Tales from Cabin 14

“A first class guide must be a master seaman, chef, marriage counselor, confidant, mixologist, sommelier, meteorologist, whipping boy, tackle consultant, mechanic, ichthyologist, zoologist, expert fisherman and have x-ray vision.

They must also be imbued with the patience and demeanor of a saint, because if anything- and I mean anything - goes wrong, it will be their fault…”

Pick up a fishing magazine, or watch one of the many fishing shows that inundate the airways today, and you will come across a seemingly endless number of articles and programs showcasing the places we travel to find fish, how many were caught and what was used to catch them. What you are not likely to come across are stories or programs that focus on the guys who quietly put it all together behind the scenes, thereby making it possible for us to catch a few fish, get home safely and otherwise have a good time.

I have fished with guides for well over thirty years, in some instances because a guide was included in my fishing package, and in others because I wanted to spend as much time as possible catching, rather than running all over the place when I was on an unfamiliar body of water.

To say that the ones I have met are an eclectic bunch would be something of an understatement. Some live on the fringes of the law and polite society, while many hold down regular “main stream” jobs when they are not guiding.

Some have gone onto careers in law, teaching, marine biology and managing, or in some cases, owning their own lodges. I have also had the pleasure of being guided by guys who are artists, photographers, writers and one out and out whack job who was convinced that he knew exactly when the world was going to end. He was wrong by the way, if you really want to know when that is going to happen, drop me a note.

While to the casual observer the job may seem simple enough, drive the boat, land the fish, cook the fish, laugh at the guests’ stupid jokes, etc. – it’s a lot more complicated than you think.

A first class guide must be a master seaman, chef, marriage counsellor, confidant, mixologist, sommelier, meteorologist, whipping boy, tackle consultant, mechanic, ichthyologist, zoologist, expert fisherman and have x-ray vision. They must also be imbued with the patience and demeanour of a saint, because if anything- and I mean anything - goes wrong, it will be their fault. If the weather is rotten, your favourite lure breaks off, forget your flask or the olives for your martini, sun too hot – no matter – the guide is to blame.

Many of the guides that I have come to know over the years tend to be relatively quiet, and for the most part, keep to themselves. If you do manage to get them talking, they usually have some hilarious stories about their experiences with other guests and their lives outside of guiding.

One evening, while sitting around the campfire, we got to talking about what everyone had been up to during the “off” season. One of our guides, who normally drove truck throughout the fall and winter, told us he had to give it up because he was in an accident and lost his license on an impaired charge. While not having a license was a pain, the news was not all bad, because someone had told him that once he got his license back, there wouldn't be any impact on his insurance premiums. That seemed rather odd, and upon further inquiry he explained that the province in which he lived had “no fault” insurance, and because the guy in the car that he hit was every bit as drunk as he was, no one was at fault – so no premium increase. Given the conviction with which he told the story, I didn’t have the heart to suggest that the outcome might be somewhat different – “no fault” insurance notwithstanding.

Another story concerned a couple of guests who, to be kind, were not what you would describe as handsome men. For reasons known only to them, they brought along a Halloween mask in the form a hideous goblin face, that featured tufts of bright green hair and a long hooked nose covered with big red warts. One bright sunny afternoon, noticing that two of their friends were fishing in the same area, they instructed their guide to pull up beside the other boat. Just as they were coming alongside, one of them pulled the mask on, completely covering his face and head. Throughout the ensuing ten-minute conversation, if anyone noticed anything out of the ordinary, no one said a word. To his credit, the guide kept a straight face, at least until he got back to the lodge and was able to squeeze out the story between fits of uncontrollable laughter.

Most guides have a great sense of humour and will not hesitate to play the occasional practical joke on an unsuspecting guest. While fishing for Grayling one evening, we found some particularly co-operative fish, and were getting a strike on virtually every cast. Although I was having the time of my life, my partner was becoming increasingly frustrated, because every time he would attempt to set the hook, he would miss the fish. Up would go his rod tip, followed by an endless stream of expletives, while I was having no end of fun at his expense, as I landed fish after fish. While he was raging on, I happened to glance over at our guide, and noticed the faint outline of a smile appear on his face, followed by a knowing wink.

Finally, after about twenty consecutive misses, my partner made a close examination of his lure, and then let go with another impressive barrage. As it turns out, when our guide was pinching the barbs back on our tiny spinners, he decided that it would be great fun to clip all the hooks off my partners lure. We still laugh about that to this day – well, I do anyway.

One thing that continues to puzzle me is that with few exceptions, most guides have very definite opinions about what species of fish are worthy of their attention. Take Pike for example. I have been to places where the Pike fishing was extraordinary, but have run into difficulty finding a guide who did not look at me as I had just asked him for permission to run away with his younger sister, once I informed him that Pike has been added to the day’s agenda.

