The real story is probably not what you may have assumed.

I’ve never written in general regarding this strange turn of events that led to my being a guide for visiting anglers. I’m going to try to lay this out so that it makes sense, I think you’ll get it.

Right up front people need to know that I do not believe that I am somehow the genetically superior fisherman, nor am I over endowed with the Hunter Gatherer gene. I also fell way short when they were passing out ego’s because I feel like a normal guy every day when I wake up and every time I rig up a rod. One other thing that deserves mention is that this was never about money it was an accident. So this didn’t come about the way you might expect.

I’ve been fishing since I was a kid, I won’t go into how I got started because that is the bulk of my ‘About Me’ on the profile page here. As I progressed through my own personal Life On The Line experience I was fortunate in that I often caught fish. I faced many challenges when I tried to transition to fly rod only fishing just like many others have. Somehow I made the right choices and through determination and selfish use of my free time I progressed from a thrasher to someone who fished using more of a transcendental approach. I spent a lot of time just watching everything that was happening both in and out of the waters where I spent my time. Somehow that seemed to enhance my previous good fortune at catching fish.

During the late 70′s – 80′s – 90′s and right into the 21st Century I fished in Pennsylvania and traveled in what I could call an extensive manner with the intent to fish at the destinations. During all those years I never hired a guide although in hindsight I would have been well served to have used such services in many places I visited. There was a mental block that came from experiences on my home waters and that block was rooted in my belief that those people who worked as guides were bringing people who otherwise would never find places where I fished, into those spots. They were the enemy and I knew I would never do that, it just wasn’t right! I actually had an active dislike for the whole concept of guiding because of what I saw happening in my home range.

I came to Alaska back in 1989 and stayed for 6 months and returned to stay in 2004. When I made this my home for good I dove into the fishing. I found my way because I live here and I had time for trial and error trips. There was however a big difference between my situation and that of someone visiting here for 5 to 10 days, I was here 365 days a year and had time to figure this out.

By the time that I discovered fly fishing forums I had gotten married and moved from my home in Anchorage out to The Valley. That same year I bought a boat because out there you needed one unless you wanted to be relegated to fishing at road access points with a hoard of others. So I began exploring rivers, I drove the boat, I drifted on rafts, and I hiked. With each passing year my knowledge of where and when to fish grew, but remember, I live here so a bad day was quickly forgotten when the 20 silver salmon day rolled around. I caught all 5 species of salmon, rainbow trout – steelhead trout – grayling and char, I was on a roll.

Through out the years 2007 and 2011 I was there on fishing forums forum posting technique threads and occasionally I would see a thread titled “Going to AK.” or “Advice On AK. Trip” and if I recognized the posters name I would send a Private Message to them. In those messages I offered to take them fishing. I explained that I had a boat and several rafts and that I go fishing all the time so having them along wouldn’t be a problem. I made those offers to quite a few people on forums. Only one person ever contacted me and took me up on the offer. He got in touch on the last day of his trip and I directed him on how to find me and then went to meet him at a parking lot in town and had him follow me home. We had a quick dinner and got him into the truck and took him to a river where we fished until almost midnight. The next morning we left at 5 AM. for some more fishing, his flight was leaving at 5:30 PM. so we had to knock off at noon but he was able to catch a bunch of salmon and a couple trout, the salmon had eluded him over the first 6 days of his time here so he was very happy.

I continued to extend invitations for a while but no one else took me up on the offers. There were however members who when they got home posted reports about their trips, some went to fish the Kenai & Russian Rivers while others went to very expensive lodges. Even the guys who went to the Kenai & Russian stayed at lodges and hired guides in most cases. Some knocked the spots off the fish and some didn’t. One thing I knew was that I didn’t go down there to fish during summer because of the combat fishing environment that is unavoidable on either river, guide or no guide. Heck, I have heard stories about guides getting into fist fights down there, OMG. There is one case where I had offered a guy to fish here with me that sticks in my mind. He never really got back to me until he informed me that he was booked into a lodge out on the Katmai Peninsula, it turned out that things didn’t go that well out there but here at home I caught and released over 40 king salmon and kept 3. The total weight of the three I kept was over 100 pounds. This picture is from that season…………

All 2011 Nikon Pictures Oct 31652

You’ll never know how I regret not shaving and choosing a different cap that day :)

I stayed out here in the valley basically slumming it but I continued to look for places where crowding was minimal and I continued to catch a lot of fish when fish were available. Finally after a guy from a forum stood me up even though he was within 22 miles of our home but never called; I ask my wife Nancy………… What do you think? You think they figure I’m an axe murderer or some other kind of crazy man trying to lure them away into the bush? I don’t get it. Why would anyone turn down an offer like that only to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for basically the same thing?

I was only joking when I said, “I should look into getting a guides permit because then people would line up to pay for fishing trips”. I was kidding but I was also serious. I guess I had hurt feelings, I knew that when I fished in New Brunswick – Nova Scotia and Newfoundland if someone had offered to show me where to fish so I could have a better chance at salmon I would have jumped on the offer. Sadly no one did and I had to gut it out trying the best I could. I continued to think about the guide thing until summer of 2011 then I took action.

