The good ones aren't hotels full of strangers.

  • By: John Gierach
  • Illustrations by: Bob White
Promise of the coming day.

As businesses, fishing lodges are rarely big money makers, and there’s a surprising mortality rate. The editor of a sporting magazine once told me it’s not all that unusual for him to assign a destination story on a lodge, only to have the place close before the article runs. Think about it: You’re operating what amounts to a hotel, a restaurant, a guide service, a travel agency, a small airline, a modest navy and sometime medical evacuation unit, and you have to make your nut in a season that can be as short as eight or 10 weeks.

You’re also in a remote location inaccessible enough that, by the time you get it there, gas for the generators and outboards can end up costing in the neighborhood of $25 a gallon. The same price structure applies to every pound of hamburger and roll of toilet paper, and logistics are a nightmare. Chances are there’s a single flight each week that can bring in whatever supplies there’s room for along with the next group of sports. In between you can’t just send someone down to the store for a gallon of milk.

Add to that the needs, wants, strengths, weaknesses, eccentricities and unexamined fantasies of the fishermen, occasional tiffs with or between staff, guides and clients, endless maintenance and repair of anything and everything, scheduling glitches owing to floatplanes grounded by weather and broken down outboards and the vicissitudes of the actual fishing, and you begin to get the picture. It no longer surprises me when things go wrong at lodges. What surprises me is that things so often go right.

The calmest lodge owner I know once told me that he’d made his money elsewhere, that he loved spending his summers in the far north among fishermen, guides and bush pilots and, although he wasn’t against turning a profit, all he really needed to do was break even. Most years he did. We were sitting up late talking in one of the cabins at the lodge. I glanced at my watch and mentioned that the generator would be turned off in five minutes and the lights would go out. He smiled and said, “I own the place. The lights go out when I say they do.” Then he added, “Or when the generator breaks down.”

I’ve met a few lodge owners who were all about business plans and bottom lines, but the happiest and, oddly enough, many of the most successful, seemed to do it for love and a modest livelihood. I knew a man in Alaska who went there initially to hunt brown bears. He killed one and decided he never wanted to do it again, but by then he’d fallen in love with the region and in the fullness of time ended up owning a fishing lodge. He said he went into it with his eyes open, understanding that if he wanted to get rich he should do something else. One night every week he’d stand gravely at the head of the table after dinner and recite Robert W. Service poems from memory. (“There are strange things done in the midnight sun/By the men who moil for gold,” and so on.) Meanwhile the same midnight sun would shine through the window casting amber light on that moldering old bearskin.

I enjoy and appreciate fishing lodges, but not everyone does. Balls-to-the-wall types may see regular sit-down meals and other necessary regimentation as a waste of valuable fishing time. Self-styled experts sometimes chafe at having guides tell them where to go and what to do, although most of us would do well to let go of old certainties and learn. Do-it-yourselfers used to handling things on their own are sometimes uncomfortable being waited on. And even at a real wilderness outfit, some adventurers can feel confined to water they think has been fished too hard by too many others before them. A precious few of these folks will end up mounting their own expeditions, but for most of us that’s beyond the practical limit. That’s why there are lodges.

Every fishing lodge is different, but most visits begin the same way. You step off the floatplane onto the dock, shake the hands of the camp manager and guides and, if you’re smart, make real sure all your gear is unloaded. Then you schlep your stuff to your room or cabin and assemble in the lodge for the short orientation meeting. Here you get the lowdown, which can be simple or complicated, depending on where you are.

At a lodge in Labrador that’s known for its catch-and-release fishing for large brook trout, the owner said, “There are only two hard and fast rules here: One, no brook trout will be killed. Ever. And two, if your guide tells you to do something, do it.” Up till then it had all been good-natured hospitality, but there was a change in tone that suggested these two items went right to the heart of the matter.

Sure enough, a few days later we were two hours from the lodge across a big lake fishing a river outlet; three of us in an 18-foot flat-stern canoe with a 10-horse outboard. The fishing was good and the only reason I noticed that the wind had stiffened and changed direction was that the mosquitoes abruptly stopped pestering me. But then our guide appeared at my shoulder and said, “Reel in, we gotta go.”

