Fly-Fishing Confidential
Credit: Illustration by Kevin Davis

During the dog days of summer in Livingston, Montana, at the Murray Bar in the evening, there is a faint air of shared chagrin. As one of the fishing guides, you're easily identified, a sunglass tan line, shaggy hair protruding from a baseball cap. The clients – "sports," as we call them – stand out as well: overweight, sunburned, new Columbia fishing shirts and Sperry Top-Siders, southern accents. They buy the drinks; you slump on the bar and summon up whatever bits of good humor you still have left, waiting for the sports to leave for their dinner reservations. When they go, there is a collective exhalation, an almost palpable sense of relief. New drinks are ordered. Then the ritual: You dig in your pocket and count the sweaty roll of bills that was pressed into your hand at the boat ramp at the end of the day. The sacred tip. The hundreds go into the safe box at home; the small bills go toward your bar tab. At that point you either grumble about what a cheap bastard you had or you celebrate your good fortune by buying a round. Then the fishing talk commences. What stretch did you float? How horribly inept were your people? Did you get hit with that damn east wind? The general consensus is that it is pretty brutal.

"Fuck," someone inevitably says. "Getting a real job is starting to look good. I don't know how much longer I can do this." We all nod and agree. As if we are all desirable employees, like all we'd have to do is tune up our résumés and the "real" jobs would be ours for the taking. What we are, however, are college dropouts, liberal-arts-degree-wielding suckers, pothead ski bums, trust-funders in need of tax write-offs, PTSD-suffering veterans, high-functioning alcoholics, corporate refugees – all of us people who have, for one reason or another, found solace in a life spent on the river, or at least at some point were attracted to the idea of it. The truth is, most of us aren't suited to much else. We live where other people take their vacations; we say that to each other like a mantra. Sometimes in February, when the money has run out, we say, "You can't eat the scenery." That might be a mantra, too, but it's the bitter kind.

Despite the recent recession, the fly-fishing business remains fairly steady – these days there are more guides working the river than ever. Guides in Montana are required to display their guide license number on a red tag on their boat. The old-timers, fewer each year, have numbers in the low hundreds. This year some amped-up college freshman at Montana State will get his license, and it will approach the 20,000s. This increase in numbers breeds competition, and it doesn't help that guides as a whole are prone to a level of confidence that often crosses the line to arrogance. I call it the God complex. Every day you're the master of your little domain, the acknowledged expert. Your sports, usually highly successful people, bow to your judgment. If you're not careful, this can lead to an inflation of ego – a situation in which bragging at the end of the day about the number of fish your clients caught is just the beginning of a more dangerous downward slide toward the insufferable.

In this town, everyone takes wealthy fishermen down the Yellowstone River, or serves them drinks, or makes them their dinner, or fixes their car, or helps them build their 8,000-square-foot log totem to ego in Paradise Valley. If you could somehow track all the little trickles of income moving downstream to those who depend on it for a living, I think the picture would look a lot like the river itself, tributaries branching and splitting. The river is the artery that supplies the lifeblood to all the veins and capillaries keeping the extremities moving.

This is my 10th year guiding. When I was 19, I built a wooden drift boat in my parents' garage and headed, as they say in Michigan, "out west." If I've learned anything in that time, it's that over the course of a day on the river, something good will happen if you keep your head in the game. If you keep your sports casting, no matter how bad they are, the river will reward you. Something will happen. It always does. Even at the end of the summer, when the fishing is slow due to the heat and the clients seem especially difficult, if you just wake up every morning and get the coffee going, take a shower to shake off the hangover, and put the Bob Marley on in the truck on the way to the river, eventually you will have the day. The best day. Every season has its worst day, and every season has its best day. This year my best day had little to do with the fishing itself. What made it epic was the company.