The Guiding Principles

I’m just here to catch people fish.

[by Lisa Teberg-Johnson]

DAWN ARRIVES CLOUD-FREE AND BRISK, and I have no work for the day. My clients canceled, something about missing a flight connection in L.A. The outfitter called around midnight and said I’d have a day off. He has a smooth way of framing it, like I’m lucky to have free time. This is the third time he’s had clients cancel on me this month. Sorry, Alex, honey. I’ll make sure you get an extra day to make up for it.

I’ve been independent, not tied to one outfitter, but if things like this keep happening, I’ll have to join a team and work in a shop. I need to figure something out soon. I’m strapped, saving every last dime for my own outfitting license. Eighteen hundred bucks, just for the application. I need 32 more days until I reach my 100 days of guiding the Missouri in Montana. Once I’m an outfitter, I can set my own schedule and determine who works when and for whom. Then these guys will be asking me for days. But for today, I’ll enjoy the sun and the river on my own. I’ll hit up the Dearborn Bridge before anybody else gets there.

I DO FAIRLY WELL NEAR THE BRIDGE. Three browns, one whitey. Then I foul-hook a rainbow. I mean, really foul-hook it. I hold her and let her die in the water then string her up through the gills. I don’t normally eat fish, but I eat any that die because of me. It’s always been that way, one strict principle I follow.

I wouldn’t call myself an overly religious or spiritual person, but if there’s anything even slightly resembling a god, I’m closer to it here on the river. Those moments when I’m alone, when I struggle with a fish, when, honestly, both our lives are at stake—I could trip and my waders could fill, I could hit my head, drown, a fish could die of exhaustion, just like today—when I get my hands around a fish and hold it, both of us breathing hard after the struggle, regaining strength, it feels like a higher power is involved. Like I’m a mere intruder into their habitat, and I can’t stop coming back.

Once I’ve waded all the way down the bank I sit under the bridge for lunch. The river is so low and the temps so high that I shouldn’t even be fishing in the afternoon. Everything is drying up. The Dearborn is so low, it’s not floatable, and even Prewett Creek is barely a trickle. I eat two sandwiches, a couple of apples, some trail mix, a whole tube of Pringles, the lunches I prepared for my clients. As I relax under the bridge, guides cruise by. No one is having any luck. I wave and say hello, but I don’t tell them I’ve been using double droppers. I have to hold strong to the advantages I have on the river. I’ve put in my fair share of studying the water, and this would be like giving away the answers to the most important test of my life.

As the afternoon sets in, rafters and tubers are multiplying. Few have life vests, most are drunk, dragging six-packs strung up like dead fish behind their tubes. A lot of the newer guides make the mistake of starting too late and then having to fish the floater and tuber superhighway.

Anyway, it’s too hot, and I’m done for the day. I baked my back and my face when I took off my hat and my long-sleeve. My skin never sees the sun when I’m covered up in the boat all day. I wade up the bank to where I parked my truck, next to the old abandoned cabin at mile marker 12. I settle the rainbow into my cooler next to a few beers bobbing in half-melted ice. I need more ice. I hop in my truck and the gas gauge blinks orange. I need more gas, too.

I get to Craig and stop by the shop to pick up a few supplies. I broke off three droppers and need more tippet. They tell me someone was in the shop asking about me, wanting to know my last name and where I live. A tall guy with short brown hair. Well dressed. A pretty boy.

I tell them it’s not enough to go on. That I’ve guided for plenty of well-dressed, tall guys with brown hair. Could be anybody.

I pick up my boat where I left it near the shop and scrub it down. It’s long overdue. I have to at least maintain the appearance that things are going well. A group of dudes staying at the Osprey Rock Lodge wander down the road. A couple of them stop to chat.

“You’re too pretty to be a guide,” one says.

It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve heard that. Being a guide means nothing more than me working and studying the water to catch people fish. I chat with these fellows anyway and put on a good smile. It’s about the potential clientele. I need it. I tell them I’ve got free days and they should talk to the outfitter at the lodge. One promises he’ll book me the next time he brings his wife.

They tell me there’s music down at Walton’s tonight, so I promise I’ll check it out. It’s all part of the business, mingling and bullshitting.

AROUND EIGHT I GET A CALL FROM AN OUTFITTER. He has a single man in his 70s who wants a guide for the next day, last minute. I tell him I’m on it. Be happy to.

Most of the older guys give good tips. Last week an old dude from Louisiana gave me $400 in cash. That helped pay part of the bill when I had to replace my truck’s transmission a few weeks ago. Another tip like that might pay it off.