It took 10 minutes to hustle back to the outlet where the canoe was beached, and before we even got there we could feel the new chill in the air and see whitecaps building on the lake. We motored up the windward shore, staying in the shelter of the trees until we got directly upwind of the lodge. Then we turned and made the run across the lake. By then the wind had really picked up, the air had turned cold, the sky had darkened and big raindrops hit the backs of our slickers like gravel fired from a slingshot. A hundred yards off shore we were in serious rollers.

A lesser boatman would have just made a dash for it, but our guy was smart enough to feather the outboard as we rose lazily on each big swell and then gun it into the trough so we didn’t fatally ship water over the stern. I had a death grip on the gunnels of the canoe, as if that might help. This seemed to be going OK, but it was easy to see how that could change. As we neared the camp we spotted the entire staff waiting for us on the dock. The owner was watching through binoculars. Two guides were in an aluminum dory with the motor idling, ready to come for us if it looked like we wouldn’t make it.

But we did make it and the head cook, a lovely woman named Francis, herded us over to the lodge for hot coffee and an embarrassing amount of fussing. Our own mothers wouldn’t have been any more worried about us or any more relieved that we were back safe.

That storm trapped us in our cabin for the next two and a half days. There was hard rain and gale-force winds, and it was cold enough for a daytime fire in the wood stove. Every time I started to mourn the fishing I’d left, I reminded myself of the two alternatives to coming in when we did: We could have waited and tried to cross the lake in even rougher seas and most likely drowned, or we could have stayed where we were to spend the next 60 hours out in the spectacular havoc of one of the worst storms I’ve ever seen, with no provisions and no shelter.

The moral is, if your guide tells you to do something, do it. On subsequent trips to that lodge, I’ve sat through the same speech nodding wisely, now the old hand who knows the score.

This business of camp rules is a matter of style, and every lodge handles it differently. Some, like the guy in Labrador, keep it simple. Others list everything that could possibly go wrong and either confuse you or scare you to death. A guy at a bass camp in south Texas just said, “Watch where you step. Everything down here will stick you, sting you or bite you, and most of it’s poison.” On the other hand, I was once at a place in the Rocky Mountains where the manager, a tall man in a cowboy hat and snap-button shirt, grinned widely, slapped me on the back and said, “There’s only one rule here, and that’s that there are no rules.”

I understood this to be hyperbole, and in fact I learned from the head guide that earlier that year this guy had booted a famous movie star who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—control his two large, troublesome dogs. Angry words were spoken, something to the effect of, “I don’t give a shit who you are. I want you out of here now.” Sometimes the biggest glad-handers turn out to be the ones with the shortest fuses.

Now and then there are rules that you abide by without ever knowing it. At a lodge in Alaska, the head cook—who also happened to be the owner’s wife—finally got tired of fishermen coming in early on slow or stormy days to hang around asking for coffee, wanting to talk and otherwise getting in the way while she prepared her labor-intensive meals. So one day she sat the guides down and said, “I don’t care how bad the fishing or the weather is, I want you to keep these people on the water and out of my kitchen until dinner time.” Later that season a fisherman was heard to say, with undisguised admiration, “Man, these guides are gung ho. They won’t come in no matter what.”

Every lodge eventually develops its own sub-culture, which is the result of an initial plan that’s been gradually informed and sometimes deformed by the people who run the outfit, as well as the realities of water, weather and fish. An Atlantic salmon lodge, where two or three fish can make for a bang-up week, will naturally have a different sensibility than a place with five species of Pacific salmon, where catches of commercial proportions aren’t unheard of.

Part of lodge culture has to do with what we’d now call the level of service. Some outfits go heavy on the sumptuous accommodations and leisurely gourmet meals on the correct assumption that those are the only things they can control, while most of the things that can go wrong with the fishing are what an insurance agent would call “acts of God.” I was once at a place where the salmon run was cancelled when a nearby volcano belched evil-smelling sulfurous sludge into the river. Not much anyone could do about that.

I have nothing against palatial lodges with vaulted ceilings, deer antler chandeliers and five-course meals, and I know there are some who really enjoy that sort of thing. I once met a man at a fancy lodge who said, “I know it’s a little over the top, but I work hard: I deserve this once in a while.” Fair enough, but I prefer places that think more along the lines of providing three squares a day and a dry bed so you can fish. I’m happy with a clapboard lodge where you eat a plain breakfast on a plank table at first light and sleep in a comfortable shack. For one thing, those places are usually cheaper. For another, they leave me feeling less like I’ve checked into a good hotel and more like I’m at an outpost having an adventure, which is sort of the whole idea.