It wasn’t an easy thing and it wasn’t cheap and still isn’t. I spent over twenty three hundred on all the training and licensing, insurance etc. in that first year and had zero customers. But that fall I threw down another 800.00 and had a website designed and bought business memberships on several forums. I also paid to have my name on the top of the Alaska Fly Fishing Guides Directory. Guess what? The first year the site and advertising was up I booked so many trips that I began fishing clients in May and finished in late September. I had not worked so hard in years, very little sleep and 18 hour days were the norm. In the second season I had to turn people away because I’m just one man, no lodge, no staff just me. This past season I turned more down than I took, I just can’t handle being busy the entire summer any longer. When I started I had trips back to back for 40 days and that was enough.

I’ve read plenty of threads about guiding over the past 9 years on several forums. The ones posted by kids still in school who believe they will finish school and then go into fish guiding, the ones about how much to tip, the good guides the bad guides, I’ve read them all. I don’t comment often because I don’t want people to think I’m like a Barker on the old Circus Midway letting everyone know I’m a fish guide.

I’m still the same guy who offered the free trips via PM’s to people and if any of those folks ever read this they know who they are. I can’t make fish bite. I can’t make it rain or stop raining. I sure as hell can’t predict how many salmon will come into these rivers next year either but I will go fishing whether someone hires me or not. I’ve had about every type fisherman with me in the past 5 seasons. There have been those who were absolutely great and a few who were measuring the experience solely on what they caught. There has been learning and laughs, I’ve enjoyed the time with people and this has really kept me in shape to a great extent. It’s a lot of work because I do camps a lot. I don’t see this going on much past the 2017 season because I want to return to just going fishing. Once I do that the PM’s will go out again but I’ll be going fishing and not guiding and I’ll take people along if they come here and want to go.

Being a guide here is not a thing where I get paid to go fishing, usually I don’t fish. During king season I am not allowed to fish when I have clients on the water with me, that’s the law. During the other seasons I spend most of my time watching people fish, offering advice and tying on different flies for them. I net fish I cook meals and every now and then I get to fish for an hour or so. When I have any time between trips I should be out there scouting fish but sometimes I’m so burnt out that I just stay at camp and relax. Seasons over now, I just came home from a 3 day fun trip where I just went fishing. It didn’t matter whether I caught anything or not but if you visit the other articles here you’ll see that I managed to get a few.

It gets harder every year, changing weather, drought, flooding, low abundance of target species, it’s tough. I still can catch fish but it is harder and harder to get them onto other peoples hooks. Remember, I do this every season. I know exactly where to cast and how to handle that line to put the fly right where it needs to be. It’s hard to transmit all that to a guy who just got here without browbeating him and I try to avoid pushing people. I offer so they know I’m there and ready to micro manage if asked to do so. If they ask I push them until we get hooked up.

I don’t think I’m a normal fish guide, I take this way too seriously. When someone doesn’t catch fish it nearly ruins me. I feel like a failure, I feel like the environment itself has let me down. It was never about making money, I just wanted to take a few people fishing with me. When I peel those permit stickers off my boat things won’t change all that much but I won’t feel responsible for whether or not someone catches a fish or not anymore.

I won’t miss the $800.00 I spend on Commercial Land Use Permits each year. I won’t miss the $700.00 dollar liability insurance policy I carry every year. I won’t miss the State business license, the MatSu business licenses which total 200 more. I won’t miss the Commercial boat launch fees I pay because I am a guide which equal another $635.00 each year. There’s a reason that I charge to do the trips and it’s clear to me that this is barely a break even thing every year. It’s been fun, I won’t ever say it wasn’t. And when someone asks about being a guide I can at least tell them what I know about it albeit admitting I’m not the average guide guy.

That’s how it happened,

Ard

  1. January 5, 2017

    Hey Ard! I don’t even remember how I learned your name. I think it was from someone at an Alaska Fly Fishers meeting or something… Anyway, I am a 30 year old dreamer who just bought himself a house in Willow. Together with my wife and children we made the jump to AK in 2013 with the aspirations to get into the fly fishing industry. I appreciate the insite you gave in this post about your experiences. I have been tossing around the idea of starting my own guiding operation. I did a bit of guiding and teaching in my home state of Utah. I would say fly fishing is my ONLY hobby at this point. I caught my first King on a spey rod this past June on Sheep Creek. I can’t wait for this spring to do it again. I appreciate your advice and information you offer here on your site. Keep up the good work!

  2. January 13, 2017
    Ard Stetts

    Feel free to give me a call with any questions Spencer.

  3. April 19, 2017
    trailjocky

    It’s not like the days when we were kids and fished on the Shock back in PA is it Ard? I sure do miss those days, hiking, fishing and eating your dad’s raspberries.

  4. April 23, 2017
    Ard Stetts

    Hi Steve!

    In a way it’s the same but I’m about 53 years older now buddy :) I know where every good wild red raspberry and blueberry patch is at along the rivers I fish and there’s a big patch at the cabin of red raspberries. I often think of life as a boy when I’m picking them.

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