Under Pressure

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Here’s what I learned about guiding over the past weekend: The guide’s life is not for me.

My longtime friend Clifford Wiedman of Texas flew here directly from ICAST with the goal of catching his 104th species, the northern snakehead. I’ve caught a bunch of them inadvertently over the years. How hard could it be if I was actually trying? Despite that modicum of confidence, I tried to hedge my bets, posting a request for help on Facebook. Many of the area’s best anglers responded, and many of them were kind enough to offer up specific stops.

We launched the boat Saturday morning at 6am into an atypically calm Potomac River and headed to a spot where I’d landed two snakeheads and a dozen bass two weeks before. Clifford had a bite almost immediately, but there must’ve been a problem with my braid, because it snapped clean. Strike one. Then we each caught a bass, which normally would’ve been welcome, but on that day they were sort of a nuisance. After that things got tough. We had a number of snakehead follows, but we couldn’t get them to commit.

We hoped that things would get better as the tide flowed out, but in truth they got worse for us. We continued to get follows, but few swipes or strikes. Later, Clifford had one snakehead strike a frog on three consecutive casts, pulling it under twice, but he never hooked up. We fished until 5pm before calling it a day, went home, had a few drinks and dinner, and that was it.

I was a freaking wreck that evening. I really, really did not want to fail at this task and was truly afraid that he would have to go home having wasted time, effort and money without achieving anything. My stomach was still in knots when I woke up and looked at the clock at 2am and again when I got up for good at 4.

Then we had a piece of luck. When we arrived at the ramp at 5 Sunday morning, the wind was howling. Normally, that would be a curse, but it forced me to pick a place and commit to it through the tides, rather than running as we did Saturday, trying to time things. Then I saw a friend on the ramp who advised me to try a certain place. It was the same place another well-respected angler had advised earlier. Moreover, it was protected. We bucked through the 3 footers and set up shop.

By 6 o’clock, I’d landed another one of those pesky bass. At 7 o’clock, my frog landed and a massive wake darted at it and sucked it down. Shortly thereafter snakehead number one was in the boat. Now he’d seen one up close, but I wanted him to catch one. At 7:45, Clifford had one follow his toad, he paused it, and then all hell broke loose. A minute later, 11 pounds of slimy snakehead was in the net. I gave him a fist bump and felt the tension fly out of me. After we snapped a few pics, he was so excited that he just sat and watched me fish for 30 minutes. Later, I caught a 9 pounder, and then the action slowed, until about 2pm when a massive snakehead followed his toad for a while in the 6 inches of water between the grass and the surface before disappearing into the mat. Clifford cast back at it and the fish waked his bait again lazily, its fin undulating above the water’s surface. He paused the lure, and a hellacious strike ensued. The fish buried itself in the grass and we went in after it. A while later we had 26 pounds of flora and fauna in the boat – 13 of fish, 13 of hydrilla. We’d literally gone from zero to hero in the course of a day and then we added a bonus limit of bass for good measure.

We got off the water at 3 so we’d have time to clean up and go out to dinner before taking him to the airport. Again and again, we replayed his two snakehead catches, the two biggest that have ever made it into my boat. Overall, the trip was a huge success (at least I think so), but in truth we were a frog’s hair away from it being a skunkage-based disaster.

That’s why I could never guide, even if I had the skills to do so. You have to put everything on the line before and after the trip, pulling out every last trick and mental strategy to maximize your clients’ success, while at the same time having a short memory. If you give it your all and end up crapping out, you have to go back the next day convinced once again that you’re going to make it happen.

Too much of an emotional roller coaster for me. Happy to take any of my friends fishing at any time, but I’m quitting guiding while I’m still batting a thousand.