. Three company people were up front behind a folding table. One stood and moderated while the others sat and took notes, one on a laptop, the other on a yellow legal pad.

The meeting wasn’t overly serious, but it still had the no-nonsense air of a NASA debriefing.

When I decided to attend this event I half expected—and as a writer maybe even hoped for—a Sturgis-style madhouse with a fly-fishing theme. What I found instead were a bunch of career fishing guides intent on perfecting their profession, which is not to say that you’d have mistaken this for a conference of Lutheran ministers.

Most of the events seemed well attended, but none matched the crowds at the cocktail parties where people laughed, hooted, told stories, compared scars (one of the best was from a bout with flesh-eating virus), made casting motions with their arms, showed photos on their cell phones, held out their hands to demonstrate the size and shape of fish and exchanged maps drawn on the backs of napkins.

Twice I snuck out to fish the Gallatin for a few hours with guys from the house on the theory (or the excuse) that hanging out with real live guides would be more educational than formal events. The first time I didn’t bother checking the schedule to see what I was missing. The second time I ended up skipping the Guide Olympics at the Montana State University Field House: casting for distance and accuracy, rod-rigging, a beer-filled cooler pull and competitive trailer backing through an obstacle course. A guide from the Northwest later told me he’d have done better in the trailer competition if the conditions had been more realistic—that is, if it had been held before dawn and in the rain.

There was some talk one evening about the appearance of professionalism. Dave Whitlock said that guides should be polite, soft-spoken and prompt, and show up for work clean, well dressed, well groomed and having used deodorant that morning. (There were a few blank looks from the audience.) I thought about the good guides I’ve fished with. A few fit that description—fresh haircuts, pressed khakis, calling people “Sir” and “Ma’am”—but many others, including some of the best, were scruffy, wrinkled, rough around the edges in other ways and could be accurately described as river rats.

Of course it is best not to creep out your clients, but I don’t think professionalism rules out eccentricity. In fact, guiding may be the last profession in America to reject corporate homogenization of the “How may I help you?” and “Have a nice day” variety. Guiding and being guided is a weirdly intimate affair with no room for bluffing on either side, but plenty of opportunities for style, creativity and even a little showmanship. Together you’ll experience drama, excitement, disappointment, maybe success and at least a moderate dose of the unexpected under a variety of conditions. This is the kind of thing that famously reveals character. After a day on the water, your guide may know you better than people you’ve worked with for years. After a week, he may know things about you not even your mother suspects.

The good ones combine generosity, patience and enthusiasm with a Vulcan detachment, and they make it look easy. A perfect day of guiding is like a perfect piece of writing: You don’t see the hair pulling, navel gazing, bouts of depression or the dozen discarded drafts, and the part you do see looks effortless. The client thinks, Hell, I could do that.

And on top of everything else a guide also functions as a surrogate fishing buddy. You’ll now and then hear people say of a guide they fished with, “I’m sure most of the people he takes out are just clients, but he and I actually got to be friends.” It does happen, but it’s also part of the job description, and in fact the best guides send everyone home thinking the same thing.

A waiter I know once said, “In my business, it’s not important that I like you; it’s only important that you think I like you.” That struck me as either the height of cynicism or the very definition of “service.”

The final event was the “Super Sale,” held in the banquet room of the GranTree Inn. Robert, Belikin and I had lingered on the Gallatin after his streamside entomology talk and by the time we got there the place was mobbed. This was the first time I’d have said that all 620-some attendees plus staff were in the same place at the same time.

Virtually everyone had a beer in hand, possibly not their first of the evening. The banquet room was packed with people shouting to be heard over all the other people shouting to be heard, and the temperature inside was pushing 100 degrees from combined body heat. The deals on seconds and discontinued merchandise were said to be too good to believe and several of us were standing outside where it was cool, watching the sun set toward the Madison River and wondering if we wanted to go in. (I, for one, didn’t really need anything.) A guy passed and said all he wanted was a raincoat for his wife. Half an hour later we were still there when he came back out lugging a lawn-and-garden-size trash bag crammed with stuff and looking sheepish. I decided not to go in after all.

