How Much To Tip Your Guide?

Ever since society evolved to the requisite level of sophistication where someone could call themselves a fishing guide without being laughed out of the village, and someone else accumulated sufficient goats and grain to trade some for a day on the river, questions revolving around tipping have plagued and tormented anglers.
How much is enough? How much is too much? Is it too big? Is it too small? Will my guide curse my name, laughing at my inadequacy as soon as I leave the parking lot? Should I have saved some cash for my wife’s birthday instead of unloading my wallet like that?

Years of guiding have helped me develop a foolproof ten-step formula that will leave your guide happy, your ego intact, and hopefully also leave you with enough money left over for a dozen roses for your Better Half’s big day.

1: Your guide shows up on time, as neat and presentable as living out of the back of a pickup and occasionally being forced to forage in the Safeway dumpster for food will allow. $50.*
*A little steep, I hear you ask, for merely turning up, somewhat disheveled and a little abrupt? Think again. After all, with guides we are not dealing with normal accepted standards of hygiene, grooming and etiquette. And who knows? Maybe one day some of that $50 might make it past the liquor store to be spent on a razor and soap.

Would you tip this man?

2: You expect your guide to tie on every fly and untangle every ‘wind knot’ you serve up all day. Add $20

3: Your preferred method of dealing with every tangle it is to shake your rod vigorously in the misguided expectation that the two weighted nymphs, split shot and indicator will remarkably untangle themselves. Realizing that your rig has now come to resemble a tennis-ball sized cluster of rigging tightly fastened to the end of your rod, you hand it off to your guide, saying “Huh, looks like I tangled again.” Add $50.

4: Your buddy tangles. Your guide eases the boat to shore beneath the shade of an overhanging cottonwood to help your buddy, but you just can’t stop casting. You turn in your seat and, despite the fact that every guide you have ever fished with has told you fishing the middle of the river is a waste of time, especially river you have just drifted over, you decide ‘What the heck’ and cast one out there. Except, the flies never make it to the water. That’s because they are stuck twenty feet high in the cottonwood you are sitting under, whose overhanging branches are tickling the back of your neck. Add $50.

5: You think that dropping your backcast every now and then and putting a cone head woolly bugger into the side of your guide’s head is just one of his or her occupational hazards. Add $50.

6: You bring beer. Subtract $20.

7: Your idea of beer is Coors Light. Add $20.

8: You bring your shapely wife / girlfriend and insist she fishes from the front of the boat in that bikini she bought in Cabo last winter. Subtract $20

9: You bring your shapely wife / girlfriend, but install her up the back of the boat in waders, while you hog the front all day in your board shorts two sizes too small. Add $50

10: As you can see, the formula has many variables. Some days will require an abacus and construction calculator to tally, and your vest is already bulging with twenty pounds of extraneous gear that you have no earthly idea when or why you bought it. So for those without an advanced degree in accounting, here is what you do. Before you leave the shop in the morning, look deep into your guide’s eyes, slip him or her a C note or two and say something like “I’m sorry in advance for whatever happens today. Let me know at the end of the trip if this doesn’t cover it. Oh, and what kind of beer do you like?”

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The Accidental Angler: Rainbow’s reward

It is my least favorite climb. Not because it is the steepest—it isn’t—or the longest—not so. Rather, for its duration it keeps the rider—if your name is Hayden Mellsop at least—at the upper limit of what can be pedaled, without having the decency to actually get too steep to where I can justify walking, and not feel like I have given in. Riding a single speed bike, without the refuge or benefit of gears, doesn’t help.

The Reason Why

Yet this past year I found myself huffing the gravel road that winds up Bear Creek to the Rainbow Trail more times than ever before. Some climbs start out steep, then mellow as they progress. Some are interspersed with regular lung and leg recharging downhills. Bear Creek just keeps going, getting steeper the higher it goes until, just before the summit, it twists the knife one last time, saving for last the steepest pitch, the name of which decorum prevents me from disclosing in this forum.

You hope for recent rain, which dampens the dust and solidifies the loose rock into something resembling a firm, traction-yielding surface. You hope for a tail wind. You hope for a succession of vehicles ascending the road at the same time, providing the perfect excuse to stop for a breather as they pass. Sadly, such occurrences are few and far between.

There is a small meadow near the top that catches the morning sun. Here is the place to dismount, collapse on the ground in a heap, and metaphorically at least, pop the champagne cork of victory over gravity. Ahead lies the reward for all the exertion—six miles of some of the best single track riding in the valley. The trail winds through a combination of pine and scrub oak, rising and falling with the contour of the land. Toward the end, up a short, deceptively steep slope the trail crests onto another small meadow.