Any fishing lodge can be good, but you naturally develop preferences over time. Given the choice, I’ll take a smaller lodge over a bigger one. That is, a place that has eight or 10 fishermen in for a week instead of, say, 30 or 40. This has nothing to do with the fishing. High-volume lodges usually have access to enough water and fish for everyone. It’s just that a crowd that size in a remote location can be oppressive, and meals can resemble a factory cafeteria.

I prefer older lodges to newer ones. For one thing, they often have the weathered, lived-in, just-barely-out-of-the-elements feel I like, with lemmings living under the front steps. For another, places that have survived for a while probably know what they’re doing and have sent home lots of happy fishermen to tell their friends. And if the place doesn’t exactly run like a finely tuned sports car, it at least runs like an old pickup that’s owned by a good shade-tree mechanic.

I haven’t mentioned saltwater lodges because I don’t do salt water. I’ve tried it a few times, but for some reason it never took, even after I hooked, but didn’t land, a tarpon in the 100-pound class. I could say I don’t care to stand for hours in the hot sun waiting for a fish to swim by that the guide can clearly see but I can’t. But then I’ll more or less happily cast a two-handed rod on a steelhead river until I forget why I’m there. Go figure.

I usually end up at fly-fishing lodges because that’s how I fish, but over the years I’ve had some excellent trips to lodges that don’t cater to fly fishers. This goes more smoothly now than it once did. Over the past 30 or 40 years the sport has become ubiquitous, so even conventional-gear guides have some idea of what to do with a fly caster and, unlike in the 1970s, burly sports are less likely to say mean things about “those hippies with the sissy rods.” I also think gamefish that have grown suspicious of lures and spoons over the past few decades are still pushovers for feathers. Or at least that’s how it seems.

Speaking of the ’70s, I can remember when communication at remote lodges consisted of a staticky shortwave radio that wouldn’t work on rainy days or when the northern lights were especially bright. That was always fine with me. One of the things I like about fishing lodges is the headspace that comes from being profoundly out of touch. Many places now have satellite phones that are more reliable, but I know a lodge owner who tells his clients that the sat phone is reserved for emergencies only, not for checking to see how the kids’ soccer games turned out or for calling brokers. He once said to me, “If these people can’t be away from a phone for a week, they shouldn’t have come, right?”

But emergencies do happen, regardless of how careful everyone is. I once fished at a lodge where, a few years earlier, a plane had crashed in a sudden storm, killing the pilot and several passengers. I won’t say everyone was still depressed, but when your worst fear comes true, it permanently changes the atmosphere. At a lodge in Canada the floatplane I’d flown in the year before blew a piston on takeoff and went down in the trees across the lake. It was a freak accident—the plane had just recently been serviced, inspected and certified airworthy. Everyone on board was hurt, but no one was killed. And at another place a man got seriously ill and couldn’t be flown out to a hospital right away because the floatplane was grounded by weather. They did finally get him out, but too late. He died.

No one was at fault. Those are just examples of what can happen when you’re in a remote place. They’re also why you may now be asked to sign a liability waiver when you go to a lodge, and why most lodges have the best communication available. But of course technology can—and inevitably does—go too far.

I was at a lodge in Alaska recently that was close enough to a small, year-round settlement to have satellite TV and cell-phone reception, as well as wireless Internet service. This may turn out to be the wave of the future, but I’d never seen anything like it before. We all caught fish, but in the evenings, instead of talking about them in front of the fireplace, everyone was busy texting, calling, e-mailing, watching TV or playing video games while I played the solitary Luddite, finding a quiet place to read or sitting on the porch waiting for a bear to shamble out of the darkening forest.

I’ve met people at lodges who became close friends, I’ve gotten along with people I wouldn’t have liked if we hadn’t been thrown together by chance, and of course I’ve run across a few stupendous assholes. I’ve spent evenings arguing, laughing, reminiscing and now and then sulking over a run of bad luck. I’ve endured unsuccessful attempts at entertainment (Karaoke Night above the Arctic Circle is still a painful memory). I’ve also formed temporary partnerships and alliances and now and then banded together with others to ostracize an especially nasty drunk or blowhard in a northwoods version of Lord of the Flies. But I’ve never been to a lodge that reminded me of a hotel lobby full of strangers.

John Gierach is the author of Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing and other best-selling books.