Outdoor Type: Fishermen, be careful what you wish for

Illustration by Fred Robberts
The life of a guide can be a bit frustrating.

Outdoor columnist

I used to have grandiose fishing dreams of becoming either a guide or a pro angler with the tournament circuit. I mean, I really enjoy fishing, so doing it day after day, season after season, year after year, would be pretty much ideal, right? Well…

Having eager fishermen of all skill levels line my pocketbook to take them out would put me under a lot of pressure. Most guides are upwards of $300-$400 a day now, so if I’m charging someone that much, we’d better catch something. And what happens if it’s really windy, or blazing hot or freezing cold, or if the water’s too high or too low, or too clear or too muddy, or a cold front just blew through, or if the fish just aren’t biting? Or worse, if I have clients who are angry that they’re not catching anything? Or ones wanting to show me they know more than I do? That would make life as a guide pretty precarious, and I like my life to be nailed down and predictable with manageable stress levels.  It’s the former high school teacher in me. Go into a classroom without a firm plan in mind and you ask for nightmare-inducing stress. And kids who think they know more than you are no fun, especially if they’re right.

Past trips taught a lesson

I recall past adventures in which I would read about an angling destination and envision myself there, pulling in either bass, crappie, or bluegill until my arms ached. Then I would plan the trip, and a nasty front would come through the day we arrived.  Sometimes we’d experience some other cruel joke of Mother Nature or the fishing gods, and the expensive outing would be a bust. Would we fork over more bucks to hire a guide to take us around and show us some spots and how to fish this unfamiliar lake? Heck no. Whoever I was with agreed that we were good enough fishermen to study the situation and figure it out. Usually that was wishful thinking.

About 30 years ago, in late March, my father and I drove all the way nearly to Texas to fish Lake Millwood. We had read about it in Bassmaster magazine. A shallow lowland reservoir, it was loaded with timber and brush. We assumed we could probably figure it out when we got there. Right on cue, a nasty cold front blew through and the fish shut off. We ate breakfast with the other anglers and the local guides, who we could’ve hired for at least a half-day and gotten some idea of where and how to catch these southern largemouth. But no, we kept pounding away blindly for three days and traveled home with tails between our legs. It would’ve been prudent to fork over the dough and enlist a guide.

Lake Erie: there too late, or too early

The only guide trips I’ve been one were jaunts on Lake Erie and a striper quest to Kentucky Lake Dam. A previous column discussed our dam trip, which was for stripers but we ended up catching carp. We got a kick out of landing those big fellows, but they were not the desired fish. The Erie trip was for walleye, a species I had never caught. I went with a Terre Haute friend and four of his buddies in mid-September a few years ago. Our guide was matter-of-fact, all business, no humor. Not ideal. I’d like some personality to show up. At least pretend this is fun. He silently motored out a good way from the Sandusky, Ohio harbor in a roomy charter owned by his boss, and we commenced drift fishing  night crawler spinner rigs. The guide told us we were actually too late in the season to have really good fishing, that May through July were good and maybe later in October. OK. No surprise there. We decided to give it our best shot anyhow. At least it was a nice day with light winds.

I had brought my own one-piece seven-foot rod and casting reel, strapped to the top of our van. Everyone else opted to go with the equipment the guide provided. After listening to my rod rattling the roof all the way from Terre Haute to Sandusky, my friends made me pay the highway tolls, both ways.  I didn’t argue.

Six of us drifting bottom bouncing rigs went fairly smoothly, and the waves weren’t too bad. I had heard horror stories of sea sickness on these trips, so a friend who had been to Erie recommended that I try his pulsating wrist device. I had it on, but didn’t really have need of it until one of the guys got sick. He had eaten a large breakfast, a big no-no before boating on the Great Lakes. About then I felt that unpleasant queasy feeling growing in my belly. I adjusted the pulses on the device from a two to a five, the maximum. The thumping on that magic spot on the underside of my wrist was not unpleasant, and the growing knot in my stomach went away in minutes. After that I dialed it back to a two and resumed fishing with no further problems. Thankfully no one else barfed.

The guide had a line in the water and he quickly hauled in a nice smallmouth of about two pounds. He wasn’t that excited about it since the quarry was walleye. I thought, dang, I’d be delighted to catch a smallie like that. I resumed feeling my bottom bouncy rig do its thing, and then I felt a solid thump. All right! It was a strong fish that stayed deep, but I soon brought it to net. It was a drum perch of about two pounds. The guide disgustedly took it off the hook for me and tossed it back in with some comment about trash fish. Well, I didn’t think it was trash. We catch them back home out of the river, I told him. He gave me a look.

Finally, a walleye

Another thump. Another good fight and a netted fish. This time it was a nice channel cat of about three pounds. Another trash fish, he said. Finally, one of the guys hooked a walleye, landed it, and we celebrated. Maybe more to come? Not so much. I ended up catching the most fish, maybe a dozen perch and catfish, but the group caught only a half-dozen or so walleye total. Did I enjoy the day? You bet, but I would’ve loved to have brought home some fish for the freezer. Our guide tossed all of my trash back into Erie. Would I hire him again? Doubtful. But I’d like to go back and try it again, now that I know a little more about the lake.  You don’t want to fish Erie without the right boat and someone who knows the territory. This big lake can be treacherous. And eat a light breakfast.

If you’re going to travel to fish, spend money on motel fare, gas, food and license, you better just fork over the dough for at least a guided half-day, if that’s possible. Your odds of a successful trip will go up. Then you might come back next year at the right time of year, with the right weather if you’re lucky, and you’ll know how to approach the lake. It’s just smart.

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