How to Become a Fly Fishing GuidePublished on 02/24/2023 · 9 min readFly 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.
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.
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 home water 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 and would bring me to the level of other professional guides.
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 freestone 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 on Saturday, 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 topics 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, the best fisherman I have ever known. “Never assume you are the most knowledgeable person on the river.”
What Is a Fly Fishing Guide?
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 all fishing gear, like rods, reels, lines, leaders, tippets, waders, wading boots, nets, and flies. They are outfitters that come prepared, know the river, and understand how to protect the environment, wildlife, and fishery while understanding all local regulations. A good guide knows which bends hold fish, what time to move into faster water when to change depth, which flies to use, and basic photography skills.
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 reads 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 world-class guides get clients to hire them again, and clients of those guides never forget that fly fishing experience.
How to Get Started in a Fly Fishing Career?
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, and 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. Many offer a two-day course for those looking to dip their tow in the water. Check with your favorite shop for school dates and availability.
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 gives 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 areas in the United States of America, a guide school or a certificate is NOT required to be a guide. Instead, most, if not all, states require you to have first aid certification, CPR certification, and all necessary licenses and permits for land access. That being said, fly fishing guide school instructors are some of the most knowledgeable anglers in the world and can teach a novice fly fisherman everything there is to know about being a successful guide. In addition to advanced fly fishing techniques and identifying hatches, a guide school will also teach drift boat skills in whitewater. They can also help you get your first job. Here are a few different Fly Fishing Guide Schools from around the country:
- Fly Fishing Outfitters (Colorado)
- Florida Keys Outfitters (Florida)
- Tahoe Fly Fishing Outfitters (California)
- Berts Guide School (Oregon)
- Weatherby’s (New Hampshire)
How Much Do Fishing Guides Make?
Full-time guides make an average salary of $40,000 per year. Many guides supplement their guiding by teaching skiing in Montana in the winter or heading south to Florida to guide salt. Others have utilized the internet and Facebook to sell books and promote their services as part of a business plan.
I wanted to be a resource to everyone. I guided friends and family on fly fishing trips 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 to have positive interactions with 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 high level of professionalism in the guiding business is second to no industry. If clients are looking for a party boat, they should go somewhere else. Fishing charters and the fishing guide business requires business management and is subject to registration fees. All to ensure the safety of their passengers and clients. 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 paying customers 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 want to ensure you have everything you need for the perfect day on the waterways or a future dream job.