What’s In A Guide? by Werner Birkner

Looking back at when I first started guiding I almost cringe as to how naive I was when it came to what my role was as a guide.  My perception was far removed from the reality and challenges of what was actually involved, and as I soon learned, there’s a lot more to it than just getting someone onto a fish!  Move forward seven solid seasons with the help and support of some of the best mentors in the country, and I’m ready to try and define what it is that we do and how we do it.

Ego is a Dirty Word!!!

The first lesson I learned as a guide was that ego only gets in the way of learning. Before you go out and spend thousands of your ‘hard-earned’ on gear, you need to take a moment or two to round up any ego you have and put that trip into an old footy sock and stuff it away somewhere that you’ll forget about it, for the weekend anyway. The spirit and harmony that I search for on a river is so far removed from trophies and championship accolades as you can possibly get.  A day on the river shouldn’t be driven by a desire to be competitive, quite the contrary. It’s a chance to get away from that sort of life pressure, while you absorb yourself in nature and become as insignificant as possible.

We’re All Individuals!!!

Who would have thought that all those hours spent bored out of my mind in endless corporate training modules while selling my soul to big Telco’s would have come in handy as a fly fishing guide?  Now it’s the first hat I put on in my role when I meet my clients. It’s almost like a sales pitch where the sale has already been closed.  It’s important now to do an exploration of the person’s individual needs, and manage any unrealistic expectations. There is no ‘one size fits all’ way to guide and this is an ultra-important part of the role. If I was to put every client I’ve ever worked with into the same room, I couldn’t imagine a more diverse audience of people.  The river is a great leveller and this diversity is where the true rewards are in guiding.  Delivering a tailor made unique experience to everyone I take onto a river is what I aim for as a guide, with the goal being to make that person love their fishing a little bit, or a whole lot more, at the end of the day.

Getting a fish or five is just the bonus plan.

We’re Absolute Beginners!!!

The biggest mistake I can make as a guide is to assume that the new client I’m working with, who has been fly fishing for 20 years is going to be an easy day. I’ve done it twice and without going into detail, apart from the headache I created for myself, there is a good five minutes of stand-up in it too. Never Again!!!

The beauty with absolute beginners is that you know the process to make it easy, but people can build up an array of nasty habits if left unchecked for 20 years.  It really doesn’t matter what level an angler is perceived to be at; a simple check of how a client’s gear is set up can immediately provide me with a clue or two, on how to improve things on the water for that person.

I’ve been lucky enough to learn from many clients at GVFFC who have had varying degrees of disability and learning difficulties that the simpler we keep it, the easier it is and the better it gets.  Refocusing on those key basic elements and taking the effort out of it can often be all that is needed to really help someone become a lot more confident (and proficient) on the river.

I See You’ve Been Practicing!

As clichéd as it sounds, practice does make perfect! Anyone who wants to be better at fly fishing should make time to at least practice casting on a regular basis, once they have learned the basic skills.  Picking up the rod 2-3 times a season isn’t going to advance your skills a hell of a lot. Some people are happy to hack it out and don’t really care whether or not they catch a fish, that’s cool too. But from a guide’s perspective you’re wasting your time and money if you aren’t prepared to do at least some modicum of homework on the back of a guided session.

It usually augers for a great days guiding when a ‘beginner’ returns for a follow up 1-1 guide and it quickly becomes apparent that they have put in some hours behind the wheel of the rod they bought, at the onset of this disease we call fly fishing.  It’s all about confidence now and helping them to exploit that 9 foot piece of graphite in their claw to the max.  This doesn’t mean unloading the entire fly line, its more about using the energy you can throw out its tip in ways that benefit you on the river and how that 9 foot of extra arm length can give you the reach you need to get at a fish without spooking it.

What’s really important to me is that at the end of the day my client walks away feeling really positive and confident with their fishing. Not in a big headed way, but in a way where they aren’t afraid to experiment, and to make mistakes. There is that breakthrough moment when you just know you’re seeing the birth of a competent angler, as evidenced by their self-diagnosis of a particular error and what is causing it.

