How to Become a Fly Fishing Guide

Fly Fishing expert Charlie Schoenherr describes his path to becoming a fly fishing guide and how he's able to share his passion for the sport.

Six men fly fishing in a river, all spread out and talking amongst themselves.

Photo by Austin Neill

When I decided I wanted to be a professional fly fishing guide, I already had an established job as a teacher. I figured I could guide fly fishing all summer and teach during the off-season, combining my passions. And it worked out pretty well for a while. I bothered every fly fishing guide I could find online and would spend hours on Youtube watching fly fishing guide tips.

A man helps a woman hold a trout while they both are standing in the river in waders.

Guide Jalen Whitt showing a client proper fish handling techniques. Photo by Charlie Schoenherr

I got a job as a teacher in Colorado right out of college and was lucky enough to have fishable water in my backyard. I would fish every single day after school. After weeks of not having much luck, I befriended an older gentleman named Lee, who would end up putting me through the wringer.

Lee had grown up on the water and loved to fish with his 3wt. He enjoyed a caddis hatch and despised anything bigger than a 6wt—he was a trout bum for life. The more Lee saw me on the water, the more he would walk behind me and offer tips. Many of the same tips I use with clients today. For roll casts, he would say, “Pretend you dipped a paintbrush in the paint can and you have to fling it at the wall. Just whip the paint above where you want it to cast.” Or for identifying bugs, “If it got red on its ass, she’s a sally.” He would go on to give me book after book after book on the entomology of the area and the behavior of trout. We would spend hours talking about the way the water moved over the rocks and created homes for these trout. He would educate me on how to fish the fast water, when to fish still water (during runoff), how to fish alpine lakes, and even how to tie flies.

The real test was when Lee’s son brought his kids to town, and Lee made me guide them. There were two kids, ages 11 and 14. The first few hours, we walked up and down the water, picking up rocks and identifying nymphs, then picking out the matching nymphs, and tying them underneath a large floating dry fly, one of the many tactics Lee taught me. We went over river etiquette and talked about the respect all anglers should have for each other. To their credit, the kids played me well. They let me drone on about the life cycles of caddis and the hatch times of baetis and even when to throw worms when it rains the day before. After I gave them a short spiel about river safety, and how to cross moving water, we went over casting. I used Lee’s tips about roll casting, and his tip for fly casting, “Pretend you're in a doorway with a nail on each side. In your hand is a rubber mallet. On each cast, you have to tap the nail. As the cast gets longer, so does the doorway.” Lee’s grandkids smiled and nodded, listening intently. Or so I thought.

I realized very quickly these kids were the best fishermen I had ever seen. They cast so beautifully, I thought I was watching a movie. Three casts in and they had already hooked up to 2 fish. By the time one of them had lost a fly, I was in awe. As I tied on another rig for the 14yo, I asked him, “Why did you guys let me go through the whole rigmarole of river etiquette, entomology, and casting instruction?”

“Because,” he said, “My grandpa told me to always let people talk about what they are passionate about, even if you think you might know more. You might learn something incredible. The other person might be the better angler.”

I received my first real guide lesson from a 14-year-old boy, one of the best fishermen I have ever known. “Never assume you are the most knowledgeable person on the river.”

What Is a Fly Fishing Guide?

Two men stand next to each other in a river while wearing waders, baseball caps, and sunglasses. One man holds a net in one hand and a trout in the other.

Two Black Dog River Guides clients! Photo by Charlie Schoenherr

A fly fishing guide is much more than just a Chaco-wearing, scruffy-looking person who spends all day in the water. Guides are mentors, teachers, entertainers, detanglers, and owners of serious patience. A good fly fishing guide provides rods, reels, lines, leaders, tippets, waders, wading boots, and flies. They come prepared, know the river, and understand how to protect the environment. A good guide knows which bends hold fish, what time to move into faster water, and which flies to use.

A great guide does all of that and makes sure that the clients are supported in every way. A great guide knows which section of riffles will produce fish. A great guide has learned not to leave fish to find fish. A great guide is read up on all of the latest angling techniques. A great guide knows how to make a slow fishing day fun and entertaining. There isn’t really a huge difference between good guides and great guides, except great guides get repeat clients, and clients of great guides never forget that trip.

How to Get Started in a Fly Fishing Career?

Two people stand next to each other in waders, holding fly rods and smiling.

Two happy first-timers from Black Dog River Guides. Photo by Charlie Schoenherr

I was very lucky to bother an old man enough that he taught me everything he knew about guiding, but many people aren't that lucky. If you have a local fly shop, talk with the manager/owner about why you want to be a guide. Tell them what you can bring to the shop—not necessarily clients or sales but expertise, a unique perspective. Fly shops want guides with maturity but also guides who can deal with tough situations and still have a smile on their faces. The best thing a trout guide can be is a great person to talk to. Finding out what the shops need will help you get that invite for a guide gig.

If you can't find any older/more experienced anglers to learn from, you can always try your hand at the University of Youtube. There are thousands of videos on Youtube that offer great fly fishing advice. Watching as many of them as you can will give you tips and tricks to use on the water when you are guiding. A few popular Youtube channels for fly fishing are:

If you don't have the means to learn from a mentor or aren’t having luck on Youtube, there are guide schools available that will teach you everything you need to know to be a proficient guide. These guide schools range from one to two weeks and teach you everything from knots to reel set-up to insect identification, how to find fishable water, and some of them even teach you how to row a raft. Graduates of these schools are often offered jobs at local fly shops.

One thing I need to be very clear with is that in many states, a guide school or a certificate is NOT required to be a guide. Instead, most, if not all, states require you to be CPR and first aid certified. That being said, fly fishing guide school instructors are some of the most knowledgeable anglers in the world and can teach you everything there is to know about being a successful guide. Here are a few different Fly Fishing Guide Schools from around the country:

Overall...

The author wears a backpack and waders with a hat and sunglasses. Poking his head out of the backpack is a black lab puppy.

The author with his good luck charm, Hank! Photo courtesy of Charlie Schoenherr

I wanted to do things the way I thought would benefit everyone. I guided friends and family for free for years before they paid. There would be weeks where I would go out and not fish, just taking my wife out and letting her fish while I “guided”. You learn a lot about guiding when you have to share a bed with your client!

You develop a new way of talking to clients, not talking down to them like a kindergarten teacher in the classroom but educating them, like a college professor. The student/angler must want to learn for themselves. The amount of professionalism you have to have is second to no industry. There is a weird connection between education and guiding. All of the small lessons I had learned as a teacher now cross over into guiding. The difference was that people don't always learn how to read, but people can catch fish with almost no teaching. The patience I needed when teaching 10-year-olds how to do multiplication tables was akin to me teaching a new angler how to roll cast accurately.

The last piece of wisdom I will leave you with is this: “Every day a client catches a fish, is one more fish than they caught yesterday. Even a bad day fishing is better than a great day at work. When the clients can see your passion, they’ll feel it too.”

Make sure to chat with me or another Fly Fishing expert! We're all super passionate about what we do and we want to make sure you have everything you need for the perfect day on the water.

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Written By
Charlie Schoenherr
Charlie Schoenherr
Fly Fishing Expert
As a fly fishing guide, I have access to almost every fly rod, reel, fly line, tippit, and fly that there is. Throughout the years of taking my friends and family out, I have become the go to gear guy. Everytime I take someone out on the river, they end up asking, "So what would a full set up cost m...
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