They could barely conceal their contempt, and I would get all manner of excuses why Pike fishing was a bad idea. I have heard them referred to as “slimmers” and “snot rockets,” together with other mutterings along the lines of, “they are not coming into my boat,” and “why would anyone come all the way up here to fish for those?” To further underscore their general level of discontent, I would often get an earful on the way to the Pike spot, while I was fishing, and even on the way back to the lodge. What I can’t figure out is why some guides consider fishing for Pike akin to committing high treason, while others look upon it as the sport of Kings. 

Go figure.

A critical component of every guide’s skill set is his ability to prepare shore lunch, and virtually every guide has their own “secret” recipe, or ingredient, that serves to define their skill as a chef. 

Even though the day may not be going all that well, and the guests are grumbling, all is forgiven if lunch is a hit. Nothing stops a whiny guest in his or her tracks more effectively than a well-prepared shore lunch, served in a carefully chosen location. While there are a wide variety of recipes and cooking methods used, preparation techniques tend to vary as well. I can clearly remember one guide, who came up with a new variation on an old theme, by starting at the tail, rather than just below the pectoral fin, when filleting our lunch fish.

Although many guides and their guests prefer to keep it simple – deep fried fish dusted with seasoned flour, fried potatoes and onions, beans, canned corn – others take it to a whole different level. I have been served fresh fish chowder, baked fish with salsa and cheese, barbecued trout with herb butter and fresh dill, baked arctic char with fresh tomatoes and lemon pepper, pan fried walleye with lemon butter and white wine, warm potato salad, blackened trout, Cajun “fish nuggets” with a honey glaze, and perhaps the most unique entrée of all, bacon wrapped lake trout tournedos, grilled over an open fire.

I can recall one occasion when our guide, abruptly turned the boat around and headed back to camp because he had forgotten his “secret” shore lunch ingredient. I thought it must be something very special, because we were more than five miles away from the lodge at the time. The minute we hit the dock, he dashed into the lodge and appeared moments later carrying a small, plastic margarine tub. He carefully stowed the tub in his boat bag, and we continued on our way without so much as word to me, or my buddy. That afternoon at shore lunch, he served up the most delicious baked fish I had ever tasted. There was something vaguely familiar about the taste, but I could not quite put my finger on it, even after my third helping. After much pleading, he relented and gave up the recipe. The “secret” ingredient was dry onion soup mix combined with Miracle Whip. He simply spread the mixture over the fillets and then baked them in foil, directly over the fire. In case you were wondering, the “vaguely familiar” taste reminded me of sour cream and onion chip dip.

The ability to handle a boat, and knowing how and when to “dip,” or net a big fish, is what separates a good guide from a great one. They must be able to react quickly and instinctively, while keeping the boat in the right place, and at the right angle, when fighting a monster fish that is constantly changing speed and direction.

It becomes more of a challenge when you have to do all of that while the boat is bouncing around in rough water. If you are confident that your guide has it under control, you can then focus all of your attention on fighting and landing your trophy.

Positioning the boat, landing fish or making a great shore lunch is one thing, but in my humble opinion, the single most important skill that a guide brings to the table is his ability to handle the boat in rough water. I have no doubt in my mind that I am here today because of their incredible skill, and in case you think I’m being overly dramatic, I personally know of several instances where guides have lost their lives while doing their job.

I’ve often wondered why some guys come back to guiding year after year. I discovered that there is no simple or clear answer to this question, because the reasons are as different as the individuals themselves.

One guy spent his entire life living off the land, so guiding was just a natural extension of who he was and how he lived. Some do it to pick up a few bucks, and depending on the lodge, and the length of the season, they can come home with a bit of a nest egg, but it will never make them rich. Their meals, other than the shore lunches they prepare, are hit and miss from a quality standpoint, and accommodations are very rustic at best. The days are long and the weather and the bugs can be awful. They have to deal with guests who can be complete idiots, and lodge owners that don’t always pay on time, and/or treat them as second-class citizens.

Some love it because it gives them a chance to fish throughout the season, while others appear to be running away from something and seem to find a kind of peace and solace in the North. For many, the sense I get is that it’s in their blood, not unlike a high quality narcotic. You may want to stop – but you can’t, because it’s impossible to imagine being in a more magnificent or perfect place. 

Great lodges have great guides. Why? Because smart owners know that the guy you will be spending eight to twelve hours with every day, plays a pivotal role in defining your entire experience.

If you treat him as a partner and with respect, more times than not you will have a great time. We might visit a lodge for a couple of days or maybe even a week, but your guide is usually there for months at a time, so he likely knows a great deal more about what is going on than you do.

So pay attention to what he has to say and, if he offers up any advice, take it, because you never know – you just might learn something.

Last modified onTuesday, 17 March 2015 17:05
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