Admittedly, my experiences being guided are relatively few. I have taken but a few guided trips - four to be exact - and those have all been for Smallmouth Bass (three of them) or a saltwater trip which was "mooching" with bait on spinning rod in the Chesapeake Bay. I have quite regularly fished with friends that are guides but those trips are always quite different from a guided trip. I have been on the other side, guiding for the Wisconsin women's fly fishing clinics which is always a great time. But that is "guiding", not guiding. Nobody is paying me, it is a couple of hours - not even a half day, and the pressure of having to produce fish for a paying client is not there in the same way.
Earlier, I wrote a bit about whether or not to hire a guide, this post is digs a bit deeper into how to make the best of a guided trip. Certainly your guide has a lot of responsibility for your day of fishing, it is a "service industry" after all. They are mostly responsible for what it is they can control, for making the day enjoyable, and for putting you in the best position to catch fish. But much of an enjoyable day of fishing and success in catching fish is on you.
Part of your responsibility in being a good client is having realistic expectations and being honest with your guide. Your guide is almost certain to ask you what you want to get out of the trip and what your skill level is. Obviously catching fish is one of your goals but what do you hope to learn or improve upon?
My thoughts on getting the most out of a guided trip:
Mindset - have realistic expectations and a positive attitude
Understand what guides can - and can't - control
Be a learner - use the trip to learn new things
Be honest and upfront
Drop or at least minimize your ego
Do your homework before the trip
Guides are not magic workers. Yeah, they know a lot about fly fishing and those that are experienced will know a good bit about how to get most everyone to catch fish under most circumstances. It is hard to go into a trip without some expectations. After all, guides are selling themselves based on the fish they have helped clients catch and that they themselves have caught.
Every day of guided fishing I have experienced has had its ups and downs. The first ever fly fishing guided trip I took was down one of the Flambeau River forks and it started out gangbusters and faded into a lull where Smallmouth Bass became much harder to come by despite both of our best efforts. Cast after cast tight to cover or through deep pools yielded few bites, certainly fewer than was expected by the habitat. I was finally rewarded with a nice bass on a cast where my guide said, "Finally, a good cast got rewarded". That's fishing.
On another guided trip on the Lower Wisconsin River with Kyle Zempel and Black Earth Angling Co., our day started out amazing. Then he uttered the fateful words, "You can cast, we'll put 50 in the boat today". An hour later the wind kicked up to where he said it was one of the windiest days he's spent on the river - which if you've fished the Lower Wisconsin, you know that is saying something! We continued to catch fish but the fishing went from a hot to cool and a whole lot more work. And even on one of the most memorable trips I've even taken, another trip with Black Earth Angling Co., this time for Crash Camp, the afternoon started out pretty slow. The first couple of hours, we were not running into crashing bass and then the switch turned on and the fishing was amazing for the rest of the evening and the next day. It was probably the best bass fishing I ever experienced but it took some patience.
Understand What is Beyond Control
I put this one after having realistic expectations because days, well, they can't all be winners. Nothing affects fishing more than weather. A cold front, wind, snow melt, a thunderstorm, or a full out flood - all of them tend make fish much less cooperative. And some days, there is only so much you can do. I have had days where I have messed around to see if there was a fly they wouldn't hit and other days where I scoured my flyboxes to see if there was anything that they would hit. That's fishing...
Part of hiring a guide is paying for someone's experience and knowledge. Experience and knowledge are often key to making the best of bad conditions. But even then, some days, there is only so much that can be done. A good guide - they're not all good (see the last point) - should know how to make the best of tough conditions and how to put you in the position to catch fish. They know places that are less affected by floods or have some access to private land to put you in a place with less pressure (and often dumber fish).
Guides can't control the weather but they can do a lot to make it a pleasant day, even if the fishing is difficult. You are, in part, paying for a companion for the day. Good guides have good stories - and they listen to your good, or not so good, stories. They can control the food, assuming that food is included. They can teach you to be a better fly angler even if the catching isn't so great. Which leads me to the next point.
