I was halfway across Illinois when I asked myself “Are you sure you want to do this?” I had been on the road alone for roughly five hours and was starting to feel some trepidation. I was traveling by car from my Shepherdsville, KY home, to Fort Smith Montana to chase a nearly 20-year dream, but now I was having second thoughts. It would be a long, lonely two-day drive, at the end of it would be the Big Horn Angler Lodge and Fly Shop near the famous trout river of the same name, and a week of learning the ins and outs of being a fly fishing guide.
Allow me to backtrack to the mid-90’s. I was a married father of two young children, working as a sports editor for a small-town newspaper, taking a few college courses, trying to make a few dollars as a freelance writer and punishing my liver each day for some unknown crime. I had just officially “retired” from a mediocre career as a professional boxer, in which I took way too many punches, for way too small amounts of money. The result being a severely deviated septum, a steel plate screwed into my jaw, and a case of arthritis that occasionally flares up in my right hand. My only real hobby was fishing and hunting, something I had done since childhood.
In 1998, I went on my first guided fly fishing trip on the Hiwassee River in Tennessee. I had been fly fishing intermittently for a couple of years, but this would be different. It was on a large tailwater and I would be fishing from a drift boat for the first time. It was also my first experience fly fishing with an expert (at this point anyone that knew more than me about fly fishing was an expert in my book).
By day’s end, my casting stroke had improved, I had caught more trout in one day than I would normally catch in a week, I was well fed and my confidence in my ability to catch fish on a fly was sky high. I was eager to return home and try to take what I had learned and duplicate it on my home waters. I also came home with a thought gnawing at the back of my mind; I wanted to be a fly fishing guide. Of course, this was a pipe dream. I was 31 years old with a family, a job and all the responsibilities that come with adulthood. However, the thought lingered in the back of my mind.
Fast forward 18 years later. My daughter is married with a child, my son has just moved out on his own and I am unemployed. One afternoon on a whim, I googled fly fishing guide schools and the first thing that popped up was an article in Field & Stream by Ted Leeson. In the piece, Leeson attends the Sweetwater Travel company Guide School in Montana. The article was a well-written account of how the guide school operates and the type of people that attend. I immediately decided that Sweetwater was where I needed to be. After all, it was good enough for Leeson and I owned one of his books, so this must be the right place.
My wife questioned my sanity because I was driving instead of flying. Quite frankly, I do not like to fly. I have done it just enough to not be terrified, but also just enough to know my travel plans are at the mercy of someone else. I told her it would be fine, that I enjoyed my own company. Just two hours into this long drive I thought about that statement and realized “Tim, you really aren’t as interesting as you believed.”
Upon arriving at the lodge, I met Ron Meek, the director of the guide school. He gave me my room key, told me that our first day of instruction would begin at 1 pm and left me to my own devices. After unpacking and settling in my room, I decided to have a look around. The first stop was the fly shop to buy a Montana fishing license and browse.
When we assembled in the meeting room/dining room that afternoon one thing struck me immediately; I was by far the oldest one in the class. Apart from three students, most were college kids on spring break. In other words, they were the same age group as my kids.
Our first class that day was fly tying. I noticed that this was an area I should have an advantage on the other students. I was the only one that had their own vise and I had been tying for years, even if I was an unexceptional tier. After four hours of tying various fly patterns, we had dinner and got to know each other over a few cold beers.
We were divided into groups of three along with an instructor. The curriculum was different than you may think. The instructors (all experienced guides) were not there to teach you to fly fish. The assumption is, you already know how to fish, or you wouldn’t be interested in guiding. Instead, it was focused on teaching you how to deal with clients, make good decisions, casting instruction, proper boat handling, knot tying and reading water.
Most days were spent on boating. If you have never done it, rowing a drift boat is much more difficult than you can imagine. In the hands of a skilled oarsman, it seems simple. With a 48-year-old grandfather fighting a stiff Montana breeze, it was quite the opposite. The first thing you must get used to is rowing backwards. As someone who has rowed a canoe for years, this was completely foreign to me. Even more confusing was the method of rowing to avoid running into things. In most watercraft, you turn away from the obstruction. In a drift boat, you turn the bow of the watercraft toward the object and back row. Once you get the hang of this, it makes perfect sense, but it is a little frightening at first.
We also spent time learning to operate a jet boat, which I was much more comfortable with. I had spent most of my life operating motorboats, even before I was old enough to drive, so the tiller-steer jet boat was vaguely familiar. In fact, I felt so comfortable driving the jet boat, that I opted to go out in it again on my final day.
We also learned the ins and outs of teaching fly casting from Brant Oswald. Brant has over 30 years’ experience as a guide and casting instructor. He also served as an advisor on A River Runs Through It and to watch him lay out perfect cast time and again can be quite intimidating when you know he is getting ready to watch you cast.
Our final class was a four-hour crash course in CPR and First aid. The class was helpful because many states require guides to be certified in these skills in case of emergency. Our course was taught by a Livingston firefighter/EMT. He was a boisterous, bundle of energy with a great sense of humor who made an uncomfortable subject enjoyable. Afterward, it was time to pack, do an exit interview and receive our diplomas.
As I drove out of the parking lot of the Bighorn Angler heading towards Hardin and the long drive home it dawned on me that a big change in my life was on its way.