A panoramic view of the valley spreads out before you, town in the foreground, a glimpse of Buena Vista in the middle distance, and defining the western perimeter, the Sawatch Range running all the way to Elbert and Massive at its northern reach. At this point the effort exerted to date becomes worthwhile—time for another dismount, time to sit, stretch and, depending on the season, sip cool water or hot chocolate, savor a snack and contemplate—both this place we live and our place, collectively and individually, as part of a greater whole.

As arduous as the effort expended to get here, balance is found in the anticipation of the coming downhill, the return to the valley floor. Several options present themselves, from road to routes not appearing on any map to trails with inspiring monikers like Blood, and Guts. It is somewhere around now, with legs quietly burning from the exertion, endorphins coursing, that the memory begins to play tricks. What was a couple of hours ago my least favorite climb has now become, with the benefit of hindsight, my favorite.

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Once upon a time on the Mohaka

My boots settled into the soft pea-gravel of the river bed. I stood silently, thighs and calves braced against the steady press of the river, imagining the soles of my feet growing roots, tapping deeper into the earth beneath me, grounding me to this place and time. I’d last stood in the Mohaka several years ago, and with the direction life was taking, who knew how many more until I did so again?

With eyes closed, I inhaled the scents of the river, cool and humid – beech forest and dank vegetation overlaid with a faint hint of sulphur mingled with heather in bloom. Somewhere behind me a pair of native tui, birds whose white throat-ruff saw Europeans call them Parson’s bird, cackled noisily in the bushes along the river.

The roots grew deeper, through the soft earth and clay and volcanic substrate to the bedrock beneath. Then Steve’s voice snapped me from my reverie.

“Oi, Sunshine! Are you gonna cast to the fish, or wait till it stops feeding?”

I returned my attention to the task at hand. Thirty yards upstream, a small rocky point jutted out into the flow as the river made a sweeping curve to my left. The point created a large back eddy, at the bottom of which I stood. A current seam swirled off the tip of the point, and in this seam a brown trout fed freely, rising every thirty seconds or so to take small mayflies from the surface. Steve, a friend who guides anglers and hunters in this part of New Zealand, had concealed himself in the bushes along the bank above where the fish fed, acting as my spotter.

“OK, false cast directly upstream in front of you. When you’ve got enough line out, I’ll let you know. Then drop the fly in front of the fish.”

I stripped line off the reel then began false casting, once letting the line land on the water ahead of me, well away from the fish.

“Quit fishing like an **#!%$ American!” he yelled, stifling a curse under his breath. “Keep the line off the water!”

He was right. Any hint that there was an intruder present would see the fish disappear into the river’s depths. Suitably chastised, I continued to false cast until he gave the word, and I set the fly on the water, directly on the current seam. It was a small fly, riding low on water reflecting the glare of the surrounding bush.

My first cast was short. A rise, well away from my drift. Second cast, this time in the zone. Another rise. I waited a second then struck hard. The fish, hooked, immediately charged for the faster current in the center of the river while I endeavored to raise the rod tip high, to get some leverage against its pull. Still underwater, it turned upstream then leapt clear of the river, slapping down on its flank as it shook from side to side. The line went slack. Up in the bushes, Steve groaned, head in hands.

“Mate, that was a spanking! Welcome home.”

I shook my head as I reeled in my line. The hook was bent out, straightened to a right angle.

“Well, so much for that.” I gently eased first one, then the other, boot from the pea-gravel and turned toward the shore. The tui still cackled, and in response to the gathering heat of the day cicadas had started to rasp, their collective crescendo rising and falling, an aural manifestation of the river’s pulse, of the life force that flows through and around us.

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Solitude on the Bighorn

There came, for a brief time in the afternoon, an impression of being completely alone on the Bighorn. Beneath a breaking sky, just the two of us, and the grey vein of the river, pushing northward toward the horizon. Upstream and down, not another boat or person in sight, a rare occurrence on a river this renowned to anglers.

Picture Channel, Bighorn River

Constant wind coursed downstream, leaving its choppy imprint on the river’s surface. Upstream a few miles from us, the lake above Yellowtail Dam was turning over as surface water temperatures cooled, leading to discolored water issuing from the bottom of the dam. Perhaps this combination of elements and natural phenomena helped explain the lack of other anglers that day. Whatever the reason, the solitude adds to the memory.

Below Yellowtail Dam, the Bighorn exits its eponymous mountain range and continues its course across the open plains of southeast Montana toward its confluence with the Yellowstone. Some say this countryside lacks the elemental beauty through which other Montana rivers flow.