Be a Learner
Go into a trip wanting to learn something. Yes, the goal is to catch fish but catching fish only gets you so far. You are paying a pretty good amount of money, think of it as an investment in your fishing future. Improve your cast, learn to read the water better, learn new knots, learn to fish in a different way. Use the trip as a chance to learn to fish streamers more effectively, to fish wet flies and softhackles down and across, to learn to "Euronymph" (if you must...), to fish the moving dry fly, or whatever else that guide can teach you.
As someone that has taught for nearly two decades now, the best learners are not passive about learning. To really learn something, you have to put in effort and work to better understand what it is you are trying to learn. The best learners are inquisitive and they ask good questions that help them to understand what is is they don't yet know. Ask your guide why you are doing what you are doing, don't just put on the guides favorite fly or dry and dropper rig (aka "training wheels") and fish it blindly. Pick their brains to understand where to cast, how to retrieve or move the fly, how and why they are adjusting the depth of your nymph. Your job should be to obtain some of their hard earned knowledge they have accumulated through their experiences. I have written several times about how there is a learning curve with fly fishing, use this experience to shorten that curve for you.
Be Honest About Your Skills
A good guide will ask you about your fly fishing experience and your skills. Be honest with them. Are you a pretty good caster that would like to work on your curve cast and other casts or do you lift a fly rod a half a dozen days a year and your cast really needs some work? Are you hiring a guide mostly to somebody on the oars or are you really looking to learn to fly fish or how to do it for something other than trout? No matter what our experiences are, we can all learn something by fishing with someone else.
Check Your Ego at the Door
Without fail, when I talk to guide friends, they say how much easier it is to teach women because they listen and don't think they already know it all. My experiences as a "guide" for the Southern Wisconsin Trout Unlimited women's clinics mimic those of my guide friends. Many of us men think we know a hell of a lot more than we do (myself included). You will get more out of the trip if you are willing to be humble and understand that there are things you can learn from your guide.
Do Your Homework Before the Trip
I am going to tackle this in two different ways. First, how and why you need to do your homework when hiring and guides, and second, how to prepare yourself for your trip. The first helps ensure that you are going to hire somebody you will enjoy being with, can learn what you want to learn, and that you will fish in ways you want to fish.
You are going to spend at least a few hundred dollars for a day of fishing, likely more than a "few". Even if money is not much of an issue for you, why would you want to spend that on what is likely a poor experience? Our personalities are not going to mesh with everyone. Spend a bit of time to know about a guide before you hire them. Take recommendations from friends.
If you really are using guided trip as a learning experience, it is evident that not every guide is going to be able to teach you what you want to learn. If you are a beginner, most guides will be able to help you with your casting and other skills - though some are better than others. If you are more experienced, you may want to do your homework and hire a guide known for a certain technique or way of fishing. Maybe you want to learn to "Euronymph" for some reason. Not every guide is going to be equipped to teach you that specialized skill. Maybe the "chuck and duck" fishing that is so commonly used on Western rivers as guides use the boat to make their "sports" nymphs dead drift effortlessly is not your thing. It's not mine. Nor is it Kirk Deeter's idea of a good time. (Louis Cahill disagrees...) Be upfront with your guide and tell them you are willing to do that but you would also like to fish in another way. Or don't hire that guide.
Not all guides are necessarily very good at guiding, or even necessarily that good at fly fishing. Hopefully they are at least good some part of fly fishing and you can learn from them. But you should do your homework and find one that matches your style and what you are looking to learn. This finally allows me to work in my favorite guide joke. How do you know someone is a fly fishing guide? Don't worry, they'll tell you. There is a lot of self promotion that goes into guiding or at least building up a clientele. I get it - it's a tough gig!
At a recent Coulee Region TU meeting, Marlene Huston put it best, "Why would you pay several hundred dollars and not be able to cast?" Why not spend a bit of time and yes, maybe some money, working on your cast so you can get the most our of your trip? If you are planning a saltwater trip - or to the Lower Wisconsin River for smallmouth - spend some time being able to get line out quickly. If you are planning to fish a tailwater or spring creek, work on short, accurate casts. Never fished muskies on the fly? Work on your casting - or water loading. Don't want to water load, don't hire a guide that is going to have you fish that way.
A guided trip is an investment of time and money, do what you can to make the most of it.