In the four days I’d been in town the Gallatin had come up and gone a little off color. It was still fishable, but no longer in what you’d call prime condition. Two guys said that in the morning they were going over to look at the Big Hole. A few others talked about streamer fishing the Yellowstone. Still others planned to hit more-distant rivers on their way home and a few had rental cars to return and planes to catch. People kept coming out of the hotel with their arms loaded with gear, but if anything the racket from inside had gotten louder. I guessed that the merchandise was pretty well picked over and things were beginning to get tense.

My observations? Guides work hard. No, I mean even harder than you think. My own brief stint as a guide years ago doesn’t give me any special insight, because I didn’t last long enough to get the full picture. I did learn the first lesson—that if your client catches fish, it’s because he’s the greatest fisherman in the world, while if he doesn’t, it’s the guide’s fault—but that brief glimpse was enough to make me bolt and get a job driving a garbage truck.

My friendship with a handful of guides has given me a wider view, but, typical of the breed, these guys aren’t complainers. They’re more likely to describe the worst trip of the season as “Just another day in the life.”

Still, I’ve come to understand that the effort you see on the water is maybe a third of it, while behind the scenes is the endless maintenance of vehicles, boats and trailers, daily wrangling of lunches, drinks and ice for the cooler, phone calls and e-mails with clients, checking on stream flows, hatches and weather, restocking of flies, tippet and flotant and a bunch of other things you and I wouldn’t think of because we don’t work as guides, but that we’d miss if no one did them.

Even further behind the scenes is the maintenance of professional-looking Web sites with constantly updated information and high-quality photos and videos, plus Twitter feeds, Facebook updates and God knows what all else. The guy who, only a generation ago, could have gotten away with being a simple-minded backwoodsman now has to know as much about pixels and gigabytes as he does about Green Drakes. Word of mouth from happy fishermen is still the best advertising a guide can get, but there’s now the danger that the jungle telegraph will be drowned out by electronic hype.

And that’s not to mention keeping the books, paying the taxes, occasional awkward conversations with bankers, lack of sleep, sore joints, a diet containing too much junk food, the strain of long hours on your home life . . . . In short, all the drudgery and heartbreak of running a small business on a shoestring, now and then exacerbated by clients who clap you on the back and say, “What a life you have. You get paid to do nothin’ but fish.” To which you can only reply, “Yeah man, I’m livin’ the dream here.”

So it’s not surprising that some guides affect an air of superiority, and yes, the tales they tell about their clients usually do involve some kind of buffoonery, but then that’s just the nature of storytelling. The right weather, perfect stream flow, a decent hatch and a good fisherman with realistic expectations doesn’t make for much of a story for the same reason you’ll never see a newspaper headline that reads, “Things Actually Went Pretty Smoothly Today.”

Of course there is that minor sub-genre of sports writing in which professional guides—usually young bloggers—relate their experiences from the vantage point of “We’re the pros who know the score, while everyone else is pretty much an idiot.” This is the kind of thing you sometimes have to get off your chest after a few seasons of not yelling at clients even when they have it coming and not stepping on their favorite rods even when they put them where they’re begging to get stepped on. In the end, though, it may not be the best literary career move, since those idiots constitute the majority of your potential readership.

But most guides only talk about these things among themselves—and at a three-day convention attended by hundreds of them you can get an earful. Interestingly though, the stories are usually less about ridicule and more about an appreciation for the infinite varieties of human behavior. They also tend to be told with the timing of jokes and in that spirit. After all, if there’s one thing all successful guides have in common, it’s an indomitable sense of humor. I mean really, what other profession could give you this many laughs?


John Gierach has been writing Fly Rod & Reel’s Sporting Life column since 1992.