The Survival of a White River Fly Fishing Guide


Only strong, innovative and passionate anglers are able to create a dream career as a guide on these enigmatic fisheries

By Gabe Cross

There is an old saying that laments how most of the really good guides do not stick around year after year. Some get burnt-out, while there are others who simply must see as much of the world as they can; rarely sticking it out for over a year or two in any locale. These types of guides are great to fish with, if you can ever figure out where there are at any given time.

The fly fishing guide culture of the White River Basin is unique when compared to most other popular trout fishing destinations. Because of such radical water dynamics on all five of the Ozark tailwaters, it takes quite a bit of training-time to become confident taking clients on rivers with such dynamic conditions. I would get calls while I was guiding from other guides around the country who were interested in making the Ozarks their winter guiding home. The entire area would benefit from an influx in winter business, but as things are now, there are more guides than there are prospective clients all year long.  I would usually tell these out-of-state hopefuls that most of the local guides have other jobs they do in the winter just to get by – Arkansas is not the winter-guiding Mecca some make it out to be.

Ozark trout guides primarily operate as independent entities with no affiliation with outfitters. This means that White River Basin guides must be in charge of managing every aspect of their business. Not only does this take up a lot of time; guides must also maintain an advertising budget and an effective marketing strategy. Establishing a guide service in the Ozarks takes the patience of a Saint, money to survive the hard times and a constant commitment to staying one step ahead of the competition.

I started guiding in 1999, and at that time, there were very few full-time fly fishing guides living in the Mountain Home area. Good guides were in very high demand, so eventually other anglers decided to give guiding a try to help fill the void. In the last ten years, the number of guides working the rivers has increased exponentially, and this has caused a few guys to try other lines of work – including myself. Too much competition took the fun out of it for me, and I was ready to move on, anyway.

If someone can pull it off, being a career fly fishing guide is one of the more enjoyable jobs in life, but success will never be realized without great sacrifice. The guides who are at the top in the Ozarks (and beyond) are constantly thinking of innovative ways to increase their exposure and procure customers. They will never put all their eggs in one basket when it comes to marketing – it takes a comprehensive approach to reach the entire fly fishing niche. As long as a person knows what challenges lie ahead, becoming a guide may be an option. Always keep in mind that teaching people how to fly fish is a labor of love, and no one gets into guiding for monetary gain. The passionate guides are the best guides, and they could never imagine not making a living on the water.

***Side note: I just wanted to let everyone know that I am feeling quite a bit better, and I am very much looking forward to getting back to writing full-time. Thanks to everyone who has offered their support – it means the world to me.  It looks like my problems are nothing too serious (knock on wood), and this is the wake-up call I needed regarding my health – I’m not a young man anymore. GC

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~ by troutdoctor101 on April 21, 2010.

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