This is Crow Indian country, and it was near here that Custer met his demise. The events of that day, and its consequences, are yet tangible, a presence that hangs in the air. At the last it must certainly have seemed to Custer and his men a remote, inhospitable place, as distant from civilization and comfort as the moon, but to my eye the river’s steady course through cottonwood-studded plains, alive with the calls of ospreys and ringneck pheasants, is one of still wild and largely uncompromised beauty.

I pinched a third split shot onto my leader to help the nymphs sink more rapidly to the bottom of the river, and cast again into the wind. Letting the line drift below me and straighten in the current, I used the tension of the water tugging at the line to load the rod and flicked the rig upstream. In this way I worked my way steadily up the side channel – tension cast, mend, let it drift downstream, tension cast again, settling in to a metronomic contemplation of the current seams, riverbed topography and indicator, pausing only occasionally to wait out an extra-strong burst of wind. After fifteen minutes the indicator dove, and I set into a lovely brown trout that stripped line from the reel, heading downstream, me in hot pursuit.

After releasing the fish, I sat on the bank amongst a cluster of small Russian olives, situated too close to the river’s edge to have survived the record high water of earlier in the year. Stripped of their color and foliage, their skeletal remains were plastered with detritus from the river – dried-out weeds, moss, mud and grasses – hanging off them in such fashion they resembled the tattered masts and rigging of some strange fleet of ghost ships, sails torn in disarray.

Montana sunset

We floated into a deserted take out early evening, as the low sun found a sliver between earth and overcast to draw forth from the landscape a rich golden hue. Faded cottonwood leaves rattled drily in the dying breeze, the clouds above a swirl of orange and purple. We loaded the boat onto the truck then sat by the river, sipping beer while the sun dipped beyond the horizon, and the lingering twilight that is part of this corner of Montana began.

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The Accidental Angler: Speed dating vs courtship

There is a stretch of the Madison River in Montana below the town of Ennis that is only open to walk / wade anglers. A boat can be used to access the many braided channels, but any fishing must be done while standing on terra firma.

The Madison River below Ennis

We parked at one of the several access points, then began to hike downstream until we hadn’t seen another angler for a while and judged we were clear of the eighty percent who seldom stray more than a quarter mile from their vehicle. I elected to enter the river at a place where a couple of small islands created deep side channels against the bank on their near side, with wider, shallower riffles on the far.

The day was blue and mild, stark contrast to the previous when we’d floated a portion of the river upstream of Ennis – leaden skies and a cold wind, squinting hard in the flat light to detect the subtle takes of fish that rose occasionally to the small dry flies we cast.

I stepped off the bank and into the flow, wading out to the tail of one of the islands where I stood in the shallows, deciding what flies to start out with. While the promise of a warm fall day was in the air, a trace of the previous night’s cold still lingered. If there was to be any dry fly action, it likely wouldn’t be until later in the afternoon. I selected a large indicator dry then two feet below it tied a weighted nymph to bounce along the bottom of the shallower riffles and hang suspended in the deeper runs.

Standing quietly in the water, the gentle push of the river against my boots, carried downstream with the flow any desire to hasten in to action. The snow capped Ruby Range defined the western horizon, while closer a few cottonwoods along the shore bank still clung stubbornly to the last of their foliage.

I took my time working up the first run, savoring several feelings: being grounded in the river, the flex and load of the rod, the arc of the line out and across the water, the settling of the flies as the current carried them back to me. The first riffle yielded two small browns followed by a larger rainbow. Hooked against a tangle of shore roots, it leaped and dove and broke me off before I had time to get in synch with its movements.

I retreated to shore and sat on the grassy bank, feet dangling over the edge just shy of the water, laid the rod in the grass next to me and began repairing my leader. At that moment, float fishing seemed like the angling version of speed dating – always on the move, a quick cast, a twitch and jiggle of the fly to see if there is a reaction, then on to the next encounter, and the next. There is constant communication and interplay, not to mention the physical presence, between oarsman and angler.

Wade fishing, on the other hand, seemed more akin to a gradual courtship, reminiscent of older times, when the pace of life was slower, our culture less hung up on the drug of instant gratification. More time was taken in ritual and observation. There is just the angler and the river, and sometimes, if enough attention is paid and time invested, there is a meeting of the minds.

I decided against tying on another fly, at least for the present, instead choosing to sit and listen. I remembered the beer I had stuffed in my pack, the cozy still keeping it cool in the warming day, and popped the top.

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