Once you reach this point with someone you are not far from finding that sense of freedom that the river affords us in our pursuit of happiness.

So You Think You Can Fish!!

Please forgive the angry ‘Kraut’ in me but I want to put this out there…. there is no such thing as a genius when it comes to fly fishing. There are a few blokes out there that might think otherwise, but my best advice for them is to put a plug in it and give their other mouth a go!  There have been times in the last 7-8 years where what I do has been put to question, and even attacked by people who don’t have the faintest fricking idea of what a professional guide does or why people would need one.  This was very apparent when I was working above the lake and was highlighted by a confrontation I had with a bloke during what I had planned as a quiet ‘day off’ fish on the Delatite.

Apparently, my guiding a handful of clients on this particular section of river was going to destroy it, and that people shouldn’t be taught to fish, rather they should learn themselves and take a lifetime to just reach a level called mediocre! I was berated like a child by this bloke who banged on about how knowledgeable and experienced he was, how well he fishes and how much he respects the environment. All this after marching in a straight line for 200 metres with a fairly aggressive posture; just to spout all this crap at me.

It was pretty full on, and to be honest, it rattled me quite a bit at the time. As a result, I probably tuned into the anti-guide radar while getting my head around it and what I reconciled, is that the negative crap comes from a sense of fear or intimidation, and this particular incident went entirely against the grain of why we started fishing in the first place. To chill out, relax and get away from angry arseholes.

I’m pretty much an old Hippy at heart and what I’m selling is more about peace and love and nature and all that good stuff. The river should bring out people’s best; not misguided agro.

There is a real sense of harmony when on a river and I’m anti anything that upsets that.

Bottom line is, I have never had a client rock up and teach me something new or show me how to do something better. There’s a lot of people out there that can cast really well, yet they can’t fish very well. When it comes to catching a trout in a river, casting is about 20% of the entire equation.  50% of it is what you do with your rod tip and line from the time it hits the water and the other 30% are literally one percenters and the ability to learn and adapt quickly to the ever-changing environment of the trout.

The Passion of the Guide.

The work related comment I never get sick of hearing goes along the lines of “geez, you guys are passionate”.  I know it’s different for all of us guides, but at times we do feed off each-other, in that we do get excited and quite animated at times during the course of our work.  It’s hard not to smile thinking about in Bo in full flight during a beginner’s workshop.

Imagine if Steve Irwin was a Serbian Trout hunter with a fly rod in his hand, that’s Bo in full flight, or when thinking about David False casting, while doing commando rolls to make a point to a beginner. That also brings a smile to my face. Or then there’s Antony scrubbing his Drift Boat at 10 pm in readiness for his morning drift clients after finishing up after dark with today’s job. That’s just our passion and dedication being demonstrated and although I don’t see it myself, there have been plenty of times when my exuberance has captured the attention of others, whilst banging on about something pretty basic like a leaders or the virtuosity of catch and release.

We all bring something to the table and try to make it as entertaining as possible for all of our clients, but it’s the passion for the work that we all share which bonds us together as a group.

We all have different roles to play at GVFFC and things work well because of the wonderful dynamic we have between the guides and the operation as a whole. We all have different teaching styles that complement each other and we are continually looking at what we do to try and make it even better. Even Jackie, our cleaning lady, who does a wonderful job of looking after our guests by ensuring the cleanliness and maintenance of the accommodation, adds great value to our overall customer experience.

My best Analogy for what we do is this. When we choose to embark on this fly fishing journey, it’s like opening a box containing a 50,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.  Regardless of whether you have just opened the box or have been working on that puzzle for 50 years, I’m certain we can help fast track your quest.

That being said, the puzzle will never be complete, there will always be hundreds of missing pieces, they’re the ones that we search for every-day we spend on the river. The advantage of a day out with a guide, is that we have enough of the puzzle in place to give you a good look at the big picture.

Werner Birkner