The following is excerpted from Dylan Tomine’s wonderful new book, Headwaters: The Adventures, Obsession and Evolution of a Fly Fisherman. We ran a different excerpt in a recent print issue of AJ, and wanted to share some with our digital readers too. Tomine has a wonderfully self-aware, bordering of self-effacing, writing style, making the very difficult and complicated world of fly fishing for steelhead accessible to people who’ve never even considered wetting a fly. We hope you enjoy this piece, a link to purchase the book from the publisher follows. – Ed.
OK, I’m just going to come right out and say it: I sucked at guiding. Oh, my clients caught plenty of fish. But if I were a doctor, you might say I had a lousy bedside manner. Or what an old coach of mine often referred to as a “piss-poor attitude.” The fact is, I could never stop thinking about whether or not various clients deserved to catch fish just because they could afford to travel and stay at an expensive lodge. That, and I was frequently impatient. And sarcastic. And irritable. But enough about my good days. I guess I thought guiding was about fish, and it turns out it’s about people. No matter how dumb they might be.
I tried to be a nice guy. I would tell myself these people are on the trip of a lifetime, that they were too busy to learn how to actually fish, that blah, blah, blah. It’s not like I’m a completely unsympathetic person. For example, when a client described his long-anticipated fishing trip with a famous Florida tarpon guide and how he found himself unceremoniously deposited back at the dock at ten o’clock in the morning for blowing two shots at big fish, I was filled with sympathy. For the guide.
What does it mean to be a fishing guide? I can’t answer for anyone else, but this is what occurred to me about three weeks into my first season: If you take something that’s inherently fun to do with people you like, and do it with people you don’t like for money … well, you see where I’m going with this. Needless to say, I would have made an even lousier prostitute.
That thought haunted me through five summers. Especially while peeling the price stickers off thousands of dollars’ worth of brand-new, top-of-the-line rods and reels and—after loading backing, connecting lines, and tying leaders—handing it all back to some rich dentist from Akron while he told me all about what a great angler he was. Did he deserve the fish we would catch?
Now, I don’t want to make prejudiced statements or generalize … OK, actually I do. What the hell. Here are a few things I learned: Doctors generally make the worst clients, followed by car dealers, and anyone from Texas. Women are the best clients—they actually listen—and will always outfish their expert husbands. Clients who really want to “whack a trophy” so they can “get it stuffed” always catch the biggest fish, no matter how hard you try to prevent it. Note to doctors, car dealers, Texans, expert husbands, and trophy whackers: I readily admit there are plenty of individual exceptions to the rules above, but if you’re seriously offended by this paragraph, you aren’t one of them.
Once, I had two doctors from Houston and a car dealer from Dallas and his wife as my foursome. Guess what happened? I spent an entire week staring at the back of the doctors’ heads, trying to determine if it was possible, through sheer concentration and mental telepathy, to make a person’s head explode. At the time, it seemed like a worthy research project.
The limit then was two king salmon per person for the week. By the end of the first day, they were limited out. This, despite numerous warnings from their guide before killing each client’s second fish that should they land a bigger fish at any time for the rest of the week, it would be released. Of course, three days later, one of the docs hooks an immense fish—the biggest I had ever seen from that river. A giant slab of chrome that would have weighed close to sixty pounds. To avoid the inevitable conflict, I spent the entire hour-long fight working to help the fish escape. But no such luck. When the fish finally came to shore, I was asked, cajoled, and pleaded with. I was offered money. I was even threatened with bodily harm. And you know what? I can’t even begin to describe the pleasure I felt when I twisted the hook loose and watched that fish swim away. Next day, the wife miraculously hooked one even larger, fought it with great efficiency, and happily released it without complaint.
What’s the point of the story? I don’t really know, other than it had to be a sign of something. Maybe that if all clients were women, I’d still be guiding? Or more likely that I was simply in the wrong line of work.
More signs: Secretly relishing clients’ discomfort from bugs or lack of adequate rain gear. Covertly exacerbating husband-wife conflict when the woman hooks more fish than her spouse. Purposefully seeking out the most exposed, windiest spots for clients having trouble casting. Trying to make people’s heads explode with brain waves … but we already covered that one. Anyway, guilty as charged.
So why did I do it not just once, but for five summers? I mean, other than latent masochistic tendencies? Because, in all honesty, despite my conflicted thoughts about guiding, it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was an opportunity to be on the water every day, to intimately know the changing tides, river flows, and weather patterns. To live, eat, work, and fish with my best friends in the world, and yes, rare as they were, to enjoy some great moments with wonderful clients. Mostly though, it was because the fishing was unbelievably good, and I got to fish it every day of the season. Selfish reasons all, and in retrospect, I probably didn’t deserve any of it.
What did I deserve, besides a swift kick in the ass? Probably the lesson that being a good fisherman qualifies you to guide about as much as an affinity for deep-fried chicken hearts makes you a thoracic surgeon. With this realization, and much to the relief of everyone concerned, I quit the business for good. Now I’m free to concentrate on the inherently fun-to-do-with-people-you-like part and leave the guiding to those who are actually good at it.
But if you’re ever on a guided trip, happily flinging your flies from the front of the boat, and you suddenly feel a strange pressure building inside your skull, take a close look at the person on the oars. If he or she appears to be deeply focused on, say, the back of your head, with maybe a poorly hidden, demented grin forming, watch out. It’s probably someone a lot like me. Your only hope, then, is to ask yourself this one simple question: Do I deserve this?
Excerpted from Headwaters: The Adventures, Obsession and Evolution of a Fly Fisherman ©2022 by Dylan Tomine. Reprinted with permission by Patagonia. Top photo: Matthew DeLorme.